Initial Reactions (2011): Owen, Laura Veirs, Kurt Vile, Seryn, James Blake, Florence + the Machine

Owen – Ghost Town – (++): These are intimate, pensive tunes strung through delicate acoustic and electronically-tinged arrangements. Good, if somewhat too precious. At times, it reminds me of Red House Painters (see "No Language"), though not as diverse stylistically. One thing I want to applaud: Mike Kinsella’s vocals are UP FRONT in the mix. That’s unusual for a "bedroom" project, and a big plus considering how annoyed I am with the trend to "haze over" vocals. Also, there’s a very "late 90’s" feel to the whole thing, so, nostalgia, which is nice. The songs could have been stronger, but overall, nice job. ("O, Evelyn…", "Too Many Moons", "No Language")

Laura Veirs – Tumble Bee – (!!!!!): Well, with tunes like these, how could I NOT LOVE Laura Veirs? I remember "Galaxy" from a few years back – the one with that vaguely 70’s/90’s hybrid feel. What a great tune. This one here’s a kid’s album though, and for those who REALLY know, a good kids album sometimes entertains the adults more than the kids, like Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s for the young at heart, or perhaps for those fed up enough with the world and her state of affairs that they want to collapse back into childhood. A good mixture of folk songs and originals, Tumble Bee is chock full of gorgeousness. Reminds me why I love music so much. ("Prairie Lullaby", "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Mi-O", "The Fox", "Jamaica Farewell")

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo – (++): Lou Reed meets Kurt Cobain. Nice acoustic guitar work. Cool lo-fi sounds, amazing slacker halo around it all. Much of it sounds like the notebook sketches of a genuinely gifted dude. I’d really like to hear KV apply some of his obvious songwriting ability to something a little grander though. Certainly intriguing. ("Baby’s Arms", "Society Is My Friend")

Seryn – This Is Where We Are – (++): Comparisons to recent Canadian Grammy winners are inevitable. I’m hearing "Arcade Fire + Nickel Creek = Seryn." Maybe Venice Is Sinking is a more likely comparison? Fair enough. Does it stand on its own? I think the answer is YES. The songs aren’t AMAZING, but they are certainly at the core of what the band is doing. There are many exceptionally beautiful moments here, and the Americana harmonies are fantastic. This Is Where We Are won’t, per se, be the big breakthrough for this band. However, it promises great things to come, and as a first entry in the band’s catalog, it’s a keeper.  ("We Will Be Changed", "Towering")

James Blake – James Blake – (++): Pretty much amazing electronic-soul record. Don’t know if I’d listen to it alot, but as something to behold, well, it is something to behold. A headphones record, a rainy day sort of affair, romantic and blurry and all that. I can’t rave about it, because I don’t expect to listen to it again, but I’ll at least say lots of nice things about it as an interesting slice of tuneage. Nice Feist cover too. Overall, sort of like tUnE-yArDs for me. Good stuff, but does it pull me back? We’ll see… ("The Wilhelm Scream", "Limit to Your Love")

Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials – (–): I came at this one after seeing their name everywhere. I heard associations like U2 and other that peaked my interest. I had reasonable (not high) hopes. They are dashed. Reason 1: I hate the production. It is that same awful American Idol = Disco + R&B + Nickelback sound that pretty much keeps me away from the radio. Reason 2: The songs are poor. They rely lopsidedly on "Florence’s" admittedly humongous voice and harps for a Renaissance effect (been done before and better, ad nauseam), but underneath it all, they just sound like they were written by a committee working for Simon Cowell. I expected pleasant surprise, I figured Indifference was the worst possibility, but really, I feel pretty negative toward this. The bottom line: Heart did it, with better songs, and more, er, heart.

REACTION KEY

[!!!!!]: Enthusiastic. Frequent rotation. A buyer. Contender for year’s best.
[++]: Positive. Good stuff. Possible grower?
[ind]: Indifferent.. Underwhelmed. I don’t expect to come back to this one.
[—]: Negative. A real screw-up. Don’t even bother.

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Initial Reactions (2011): Coldplay, M83, Kathryn Calder, Surfer Blood, Josh Rouse

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto – (++): Yes, it’s poppy, but I’m hearing Stone Roses. Hipsters will sneer, but aside from CM’s frequently atrocious stabs at transcendent lyrics, can there be any doubt that "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall" recalls "Waterfall" on a few levels, or that "Hurts Like Heaven" has traces of "She Bangs the Drum" in its DNA? I really don’t like the Rihanna duet, but that might just be because I am a curmudgeon when it comes to R&B since the dawn of hip-hop (I know, I know). On the flipside, for all of their U2 jr. posturing,  they seem to be catching up with U2’s latter-day missteps a little too quickly. Let’s not forget that U2’s fifth album was The Joshua Tree, not Atomic Bomb. The band might be trying to skip a few rungs on the ladder, and they are beginning to come dangerously close to a major plummet. Still, one thing I’ve learned with Coldplay is that you should never judge their latest album too quickly. Lord have mercy, but they are perhaps the Tim Tebow of modern rock: technically and artistically messy with the uncanny ability to put stars in your eyes as they genuflect before the great unknown. ("Hurts Like Heaven", "Paradise", "Us Against the World", "Major Minus", "Up in Flames")

M83 – Hurry Up We’re Dreaming – (++): I’m divided on this one. On one hand, I admire the scope of the album. On the other, it’s thin on truly memorable songs, and that leads me to think of that old quip about "sound and fury." The melodies are big and juicy, but they savor like Starburst rather than fruit fresh from the vine. Certainly "sounds a lot like My Bloody Valentine," yeah. So, it’s enjoyable, but that’s all I feel about it at this point. Epic though. Maybe it will grow on me? And what the heck is that mask??? Last, I wish the guy had a deeper voice. Imagine the Simple Minds dude singing on these songs, or Peter Gabriel, or hell, even the guy from Elbow. A little more gravitas. That would do the trick. ("Midnight City", "Reunion", "New Map")

Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid – (!!!!!): Songs, songs, songs. Kathryn Calder gets it. A lot of flash and crazy concepts will only get you so far. She’s hit back to back homeruns with her solo work now, and that is because she never strays far from the thing that makes pop music so great in the first place. That’s not to say it’s all convention and no style. The production on the opener takes the great melody to a gauzy, dreamier level, like My Bloody Valentine working with Natalie Merchant. Carl Newman, thank you for shining a spotlight on your cousin. Neko who? ("One Two Three", "Turn a Light On", "Walking in my Sleep", "All The Things", "New Frame of Mind")

Surfer Blood – Tarot Classics EP – (++): In terms of sound, it’s a good reprise of the meaty guitar pop on their debut LP. It’s enough to get me excited about a second LP. ("I’m Not Ready", "Drinking Problem")

 

Josh Rouse – Josh Rouse & the Long Vacations EP – (++): This won’t surprise anyone who has been following the music of Josh Rouse. "Long Vacations" says it all – this is music to put you on a sunny beach, and it has a care-free, well-to-do, throwback sound. Longtime fans will find plenty to enjoy. ("Diggin’ in the Sand", "Fine Fine")

REACTION KEY

[!!!!!]: Enthusiastic. Frequent rotation. A buyer. Contender for year’s best.
[++]: Positive. Good stuff. Possible grower?
[ind]: Indifferent.. Underwhelmed. I don’t expect to come back to this one.
[—]: Negative. A real screw-up. Don’t even bother.

LP Review: Narrow Stairs by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Atlantic; 2008

My Rating: B+ (80/100)

Best Tracks: "Bixby Canyon Bridge", "I Will Possess Your Heart", "Cath", "Grapevine Fires", "Long Division"

Existentially sad bastard music.

TRACK NOTES

"Bixby Canyon Bridge" (4.5/5)

  • Another big change for the band. Signals a pretty significant shift.
  • I think one of the reasons Death Cab is so big is that Ben is a master at communicating his view of reality. This song is a good example of that.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" (4.5/5)

  • Indie band. Fifth album. Time for some kraut-rock.
  • And a good slice it is.

"No Sunlight" (4/5)

  • Now here’s a happy tune!

"Cath" (4.5/5)

  • One of the more memorable tunes.
  • It’s a really meaty rock cut.
  • Nice hushed breakdown on the bridge.

"Talking Bird" (4/5)

  • Very spare and cold. Sort of pitiful in a way that only Ben can pull off.

"You Can Do Better Than Me" (4/5)

  • Big ol’ Beach Boys influence. Would have been right at home on Pet Sounds.

"Grapevine Fires" (5/5)

  • Easily the best track on the album. Amazing song.
  • Lyrically, it feels a bit like the counterpoint to “The New Year.”

"Your New Twin-Sized Bed" (4/5)

"Long Division" (4.5/5)

  • Cool propulsive rocker.

"Pity and Fear" (4/5)

  • Another changeup. Almost feels like techno.
  • Nice abrupt ending out of the fury to scare the crap out of you.

"The Ice Is Getting Thinner" (4/5)

  • Bleak.
  • We are still waiting for Ben to write his "Shiny Happy People."

ALBUM NOTES

  • Stylistically, Narrow Stairs is a huge leap forward for the band. They have largely moved beyond the sound that earned them a massive indie fanbase, incorporating influences ranging from kraut-rock to The Beach Boys.
  • It’s also a satisfying record. There’s not a bad song among the bunch.
  • However, there aren’t any more than a few "great" songs. "Grapevine Fires" certainly is brilliant, but that about ends the list.
  • Allmusic has a good review, but I’d disagree with the writer’s assessment of Plans as an optimistic affair. What?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.3/5)

LP Review: Plans by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Plans
Atlantic; 2005

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Soul Meets Body", "Summer Skin", "Different Names for the Same Place", "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"

TRACK NOTES

"Marching Bands of Manhattan" (4/5)

  • Quite a bit poppier from the outset.
  • So are there marching bands in Manhattan that are regularly out and about? Kind of like Treme, but in Greenwich Village?
  • A bit dull, when it all comes down to it. Would have liked a song with a heartbeat to open the album.

"Soul Meets Body" (5/5)

  • Great tune, which the production wasn’t so airy and pure.
  • But still, pretty much a perfect melancholy pop song.

"Summer Skin" (5/5)

  • Amazing feel. The song just hangs there like a big grey cloud.

"Different Names for the Same Place" (5/5)

  • Love this one.
  • Feels like a cloud and rainy afternoon in the city.

"I Will Follow You Into The Dark" (5/5)

  • Good grief, Ben writes some dark love songs.
  • "Last dance with Mary Jane/One more time to kill the pain"
  • Really, great tune, and a changeup for Death Cab.

"Your Heart Is An Empty Room" (4.5/5)

"Someday You Will Be Loved" (4/5)

"Crooked Teeth" (4.5/5)

  • Sounds like The Kinks circa VGPS.
  • Catchy.
  • "No you can’t find nothing at all/If there was nothing there all along"

"What Sarah Said" (4.5/5)

  • "It came to me then/That every plan/Is a tiny prayer to Father Time"
  • Again, depressing (but a little happier than "A Lack of Color!")
  • Very pretty.

"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" (3.5/5)

  • Directionless.

"Stable Song" (4/5)

  • aka "Stability"
  • Beautiful anyway you slice it.
  • Still, it’s a rehash, and feel like this could have been grander, considering that amazing melody. (Even some strings!)

ALBUM NOTES

  • As much as I hate the production on this record, Gibbard is at his peak in terms of songwriting.
  • If Transatlanticism was their Document, then this is their Out of Time (minus their "Shiny Happy People", which will never exist for Death Cab).
  • Why is this a point of departure for a lot of Death Cab fans? Is it the fact that it’s on a major label, or is it something else?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.46/5)

LP Review: The Animal Years by Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter
The Animal Years
V2; 2005

My Rating: A+ (98/100)

Best Tracks: "Girl In The War", "Wolves", "Monster Ballads", "Lillian, Egypt", "Good Man", "In The Dark", "Thin Blue Flame"

Cosmic American Music to make Gram Parsons weep with jealousy.

TRACK NOTES

"Girl In The War" (5/5)

  • "The keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom/And the angels fly around in there but we can’t see them"
  • Chills. So good.

"Wolves" (5/5)

  • This is my all-time favorite Josh Ritter song.
  • What more can I say?

"Monster Ballads" (5/5)

  • This is runner up for all-time favorite Josh Ritter song.
  • "Monster ballads and the stations of the cross" has to be one of the richest lyrical snippets I’ve ever heard. Just brilliant.
  • Good grief, there’s the chills again. You just have to hear this song. So amazing.

"Lillian, Egypt" (5/5)

  • Clever video for this one.
  • Love how he uses Mark Twain’s literary voice here.
  • This is the point where he officially sounded like a pro. Hello Starling was good, but this is galactic.
  • Love the piano solo.

"Idaho" (4/5)

  • Was it a misstep to make this vocals only? I don’t know. I go back and forth. In one sense, it makes for a nice interlude of sorts, esp. with the first four songs being as rich as a Snickers bar fried in chocolate butter.
  • That being said, I’d love to hear the original version, with the acoustic guitar a bit louder. I think it’s a better song than my score here.

"In the Dark" (5/5)

  • "They started looking for you/In the darker caves"

"One More Mouth" (5/5)

  • "All the other moths need light to circle round/You just fly around yourself"

"Good Man" (5/5)

  • Can I give this 6/5? So good.
  • In what evil mirror universe are we living where this song is not standard radio fare?

"Best for the Best" (5/5)

  • Beautiful and understated.

"Thin Blue Flame" (5/5)

  • "Allow me to demonstrate my epic awesomeness," he said.

"Here at the Right Time" (5/5)

  • Love the timbre of the piano on this one.

ALBUM NOTES

  • I’ve already said it here. This one is a classic, hands down, one of the best albums ever.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (4.91/5)

LP Review: Song In The Air by Elliott

Elliott
Song In The Air
Revelation; 2003

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Land And Water", "Carry On", "Believe", "Drag Like Pull", "Song in the Air", "Away We Drift"

Next step: evaporate.

TRACK NOTES

"Land And Water" (4.5/5)

  • Very cool sound.
  • Still can’t understand a thing of what he’s saying. That’s his bag though.
  • Great guitar work by Benny Clark.
  • Production sounds PERFECT this time around. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

"Carry On" (4.5/5)

  • Pretty melody.
  • Again, nice guitar effects by Benny Clark.
  • Another somewhat Coldplay-ish tune.
  • Well written song. Great arc.

"Believe" (5/5)

  • Here’s an excellent example of the band just sounding more graceful than on False Cathedrals.
  • This is a gorgeous track.
  • The string work is perfect.

"Beijing (Too Many People)" (4/5)

  • You know, this reminds me of The Shipping News’ second album (Very Soon…).
  • Pleasant, but maybe a bit too long?

"Drag Like Pull" (4.5/5)

  • Excellent instrumental.
  • Tight as a snare drum.
  • Bet this one was awesome live.

"Bleed In Breathe Out" (4/5)

  • A bit faceless (?).
  • Still, I like it.
  • Especially dig the part towards the end where Ratterman starts in with a more martial pattern.

"Song In The Air" (4.5/5)

  • Strings, piano, and Higdon’s voice. Just great.
  • A perfect interlude. This really grounds the album. Makes it feel complete.

"Away We Drift" (5/5)

  • Another excellent rocker. This is the band firing on all cylinders.

"Blue Storm" (3.5/5)

  • Not much here. It strikes of filler.

"Genea" (4/5)

  • If that’s not Eno-esque, I don’t know what is.
  • Very cool.

ALBUM NOTES

  • False Cathedrals gets the props, but for my money, Song In The Air is superior. The album nails it in terms of cohesion and concept.
  • Eno might call this “Music for Airlines.”
  • It’s a shame the band decided to call it quits after this, as it is their strongest effort artistically (though I’ll always have a big place in my heart for US Songs). In all reality though, I don’t know what they would have done after this. Get MORE atmospheric perhaps?
  • Few bands have so dramatically transformed in the space of five years. Remember when these guys were writing power pop?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.35/5)