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")

Quick Review (LP): Civilian by Wye Oak

Wye Oak
Merge; 2011

My Rating: C (49/100)

Best Tracks: "Civilian", "Fish"

– Jenn Wasner sounds an awful lot like Victoria LeGrand from Beach House, which on whole is a good thing.
– Hmmmmm….sounds a bit cranked out, a little too modern rock-ish.
– Beach House comparison are inevitable. Whereas Teen Dream sounded untamed and inter-dimensional, this sounds a little boxed and predictable.
– Compare this to the EP they released last year. There were some amazing tracks there, huge, nuclear songs where the band sounded full of passion. In comparison, they sound a bit over it here.
– "Civilian" is a pretty cool song. Very Neil Young-ish. Nice guitar solo.
– "Plains", I think, is an example of what is wrong with this record. It sort of plods most of the same way, and is periodically interrupted with an explosive passage. The only problem is that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Seems lazy.
– All in all, this is either a much more subdued and meditative record than last year’s EP, or it is simply not as good. Unfortunately, I’m leaning towards the latter.
– "Dogs Eyes" has a very 90’s indie sound.
– I really appreciate the fact that Jenn Wasner can SING. 
– Both Pitchfork and AMG dig this album. I think they could do a lot better.

Cohesion (4.5/5)
Concept (3.5/5)
Consequence (3/5)
Consistency (3/5)
Songs (3.5/5)

Best of 2010 (LP): My Top 5 Albums

Here’s a list of what I reviewed in 2010, with links to each individual review. I knew what my top 3 were beyond a shadow of a doubt, and the other 2 won out because I felt like there were pretty grand achievements from established acts. Notably, you won’t find The Suburbs, Age of Adz, or Contra here. The grammy-winner was long on pretense and short on strong material, the Sufe-ster went too far into left field, and the prep-punks got a little too glossy and cute. That’s OK though, those acts still have their best days ahead of them.

Below you’ll find my Top 5 records for 2010. What’s on your list?

kathryn calder are you my mother beach house teen dream

5. The Books – The Way Out…When it comes to “soundscaping” types of record, I normally expect the ones I enjoy to be good background music (ie Boards of Canada). The Way Out goes way beyond the confines of its genre, achieving a sort of giddy, off-the-wall, and soulful poppiness that may not be quite radio-friendly, but says it might just be possible a few albums from now. Otherwise, this is a great record, remarkably listenable and appealling for “found-sound.” “Cold Freezin’ Night” never ceases to put a smile on my face, but “I Didn’t Know That” is pretty cool too. (original review)

4. The National – High Violet…With HV, The National has officially become the greatest indie band to emerge in the last decade, taking ideas pioneered by the likes of Joy Division, REM, Interpol, Radiohead, Wilco, and others and creating their own mesmerizing blend of gut-wrenching chamber rock. The big highlight here though is Matt Berninger’s vocal work, which goes way beyond anything he’s done before. He uses his world-weary baritone to maximum effect, bringing in realms of emotion that have heretofore reamined untouched for The National. To that end, “Afraid of Everyone” is one of the record’s highlights, and probably Berninger’s most gut-wrenching performance to date. (original review)

3. Follow The Train – Mercury…At some point, great bands stopped thinking in terms of stadium-sized rock and roll. Follow The Train appears to be trying to reverse that trend, and while they may not be playing actual stadiums quite yet, with Mercury, they’ve prepared a set of tunes that would certainly do the trick. In fact, I can’t think of a band that has dreamed of making GOOD rock and roll this grand since Pearl Jam hit the airwaves in the early 90’s. This record is quite simply a delight in every way. I don’t know what the future holds for Follow The Train, but after the glory that is Mercury, I’m hoping they will let the world hear more. “Movin” is the best place to start. (original review)

2. Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother?…Here’s one I really didn’t see coming. When Kathryn Calder joined New Pornographers a few years back, I figured she was simply standing in for Neko Case and would be relegated to backing band status. When she announced a solo album earlier this year, I barely took notice. Yet somehow, I gave this one a shot, and I’m thrilled I did. Packed with melody, romance, optimism, and spaced-out folk tunes, Calder’s debut is the understated gem of the year, a record with a little something for everyone. While it might not make many year-end lists, that just makes me all the prouder to tout it on mine. I certainly don’t mean to be patronizing when I say that this is one charming little record. Here’s a live take of my favorite, “If You Only Knew.” Oh yeah, and another prime tune (and cool video), “Arrow.” (original review)

1. Beach House – Teen Dream…On their third album, Beach House went for broke, and nailed it. Teen Dream contains ten pop masterpieces, songs that can’t be contained by studios or venues or any other confined space that you might dream up. From the epic swell of “Zebra” to the closing credits of “Take Care”, this a record that you’ll fall in love with, in large part due to the moonlight wails of Victoria Legrand, a vocalist that certainly ranks up there with the likes of Neko and Stevie Nicks. Words fail with this one. If you haven’t heard this yet, then what in the world are you waiting for? Here’s “Walk in the Park“, which was a runner-up for my year-end track list next to “Zebra.”  (original review)

Best of 2010 (Tracks): 80 Minutes of the Best Music

Before I get around to telling you my 5 favorite albums of 2010, take a few minutes to consider this little mix of what I consider to be 80 minutes of the best music released last year…


Now the tracklist isn’t in any particular order, but below I’ve written up what I consider to be the top 8 and linked to where you can listen for yourself. Enjoy!

My Top 8 tracks of 2010

1. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” by Arcade Fire…Somehow the best track got tucked away at the tail-end of The Suburbs. Regine Chassagne sounds so good. On past efforts, her contributions were always welcome additions, but over the electronic backing here, she delivers a stark and captivating performance that steals the show. Lyrically, this is the most stunning track I’ve heard in ages. As a pop song, it sounds like it’s a lost synth-pop classic from the 80’s. Simply brilliant. (listen)

2. “Movin” by Follow the Train…There is a tiny minority out there that knows what I am talking about when I say, “World, it’s high time you meet Follow The Train.” And there’s no better place to start than this transcendent piece of freaked-out, soulful, symphonic space grunge. Dig those strangz dawg. (listen)

3. “All Delighted People” by Sufjan Stevens…Don’t call it a come back. The Age of Adz still hasn’t grabbed me like I hoped it would, but Sufjan made such a grand return with the preceding EP that I’ve pretty much shrugged it off. The EP’s title track is quite possibly the most glorious thing he has yet recorded. It takes everything that we’ve grown to love about the mild-mannered Suferman, vamps it up to a grand symphony, throws in a fireworks display, makes a joyful noise, and then pushes it completely over the top. Now THAT is how you make a return to centerstage! (listen)

4. “Zebra” by Beach House…The most elegant song on this list, it’s an impressionistic little waltz that, as I’ve said before, somehow becomes a stadium-sized thunder track. Between Victoria Legrand’s vocals and Alex Scally’s instrumentation, what on paper appears quite simple becomes dream-like and absolutely gorgeous. (listen)

5. “If You Only Knew” by Kathryn CalderWrote about it here. For those wondering what AC Newman was thinking when he asked his mousy niece to play Christine McVie to Neko Case’s Stevie Nicks, this should give you some indication. My pick for the backporch singalong track of the year. Too much fun…

6. “Bonfire” by Strand of Oaks…Imagine if you will a character in an 80’s slasher flick who sits by a campfire and sings a lonely song that is simultaneously terrifying and pathetic, all while, unbeknownst to him, his cohorts are butchered in the cabin just across the water. You have just imagined “Bonfire” by Strand of Oaks, and it is actually one of the most touching and atypical love songs you’ll ever hear. (listen)

7. “A Cold Freezin’ Night” by The Books…Found sound usually isn’t this giddy and delightful. The bottom line is, this reminds me of all the good things about being nine years old. Who needs verse-chorus-verse? And the video is BADNESS…

8. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National…It was hard to pick just one track from High Violet. I can think of 3 or 4 great tracks that could have been here as well. But ulimately, the lyric “I still owe money/to the money/to the money I owe” was just too good to pass up. (listen)

What were some of your favorites?

Quick Review (LP): Cape Dory by 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

Quick Review (EP): My Neighbor/My Creator by Wye Oak

wye-oak-neighbor-creator-cover-art Wye Oak
My Neighbor/My Creator EP
Merge; 2010

My Rating: A-

Best Tracks: “I Hope You Die”, “My Neighbor”

Very nice. “I Hope You Die” was already one of my favorite tracks of the year, and the first three songs are all done really well. Jenn Wasner has a great voice, and the band comes off like a Beach House/Tiny Vipers hybrid, a good thing all around. Again, I’m impressed by the strength of these four songs. I will plan on exploring the rest of their releases after hearing this. My one complaint is that I could have done without the last track, “That I Do”, an indie-rap-folk hybrid of sorts. They just don’t make it work, and it comes off a little silly. Thankfully, it is situated at the end of the playlist, which means that it can be safely ignored. That being said, My Neighbor/My Creator is one of the best EP’s of the year. Highly recommended.

Band Myspace site
Pitchfork review

Quick Review (LP): Teen Dream by Beach House

Beach House
Teen Dream
Sub Pop; 2010

My Rating: A+

Tracks: “Walk in the Park”, “Zebra”, “Used to Be”, “Take Care”

Thriller. Born In The USA. Rumours. There is a short list of albums that are amazing both as cohesive artistic statements and as collections of pop classics. Who would have thought that, in 1991, three knuckleheads from the Pacific Northwest with only one sloppily recorded sludge-rock effort to their credit would rise into that category with a gleaming collection of 12 odes to teen angst? Well, I was just as surprised to find Beach House ascending into that hall of greatness with their third album, Teen Dream. All of these songs would stand as great singles in and of themselves, but strewn together as a collection they make for one of the greatest rock records in recent memory. While the standards for these songs have been set with these recordings, I can’t help but wonder what tracks like “Walk in the Park” and “Zebra” would sound like stadium-sized. I’m not asking Beach House to go all U2 on us or anything, but then again, if Radiohead and Springsteen can pull of rock and roll glory in super-sized settings, then based on the strength of the songs on this album, Beach House can too. Teen Dream is probably the first great record of this decade.

Daytrotter session
Pitchfork review
Paste review
Myspace site

Quick Review (EP): The Years by Memoryhouse

The Years
Arcade Sound Ltd.; 2010

My Rating: A

Best Track: “Sleep Patterns”

Debut EP’s have a long and storied history. I count among my favorites REM’s Chronic Town, Voxtrot’s Raised By Wolves, and Fugazi’s self-titled debut. I think it’s perhaps the best way for a new band to introduce its sound to the world, because the EP length leaves us well-informed but thirsting for more. Additionally, most bands, in their first year or two, have not really achieved what can be called a fully-formed sound. Arcade Fire is a good example. Their first EP, while decent in its own right, comes nowhere near the epic glory of their debut LP. All of this is to say that I think Memoryhouse has released one of the best EP’s of the year with their debut, The Years. It’s short even for an EP, only 4 songs in all, but we have here a reasonable introduction to what can be expected from the band in the future. “Sleep Patterns” is the obvious standout, a lo-fi pop noir hybrid of Beach House and Joy Division, and “The Waves” is a quick interlude of New Age electronica. The other two tracks are solid as well, and given the fact that the EP is free, I expect the band to gain a significant following from it. I question whether they can pull off a really solid LP though. Bands with this sort of sleepy sound generally approach terminal attention around track 8 (witness: Boards of Canada), so I for one am hoping for a long career of lengthy EP’s. Still, if Tortoise can do LPs, why can’t Memoryhouse? We’ll see what they come up with.

Download it for FREE here
Pitchfork review
Band Myspace page

Quick Review (LP): Crazy for You by Best Coast

Best Coast
Crazy for You LP
Mexican Summer; 2010

My Rating: B-

Best Tracks: “Boyfriend”, “Crazy for You”

I know that everyone likes this record, so first things first. The singer has a very strong rock and roll voice, and Best Coast makes use of it to maximum effect. That fact alone is enough to set this record apart from the pack. However, I’m not so fond of the guitar sound. Once you get beyond the outstanding opener “Boyfriend,” there are only a handful of tracks solid enough to get beyond the a-melodic drone of the guitar. I predict this will make many best of lists this year, and be forgotten in years to come. FFO: Beach House, Real Estate, Puro Instinct, Wavves.

Pitchfork review
Myspace site

Quick Review (EP): Something About the Chaparrals by Pearl Harbour (now Puro Instinct)

Something About the ChaparralsPearl Harbor (aka Puro Instinct)
Something About the Chaparrals EP
Mexican Summer; 2009

My Rating: B

I like these gals; they’ve got a great sense of humor and a funny blog. They use incredibly awesome hyper-slang like “Wuz gawn,” and say that they have things “4 U.” This was their first EP-length release, and it’s halfway superlative. “Sunburn” and “Luv Goon” are phenomenal, but the last two drown in a sunny monsoon of sound. The guitar player is like 14 years old and comes up with great licks now, which means that she has plenty of radical ahead of her. Hope they do something magical on their first full-length still to come. For now, stick with the first half of this record. RiYL: Best Coast, Beach House, Asobi Seksu, leotards and sweatbands.

Listen to “Luv Goon” and buy here
Sample all tracks here
Blog here
Myspace here