tim-hecker-dropped-pianos Tim Hecker – Dropped Pianos

★★★★☆

After already releasing one of the year’s most surprising and remarkable albums in Ravedeath, 1972, a dark and brooding piece of droney synth music that was as confounding as it was fascinating, Tim Hecker offers another batch of tunes in the form of Dropped Pianos. It’s an album that doesn’t so much reorient the sound but instead builds upon it, expanding the parameters previously set forth.

This “is not a new Tim Hecker album, but rather a peek behind the curtains into the working progress,” according to a news release for the album. Still, it plays like something of a sequel to the last one. They also share the same artwork, which depicts a group of MIT students hurling a piano off a building. The symbolism behind the image is somewhat on the nose—Hecker’s aim is to deconstruct the idea of the piano as both a concept and an instrument—but that doesn’t keep both albums from possessing a strong sense of cohesion.

Depicted as a series of sketches—each track is listed as “Sketch 1,” “Sketch 2,” and so on—Dropped Pianos is heavy on reverb and minor keys, creating sounds that feel like shadows, looming in the corners of Hecker’s aural compositions.

There are certainly moments when the release feels incomplete, where the “working process” comes through. Hecker often begins a song with a sense of drive before essentially dovetailing into a fog of wayward tones and textures. As such, the argument could be made that Dropped Pianos is a less focused effort than its predecessor. But there’s concision at play. Hecker may meander in spurts, but he avoids heading too far down the rabbit hole before reasserting his focus.

In fact, considering the pithiness of “Sketch 3,” “Sketch 6” and “Sketch 8”—each track clocks in at less than two minutes—it soon becomes evident that these deviations don’t come as a result of Hecker’s unfocused musings. Instead, they’re variations on a theme, proving himself to be a more malleable than he might present himself.

The moods evoked by Dropped Pianos aren’t exactly sunny. Many songs sound like they would fit splendidly in a neo-horror film, such as the ominously creepy “Sketch 5.” But it would be difficult (and unwise) to try and put concrete labels on any “sketch.” Dropped Pianos is absolutely devoid of structure and eschews pop-music comforts in ways that could leave some feeling cold.

For that reason, the album often feels daring and unhinged, despite its sense of calm and control. Balancing this incongruity likely wasn’t an easy thing to do, but such is the command of Hecker’s formal abilities. For a lot of reasons, Dropped Pianos should not work: on the surface it feels directionless, sedated and pretentious.

Bubbling beneath surface is a supreme vision. As he expands upon his ever-evolving sound, we’re beginning to learn more about Hecker’s interests as an artist as opposed to his interests as merely a musician. As a result, Dropped Pianos feels more personal than Ravedeath, which had a larger scope in terms of its listenability. Perhaps the moments Hecker culled for this album are the ones he couldn’t quite place into the last one. Regardless of their impetus, the songs amount to an album that is rightfully described as an experience.

Tim Hecker – Dropped Pianos tracklist:

  1. “Sketch 1″
  2. “Sketch 2″
  3. “Sketch 3″
  4. “Sketch 4″
  5. “Sketch 5″
  6. “Sketch 6″
  7. “Sketch 7″
  8. “Sketch 8″
  9. “Sketch 9″
Crooked-Fingers-LP-Breaks-in-the-Armor-cover Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor

★★★½☆

Eric Bachmann, a former member of the disbanded yet recently revived Archers of Loaf, has crafted his sixth LP for all those broken hearts, hopeless romantics, and guilt-ridden. The album is a beautiful life lesson to be heard through his significant vocals and minimal instrumentation, and although his previous Forfeit/Fortune may have over saturated the idea of self-realization, Bachmann’s latest offering under the moniker Crooked Fingers, yields a sense of necessary brokenness to achieve its greater meaning.

Recorded with The Pixies’ live sound engineer Matt Yelton, Breaks’ unpolished sound contributes to its overall essence as an album riddled with lyrical beauty, regret and melancholy. Thus, its homemade quality doesn’t compromise the album as a whole, but instead, it paints a more natural picture for listeners and further showcases the artists’ sincerity to his music. The fuzzy beginning of “The Hatchet” is a perfect example of Bachmann’s organic recording and producing methods. Bachmann’s sophisticated and rich vocals also play an integral role as they earnestly reflect on the singer’s past experiences and potential future, touching on personal topics that are widely familiar.

In the opening track “Typhoon,” Bachmann establishes a feeling of exhausted remorse, which remains a reoccurring theme throughout the 11-track collection. He softly laments “forgotten lows” and past grievances that seem to haunt his troubled consciousness, like ghosts beneath a full moon. Not only does Bachmann directly spell out his emotional turmoil, but tracks like “Bad Blood” and “Heavy Hours” also insist that listeners share in his disconnected grief. Certainly there are life lessons that can only be learned through heartache, and Bachmann’s latest offering taps into these painful realizations with an ice pick.

Breaks’ elegance rests largely on Bachmann’s devout songwriting and performance rather than his instrumentation.

“The Hatchet” lies at the lowest end of the spectrum with stripped acoustics, simple chord selection and minimal vocals, while “The Counterfeiter” tips the scale, adding spirited rhythms and tasteful arrangements. An ongoing, perilous refrain in “Black Candles” imparts massive dread, but lighthearted piano beautifies the background instrumentals.

Overall, the massive weight embedded in the folk melodies crafted by Crooked Fingers occasionally anchor this latest offering to an ominous soundscape, one that may be difficult for listeners to dig themselves out of. Although Bachmann has courageously proven his ability to write and compose beautiful music, Breaks is not the sort of album one should listen to for positive motivation. In fact, the heavy heartbreak and overall feeling of remorse Bachmann displays in his latest album is one for those who need some good, depressing tunes to intensify a sulk session.

Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor tracklist:

  1. “Typhoon”
  2. “Bad Blood”
  3. “The Hatchet”
  4. “The Counterfeiter”
  5. “Heavy Hours”
  6. “Black Candles”
  7. “Went to the City”
  8. “Your Apocalypse”
  9. “War Horses”
  10. “She Tows the Line”
  11. “Our New Favorite”
Coldplay-Mylo-Xyloto Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

★★★½☆

All things considered, Coldplay has done a pretty good job at not crippling under the enormous pressure of fame and expectation after A Rush of Blood to the Head in 2002. While it didn’t throw caution to the wind like Radiohead did, the quartet’s subsequent releases stayed true to form. X&Y may have been riddled with cheesy lyrics and a lack of musical progression, but Viva la Vida saw the members turn to producer extraordinaire Brian Eno for guidance. While that album didn’t have an entirely clear direction, it did sound like Coldplay was becoming less concerned with mainstream conventions, a trend which continues on the band’s fifth LP, Mylo Xyloto.

A supposed concept album about two characters, conveniently named Mylo and Xyloto—it’s “a love story with a happy ending”—this latest release sounds like the members of Coldplay are doing whatever they want.

The sonic approach to this album stands in stark contrast with their others. It’s very bright and peppy, even occasionally borrowing from recent trends such as chillwave (perhaps inadvertently). While they still keep in mind the stadiums they will be performing at with numbers such as “Paradise,” Chris Martin and Co. seem to be appealing to the indie crowd more than ever.

This is apparent from opening song “Hurts Like Heaven,” which in many regards could have been found on the myriad summery, indie-pop albums to surface during the past year or two if it weren’t for the unmistakable voice of Martin. To that end, the use of piano and Jon Buckland’s guitar nuances (when he’s not ripping off The Edge) help maintain Coldplay’s identity as well throughout the album, piercing through the dense production. Martin implements some vocal effects and slightly off-kilter harmonies which give the track a little extra character, and things are off to a surprisingly good start.

After the aforementioned “Paradise,” “Charlie Brown” utilizes pitch-shifted vocals akin to those on Delorean’s singles from last year to great effect before Martin’s prized falsetto takes over. This dynamic anthem proves to be the best track on the album.

Unfortunately, after “Charlie Brown,” the momentum starts to give way and the bursting creativity lessens several degrees from the dull “Us Against the World” through to the end of the album.

Lead single “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” sits in the middle before a pair of mildly interesting, acoustic-based tracks. (Side note: How is it that songs titled “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea” and “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” have been on major albums released not only in the same year, but one week apart?) “Major Minus” has Radiohead circa Hail to the Thief stamped right on it, but in spite of that and because of that, its bass groove is pretty undeniable. “U.F.O.” is a short tune with some downright pretty fingerpicked guitar work and Martin’s most soulful, soft croon on the album.

A rather bizarre twist follows in “Princess of China”: Rihanna appears. To be fair, with the style shift seen on Mylo, she doesn’t sound terribly out of place, even if it is a bit of a head-scratcher. This will definitely be one of the most, if not the most, disputed choices on the album. It doesn’t sound like Coldplay is using Rihanna to make a big hit, but it’s definitely got that sort of potential. Take it or leave it.

After that, everything else seems tame. “Up With the Birds” is another unconvincing closer like “Death and All His Friends” was, and by this point, the excitement the listener may have gotten from the strong start will be greatly diminished.

The band is trying to push things forward—and they do to a certain extent—but there is little depth to dig into after a couple plays through.

In the end, Mylo Xyloto gives the haters another reason to hate and the fans a fresh set of songs to enjoy for the next few years. Coldplay is, at this point, critically immune, as most listeners will approach this with their opinions already formed. They’re never going to make an album as honest as Parachutes or as strong as Rush, but they’re taking their time and they aren’t just playing it safe—even though they definitely could.

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto tracklist:

  1. “Mylo Xyloto”
  2. “Hurts Like Heaven”
  3. “Paradise”
  4. “Charlie Brown”
  5. “Us Against the World”
  6. “M.M.I.X.”
  7. “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall”
  8. “Major Minus”
  9. “U.F.O.”
  10. “Princess of China”
  11. “Up in Flames”
  12. “A Hopeful Transmission”
  13. “Don’t Let It Break Your Heart”
  14. “Up with the Birds”
Kelly-Clarkson-LP-Stronger-cover Kelly Clarkson – Stronger

★★½☆☆

A note to Kelly Clarkson’s perpetual resident leaker: Please keep doing what you do because it seems that we can’t seem to wait a minute more for Clarkson every time.

Clarkson’s bad luck has been a hinderance many times in her career. Her fifth studio album, Stronger, has been no exception to this curse. She auditioned for “American Idol” after her apartment burned down, she constantly falls ill while touring, and finds that most of her records (including the latest) are leaked before their intended release.

Among those leaks was Stronger‘s lead single, “Mr. Know It All.” It’s significant that there was a change in her angle this time around because this lead was weaker than most fire-spitting singles she’s put out in the past. “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Since U Been Gone” are some of the highlights of Clarkson’s past, which have rocked out and resounded for years. This tune, on the contrary, is much more adult contemporary than any other single in the past. “Mr. Know It All” is surely very Clarkson, but peraps the ex-lover of “Miss Independent.” Its Tina Turner vibe was strange.

As if Clarkson knew we were questioning her taste for cutting-edge music, she whips out magnitude in the title anthem, “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger).” This track encompasses the entire idea of Stronger, relating to the difficulties she had to overcome as both a person and a working musician.

This song will ignite a fire in its listeners.

“What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)” is an electric dance-pop mix that goes outside Clarkson’s regular area of performance, but it is nothing to complain about.  When it hits airwaves, it’s sure to go global not just because its message is positive and classic, but also because it pumps out pure gold ingeniously.

Soon, “Dark Side” prefaces the rest of the album with a bit more hushed and sultry tone. At this point, listeners should be happy that they were at least warned that the party’s over. Before Stronger reaches halfway through the album, unfortunately, it loses steam.

Before you predict how Clarkson formats the rest of Stronger, allow yourself to be surprised one last time. “You Love Me” is the emotional peak of the album and possibly her career. A Prince-resounding backtrack accents the idea of conditional love while she repeats her ideas as her trials spill onto the most unedited vocal lines and raw lyrical scripts in her history.

Although fans can hear classic Clarkson in there for a few moments where she delivers—later in “Let Me Down” and the clever essential pop track “Einstein”— there’s a certain void of sincerity that previous albums fulfilled. Songs such as “Standing in Front of You” and “Honestly” are boring.

To put it simply, the concept behind Stronger has been done before, so it might’ve been an easy center for the project. The theme eliminates the challenge of acquiring consistency from start to finish. If everything truly makes you stronger, then couldn’t that be an excuse for the album totally sucking if it did?

Don’t splurge on the deluxe version unless it’s via iTunes, where there’s an additional bonus track. Producers should’ve traded Clarkson’s duet with Kara DioGuardi (huh?) for the soulful Eric Hutchinson-penned crooner “Why Don’t You Try” to close the album. Instead, it ends with a flimsy sleeper track.

Doesn’t this woman know better than to produce half-good songs after all this time, given what she’s been through? After all, she’s learned now and she claims to be stronger! So here’s to hoping it’s not just a front.

Kelly Clarkson – Stronger tracklist:

  1. “Mr. Know It All”
  2. “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger)”
  3. “Dark Side”
  4. “Honestly”
  5. “You Love Me”
  6. “Einstein”
  7. “Standing in Front of You”
  8. “I Forgive You”
  9. “Hello”
  10. “The War Is Over”
  11. “Let Me Down”
  12. “You Can’t Win”
  13. “Breaking Your Own Heart”
  14. “Don’t You Wanna Stay” (Deluxe edition)
  15. “Alone” (Deluxe edition)
  16. “Don’t Be a Girl About It” (Deluxe edition)
  17. “The Sun Will Rise” (Deluxe edition)
  18. “Why Don’t You Try” (iTunes Store deluxe edition bonus track)
James Blake - Enough Thunder James Blake – Enough Thunder

★★★☆☆

Trying to describe James Blake’s musical style can be a bit of a challenge. The term “dubstep” is inevitably thrown around like a hot potato, never dwelled upon too long, of course, seeing as no one can seem to pin down its exact meaning. That’s because it doesn’t have one. Let’s not even approach “post-dubstep.”

Blake’s self-titled album, released in February, made the London native a substantial force in his hometown, a silent hit on our side of the pond, and a bona fide indie-electronic sweetheart to us all. Now he’s returned with his much-anticipated—and slightly disappointing—follow-up EP, Enough Thunder.

What made Blake’s self-titled album so rich and fresh was its approach to R&B. He melded his confident and smooth vocals and bluesy melodies with a rhythmic disjointedness; several different distorted percussions built tension while his deep voice remained in easy, lax control over the entire sound. It was an experiment in structured chaos that simply glowed in the “dubstep” dark.

While it is never the greatest (let alone fairest) idea to judge an artist’s newest release against his or her prior ones, Enough Thunder leaves a listener wondering where that pulse—or whatever that certain crave-worthy energy was that oozed out of Blake’s first album—disappeared to. Whereas his self-titled release had that innovative percussive element that helped make his solemn R&B sound so new, this EP features even more lax vocals—melodies that sound largely improvised, even—over almost no percussive tension. The effect is somewhat less than stimulating. Without that pulse that Blake formerly crafted so subtly and well, the heat of his music goes out. With all thunder and no lightning, how beautiful is a storm?

The low, languid piano tones that structure the opening track, “Once We All Agree,” again come off somewhat like Blake sat down at the piano and decided to wing it, like he chose four chords and stuck with them, allowing his voice to explore whatever realms and rhythms (or lack thereof) he pleased. And that’s not a terrible thing; Blake does have incredible pitch and a rich timbre that is absolutely butter-smooth. But what made the impending release of this EP so exciting was the expectation of continued production innovation; his vocals never carried his sound or stylistic mission. Now that they do, that sound has become a bit limp.

On the EP’s title and last track, “Enough Thunder,” Blake hits the mark it seems he was aiming for in the previous five songs. His R&B bent is brought farther to the front at last. His vocals finally shine in communicating this gospel-like melody, the soulful element of which is what was, frankly, missing from his other voice-and-piano-alone piece, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” that feels a bit awkward in timing.

All of this said, Blake remains one of the most exciting artists to watch as he further develops his style and decides what he wants to say to the musical world.

This EP is certainly quite different from what he seemed to be stating in his first album. It is not as strong, but it is certainly not unintelligent, either. It is not an EP to be replayed out of love or innovation, but it could be a step toward something larger, some sound that Blake still needs to discover himself. At the moment, though, a few listens of Enough Thunder is more than enough.

James Blake – Enough Thunder tracklist:

  1. “Once We All Agree”
  2. “We Might Feel Unsound”
  3. “Fall Creek Boys Choir”
  4. “A Case of You”
  5. “Not Long Now”
  6. “Enough Thunder”
Polar Bear Club - Clash Battle Guilt Pride Polar Bear Club – Clash Battle Guilt Pride

★★☆☆☆

A band’s first demo is often remembered more as a historical piece than a definitive musical document. For New York’s Polar Bear Club, the group’s demo is still heralded as some of the band’s strongest work—something that “To the Engravers” exemplifies.

In its early days, Polar Bear Club bridged the gap between post-hardcore and indie rock by exploiting the inherent catchiness of each genre. With two full-lengths and a stellar EP added to its discography, Polar Bear Club returns with Clash Battle Guilt Pride. From the simplistic opening of “Pawner,” it is abundantly clear that Jimmy Stadt’s come a long way since PBC’s early releases.

Although Stadt may have improved on a technical level, his work on Clash Battle Guilt Pride is lifeless. Just because he’s screaming doesn’t mean there is actually any heart behind it.

When the rest of the band joins Stadt, he fares no better, and unfortunately, PBC’s musicianship is the weakest it has ever been. “Screams in Caves” offers some fairly interesting riffing between guitarists Chris Brown and Nate Morris, but the recording removes all of the power those riffs may have had when they were initially written.

The production is not the sole thing to blame for PBC’s lack of success on this album; the songwriting wasn’t up to par either. On earlier recordings, the band was not afraid to showcase its vulnerability, and it is what makes tracks such as “Burned Out in a Jar” from 2008’s Sometimes Things Just Disappear so effective. Instead of channeling post-hardcore acts, PBC appears to be reaching for lowest common denominator of modern rock radio.

Even on PBC’s 2009 mixed sophomore album, Chasing Hamburg, it boasted songs with huge choruses—“Living Saints” being a prime example—that still contained an emotional wallop. Where each of PBC’s early records showed the group growing as songwriters, it is disappointing to see them take such a huge step backward on Clash Battle Guilt Pride.

“My Best Days” sees Stadt baring a close resemblance to Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, as the band turns in a watered-down melodic hardcore song not that far off from what Rise Against has been up to as of late. As the album progresses, it becomes clear that Clash Battle Guilt Pride isn’t a mediocre Polar Bear Club album; it’s PBC trying to be a different band, one that just so happens to be mediocre.

As previous releases have proven, Polar Bear Club knows how to end an album. Sadly, “3-4 Tango” lacks all the power of great closers such as “Convinced I’m Wrong” or “Most Miserable Life.” Instead of ending triumphantly, Clash Battle Guilt Pride concludes with a shrug. All that can be shown for the album is some run-of-the-mill rock songs that lack the desperation that made Polar Bear Club so appealing in the first place.

Polar Bear Club – Clash Battle Guilt Pride tracklist:

  1. “Pawner”
  2. “Killin’ It”
  3. “Screams in Caves”
  4. “Kneel on Nails”
  5. “My Best Days”
  6. “Life Between the Lines”
  7. “I’ll Never Leave New York”
  8. “Bottled Wind”
  9. “Slow Roam”
  10. “Religion on the Radio”
  11. “3-4 Tango”
Patrick-Stump-LP-Soul-Punk-cover Patrick Stump – Soul Punk

★★★☆☆

In the days of Fall Out Boy, Pete Wentz took the lyrical work while Patrick Stump worked out the composition. Stump now rounds off his work with 110 percent of the composition of Soul Punk, playing percussion, synth, guitar, trumpet and more. For a man to work so hard to polish a solo career after his peak in a group is really crucial to the rest of his career. It didn’t work for Brandon Flowers or Mel C, but it brought greatness to Bjork and Cee-lo Green. So should it work for Stump?

Stump is often praised for his versatile yet consistent vocal work because it can sound very R&B naturally, but it works well along pop and punk mixes. But still, here in Stump’s most freeing environment to create work, he essentially sacrifices organic work for oddity. Sometimes the weirdest sound creations are spat into the listeners’ eardrums, like a burping, growling noise in  “Run Dry” with a screeching outro. Often this free energy can produce sounds that are too wild for pleasure. Yikes.

What he lacks is the talent of the lyricism. This was his first attempt at writing for music. Although Stump did an admirable job in his initial tries at writing, the efforts are dampened by the veil of terrible work in songs such as “Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers)” where listeners are given a step-by-step runthrough of a night of partying along frilly pop beats. The song is the most radio-friendly on the album, but this isn’t what the album was made for.

Soul Punk was supposed to defy the “I’m so drunk” ways of the popular Top 40 trends, and here, it conforms as much as possible.

It streamlines eight and a half minutes of bullshit, too. Fans need to brush past this shame in order to fully appreciate any aspect of the album.

“The ‘I’ in Lie” is the most reminiscent track on the album. It’s as if FOB’s name has been covered up by a piece of masking tape on this tune and replaced with Stump’s. It’s charming and flowing plus every bit relatable as can be. If Fall Out Boy were together today, this is surely what they’d sound like. With this song and “Allie,” both cute and emotional pop-punk rhymes, there are themes that can be related to many types of audiences. Here is where Stump might find the most fan love.

Prince and Michael Jackson can be audibly traced as inspiration in Stump’s recordings. Soul Punk is really neat here in the way it draws inspiration from classics but remains original. Especially with “When I Made You Cry,” the most classic number on the album. It’s fun and rhythmic, never pausing or letting up and remaining exceptionally old-school.

“Mad At Nothing” is also sweet, pulsating and trancelike. It’ll suck you in, and it won’t let go till it finishes in silence at the record’s ultimate close.

This man deserves whole credit for producing everything on Soul Punk himself, even with his own money. He pulled off the solo act as best as he possibly could. It’s clear that Stump worked his butt off to make the most perfect compilation possible, delaying the release from February to October as a way of ensuring greatness to his fans. He even pushed “This City” as his first single to get his name back onto the table. Although it wasn’t true to the album as a whole (through superficial babbling and an unfortunate key change), it was a smart way of attracting the mainstream scene once again. The combination of image and artistry is the clear package for success today, and Stump accomplished such in the best way possible.

Patrick Stump – Soul Punk tracklist:

  1. “Explode”
  2. “This City”
  3. “Dance Miserable”
  4. “Spotlight (New Regrets)”
  5. “The ‘I’ in Lie”
  6. “Run Dry (X Heart X Fingers)”
  7. “Greed”
  8. “Everybody Wants Somebody”
  9. “Allie”
  10. “Coast (It’s Gonna Get Better)”
Murs - Love & Rockets Vol I- The Transformation Murs – Love and Rockets, Volume 1: The Transformation

★★★½☆

Emerging from the hip-hop underground in the late-1990s, Los Angeles’ Murs has become a bastion of the independent rap world. Since the release of F’Real way back in 1997, Murs has released several full-lengths and done numerous collaborations—a great deal of it on his own terms. His latest release, Love and Rockets, Volume 1: The Transformation sees Murs team up with Ski Beatz to create an album that exemplifies the strongest traits of both artists.

Wasting little time, the duo dives headfirst with jagged, biting beats as Murs displays how strong of a flow he’s developed. “Epic Salutations” not only brings the listener in, but it also sets the tone for the rest of Love and Rockets. Murs effortlessly jumps from topic to topic—including a rather unexpected hop to Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase—and Ski Beatz adds subtle flourishes that keep the track from becoming stagnant.

As the album progresses, Murs focuses his rhymes, building story archs around Ski Beatz’s production. “Remember 2 Forget” is a break-up song that opens with Murs posing the question, “Do you ever wish you had amnesia/Like you could forget/Whoever it was that ruined it for everyone else?/That one person/if you could just forget them/Like, you would have a happier life.” It’s not uncommon for Murs to deal with such subject matter, and because of this he’s often been labeled as “emo rap.” It would be unfair to label Murs as such given the diverse range of topics he’s covered, but his capabilities to easily tap into an emotional core have always been one of his strongest qualities.

Throughout the course of Love and Rockets, Murs uses his songs to create vignettes for his audience. However, this approach yields mixed results.

While he’s a capable stroyteller, the subject matter covered in “67 Cutlass” comes off incredibly clichéd. It’s a tale of drug dealing, cop killing, and other well-worn ground. It’s not to say that Murs doesn’t fully create the scene and see it through; it’s the lack of character development, or new and engaging twists, that leaves the track lifeless.

It is on “Animal Style” when Murs is able to take his storytelling and songwriting to a new level. The track builds tension slowly, thanks in large part to Murs’ delivery and Ski Beatz’s tense production. As the song moves to its climax, it keeps the listener in suspense about how the story will unfold, and when the last verse drops, it hushes listeners in its wake.

Love and Rockets doesn’t break much new ground for Murs, but it also doesn’t see him retreading the same path he’s taken before. Together, Murs and Ski Beatz have proven a solid team; one adeptly accents the other. However, Love and Rockets suffers from not seeing the duo step outside of their respective comfort zones. It’s a strong effort but with enough weak spots to keep it from being a true transformation for either of them.

Murs – Love and Rockets, Volume 1: The Transformation tracklist:

1. “Epic Salutations”
2. “Remember 2 Forget”
3. “’67 Cutlass”
4. “Eazy-E”
5. “Hip Hop and Love”
6. “International”
7. “S-k-i-b-e-a-t-z”
8. “Westside Love”
9. “Life and Time”
10. “Reach Hire”
11. “Dream On”
12. “316 Ways”
13. “Animal Style”

Charalambides - Exile Charalambides – Exile

★★★½☆

Texas, for all its country-western red statery or blue-blood Austin indie rock, has put together arguably the most comprehensive state-centric résumé for avant garde music. While Explosions in the Sky don’t really count, the state also spawned the decades-old and scene-defining weirdo group The Red Krayola, a band so far off base they were the odd ones on a double bill with Joanna Newsom. In a similar style, yet not as completely off-the-wall, are Charalambides, a divorced couple making avant-folk for almost the past 20 years. Their discography is something to be taught in music myth (10 full-length LPs, along with dozens of compilations, EPs, and yes, CD-Rs), and approaching such a thing is a fool’s errand; one can only hope to make up the difference by picking up where the band is now. To that end, the band’s new LP, Exile, works as decent primer: frequent moments of atmospheric beauty, just as many of astounding weirdness, and a smattering of things (including two entire tracks) that fall spectacularly flat.

On an immediately positive note, the record starts out without requiring much of the listener. Opener “Autumn Leaves” is plaintive, trembling acoustic guitar and nary anything else. It’s an inviting, if static, introduction to a record that has no intention of being either. From there the record splits into two distinct sides: when Charalambides wax toward Explosions in the Sky-style atmospherisms, and when they dive a little bit too far toward compatriots Red Krayola. Christina Taylor, one half of the core members of the band, contributes verses that are only confounding in their variety. On songs such as “Immovable” or “Desecrated,” she sings nonrhyming poems, content to let words fall with barely melodic ties. Her verse, when interpretable, trends toward unsettling views of human guilt and emotion. “There is no way to be brought back to life,” or so she says in “Desecrated.” Most of the tracks take this dark, hallucinatory tone, accentuated by deep baritone guitar, spindly lead guitar, and reverberating rhythms of distortion. This formula, if you could call it that, yields the most fruit.

The strongest two tracks, “Before You Go” and “Into the Earth” build off of this mantra, utilizing Taylor’s dextrous voice to achieve a level of intimacy that the other tracks don’t share.

The times the group veers off the well-worn path of moderate accessibility are the times Exile feels too difficult to access. Closer “Pity Pity Me” is a repetitive mess, stripping away what makes the group great (Taylor’s vocal histrionics, the echoing guitar work) for dinky piano and two-bar verses in creep mode. “Words Inside,” the weakest of the bunch, descends into an almost interminable mass of incoherent chanting, something akin to a relaxation tape soundtrack or the slightly overbearing music you hear in a holistic doctor’s office. While both have their unique pleasures, and arguably work better as standalone pieces, their sheer size interrupts any positive momentum generated by the record’s more religiously structured elements.

This weight hefted on Exile by the two 14-minute set pieces, in a neat bit of contradiction, expresses the limit of Charalambides’ avant garde abilities as presently constituted. Much like Krayola, their past exploits don’t necessarily fade in the light of Exile’s not-quite excellence, so the legacy they’ve cultivated doesn’t disappear. But Exile as a standalone piece of avant-folk falls a bit short of the lofty goals its centerpieces set it up for.

Charalambides – Exile tracklist:

  1. “Autumn Leaves”
  2. “Desecrated”
  3. “Words Inside”
  4. “Immovable”
  5. “Before You Go”
  6. “Into the Earth”
  7. “Wanted to Talk”
  8. “Pity Pity Me”
High Places - Original Colors High Places – Original Colors

★★★☆☆

High Places, the do-it-yourself duo consisting of Rob Barber and Mary Pearson, has returned. Once lauded as the feel-good indie group of the year, the band has taken to exploring some, shall we say, lower ground with its latest release. The familiar formula continues in Original Colors: Pearson pontificating poetically over Barber’s deft percussion stylings, with a host of bent dance riffs and dreamy keyboards serving as the cream filling.

It’s immediately apparent that two things are lacking in this release. First, Pearson seems to be getting complacent. Her ghosted wordplay used to cut stones and burn in memory. Now, on tracks such as “Year Off,” she can’t manage to string together anything meaningful, even when the imagery is arresting, “The blackish water/Swirling around/In a basin I left in the yard.”  The effect is always sweet, if not a little unnerving to hear her voice shudder over the bare-bones arrangements. However, the suspension of disbelief breaks, and listeners might find themselves falling through. The second matter is that Barber’s electro, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass, salsa, (please chime in with more here) drum contributions are killing it here. They are eons more infectious, informed and danceable than previous efforts. The drumming is so pitch-perfect, though, that it only calls attention to the vacuity of the vocal track. Case in point: bongo banger “The Pull.”

Well, all this and that the album is not lighthearted. No, no, no. After a nonchalant attitude toward songwriting, championing teenage angst, dripping in awkward sexuality, High Places want you to know just how serious they are, whether it’s Pearson milking a Dryad-like persona or Barber dwelling on an atonal, seething electro chord for just a moment too long. They are High Places, and if their first record lacked any real gumption, well, this one is back with a vengeance. That doesn’t mean it’s without moments. “Morning Ritual,” a little elegiac piece where the two interplay over heavy dubbing, is a standout if only for its deep reggae feel. Likewise, the luminous chorale “Twenty Seven” deftly loops Pearson’s voice over itself, eventually cutting out all accompaniment, absolving the tension momentarily. The words are indecipherable, but the harmonies are gorgeous.

What’s so annoying about Original Colors is you can see the band trying to be different for different’s sake; the members are trying to consciously separate themselves from their contemporaries and doff historical precedent (at times, it seems as though they’re playing a Depeche Mode pad) or at least get away enough that a comparison is only a key-in and not a foregone conclusion.

But they did move to Brooklyn from Los Angeles, so what can one expect? Phantagram, Cults, Yacht and even Crystal Castles are all running on similar concepts, so it could be seen as a survival tactic rather than an abandonment of roots.

All said, Original Colors is not a bad album, not by any means. It’s even got some muscle. The problem is, there are plenty of “decent” albums out there from a slew of like-minded electro-indie bands. So why High Places? Maybe, just maybe, the band is correct in trying to divert from their contemporaries.

High Places – Original Colors tracklist:

  1. “Year Off”
  2. “The Pull”
  3. “Sonora”
  4. “Ahead Stop”
  5. “Sophia”
  6. “Dry Lake”
  7. “Morning Ritual”
  8. “Banksia”
  9. “Twenty Seven”
  10. “Altos Lugares”
Saves the Day - Daybreak Saves the Day – Daybreak

★★½☆☆

Listening to Saves the Day’s third post-In Reverie album, Daybreak, feels a little bit like intruding on the saddest case of domestic co-dependency ever.  The last in a stunted trilogy that finds frontman Chris Conley “confronting” his emotional and psychiatric issues through tired pop-punk, Daybreak is a classic example of the one-step-back formula in the phrase, “Two steps forward, one step back.” While Saves the Day has made great strides after In Reverie (2003) to prove the band isn’t one of the dozens of emo-punk also-rans, Daybreak is a classic also-ran album. It strains for what once was grand about the band while at the same time diving down new pathways that, unlike the welcome changes of Under the Boards (2007), bear little to no fruit.

Part of the reason Daybreak doesn’t resemble other Saves the Day albums lies in the total lineup refresh the band went through in 2009. Conley stands now as the only Saves the Day member who had anything to do with Under the Boards, or any album before it. This isn’t your Saves the Day, unless your Saves the Day is merely Conley’s magically still-rising vocal pitch. Tracks such as “Chameleon” make this abundantly clear. Proggy, acoustic guitar and cymbal pangs give way to a U2 guitar chorus tied together with Conley’s pleading, unsure lyrics.

The musical changes are easier to stomach, even if they barely resemble old Saves the Day. “Let It All Go” is chugging number that gets to a not-altogether-great conclusion. Singles “1984” and “Deranged and Desperate” achieve that big chorus that old-school Saves the Day seemed to have in spades. If in the market for an oddball, 10-minute, half-emo experiment that has no other layers other than the overt ones, the title (and opening) track does just fine.

None of the tunes (with the possible exception of “Living Without Love”) hold muster against any of Saves the Day’s previous efforts, but the band’s constant reinvention of itself is at least interesting.

The same can’t be said for Conley. Where his peers have failed lyrically by running out of flavor (Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazarra) or obsessively confounding an audience with meaningless verse (Brand New’s Jesse Lacey), Conley seems to have dropped all pretense of artistic distance and begun treating his lyrics (and by extension Saves the Day itself) as his one true love. It’s not hard to see the reasoning in this: when an individual is the last remaining original member of a band many call “seminal,” it’s probably very easy to become emotionally, even somewhat romantically, attached to the idea of a band.

Conley has taken the whole thing a step too far. With the exception of the title track, all of the songs on Daybreak have Conley begging for the rekindling of a spark that has apparently long since gone out. While he might be able to personally say that he’s singing to a woman, or a significant other, we don’t know this person. In a listener’s ear, Conley is either singing to us or himself, both markedly co-dependent, dangerous choices. Daybreak is marketed as the turn toward health, the breaking of a dam of self-destruction and letting a wellspring of positivity flow. Instead, we get Conley wailing every possible iteration of, “I love you; come back.” The lyrical deficiencies are tiring and slightly offensive–Conley is implying that he’s better, yet still weakly cloying to a subject that doesn’t love him anymore. From an armchair psychological standpoint, a song such as “O” says it all. “Sitting here all along, waiting for you to come home to yourself,” laid over the sappiest emo ballad the band have ever written, is proof that despite claims of health, Conley is still the same emo-punk boy he used to be. This time, the narrative is just a little too familiar.

Saves the Day – Daybreak tracklist:

  1. “Daybreak”
  2. “Let It All Go”
  3. “1984″
  4. “E”
  5. “Z”
  6. “Deranged and Desperate”
  7. “Chameleon”
  8. “Living Without Love”
  9. “U”
  10. “O”
  11. “Undress Me”
We-Were-Promised-Jetpacks-LP-In-The-Pit-Of-The-Stomach-cover We Were Promised Jetpacks – In the Pit of the Stomach

★★☆☆☆

Everyone seems to think “Scottish Emo” is breaking news. And maybe it is. But then, how did we not see it coming after Franz Ferdinand’s teenage dance floor, Mogwai’s brooding hypnosis, Belle and Sebastian’s lovelorn whine or The Cinematics in general? It’s a genre that seems to have emerged holistically out of an already fertile scene. We Were Promised Jetpacks, along with FatCat labelmates Frightened Rabbit, appear to be the self-appointed marshals. The trouble is—if Scotch Emotional does exist—almost all of the aforementioned bands do it more tastefully than We Were Promised Jetpacks.

In the Pit of the Stomach winds on like an incomplete thought, bleeding the listener of patience while refusing to give them that all-coveted catharsis. Everything from the album’s lettering to the band’s stage aesthetic to their name points to the worst clichés of your best friend’s-boyfriend’s emo band; to that end—the shows are apparently killer.  What’s recorded on tape may not be quite what you expect, but it’s close enough to fit a working definition of the stereotype.

There are tall walls of guitar sound, endless clean riffing, distorted drums, waxy vocals from frontman Adam Thompson and a lyric sheet worthy of preteen Tumblr feeds. OK, maybe that’s too harsh. The voice of the album alternates between foolhardy naivety and experience, so much so that it becomes difficult to believe either. Lines such as, “I’m soaring through the occasions of all the years that I’ve wasted,” are almost too self-indulgent to really care a lick for.

WWPJ rarely manages to shave a number below four minutes, and while we are shortchanged on the totally indulgent, shoegazing instrumentals, it’s probably because the boys don’t want to preclude radio airplay.

There’s incredible repetition of melody (the vocal-line often mirrors the guitars) and insistence on lyrical hooks to the extent that sometimes what seems juvenile is given weight and, too suddenly, significance.

What’s to note? Thompson’s vocals, for one. While the performance itself is bland and unconvincing, it belies versatility, a noxious character intrinsic in the sound of his voice, not to mention the woeful words it pronounces. There’s standout (get this) “Sore Thumb,” which uses a trilled rubato lead and an epic buildup from hallway singing to get an ear-bleeding, anthemic finale. “Act on Impulse” has some of the most fetching production work in the album—reversed violins, rollicking floor toms and an endless distorted drone beneath a voice full of happy regrets.

Those pining for emotional sing-alongs—a gushing energy from the gut—will be sated, but to those hoping this would be the We Were Promised Jetpacks album where the band bridled their considerable talent and energy into a disciplined art to be reckoned with: Well, it might be another year.

We Were Promised Jetpacks – In the Pit of the Stomach tracklist:

  1. “Circles and Squares”
  2. “Medicine”
  3. “Through the Dirt and the Gravel”
  4. “Act on Impulse”
  5. “Hard to Remember”
  6. “Picture of Health”
  7. “Sore Thumb”
  8. “Boy in the Backseat”
  9. “Human Error”
  10. “Pear Tree”