The Dodos - No Color album cover The Dodos – No Color


After releasing two brilliant and critically acclaimed albums, Beware of the Maniacs and Visiter, The Dodos fumbled a bit with their third release, Time to Die. The album had a few good parts, but didn’t live up to the impossibly high standards set by their earlier releases (especially Visiter, which came dangerously close to becoming a perfect album and thus destroying the universe with its greatness).

A big fuss was made over the fact that the band, normally a duo of singer-guitarist Meric Long and drummer Logan Kroeber, added a full time vibraphonist for the record, a move that made many fans cry foul. The vibraphone’s addition didn’t really take and was eventually removed, but despite that misstep, the band has continued to mix up their instrumentation.

However, this time that new instrument selection combined with an impressive variety of styles and consistent quality, makes their newest release No Color a glorious return to form for the kings of indie folk.

Right away listeners will know this record is something special. The album’s opening track (and likely first single) “Black Night” starts the album off sounding a lot like the earlier Dodos releases. The track relies entirely on Kroeber’s intense drumming and Long’s heavily syncopated guitar, even throwing in a few vocal yelps in with the regular lyrics (something that Time to Die sorely missed). However, after “Black Night,” the album slowly reveals that it isn’t just an attempt to recapture their earlier glory; most of the other songs on the album feature subtle changes in instrumentation that push the group’s sound forward.

Though the addition of new instruments is what caused Time to Die to falter, No Color manages to avoid making the same mistake by using the new sounds in moderation, and with much more subtlety. One of the albums later songs, “Companions,” starts with a lone melancholy guitar riff, but when it’s repeated later in the song, it’s complemented by some backing violin. The addition of violin really helps add to the song’s building emotion, and it does it in a way that isn’t distracting or jarring. Elsewhere in the record we even get a few fuzzy electric guitar riffs.

The Dodos toyed with the idea earlier on Visiter’s “Fools” before bringing it back here for a few different songs, each with equally impressive results. Even better, just like the violin, the electric guitar never outperforms the real stars of the show: the acoustic guitar and explosive drum combo that has become the band’s trademark.

Similarly, the songs featuring backing vocals by Neko Case (alt country solo artist and member of indie-supergroup The New Pornographers) don’t feel like ”collaboration” tracks. This isn’t The Dodos w/ Neko Case, this is The Dodos, with Neko Case along for the ride.

By tweaking their sound but not rewriting it, the band has crafted a varied and enjoyable experience. Unlike Time to Die’s vibraphone, the band’s evolution on No Color never eclipses what made them great in the first place.

Perhaps more remarkable than the change in instrumentation is the album’s persistently high quality. Each track on the release is good; each fits well with the others while still capturing a different atmosphere and emotional range, and each is worth many, many listens. More than anything else, the consistency and potential for repeat listening make this album worth checking out and one of the best releases of 2011 so far.

The Dodos – No Color Tracklist:

  1. “Black Night”
  2. “Going Under”
  3. “Good”
  4. “Sleep”
  5. “Don’t Try and Hide It”
  6. “When Will You Go”
  7. “Hunting Season”
  8. “Companions”
  9. “Don’t Stop”
  10. “All Night”
Bibio - Mind Bokeh Album Cover Bibio – Mind Bokeh


Electronica is an increasingly difficult genre to pin down. On one hand, it’s brilliant for its use of other styles in samples. But conversely, the repetitive nature of the songs makes staying power hard to come by.

Mind Bokeh, the latest album from British producer Bibio, is an example of how there is still much uncharted territory in electronica. Using few voice samples while incorporating studio instruments and original songwriting, the album steers clear of the rehashed Girl Talk garbage that has come to be an acceptable definition of the genre.

The amount of musical ground covered on the album is nothing short of astonishing. But what is even more impressive than the diversity on Mind Bokeh is the fluidity in which Bibio presents it.

“Light Sleep” is a relentlessly funky track that sounds like it could be on the “Shaft” soundtrack. The tin can vocals, effects-laden guitar and smooth, clear bass line flow perfectly, but never venture from the initial lick. Only when the keyboard comes in is the listener reminded that this is supposed to be an electronica album.

But pinning Mind Bokeh down to one genre doesn’t do it justice. It’s a meticulously thought-out and precisely devised album, flowing with seamless ease from start to finish. The songs themselves aren’t mind-blowing by any means. But their arrangement and distinctly different qualities from each another make the album greater than the sum of its parts. classifies the album as “electronic.” This is not only lazy, but unfair to Bibio and his work. Everything on the album, from the most basic drumbeat to the intricate guitar work was deliberate, and for it to be so narrowly categorized is damn near criminal.

“More Excuses” features a monotone vocal track, professing loneliness and regret, accompanied by a mellow acoustic guitar and handclapping, set to a loop. But as it progresses, the song morphs into a synthesizer-ridden epic. What’s unusual, though, is how the mood doesn’t change. The essence of the initial acoustic guitar translates perfectly into the studio-crafted half of the song.

The song is a very accurate representation of the album as a whole; while the spirit and roots of electronica are present throughout, Bibio’s knowledge of music and desire to branch out and feature other styles are still recognizable.

Developments in music production make the use of electronic equipment unavoidable. But what sets artists apart is their ability to use those advances to their advantage without being overridden by them. Bibio—being a producer—obviously understands this concept.

He’s not different because of his knowledge and expertise in the field. His difference is in his approach. Many artists start by pigeonholing themselves in one genre, then use production techniques to differentiate themselves, often resulting in monotony. But Bibio started using those techniques—albeit to a more advanced degree—and then expanded his outlook to included more diverse musical styles.

A valuable lesson can be taken from Mind Bokeh: If an artist doesn’t embrace digital music advances, at least to an extent, their attempt to make something truly original will be greatly hindered.

Bibio – Mind Bokeh Tracklist:

  1. “Excuses”
  2. “Pretentious”
  3. “Anything New”
  4. “Wake Up!”
  5. “Light Seep”
  6. “Take off Your Shirt”
  7. “Artists’ Valley”
  8. “K Is for Kelson”
  9. “Mind Bokeh”
  10. “More Excuses”
  11. “Feminine Eye”
  12. “Saint Christopher”
Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo album cover Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo


To anyone who has seen Kurt Vile perform, head drooped over his guitar, that long mane hiding much of a stone-set face, the musician seems uncomfortably detached. But Vile’s folk-rock tunes portray him as someone more approachable than his surly stage presence would suggest. Like any great artist the press might easily label “singer-songwriter,” Vile strives for a universally human sentiment in his music, even as he soberly walks a shifting line between cold cynicism and openhearted honesty.

Vile begins his latest offering, Smoke Ring for My Halo, with the delicate “Baby’s Arms”. Practically an adult lullaby, the song is undeniably sweet, but almost eerie in its lyrical content. Really, how many people would willingly shrink themselves to Tom Thumb’s diminutive stature so they might hide in their significant other’s hands? Aside from the sonically bookending final track, “Ghost Town,” the rest of the album aims for more of a gut-punch, mainly by way of Vile’s grim-faced, self-deprecating lyrics, such as, “Society is my friend/It makes me lie down in a cool bloodbath.”

Fortunately, Vile never approaches the role of the insufferable curmudgeon, pairing his darker passages with decidedly more lighthearted bits, such as the endearingly self-aware “On Tour.”

Throughout Smoke Ring, Vile’s lyrics indicate a pronounced consciousness of mankind’s shortcomings, yet his refusal to fully succumb to defeatism imbues the album with a heartwarming hopefulness.

Vile’s lyrical prowess seems even more palpable because he acknowledges his limitations as a singer. He never overextends himself vocally. Rather, he emphasizes his characteristic twang to great effect. Just listen to the way he approaches the word “girlfriend” with such down-to-earth playfulness on “Puppet to the Man” and try to hold back a smile.

Also noteworthy, Vile will sporadically rework parts from prior releases. This technique is most prominent on “Runner Ups,” where he appropriates a few lyrics, as well as the melody, from “Red Apples” off 2009’s God is Saying This to You, and manages to sustain an entirely new song from this experiment. This creates a thread through his material that suggests a powerful command over his compositions.

Understandably, albeit predictable, many popular music publications have already made much of the album’s departure from the in vogue lo-fi trappings of Vile’s earlier work. However, what’s most striking isn’t that this batch of songs forgoes a few fuzzy layers, but that Vile seems to have mastered a distinctive brand of craftsmanship, regardless of a certain production aesthetic.

His songs don’t necessarily build to any sort of release so much as they simply yet confidently soldier forward, buoyed by Vile’s tightly constructed, rock-steady songwriting.

This allows for a huge payoff on a track like the previously mentioned “Puppet to the Man,” which chugs with the kind of sturdy, no-nonsense swagger that calls to mind Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” while simultaneously hearkening to past Vile standouts such as “Hunchback” from Childish Prodigy or “Freeway” from Constant Hitmaker.

With Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile achieves a forward-leaning momentum that only points toward further success in the future. Few artists can smoothly segue into more accessible territory while remaining firmly anchored to methods their earlier achievements yielded. And who knows? He just earned the highly coveted yet dubious “Best New Music” designation from Pitchfork, so maybe they’ll ask him to play their festival again. If so, expect Kurt Vile to wow you.

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo Tracklist:

  1. “Baby’s Arms”
  2. “Jesus Fever”
  3. “Puppet to the Man”
  4. “On Tour”
  5. “Society Is My Friend”
  6. “Runner Ups”
  7. “In My Time”
  8. “Peeping Tomboy”
  9. “Smoke Ring for My Halo”
  10. “Ghost Town”
  11. “(shell blues)”
J Mascis – Several Shades of Why


A funny thing happens when you listen to the new J Mascis album. As the front-man for perennial guitar-rockers Dinosaur Jr., fans have grown accustomed to his brusque playing style. The sounds emitted from his guitar are often assailing—a unique barrage of fuzz and energy as endearing as it is blistering. Seeing the band live has been known to rupture ear drums, but that’s all part of the appeal.

So when Mascis’ new solo venture Several Shades of Why begins with somber, acoustic melodicism, it’s enough to render a double take. The album is 10 tracks’ worth of quiet pop songs that sound nothing like Mascis has recorded in his entire career.

Though initially disarming, Several Shades of Why settles into a charming collection of quiet tunes that speak volumes of Mascis’ eclecticism as a musician.

Without the sometimes burdensome instrumentation of the Dinosaur Jr. aesthetic, the aging rocker is free to explore other soundscapes via an acoustic guitar and minimal accompaniment.

The album’s opening track, “Listen to Me” adequately sets the mood for the album. Mascis’ somber croon breathes over a capriciously whistle–inducing guitar line. The lyrical content, however, is significantly more solemn. Words like “Waiting’s what we do/Not enough to give enough to you/Wish there was a place where it made sense/A place where we could rest” have an emotional resonance that seems divergent from Mascis’ other work.

Perhaps it’s the erratic sounds of Dinosaur Jr. that has kept his lyricism on the backburner. But on Several Shades of Why, Mascis proves to have an introspective quality that warrants this kind of acoustic deviation.

“Listen to Me” segues elegantly into the album’s title track, another infectiously melancholic ditty. Back-to-back, both songs make for a nice one-two punch that makes clear Mascis’ intentions. The rest Several Shades of Why proves to be a series of formal riffs, featuring songs that become more experimental as the album progresses.

Though Mascis opts for a quieter tonality for the album, he still employs his electric sensibilities to great effect. His signature sound first reveals itself during the bridge of “Is It Done,” a song that likely would have suffered from redundancy, had Mascis not decided to add a few more layers.

Meanwhile, the album’s catchiest track “Where Are You?” features a nice combination of jumpy acoustics and spritely rock riffage, proving Mascis recorded this album with a large scope: a number of sounds find their way onto the album, making Several Shades of Why one of the more diverse records to be released this year.

Despite the album’s strengths, it’s often hard to picture Mascis as the man behind the songs.

Several Shades of Why is about as far removed from Dinosaur Jr. as seemingly possible. Yet, this departure proves delightful. Mascis has crafted an album that showcases his technical proficiency as a musician as well as his ear for tune and melody.

Ringing ears be damned: Several Shades of Why is an effortlessly shameless listen.

J Mascis – Several Shades of Why Tracklist:

  1. “Listen to Me”
  2. “Several Shades of Why”
  3. “Not Enough”
  4. “Very Nervous and Love”
  5. “Is It Done”
  6. “Make It Right”
  7. “Where Are You”
  8. “Too Deep”
  9. “Can I”
  10. “What Happened”
Lupe Fiasco - Lasers Album Cover Lupe Fiasco – Lasers


Lupe Fiasco is trapped by his label and he can’t get out. The F’n’F ruler wanted three albums and then to be done with it—Warner wanted more. Despite a resounding Twitter petition to grant the man peace, to let him release LupE.N.D., the bigwigs didn’t flinch. So Lasers is not the final chapter, and maybe that’s good news, but it’s still heartbreaking to see an artist chained to a contract, while the money mongers yell, “Rap for us, now! More! More!”

Given the situation, Fiasco still managed to carve something out. Rather than concede and half-ass the difference, he’s determined to let the show the go on, even if it is painfully obvious how he feels, “Have you ever had the feeling that you was bein’ had/Don’t that shit just make you mad/They treat you like a slave/Put chains all on your soul/And put whips up on your back.” Lupe told Details, “It was a painful, fucked-up process,” compiling and recording the album; he battled the label as well as his own feelings of failure to create Lasers.

The album has shades of classic Lupe (songs like, “Till I Get There” and “All Black Everything”) but for the most part heralds a fierce departure.

Sarah Green helps open the album, not with spoken word, but soaring vocals on the final chorus of “Letting Go,” in accurate foreshadowing, it really feels like Lupe’s, “running out of soul.” Matthew Santos is conspicuously absent and the album no longer bears the conceptual unity of The Cool or Food and Liquor. Rather than relax his tone, he makes what might be his most confrontational piece yet. In “Words I Never Said,” he slams the war on terror, admits he didn’t and won’t vote for Obama, stands up for Jihad, slams Israeli occupation and tops it all off by warning, “Listening to Pac, ain’t gonna make it stop.”

Lasers (Love Always Shines Every Time Remember 2 Smile) thunders above the pillars of his previous albums. There’s an urgency to it that far transcends the laid back urban sailing of Food and Liquor and The Cool. It’s a darker, more vicious jaunt—if it’s more pop sensible that’s only because the futuristic smoke and “lasers” theme won’t let it be. Lupe makes it sound easy—maybe too easy, like he’s simply embedded in the vein of popular consciousness. If you’re worried about the piercing, punctilious flow losing step—the one that HOV hailed as “refreshing hip-hop” and earned him a spot in rap supergroup CRS—worry not. It’s not the verse he drops but what he drops it over that seems to be problem.

Trey Songz has a surprisingly on-point contribution with “Out of My Head,” one of the few hooks that feels genuine and not overbearing. British MC Sway hops on “Break the Chain” with Eric Turner languishing in the clubby chorus.

But for all the nuance and sharp darts of the early album, it noticeably slumps off and, in an attempt to sound more future forward, ends up sounding more dumbed down and club-like.

The tremendous irony of “State Run Radio,” where Fiasco spits, “Different is never good/Good is only what we pick/You ain’t gotta hear unless it sounds like these did,” is by then the album starts sounding as hackneyed as the airwaves. From its auspicious opening, Lasers falls off, resorting to corny electro hooks and half-baked R&B choruses. Granted, the album would belie its namesake if it didn’t at least once delve into dancefloor but Lupe should know by now that he doesn’t have to. His relentless, dazzling lyricism stands alone.

Lupe Fiasco Lasers Tracklist:

  1. “Letting Go”
  2. “Words I Never Said”
  3. “Till I Get There”
  4. “I Don’t Wanna Care Right Now”
  5. “Out of My Head”
  6. “The Show Goes On”
  7. “Beautiful Lasers (2 Ways)”
  8. “Coming Up”
  9. “State Run Radio”
  10. “Break the Chain”
  11. “All Black Everything”
  12. “Never Forget You”
Delicate Steve Wondervisions Album Cover Delicate Steve- Wondervisions


Instrumental bands aren’t getting a lot of press coverage right now, but that didn’t stop Delicate Steve from putting out an album chock-full of excellent guitar work—unfortunately at the expense of almost everything else.

Steve’s debut, Wondervisions, is so focused on guitar that it takes focus to see if the album features any other instruments at all. At the forefront of each song is an upper-register guitar riff that sounds a bit like math rock played for a Hawaiian luau.

It has the unique ability to be both heavily syncopated and relaxed, and the character brought by its twangs and liquid pitch make it easily the most interesting musical element on the album.

Accompanying that is usually a rhythm guitar and a very simple drum pattern. Percussion (frequently only maracas) hides so far in the back that listeners must actively search for it, which often leaves the album lacking a proper pulse or drive. Synths appear in a few select tracks but exist only to emphasize the importance of the guitar and sometimes feel like an afterthought.

While Steve’s dedication to minimalism must be respected, it’s particularly unfortunate that when he does build his sound by adding more consistent drums and heavier, distorted backing guitar on the track “Butterfly,” it creates what is easily the most compelling sound on the entire release. A few more tracks that build the way it does would’ve made the album much more powerful.

An album entirely about guitars can be pulled off if done correctly, but Wondervisions ultimately leaves listeners with nothing to grab onto. Though the album is immediately accessible, nothing really screams out for repeat listens; the sound doesn’t have that kind of depth.

The content might be a little too sugary-sweet to have much lasting appeal, but the album as a whole is actually structured rather well. Clocking in at almost 30 minutes, Wondervisions knows its greatest strength lies in its brevity. That might sound like a jab at the music, but it absolutely isn’t. An album this candy-coated could easily begin to aggravate listeners if it drags on too long. This release’s short burst of intensely upbeat guitar is exactly the right length, a quick in and quick out that leaves the album feeling perky instead of overblown or bloated.

Most of the tracks on the album have a very similar vibe, but they are thankfully broken up by a number of quick (usually in the realm of 30-35 seconds) spacey, lo-fi intermissions. The tone shift these breaks supply keeps the album feeling much fresher than it would’ve if they had kept their trademark sound constant.

As an album, Wondervisions bravely tries something different, and while it doesn’t get the kind of depth and repeatability that excellent music needs, it does create a surprisingly enjoyable experience, even if that experience is a little shallow. Perfect for low-key parties or backyard barbecues, but not really the sort of music for highly personal listening.

Delicate Steve – Wondervisions Tracklist:

  1. “Welcome-Begin”
  2. “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble”
  3. “Source (Connection)”
  4. “Sugar Splash”
  5. “Attitude/Gratitude”
  6. “Source (Construction)”
  7. “Wondervisions”
  8. “Z Expression”
  9. “Don’t Get Stuck (Proud Elephants)”
  10. “Source (Bridge)”
  11. “Butterfly”
  12. “Flyin’ High”


Lucinda Williams – Blessed


On her tenth album Blessed, Lucinda Williams takes a deep look into the world around her from the kitchen table of all places. After making a career out of singing about being in and out of love, she takes a moment to breathe and ponder issues that may not have bothered a younger soul.

Williams is a perfectionist when it comes down to it and Blessed is no exception to the rule.  Although most of the tracks may seem to drag slowly, there is this feeling of accomplishment as the album begins to close. There is an impression of helping a close member of the family work through a hard time in their life , like seeing something through to the end.

There is no shortage of issues tackled throughout this album. “Seeing Black” is an alt-country ditty touching on the matter of suicide wherein Williams’ bluesy lyrics are coupled with Elvis Costello on guitar. She comes out with some serious conviction and lends an emotional progression to the track that helps the listener grasp all the feelings at the surface and those that lie beneath.

Williams takes the feeling of a girl’s heartbreak that has lasted through the ages and lends her twist to it. “Buttercup” has descriptive wordplay that coincides with a woman fed up and kicking her old man out. The song is upbeat and coupled with a sassy guitar and finger-licking good organ, and has a clear “good luck, now get the fuck out” attitude.

As the album’s acoustic namesake, “Blessed” harnesses good old-fashioned country tunes and outlines all the little things in life that are a blessing.

This injects the life lesson of always being thankful for what you have because you never really know what you do until it’s gone. The song is simple in concept but has a slam poet appeal with the repetitive use of “blessed” throughout.

Throughout the album, Williams digs deep in her satchel of low-key vocals and adds them to each track as an extra instrument. What some songs may lack in excitement instrumentally, her lyrics make up for by adding that slow, dripping molasses feel. It’s like there is a moment when that sweet, dark taste is on the tongue.

“Kiss Like Your Kiss” starts out with a faint cello playing quietly in the background and wakes slightly with the strumming of a guitar. Williams’ vocals kick in and wrap the entire song in sadness. It plays out like a heartbroken lullaby sung up to the sky for that missing someone who will never hear it again.

The real standout on the album is “Soldier Song.” It crisscrosses a soldier’s thoughts on the frontline with thoughts back home. When he’s sitting in the guard tower, his mind starts to wander. Williams captures these thoughts perfectly and in a slow and conscious way that brings the listener back and forth from home front to warzone as the soldier is faced with thinking about his family while killing his enemy. When the song draws closer to the end, it sounds like a letter to the widow of this now dead soldier telling his girls why daddy will never come home.

Lucinda Williams has a way with words. She takes the most poignant realities in life and slaps them together with that slurred blues voice of hers and pours it like a finely aged wine. As musicians are cranking out single serving hits to the insatiable masses, it’s good to know there are still a handful of professionals willing to take the time to do things right.

Lucinda Williams – Blessed Tracklist:

  1. “Buttercup”
  2. “I Don’t Know How You’re Livin'”
  3. “Copenhagen”
  4. “Born to Be Loved”
  5. “Seeing Black”
  6. “Soldier’s Song”
  7. “Blessed”
  8. “Sweet Love”
  9. “Ugly Truth”
  10. “Convince Me”
  11. “Awakening”
  12. “Kiss Like Your Kiss”
The Strokes – Angles


It’s been a decade since The Strokes’ debut, Is This It?, shook a scene immersed in cock rock and pop starlets. The arrival of the New York quintet made The Strokes the juggernaut of “The” bands and Is This It? a bastion of hope in a rock world that lacked a fresh pair of balls and Chuck Taylors.

It’s been five years since their last release, First Impressions of Earth, left listeners wanting more, and after touring was wrapped the group didn’t lend much perspective on their future. After solo projects that made fans further question the future of The Strokes, the group releases Angles, and now they’re at it again.

Perhaps, we shouldn’t break out those black shirts with the neon Strokes logo just yet.

Parts of the album are left hanging. The best example is “Machu Picchu,” which gives the initial impression of the album with a Men At Work-friendly, yet vomit-inducing guitar progression. However, the chorus ushers an infectious guitar part that rescues and carries the rest of the song.

Nick Valensi and guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. pick up the pace during the chorus of “Two Kinds of Happiness,” a song that could be a beautiful ode to new wave a la Ric Ocasek, but is otherwise a good time to take a break from the headphones. “Gratisfaction” would be a catchy tune if it wasn’t such a strange reminder of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In the Years,” and “Games” is such a snooze-fest filler on the album.

But, for an album whose musicians themselves admit could be better, Angles is still worth a listen.

Within the half-assed homages to ’70s and ’80s pop lays evidence of an obviously talented band taking a few practice swings, and there is plenty of diversity in the music, be it the moods or the throwbacks to past albums.

“Under Cover of Darkness” is a simple, foot-tapping sing-along reaching back to their Is This It? roots, and “Metabolism” is the twin brother of First Impressions’ adrenaline-happy “Electricityscape.”

“You’re So Right” is a trippy ditty in the vain of “12:51,” “Taken for a Fool” is a catchy, chant-worthy tune that’s probably a lost b-side for Is This It?, and “Call Me Back” is a quiet crooner with classic Strokes appeal that has Casablancas crying in the background of the instrumentals “Waking up is so much fun to do.”

The Strokes may have returned with a lackluster release, but Angles is still a decent record for the collection. Despite the few songs on Angles that are more similar to  pop songs with mutations than authentic Strokes material, the album is, hopefully, a precursor to the better album Valensi feels the band is capable of creating.

The Strokes – Angles Tracklist:

  1. “Machu Picchu”
  2. “Under Cover of Darkness”
  3. “Two Kinds of Happiness”
  4. “You’re So Right”
  5. “Taken for a Fool”
  6. “Games”
  7. “Call Me Back”
  8. “Gratisfaction”
  9. “Metabolism”
  10. “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight”


Rival Schools – Pedals


It’s been nearly 25 years since Walter Schreifels’ first band, the highly-influential Gorilla Biscuits, made their appearance on the New York hardcore scene. Since then, Schreifels’ has been a part of various bands across several genres.

Whether he’s playing post-hardcore with Quicksand or arranging acoustic solo material, Schreifels has proven a versatile and prolific songwriter.

In the early 2000’s Schreifels rounded-up some of hardcore’s elite, such as Sammy Siegler on drums, Cache Tolman on bass and Ian Love on guitar, to form the indie rock, post-hardcore hybrid Rival Schools. The hardcore supergroup released United by Fate in 2001, an album that was palatable both to the underground community as well as a mainstream audience.

Unfortunately, the latter never embraced the record and soon thereafter Love departed from the group in 2002. The band started work on a second album that went unreleased before disbanding in 2003.

After a decade of recorded silence, Rival Schools return with Pedals. While it doesn’t pack the wallop United by Fate did, that’s not to say it is heartless. In fact, Pedals injects the emotive element often lacking in modern indie rock.

Pedals opens with the one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Wring It Out.” The song sees Rival Schools creating a sound that is often described by rock critics as “mature,” and in this case, it is quite apt.

Implementing tightly wound riffs that are coated in effects keeps the song’s aggression from becoming alienating, while Siegler and Tolman create an infectious groove. When the chorus hits, it creates an anthem around Schreifels’ top-notch vocals, “I want to wring it out/Every ounce/I want to do the right thing, when the right things counts,” it sticks in listeners’ heads without becoming grating.

As Pedals progresses, it is evident that Rival Schools has no interest in recreating the victories of United, but that it is far more interested in making a timely step forward. The whole of Pedals displays signs of each member’s past work without merely regurgitating it. Siegler’s work on the hi-hats in “69 Guns” sees him playing a dance beat that would never have been welcome during his time with Youth of Today, but the energetic performance certainly would have.

Over the course of Pedals’ 10-tracks, there are few instances where Rival Schools misses the mark. “Choose Your Adventure” is, without a doubt, the album’s weak point. It finds itself sandwiched between three incredible introductory offerings and the album’s powerful second-half. While it is one small error, the song’s annoying choruses make it worth skipping on each repeat listen.

Ten years is a long time between albums, but in this instance it was worth the wait. Rival Schools not only prove that they have lost nothing from that break, but that it’s gained a great amount of perspective. Pedals proves indie rock can be subtle and charming without losing its power and heart.

Rival Schools – Pedals Tracklist:

  1. “Wring It Out”
  2. “69 Guns”
  3. “Eyes Wide Open”
  4. “Choose Your Adventure”
  5. “Racing to Red Lights”
  6. “Shot After Shot”
  7. “A Parts for B Actors”
  8. “Big Waves”
  9. “Small Doses”
  10. “The Ghost Is Out There”
Julianna Barwick The Magic Place Album Cover Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place


Working with her voice as the primary instrument throughout The Magic Place, Julianna Barwick has taken something unique and made it an ethereal listening experience as well. While a lot of experimental artists can fall flat when executing their concepts, Barwick excels, revealing her approach as a natural and evolutionary process.

From the opening strains of “Envelop” through the album’s closer “Flown,” Barwick further establishes herself as somewhat of a modern day Laurie Anderson or Manuel Göttsching in her perfect implementation of concepts.  Angelic, haunting and reassuring, the album’s greatest asset is its welcoming feel, which allows listeners to impose their own ideas and thoughts to Barwick’s work, while she gently guides.

The Magic Place is a “time-and-a-place album,” but when and where are entirely up to the individual listeners’ taste.

This holy experience might be exactly what a traffic bound commuter needs to gather oneself, or it could send someone into their dreams as they pass into unconsciousness.  Not many albums can make that claim. While calm and soothing, The Magic Place is never boring or repetitive.

The slight flourishes (such as Barwick’s distinct vocals first heard clearly in the closing moments of the title track) give this album a living quality, as if it breathes in different fashions after each listen.  Slight piano trickles in and out of songs throughout the album, floating in alongside the airy vocal tracks.  The effect creates a distinct feeling, a meshing of sounds where introductions remain hidden in the gales of reverb, but step out of the mix as the ear extracts them.

A step above ambient music’s involvement, Barwick’s Magic Place still requires the listener to contribute to the experience.

Simply putting it on as background can offer its rewards, but a detailed listen will uncover this album’s many treasures.  The music has a cinematic quality, as Barwick will surely be tapped to score an independent film sometime in her career.  The music invokes simple images and feelings: churches, birds, open fields, snow, desolation, a wintery chill. Yet the album never feels cold or forceful in its direction while avoiding the meandering this concept could have brought with it.

By the time the album reaches “Vow,” the tuned ear is ready for the closest thing Barwick delivers to a hook with a reoccurring chant that could be ignored if it didn’t arrive out of such sonic ambiguity.  This kind of haziness serves a purpose in delivering the wordless message of The Magic Place.  Using mainly vocals with trickles of piano, the album instead uses massive amount of reverberation to open the field of creativity and production.

While Sigur Rós may have brought this angelic music to the forefront of the independent scene earlier this century, artists like Barwick take nonsensical wails and turn them into angelic beauty, much like the Icelandic pioneers.

At the arrival of closer “Flown,” Barwick sheds some of the expansive effects on her voice with a cleaner, choir-like delivery, this time hitting closer to Elisabeth Fraser’s work with the Cocteau Twins on vocals and electronic pioneer William Orbit as far as the composition of the song itself.

Julianna Barwick calls upon her influences in oblique and interesting ways.

Trying to trace The Magic Place back into the lexicon of music is an instant dead end, with only a few solid mentions of where her material could have come from.  While going back to something as old and common as the human voice, Barwick has found something new and is still able to deliver a highly listenable experience.

Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place tracklist:

  1. “Envelop”
  2. “Keep Up the Good Work”
  3. “The Magic Place”
  4. “Cloak”
  5. “White Flag”
  6. “Vow”
  7. “Bog in Your Gait”
  8. “Prizewinning”
  9. “Flown”
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar


Their sound can be cloudy, but the band The Joy Formidable gets the mood across. They are a beast speaking in epic choruses and heavy guitars in their debut album The Big Roar, skirting the line between noise and melody. At certain moments songs will fall too far on the side of inarticulate loudness, but most tracks on the album are aggressive, quality tunes.

Rock fans have much to be happy about.

The Joy Formidable’s music is best described as prog-rock with grunge leanings. The band consists of three members with an approach to sound that works well. Tracks like “Buoy” breathe menace with raw speed and interesting dynamic shifts. A guitar melody runs through the track, with vocalist Ritzy Bryan matching its intensity. The result is a cool hook that rides nicely on Matt Thomas’ hard hitting drums. The band structures the song well by pulling back the decibels only to bring in the full force of all three band members at the end.

Bryan’s voice lends the music its epic and hopeful quality, and she mostly manages to rise above the maelstrom of drums, guitar and bass. The band sounds like an army despite consisting of only Bryan, Thomas and bassist/vocalist Rhydian Dafydd. Much of it can be attributed to the skills of Thomas who manages to drive songs with complex rhythms without slowing down. Bryan is also the band’s lead guitarist and her ability to shred in songs like “Chapter 2” deserves praise. It’s a testament to her talent that she can play and sing at the same time without losing the effect of either.

There are moments, though, on Roar where they go a little too far with the volume.

The first track, “The Ever Changing Spectrum of Life,” builds up nicely with some percussive noise, a light touch of synth and a rising guitar fading into the first verse. Here Bryan’s voice is complemented nicely by the muted guitar and simple drum rhythm. The song then throttles back and forth between the verse and chorus, but suffers a bit in the finale with a sustained escalation for the last two minutes. Notes and rhythms can be heard, but the intricacies become hard to pick out.

“Whirring” is another song where the music loses steam because of sensory overload. The song starts with a simple chord structure, and quarter note beat and then goes into another epic chorus. The song then shifts in the middle and the band starts ratcheting up the tension by half steps. That tension never gets resolved though and the song loses its muster before it eases up.

As a whole The Big Roar is a good, but flawed album with music that reflects its title.  It’s stuffed with epic highs and taut lows that should leave many rock fans satisfied.  Unfortunately, the finer details too often get swept up in the chaos, and that’s a real shame considering the quality musicianship between the three band members.

The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar tracklist:

  1. “The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie”
  2. “The Magnifying Glass”
  3. “I Don’t Want to See You Like This”
  4. “Austere”
  5. “A Heavy Abacus”
  6. “Whirring”
  7. “Buoy”
  8. “Maruyama”
  9. “Cradle”
  10. “Law=Wall”
  11. “Chapter 2”
  12. “The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade”
R.E.M Collapse Into Now Album Cover R.E.M. – Collapse into Now


For the more troubled half of its existence, R.E.M.’s songs have displayed the band’s faith in the future, extolling the virtues of pushing forward without looking back. But the R.E.M.’s 15 effort, Collapse into Now, seems to make the most sense when looking in the rear view.

Collapse Into Now can be seen as a trilogy’s closing act. A dark, political (and widely misunderstood) pop album, 2004’s Around the Sun was quietly uneasy about a brewing shitstorm under Bush, while on Accelerate, a band fed up with flat-earth politicians and short-sighted critics alike took the gloves off with its loudest set in years. That line from “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” – “history will set me free” – was hard to read as anything but a statement of triumph from a band many thought was finished.

Though promoted as a record of nothing but bitter brevity and high volume, Accelerate was more diverse than the promotion machine claimed, and is the first album since 1996’s accidental masterpiece New Adventures in Hi-Fi to really try on different hats. With slow, mid-tempo and fast cuts bumping shoulders for equal time, Collapse into Now expands that approach with imperfect sprawl (Accelerate was too meticulous; R.E.M. is thankfully looser here).

Now that their Mr. Smith went to Washington and bumped out Mr. Richards, politics are on the backburner in favor of personal dialogues.

“Discoverer” lights a fire at the outset as the narrator works through a spat with a partner, fueled by vodka and espresso, only to “wake up dreaming saffron, turmeric and brass.” Meanwhile, “Überlin” downshifts with a celestial folk melody and passionate delivery from Michael Stipe about a traveler losing himself in the German city.

As much as possibility and optimism reign, there’s a sad side. The nocturnal melancholy of “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” takes a moment for heroes that withered rather than fell, and yesterday’s dreams that followed. “It Happened Today” is more vague, its unnamed epiphany dissolving halfway through for a wordless vocal jam with a faint Eddie Vedder.

Famous guests are mere bonuses.

After years of finding the right chemistry for post-Bill Berry R.E.M., this five-man lineup has locked in on an elusive homegrown magic. New Bill (Rieflin) in particular is a secret weapon on Collapse into Now, his grounded fury suitable for any weather R.E.M. can lay at our feet. Check his lightning-rod fills on the caustic kiss-off “All The Best,” where a defiant Stipe rails “I rang the church bells ’til my ears bled red blood cells.”

Speaking of paint-peelers, “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” is the life of the party. It ups the bozo giddiness of Accelerate‘s “I’m Gonna DJ” to maniacal levels, with Peaches of all people on crowd control (and sounding relatively reserved compared to her day job). “Hey, hey, alligator, you’ve got a lot to learn,” Stipe taunts, a warning to a new breed of fantastical pop stars who often bite off more than they can chew, but with a wink rather than a wag of the finger.

Along with “Alligator,” Collapse‘s quirky, peppy moments (“Mine Smell Like Honey,” the Al Pacino name-drop in “That Someone Is You”) nicely balance out the sobering tone set by “Walk It Back,” a minimal ballad featuring angelic backing vocals from Mike Mills and “Marlon Brando.”

For a band that continues to surprise, the most remarkable thing about the album is how well everything flows, from the stately New Orleans homecoming of “Oh My Heart” to the rumbling bravado in “Mine Smell Like Honey,” where each chorus sounds just a little different from the one before.

Stand and applaud producer Jacknife Lee for ensuring the occasional atmospheric wash enhances rather than drowns out the softer songs.

As classicist as Collapse into Now is, the best track is its sole arty indulgence. Rambling closer “Blue” does its own thing entirely, as wailing feedback signals the implosion and a verbose Stipe falls over himself, just as he did the last time Patti Smith showed up on record (for Hi-Fi‘s “E-Bow the Letter”). Though the chords are a little familiar, Stipe’s untethered telephone confessions, a robotic voice murmuring “blue”, and a surprise ending make for one of R.E.M’s most haunting songs.

In the band’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Stipe said his grandmother believed R.E.M. stood for “remember every moment.” There’s not a forgettable one here, whether you favor a Brando slow-burner or Pacino-esque intensity. But is it R.E.M.’s time to collapse? As they forgo tour plans and excuse themselves from the promo circuit, one can hope not. However, if it is, it’s a superb last stand to remind listeners why they stood with these discoverers in the first place – they gave listeners hope, too.

R.E.M. – Collapse into Now tracklist

  1. “Discoverer”
  2. “All the Best”
  3. “Überlin”
  4. “Oh My Heart”
  5. “It Happened Today”
  6. “Every Day Is Yours to Win
  7. “Mine Smell Like Honey”
  8. “Walk It Back”
  9. “Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter”
  10. “That Someone Is You”
  11. “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I”
  12. “Blue”