Album-Art-for-Sunbathing-Animal-by-Parquet-Courts Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal

★★★☆☆

Parquet Courts look too well kept to be garage-punk—too healthy, with too many flannel-cardigan combinations. Nonetheless, the impending poster boys of American “punk” will be heard, undoubtedly, blaring through brand new Crosley’s (courtesy of Urban Outfitters) in trendy studios on hot summer nights.

A Brooklyn basement band that went from playing DIY shows in garages and sweaty apartments to making a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, these mid-to-late 20-year-old deadpan punk boys are taking advantage of the rise of emotionless Tumblr girls and post-punk college kids. Drenched in unwarranted angst, Parquet Courts’ timing is spot on: they are exactly what every hipster wants to add to their vinyl collection.

Fittingly, their third studio album, Sunbathing Animal, was released under the New York-based label What’s Your Rupture?, specializing in small-scale vinyl records, as well as Mom + Pop Music, best known for producing artists such as Cloud Nothings and Wavves.

Though Parquet Courts are blatantly and nauseatingly trendy, they’re trendy for a reason.

The monotonous Andrew Savage sounds plagued with ennui while droning about relatively complex issues. “Most freedom is deceiving/If such a thing exists,” he sings on the second verse of “Sunbathing Animal.” “When I was young, I knew but didn’t care/Faces change and shape to represent the same old beast.” He exposes the observations of a bonafide wallflower, but they’re buried in pretension. Yes, Savage is that psuedo-intellectual douche holding an original copy of Catcher in the Rye.

The third track, “Dear Ramona,” is the epitome of a dusty, blues-influenced, punk love song. “This lady is a hypnosis poet and when she speaks, her words weep like rain,” the slightly demeaning ballad begins. Savage almost affectionately sings—truly sings, for the first time on the record—“Whoever she might be going to bed with/You can read about that in her Moleskin,” before the chorus ends rather abruptly. The punky angst toward Ramona is brief, almost like an inside joke between the two. This falls flat, of course–it’s too personal. There’s no room for relation to Savage when everything is a private poem.

However, the rest of the band—singer-guitarist Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton and baby brother Max Savage on the drums—virtually make up for the excessively astute, in-your-face, contrived intellect that are the lyrics of Sunbathing Animal. But not quite. Lou Reed-inspired punk plus 1990s indie grunge meets harmonicas, resulting in a loud, confusing (although quite rhythmic and precise) lack of consistency.

Sunbathing Animal is instantaneously anticlimactic as well as anxiety inducing, an interesting feat. Raw guitar plucks and pulls encourage listeners to hold their breath, but flat lyrics leave faces turning blue—the first time around, at least. Parquet Courts’ efforts at lyrical storytelling is cute (“Instant Disassembly” may be the best attempt on the album), but in vain. The stories are too deeply embedded in stoner, slack rock pretension to have any distinctive depth for the average listener. Perfect for Lollapalooza.

Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal tracklist:

  1. “Bodies Made Of”
  2. “Black and White”
  3. “Dear Ramona”
  4. “What Color is Blood”
  5. “Vienna II”
  6. “Always Back in Town”
  7. “She’s Rolling”
  8. “Sunbathing Animal”
  9. “Up All Night”
  10. “Instant Disassembly”
  11. “Ducking & Dodging”
  12. “Raw Milk”
  13. “Into the Garden”
Album-art-for-Disgraceland-by-the-Orwells The Orwells – Disgraceland

★★★★☆

The music industry has a knack for proving that age really is just a number.

The Orwells, consisting of five recent high school graduates, have been making waves in the rock industry since their 2012 debut Remember When, and playing at major festivals like Lollapalooza since last year. Now, with the wind still in its sails, the band released its  more polished sophomore record Disgraceland.

The Chicago-based quintet has the sound and persona of a typical garage rock band, covering edgy subject matter and writing crunchy, power chord-driven anthems since its inception. That aside, the transition between the Orwells’ debut and Disgraceland is blatantly obvious; the new tracks sound more concise and less experimental. The transformation makes for more radio-friendly material, but that doesn’t mean the Orwells have lost their flair this early in the game.

It’s evident from the get-go that the Orwells are the same reckless lot everyone fell in love with a few years back.

The alcohol-fueled, sex-filled “Southern Comfort” kicks the album off with style, from the classic drumbeat to the wailing lead guitar and singer Mario Cuomo’s signature drawl. “Southern Comfort” is a pivotal step in the band’s metamorphosis, even bringing up Cuomo’s newfound knowledge after a hit album and subsequent tour with the line, “I’m not that old, but I’m getting pretty wise.”

The line holds true for the band as a whole and Cuomo, both of which have grown in the last two years. Unfortunately, the group has slightly dumbed down its artistic range, but the shift is bittersweet; it’s led to a more tailored version of the Orwells’ past work that feels more put together, making for more direct takes on the few genres they wade through.

“Bathroom Tile Blues” has a distinctly different sound that’s adopted and exploited for one song only. The warm track gets the signature Orwells twist, still talking about a rough night of drinking and complicated relationships over a passive riff. The band breaks from the madness of punk tracks like “The Righteous One” or “Let It Burn” with a simple, catchy take on the blues. The song is a lot more stripped down than many of the others, but lead guitarist Dominic Corso doesn’t waste the opportunity to shine, delivering one of his best guitar solos to date.

The intensity of Cuomo’s vocals and Corso’s riffs increase on the unforgettable single “Who Needs You” and zealous waltz track “Blood Bubbles,” both of which show the Orwells bringing all they have to the table.

The first is a catchy summer anthem with a pinch of the Strokes sprinkled on top, calling for an end to violence and pushing for a carefree life away from war and oppression. It’s an energetic mess of instruments, cranking up the distortion and drums to match the emotion behind Cuomo’s call to action.

The latter is the most powerful song on Disgraceland, with the staccato riffs creating constant tension and release. Corso is in his own world, delivering a solo for almost the entire song, while Cuomo’s vocal performance is stunning, as he once again deals with tragic subject matter—this time, suicide. “Blood Bubbles” is an intoxicating track, and proof of the Orwells’ growth, making listeners completely forget the band’s age.

The entirety of Disgraceland sounds like it was written by much older musicians who’ve had the time to hone their style—a shockingly impressive feat for a handful of high school grads—but there’s still room for improvement. At times, the songs can be primitive, doing no justice to the musicians’ skills; they only write to their full potential in short spurts.

Regardless, this is an excellent sophomore attempt by one of the scene’s best up-and-coming bands. There’s plenty of time for the Orwells to develop, and judging by the transformation from Remember When to Disgraceland, it’s only a matter of time before this young bunch rule over the world of rock.

The Orwells – Disgraceland tracklist:

  1. “Southern Comfort”
  2. “The Righteous One”
  3. “Dirty Sheets”
  4. “Bathroom Tile Blues”
  5. “Gotta Get Down”
  6. “Let It Burn”
  7. “Who Needs You”
  8. “Norman”
  9. “Always N’ Forever”
  10. “Blood Bubbles”
  11. “North Ave.”
Los Angeles blues rock duo The Peach Kings blend thick, loud guitars with soft, eerie vocals on their new EP, Mojo Thunder. The Peach Kings – Mojo Thunder

★★☆☆☆

Los Angeles blues rock duo the Peach Kings blend thick, loud guitars with soft, eerie vocals on their new EP, Mojo Thunder.

Guitarist Steven Trezevant Dies’ deliberate, driving riffs set a solid, though often bland, foundation for Paige McClain Wood’s chronically breathy, anti-melodic vocals and vapid lyrics. The Peach Kings achieve a dark, bluesy mood that almost works on Mojo Thunder, but don’t leave much room for experimentation on future releases.

Mojo Thunder gets off to a healthy start, but fails to maintain its momentum. While the bright, clean chords that introduce the title track suggest an upbeat, garage rock record, the distorted, guttural bass that follows better indicates the EP’s moodiness. Wood’s casual, easy croon contrasts Dies’ super-high, tension-filled guitar licks, but those licks sound expected and uninventive, allowing the song to fall flat.

“Hold On” is Mojo Thunder‘s diamond in the rough. In its bridge, electric and acoustic guitars briefly mingle, revealing an unrealized textural opportunity. A slightly distorted, melodic bass line establishes both purpose and motion in “Hold On,” creating a sense of energetic darkness reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality.

Despite its uniquely chilling opening lyric (“Every silver lining’s got a razor’s edge/We are victorious, now off with their heads”), single “Be Around” limps haphazardly through its three-and-a-half dreary minutes.

Its guitar solo resembles a newborn fawn struggling to stand for the first time; its efforts are in vain, thanks to a sudden fadeout. The ending of “Be Around” feels hurried and cheap, leaving listeners with the impression that they’ve been cheated out of a legitimate conclusion.

“Say What” continues the Peach Kings’ downward spiral, showcasing their trashiest lyrics.

In a half-convincing spoken word performance, Wood recounts a boy in a club “standin’ in the corner just swingin’ his hips/Stompin’ his feet to the beat like this/I walk over from across the room/I said, ‘Hey shy boy, are you in the mood?’” The lyrics go on to instruct vague dance steps, as if the mud-paced number actually warranted dancing. “Say What” tries desperately to feel sexy and dangerous, but exhibits little more than unpoetic sleaziness.

Lyrical flaws aside, Mojo Thunder suffers most from a lack of variety. Unnecessary cutoff-endings homogenize the EP, cheapening four of its five tracks, which are made even more disposable by stagnant vocal lines, unvaried guitar tones, and lazy songwriting. The Peach Kings simply dish out one guitar-heavy, bass-heavy track after another, leaving listeners with a bluesy sludge in their ears.

A refreshing moment shimmers at the end of the EP, on Kent Rockafeller’s synth-filled remix of “Mojo Thunder.” Forgoing the signature heavy guitars, the remix feels disjointed from the rest of Mojo Thunder, offering an awkward contrast to its homogeneity.

The Peach Kings aim for the space between Jefferson Airplane and Black Sabbath, but misfire into murky, uninteresting depths of their own creation. Their EP displays a clearly defined mood, but is too cohesive for its own good. Though a few moments of honest musicianship are present, Mojo Thunder is ultimately a dull, disappointing affair.

The Peach Kings – Mojo Thunder tracklist:

  1. “Mojo Thunder”
  2. “Hold On”
  3. “Be Around”
  4. “Say What”
  5. “Mojo Thunder (Kent Rockafeller Remix)”
Album-Art-for-Are-We-There-by-Sharon-Van-Etten Sharon Van Etten – Are We There

★★★★½

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There is the soundtrack to overcast skies and rain pattering on windowpanes. The soundtrack to taking hot baths while smoking cigarettes, to driving too fast on slippery streets and ballroom dancing drunk in a parking lot.

Her melancholia is contagious and comforting, the absolute definition of catharsis. “I can’t wait ‘til we’re afraid of nothing/I can’t wait ‘til we hide from nothing,” Van Etten hazily laments on the first track, “Afraid of Nothing,” setting the tone of an album that plays like a diary, chapter by chapter of a passionate, volatile relationship that (presumably and hopefully) has ended. Are We There is the confessional result of the death of a love that left open wounds and unanswered questions.

“Tell me when, tell me when is this over?/Chewed you out. Chew me out when I’m stupid,” she bellows on “Tarifa,” unequivocally one of the most poignant lines off the album; anger splinters through, appropriately in the middle of the album, as if she’s ticking off the pyschologist-diagnosed grieving process cheat sheet.

Are We There is Van Etten’s fourth LP and the first that she recorded and produced herself—without the aid of the National’s Aaron Dessner, who produced her last album, Tramp. The shift is obvious. Van Etten, a New Jersey native in her 30s, has forgone the attempted folk-pop quality to her consistently confessional style, and instead replaced it with more moody, absolutely agonizing naivety.

“Help me deserve you,” she moans within the first few lines of “I Love You But I’m Lost,” exposing her innocuousness, creating an almost pathetic pang that resonates gut-wrenchingly deep. This woman has been hurt.

“Tears stain on the last page/Better leave ‘em/Time will tell and I’ll be back.” She forces the words out of her lungs, elucidating that she knows she’ll come back to this harmful, sadistic relationship, despite knowing better.

Van Etten’s lyrics read like 3 a.m. stupefactions, spilled and scribbled into a bedside notebook filled with heroic couplets, waiting to be swallowed by the night. Her musky, dream-drenched voice drips desolating sorrow—but never acrimony. “At the bottom of a well, I’m reliving my own hell/Someone throws the ladder down/Still don’t know what I have found in our love,” she huskily vibrates on the ambient, desperately hopeful track “Our Love.”

What makes Van Etten so profound is her utter self-awareness and self-assurance with her voice and piano playing. From whispering lines such as “All I ever wanted was you,” to vibratos and tremolos, she goes from naked to absolute skin and bones.

She rises to a level of elegance and poise, despite the obvious agony pouring from her soul. Instead of wallowing in her misery, Van Etten questions and answers herself honestly, regardless of the results. She does what the human race has such an excessively hard time doing: seeing ourselves for who we are, accepting our mistakes, and making something beautiful out of our pain to grow out of it, and—more importantly—above it.

Are We There is sadistically sensual; Van Etten’s raw voice cuts like quick strokes from a short blade with the National-inspired melodies that are smooth and clean. But with lyrics such as “Break my neck so I can’t run to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you,” it’s impossible to not feel utter empathy—not sympathy—for Van Etten. And it’s impossible not to keep coming back for more.

Sharon Van Etten – Are We There tracklist:

    1. “Afraid of Nothing”
    2. “Taking Chances”
    3. “Your Love Is Killing Me”
    4. “Our Love”
    5. “Tarifa”
    6. “I Love You But I’m Lost”
    7. “You Know Me Well”
    8. “Break Me”
    9. “Nothing Will Change”
    10. “I Know”
    11. “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”

 

Album-art-for-Sliding-Through-the-Halls-of-Fate-by-Crow-Bait Crow Bait – Sliding Through The Halls Of Fate

★★★½☆

Something not terrible is happening on Long Island and it’s called Crow Bait.

Their full-length debut, Sliding Through The Halls of Fate, is part classic Long Island punk and part Replacements, all with a little ’90s alt-rock flair.

Since 2011, Chris Arena (Sister Kisser, American Hellfire Club), Mike Bruno (Iron Chic, Wax Phantom), and Sal Fiteni (Sister Kisser, Halfway to Hell Club) have released several 7” LPs, and have toured New York and California, but this studio debut featuring throaty vocals, a familiar drum and guitar sound, and the occasional harmonica solo cements the trio’s point of view and, more importantly, the fact that they’re not Taking Back Sunday.

Single “83” is the most blatant proof of Crow Bait’s affection for the ’90s alt-rock scene, from its throat-straining vocals and steady drum kicks to the ripping guitar line on top of it all. It’s no wonder the band used “83″ as a tease for the rest of the album. It sounds like an old favorite, only a bit more dissonant and experimental, like all of Sliding Through The Halls of Fate.

“Ancient Eyes” distinguishes itself from other tracks with its mellow, toned-down, somber sound. Still, it highlights Crow Bait’s playful experimentation.

The simple, slow-swaying number crashes into drums, turns up the volume, and eventually collapses into a feedback-heavy, dissonant close like an emotionally exhausted man sinking to the floor.

Album opener “The Ocean” is an emotional rollercoaster of its own. Arena sings, “Don’t want the crowded track/And there’s a thief round back/Took one here in your lonesome palm/Oh, I’ve seen the oceans/To the west, sunsets in the horizon/Take me to the exit door/I’m already yours.”

The song’s story seems pretty cut-and-dry until everything falls apart. “I don’t see no ocean/Just a dusty mirror, little potions/This time I’m an angry pawn/I don’t need your anchor anymore/…/This crow is gonna learn to sing/A tune you know.” The sound, especially the boyish, earnest vocals, and the crumbling of this depicted relationship are reminiscent of Weezer’s self-titled album.

That nostalgia runs throughout Halls of Fate. Aspects get a little redundant, like hearing the same opening strummed chord in several tracks—a page Crow Bait took out of the alt-rock book, but shouldn’t have. However, the record contains more bright spots than dark ones: The titular line about “sliding through the halls of fate” appears subtly in “Searching For My Boots On The Highway,” “A Billion Lives” features a crisp harmonica, and the rough “Deliverance Stalls” boasts a soaring, high-pitched guitar tremolo.

Sliding Through The Halls Of Fate exemplifies how a group can master a familiar feeling while also doing something new. The experiments with dissonance, rhythm changes, and more complex lyrics ensure that this debut isn’t merely a compilation of 11 versions of Gin Blossoms’ “Follow You Down.” Crow Bait makes one think twice about the possibilities for the current and future Long Island music scene.

Crow Bait – Sliding Through The Halls Of Fate tracklist:

  1. “The Ocean”
  2. “83″
  3. “If I Could”
  4. “Crow Bait”
  5. “Ancient Eyes”
  6. “Pretty Good Things”
  7. “Searching For My Boots On The Highway”
  8. “Cognate”
  9. “Gran-Saloon”
  10. “Deliverance Stalls”
  11. “A Billion Lives”
Album-Art-for-nikki-nack-by-tUnE-yArDs tUnE-yArDs – nikki nack

★★★★☆

Merrill Garbus ignited the colorful spirit of tUnE-yArDs back in 2009 and 2011 with the release of her first two albums, BiRd-BrAiNs and w h o k i l l, and within the recently released and playfully confident third album, nikki nack, Garbus proves she’s exploding with even more gusto than before.

It takes only the first 15 seconds of the intro track, “Find A New Way,” to experience nikki nack’s bold, unapologetic flavors. Garbus’s layered vocals mixed with a catchy drum line satisfy the anticipated rhythmic flair found in every one of her albums.

The bumping spirit of songs like “Water Fountain” and “Real Thing” have rhythms contagious enough to get you out of your seat to belt out the raw lyrics set over the beat of Garbus’s infamous drum and vocal loops. Lines like, “Your fist clenched my neck/We’re neck and neck” in the upbeat “Water Fountain” elevate the song beyond the realm of mere pop, but are conveyed charmingly through Garbus’s cooing voice, further adding to her overall badass physique.

Other tracks, like “Look Around” and “Wait For a Minute,” are proof of the vocal lessons Garbus’s took prior to production; her singing skills appear to be more mature throughout the entire album. Garbus’s conscious decision to slow down and show the softer side of tUnE-yArDs becomes apparent with the improvement of her own skills to the point of near perfection.

The most memorable (and oddest) part of the album lies in the imaginative interlude “Why Do We Dine on the Tots?”

Garbus’s inner puppeteer is fearlessly expressed through the spoken lyrics that narrate a story with multiple character voices.

In the story, a family sits around the dinner table when the grandpa asks why they all must dine on tots. Garbus, answering herself, says, “What good were those kids before they were our food, outrageously smelly, impulsive and rude/Thus you know very well that the fresh produce rots/So clearly, we’ll dine on the tots.”

“Why Do We Dine on the Tots?” follows the same concept as the satirical essay “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift.  Garbus’ fantasy story follows a similar idea about a dystopian future and familial cannibalism and, like Swift, she harshly reprimands those who look down on the poor. “Tots” refers to members of a poverty culture, shamed for their poorness. In the end, they are still oppressed, since the harmful policies enacted at their expense benefit others too well (Garbus’ characters “savor the flavor” after eating the tots). 

The entire flow of the album shifts when the chilling song “Rocking Chair” emits an angst-ridden chorus of Garbus’s compelling vocals, ceasing all instrumentation besides a rattle and a tribal drum line. The repetitive stanza, “The weight of me broke the rocking chair/Now I can’t get to sleep” grows as harmonies are added and the sound of fiddles back up Garbus’ jumbled, yet uniform, cries.

Every song contains clashing, complex rhythms that are indescribably and amazingly creative, and no two tracks are the same. Garbus truly has her musical soul on display through the emotional workings of her powerful voice.

Nikki nack stands out as the darkest, yet most sophisticated-sounding album of the tUnE-yArDs trifecta. Garbus’s continual explorations, backed by honest passion and thoughtful lyrics, keep the zesty flavor of the band fresh in the heads and hearts of its listeners, putting tUnE-yArDs’ captivating sound in its own transcendental dimension.

tUnE-yArDs – nikki nack tracklist:

  1. “Find A New Way”
  2. “Water Fountain”
  3. “Time of Dark”
  4. “Real Thing”
  5. “Look Around”
  6. “Hey Life”
  7. “Sink-O”
  8. “Why Do We Dine On The Tots?”
  9. “Stop That Man”
  10. “Wait for a Minute”
  11. “Left Behind”
  12. “Rocking Chair”
  13. “Manchild”
Album-art-for-The-One-I-Wanted-to-Be-by-Sharpless Sharpless – The One I Wanted to Be

★★★½☆

It takes a talented songwriter to turn an overwhelmingly vapid genre into a powerful tool that’s as entertaining as it is valuable. But Jack Greenleaf defied the odds and did exactly that.

He teamed up with his friends in The Epoch—a Brooklyn-based community of musicians, writers, filmmakers and more—to create his sophomore album The One I Wanted To Be under the pseudonym Sharpless.

Greenleaf, the creative mind behind the project, stretches past his debut album Sharpless (+<) with a much more disorderly effort, showing the true meaning of what he calls “violent pop.” Greenleaf incorporates sincere, searching lyrics with the epitome of intellectually vacant genres, allowing those who care about content to dance along to an entertaining beat while they ponder the complexities of life.

With the vocal help of his friends in The Epoch, Greenleaf was able to make somewhat of a pop supergroup. His singing is sprinkled with a variety of vocalists who add diversity to his range and newness to his music, which sounded much more like a solo effort on his debut.

Greenleaf has a unique background, originally hailing from New York but leaving for Japan prior to The One I Wanted To Be and writing the album upon his return. Now he lives in Chicago, taking influences from a wide span of cultures and genres that show in his compositions.

Kicking off with a characteristic twang that resembles traditional Japanese music, “Greater Than (>)” soon bursts into a shrill, synth-driven melody that Greenleaf and company mimic vocally. Lyrically, it’s a tragic realization that time can’t be stopped and life will move on without you, constantly experiencing change. But that fear is calmed by the sudden appreciation for those in Greenleaf’s life who have altered him for the better as the group sings, “My friends I know it’s true, I wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for you/And can I try to change again, to grow up into something greater than?”

The album dwells heavily within the melancholy realm of regret, which is countered by the upbeat pop music to make danceable songs with sharp emotional insight. It’s an unlikely combo, but Sharpless pulls it off.

The One I Wanted To Be is a raw look at Greenleaf’s life, which has obviously had its ups and downs.

“Mom and Dad” begins with a timid voicemail from his mother asking him to come say goodbye to the apartment he grew up in, subsequently leading into his thoughts on the meaning of “home” and how to cope with emotional pain. The sound is significantly toned down, working with an ethereal keyboard section until the song bursts into a powerful take of the calm refrain with drums and guitar. All the while, Greenleaf stays positive about his situation by saying, “There’s always different ways to cope/Where there’s despair there’s always hope.”

Sharpless, though it’s the creation of Greenleaf, is not solely about him. Additional members such as Montana Levy or rapper Freeze Frame take the lead from time to time, like on “Gemini” and “Nothing Can Change,” respectively. Levy’s voice is a nice change of pace, her bold sound adding even more spirit to the singable track. It intensifies as Greenleaf contributes with newfound passion, and a choir of auto-tuned voices follows suit.

Freeze Frame contributes his talents to the most collaborative effort on the album, which features a number of members of The Epoch. His part in the song is both surprising and great, shifting gears while sticking with the nostalgia of the song.

Despite the depth of a majority of the lyrics, Sharpless knows how to start a party or accompany a road trip. The auto-tuned “Summer 2012″ is a nostalgic anthem that captures the spirit of warm days, late nights, and the desperate wish to stay young and happy with old friends. Out of all the party-perfect songs on The One I Wanted to Be, this is the most fitting.

While it’s a solid sophomore effort, The One I Wanted to Be still has room for improvement. The auto-tune is always overdone, and actually could be completely absent because every vocalist has such a strong voice. The bass, by contrast, is almost always either too quiet or nonexistent.

Still, whether it’s a song to jam to in the car, to rave to with friends, or to help cope with emotional hardship, The One I Wanted to Be offers all of the above. Greenleaf succeeds as both a songwriter and lyricist, crafting a unique blend of contrasting styles that can be mindless or moving—it just depends on what you pay attention to.

Sharpless – The One I Wanted To Be tracklist:

  1. “The Hardest Question”
  2. “Greater Than (>)”
  3. “You’ve Got A Lot of Feelings”
  4. “Summer 2012″
  5. “P a s t L i f e R e g r e s s i o n”
  6. “Gemini”
  7. “Mom and Dad”
  8. “Nothing Can Change”
  9. “Greater Then”
Album-art-for-Stay-Gold-by-First-Aid-Kit First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

★★★★☆

Folk duo First Aid Kit holds nothing back in showing off its new, glossy production style on its third album, Stay Gold.

The duo, consisting of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, brings its autobiographical storytelling and thought-provoking bluntness back to the table, but this time with pop sensibilities, razor-sharp production value, and a slew of new instruments. Also returning  are the sisters’ tight vocal harmonies, now disappointingly muffled by the weight of the extra instrumentation.

As the opening track and lead single, “My Silver Lining” could serve as a mission statement for Stay Gold. A song of encouragement, “My Silver Lining” advises listeners to “try to keep on keepin’ on” when the world is at its worst. Lead singer Klara Söderberg transforms this simple concept into a relatable folk-pop single with admissions of her own self-doubt, telling listeners, “I’ve woken up in a hotel room/My worries as big as the moon.” The song contains the earnest lyrics of First Aid Kit’s previous material, gracefully infused with a string arrangement.

While previous efforts were acoustic guitar-centric, Stay Gold expands on that sound, introducing strings (“My Silver Lining”), piano (“A Long Time Ago”), and flute (“The Bell”). While these instruments give character to their respective songs, they don’t make any notable musical statements. They’re used as a means to add texture, and they meet that end, but the melodies they play are unimaginative, making much of Stay Gold feel tedious.

Though increased production value often signals the decline of a band’s initial, character-defining quality, there is no such absence on Stay Gold.

The blistering honesty that listeners have come to expect from First Aid Kit is alive and well in songs like “Heaven Knows,” in which Söderberg scolds a friend who has allowed his religion to overshadow his personality. The song’s confident, jumpy vocal lines mock the salvation for which Söderberg’s friend relentlessly seeks and reflect her dismissive attitude toward religion.

Stay Gold‘s title track elevates the basic idea of “nothing good can last” to an ominous folk anthem. In its chorus, “Stay Gold” questions whether pure intentions are enough to withstand life’s trials, asking, “What if to love and be loved’s not enough?/What if I fall and can’t bear to get up?/Oh I wish for once, I could stay gold.”

First Aid Kit’s thoughtful twists on common themes are a continuous upside to Stay Gold. “Cedar Lane” laments lost futures, but has a persistent hope that “something good will come out of this.” In “Shattered & Hollow” and “Fleeting One,” Söderberg ruminates on how touring has affected her relationships. The pictures painted aren’t cheery, but both endorse the idea that a life in flux is better than stagnant safety.

With its unforgiving frankness and new, unique instrumentation, Stay Gold presents fresh takes on classic folk themes.

While the new instruments add little more than texture, their predictability is a small flaw in comparison to the duo’s lyrical achievements. With its third LP, First Aid Kit proves that a step towards pop is not always a step away from sincerity, and that some things really can stay gold.

First Aid Kit – Stay Gold track list:

  1. “My Silver Lining”
  2. “Master Pretender”
  3. “Stay Gold”
  4. “Cedar Lane”
  5. “Shattered & Hollow”
  6. “The Bell”
  7. “Waitress Song”
  8. “Fleeting One”
  9. “Heaven Knows”
  10. “A Long Time Ago”
Album-art-for-Upside-Down-Mountain-by-Conor-Oberst Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

★★★★☆

If Bright Eyes had never existed (or, at least, never released I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning), would Conor Oberst have a following? It’s questionable.

Oberst is 34 years old, and has finally stopped pseudo-nihilistically singing about the depressing difficulties he’s faced throughout all the masks he’s worn, all the way from angst-ridden teenager to a feeble attempt as a prophet.

Flickers of emotional stability flash through on Upside Down Mountain, such as in “Hundreds of Ways,” where he sings, “There are hundreds of ways/To get through the day.” It’s a good start, right? Oberst has signed to Nonesuch Records to release the solo album, which features Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris.

Vocally, Oberst has never been stronger. His trembles are no longer timid, but refurbished and self-assured—without the pretension found on The People’s Key (2011).

Either he’s outgrown his own obstinacy and inability to see past his own nose, or he realized that’s not how records sell.

Upside Down Mountain is Oberst’s first solo release in five years—much more subdued and refined than his self-titled Conor Oberst (2008). Upside Down Mountain is an appropriate second step following the self-titled LP, if not a few leaps. He’s more polished through his lyrics and melody.

The opening song, “Time Forgot,” seems to set the tone for the album, illuminating the growing pains Oberst went through during the transition from angst-ridden and drug-addicted “rock” artist to married, closer-to-40-than-20-year-old.

And even though it’s nearly impossible to tell what the hell Oberst is singing about (for the most part), in the second track, “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” you can’t help but sway and sing along with the back-up vocals by Johnathon Wilson—who’s also responsible for playing the guitars, bass, drums, percussion, and keyboards—basically everything other than what Oberst does: sing cryptically beautiful lyrics that make the heart a little heavier with each listen.

The third track, and perhaps the most pertinent, is the solidifying piece of evidence that Oberst has, in fact, grown up. He croons, “Don’t look so forlorn, Don’t you look so scared/Don’t get so upset/This world was never fair.”

It’s hard to imagine that this is the same man who once sang about the unjust realities of the world in “A Perfect Sonnet.”

Even more spectacularly, Oberst tremors, “Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be/I hope I am forgotten when I die.” He’s no longer singing about the desire to be remembered as something—anything—but accepting his own humanity and mortality.

Of course, with lines such as, “Freedom is the opposite of love/You’ll never keep it through the paranoia,” on “Lonely At the Top,” the young, wide-eyed Oberst shines through, just long enough to remember where he’s been and how far he’s come.

Upside Down Mountain is far better than anticipated. But, painfully true, Oberst’s hamartia is his own past; it’s impossible to associate the legendary Conor Oberst with anything other than Bright Eyes.

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain tracklist:

  1. “Time Forgot”
  2. “Zigzagging Toward the Light”
  3. “Hundreds of Ways”
  4. “Artifact #1″
  5. “Lonely at the Top”
  6. “Enola Gay”
  7. “Double Life”
  8. “Kick”
  9. “Night at Lake Unknown”
  10. “You Are Your Mother’s Child”
  11. “Governor’s Ball”
  12. “Desert Island Questionnaire”
  13. “Common Knowledge”
Album-Art-for-Flies-In-All-Directions-by-Weatherbox Weatherbox – Flies In All Directions

★★★☆☆

“You heard I was a nice boy/Well, you didn’t’ hear it from me/And I want to keep a hoodie head/Nice to meet you/Now go away/I want to be alone/It’s such a nice day,” singer/songwriter Brian Warren warns in “Pagan Baby,” the opening track of his newest LP, Flies In All Directions.

Under the emo-punk rock moniker Weatherbox, Warren is gritty, grimy, and outspoken. Flies In All Directions is a fascinating record thanks to Warren’s crude and biting lyrics, but musically, the record is limited.

Armed with 13 melodic and gloomy tracks, Warren takes his listeners on an emotional roller coaster ride, giving them a taste of his highs and lows in “Pagan Baby,” presenting his political viewpoints in “The Fresh Prints of Bill Ayers,” and refusing to go mainstream in “Radio Hive.”

Most of the songs are driven by the stripped down, punk-rock basics—guitar, drums, and bass—which Warren spices up with ever-shifting time signatures. But he does a better job of crafting his lyrics than writing songs, which recycle the same handful of tricks.

Warren brilliantly uses feel-good melodies to mask his dark, mocking lyrics.

In “Radio Hive,” he sings with defiance, “I want to write the dying, something grim/Such a disgustingly evil song (it makes the devil sing along)/Everyone says I’ve got to be something good, something better/Everyone says my head is stuck in the mud/But I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” Despite the outspoken lyrics, listeners could easily find themselves moshing along to the punchy, pop-punk melody.

Warren takes his cynical, almost sadistic tone even further in the climatic track, “Love Me a Good Microcosm.”

The acoustic piece begins with Warren wondering about the afterlife. “Oh, wonder it would be like/to believe in the afterlife/I’d probably smile every time I sang/I’d probably gun around town shouting some obscure, ancient man’s name/Oh, I don’t believe in the afterlife/I believe there is a thing called a gun, and there are things called knives/I believe they can destroy everything that you are inside.”

That track suddenly mutates into a hideous, slimy song with a friendly guitar chord slithering harmlessly while Warren’s calm, cold-hearted lyrics bite to the core.

Warren is reminding people, in his seemingly gentle way, to pull their heads out of the clouds. Let’s get back to reality and believe that assault weapons can kill us. Warren is like a ninja; he quietly and bluntly tells his listeners to shove this whole “afterlife” shit up their asses. And that’s what makes this song so brutal and worthwhile to hear.

“Love Me a Good Microcosm” sums up everything that Flies In All Directions is about. Warren channels his intense emotions, angst, and personal beliefs into cold, nonchalant lyrics sung sarcastically and carefree. However, his songwriting skills are weak. After a while, you want to throw your headphones down. The same hooks and melodies are used over and over, making it hard to distinguish any of the tunes.

Despite those glaring flaws, Warren is an exceptional and talented lyricist. Flies In All Directions is a rare album these days; Warren’s words erupt from the speakers, spewing grisly, yet charming, critiques at society.

Weatherbox - Flies In All Directions tracklist:

  1. “Pagan Baby”
  2. “Bring Us the Head of Weatherbox”
  3. “The Fresh Prints of Bill Ayers”
  4. “Bathin’ In The Fuss”
  5. “Radio Hive”
  6. “The Devil and Whom?”
  7. “Dark All Night for Us”
  8. “Drag Out”
  9. “The Drones”
  10. “Ghost Malls”
  11. “Kick-Flips”
  12. “The Last White Lighter”
  13. “Love Me a Good Microcosm”
Album-art-for-Funeral-Sky-by-Reuben-and-the-Dark Reuben And The Dark – Funeral Sky

★★★★★

Hold off on puns about sandwiches in the shadows when mentioning Reuben and the Dark’s masterful debut album, Funeral Sky. The folk record is a striking collection of anthems and dirges fueled by the indelible chemistry of frontman Reuben Bullock and his brother and percussionist, Distance Bullock.

The Calgary four-and-sometimes-five piece—multi-instrumentalists Shea Alain and Scott Munro in addition to the Bullock brothers—have all of the soul of Britain’s Sam Smith and the hit-making potential of Imagine Dragons (though Reuben and the Dark is profoundly less annoying.)

Funeral Sky has some heavy hitters in its corner. The record is produced by the UK’s Chris Hayden (Florence & the Machine) and Canada’s Stephen Kozmeniuk (Madonna, Nicki Minaj) and mixed by Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele). The layered, intricate harmonies and repetitive, infectious lyrics prove that this group is not messing around with its debut.

Rueben’s throaty, masculine vocals give the indie record sex appeal and add earnestness and honesty to the simple, but snappy lyrics. Lines like, “It’s quite a sight for my sore eyes”; “Said I don’t wanna die in the middle of a city/So they wrote it on my headstone”; and “How my lungs became eels became eyes” from the relentless single “Rolling Stone” demonstrate RATD’s lyrical approach—a blend of poetry and turns of phrase that creates a feeling more than a traceable story.

“Rolling Stone” has the same soaring, relentless acoustics of early Mumford and Sons, before they became frat favorites.

Each track is in perpetual motion (notably the charging “Can’t See the Light”), even the heart breakers like “Standing Still” and “Shoulderblade.” In the latter, exposed acoustic instrumentation is peppered with horns. Reuben croons, “I’m trying not to try, but this fire is here before you/…/but you cut like a cold shoulderblade/and hide your love inside my head/and tie my hands behind my back.” In this track and throughout the record, Reuben is nothing without “the Dark.” The group’s impeccable vocal harmonies yank on the heartstrings as they sing, “Call me out.”

In fact, the whole album is a potential exercise in holding back tears.

RATD’s unique blend of folk, soul, blues, and bluegrass makes for an emotive and grounded sound. The banjo-tinged “A Memory’s Lament” is about being with a person who can’t handle heavy burdens, a more obvious story line than what is commonplace on Funeral Sky.

It opens with, “I wrote a song for the ones I remember/A memory’s lament all the lovers I have met/I wrote a song for the ones that I forget/And take these dreams from me, I don’t need an easy way now.” Reuben is joined for a resounding chorus of, “Well, I buried my brother/I buried my lover/I buried my head in hands.”

“A Memory’s Lament” is a powerful, unique track that shifts gears without being jarring, incorporating a heavy, slow drum line and entrancing sustained notes from a horn. It’s these simple additions that make already great songs unforgettable.

Funeral Sky feels timeless while still sounding new. Reuben and the Dark has showed its hand and revealed that it has an uncommon mix of raw power, talent, and chemistry. Whatever “it” is, these guys have it.

Reuben And The Dark- Funeral Sky tracklist:

  1. “Bow and Arrow”
  2. “Devil’s Time”
  3. ”Rolling Stone”
  4. “Shoulderblade”
  5. “Standing Still”
  6. “Marionette”
  7. “A Memory’s Lament”
  8. “The River”
  9. “Can’t See The Light”
  10. “Funeral Sky”
  11. “Black Water”
Album-art-for-Memory-Palace-by-Stone-Cold-Fox Stone Cold Fox – Memory Palace

★★★★½

On its debut LP Memory Palace, indie rock band Stone Cold Fox creates a sound that is both cohesive and varied. Memory Palace has a largely upbeat feel, broken up by a handful of retrospective moments.

Infusing poppy rock songs with introspective storytelling, the band sounds like a Bob Dylan-fronted version of the Killers. It injects indie rock with a heartfelt folkiness, creating an atmosphere that is both upbeat and organic.

Singer/songwriter Kevin Olken Henthorn lends a spacey, futuristic feel to the band’s sound with his thin, airy voice. Those vocals, however, are not always high enough in the album’s mix to be audible over the lively guitars and keyboards. Memory Palace features additional vocals by Madeline Mondrala, who sings on a handful of tracks, taking over lead vocals only on the punky dance tune “January.” The contrast of male and female voice expands their palate of textures and plays a major role in Stone Cold Fox.

The band creates a seemingly endless array of moods with only basic rock instrumentation.

Memory Palace begins with “Sold,” a song about identity crisis with an uplifting twist: it’s an ode to self acceptance. Henthorn asks listeners to “Take a look in the mirror/and this is who you are,” but is also encouraging with lyrics like, “Take a drag to make it clear/Yeah, you made it here this far.” Mondrala offers a thoughtful coda, closing the song with the conclusive line, “And everything I’m searching for is only in my mind.”

Insightful storytelling skills set Stone Cold Fox one notch higher. While many songs only tell stories from the narrator’s perspective, the tunes dig into the motivations and ambitions of each character.

“Seventeen” tells the story of a teenage runaway desperate to escape her overwhelming boredom. Meanwhile, the narrator of “Time’s Up” analyzes his mental state by questioning a summer lover. Memory Palace’s title track tells the story of a man searching for himself, clearing his mind on a beach. In the chorus of “Memory Palace,” Henthorn invites listeners to spend time analyzing themselves, suggesting that they “take the time now and find your mind.” Stone Cold Fox presents Memory Palace as a peaceful place to calmly reassess one’s goals in life.

While the storytelling is impressive, variety is arguably the band’s greatest strength.

Stone Cold Fox ruminates on optimism (“Sold”), identity (“Graduation”), and loneliness (“Spider and the Fly”). But “Adaptation,” a melancholy love song, is Memory Palace’s hidden gem, taking a critical look at the pitfalls of the modern relationship and how one can endure them. Stone Cold Fox emphasizes the desperation of the line, “All I need is a day without goodbyes” by slowing down to a dramatic half-time rhythm.

Rhythm is a driving force for many Memory Palace songs, making the band’s rhythm section a crucial part of the record. This importance is most apparent on “Reprise,” an instrumental featuring bassist Justin Bright and keyboardist Ariel Loh. Afterward, “Spider and the Fly” paints a dreary picture of a man contemplating loneliness before building to the slow, instrumental march that ends Memory Palace with a satisfying sense of closure.

While much of the musical world is governed by singles, Stone Cold Fox shows that an audience can still be grasped for a full 40 minutes. Memory Palace is an uplifting reminder of how rewarding the full album experience can be if we can simply find the time. If we do, the album may take us to a place like Memory Palace, where we can finally find our minds.

Stone Cold Fox – Memory Palace tracklist:

  1. “Sold”
  2. “Seventeen”
  3. “Time’s Up”
  4. “Darling Darling”
  5. “Graduation”
  6. “Memory Palace”
  7. “Adaptation”
  8. “January”
  9. “Reprise”
  10. “Spider and the Fly”