Stephen-Malkmus-And-The-Jicks-LP-Mirror-Traffic-cover Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic

★★★★☆

Pavement fans may be disappointed that the group’s recent reunion didn’t result in a new album, but Stephen Malkmus’ latest release with the Jicks is almost certain to surprise and delight. It seems as though revisiting his old, now classic material has revitalized his writing. That isn’t to say its similarities to the glory days of old resulted directly from Pavement’s reunion—in fact, the Jicks entered the studio for this record even before the indie rock pioneers’ 2010 world tour—but it pointed more towards Malkmus’ readiness to reconcile with his past.

So with Mirror Traffic it’s back to basics, avoiding some of the pitfalls of the past few Jicks albums, namely refraining from over extending a jam and instead bringing Malkmus’ ever catchy melodies and intriguing lyrics to the foreground with clean production.

“Tigers” is a great, short opener with an excellent lead riff and some slide guitar flourishes. “No One Is (As I Are Be)” is the oddly titled second track that wouldn’t sound out of place on Beck’s Odelay. It’s got a nice, soft and lazy country rock feel to it. Delicate trumpet appears about halfway through, adding a nice touch as the band gets into a comfortable groove. ”Senator” is bound to get a lot of attention not only for its catchiness but for its lyrics. Malkmus ascertains with cool assurance “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blowjob.” He finally concludes that what everyone really wants is a blowjob. Quite true. “Brain Gallop” and “Stick Figures in Love” let loose for a little feel-good jamming. If the Jicks didn’t have such a proclivity for jamming in their songs, these moments would shine even brighter.

The album is definitely front-loaded, but toward the back we have “Forever 28,” an endearingly sweet jangle pop number a la ELO with several rhythmic shifts and one particularly affecting guitar riff. “Gorgeous Georgie” is an excellent closer with nice dynamic shifts and an excellent extended solo in the middle.

Malkmus had clearly moved past Pavement years ago. Some may call this a maturing, but the maturity isn’t in the writing itself. There are still goofy songs and lyrics delivered in that memorable slacker sort of way. No, the maturity here is in knowing not to dwell on the past or use the name as leverage for success or an easy buck. The Jicks will never reach the level of fame and acclaim Pavement did, or even come close. Even though it’s impossible to write a review for them without name-dropping Pavement more than their own name, listeners owe it to these guys to appreciate what they are doing for what it is. And what it is, is pretty good, especially when compared to other Pavement offshoots like Spiral Stairs.

Mirror Traffic at its best is among the best stuff Malkmus has done since Pavement. At its worst, it’s just an average indie rock album with an iconic voice leading the way and somewhat unusual diversity. Even at its slightly excessive length, many of the tracks are just too catchy and pleasing to the ear to not enjoy. It’ll be a great record to enjoy as summer comes to a close.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic Tracklist:

  1. “Tigers”
  2. “No One Is (As I Are Be)”
  3. “Senator”
  4. “Brain Gallop”
  5. “Jumblegloss”
  6. “Asking Price”
  7. “Stick Figures In Love”
  8. “Spazz”
  9. “Long Hard Book”
  10. “Share The Red”
  11. “Tune Grief”
  12. “Forever 28″
  13. “All Over Gently”
  14. “Fall Away”
  15. “Gorgeous Georgie”
Hail Mary Mallon Hail Mary Mallon – Are You Gonna Eat That?

★★★☆☆

Are You Gonna Eat That? feels like a night of getting baked in the basement with friends, and then deciding to make a hip-hop album, which might be the best result of that kind of night. It has all the wit, the camaraderie and competitive spirit that makes basement raps so entertaining. Only it wasn’t made in a basement and the names here are a far cry from inexperienced. On the occasion of their debut, most critics feel safe in calling Hail Mary Mallon a “supergroup.”

In all fairness, “supergroup” is one of those terms thrown around a little too much. Everyone from The Avengers to Ford & Lopatin fall under the label without anyone bothering to question why. The consensus seems to be that if a few notable members from existing bands combine their powers (no matter how abysmal the end result) becomes a musical wonder. Yet in an era of side projects, solo efforts, dropouts and rejoining—it’s not really fair to say. Formerly, true supergroups were mergers of legends, people already renowned and revered in popular culture.

In that sense, Hail Mary Mallon isn’t that—their biggest hero, Aesop Rock, is a niche reference even among rap aficionados, Rob Sonic even deeper and while DJ Big Wiz is a name-brand spinner, well, name five spinners. They actually belong to the burgeoning field of hip-hop duos. It takes one song for Are You Gonna Eat That? to establish its sound and style. “Church Pants” melds dark, uptempo grooving with high-gravity lyricism. In case you were content to let Mallon roll off your ears as playful, stoner rap, the opener begs to differ. The wordplay rarely falls off from that point on, though the album is too often abstract and obscurely referential in a way that can lose listeners.

The lyricism is mind-bending, that is, when you can catch it. It exists for the most part in a distorted blur of unfettered punches—it’s easy to fall several steps behind. It might be forgivable by the pithy rhythm and intensity at which the words hit.

The synth-rock “Smock” touts slow, filtered drums and astounding tradeoff verbiage between Rob Sonic and Aesop Rock. In one of its skits, an anonymous man calls a woman, asking what she’s watching on television—she doesn’t know. It’s just the sort of preachy wake-up call the album is filled with. “Smock” is the bait of a one-two which thrashes home with “The Poconos”—classically aligned in its sampling, metal riff and cymbal sound, the piece is lent a boom-bap feel perfect for the fire spat over it.

The album climaxes toward the early middle, takes a tumble, then fades into unphenomenality. Strangely, the auspicious start of Are You Gonna Eat That? burns out by “Table Talk,” (albeit one of Aesop’s hottest tracks to date) and mellows by the last few tracks.

Hail Mary Mallon seems to have devoured all the consumerism and information overload of the modern age and projectile vomited it all out with Are You Gonna Eat That? Independent rappers should strive to make a gem-laden album. However, the thing taken as a whole is inconsistent, tangential and at times too muddled to be taken as anything more than self-indulgent showmanship.

Hail Mary Mallon Are You Gonna Eat That? Tracklist:

  1. “Church Pants”
  2. “Garfield”
  3. “Grubstake”
  4. “Meter Feeder”
  5. “Smock”
  6. “The Poconos”
  7. “Breakdance Beach”
  8. “Table Talk”
  9. “Mailbox Baseball”
  10. “Holy Driver”
  11. “Knievel”
  12. “Plagues and Bacon”
Fair-Ohs-LP-Everything-Is-Dancing-cover Fair Ohs – Everything Is Dancing

★★☆☆☆

Under the biography on the band’s Twitter page, Fair Ohs describe themselves as “like Paul Simon but… you know… punk.” Right. Part Simon & Garfunkel, part Ramones. Like part folk rock, part rebellious rock. It can be concluded that this description might be best taken as a joke. Neither are good comparisons for the band at all.

The sound on Fair Ohs’ new album Everything Is Dancing is one of a kind. It’s very current in the way that it sounds like the release from Wavves, that happened just a year ago. The noise is both foreign and familiar: A fun electric guitar picking sound with an Arabian twist on it. Not only is the music interesting but it’s eclectic. We don’t often get a taste of tunes like this.

It’s easy to see this album to serving as a good jam to enjoy while driving to work, when they put makeup on or as they go for a jog. The beats are fast and lively, never ceasing to pick up steam to reach the climax of every track. It makes for a mood where everything is progressive and constantly moving toward something great.

The songs work together greatly as a group. As an album, it follows the same energy from start to finish. Everything Is Dancing carries the same groove even when it slows; it just trades the pace for excitement, which is totally okay. “Baldessari” works well as an opener just as “Summer Lake” serves as the perfect final touch to a fascinating set. It’s just what becomes caught in the middle that brings down the cool qualities of Fair Ohs’ work.

The problem with every song following the same style is, at the end of the album, it leaves the listener craving something more. Everything Is Dancing is a straight 35-minute set of a lot of the same tunes set in different keys with different pitches.

Much of it could use a lift and a dash of fresh energy. The recycling of sounds, though unique, would become old if the record were listened to in repetition.

In the future, Fair Ohs might want to focus on sounding more professional. This record barely makes it as an effort taken seriously, especially as a new act, but many of the drum beats and background mixes on Everything Is Dancing are so alike that it’s easy to tell the difference in quality between them. Obviously the band didn’t create their songs using GarageBand, but sometimes it feels like they could’ve tried to get away with that in the background of some tracks.

Beachy tunes like this are always fun. It’s like a trip for the mind or a vacation for the ears. Maybe it’ll bring every person to their very own happy place. Perhaps the  simplicity in the work of Fair Ohs will bring them a solid liftoff point. The connection people make with this flow of music could really take them there or it could wallow and stay on the ground.

Fair Ohs – Everything Is Dancing Tracklist:

  1. “Baldessari”
  2. “Eden Rock”
  3. “Colours’
  4. “Yah”
  5. “Almost Island”
  6. “Everything Is Dancing”
  7. “Helio”
  8. “Katasraj”
  9. “Marie”
  10. “Summer Lake”
The Ettes - Wicked Will LP album cover The Ettes – Wicked Will

★★★☆☆

With Wicked Will, The Ettes get back to basics. Foregoing the expansion on their previous record, Do You Want Power, the group sticks to their garage punk revival sound. Musically, the Los Angeles trio can be likened to The Stooges and The Rolling Stones, with melodies that come across as a dark version of AM pop tunes. It doesn’t help that the group was a couple years late to the party, behind the surge of garage revival bands who got all of the attention. Nevertheless, The Ettes continue serve up their sound with confidence and grit and Wicked Will is a solid addition to their catalogue.

“Teeth,” a seething acoustic track, opens the album. Heaps of reverb and meticulous production give the piece a creepy, quiet menace as Lindsay “Coco” Hames asserts, “Every time you smile I can tell you’re just showing your teeth.” An ominous cloud looms over the song. There’s definitely a storm brewing.

And it’s not long before that storm strikes. “Excuse” is an angry, energetic number ushering in a fast-paced, raw and raging album. Fuzz bass and pounding drums drive the songs, riding on the same plane as Coco’s guitar, often drenched in vintage effects. Her vocals are assured and confrontational.

She has a lot of statements to make, and her tone makes that very clear.

And so do the track titles, among them “You Never Say,” “Trouble with You” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” though it’s not always quite as it seems. In the latter, for instance, Coco wants some hot lovin’, singing “I’m pretty sure you got what I need, boy. Don’t bring me down.” But she’s more than just pretty sure, and she’s not going to be brought down. The album carries that sort of attitude through its brisk run of 13 songs in just more than 30 minutes.

Liam Watson deserves some extra credit for his production work on this album. He only does what he needs to and nothing else. The kind of production that doesn’t make itself obvious. He gives the group an accurate old school tone with some seriously creepy reverb, often making Coco’s vocals sound sinister and more demanding of the listener’s attention, especially to whom the lyrics are directed.

Karen O and Nick Zinner have taken garage punk/rock revival thing to a whole other level with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—and they did it almost 10 years ago. Fever to Tell renders Wicked Will kind of tame and boring. But those interested in a simpler take with throwback qualities will find The Ettes’ latest right up their alley.

The Ettes – Wicked Will Tracklist:

  1. “Teeth”
  2. “Excuse”
  3. “The Pendulum”
  4. “You Were There”
  5. “My Heart”
  6. “You Never Say”
  7. “One By One”
  8. “Trouble With You”
  9. “Don’t Bring Me Down”
  10. “Stay Where You Are”
  11. “I Stayed Too Late”
  12. “My Baby Cried All Night Long”
  13. “Worst There Is”
Apollo-Brown-LP-Clouds-cover Apollo Brown – Clouds

★★★★☆

Be advised, rappers: Apollo Brown’s faire includes some of the most ingenuitive instrumentals available on the market. In a genre where borrowing is common and stealing is an expected part of the game, there’s a feeling of community among verse writers and beat makers. Not many producers have the audacity to put out an album composed solely of instrumentals and expect it to sell. This product though, is one that will attest to its own worth.

A Detroit native, Brown is part of a lineage that traces its origins to J Dilla with his jazz-hop and broken beats—a scene that has only silently exploded in the last decade or so. Make no mistake, there isn’t a shortage of glitched-out, jazzy or overdriven beat makers—they just haven’t been given the exposure that a million would-be “producers” have, relying on tired 808s, siren sounds and voice-altered hooks. In short, a million would-be Swizz Beatz. Nor is Brown in a class all of his own these days; his sounds are reminiscent of younger acts such as B. Lewis, Oddisee and Casual Women, who are not content to mash with contemporary “beats” releases.

Clouds begins with the laugh-out-loud yet genuine epigraph song, “Sound of Guns,” where a blue-eyed baritone croons, “Have you ever dreamed of a place/Far away from it all/Where the air you breathe is soft and clean/And children play in fields of green.” It may seem like an ironic sentiment, but the 26 songs that follow all seem to be a part of that world. Rather than concern himself with gangsterdom, Brown pans bizarrely into the pastoral, and the result works.

These aren’t just songs begging for a quick 16 bars, these are slow-tempo, grooving and contemplative loops. If they are as repetitive as a hip-hop beat, it only helps to instill the music in the listener’s mind—you don’t have to think about Clouds, it just happens.

Though Brown has put his name on previous efforts with MCs (on the albums Gas Mask and Study), his songs seem more open when not siphoned by a rapper’s verse into one interpretation. The exception would be “Shoot the Heart,” a sunny ballad that samples The Pharcyde for the hook, “I should quit chasin’ and look for something better/But the smile that she shows makes me a go-getter.”

This is a languid and breezy album, but never beyond head-bopping goodness.  Check out the jolty sampling on “The 11th Hour,” complete with booty bass.  Intricate and smooth textures line the album, on “Drinking Life,” a string sample balances on a minimalist synthesizer exploration, while a funky, descending rhythm section drives the thing along. It’s a bright, sunny yet soulful take on hip-hop from a producer who has no need to list his credentials.

If it is a bit bulky, a bit repetitive or without direction, Clouds at least succeeds atmospherically. If you don’t plan to rap over it, then you can at least plug in, tune out and dig its chill vibes.

Apollo Brown Clouds Tracklist:

  1. “Sound of Guns”
  2. “Blue Ruby”
  3. “Never in a Million Years”
  4. “Balance”
  5. “The 11thHour”
  6. “Wisdom”
  7. “Black Pearls”
  8. “Shoot the Heart”
  9. “Push”
  10. “One Chance”
  11. “Human Existence”
  12. “Know the Time”
  13. “Heirloom”
  14. “Seed of Memory”
  15. “Bridge Through Time”
  16. “Just Walk”
  17. “Shadows of Grief”
  18. “Time Passed Autumn”
  19. “Choices”
  20. “Father and Son”
  21. “A Conscious Breath”
  22. “Drinking Life”
  23. “Imagination”
  24. “Tao Te Ching”
  25. “Heart of Glass”
  26. “The Bagdad Sun”
  27. “A Day’s End”
Game-LP-The-Red-Album-cover Game – The R.E.D. Album

★★½☆☆

As his first effort in a number of years, The R.E.D. Album is meant to represent something of a comeback for gangster rapper Game, thanks to his renewed blessing from hip-hop heavyweight Dr. Dre. For the majority of his career, Game has relied on the premise that the good doctor had anointed him as the savior of West Coast hip-hop, despite the fact that Dre all but abandoned him after his debut LP, The Documentary.

Though it appears the two are back on good terms, Dre’s contributions are limited to a lackluster guest verse on the song “Drug Test” and a series of interludes in which he dictates the life and struggle of Game’s life-to-date. To put it simply, The R.E.D. Album is sorely missing Dre’s touch. Plenty of capable producers provide beats (including Pharrell Williams, DJ Premier and DJ Khalil, among them), but by and large, the album is musically indistinct.

Luckily, Game’s a pretty decent rapper—especially when he wants to be. The ferocity he shows on songs like “Ricky” and “Born in the Trap” is daunting, riding a dexterous flow and exploring the breadth of his lyrical capabilities.

The moments of prowess are fleeting, however. Unable to ride an entire album on his limited skills, Game enlists the help of radio rap’s all-star team, to decidedly diminished returns: Rick Ross and his typically boastful baws-ness appear on “Heavy Artillery”; Lil’ Wayne, who provides the hook for tracks “Martians Vs Goblins” and “R.E.D. Nation,” does what he does best and makes an appearance solely for the sake of making an appearance; and finally, Toronto’s golden boy Drake, whose popularity continues to defy his complete lack of skills as a rapper, as evident when he proclaims “I love your ass like Millhouse loves Lisa/I love your ass like the Ninja Turtles love pizza” on the song “Good Girls Gone Bad.”

Not all the cameos are worthless, however. Tyler, The Creator, head honcho of hip-hop’s perennial polemicists Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, raps alongside Game on “Martians Vs Goblins,” which finds the two LA natives taking shots at such varied individuals as LeBron James, Bruno Mars, Tyler Perry and Captain America. Meanwhile, notable newcomer Kendrick Lamar hops on the opener “The City.” Perhaps it’s due to the simple fact that both Tyler and Lamar have yet to saturate the landscape of hip-hop, but amid all the usual suspects, their contributions feel inventive and, most of all, unsullied.

Still, “The R.E.D. Album” remains a lethargic and often tedious experience. Clocking in at 21 tracks and 73 minutes, nobody in their right mind would have the patience to sit through the whole thing, particularly when Game begins to repeat himself (the ballads “Hello” and “All The Way Gone,” for instance, are completely indiscernible). Moreover, the Chris Brown-aided “Pot of Gold” is perhaps the album’s most disingenuous track, trying to shine a light of positivity on an album filled with dark themes. Contradictory is nothing new in hip-hop, but by the time the track comes around, it elicits nothing more than exasperation.

Yet Game trudges on. For better or worse.

Game – The R.E.D. Album Tracklist:

  1. “Dr. Dre Intro”
  2. “The City”
  3. “Drug Test”
  4. “Martians Vs Goblins”
  5. “Red Nation”
  6. “Dr. Dre 1″
  7. “Good Girls Go Bad”
  8. “Ricky”
  9. “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”
  10. “Heavy Artillery”
  11. “Paramedics”
  12. “Speakers On Blast”
  13. “Hello”
  14. “All The Way Gone”
  15. “Pot Of Gold”
  16. “Dr. Dre 2″
  17. “All I Know”
  18. “Born In The Trap”
  19. “Mama Knows”
  20. “California Dream”
  21. “Dr. Dre Outro”
Pictureplane-LP-Thee-Physical-cover Pictureplane – Thee Physical

★★★½☆

Thee Physical isn’t a concept album, but it is about as close to a musical philosophy or concept that listeners will get in their electronic music the rest of this summer. Lyrically, Thee Physical is a mix between a Philosophy 101 and Human Sexuality 101 courses, while at the same time sounding half tongue-in-cheek and witty enough to be fun and lighthearted with song names like “Trancegender.”

Thee Physical is not your average “electronic music for ecstasy people” album, because Pictureplane would be more likely to play a small venue than a 100,000 person drugged out dance floor and because there’s some sort of message behind the music and songs. It would make more sense to group Pictureplane with Nine Inch Nails than DJ Tiësto. Certain songs on the album tackle absurd and “out there” topics and concepts. For example, ffofo “Post Physical” tells the listener that Travis Egedy has a connection with someone so intense that they are “post physical” and don’t need to touch anymore to be so close. However songs like “Trancegender” don’t make much sense with lyrics like “You could be my boy/And I can be your girl/Trancegender/We can be trance,” that aren’t really backed up by why or how this can happen other than in a cheeky song. “Body Mods” is another example of the cheekiness with lines like “Look at us changing our reality/With our body mods.” However, the way Egedy and his female vocalist present these lines is what makes the listener able to take them without feeling like they’re doing something wrong. The setting of this dark electronic soundscape surrounding all the distorted vocals is the sugar coating the ridiculous lyrics need to not sound so, well, ridiculous.

Instrumentally however, Pictureplane’s newest feat is an amalgamation of 1990s R&B radio hits (Ace of Base, Real McCoy) with the female vocals and cheesy over-reverbed synths, mixed with conventions of the modern glitch genre with the strange chopped-up and screwed music and vocal samples, with a throwback to some 1980s industrial aesthetics such as with the heavily distorted vocals. The opening track “Body Mods” contains the album’s strongest melody hook and it isn’t even played by an instrument. Within 10 seconds of starting the album you’re attacked with a reversed and chopped up sample of a vocalist saying something indecipherable that has been meticulously edited out of the realm of human intonation and into the musical realm. Think of The Books, or the chorus of Missy Elliott’s “Work It,” which most likely got stuck in your head in 2002.

There are also slightly offbeat instrumental parts of Thee Physical that work at times and don’t at others.

In “Body Mods” the main rhythm keyboard riff throughout of the song is built upon (even that vocal sample) is slightly off in a glitch fashion, but it works. The rest of “Body Mods” doesn’t feel like it’s weird or that there is something wrong with it. However, during “Black Nails,” Pictureplane takes a similar approach by having a slightly askew keyboard melody start the song and build the rest of the song on that structure, and it works for the most part, especially again when the heavily chopped-up and sampled vocal clips come in. But around the two-thirds mark of the song Pictureplane attempts a “buildup” that you’d hear at a conventional rave/dub step show these days, but there are a few notes that are not only off beat, but throw the rest of the song off beat. There are some major technical difficulties that happened during the arrangement of “Black Nails” that aren’t “glitchy” but real mess ups.

However, this “human approach” to electronic music is also an underlying theme of Thee Physical, so maybe Pictureplane is fine with the album having some mistakes. It’s a shame that “Black Nails” could have been the album’s best song if it had some more time put into it, but again that is sort of the idea of the album. Maybe this “nothing is truly perfect without a little bit of imperfection” concept is blowing the minds of kids raving on ecstasy right now, but it won’t fool anyone who thinks about what these lyrics on the album are actually saying.

Pictureplane – Thee Physical Tracklist:

  1. “Body Mod”
  2. “Black Nails”
  3. “Sex Mechanism”
  4. “Touching Transform”
  5. “Post Physical”
  6. “Techno Fetish”
  7. “Real is a Feeling”
  8. “Trancegender”
  9. “Negative Slave”
  10. “Breath Work”
  11. “Thee Power Hand”
Braid-EP-Closer-to-Closed-cover Braid – Closer to Closed EP

★★★★☆

It’s been 13 years since Champaign, Illinois’ Braid released Frame & Canvas, an album that served simultaneously as quartet’s crowning achievement as well as its swan song. A 2004 reunion tour saw the group revisit its triumphs, but ultimately, it was nothing more than a victory lap. After seven years of silence, Braid returns with the four-song Closer To Closed EP, an effort comprising three new songs as well as a cover of singer/songwriter Jeff Hanson’s “You Are the Reason.”

Closer to Closed will certainly alienate fans who hoped the band would somehow rewrite “Capricorn,” but it feels like the place Braid would have ended up, had they stuck around for another decade. The interplay between guitarists/vocalists Bob Nanna and Chris Broach is as unique as it ever was, as they effortlessly meld angular riffs into something bouncy and borderline soothing.

Even though the group’s technicality was never in question, the vocal work on early records was characterized by off kilter approaches that worked only in the context of ’90s emo. On Closer To Closed, Nanna and Broach have streamlined their vocal styles, allowing for stunning performances without denigrating the raw emotion behind it. The Broach-lead opener “The Right Time” sees him trade in his desperate yelps and enthusiastic “yeah”s for pitch perfect execution backed by falsetto harmonies as it becomes the most accessible song in the band’s repertoire.

Braid’s impressive rhythm section made up of bassist Todd Bell and drummer Damon Atkinson proves to be just as strong as it was more than a decade ago.

Atkinson’s proficiency—as well as J. Robbins’ production—keeps the three-minute jam at the end of “Universe or Worse” from becoming grating, and his off-time fills give the song an air of danger—that its tightly wound melodies could come undone at any time.

After a lengthy recorded absence, Braid has not lost any of the charm that made it a standout act during its initial run. Instead, it has found a way to utilize its mid-’90s flares without merely rehashing them. Closer To Closed may not be as inspiring as the albums released during Braid’s heyday, but it suggests that the chemistry between the band members is as strong as it ever was.

Braid – Closer to Closed Tracklist:

  1. “The Right Time”
  2. “Do Over”
  3. “You Are the Reason” (Jaff Hanson Cover)
  4. “Universe or Worse”
Mates of State - Mountaintops album cover Mates of State – Mountaintops

★★☆☆☆

Mates of State often have a tendency of sounding whiney and immature when they reach the loudest or most focal point of the song. It’s easy to notice this pattern as the album progresses from beginning to end. By the fifth song, you might be wondering if it gets any better.

It really doesn’t. The same things happen at the end of Mountaintops that does in the beginning.  It doesn’t get worse; it simply stays at the same level.

Much of Mates of State’s work seems to be focused on the sound rather than the words. The words lack in substance, and it’s fortunate that Mountaintops is so bountiful in its mixing quality that it covers a bit of lost ground where there is an empty presence in songwriting charms. It’s cool how the group chooses to use drumstick beats and vocal rounds on Mountaintops to fill the back of the tracks.

What’s also neat is the juxtaposition of traditional instruments like acoustic guitar, bouncy piano and even horns with interesting electronic beats. There isn’t another act that can successfully pull off the combination of new and old, vintage and modern, and do it so well.

Take for example early jam “Sway.” It’s a light and lively song that’s sure to get anybody in the right mood. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel switch off in taking lines and ultimately come together to make magic when their voices trail together making harmonies. When this happens, all is right in every aspect of musical greatness.

The lyrical work, contrarily, remains very simplistic and juvenile.  Many of the tunes are too light and feathery in their mood to the point where it could be mistaken for children’s music. “Total Serendipity” speaks of “marigolds growing between toes” and “pots of gold sitting at the rainbow’s edge.”

It’s quite like eating candy for supper: indulging in such peppy tunes for a full set is sure to cause a stomachache before the end of the album.

The other two greatest songs on the album fall toward the end. “At Least I Have You” is a fast-paced ode to one another. It features chiming anthem type of backings and becomes very wonderful in its message when the bridge includes chipper “la la la la”s that completes the effect of the song precisely.

A slower indie pop track is titled “Desire,” a melancholy story of differences in love. When the female vocalist chimes, she is innocent and tame. When the man sings, he is upset and dangerous. We, as listeners, feel two things at once even though they are singing the same lyric. This is a rare moment of excellence on Mountaintops.

The usual Mates of State sort of husband-wife harmonies actually get very old once the listener is able to catch onto the repetition. Listening in black and white, it’s just an indie duo with a fancy for electronic beats and a way of finding space for both piano and guitar to complete the effect. Aside from a little bit of experimental variation, this same kind of music is all that they’ve done since their start as an act in 1997. Maybe it’s time Mates of State rethink their musical strategy, because although they’re trying to keep up, their efforts are mostly outdated and underwhelming.

Mates of State – Mountaintops tracklist:

  1.  ”Palomino”
  2. “Maracas”
  3. “Sway”
  4. “Unless I’m Led”
  5. “Total Serendipity”
  6. “Basement Money”
  7. “At Least I Have You”
  8. “Desire”
  9. “Changes”
  10. “Mistakes”
Portugal-The-Man-LP-In-The-Mountain-In-The-Cloud-cover Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain In The Cloud

★★★★☆

Portugal. The Man is an assemblage of freaky, psychedelic melody makers who have been hovering around the music world for damn near a decade. Their sound bears no equal, their stage presence is captivating and their latest record, In The Mountain In The Cloud, is at a caliber to be considered a torch passed on from acts like The Flaming Lips. Every track on Portugal’s latest record screams depth and intensity.   Since their move to Atlantic Records last year, they’ve crossed a barrier where their sound is more refined and their presence on the scene is bigger.

They never seemed like the type of band who would need to make the hurdle to a big label like Atlantic: they’ve already got a robust fan base, their earlier works  usually fair well within rock and other experimental cliques, and they have no real heartburn with early leaks of their albums—something major labels have zero tolerance for. All things considered, it is a good fit thus far and has yielded some serious success for the band from Portland, Ore., by way of Alaska.

This album is completely overcome with strains that it’s easy to stroll through the record exclusively without giving the lyrics a second thought. One could just sing along to the choruses and have a blast while doing so.  The untried rhythms are catchy and the flow conjures feelings of exasperation through high energy and profound thought.

The most intriguing part of In The Mountain In The Cloud  is the poetic leitmotifs and their place within the music. All of these songs have a chorus that one can sing along to. They are blissful and even victorious. But when one actually thinks about the lyrics, they give an air of someone unsure of themselves, like in the tune “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now),” or even a little lost in the world, such as in the song “Senseless.”

Their big label polished sound comes out in this album, though. Their responsiveness toward a more pop-driven sound is still here but cultured enough to prove this is the next step in Portugal’s collection.

Censored Colors was steered into the prog-rock genre, while The Satanic Satanist was a tried, tested and true psychedelic record, their latest effort indisputably has a Bowie-esque appeal to it through and through.

“All Your Light (Times Like These)” is a fantastic tune in this creation that defines an unstoppable future for Portugal. The Man. They’ve made seven albums in six years, which is an impressive résumé for such a growing mainstay in the psychedelic/experimental genre.  With each year of recording, their panache changes and their sound morphs into a clearer aural concept.

There is always a moment when a killer band such as Portugal. The Man signs with a major label where fans hold their breath. The expectations are higher from the label and thus throw a band with a good thing going off track. Luckily, Portugal has made the transition in stride and has maintained a base of excellent talent and style and has transformed their sound in a perfectly progressive way. There is no doubt that any future endeavor in the studio will yield equally as impressive results.

Portugal. The Man – In The Mountain In The Cloud Tracklist:

  1. “So American”
  2. “Floating (Time Isn’t Working My Side)”
  3. “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”
  4. “Senseless”
  5. “Head Is A Flame (Cool With It)”
  6. “You Carried Us (Share With Me The Sun)”
  7. “Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs)”
  8. “All Your Light (Times Like These)”
  9. “Once Was One”
  10. “Share With Me The Sun”
  11. “Sleep Forever”
Kangding-Ray-LP-OR-cover Kangding Ray – OR

★★★½☆

French native, David Letellier, better known as Kangding Ray, has crafted another melodically creepy album released on German electro label Raster-Noton with too much intensity to handle. Well, almost.

Eerily layered synth beats dance around heart-pounding bass lines and repetitive loops of distortion blend into the heavily textured, OR, a colder follow-up to Automne Fold, released in 2008, and Stabil in 2006.

Through mixing real guitar lines and drum beats with machines, the now Berlin-based Kangding Ray creates an atmospheric soundtrack with depth and darkness that will challenge the eardrums in any case. To the electronic virgin or the seasoned veteran, OR is strangely addictive.

Like a sci-fi thriller, Kangding Ray adventures through the psyche with ups and downs, side-to-sides and turns every which-way to confuse and stimulate. Does it work? Well, yes. The intrigue is taunting; as if the brain is baffled and in need of resolution.

In the opening track, “Athem,” Letellier is a minimalist-turned-electro guru as the track expands through clicks, glitches and hauntingly sparse lyrics. Depth is added through arrhythmic sound bites layered precisely atop one another.

With influences of jazz, dub step and noise-rock, Kangding Ray finds ways to blend music into a genre seemingly his own.

By using his extroverted political stances, emotion is created in what is usually known as an emotionless genre. In past compositions, KR has protested against expansion of nuclear reprocessing plants, strived for immigrant rights and contributed to memorial events. Unlike most electronic musicians featured by Raster-Noton, Kangding Ray coats his synthesizer with thoughts of cultural struggle.

This is not music to listen to on a sunny day. The beats pulse through your veins, just aching to come out. Kangding Ray is a genius in this sort. He insures that his listeners don’t just listen to the music; it becomes a soundtrack.

Kangding Ray – OR Tracklist:

  1. “Athem”
  2. “Mojave”
  3. “Odd Sympathy”
  4. “Pruitt Igoe (Or Version)”
  5. “Or”
  6. “Mirrors”
  7. “Coracoid Process”
  8. “En Amaryllis Jour”
  9. “Leavailia Scheme”
  10. “Monsters”
  11. “La Belle”
Grails-LP-Deep-Politics-cover Grails – Deep Politics

★★★★☆

Taking a kaleidoscopic stance on post-rock, Portland-based Grails boast a sound that can easily be described as diverse, though such a description would only begin to scratch the surface. Throughout their career—which started earnestly in 1999—the band has amassed dozens of LPs, each one covering a myriad of sounds and styles.

But while the band may incorporate a number of genres—everything ranging from metal to country to Indian—they’ve consistently found their footing in psychedelia, integrating spaced-out soundscapes into more traditional foundations.

Their latest effort, Deep Politics, continues this approach, with typically sterling results. As ambitious as it is ominous, the album is a difficult yet rewarding foray into an aural mishmash and ranks among the band’s most masterful works to date.

The best of instrumental music opens itself up to be as eclectic as possible. Grails, thankfully, does its best to eschew any formality in favor of a varied and multi-textured sound.

The album boasts a decidedly cinematic aesthetic. Each track paints a vivid picture, as if each one ought to be paired with a particular film genre. “All The Colors of the Dark,” for example, is a clever send up of the soundtrack that accompanies an Italian giallo film of the same name. Bruno Nicolai, an Italian composer, was something of an apprentice to the legendry Ennio Morricone, who scored such classic films as “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

More than anything, it’s Morricone’s signature touch that seems to finds its way onto most of Deep Politics, with songs like “I Led Three Lives” and the closer “Deep Snow” sounding like they’re taken straight from an acid-washed spaghetti western. The music conjures up images of dusty trails and rolling tumbleweed, of whiskey shots and rusty pistols: in other words, it’s mood music, set to distinctly recognizable iconography.

However, the band doesn’t adhere strictly to this method. Though the go-to tactic is clearly twangy guitars and rolling percussions, there are more tedious elements of glacial sludge metal (“Future Primitive”) and brooding techno music (“Daughter of Bilitis”).

The album teeters on incoherent in spurts—especially when attempting to incorporate elements of Eastern-influenced psych, Ravi Shankar style—but by and large, Grails do an exceptional job of not forcing anything, letting seemingly incongruous textures coexist best as possible.

There’s an organic quality to Deep Politics that keeps the album fluid. It ebbs and flows nicely, rarely sticking on a single idea for too long. Structurally, it follows a typical loud-quiet-loud composition, but the shifts in tone, even when abrupt, seem to come at the most sensible moment. Save for a few examples that lead to speculative head scratching (like the second half of “I Led Three Lives” and the snaky guitar riffs on the spaced-out “Corridors of Power”) the album possesses a kind of organized chaos.

But that’s precisely the point. On Deep Politics, Grails have created an album that accurately be labeled as an experience: that rare kind of “headphones album” that seems to necessitate a dark room and a few lit candles. Even during its more aggravating moments, patience is rewarded with another breathtakingly symphonic blast of noise that cuts through the tension.

Deep Politics is an album that requires rapt attention and repeat listens.

Grails – Deep Politics Tracklist:

  1. “Future Primitive”
  2. “All the Colors of the Dark”
  3. “Corridors of Power”
  4. “Deep Politics”
  5. “Daughters of Bilitis”
  6. “Almost Grew My Hair”
  7. “I Led Three Lives”