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 (2011): Björk, Beach Boys, Radiohead, Eddie Vedder, The Antlers

Björk – Biophilia – (++): Well, if this isn’t a concept album then I don’t know what a concept album is. Bjork has always been very spotty for me, but I dig the "20th Century Classical" aspects of this record. Furthermore, I think it’s a great concept – all that stuff about our instinctive connections to all forms of life – see here. You’re not going to find a "Human Behavior" or an "Army of Me" or even a "Joga" here, but you are going to find a pretty experimental album well executed. Songs could have been stronger, but I think it’s a grower. Speaking of "Human Behavior", I suppose this represents Bjork coming full circle artistically – a dissertation begun with that Freshman year term paper, if you will. Think about it. ("Moon", "Crystalline", "Cosmogony", "Hollow")

Beach Boys – The Smile Sessions – (!!!!!): Why wasn’t this released in 1967? Imagine all the ways pop music might be different now. This isn’t just The Beatles flirting with orchestral arrangements as wall-of-sound filler, this is high concept brilliance from beginning to end. It’s all about those voices. Amazing harmonies – "Our Prayer" indeed – "but the Holy Spirit prays for us in groanings that cannot be expressed in words.("Heroes and Villains" and pretty much all of it)

Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs – (++): "Can’t Keep" is promising in a post-punk sort of way. And there’s the requisite covers, since this is an album of ukulele songs. Overall, many moments that sound like they’d get Pearl Jam radio airplay that goes beyond material written before 1996. Glory days done passed us by, but that’s OK. We’ve got the bittersweet timbre of the ukulele to provide the soundtrack as we watch the sunset. Many beautiful moments. Nothing that reaches to the acoustic transcendence of "Elderly Woman", but still many beautiful moments.

Radiohead – Tkol Rmx 1234567 – (++): Assessing a compilation of remixes is tricky. Where does the "work" of the remix artist and the "work" of the original artist split? A good example is the Illum Sphere Rmx of "Codex." Beautiful tune. Great Yorke vocal. I hated the remix until Yorke’s voice came in. Then I liked it. Two CDs worth of remixes is quite a lot to take in in one sitting. Much of it is interesting, some of it is good, and maybe a few cuts are truly memorable. Is some of it cool? Yeah. Will I ever listen to it again? Not likely. ("Little By Little (Caribou Rmx)", "Lotus Flower (Jacques Greene Rmx)", "Separator (Four Tet Rmx)"), "Give Up the Ghost (Thriller Houseghost Rmx)", "Tkol (Altrice Rmx)")

The Antlers – Burst Apart – (++): OK, when I hear this, I think of the Black Keys if they made "sad bastard music." BTW, I ain’t a fan of the Black Keys. There are some pretty moments here, and, well, I remember being really heartbroken over the last track when my cat died earlier this year. But you know, those are painful memories. Don’t really care to go back there. Musically, this is strong stuff, but the songs only seem above-average at best. Meh. It’s painful to listen to because it makes me want to cry. ("I Don’t Want Love", "French Exit", "Corsicana")

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)

Quick Review (LP): Summerteeth by Wilco

Wilco
Summerteeth
Reprise; 1999

My Rating: A (86/100)

Best Tracks: "Shot In The Arm", "I’m Always In Love", "How To Fight Loneliness", "Via Chicago", "When You Wake Up Feeling Old", "Summerteeth", "In A Future Age"

Fractured folk and power pop hybrid – “summer here and summer over there.”

TRACK NOTES

  • You know what "Can’t Stand It" reminds me of? "You’re So Vain." Cool tune though, poppy as a hell, a great jumping off point.
  • "She’s A Jar" is the first of the record’s slower, abstract folk numbers. Tweedy’s in abstract poetry mode there.
  • "Shot In The Arm" is still a live favorite of the band. It’s a really cool, spacey, Neu!-ish tune. Great lyrics.
  • "What you once were isn’t what you wanna be/Anymore!"
  • "We’re Just Friends" is a personal favorite. Sort of reminds me of Randy Newman.
  • Same with "Always In Love." I love how big it is as a power-pop song. Tweedy sounds like he’s coming off the rails.
  • "Nothing’severgonnastandinmywayagain" is cute, but it’s a bit annoying too. I’ll take it though.
  • "Pieholden Suite" may not be one of the better tracks here, but it sort of points toward the band’s more experimental/fragmented approach on later records.
  • "How To Fight Loneliness" is a gorgeous little acoustic strummer. Great instrumentation.
  • "Via Chicago" is another tune that points toward Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Brilliant in every way.
  • "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me" – that is so great.
  • "ELT" is cool, but sort of drags in the middle and pails in comparison to some of the other power pop numbers herein.
  • I just don’t care much for "My Darling."
  • I love "When You Wake Up Feeling Old." It’s one of my all-time Wilco favorites. It almost sounds like something Chicago would’ve recorded in collaboration with The Beach Boys.
  • The title track features some great lead guitar work. It’s a nice combo of the record’s two sides.
  • "In A Future Age" is similar to "Via Chicago". Perhaps not as dark, but equally great. Love the piano work there.
  • Imagine The Beach Boys of the mid-60’s forming a band with Alex Chilton and Chris Bell in the early 70’s and you pretty much have the magnificent "Candyfloss."

ALBUM NOTES

  • Great late night driving album. Amazingly good for top of the lung singalongs in order to stay awake.
  • This album, more than any other, strikes me as a partnership between Tweedy and Bennett. Bennett really exerted his "throw everything at it" production mindset with Summerteeth.
  • There are two sides to this album: a sunny, power pop side where the upbeat tunes foil Tweedy’s utterly miserable disposition at the time and the understated, experimental folk side where fractured but gorgeous tunes pass the time and Tweedy crafts some amazingly adventurous lyrics.
  • I compare this one to Radiohead’s OK Computer. Not quite as experimental as it seemed when it first came out, but it serves as a turning point for the band and the record when people really started to take notice.
  • Given the two faces of the album (power pop/fractured folk), I’m starting to sense some of the brilliance of the record.
  • When it all comes down to it, this album contains about 10 or 11 amazing songs, and while many are unpolished, there is an open-ended feel to everything here that makes it very listenable.
  • The definition of “summerteeth” according to the Urban Dictionary. I’m thinking this refers to the fact that the album contains both light and dark songs. It could also refer to the way the lyrics are really biting at times. Also, Tweedy has a thing for interesting words as well, and I think that factors in.
  • Always thought that moon image was a captivating cover.

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

Quick Review (LP): Forever Today by I’m From Barcelona

I’m From Barcelona
Forever Today
Mute; 2011

My Rating: B- (62/100)

Best Tracks: "Charlie Parker", "Get In Line", "Always Spring", "Come On", "Game Is On"

Frustratingly above-average. Forever a B-list band?

NOTES

  • I’m From Barcelona make "indie choir" pop symphonies in the best tradition of Sufjan. Their songs are, on whole, a lot more like early Beach Boys than his.
  • I have fond memories of their first album. The track "We’re from Barcelona" was fantastic.
  • It ain’t really edgy, but these kids can make some catchy tunes.
  • This reminds me of Architecture in Helsinki’s latest, but the instrumentation here favors the organic rather than the synthesized.
  • "Charlie Parker" is cool. These cats know how to write an opener.
  • “We all want to get in line!” Clever.
  • This is a very likeable record, but it’s a bit neon, if you know what I mean. Hard to diss, but it ain’t easy to get excited about it either.
  • Also, they seem to be writing from a template. Driving beat, major chords, full on instrumental broadside, lead vocal followed by choral vocal, etc.
  • The last paragraph of this Pitchfork review is right on. Key excerpt: “What’s ultimately confounding about the album is how one-note its euphoria can be. The songs are almost interchangeable; the lyrics rarely stray beyond the easy cliché.”

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Songs (4/5)

Quick Review (LP): Tomboy by Panda Bear

Panda Bear
Tomboy
Paw Tracks; 2011

My Rating: B (68/100)

Best Tracks: "Slow Motion", "Surfer’s Hymn", "Last Night at the Jetty", "Friendship Bracelet", "Benfica", “Afterburner”

Is Noah Lennox hiding behind the wall of sound?

NOTES:
– One of my favorite recent trends in band names – BEARS!!!! Seriously, how does this kind of thing happen? You’ve got Panda Bear, Grizzly Bear, Bear in Heaven, Minus the Bear, etc. And then there are the beach/surfer bands: Beach House, Best Coast, Surfer Blood, Wavves, Beach Fossils, etc. Anyone want to start a band with me called Polar Bear Suntan? We are guaranteed to spark an indie revolution!
– What is with over-processing vocals? Especially when people have decent voices? It makes it so difficult to connect on a personal level. I have this problem going all the way back to My Bloody Valentine.
– I like "Slow Motion" quite a bit. Sort of a world music vibe there.
– The vocal harmonies are very interesting. I suppose that’s one reason this guy is such a critical darling? I like the Fleet Foxes harmonies better though. One guy harmonising with himself doesn’t have the same effect as three or four different voices, with all their subtle (and not so subtle) differences.
– There’s something intangible about these songs, as neat as they may be. Still, I have a feeling this record will grow on me over the next few months. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve re-evaluated my score come December.
– It seems to me that Panda Bear holds the same fascination for critics as My Bloody Valentine, which I honestly still don’t entirely understand. Yes, both acts make gorgeous music for audiophiles, but in my mind, they leave something to be desired in terms of narrative and connection. 
– Here’s the deal: I appreciate density and the use of heavy reverb at times, but Lennox, like many current indie bands, sounds like he’s hiding behind it all. I can tell there’s some serious Beach Boys influence going on, but on that group’s best work, there was an immediacy that was simply arresting. The songs here sound obscured and distant, and at times entirely void of emotion.

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