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?")

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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")

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")

Initial Reactions (2012): Bruce Springsteen, Magnetic Fields, Father John Misty

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)

Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball [A-]: A strong record that could have been stronger. The problem? Springsteen picked a potent theme (avarice), gave it a compelling banner (who or what is the wrecking ball here?), and then cast it in pristine production. The result is a good, maybe great record instead of a classic. It’s a winner for sure, but dressed up too pretty for a blue collar manifesto. Still, surprisingly fine. ("Wrecking Ball", "Land of Hope and Dreams")

Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea [B-]: That first track is funny and all, but the double entendres start to ring hollow around the album’s middle, if not sooner. Now I’m not enough of a follower to know how this fits into Merritt’s career, but what I do know from my copy of Holiday is that the man doesn’t need to rely on cheek to create a compelling record. Sure, it can be fun for the novelty, but overall, the results are forgettable. ("God Wants Us To Wait")

Father John Misty – Fear Fun [B]: Good night! J. Tillman tries hard to make a great record and makes a decent one. There’s 5 times he comes close to writing a classic tune, but he crams so much in that the tunes sag under the weight. At times, I get the sense that he’s so taken with his own abilities that he forgets to serve the song. Now I know that sounds oh-so-criticale, but just listen to track 10. Not writing a novel sir – writing songs. ("Funtimes in Babylon")

Initial Reactions: The Shins, Chairlift, Andrew Bird

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 Shins – Port of Morrow [B+]: James Mercer is looking for a fresh start with this one, the chance to embark on voyages heretofore unknown with a new crew. While promising, his refitted outfit is less scrappy. Where Chutes and Wincing both sounded ready to spiral out of orbit into pop hyperspace, there’s a definite restraint here. The wild-eyed vision seems to have taken a backseat to professionalism. Also, first half strong, second meh. ("Simple Song", "Bait and Switch")

Chairlift – Something [B]: As much as I like Chairlift’s synth-pop sound, it ultimately underwhelms. The songs are packed so dense that they can barely breathe. There’s a punkish vigor here, but a more restraint in instrumentation would go a long way. The result is a record that is frequently interesting and beautiful, but never quite glorious. Girl can sing though… ("I Belong In Your Arms", "Cool As A Fire")

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself [B]: I feel like a heel awarding anything less than an ‘A’ to a talent like Andrew Bird. Break It Yourself, however, lacks for memorable songs. Sure, 8 of the 12 tracks would qualify as excellent, but nothing about this record culls my subconscious into a return. So God-given ability is one thing, but in my defense, would anyone rate a Joe Satriani album as "great" just because he can shred? I rest my case. ("Give It Away", "Hole in the Ocean Floor")

Initial Reactions (2012): Memoryhouse, The Cranberries, New Multitudes

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)

Memoryhouse – The Slideshow Effect [B+]: So close to greatness. It seems they are starting to move away from their ambient, Engima-esque roots into something more poppy, and while TSE pleases and soothes, I do wonder if that threatens their distinctiveness. I’ll certainly stick around, but I am disappointed that this one didn’t completely roll me over. Love that gal’s voice though. Brainy and sultry at the same time. Also, precious video. ("The Kids Were Wrong", "Heirloom")

The Cranberries – Roses [B]: Once upon a time, The Cranberries created a triad transcendent; “Linger”, “Dreams”, and “Ode to My Family” are all sublime. Roses, their first album in 11 years, starts off promising, with the band sounding completely rejuvenated on "Tomorrow." However, after "Fire and Soul", things become dull and predictable. There’s not really a bad moment here, it’s just that most of these tunes are sans thorns, pleasant and inviting, but lacking any sense of danger in beauty. ("Tomorrow", "Fire and Soul")

New Multitudes – New Multitudes [B]: More reminiscent of Middle Brother than Mermaid Avenue. That’s not say it’s bad, just that it doesn’t quite have that joyous spark that made MA I such a treasure. The big surprise: Andres Parker steals the show. His cuts range from pastoral ("Fly High") to alt-rock artistry ("Old L.A.") to downright grungy ("Angel’s Blues"). The rest of the troupe deliver as you’d expect. Any of Farrar’s tunes could have been Son Volt cuts, and Yames mostly lends that golden voice. As for Will Johnson, I’ve heard of his band, but none of his stuff here impresses me. BTW, is it a coincidence that Tweedy is delivering Mermaid Avenue III this year, or does anyone think there is still the old rivalry in play? Sensationalism, I know… (“Fly High”, “Old L.A.”)

Initial Reactions (2012): Punch Brothers, Sharon Van Etten, The Big Sleep

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 impression on me at that point, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now? – (B): This is the first PB record that I’ve really engaged with, and it both satisfies and leaves something to be desired. On one level, their efforts to bridge bluegrass into an experimental realm are highly admirable. It might have been “Enter Sandman” on banjos, but PB let loose with a stunning and haunting opener in “Movement and Location” and their cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” (!) nails it. I admire their aim, without a doubt. They’ve made a good record in Who’s Feeling Young Now? However, being very familiar with Thile’s work in Nickel Creek, I know he’s capable of writing not just good but exquisite and beautiful songs. Next time around, I hope he channels some of those old songwriting chops. It’s time to take the gloves off and give us a shiner. (“Movement and Location”, “Kid A”)

Sharon Van Etten – Tramp – (B): The first artist that comes to mind with SVE is PJ Harvey; though her music is approachable and occasionally grungy/poppy, it menaces as well. Still, while she’s certainly an impressive talent, and every track on Tramp is above average, they just don’t have the “sticky” factor, the ability to lodge themselves in your imagination. At this point, my main criticism would be that Van Etten projects rather than draws. She seems to want to stick it to you, but a little mystery might help us let down our guards against all the hype. “Leonard”, with its Eastern bloc underpinnings, comes closest, but at this point I fail to see what all the fuss is about.  (“Leonard”, “I’m Wrong”)

The Big Sleep – Nature Experiments – (C+): I heard “Ace” on a sampler, and that one drew me in, but after a few more listens, I think it must have been a flash of brilliance rather than a beacon in the night. They sport a very 90’s sound, reminiscent of the midwestern melodic emo bands of that era. However, they fail to distinguish themselves by going beyond it. With the standouts I detect great ideas little explored. “1001” hints at Boards of Canada, and “Wood on the Water” might have reached to something haunting and numinous. Unfortunately though, nothing more than an average indie rock record is realized. (“1001”, “Wood on the Water”)