Shadows The New Division – Shadows

★★½☆☆

If there’s nothing original left to say, is there really a point to saying it?

The New Division obviously owes a debt to New Order and its predecessor, Joy Division, but on Shadows, the band sounds more like The New Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Here’s another group for whom the 1990s never happened, with a synthy, boppy bed and glitchy electronic drums to dance upon and echoey tenor vocals laid across the top. In short, director John Hughes (Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles, etc.) may be dead, but music inspired by soundtracks to his films is definitely not.

In fact, “post-new-wave” music is a relatively recent development. From the dance party craziness of Chromeo and Black Kids to the mournful faux-goth electro leanings of Washed Out and Besnard Lakes, inspirations have been drawn from the electronic approach of synth provocateurs such as Depeche Mode, Erasure and even ’80s pretty boys Duran Duran.

The New Division clearly has never met a music trope from the 1980s that it didn’t like, so, on “shallow play” one can hear the electropop sound of Tears For Fears in the milieu of the space-rock ambiance of A Flock of Seagulls. “Violent” begins with such a Yaz moment that one half-expects to bump into Alison Moyet Upstairs at Eric’s, but it clearly reduces its aspirations to The Fixx doing soundtrack music.  Where is Michael Pare to save the day when this post-apocalyptic soundstage needs a hero?

The opening cut sounds like it could have been a New Order b-side or a Camouflage cut lost in the annals of time.

“Hearts For Sale” even introduces some screamadelica-licious back-beat-addicted rhythms a la Primal Scream or their Madchester homies The Stone Roses, along with crafting an atmosphere reminiscent of the latter’s “I Wanna Be Adored.”

“True Lies” provides a basis for connecting 80s ethereal guitar/synthpop auteurs Cocteau Twins to today’s Besnard Lakes, with the electronic rhythmic intricacy of the former and the soaring, falsetto Beach Boys-like vocals of the latter.  Regrettably, the song only appears to relate thematically to the James Cameron-Arnold Schwarzenegger spend-athon.

“Munich” might as well be set in “China” for all of its similarity to the Red Rockers’ song of that name, although a certain sonic similarity to Norwegian songsmiths of the ’80s A-Ha can’t be denied either (this is also noticeable toward the end of the song “Sense”).

One can actually picture The Breakfast Club dancing across high school desks to “Sense,” or a dream sequence between Molly Ringwald and Jake Ryan. Or maybe she just wants to run downtown to meet Ducky at the record store. The compellingly jangly guitar line that kicks in with some 90 seconds to go comes close to redeeming it, but it quickly comes back to its “senses” and introduces a synthesizer bed, programmed drums and whooping falsetto vox.

Curiously enough, the title track is little more than an instrumental transition, but perhaps members of The New Division selected this name as their title to indicate the ambient through-line they are trying to project.  Despite the lyrics of “Soft,” it’s clear that what they have “all figured out” is OMD’s “Enola Gay.”

At the end of these 14 synthpop confections, The New Division bring to mind a line from Detective Frank Drebin (as played by Leslie Nielsen) in The Naked Gun: “It’s like eating a spoonful of Drano. Sure, it’ll clean you out, but it’ll leave you hollow inside.”  Shadows is merely a collection of shadows from the past, a clearinghouse of the synthesized past that only can result in a future of hollowness.

The New Division – Shadows tracklist:

  1. “Opium”
  2. “Shallow Play”
  3. “Sense”
  4. “Shadows”
  5. “Violent”
  6. “Soft”
  7. “Munich”
  8. “True Lies”
  9. “LA Noire”
  10. “Hearts for Sale”
  11. “Special”
  12. “Memento”
  13. “Shadows II”
  14. “Saturday Night”
Zola Jesus - Conatus Zola Jesus – Conatus

★★★☆☆

From the dark and eerie depths of experimental, indie goth electronica comes Zola Jesus—aka Nika Roza Danilova—here releasing her third studio album, Conatus. Zola Jesus has come to resent the idea of her music being coined as “goth rock,” but because of the creepy tension between languid string instruments, straight industrial percussion, and Danilova’s haunted vocals within each and every song on this extremely cohesive album, the continued application of that term in describing her music is pretty inevitable.

Constantly teetering just on the edge of approachability, Danilova toys with the notion of pop music by spreading strange details throughout Conatus. There is constant warping and pitch-bending in all of the strings, while Zola Jesus’ voice anchors the melodic element of her songwriting with her strong, throaty, Florence Welch-like singing. In fact, she seems to have adopted that strength within the density of the vocals behind Florence and the Machine, but she added her own unique darkness to the sound that has led to a style that is very much her own. She will dwell on one melody for the length of a song, but the melody tends to push the boundaries of what pop music would consider comfortable.

As lush as it is, the voice of Zola Jesus does not seem important to her as a songwriter—not so much as the experience of an entire song in all of its unsettling contradictions and differences in texture. Take the steady vocals on “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake” in comparison to the ghostly harmonica that wails in the background. Through this simple willingness for her voice to take part in the song as opposed to soaring on top and in front of it, Danilova creates an entirely new atmosphere. The song seems less like a separate song in the album than it does a crucial element to a larger, darker idea.

While this gothic sound is maintained impressively throughout Conatus, the consistency of the ghostly melodies, after a while, forces them to approach predictability.

This, again, makes for a worthwhile listening experience, but it is more a larger experience of a dark, electro drama than a traditional listening experience in which listeners will return to individual songs that tugged at very specific strings within their hearts. This is not a collection of confessions or remembrances; the album itself is the remembrance.

On songs such as “Seekir” and “Shivers,” slightly stronger melodies emerge, allowing her voice to come farther forward in the mix and convey some individuality within the album. But these hints of uniqueness are very slight, not pushing the boundaries of Zola Jesus so much as the boundaries of genre itself.

Danilova has said that she aims for mammoth, sweeping sounds in her music so her listeners might enjoy being enraptured in it. She certainly has achieved this goal in the project of Zola Jesus. Trickier answers come into play, however, when the question arises of just how far—and for how long—this type of hypnotization can travel in the realm of music.

Zola Jesus – Conatus tracklist:

  1. “Swords”
  2. “Avalanche”
  3. “Vessel”
  4. “Hikikomori”
  5. “Ixode”
  6. “Seekir”
  7. “In Your Nature”
  8. “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake”
  9. “Shivers”
  10. “Skin”
  11. “Collapse”
Bjork - Biophilia Björk – Biophilia

★★★★☆

Ambition is fascinating to encounter. It seems the most ambitious projects are taken upon by the most free-spirited beings among us, those who have the ability to allow their inherent personal mysteries to flourish and discover, acknowledge and somehow surpass the limits of the self. It will not take much bending of arms to get music lovers to agree that Björk qualifies as one of these beings.

Four years since her last album release, Björk has returned with her unmistakably brutal force on Biophilia. Featuring numerous specialized instruments, high drama, complex harmonies and time signatures, a Tesla coil, a fusion of science and art, and Björk’s heady lioness voice, the album is nothing if not a work of purely grand art. And oh, yeah, it’s also the world’s first iPad application album, meaning the fusion of science and art is so central to the album’s guts that Björk created 10 apps (one for each track) alongside interactive artist, Scott Snibbe, to further enhance the album’s overall concept and allow listeners to contribute to the creative process.

Take “Virus,” for example, one of the album’s more melodically approachable masterpieces. Featuring the crystal-like clinking of a gameleste, a harp- and xylophonelike instrument specifically created for Biophilia, the piece describes the fatal love story between cell and virus. App users will try to stop the virus’s attack, but this will stop the song from ever finishing; the virus must be allowed to ride out its destiny as the lyrics narrate it. “Like a virus/patient hunter/I’m waiting for you/I’m starving for you … My sweet adversary.”

But interactive app-play apparently was not enough for Björk, a lady who rests on exactly zero laurels. Beyond the apps, each song’s musical structure or theme also corresponds to its title, a scientific phenomenon in some capacity. The album’s mystifying opening track, “Moon,” for example—reminiscent of a slightly more languid Joanna Newsom—operates musically based on cycles and sequences, à la—yep, you got it—Lunar cycles. “Crystalline,” released as the album’s first single, is based on structure itself, featuring dense chords (again on the gameleste) that change frequently as Björk narrates: “Listen how they grow.” “Dark Matter” plays with musical particles via scales, resulting in gothic and bafflingly complex melodies that vibrate over low, muted, and quaky organ tones. “Thunderbolt” is where the Tesla coil comes into play with real captured lightning.

Produced entirely by Björk herself (minus one collaboration with 16bit on “Crystalline”), Biophilia is not so much an entirely listenable album as it is a hallmark of gall and the type of creativity that only can be harvested by the most brave, intelligent and wonderfully childlike among us.

The woman deserves to be praised relentlessly for these qualities, and she has been thus far in her career. In an era that bullies technology for destroying the album as a conceptual work of art, Björk marches on full-steam ahead whether you’re with her or not.

Since the woman is nuts enough to take on a 17/8 time signature on this album more than once, maybe give in to her just a little bit and see what you discover. Her Biophilia virus must be allowed to ride out its destiny, right? Just try to leave the swan dress behind for now. You can at least try.

Björk – Biophilia tracklist:

  1. “Moon”
  2. “Thunderbolt”
  3. “Crystalline”
  4. “Cosmogony”
  5. “Dark Matter”
  6. “Hollow”
  7. “Virus”
  8. “Sacrifice”
  9. “Mutual Core”
  10. “Solstice”
wise blood these wings album cover Wise Blood – These Wings

★★★★☆

It’s not often that one can go into an album with a blind listen. It’s extremely rare, yet it can be incredibly exciting for the listener. In the case of Wise Blood’s EP, These Wings, many have no expectations or preconceived notions, so it’s safe to say it will live up to all of them.

After a few listens, it’s still difficult to have a firm grasp on how to classify Christopher Laufman’s soulful sampling and head-nodding music. He declared himself a “sample warlock.” Initial impressions might be that if The Weeknd were a 21-year-old white kid from Pittsburgh who, instead of slyly seducing every woman from here to Canada, had indie-sensibilities and wore his heart on his sleeve, all while harboring deep, dark aspirations of something more, this is the kind of music he would make.

Whatever the comparison may be, These Wings is dope.

The samples, claps and horns mixed with the falsetto shouldn’t work, but they more than do. The hypnotizing beats and thought-provoking lyrics combine for an interesting seven-track, 17-minute journey.

The EP kicks off with “Fantasize,” a short prelude for what’s to come. Laufman doesn’t waste any of the one minute and 40 seconds allotted for the track, as he goes right for the lyrical jugular. “I guess I’m looking at the sky waiting for stars to align/It gets harder to sleep when you start losing your mind … You should never trust a kid that acts like me,” is a bold opening statement. Bordering the fine line between optimism and self-deprecation, it hints to this young man’s lyrical capabilities.

On “Darlin’ You’re Sweet,” Wise Blood slows things down a little with a reversed organ sample and jagged piano keys. This sets the backdrop for a heart-breaking anthem where Laufman takes the blame for the follies of the relationship, while clearly fighting the desire to hold on and wanting to do right for the both of them. “You need someone secure, who can give you more than I know that I can. I need someone who won’t fade when I go insane and I can’t stand, don’t think that you can.”

When he gets to the “The Lion,” Laufman surprises the listener yet again. After almost convincing ears that they’ve got him pegged, he breaks out a tuba sample that accompanies a poppy, soul-clapping beat. It’s a short trip into his egotistical side, where he talks about taking over the world in a prideful manner.

“I’m shooting for the moon,” he shyly says on the last track, “Penthouse Suites,” where it’s shown, once again, that Laufman has the highest aspirations but is not sure if he can reach them. “Just let me know this life is what I deserve.”

These Wings is a solid introduction to anyone not familiar with Wise Blood and clearly enough to cleanse the palate for those fans anticipating a full-length release.  None will have him pegged 100 percent, but Laufman definitely has found a home on many iPods for the foreseeable future.

Wise Blood – These Wings tracklist:

  1. “Fantasize”
  2. “Darlin’ You’re Sweet”
  3. “Loud Mouths”
  4. “I’m Losing My Mind”
  5. “Nosferatu”
  6. “The Lion”
  7. “Penthouse Suites”
Modeselektor - Monkeytown Modeselektor – Monkeytown

★★★½☆

Modeselektor’s persistence on refuting generic labels reaches full force in its latest album, Monkeytown. The collection pulls together sonic resources within the dance music realm, however, its content exceeds simply electronic and techno vibes. Fusing hip-hop rhymes, soothing R&B, punk-rap and fanciful quirks into respective tracks makes for a unique, although not entirely cohesive, album. Despite the eclectic nature of Monkeytown as a whole, Modeselektor’s varied approach lends itself to an immense construction of tension, whether that tension is welcomed or not.

Although genre bending seems suitable for the Berlin duo’s style, Monkeytown’s playful energy is, in part, the result of unique collaborations with outside vocalists and rappers. Originally, Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary planned for a purely instrumental album. However, their decision to include a third element, the voice, expanded Modeselektor’s potential to chop, screw, and layer vocal tracks in appropriate places, thus developing their diverse sound further.

Thom Yorke’s appearance on “Shipwrecked” and “This” is unmistakable since Radiohead’s output is easy to detect, but through the segmentation of Yorke’s vocals, Modeselektor gives his softhearted lyrics greater emotional depth. “Shipwrecked” is immensely hypnotic, largely because of its ambient undertones, while the latter track relies on echoed swells and Yorke’s rolling lyrics to saturate the listener.

Among the 11-song feat, “Pretentious Friends” stands out for its heavy rap orientation, kinky basslines, and squiggly synths. L.A. native Busdriver provides his egotistical rhymes on the track, and the sonic filters, squeaks and warps that Modeselektor applies to his lyrics carry the output onto the dance floor. “Humanized” is a rather horrifying take on the rap game as it utilizes eerie vibrations that sound as though they are emitted from space, while Anti Pop Consortium’s blank, straightforward chorus depicts unsettling imagery.

Another track that maintains a cohesive motive is Miss Platinum’s appearance on “Berlin,” where her soulful, natural voice is melded against chopped harmonies in the hook. The gravity of songs such as “German Clap” and “Evil Twin” differ from the aforementioned singles because within each, genre diversity and experimentation take a front seat. ”German Twin,” in particular, flirts with funky U.K. rhythms but adds its own twist with ascending synth chords contradicting descending, bubbly bass.

Overall, Monkeytown is an extensive, almost overreaching collection that isn’t as accessible as many of its contemporaries.

As a whole, the album comes off rather scattered in its attempts to reach a particular audience, and it might be received as experimentation that has gone a bit too far. Nonetheless, although its disorientation has the potential to confuse and sour some listeners’ appreciation, the mixture of Modeselektor’s approach and its playful nature as a party disc renders it worth a listen—especially if that listen is under bright, flashing lights on the dance floor.

Modeskeletor – Monkeytown tracklist:

  1. “Blue Clouds”
  2. “Pretentious Friends”
  3. “Shipwreck”
  4. “Evil Twin”
  5. “German Clap”
  6. “Berlin”
  7. “Grillwalker”
  8. “Green Light Go”
  9. “Humanized”
  10. “This”
  11. “War Cry”
Twin Sister - In Heaven Twin Sister – In Heaven

★★½☆☆

There are some bands that rip one’s heart into pieces and leave a person inwardly sobbing, thanking the unknowable forces above and below for allowing humans to revel in the experience of listening. And there are other bands that are great for, say, Sofia Coppola films.

Long Island-based Twin Sister has been getting some good buzz as of late, which is slightly disconcerting. Based on their latest release, In Heaven, it seems as though they belong more in the latter category—certainly not the first.

Coppola’s films are wonderful. They’re dreamy, lush, other-worldly, highly self-contained and slightly repressed in an exciting way, with just the perfect amounts of silence and oddness. Her music choices add a significant amount to the aura of her films; the subdued shoegaze quality of her soundtracks have helped to solidify her highly specific tone as auteur. Twin Sister has a lot of those same good qualities—they, too, are dreamy, lush, repressed and ripe for cultivating dazes—but the extent of their simplicity is, frankly, a little boring.

In Heaven is nothing if not simple. The percussion is straight and on-the-beat in every single song, and the instrumental details are sparse and small-sounding. The vocals (from both lead singer Andrea Estella and singer/guitarist Eric Cardona) are ­equally small and close to us and have the quality that is the exact opposite of vibrato. Not that they don’t do this well—Twin Sister sounds confident in their pillowy basicness, à la Sneaker Pimps, The Radio Dept. or Cocteau Twins. There are some lovely moments on this album, such as the sustained soft vocals, inward intensity and ethereal harmonies on “Kimmi in a Rice Field,” a song that sounds a bit like Sigur Ros’ more structurally basic moments.

One element that sets In Heaven apart—and not in a great way—is the addition of camp on top of this sleepy, kewpie-doll rock.

Twin Sister has some kitschy disco that shows up relatively often on this album, which is presumably meant to be endearing in a hip and/or conscious way, but instead leads to some flat, sometimes lackluster territory. Paired with its own restraint, the kitsch often forces Twin Sister to sound like an opening jam band in a jazz funk club on a slow Monday night. This feeling is most recognizable in a piece such as “Bad Street,” which features such static lyrics as “Bad house/Bad street/Big hands/Big feet/Got a car/Big big/Bad boy/Bad streak.”

The one song that even slightly approached a little much-needed chaos is “Spain,” the middle of which features some dysfunction, raw melodic emotion and—finally—lack of restraint. That’s good news for a song that would otherwise have remained all too reminiscent of a James Bond theme song—female kitten voice and all—minus the arousal.

Again, aura of dazed simplicity is one Twin Sister does pretty well. The slow, peaceful ending to “Eastern Green”—and thus the entire album—is gorgeous, featuring whispers of vocals, piano, bass, guitar and quiet windy effects. It seems very likely, though, that Twin Sister will turn out to be a band we’ll admit to knowing and liking while we confidently nod and shrug to one another. We might even go to a show of theirs and say it was a solid one, but our hearts, our lives, and our feelings will remain unharmed, and thus ultimately unfixed. In other words, In Heaven is put together well and definitely is what it set out to be, but if you’re seeking out sounds to feel and react to viscerally, do not be surprised when not much of anything happens at all.

Twin Sister – In Heaven tracklist:

  1. “Daniel”
  2. “Stop”
  3. “Bad Street”
  4. “Space Babe”
  5. “Kimmi in a Rice Field”
  6. “Luna’s Theme”
  7. “Spain”
  8. “Gene Ciampi”
  9. “Saturday Sunday”
  10. “Eastern Green”
Veronica-Falls-LP-st-cover Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls

★★★★★

Every once in a while, one stumbles across a record that is totally unheralded and yet somehow hits all the listener’s sweet spots. With the caveat that those “sweet spots” are highly subjective, this is such an album. The 12 songs here have sprung forth so fully formed and self-assured that one could mistake them for a veteran act lost in the wrinkles of time and tinnitus. And yet, their approach is so meek, so unassuming, so effortlessly twee, yet brimming with hushed intensity, that it’s clear one could pass them on a Milwaukee street corner and not even bat an eye. What a shame that would be.

The record starts strong and only gets better.  Thankfully, New York’s Captured Tracks label didn’t pass them up on the cyber-street-corner, as they signed Veronica Falls to release their first single 10 minutes after the band launched their Myspace page. That first single, “Found Love in a Graveyard,” could in one sense serve as Veronica Falls’ manifesto and kicks off the London quartet’s first long-player. Given the opening notes, it would be easy to mistake them for retro-goth cellar-dwellers, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Rather, their winsome melodies sparkle and shine like a silver stream sparkling on a sunny, crisp autumn day. Sure, there’s a ghostly chill and a sense that winter is soon coming, but for now, all is lovely, if spooky.

Could “The Fountain” be a female-framed response to The Smiths’ “Reel Around The Fountain,” or is it an argument to refuse The Wedding Present’s Take Fountain? The plea to “Stephen” is girded by a Nirvana-like bassline, but it has Helium highs built upon it, whereas its successor, “Beachy Head,” sounds like Beat Happening’s  “Bad Seeds” on meth. Veronica Falls are bold, too—they don’t have to bring on Peter Buck as a contributor (like The Decemberists did) to borrow a page from R.E.M.’s “Talk About The Passion” on the track they name for themselves (although they end up sounding like a less-strident version of The Shangri-Las filtered through The Primitives). Nor do they apologize for sounding like Galaxie 500 doing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” at the beginning of the next cut, the closer “Come On Over.” Once it gets going, they break into a jangly distort-gallop a la The Raveonettes with Beach Boys-like backing vocals. There could not be more perfect (and seasonally fitting) prequel to the lounging wintry cheesiness of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” than this, and throughout, it’s clear thematically that there could not be a better soundtrack to fall than Veronica Falls.

Simply put, the pace is sometimes shambling, the backbeats pulsate, the soprano vocals with tenor backing enunciate and swoon, and this is perfect power pop for today’s “now” indie-rock kid.

There are antecedents, without question. Imagine if the Cannanes had made the record everyone always hoped for, if Lush had done Spooky with acoustic guitars, or if The Pains of Being Pure At Heart did an MTV Unplugged, if Black Tambourine hadn’t been relegated to the “influence” bin, or if Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose and the Outs all made their best records. What if The Pastels were still around, The Bangles were still on a tiny indie label, or if The Velvet Underground had decided to continue and had somehow magically morphed into Camera Obscura?

That such an unknown ensemble could assemble such a sweet relish tray of succulent delights with a traditional guitar-bass-drums lineup, using Beach Boys harmonies and the sonic structures first erected by auteurs such as Phil Spector, more than 10 years into the 21st century is a testament to the strength of their sterling songwriting and wholly remarkable, hook-laden melodies.

Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls tracklist:

  1. “Found Love in a Graveyard”
  2. “Right Side of My Brain”
  3. “The Fountain”
  4. “Misery”
  5. “Bad Feeling”
  6. “Stephen”
  7. “Beachy Head”
  8. “All Eyes on You”
  9. “The Box”
  10. “Wedding Day”
  11. “Veronica Falls”
  12. “Come on Over”
tha carter iv album cover Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV

★★½☆☆

Before this review begins, the following point must be made: Lil Wayne is not the best rapper alive.

Somewhere between coining “Bling, Bling” on fellow Hot Boy B.G.’s smash hit and heading to Rikers for a little gun-aided vacation, Lil Wayne was thrown onto the short list of the best living MCs. His rabid fan base, tireless work ethic, knack for churning out radio smashes, and moving product off the shelves all have been contributing factors to his inclusion in the pantheon of rhyme spitters. But does he have the skills to be mentioned in the same breath as the greats?

No.

His flow’s decent, but the content is just not there; when listening to Tha Carter IV, it’s hard to separate that.

If he weren’t touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread, it might be possible to contextualize his music differently. If he were compared more to Jeezy than Jigga, one might have a more positive outlook on the long-awaited (and incarceration-delayed) album.

There are bright spots on the album, for sure. It starts off with horns and claps that let Wayne do what he does: spit a few bars of nonsensical metaphors in a cocky drawl. “Blunt Blowin,” “Six Foot, Seven Foot” and “Megaman” are more of the same with Wayne attacking the tracks and adding some catchy hooks certain to be heard blaring out of car windows for the foreseeable future.

Things are running pretty smoothly, until “Nightmares of the Bottom” happens, and things take a drastic turn to terrible and inconsistent. T-Pain returns from the land of Auto-Tune to add a regrettable hook to “She Will.” John Legend has a turn on “So Special,” but Wayne’s rhymes are so confusing that one might even start to wonder whether Legend knows where he’s going with this next line. “Abortion” is a forgettable, nondescript three-and-a-half-minute-long metaphor. “How to Love” is surprisingly touching but really awkward, so of course it became the No. 1 song in the country. Finally, the buzz track, “It’s Good,” features the infamous Jay-Z diss.

Ironically, the highlights of his own album are when Wayne steps away from the mic. Nas, Tech N9ne, a surprise appearance from former Bad Boy/inmate Shyne, Bun-B, Busta Rhymes and Possum Allawishes Jenkins himself, Outkast’s Andre 3000, all deliver bar after bar of perfection in their own individual styles. However, what makes their verses interesting is that they all make sure to give credit to the name on the album cover. It’s obvious that Wayne has the respect of his peers.

Does Tha Carter IV suck? Not really. Is Tha Carter IV good? Not really. Wayne fans are still going to bump it, while hip-hop heads are going to shoot down G.O.A.T. mentions. Tha Carter IV’s hype might have led the listener to believe that it would blur those lines. It didn’t and it will forever be confusing as to how the 14-year-old kid whose mom didn’t let him curse on records became the biggest enigma in rap. But, somehow the volume always seems to go up just a tad when that “Six Foot, Seven Foot’’ sample creeps through the speakers.

Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV tracklist:

  1. “Intro”
  2. “Blunt Blowin”
  3. “MegaMan”
  4. “Six Foot, Seven Foot” (featuring Cory Gunz)
  5. “Nightmares of the Bottom”
  6. “She Will” (featuring Drake)
  7. “How to Hate” (featuring T-Pain)
  8. “Interlude” (featuring Tech N9ne and Andre 3000)
  9. “John” (featuring Rick Ross)
  10. “Abortion”
  11. “So Special” (featuring John Legend)
  12. “How to Love”
  13. “President Carter”
  14. “It’s Good” (featuring Drake and Jadakiss)
  15. “Outro” (featuring Bun B, Nas, Shyne and Busta Rhymes)
thumb DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, the Better

★★★½☆

Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, might have alienated a large swath of his fan base when he dropped The Outsider in 2006, but he’s back working in the roots of his earlier works with his latest record, The Less You Know, the Better. When he abandoned the instrumental hip-hop that was his calling card on his earlier albums and switched to what he termed “hyphy” with The Outsider, it was a wonder whether he would ever get back to the likes of Endtroducing (1996) and The Private Press (2002). The Less You Know is reminiscent of a time when Shadow wasn’t wearing the producer hat and was a dedicated DJ.

The characteristic sound that DJ Shadow is most known for, the striking soundscapes combined with samples from places not known by the ordinary DJ, is resurrected in stunning bravura. Shadow spent time working and reworking his sound to give a pure solo record to his fans. Most of the tracks on the album feel as though they are giving the listener a hard hit in the face, starting with the awkward 1980s revitalization entry “Warning Call” with guest singer Tom Vek, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist from the UK.

“Sad And Lonely” conjures the affectionate sound of lowly folk music with a slow piano and whining violin. “Stay The Course” takes the listener back to early hip-hop and also features a guest appearance from De La Soul rapper Posdnuos. Songs such as “Enemy Lines” and “I’ve Been Trying” are a one-two combo of throwback tunes along with the repetitive “Let’s Get It (Bass, Bass, Bass)” that showcase the nonlinear talent of DJ Shadow.

A track called “I’m Excited,” co-starring the incredibly captivating Afrikan Boy, was released on an EP in July, but it was ultimately kept from The Less You Know because of a copyright dispute. As today’s music market begins to morph more and more, the legalities of it all can become a harrowing mess. Had the song made it to the album, it would have garnered success for the masterful DJ.

The album is 16 tracks long, and although it wiggles through a variety of tempos, styles and guest appearances, it manages to be a bridge between the latter days of DJ Shadow and a look into the future to the cut-and-paste man behind the turntables.

The song “I’ve Been Trying” is more along the lines of a Vietnam War hippie-protester song than a dedicated hip-hop anthem. With the acoustic strumming and Ben Harper-esque vocals, it takes a page out of the street performers book with the train in the background as the track fades off. It’s as though Shadow set up shop at a subway stop and commissioned a homeless guitar player to go in halvsies on a sub sandwich so long as he played along with him.

All things considered, The Less You Know is a stand-up album. With its ever-changing motif, it is an easy listen all the way through and shows Shadow’s desire to ride into the future with the rest of the electro hip-hop community.

DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, the Better tracklist:

  1. “Back to Front (Circular Logic)”
  2. “Border Crossing”
  3. “Stay the Course”
  4. “I’ve Been Trying”
  5. “Sad and Lonely”
  6. “Warning Call”
  7. “Tedium”
  8. “Enemy Lines”
  9. “Go Nowhere”
  10. “Redeemed”
  11. “Run for Your Life”
  12. “Give Me Back the Nights”
  13. “I Gotta Rokk”
  14. “Scale It Back”
  15. “Circular Logic (Front to Back)”
  16. “(Not So) Sad and Lonely”
Future-Islands-LP-On-the-Water-cover Future Islands – On the Water

★★★★☆

Hailing from the coastal town of Baltimore, the band Future Islands boasts a decidedly nautical mood on their latest album, the aptly titled On the Water. Utilizing whiny synthesizers and echoey drum sounds, this trio formulate a sound that can often times be quite challenging, in spite of the seeming simplicity of its structure.

The title track, for instance, starts the album with sounds of a blustering day banging wind chimes to and fro before a Flock of Seagulls-esque drum and bass pattern begins to fade in. Before long, lead singer Samuel T. Herring is crooning into the microphone, carrying a vocal style that sounds like the strange love child of Ian Curtis and Tom Waits.

Soon, those synths kick in before the whole thing builds to a wall of guitar fuzz, a la Jesus and Mary Chain. But Future Islands isn’t all about homage. They boast a unique sound that manages to sustain a number of different ideas without sounding too cluttered. On The Water is a quick 10 tracks, but despite its pithiness, there’s enough meat on the bone to ensure repeat listens.

Those listening to the band for the first time can instantly glean two things: Future Islands love 1980s music, and Herring isn’t afraid to put his unconventional vocal stylings on full display.

Nor should he be. While it certainly takes some getting used to, Herring has a unique presence as a frontman and a lyricist. He has a surprisingly deep perspective on life, which is evident on the song “Give Us the Wind” when he proclaims, “We set out to find something to hold/In seeking truth, the answer is the road.”

With its sweeping chorus and ethereal keyboard sounds, “Give Us the Wind” is both the album’s best track and a perfect summation of everything that makes On the Water a great record: introspective lyricism coupled with intriguingly subdued textures.

Occupying the space between yacht rock and ’80s new wave, songs such as “Before the Bridge,” “The Great Fire” and “Tybee Island” might sound indulgent in isolation, but in the context of the album, they stand out as concise and endearing songs that manage to build toward ideas of deconstruction.

Even “Close to None,” a six-minute tune that begins laconically, reaches a spirited conclusion as inspired as any album cut in the band’s entire catalog. The song bleeds into the next track, “Balance,” with the soothing sounds of ocean water before transitioning.

Although they might be few and far between, the album’s weaker moments tend to be glaring. Most notably, the running interludes of ocean sounds that bookmark a number of the songs tend to take away from an album that’s already enough of an experience on its own. For a band called Future Islands playing an album called On the Water, there’s no need to push the thematic elements any further.

But these are admittedly trivial disparities. In virtually every other facet, the album is a sonically advanced piece of pop, filled with bright ideas and endearing musicality.

Future Islands – On the Water tracklist:

  1.  ”On the Water”
  2. “Before the Bridge”
  3. “The Great Fire”
  4. “Open”
  5. “Where I Found You”
  6. “Give Us the Wind”
  7. “Close to None”
  8. “Balance”
  9. “Tybee Island”
  10. “Grease”
M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

★★★★½

If M83 (aka Anthony Gonzalez) hadn’t deliberately put together his forthcoming double album, slowly fusing styles and influences from his past efforts while carefully experimenting in newfound territory, it might have perfectly scored Spike Jonze’s fantasy film, Where The Wild Things Are. Even if Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming suits Maurice Sendak’s celebrated children’s classic better than Arcade Fire’s Funeral, M83’s efforts certainly don’t pass unnoticed. Every piece of the expansive 1.2 hour LP is quality and the French artist’s determination during the past few years shines in his sixth album. Gonzalez’s fresh offering is truly one worth taking hold because it is an accumulation of everything he’s done up to this point and, as a whole, it also demonstrates a significant direction for the artist’s future.

M83’s love for cinema, made apparent in Before the Dawn Heals Us, trades positive vibes for a darker innocence in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, transcending the plot into imaginary, almost childish landscapes. “Raconte Moi une Histoire” is especially notable with its adorable discourse about tiny, magical frogs. Although its context is unusually scripted, its foolish ideas are sure to raise eyebrows and crack smiles. Additionally, “OK Pal” reminds us of the 1980s feel that was so prevalent in 2008′s Saturdays=Youth, with its bouncy synth waves and echoed lyrics, while “Midnight City” sounds different than anything M83 has contributed thus far.

The dual disc was produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who is known for his work with Beck, Nine Inch Nails and The Mars Volta, among others. Although White Sea’s Morgan Kibby played an integral role in Saturdays=Youth, her influence is rather minimal in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Other contributors include guitarist Brad Laner (Medicine) and guest vocalist Zola Jesus who whispers a few lines before stretching her chords in the opening “Intro” track. While a lack of Kibby’s vocals might trouble fans of M83, Gonzalez’s personal vocals take a much heavier persistence, and this tradeoff never compromises the album as a whole. Gonzalez establishes his range as a vocalist while he softly sings parts and steadily transitions into louder, higher-pitched tones.

Each glitzy synth, orchestrated harmony and playful interlude found in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming feels weightless, yet immense, and invites a retrospective outlook on the intangible.

Gonzalez has achieved an aerial grasp on his music, the same way nature requires humans to breathe. In other words, for every inhalation or climatic track, such as “Midnight City” and “Claudia Lewis,” there is an equal exhale to center the listener’s observance. In lieu of brief interludes, tracks such as “Wait” and “Splendor” provide elongated relaxation thanks to their reserved piano tones and hushed harmonies.

If observed closely, the timeline of Gonzalez’s development as a musician and M83’s output seem to be somewhat reversed. While Saturdays=Youth aroused teenage dreams, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming reverts itself to childish fantasies. Nowadays, it is uncommon to hear a collective output urging people to take a trip down memory lane and relive childhood innocence. Rather, the music arena is flooded with material that draws on rebellion and alternative lifestyles (OFWGKTA a prime example). It is rather uplifting to hear such a carefully crafted double album that commemorates youth and playfulness.

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming tracklist:

Disc 1

  1. “Intro”
  2. “Midnight City”
  3. “Reunion”
  4. “Where the Boats Go”
  5. “Wait”
  6. “Raconte Moi une Histoire”
  7. “Train to Pluton”
  8. “Claudia Lewis”
  9. “This Bright Flash”
  10. “When Will You Come Home?”
  11. “Soon, My Friend”
Disc 2
  1. “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea”
  2. “New Map”
  3. “OK Pal”
  4. “Another Wave From You”
  5. “Splendor”
  6. “Year One, One UFO”
  7. “Fountains”
  8. “Steve McQueen”
  9. “Echoes of Mine”
  10. “Klaus I Love You”
  11. “Outro”
Robag Wruhme Thora Vukk Album Cover Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk

★★★★☆

In an ever-expanding field of conceptual electronic artists, Robag Wruhme throws his hat into the ring. A veteran of the German music scene, Thora Vukk is actually his first on DJ Koze’s and, for what it’s worth, is fairly auspicious. The German artist, who’s been branded minimalist techno, is something of a sound smith. With a very few elements he manages to create an ebullient sonic landscape.

As one might guess from the namesake, Robag Wruhme—pseudonym of Gabor Schablitzki—rips a page out of Aphex Twin. Well, quite a few pages. There are the boggled names for songs, that, rather than spell a word, suggest a meaning phonetically or by the appearance of the letters. There are time-stretched vocals (none of which form words), resonated hi-hats and a host of incomprehensible sounds sucked through familiar melodies. It all winds into a kind of soothing, ambient minimalism that glimmers and stings.

Thora Vukk carries with it that sort of glum sadness that suggests the wide, grey emptiness of modern day East Berlin. There’s enough two-and-four to keep it techno (a la the liquid bassline on “Bommsen Böff”), enough innovation to keep it German and enough space to fill a Soviet blockhouse quarter. But it’s a work that never quite loses touch with its sentimental side—from the warm, tape-delayed strings of opener “Wupp Dek” to the call-response piano balladry of “Ende.” The kinetic and often mysterious loops range from the everyday (muffled voices, doors slamming) to the alien and incomprehensible.

This is a collection of songs that appeal psychologically as much as they do viscerally.

Sometimes, they can be difficult—either because you’re trying to make sense of them or because they’re just that jarring (the old violin-bow-stroked-across-a-cymbal trick), and if you find yourself bobbing your head, you’re probably also stroking your mustache keenly trying to decipher each little turn. Listeners might catch themselves thinking of a melody in one way, before hearing it reinstated in a clearer, much different light. Often, it will disappear altogether. There is as much attention to details in the music as there is to the sounds.

Interesting to note is the structure of the record: There are seven songs divided by five unearthly “brüeckes (bridges), each one mostly noise, fusing distinctly different moods of songs, dissolving into the silence from which they came. Whether it’s deliberate or notit turns the piece into a kind of linked journey, with each island showcasing a different side of the artist. Standout “Pnom Gobal” glows between the second and third bridges; touting whispered chirpy drums, it manages to stay a step ahead of predictability with its tradeoff of sighing strings and solfége.

Robag Wruhme is an artist you’re more likely to see at SONAR festival, not your local club—and that’s to his credit. The subtleties, ambience and artfulness of Thora Vukk deserved to be met silently, loud and clear.

Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk Tracklist:

  1. “Wupp Dek”
  2. “Thora Vukk”
  3. “Bruecke Eins”
  4. “Bommsen Boeff”
  5. “Bruecke Zwei”
  6. “Pnom Gobal”
  7. “Bruecke Drei”
  8. “Tulpa Ovi”
  9. “Bruecke Vier”
  10. “Prognosen Bomm”
  11. “Bruecke Fuenf”
  12. “Ende”