Initial Reactions (2011): Battles, Twin Sister

It’s hard to review all of the new releases I’d like to, especially as you really need 5-10 listens to form something approaching a conclusive opinion about a typical LP. Initial Reactions is my solution to that problem. This will be my way of keeping up with the latest and greatest. I’ll give each of these records at least two full listens, and I’ll apply a blanket qualification to what I write here by saying it’s more of an intuitive reaction than a fully formed opinion. Plus, I can cover more than one band per post this way.

If I’m going to go much past two listens with a record, you’ll probably see a longer review at some point in the not too distant future.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to check out the rating key down below. Letter grades don’t seem appropriate for initial reactions, so I’m going with something a bit more basic.

Battles – Gloss Drop – [ind]: This was a record I was expecting to like quite a bit, essentially based on descriptions of the band. I like post-rock, as uncool as that apparently is now, and to be sure, Battles comes off as the perfect post-rock act, cross-pollinating the sounds of Tortoise and Don Caballero. However, as cool as some of these tunes are, the record as a whole left me unimpressed after multiple attempts. A little too hyper-active and noisy, you know? Give me some space, give me some soul. ("Ice Cream")

Twin Sister – In Heaven – [****]: Great stuff! I really didn’t know what to expect with this one, but the most obvious comparison seems to be the perfect mix of Puro Instinct and Stars. There’s also a Euro-pop-ish element, reminiscent of Saint Etienne. It’s really something all their own though. There’s fantastic, versatile songwriting throughout. "Kimmi in a Rice Field" is beautiful and pure (think "Take My Breath Away"), and the rest of the album goes from funky groove rock to indie soul pop. Possibly one of the best records this year. ("Kimmi In A Rice Field", "Stop",  "Saturday Sunday")

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. Rare. This has to be a real screw-up.

Quick Review (EP): The Years by Memoryhouse

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
WeAreBandits.com

Quick Review (LP): The Way Out by The Books

The Books
The Way Out
Temporary Residence; 2010

My Rating: A

Best Tracks: “A Cold Freezin’ Night”, “Beautiful People”, “Group Autogenics I”, “All You Need Is A Wall”

This is great! I had only a passing familiarity with The Books prior to hearing this record, but by the time I heard the kids chanting on “A Cold Freezin’ Night”, a certain giddiness had descended upon me. This music is a blast! The two guys making this music are basically the goofy little kids in “A Cold Freezin’ Night” all grown up. The music is like a strange hybrid of Boards of Canada, Tortoise, and old, New Age-y self-help cassettes. Albums like these validate “experimental” music; The Way Out makes it obvious that experimentation can lead to strange and wonderful things. The layering and sound quality here are excellent, but there’s also a strong sense of beauty that pervades these recordings. This isn’t “head” music by any means. This is hyperlinked soul music, the kind of “found sound” record that just might bring a tear to your eye.

Pitchfork review
Paste review
TRL page for record

Career In Brief: June of 44

I came to June of 44 via Rodan. I became a huge fan of Jeff Mueller’s first band after hearing their album Rusty in early 1995, only to learn that they had broken up shortly after its release. Fortunately, the creative forces behind that musical beast were only getting started, and just a few months later June of 44’s Engine Takes to the Water hit the streets. Mueller joined forces with members of Codeine, Lungfish, and Hoover, and the band was termed an indie rock “supergroup” at the time. Mueller could sort of be seen as continuing to carry the mantle of Rodan’s angular, slightly cerebral post-rock with June of 44, but it also gradually became clear that he was looking to move beyond it. The band continued releasing records at a pretty frequent rate, and they started exploring unorthodox instrumentation and incorporating the musical influence of jazz fusion outfits like late-era Miles Davis. The band quietly called it quits in 2000. They have often been cheekily termed “boat rock” for incorporating manifold nautical themes into their music, but for me and other fans, their “hipster prog” was one of the most appealing things about the band. Four Great Points is their masterpiece, but I think Engine Takes to the Water remains the best introduction to the band, so start there.

MAJOR/NOTABLE RELEASES:

Engine Takes to the Water [1995] (B+): Recorded right on the heels of Mueller’s stint in Rodan, this is the band at its most Slint-inspired, and I think some of these tracks may even be the result of leftover sketches from Rodan’s final days. That being said, Engine Takes to the Water is no mere Mueller vehicle. The creative influences of all the members are highly evident, from the trumpet work of Fred Erskine to Doug Scharin’s thunderous and precise drumming. For all of the dynamic wonder of “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, the best tracks are the most subdued. “I Get My Kicks for You” and “Sink Is Busted” really shine in retrospect. R: “I Get My Kicks for You”, “Have a Safe Trip, Dear”, “Sink Is Busted”. (buy from Amazon)

Tropics & Meridians [1996] (B): It didn’t take long for June of 44 to establish themselves as indie rocks heroes, and Tropics & Meridians opens with what was probably their grandest musical statement, the lumbering, tension-driven, cybernetic post-rock of “Anisette.” “Lusitania” considers things maritime and tragic in a vein quite similar to the band’s first record, but it is “Lawn Bowler”, a rustic, rickety, shadow-laced instrumental that shows the band striving for something different. “June Leaf” is good but typical, and “Arms Over Arteries” recalls the finer, quieter moments of Engine Takes to the Water. The final track, “Sanctioned in a Birdcage”, is a curious affair, the band’s first approach to the noise-jam approach they would take on later releases. R: “Anisette”, “Arms Over Arteries”. (buy from Amazon)

The Anatomy of Sharks EP [1997] (A-): The Anatomy of Sharks marks a creative turning point for June of 44. While the highlight of this 3-song extended player is most definitely the uncharted nautical epic “Sharks & Sailors”, the record’s second track, “Boom”, is a harbinger of things to come. Essentially the band’s first foray into jazz fusion, it features an exotic trumpet passage belted above repetitive drum rhythm. Final track “Seemingly Endless Steamer” should not be missed. R: “Sharks & Sailors”. (buy from Amazon)

The Four Great Points [1998] (A): 4GP is the record where June of 44 achieved a winning synthesis of their angular post-rock and their fusion-inspired jazzier imaginings. Album opener “Information & Belief” delivers like a prettier “Anisette”, while “Cut Your Face” blazes ahead at a faster pace than we’re used to, but it’s first-listen head-scratchers like “Lifted Bells”, “Shadow Pugilist”, and “Air #17” that keep you coming back for more. This is a great record, equal-parts post-Slint hard rock and post-Tortoise sonic landscaping. Highly recommended. R: “Information & Belief”, “Lifted Bells”, “Air #17”. (buy from Amazon)

Anahata [1999] (C): Suffering from a sub-standard recording and a hap-hazard approach to song-writing, Anahata comes off as the band’s attempt to take the trance-inducing experimentalism of the last few recordings to the next level. Opening with an apparent re-write of The Anatomy of Sharks’ “Boom”, “Wear Two Eyes (Boom)” jumps right into things but fails to live up to the opening track standards that, by now, June of 44’s fans have come to expect from them. While the rest of the record has its moments, with “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist” and “Equators to Bi-Polar” both achieving success in the band’s new style, attempts to write more traditional songs, like “Cardiac Atlas” and “Southeast of Boston”, come off with little impact. R: “Escape of the Levitational Trapeze Artist”, “Equators to Bi-Polar.” (buy from Amazon)

In the Fishtank EP [1999] (B): Thankfully, after the disappointing Anahata, the band closes its career on a high-note with the spontaneously-conceived In the Fishtank EP. Given 2 days to record, this is where the band captured more perfectly the sort of open-ended, live feel that they attempted on Anahata. The results range from meditative and sublime (“Henry’s Revenge”) to energetic and propulsive (“Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”) to languid and funky (“Every Free Day a Good Day”). The rest of the EP consists of a cycle of tracks (“Pregenerate”-“Generate”-“Degenerate”) that succeeds in lending the record a necessary overall unity. R: “Henry’s Revenge”, “Modern Hereditary Dance Steps”. (buy from Amazon)

other/rarities: The band released most of their recorded output on their major releases, with one notable exception: the magnificent Rivers & Plains”, released in 1995 on the Lounge Ax Defense & Relocation Compilation CD. This track is well worth seeking out (sample it below), and is perhaps the best single recording June of 44 achieved. There are live recordings of album tracks to be found in different places, and there was also an extremely rare “Magic Eye” single recording of a song titled “1000 Paper Cranes” credited to June of 44, although it sounds like it was probably only Jeff Mueller on an answering machine.

Tracks of the Decade: “First Breath After Coma” by Explosions in the Sky

“First Breath After Coma”
by Explosions in the Sky
from THE EARTH IS NOT A COLD DEAD PLACE (2003)

Instrumental post-rock was nothing new when Explosions in the Sky hit the scene in the last years of the 20th Century. Bands like Tortoise and Tarentel were only two acts in a sea of literary-minded illiterate indies, and Midland, Texas was not the hub of the scene by any means. Yet somehow, through what could perhaps be termed a series of fortunate events, Explosions found themselves the forerunners of the post-rock movement with the release of their third full-length in 2003, especially after they helmed the soundtrack to the masterful film adaption of H.G. Bissiner’s Friday Night Lights. “First Breath After Coma” finds the band at their most anthemic and narrative, building layer upon layer from a steady, chiming guitar into a furious wall of sound. The listener only need close his eyes in order to visualize a slow awakening to consciousness, culminating in a full-on adrenaline surge right around 3:30. And while we may commonly associate the bands’ music with football at this point, the stark and wide-swinging melodicism of the track’s first four minutes evokes artillery shells falling on heroic soldiers rather than pigskins falling into the arms of over-padded high school kids. Musically, the tri-guitar attack leaves nothing to be desired, but it’s Chris Hrasky’s steady beat that martials the song’s elegaic emotion and masterfully choreographs the rhythmic fireworks. All in all, “First Breath After Coma” was a clear indication of the band taking their game to the next level, and to this day it still ranks as their crowning achievement. As the enormous wall of distorted guitar feedback slowly advances over the last minute of the track, you’ll find yourself marvelling at the 9 minute instrumental POP song you’ve just heard. Did they really just pull that off?

Tortoise: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)

Tortoise
Millions Now Living Will Never Die; 1996
Thrill Jockey
My Rating: 100/100
Sounds. There was a time when Tortoise made records full of magical sounds. Of their three early masterpieces, MILLIONS NOW LIVING ranks as the greatest, easily the record I would recommend as an introduction to the grandeur of pure sound. The album’s six tracks etch landscapes in the mind of the listener, not mere hillsides or river valleys, but worlds where paradox meets parabola in the natural order. Eye has not seen, that sort of thing. The epic “Djed” launches Tortoise’s sonic expedition. Exploding like the big bang and slowly evolving into a mechanistic krautrock groove, things roll along pleasantly enough until around the 10 minute mark. The song breaks apart at this point, coalescing once again into a swirl of xylophones, vibes, keyboards, and bass guitar. It all ends in outer space, the song fading into nothingness on the back of a synthetic beat. “Glass Museum” follows in gorgeous fashion, calling to mind crystalline cities but generating enough serpentine tension to elicit a vague narrative. Incorporating nature’s own music, the mysterious “A Survey” somehow walks the fine line between humor and terror. “The Taut and the Tame” and “Dear Grandma and Grandpa”, though far better than mere filler, seem mostly to serve as a bridge to the devastating “Along the Banks of Rivers.” What began agreeably enough with “Djed” ends by weaving together threads of darkness, fear, paranoia, regret, nostalgia, and loneliness. It’s a fitting epilogue, an intricate web of style and emotions. All in all, MILLIONS is canon, a record of child-like wonder, and a classic of the art of sound. Why don’t you own it?
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Tracks:
1. Djed (5/5)
2. Glass Museum (5/5)
3. A Survey (5/5)
4. The Taut and Tame (5/5)
5. Dear Grandma and Grandpa (5/5)
6. Along the Banks of Rivers (5/5)

Millions_Now_Living_Will_Never_Die_-_TortoiseTortoise
Millions Now Living Will Never Die; 1996
Thrill Jockey

My Rating: 100/100

Sounds. There was a time when Tortoise made records full of magical sounds. Of their three early masterpieces, MILLIONS NOW LIVING ranks as the greatest, easily the record I would recommend as an introduction to the grandeur of pure sound. The album’s six tracks etch landscapes in the mind of the listener, not mere hillsides or river valleys, but worlds where paradox meets parabola in the natural order. Eye has not seen, that sort of thing. The epic “Djed” launches Tortoise’s sonic expedition. Exploding like the big bang and slowly evolving into a mechanistic krautrock groove, things roll along pleasantly enough until around the 10 minute mark. The song breaks apart at this point, coalescing once again into a swirl of xylophones, vibes, keyboards, and bass guitar. It all ends in outer space, the song fading into nothingness on the back of a synthetic beat. “Glass Museum” follows in gorgeous fashion, calling to mind crystalline cities but generating enough serpentine tension to elicit a vague narrative. Incorporating nature’s own music, the mysterious “A Survey” somehow walks the fine line between humor and terror. “The Taut and the Tame” and “Dear Grandma and Grandpa”, though far better than mere filler, seem mostly to serve as a bridge to the devastating “Along the Banks of Rivers.” What began agreeably enough with “Djed” ends by weaving together threads of darkness, fear, paranoia, regret, nostalgia, and loneliness. It’s a fitting epilogue, an intricate web of style and emotions. All in all, MILLIONS is canon, a record of child-like wonder, and a classic of the art of sound. Why don’t you own it?

Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)

Tracks:

1. Djed (5/5)
2. Glass Museum (5/5)
3. A Survey (5/5)
4. The Taut and Tame (5/5)
5. Dear Grandma and Grandpa (5/5)
6. Along the Banks of Rivers (5/5)

Weekly Review Round-Up 8/16/2009

Here’s a list of the CD reviews I did this week:

Monday
Radiohead, OK Computer

Tuesday
Dinosaur Jr, Farm
Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News

Wednesday
Radiohead, The Bends Collector’s Editions Disc 2
Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career

Thursday
REM, Fables of the Reconstruction
Josh Ritter, The Animal Years

Friday
Tortoise, Beacons of Ancestorship
Radiohead, OK Computer Collector’s Edition Disc 2

Saturday
U2, No Line on the Horizon
Jeremy Enigk, OK Bear

Enjoy!!

August 14, 2009: CD Reviews, New Radiohead EP??

Thanks for dropping by. I’d love to hear your opinions on the music I review…

New CD reviews:

Radiohead, OK Computer Collector’s Edition Disc 2
Tortoise, Beacons of Ancestorship

And this…

New Radiohead EP this Monday???

Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (2009)

Tortoise
Beacons of Ancestorship; 2009
Thrill Jockey
My Rating: 39/100
Tortoise are one of the grand behemoths of post-rock, making almost-accessible experimental music for some fifteen or sixteen years now. Their first three full-lengths are testimonies to the power of sound, rife with inspiration and vision. Unfortunately, the band started to lose their way with STANDARDS, emphasizing the free-form influences of their jazz leanings over the structured instrumentalism of their earlier work. That didn’t ruin STANDARDS, which remains a pretty good record in and of itself, but it bears itself in full bloom on ANCESTORSHIP, their six full-length work. At this point the band seems completely different from the band bearing the same name in the 1990’s. Sure, there are interesting and pretty sounds here, but all in all the band seems to have simply lost the plot. I can’t really say too much beyond that. The songs just don’t have the power behind them to work their way into my head. Instead, BEACONS OF ANCESTORSHIP just sort of bounces off the cranial surface, heading into the abyss of space like radio static. Hope isn’t lost for another great Tortoise record, but the band’s really gonna have to pull something together next time to get me to listenTortoise
Beacons of Ancestorship; 2009
Thrill Jockey
My Rating: 39/100
Tortoise are one of the grand behemoths of post-rock, making almost-accessible experimental music for some fifteen or sixteen years now. Their first three full-lengths are testimonies to the power of sound, rife with inspiration and vision. Unfortunately, the band started to lose their way with STANDARDS, emphasizing the free-form influences of their jazz leanings over the structured instrumentalism of their earlier work. That didn’t ruin STANDARDS, which remains a pretty good record in and of itself, but it bears itself in full bloom on ANCESTORSHIP, their six full-length work. At this point the band seems completely different from the band bearing the same name in the 1990’s. Sure, there are interesting and pretty sounds here, but all in all the band seems to have simply lost the plot. I can’t really say too much beyond that. The songs just don’t have the power behind them to work their way into my head. Instead, BEACONS OF ANCESTORSHIP just sort of bounces off the cranial surface, heading into the abyss of space like radio static. Hope isn’t lost for another great Tortoise record, but the band’s really gonna have to pull something together next time to get me to listen.
Beacons_of_Ancestorship_coverTortoise
Beacons of Ancestorship; 2009
Thrill Jockey

My Rating: 39/100
Tortoise are one of the grand behemoths of post-rock, making almost-accessible experimental music for some fifteen or sixteen years now. Their first three full-lengths are testimonies to the power of sound, rife with inspiration and vision. Unfortunately, the band started to lose their way with STANDARDS, emphasizing the free-form influences of their jazz leanings over the structured instrumentalism of their earlier work. That didn’t ruin STANDARDS, which remains a pretty good record in and of itself, but it bears itself in full bloom on ANCESTORSHIP, their six full-length work. At this point the band seems completely different from the band bearing the same name in the 1990’s. Sure, there are interesting and pretty sounds here, but all in all the band seems to have simply lost the plot. I can’t really say too much beyond that. The songs just don’t have the power behind them to work their way into my head. Instead, BEACONS OF ANCESTORSHIP just sort of bounces off the cranial surface, heading into the abyss of space like radio static. Hope isn’t lost for another great Tortoise record, but the band’s really gonna have to pull something together next time to get me to listen.
TRACKS:
1. High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In (3/5)
2. Prepare Your Coffin (3/5)
3. Northern Something (3/5)
4. Gigantes (4/5)
5. Penumbra (3/5)
6. Yinxianghechengqi (3/5)
7. The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One (3/5)
8. Minors (3/5)
9. Monument Six One Thousand (3/5)
10. de Chelly (3/5)
11. Charteroak Foundation (3/5)