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Entries in Albums (8)

Friday
May142010

The New Pornographers: Together

The New Pornographers

Together

Matador Records

May 4, 2010


"Light a candle’s end
You are a light turned low
And like the rest of us
You got those old eternity blues"

~ "Crash Years"



The art of the pop song is still alive in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll, as evidenced by Together, the latest album from multi-talented Vancouver collective The New Pornographers.  Featuring the consistently inspired songwriting of Carl Newman and Dan Bejar as well as their and Neko Case’s effusive vocal talents, Together is the power pop album you’ll be spinning all summer.

Together starts off with several instant classics, as chunky strings take over where keyboards may have roamed before on ground-shakers like "Moves" and "Crash Years."  Deep, staccato cello lines and Kurt Dahle's tom-toms add fist-thumping accents to an ongoing, head-bobbing rhythm of perfectly strummed acoustic guitars.  The songs boast the typically lush layers of Newman’s songwriting as well as quirky tidbits like melodic whistles. 

While these two opening tracks are referentially postmodern in their allusion to other songs – "Crash Years" borrowing a melody from George Harrison’s "You" and "Moves" being partly about Chicago’s illustrious "25 or 6 to 4" – the songs also capture both the simple pain of chasing a lover as well as the complex fear that suffuses modern man in the face of economic instability.  In fact, I take more from the latter insights than the song references, although perhaps that's because they are my own, and not gleaned from sources like Rick Moody’s heady biography of the band on Matador’s website. 

The album takes a bit of a turn with "Silver Jenny Dollar," penned by Bejar and thereby a bit more eccentric but still wonderfully catchy.  Two tracks later we get a full dose of Neko Case’s sweetness on her ballad "My Shepherd," which also features Kathryn Calder, who sometimes fills in live for Case but is now coming into her own as a full member of the band. 

There are some other talented guests on Together alongside the deep roster of New Pornographers, including Okkervil River's Will Sheff, St. Vincent's Annie Clark, Beirut's Zach Condon, and the horns of The Dap-Kings

While each member of The New Pornographers brings his or her own unique sensibility to the project, they nevertheless always come together in a way that is instantly recognizable.  They are a band unafraid to write shiny pop songs that are both playful and sincere.  The variety of instruments, beautifully layered arrangements, and perfect balance of tempo and restraint puts Together in the running for my favorite New Pornographers album. 

Tuesday
Apr062010

Blues Go Modern on Jason Ager’s Debut Lunchdate

Lunchdate available on iTunesOn his debut album Lunchdate, Jason Ager brings new weight to both sides of the term blues-rock.  With soulful songs about love and loss, arranged with upbeat instrumentation and allusive lyrics, Ager taps into a rich and varied American musical heritage. 

Lunchdate is full of songs that evoke the influences of blues artists like Muddy Waters as well as rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry, the latter’s name inspiring a song title on the record.  Ager fleshes out the traditional blues progressions with innovative time changes and layers of vocal harmonies that offer a full, rich sound. 

The album starts off boldly, with Ager singing plaintive a capella to his absent muse, “Jocelyn.”  Four lines in though – Bam! – the music kicks in at high tempo and Ager’s voice is now given a compelling chorus effect as razor-sharp guitar lines guide him through the rest of the song.  Ager has cultivated a highly syncopated style of singing that accentuates his self-taught guitar style, especially present on “Sing-Along Jawn.”

Personal anecdotes provide the subject matter for Ager’s lyrics, and he packs them in, mixing plenty of romantic self-deprecation with poetic similes and a bevy of pop-culture references that provide a roadmap of his musical influences.  It is this blend of personal and cultural that makes the album so accessible. 

Full-out rockers like title track “Lunchdate” offer a glimpse of the blistering live show Jason Ager and The C.O.P.O. perform in clubs like Philadelphia’s World Café Live, singing to every girl in the audience that he’s “got you up on my mind.”  Long-time musical partner Austin O’Connor lays down inventive bass lines that push the tempo, and drummer Sheri Gallagher tightens the arrangement with her snare and hi-hat work.

Ager is also an active solo performer, bringing his acoustic act to stages such as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  On “Strawberry Wine,” a song that would sound right at home in a Nashville honky-tonk, Ager explores the textures of harmonizing with his own voice which effect transports the listener to a back porch on a summer day. 

Recorded at Hatfield, PA’s Tritonix Recording, Lunchdate is an album that bridges many genres of American music, from R&B of the ’60s to the hip-hop of Biggie Smalls.  On “Rock Star,” Ager surfs on waves of organ music and “Na na na” choruses as he sings of his early days in the business, but then breaks down the final minute of the song into a rap that spits pure truth about coming to terms with illusions of grandeur. 


The combination of such distinct musical styles elevates Lunchdate to a place that resonates with contemporary audiences who appreciate hybrid artists in possession of a reverence for music history.  Ager succeeds in producing music that achieves a type of earnest pastiche infused with deeply personal themes.  Lunchdate is an album you will listen to again and again, gleaning new pleasure from every spin. 

Lunchdate on Itunes and CD Baby.

Jason Ager on MySpace, Facebook, and Last.fm.  

Wednesday
Mar312010

Gorillaz Concept Surges on Plastic Beach

Today, The Creation of Adam welcomes guest blogger Paul Tsikitas, who writes about music at In the Wake of Poseidon.

 

When Snoop Dogg first welcomed me to the world of Plastic Beach, I was unaware of what a strange and wonderful world I was getting myself into. Gorillaz is usually synonymous with fantastic collaborations and excruciatingly catchy tunes, yet at first glance, Plastic Beach seems like too many collaborations, musically very different from their 2001 self-titled debut and 2005’s Demon Days. The album doesn’t pick up with its catchiest tunes until five tracks deep, when the album’s first single, the ultra groovy and funky "Stylo" kicks in. This sounds like I’m knocking it, but quite the contrary. Although this won’t be many listeners' go-to Gorillaz album, especially when you are looking to party, this is easily the Gorillaz' finest album as an art form.

Plastic Beach is a concept album that is all about environmental disaster and the artifice of our world culture. It's a sprawling record with loads of tracks varying in sound and style. While this sound is more complex and much more synthetic, it perfectly mirrors the themes of an artificial utopia. This isn't to say there aren’t any organic sounds to be found. A song like "White Flag" brings in an Eastern string section juxtaposed with some excellent rhymes care of British rappers Bashy and Kano and a flourishing back beat.

The sounds are constantly shifting and bringing different moods and feeling onto the shores of Plastic Beach. There are slower, poppier ballads like the Grandaddyesque "On Melancholy Hill" or the fabulous slow space ballad "Empire Ants", both of which are excellent moments of clarity on the album. Then there are the catchier numbers like the infectious and skewering "Superfast Jellyfish" or the frenetic Mos Def jam "Sweepstakes." These songs have layer after layer of compounding sound. It's a lot to take in, as the sound is far more complex than some of the more simplistic moments in the Gorillaz catalog.

If there is anything evident here, it's that Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have evolved the Gorillaz into something beyond a fictitious cartoon group of primates pounding out dance floor-ready tunes. This time around, they are making a social statement as well as taking Gorillaz into new direction. The frenzy of guest stars from Lou Reed to Bobby Womack proves that Gorillaz is a collective genius. Albarn and gang have a great pulse on high quality pop music with an introspective touch. Plastic Beach is sure to be one of the more memorable records of the year and one of the best to kick off a new decade.

Thursday
Mar112010

Broken Bells: Supergroup of the Year?

Broken Bells

Broken Bells

Columbia

March 9, 2010

Broken Bells is the much talked about collaboration between James Mercer of The Shins and Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse.  Ever since this project was announced last September, I wondered whether this experiment could be as cool as its billing promised.  The answer is yes. 

Described as “melodic, yet experimental,” Broken Bells delivers creatively arranged songs that utilize the full range of Mercer’s vocals, from his normally dulcet tones on single “The High Road” to a space-age falsetto on “The Ghost Inside.”  Burton, who did pen some of the lyrics, also adds his golden producer’s finger to driving beats and a myriad of keyboard instruments, including a resurrected electric harpsichord. 

It’s easy to hear elements that would be comfortable in both Shins and Gnarls Barkley songs, but Broken Bells pulls in an extremely wide range of influences, sometimes to their detriment.  The arrangements can change on a whim, as if including chord progressions or certain instruments just for their own sake.  In this regard, the album could stand to loosen up a bit.

This project is not just a series of studio tricks, though, as Broken Bells will be taking a full band on tour.  They performed “The High Road” on Letterman on March 9, and will be playing several sets at next week’s SXSW, including NPR’s showcase on March 17. 

The CD is also available in a deluxe limited edition box set, which has a neat feature of playing snippets of extra music when it’s opened up.  The full album will be streamed on NPR for the rest of the week, and Mercer and Burton talked about the album with All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. 

What do you think of the Broken Bells record?  Could this be the collaboration of the year? 

Tuesday
Mar092010

Frightened Rabbit: The Winter of Mixed Drinks


Frightened Rabbits

The Winter of Mixed Drinks

Fat Cat Records

March 9, 2010 [US]


Texture.  For better or for worse, that is the key sonic element on Frightened Rabbit’s third studio album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks, released in the U.S. on March 9 by Fat Cat Records.


Frightened Rabbit songs have always been characterized by a building crescendo of sound and emotion, but on this album the effect is less organic. Instead, the layering of instruments is more deliberate, and while this may have been the aim of songwriter Scott Hutchison and producer Peter Katis, it lacks immediacy and keeps the listener at arm’s length.  

On “Things,” the album opens with fuzzy guitar reverb straight out of the early ‘90s, and while it swells with cello and violin, it feels like a wave that never crashes, ironically appropriate for an album that was written on the coastal town of Crail, Fife. 

The Scottish indie band must have been more than a little daunted upon trying to follow up the masterpiece album The Midnight Organ Fight, but singer/songwriter Scott Hutchison gets a lot of things right as he finds new experiences to mine, scratchily singing of rebirth and renewal, regret and recompense.

“Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” the first single and arguably the best song on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, showcases what can happen when texture works.  The background vocals buoy Hutchison’s plaintive but confident lyric – “Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?” – the keys tinkle at just the right times, and even the cabasa and handclaps are subtle enough to allow the listener to let go of the past along with the song’s protagonist. 

This pattern of successful and off-putting textures seesaws throughout the album, and while the gap gets narrower upon repeated listens, the songs rarely capitalize on their own momentum.  High points include “Living in Colour,” “Not Miserable,” and second single “Nothing Like You,” which features the strange lyric “She was not the cure for cancer” which may just compare an ex-girlfriend to a tumor in a way that actually makes sense. 

If you were already a fan of Frightened Rabbit, you will enjoy this album, and it does have enough high points to engage new fans.  There are beautiful moments on The Winter of Mixed Drinks, and the emotional maturity of the subject matter is refreshing and rewarding.  Frightened Rabbit has taken a step forward away from the wall on this album, and may even ask mainstream success to dance sometime soon.       

3.5 / 5 Stars

Official Site