Monday, October 26, 2009

Cold Toads - Friendo

Cold Toads

Bart Records / Myspace

SCQ Rating: 75%

My first listen to Cold Toads instinctively brought to mind slow walks from crowded school buses and trying to find a natural stride along cold backstreets, snowtops crowding the curbs. It’s like I’m in middle-school again, pretending to understand Pearl Jam and Nirvana while at school but once I was off the bus, my old Panasonic Shockwave was rocking homemade mixes by local Sonic Unyon artists like The New Grand and early Treble Charger. Hearing the sounds of true Canadian indie should probably bring me back to those ever-so-awkward, early teens but, instead, Friendo reestablishes the feel of winter-sick, Canadian basement recordings that I can now fully appreciate.

Moreover, a record like Cold Toads is a rare find as it manages to satiate my love of American Analog Set and early Sonic Youth all at once. The basic set-up (Henry on drums, Michael on guitar/vocals and Nicole on guitar/vocals) provides a mellow DIY aesthetic reminiscent of that defunct Texan group’s home-recorded work, which turns tracks like ‘Liner’ and ‘Callers’ into pure comfort music. In my opinion, this Calgary-based trio could’ve wandered into the sunset with such a laid-back sound but Friendo ain’t no one-trick pony. Mixing their lo-fi rock with an art-rock approach to dissonance, Cold Toads baby-steps further from my ideal lounge-about-the-couch-on-Saturday-night music with each successive track, and becomes a statement of intent. From the breezy tempo and de-tuned guitar noodling that evokes - but should hardly be restricted to - Sonic Youth, ‘Oversees’ carries a casual momentum that opens into distorted bliss while ‘Sibley’ finds the trio falling through that rabbit hole with heavier percussion and inaudible, across-the-room vocals. Brief and contained like a case of momentary insanity, Friendo resume composure for perhaps the best track, ‘Young Fellows’ which combines their implausible influences into something raw yet well-rounded. Allowing their heavier side to rumble loomingly along its fringes, Friendo commit memorable vocal hooks and some rather heroic guitar chords to ‘Young Fellows’, ending the mini-album on a high note.

Discovering Friendo takes on additional coolness when considering how bloody hard they are to find. Working exclusively with the cassette format (on that note, check out how ‘Hailey-Omen’ knowingly cuts in and out like a mixtape you’ve recorded over a thousand times), Cold Toads is making me long for the days when I had that Panasonic Shockwave clipped embarrassingly to my belt. On second thought, maybe I’ll stick to the MP3 code it comes with after all…

A Brief Affair of Limping and Gathering of Clipped Wings - Kram Ran

A Brief Affair of Limping and Gathering of Clipped Wings

Kram Ran
IT3 Records.

SCQ Rating: 68%

Due to a last-minute venue switch, I closely followed several message boards - each clamoring to make sense of a chaotic situation – to find out directions, door-times, ticket prices and whether this Former Ghosts show was really going to happen. When I checked for an update moments before leaving, I read that Kram Ran had volunteered to play an impromptu acoustic set to open the evening. I’d never heard of Kram Ran before and I wasn’t alone; standing between strangers during his gig, I could tell by the glances of shy hipsters, the body language of those shifting weight in the front, that most people didn’t know what to make of this guy. As he warbled and wailed and attacked his guitar with offbeat slaps, I realized that these onlookers weren’t bored or purposefully being passive-aggressive… they were slightly uncomfortable. Kram Ran's performance was so insular and moody, its intensity made people awkward. Now there's a power that shouldn't be undersold.

A Brief Affair of Limping and Gathering of Clipped Wings, released in August of this year, does an adequate job of capturing Mark Wohlgemuth’s off-kilter antics while presenting a powerful songwriter at work. Combining these disparaging sides of Kram Ran – the goofy and the gorgeous – is a give and take, as they often show up in the same song. Despite the layered drones and tape recordings that commence ‘A Death & Kill’ in a far-off haze, the opener is suddenly diluted to a plucky piano repetition, where Kram Ran’s vocals first reveal themselves like Alec Ounsworth if the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah vocalist was impersonating an elderly woman. It should be noted at this stage that those aren’t his natural vocals so much as one of many left-field WTFs chosen to either sidetrack or sabotage his efforts. ‘To Dance With You Dear Dread’ is a better representative of his distorted wail; unhinged, gloriously off-key, and lost in that song’s squall of harsh dissonance that winds down to some beautiful, sparse keys. Kram Ran’s duality is again hurdled on ‘Limping Through the Snows of Kilimanjaro’, where Wohlgemuth’s stream-of-conscious curses over crunchy beats and coked-out synths are slowed to a glacial pace of haunting beauty.

The second, less abrasive half of A Brief Affair… finds Kram Ran settling into subtle electronic compositions and resigned vocals that better showcase his focus, as if the earlier panic attacks have given way to an exhaust but clear afterglow. With dripping and tapping percussion, ‘The Trial’ arches into a melodramatic climax whereby the lyric’s ticking clocks and split bodies are explained through the violence of gauzy synths and ravenous vocals. It’s the last outburst on A Brief Affair…, leaving closer ‘Kill Then Give’ to present Kram Ran’s best focus yet. Matching vaguely IDM-inspired loops to lilting acoustics and restrained vocals, ‘Kill Then Give’ creates a landscape of its slowly shaping melancholy, wandering sparse valleys and distorted peaks to a contemplative close. Wohlgemuth may have played this track live - it’s hard to be sure - but the highlights on A Brief Affair of Limping and Gathering of Clipped Wings suggest a potent artist for Canada’s New Weird, building genre-mashed narratives with a fatalistic flair.

New Leaves - Owen (No Ripcord Review)

New Leaves

Polyvinyl Records.

No Ripcord Review: 9
SCQ Rating: 86%

In his detailed lyrics of innermost uncertainty and near conversational delivery, Mike Kinsella has arguably bridged an intimacy with fans stronger than early Bright Eyes or modern-day Ryan Adams. That’s no faint praise. Whereas those troubadours often write songs to future or ex-lovers, this Chicago native strips his songs of pretension to the far-end where only he should be blushing. And that’s because, ironically, this project given the name Owen is really the Mike Kinsella show; a perpetually updated journal that delves so deeply into the man’s vices, guilty pleasures and reckless desires, every narrative is tainted by his twisted perspective, however funny or hungover. In that respect, it makes sense that listening to a new Owen record is like catching up with an old friend, one who is unapologetically nostalgic and frank, but rarely off the mark.

So when this summer’s Seaside EP, a limited release of rare tracks and b-sides, found ‘I Woke Up Today’ tapering out with a poignant realization (“either I just got kicked in the teeth / or time has changed me”), it registered as a monumental, lyrical cliff-jump for long-time fans. Just like that, the quarter-life crisis that had been boiling beneath the marriage-and-picket-fence existence of At Home With Owen was at once assured and destroyed, giving New Leaves the respectable task of moving into our strange, unsure notions of adulthood. Kinsella confirms as much while drinking with college kids on ‘Never Been Born’, discovering his bones feel older when he’s away from home by closing “it’s a young mans game / and about time I quit”. By no means does this chapter-turning imply that Kinsella has been assimilated into big-box suburbia, thank god, as this self-described “house-broken, one-woman man” remains as stubborn and confused as ever. Between skirting responsibility in favour of playing his guitar (‘Too Scared To Move’) and refusing to cater to demanding fans at his shows (‘Curtain Call’), New Leaves presents the same unflinching Kinsella we’ve grown to love. Only now, we’re growing up with him as well.

Beyond his newly domesticated surroundings, At Home With Owen also found him trading in his mother’s house – a regular recording spot for previous releases - for a full studio, which fleshed out his guitar-based tunes with a variety of strings and keys. Those production techniques have been fully embraced here, fleshing out Owen’s trademarked acoustic flourishes with punchy electric guitar on ‘Good Friends, Bad Habits’ and warm strings on the uptempo ‘Amnesia and Me’. These pillowed arrangements sweeten Kinsella’s occasional bitterness on ‘A Trenchant Critique’ with its vaguely electronic percussion and string-laden backing and truly startle listeners on ‘Brown Hair in a Bird’s Nest’'s gorgeous climax, as the orchestration tenses up over Kinsella’s “I didn’t lie to you…” confession before unfurling elegantly upon his admission “…I just didn’t tell the truth”. Despite the lovely veneer of New Leaves, Owen’s lyrical bite remains as devastating as ever.

Like Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Owen’s discography directly reflects the growing pains that time and age introduce, documenting the successive stages of confidence, cowardice and acceptance that most artists tend to cheat. And while Mike Kinsella remains a potty-mouthed contrarian at heart, time is dulling his self-righteous streak into something quite dignified. New Leaves may tackle some subtle rites of passage - small in scope but difficult for most men to deal with – but they’re approached with such delicate grace, it’s hard to question that this may be Kinsella’s finest hour yet.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord...)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vancouver - Matthew Good


Matthew Good
Universal Music.

SCQ Rating: 87%

In April of 2008, I posted some rough first impressions on a series of demos leaked to the internet, all of which were purportedly conceived and considered for Matthew Good’s follow-up to Hospital Music. While the post has been a regular attraction for curious Matthew Good fans this past year and a half, I hadn’t bothered to re-read those demo-inspired sentiments until tonight, as I expected to disagree now that those songs have been studio-recorded and widely released as Vancouver. Yet of the demos that made it to Good’s fourth solo album (‘Bad Pennies’ was wisely nixed), who could deny what convincing mannequins they are when compared to their finished compositions? Due to my usurping of those downloaded demos, Vancouver lacks a ton of surprises one would expect from a new release… meaning two things: (1) the many things I loved about the demos are bigger and better on this finished LP, and (2) a few aspects of the demos I shrugged about remain largely unchanged.

Skirting those speed-bumps for now, however, let’s get to Vancouver’s considerable punch; that after Hospital Music’s acoustic and autobiographical intimacy, Good has fought forward with his first unabashed rock record since 2004. Better yet, it’s his most impassioned set since Avalanche, again neighbouring personal reflections with political call-to-arms and sounding positively indebted to his subjects of choice: the state of human decency, the state of Matthew Good. It seems like a disclose and destroy strategy, touching upon his private life in delicate detail while swinging his social viewpoints wildly, but given the BC city’s recent lack of human decency (in a coarse nut-shell: the impending Olympics have instilled city workers with the “right” to forcibly displace homeless people, some of whom Good knows), Vancouver is a well-planned platform for Good to combine his seething disbelief with nearly two decades of lived-in memories. The weight of this back-story isn’t required reading but it provides additional chills for long-term Good fans. ‘Empty’s Theme Park’, for example, stories Good’s early adulthood living out of a basement apartment in Port Moody but beneath the surface level - of a rearview look at him and his city, growing up – ‘Empty’s Theme Park’ is a microcosm of many Vancouver themes, outlining Good’s own mental illness, then undiagnosed and torturing him, and how it connects him to a tragic percentage of homeless people. How deeply one wishes to tread into the record's subject matter is as optional as how much one chooses to read on his prolific, oft-outspoken website, but what’s important is that Good’s return to rock isn’t without purpose or real emotion.

That said, Vancouver doesn’t forget to bundle up some newborn Matthew Good classics. True to the demo’s potential, ‘The Boy Who Could Explode’ is a thrilling masterwork; grinding as if Good was scratching palm-stiff guitar strings like a train over tracks, the song blossoms into a symphonic anthem of unblinking assuredness. In fact, coupled with the intensity of opener ‘Last Parade’, this latest album nearly overwhelms in its first third. Luckily its mid-section settles into meat and potatoes rock on ‘Us Remains Impossible’ and the twilight acoustics of ‘On Nights Like Tonight’ (think a more personal, concise ‘Avalanche’). Considering Vancouver’s multiple candidates for “classic” status, the track that screams out the clearest is ‘A Silent Army In the Trees’, which digs into the gray area separating childhood war fantasies and real military life with some of Good’s most powerful lyrics to date. Interesting enough, ‘A Silent Army In the Trees’ and nearly every song on Vancouver is longer than it needs to be… yet as a testament to the songwriter’s charisma, the songs don’t suffer from their seven or nine minute lengths. If anything, their longer gestation time uncovers added significance for listeners, further removing Good’s work from radio-rock’s narrow-minded limitations and warranting him an audience all his own.

If there’s any miscalculation to be mentioned, it’s that some tracks feel longer than they are on account of tepid backing-band arrangements. When Good announced ‘Champions of Nothing’ would open Hospital Music at over ten-minutes in length, he was the first to comment that it was his longest composition. And while no single track on Vancouver crosses that milestone, their stationary performances (the unwavering percussion, the carbon copy guitar lines) lack spontaneity as if there was no backing-band, as if some of these tracks never evolved beyond the measured tracking that laptop recording insists upon. In that respect, a great song like ‘Vancouver National Anthem’ is reduced to a decent take and ‘Empty’s Theme Park’ borders on overkill. Yet ‘Champions of Nothing’, still Good’s longest song, feels far shorter than both of these tracks thanks to its shifting, surging dynamic; a few songs on Vancouver’s back-end could’ve used more of that.

Bearing in mind how bleak Hospital Music was, it’s something of a double-take to realize that Vancouver might just be the darker record. Brooding strings and ominous synths, while shaping the album’s sonic mood no differently than how the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra filled out Avalanche’s sound, menace beneath every track and Good’s lyrics recapture the visceral, angry mentality of Beautiful Midnight (granted, with a more mature, justified approach). The key to this permeating darkness is wielding it effectively, whether needling it into goofy social commentary on ‘The Future is X-Rated’ or sacrificing it altogether for vulnerability on ‘Empty Road’. Although Vancouver is most certainly his easiest solo album to get excited about, Good’s instrumental moodiness nearly gets the best of him.

New Clouds - White Rainbow

New Clouds

White Rainbow
Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

The only time I’ve spoken to Adam Forkner, aka White Rainbow, was after his opening set for Atlas Sound where he was promoting the 2007 release Prism of Eternal Now. After congratulating him on a brilliant set, which consisted of Forkner establishing a sound-collage one loop at a time before improvising over it, I asked him how ‘April 25th 11:14pm’ came about, Prism…’s centerpiece and my favourite cut. Without hesitation, he admitted the track emerged after he pressed record and started experimenting, borne of the same spontaneity that complimented his live show. The memory of that short conversation came rushing back to me when first hearing New Clouds, the massive new album that finds White Rainbow fully embracing wide-eyed, freeform explorations and, big surprise, thriving within them.

At four songs stretching almost seventy minutes long, New Clouds instantly steals the crown as Forkner’s most challenging release (think about it this way: if you buy the double-vinyl format, that’s one track for every flip of a record!). Sure, White Rainbow records have blurred limitations before; Zome’s title track was a twenty-minute odyssey and even Prism of Eternal Now, despite its more economic song lengths, still tested the CD format’s boundaries. Yet New Clouds represents a first in the White Rainbow discography, finding Forkner dedicated to his longform compositions and challenging himself to pack as many movements and dynamics into these aural ecosystems as possible. ‘Tuesday Rollers and Strollers’ is a sweltering overlap of laser-synths and steady glitches, gradually shedding its synthetic skin for natural percussion and hazy vocal chants. Keeping the haze machines working, ‘Major Spillage’ borrows the tribal beats of ‘Mystic Prism’ and matches them to radiant layers of ambience that Forkner himself might call “healing music”… even if the mood takes a somber nose-dive.

All of this is to say that nothing here sounds remotely like ‘April 25th 11:14pm’. Where that song exemplifies Prism of Eternal Now’s habit of surveying an aural space with slight modifications before abandoning ship, New Clouds filters countless song ideas into varied segments which transport the song to places far-removed from its starting point. Opening the record’s second half with its most propulsive track, ‘All the Boogies in the World’ grows from multi-dimensional beat-programming to employ White Rainbow’s signature vocal and psychedelic guitar work. And although ‘All the Boogies in the World’ climaxes around the eight-minute mark, Forkner turns the track on its head by smudging its anchor - a blunt, low-end key – into the primary catalyst for shimmering, piano-assisted breakdown. Ebbing into still-life ambience, the track shows no interest in recovering its quick tempo when ‘Monday Boogies Forward Forever’ follows accordingly with a rippling guitar over pillowed bass stutters, as if gently waking from the previous track’s excess-driven pass-out. In my experiences, New Clouds should be challenging because of its hefty expectations on listeners, not because its arsenal of ideas leave us desperate to keep up. Yet whatever odds White Rainbow seemed to being playing against on paper sound exquisite on record, routinely forcing listeners to backpeddle and pinpoint where precisely he turned the gears on us.

Still, an album of such epic proportions requires time-and-place considerations, like a wild hallucinatory mushroom you need to mentally prep for, and there will be occasions when this White Rainbow joint will be too cumbersome for your playlist-of-choice or your minute-by-minute attention span. I can assure you: its charms will keep you coming back. Strictly paced yet chocked full of surprising turns and subtle twists, New Clouds is ideal music for sky-watching as each track – whether fluffy or stormy – carries its own boatload of headphone-jacked excitement. Above all, Forkner manages to prevent a collection of twelve to twenty minute songs, each painstakingly detailed and arranged, from sounding over-the-top - a feat in and of itself. This ain’t no circus; this is still a unified ambient album. You can’t rearrange its tracks without sabotaging it and you can’t wear it out when the weather’s constantly changing.

Friday, October 16, 2009

144 Pulsations Of Light - Ethernet

144 Pulsations Of Light

Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

A fun sociological experiment: next time you’re mingling with strangers – be it at a party, wedding, funeral, elevator ride – and music is the topic at hand, mention that you like electronica. Yeah, even if you really don’t. Odds are, the crowd will nod in passing interest and conversation will undergo a hiccup of uncertain silence before the subject changes. If you’ve had that happen to you, understand you were hearing the silence which occurs when a genre pushes against defiant ears. Largely due to electronic music’s failure to breach mainstream America in the late 90s, most people I meet only recall uncomfortable fads by aging figureheads (Fatboy Slim, Prodigy) when the genre’s best facets still lurk beneath, anxiously collected by those in-the-know. And having been one of those innocently ignorant people - one who believed the Chemical Brothers were the crowning gem of their genre – I’m fascinated to now take a similar joy from Ethernet.

Needless to say, Tim Gray doesn’t sound a note like your average pre-millennial Astralwerks act; in fact, he’s setting out to accomplish quite the opposite. Here, on his Kranky debut, Gray, aka Ethernet, turns electronica inward, burying its beats and stretching its melodies into ebbing, collapsing sound environments. Hardly groundbreaking, 144 Pulsations Of Light is an ambient techno record, through and through, but what renders it so addictive is how Gray gravitates toward natural tones and organic knick-knacks which feel innately human. Beneath the optimistic drone of ‘Summer Insects’ lies a buzzing commotion that would easily be labeled “otherworldly” if it didn’t all sound so familiar. Like listening to a distant lawnmower in mono or recording black-shelled vibrations in the dirt, Ethernet’s sound is as fascinating as it is instinctive. Amid Gray’s faintly morphing soundscapes, certain rhythms spring forth; the devious percussion of ‘Majestic’ taps like blood through your temple while the woozy ascending keys of ‘5 + 7 = 12’ create a dizzying zone-out. The richest evocation of earthly rhythms belongs to ‘Seaside’, which undulates echoed heaves as reliably as sepia-tinged waves over unsettled effects that ward off new-age comparisons. That such introverted techniques can hypnotize listeners just as convincingly as the blunt instruments used to hammer stereotypical dance-anthems is a well-earned badge for Ethernet, since a release like this rests on the polar opposite end of electronica’s mainstream.

There’s a sterile abyss to 144 Pulsations Of Light that is vaguely reminiscent of The Sight Below’s 2008 full-length Glider; both records are so committed to immersive swooning and 4/4 beats, they virtually negate artistic ego. And while Glider’s beats were up-front and bass-heavy, Ethernet’s (although harder to find) are likely more complex, less stationary. A track like ‘Kansai’ almost foregoes the ‘ambient’ half with an agitated BPM and restless bubbling effects, sounding closer to Quiet Village’s ‘Singing Sand’ than most long-form atmospheres. That many of these familiar sounds can be traced to field recordings from trips Gray made to central Japan and California is no surprise, given how involved these tracks feel. In short, each of Gray’s tunes has too much on its plate to simply fade into the subconscious; this may be aural hypnosis but it’s also active listening.

Casual electronic fans may look elsewhere but a work like 144 Pulsations Of Light should no doubt make waves among dedicated ambient techno fans. Here’s a record too restrained for ADD downloaders and too revolutionary for your party friends who think electronica is best kept in urban raves. Let them think you spend your late-night hours lying about your apartment with rave goggles on, deafening neighbours with pummeling bass - who cares! The truth is, with Ethernet, you’re closer to being in the womb than anywhere else.

Mistral Moon EP - Syntaks

Mistral Moon EP

Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 71%

If you haven’t kept up with Jakob Skott lately, you might be surprised to learn what you’re missing. Following his solo Syntaks releases and his collaborative work on Morr Music’s Limp, Skott began working with Anna Cecilia – first as a one-time vocalist and later embracing her as a songwriting colleague. Now a duo and signed to Ghostly International, Syntaks are poised to unleash their new album Ylajali on November 3rd, 2009, but enough catch-up history. To whet our appetites and reintroduce themselves, Syntaks have issued a teasing preamble of whats to come with Mistral Moon EP, a free digital download available from Ghostly.

Citing Eno as a sonic father-figure, the duo kick off in classic Music For Airports fashion with the echoed vocals of ‘Sudden’, which Cecilia mouths over loitering low keys and an emerging backbeat. Although this track is more of a segue than a fully fleshed-out composition, there’s no denying how infectious and lavish ‘Sudden’ feels, capturing the widescreen cinematics of M83 in barely three minutes. When ‘Mistral Moon (Illuminated Version)’ begins, it’s almost pay-off after the former’s breathless anticipation. What ‘Sudden’ seemed hesitant to disclose, this EP’s title track dives into with crystalline melodies and sparse beats that approach Ulrich Schnauss’ shoegaze ambition with a patient, post-rock discipline. With every keyboard note given added dimension by Cecilia’s far-off coo, Syntaks back off at ‘Mistral Moon’’s halfway point, allowing a brief contemplation of descending synths before regaining its prior glory. With revved up guitar effects and more excited break-beats, ‘Mistral Moon (Illuminated Version)’ closes in graceful fashion; a powerful statement of production savvy and romantic songwriting.

And yet Mistral Moon is no EP. This is a teaser, a brief coming-attraction event to get indie-electronic fans talking around the watercooler (or in our case, vinyl shelves) for Ylajali’s imminent release. And guess what? It just worked.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fleurs - Former Ghosts


Former Ghosts
Upset the Rhythm Records.

SCQ Rating: 89%

Back home for Thanksgiving, 12:30am: I grab my overcoat off the rack and slip into a drizzle ten hours strong. Caught on the wind and clinging like orbs to my sleeves, the downpour is almost sleet, pulverizing mist swirling the suburban backstreets. My concrete path shimmered in bruised crabapples and falling leaves, I parade all the dead confetti that’s at once celebrated and depressing; a complicated ecstasy and withdrawal that pervades Fleurs, the record buzzing between my headphones. Former Ghosts is a fitting title for a number of reasons, the least of which being the former bands this synth-pop ensemble originates from (although Freddy Ruppert of This Song Is a Mess But So Am I, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu and Nika Roza of Zola Jesus joining forces is hardly an afterthought). Inspired by the shadows of lost comforts but performed as a morbid party for their passing, Former Ghosts is a band hell-bent on facing past lives and, in effect, exorcizing themselves.

“Two paths crossing at just the right time,” intones Ruppert at the start of ‘Us and Now’, breaking us into the emotional gravitas of Fleurs with a cavernously layered opener of sharp keys and subtle yet glitch-y programming. Like a State-of-the-Union conversation between lovers, ‘Us and Now’ is a crash-course in Former Ghosts’ subject matter – dealing with love as a cause for a plethora of passionate effects – yet these lyrics seem born out of necessity instead of self-absorption, and Ruppert’s hounding insistence gives a do-or-die authenticity to familiar feelings. For the uninitiated, a first impression of Ruppert’s vocals might recall the baritone of Ian Curtis, which is a fair assessment although Ruppert’s clears a few hurdles Curtis seemed headstrong against. Even when going without the compressed effect that thins his voice into tin-strands around phrases on ‘Mother’ or the slight warps that quivers his timbre on ‘Unfolding’, Ruppert bleeds emotion through his natural voice, crooning instability on the squealing ‘Hold On’ and understatement on the resonating mood-piece ‘Choices’. That his passion happens to be matched by his bandmates is a serious bonus; Nika Roza unleashes the most arresting vocals on Fleurs with ‘In Earth’s Palm’ and ‘The Bull and the Ram’ while Stewart wisely counters a discreet but nonetheless enchanting vocal performance on ‘I Wave’. The thrill of these individual efforts are only defeated by hearing all three of these musicians in time together, as on ‘Hold On’ when Roza’s wail announces itself only after a climactic crest of chants and synths subside. Opposing Joy Division’s obsession with alienation, Former Ghosts are constantly reaching through dense arrangements for renewed understanding.

Above all, Fleurs’ distinction goes to the instrumentation which, despite being drenched in reverb and no-wave effects, balances a surprising duality. Complimenting the lyrical battle between starry-eyed destiny and downtrodden reality, Former Ghosts trade soft keys for serrated ones, crisp electronic taps for blood-rushing live percussion, and together exude a violent beauty too self-destructive to leave alone. Like manic bouts of depression, ‘Flowers’ finds Ruppert torturing himself over brisk beats and urgent keys before slipping into a post-meltdown relief where everything slows with his heartbeat. And appropriately, Fleurs does the same for its listeners, providing an outlet for innermost reflection which, when opened up to, becomes an insulating soundscape of mourning and rejoicing. “Two paths crossing at just the right time,”? You said it.

Its intensity giving way to comfort, Fleurs is one of those rare albums that seem capable of shielding you from emotional harm, even when its songs are slowly burning away your defenses. Such revelations became clear to me as I walked that fall midnight, wandering high school streets. As ‘This Is My Last Goodbye’ sang its sparse epitaph of drum loops and buzzing synth between my ears, I caught thinning trees, like shadows waving, before the fluorescent glow of a local mall. Even when closed, its parking lot lights pollute night’s darkness as though suburbia reserved their own sky phenomena. And representing the equator and prime meridian crossing of both this small town and my teenage years, this mall is among many things I’ve exorcized in my slow ascent toward adulthood. The brilliance of Fleurs is its use of nostalgia as a forward-thinking weapon… and that’s ammunition Former Ghosts and listeners can share together.

Higher Than the Stars - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (No Ripcord Review)

Higher Than the Stars

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Slumberland Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 4
SCQ Rating: 46%

Being a hipster used to be pretty straightforward. I mean, I’m no trendy dresser and my opinions aren’t anchored to a megaphone but if someone is describing “some hipster event” or “my hipster friend”, chances are I’ll really enjoy that show and dig their friend. So why do I hesitate embracing being outted and comfortable in my hipster-status? Because like anything old enough to be dated, hipsterism has gone postmodern! C’mon, you know the suspects: the kids who drop a few hundred to dress like bohemians, the hood-wearing teens who picked up Saturday = Youth cause they thought the breakfast club on the cover were band-members, the people who see that ‘Hipsters Must Die’ t-shirt in Urban Outfitters and fail to see the irony. And, in no small measure, the surface-level pastiche that boils to the root of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

I wasn’t always so disapproving; last winter’s self-titled debut had its share of allure, like ‘Stay Alive’s lovelorn and gauzy chorus to ‘Come Saturday’s, spritely and, uh, equally gauzy chorus. And although the press treated them as if C-86 hadn’t happened and been mimed already, I could appreciate small accomplishments like crossing ‘Young Adult Friction’s early twee pleasantness with a dose of tried-and-true NY cool, or ‘Gentle Sons’, easily their gutsiest song to date. Besides giving my dreary February an optimistic soundtrack, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart presented a band largely content to posture on auto-pilot.

Whereas EPs are often seen as outlets for experimentation or as homes for orphaned tracks, Higher Than the Stars aims to accommodate the literal meaning of Extended Play, simply offering more of the same fey pop albeit a tad less homogenized. Proceedings open with the twinkling title track which, beyond the faintly audible strum in the mix, is virtually devoid of six-strings. It’s a commendable decision that finds the quartet’s stargazing no less potent amid such thunderous absence. An early hint at The Pains of Being Pure at Heart moving closer to dream-pop is scoured, however, by ‘103’; a two-minute blast of distorted guitar slabs that, predictable they may be, manages to disguise some goofy, faux-dramatic lyrics. Despite that crater, Higher Than the Stars recovers on the good graces of ‘Falling Over’, which boasts a bass riff and brisk percussion reminiscent of the Smiths’ early swagger. When the EP lags again on ‘Twins’, it isn’t the songwriting to blame so much as the boring arrangement which, as usual, dismisses actual dynamics between instruments in favour of smothered, compressed guitar chunks. Leave it to Saint Etienne to point out these sonic crimes with a remix of ‘Higher than the Stars’ that frees that track’s compelling melodrama with svelte keys, a defined rhythm and up-front vocals.

Beyond flirting with the notion of branching out, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart cling to the same stubborn formula on Higher Than The Stars EP, following each adventurous half-step with a cowardly sprint back to their comfort zone. An EP has never broken a band commercially or critically and even if it could, this isn’t a flagrant low-point anticipating collapse. Instead, this middling release finds the fashionable foursome happily re-writing familiar hooks and expecting hipsters to lap it up. Now this is a super-young group of musicians who’ve been working at a fever’s pace, so in no way am I suggesting that The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are past their prime. What I am saying is that the songs on this EP already feel old, excavated from the self-titled record and surgically removed from the romanticized 80s. If The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are in this for the long haul, they’ll have to do more than retro posturing. They’ll eventually have to create something new.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord... )

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Marlone - To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie


To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie
Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

What is truly noir is also timeless. Regardless of whatever noise-pop, lo-fi, surf-rock preoccupation happens to be plaguing the trendsetters at present, the always-hyphenated noir (be it future-noir, tech-noir, pop-noir, you follow…) perseveres because, frankly, gloom is eternally contemporary. Undated and constantly reshaped, the pop-noir that infected generations via Fiction or Factory records has evolved and interspersed itself throughout the Kranky catalog… burrowing itself in peaceful aural environments or confronting listeners at will. Like a microcosm of Kranky’s multifaceted sound, To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie occupy both sides of the spectrum – the nestled ambience, the jagged sound-manipulation – on Marlone, while unveiling a few surprises that’ll shock just about anyone.

If you’re still a little rusty on the whole noir style, here’s some framework: think Broadcast (only more brooding), Ladytron (only less electronic), and a pinch of Portishead (only more dissonant), and you’re ready to hear To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie. Or stretch the stylish mayhem of the Raveonettes’ rock into the paranoid after-hours, where sleep-deprived thoughts become hallucinations and wraithlike effects build into breathtaking songs. The Minneapolis by-way-of Virginia duo Jehna Wilhelm and Mark McGee seem all too familiar with this mental no-man’s land, dedicating their second full-length for Kranky to gothic-tinged lullabys and pretty nightmares. Most immediate of the bunch is ‘The Needle’, which thrives off an opening riff so effect-laden, it’s nearly impossible to detect whether it’s a synth or guitar, before falling into the bottomless lurking of Winhelm’s sedated coos and McGee’s terrifying sound-clashes. The track ends nowhere near where it began and that’s the closest hint to a No Exit sign you’ll find here. As proven by ‘You’ve Gone Too Far’, To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie aren’t aiming to craft an urban purgatory… they’re skirting an edge, playing catch on the fringe of the unknown. As that opening track’s languid melody gathers steam and falls into time with an ominous crosswind of tribal percussion, this vibe of “the unknown” is entirely believable. In one case, the duo falls right in with ‘Turritopsis’; a slow take-off (at ten minutes) which burns its industrial swagger in clouds of distant vocals and cymbal-crashing reverb.

Alternately, To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie’s willingness to play with fire results in some brilliance that is actually quite accessible! Under the chilling sound-collage of ‘Along the Line’ is a pulsating stunner of a song, rhythmic like techno but carried by Winhelm’s solemn vocal hook. Watching its back is ‘I Will Hang My Cape in Your Closet’, a gorgeous post-rock slowburner which is as charming, nostalgic and life-affirming as its title suggests. It’s here in the heart of Marlone that we realize how exceptional the record is, showcasing a genre-skipping ambition that integrates noir in all its hyphenated guises. As challenging as it is vulnerable, To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie have unleashed an unnerving, surprising album – one that, unlike 2009’s trendy minutia, you won’t soon forget.

Unmap - Volcano Choir


Volcano Choir
Jagjaguwar Records.

SCQ Rating: 52%

For those casually perusing this blog for the first time, let me announce forthright: I completely missed For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008. My friends recommended it, my girlfriend owned it – hell, I even bought it as a gift for someone else – but for reasons unknown, I ignored Bon Iver’s debut until after buying Blood Bank EP. So approaching Unmap, Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver)’s collaboration with indie post-rock outfit Collections of Colonies of Bees, I was bewildered by the dramatic divide separating Volcano Choir’s adoring fans and those bitterly – might I stress personally - disappointed listeners. Suddenly I’m kind of relieved For Emma, Forever Ago didn’t rock and capsize my emotional epicenter, as it’s clear that most who disapprove of Unmap are steadfast For Emma… fans unwilling to accept Vernon unless he’s loveless in a Dunn County lodge. And while Vernon knows he’s being pigeonholed, make no mistake, Volcano Choir isn’t the unexpected project to sway those die-hard expectations.

Unmap certainly makes a solid proposition to be seen as a different angle of the-man-behind-Bon-Iver, but it seems clueless as to which angle to travel. Providing a more varied platform for Vernon’s voice - the undeniable star of the show - Volcano Choir paces the driveway throughout its nine songs, occasionally kicking leaves but mostly waiting for a ride. Throughout the sound-check of guitar and voice in ‘Husks and Shells’, which is a pleasant yet reserved impasse, and the percolating guitar-webs of ‘Seeplymouth’, I held faith that this extended warm-up was part of Unmap’s dynamic, that Volcano Choir – both Vernon and Collections of Colonies of Bees – had considerable stake in this and sought to make a statement. Yet ‘Seeplymouth’’s eventual drone and tribal-drum freak-out blows on unwavering like a deer in the headlights, unsure where in its near seven-minute length to deviate and unwilling to take the song back to the drawing table to discuss such specifics. The record never learns or recovers from that moment, instigating breezy post-rock meanderings that sputter to shrugging ends (‘Dote’) and chastising fans with one-off minute-long goofs that reveal what an ego project this really is (‘Cool Knowledge’). When the band fully unites and commits to a song as on ‘Still’, it’s one we’ve already heard acapella on Bon Iver’s Blood Bank EP, fleshed out here with free-jam guitars and thudding kick-drums. This updated Volcano Choir version maintains the inner deliberation of the former (entitled ‘Woods’) but also preserves its tedium, as the band again fails to nourish their instrumentation with new ideas. If you’re waiting for me to suggest that the best is yet to come, take a deep breath and understand that ‘Still’ is probably Unmap’s crowning moment.

Big surprise, Vernon sounds awesome; he does a haunting choir-effect on his multi-tracked vocals on ‘Youlogy’, giving it that archaic, cathedral effect and experiments with a Nina Simone / Antony Hegarty delivery on ‘Mbira in the Morass’. Yet he can’t save Volcano Choir on his own. The greater offenders are the Milwaukee-based Collections of Colonies of Bees, who despite their numbers often sound suspiciously absent from the studio. With this collaboration being the outfit’s most high-profile gig, you’d expect them to make a good impression yet their role in Volcano Choir doesn't exactly make me want to rush out and hear their independent work. Unmap isn’t disappointing because it’s unstructured or because it fails to be For Emma, Forever Ago Part II. Unmap is disappointing because it finds competent musicians who’ve been responsible for creative achievements coming together and issuing an album that’s best described as boring.

Girls Come Too - Still Life Still (No Ripcord Review)

Girls Come Too

Still Life Still
Arts & Crafts Records.

No Ripcord Review: 8
SCQ Rating: 80%

I like the idea of carpet burns and shower curtains and cum towels, you know? I like to find the beauty in all that, the poetry in all that. That's what I like to write about, the fights, the humanity, the breath, the sound of the breath. I find something glorious about that.” – Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene, Pitchfork Interview, 2007.

One listen through Still Life Still’s debut disc and off I went, rifling through dusty interviews on the web in search of what is re-printed above; namely, a keyhole into Kevin Drew’s lovable dysfunction. This carnal yet romanced viewpoint, which contributed deeply to such BSS-oriented classics as ‘Lover’s Spit’, ‘It’s All Gonna Break’ and ‘TBTF’, has an unforgettable quality not easily sidestepped or ignored. Hell, the fact that I remembered the two-year-old interview in which this excerpt was borrowed should suggest as much. Yet it preludes this review not because Girls Come Too has found its home on the much-beloved Arts & Crafts label (which he co-founded) and not because Drew helped record and mix this debut (although he did). Instead, the ringleader’s quotation sprung to mind because Still Life Still – lyrically, musically, ideologically – encompasses Drew’s visceral raison d’etre. These are sweat-soaked bottle-shards that adequately illustrate an undying lust, one that cuts itself for pleasure, and then cuts again for wanting it.

Of course, as aggressive and impetuous as this East York outfit sound, we’re talking Arts & Crafts, not hardcore punk, and these songs perfectly adhere to the Toronto-based label’s shimmering indie-rock paradigms. ‘Flowers and a Wreath’ draw clear parallels to the spacious mid-tempos and poetic rants of Spirit If…, while ‘Planet’ drifts post-coitus casual, layering bittersweet vocal refrains with the latent urgency of ‘Shampoo Suicide’. Yah sorry, there’s no escaping the Broken Social Scene comparisons; Girls Come Too evokes the collective’s more straight-forward leanings but puts their own cathartic stamp on it with dense, go-for-broke jams and, well, a heavy dose of eroticism. In other words, if you had a beer for every time vocalist Brendon Saarinen sang about sex, you’d be en route to hospital by the record’s last third. What pushes this hormonal preoccupation to the point of aural pornography is ‘T-shirts’, a track that helps distinguish the band from their Arts & Crafts colleagues at the risk of polarizing fans with lyrics like “If you don’t mind my cum on your tits / then I don’t mind your blood on my dick”. Now I don’t take issue with the lyrics so much as how they’re the foundation of a song that is basically a repeated chorus. As a two-minute rush of shock-me-now triggers, ‘T-shirts’ comes dangerously close to a demo or, worse, a gimmick, one that would tarnish Girls Come Too if the other ten songs didn’t stand on their heads the way they do. ‘Knives in Cartoons’ drives a spikier rhythm over dance-ready percussion while ‘Wild Bees’ is the morning-after reflection, offering acoustic details and a touch of dew-eyed sentiment.

Ultimately Still Life Still transcends by disguising their gorgeously moody jams behind “shower curtains and cum towels”, a strategy that first grabs listeners’ attention with lyrical jabs, but eventually unveils an instrumental tenderness that undercuts their sex-stained veneer. Girls Come Too is an orgasm for the heart and proof that while these songs are ideal for the hotheaded, almighty present, this band is looking well beyond the one-night stand. As longtime romantic Kevin Drew can attest, this band is too damned bright to get completely lost in their libidos.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord... )

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dying in Time - port-royal

Dying in Time

n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

First thing’s first: ‘Hva (Failed Revolutions)’ absolutely kills. Layers of beats – some fuzzy, some as clear as a knuckle knocking for attention from deep within your speakers – percolate over growing vocal haunts, eventually stuttering into an enticing breakbeat of BPM-morphing proportions. Over the course of this opening track’s eight-plus minutes, several different beat-genomes are tested out and while each races in and putters out like a dry run, its final quarter is dedicated to a patient build-up that feeds right into the trance ambition of following ‘Nights in Kiev’. That being said, it’s fair to ask one of the following two questions: (1) “so after eight minutes, the opening track never actually delivers…?”, and (2) “wait, aren’t these guys supposed to be post-rock?”.

In short, the answer to both inquiries is “yes” but black and white answers really blindside the beauty behind Dying in Time. ‘Hva (Failed Revolutions)’ is not only an album highlight but an unstable template as well, as many of these tracks breach the seven-minute mark by undergoing sporadic structural shifts. ‘Susy: Blue East Fading’ is a virtual three-song suite, stretching its gloomy loops for nearly three minutes before a 4/4 beat pops in and leads to a tantalizing dancefloor of the mind, borrowing early Depeche Mode’s temper and trance’s androgynous energy. Slightly less straightforward is ‘Exhausted Muse/Europe’ which buzzes and echoes like the neon afterglow of a Saturday night when industrial beat-programming jumps into the mix and robs the listener of his/her senses. It’s a jarring minute that’s lost amid the other nine and a prime example of how port-royal’s seamless compositions can tease one’s patience. By the time ‘Balding Generation (Losing Hair as We Lose Hope)’ trickles in like M83’s take on a techno anthem, Dying in Time begins to make sense. An impressive split between post-rock determination and electronic aesthetics, this mammoth collection resembles the sound of running back and forth between a late-night dance club and the frigid, spaceous winter outside. Despite the album’s cover-art, remember: there are no black and whites here. This is truly an album of grays, shifting and folding over one another.

To keep momentum, port-royal include a few shorter compositions (the tragic to ecstatic ‘I Used to Be Sad’, the super-retro ‘The Photoshopped Prince’) but these tracks generally segue into lengthier pieces. As if I haven’t mentioned the term “mammoth” already, it’s notable that at seventy-two minutes long, Dying in Time asks a lot of its audience. All of these songs are committed to a near-gothic moodiness that can sometimes give the record a one-note feel… and while it’s an added challenge, I can’t deny how often port-royal’s latest reminds me of Disintegration. Equally confrontational and absurdly one-note, The Cure’s 1989 masterwork has all the draws and repulsions that Dying in Time subscribes to: how each track warms up slowly and devotes itself to references of aging and death, not to mention how mercilessly dark the whole affair is. port-royal may overstress their point in a few cases but there’s no refuting how instinctive and all-encompassing Dying in Time sounds.

In All the Empty Houses EP - Epic45

In All the Empty Houses EP

Make Mine Music.

SCQ Rating: 81%

Once every few years, a band’s sound can worm inside my heart so lovingly and sympathetically, I’m stranded with the unflinching obsession of collecting that band’s entire life’s work. That’s what England Fallen Over did to me a few years back: its crisp guitar lines and programmed beats formed a melodic hybrid of pastoral post-rock that, for all my strengths, I couldn’t live without. After capping off their Make Mine Music catalog with 2007’s May Your Heart Be the Map, however, I could feel my neglected rationale returning to me. As instantly loveable as Epic45’s sound is, I realized how akin it is to a helpless puppy - heartbreaking and irresistible, sure, but also frustrating if it never grows stronger or seeks to better itself. While May Your Heart Be the Map was the duo’s loveliest record to date, nestled deep in earthy atmospheres and occasionally brilliant, it remained completely unobtrusive. Vocally, Ben Holton and Rob Glover were swallowed in the mix and their ever-softening dynamics were nearly flat-lined in the realm of comfort music. I quietly resigned myself to suspend expanding my Epic45 collection further.

In All the Empty Houses, their newest release and first which I should be avoiding, just proved my rationale to be utter nonsense. Where that 2007 full-length hinted at Epic45 exploring the vapours of cinematic ambience, this six-track EP finds the UK duo breaking new ground by combining meatier arrangements to their perpetually stunning melodies. It’s no brave experiment: this is still clearly Epic45… but I’d wager it’s the best Epic45 have sounded in some time. ‘We Were Never Here’ captures fresh, untreated guitars which, alongside sparse drums, devises a rhythmically complex underbelly for the repeated lyric “I thought we’d overcome the worst”. The sense of aftermath pervades these songs, calling out aging formative years on ‘Daylight Ghosts’ and resonating nostalgia in the title track’s overcast moods. Beyond the sharpened emotions present on In All the Empty Houses EP, the key to these tracks is their percussive sensibilities, using laptop loops and live drums to pace and punctuate their haunted memories. When Epic45 unveil their EP’s sole instrumental ‘Their Voices in the Rafters’, it’s a most welcome respite… allowing the band and listener to ponder the faint memories that all houses, empty or not, show evidence of.

Holton and Glover seem no less wistful or playful on In All the Empty Houses… and maybe that’s the point. Instead of trying to articulate their memories in radiant cinematics, they are hammering out their trademarked style with real conviction. ‘Ghosts On Tape’, instead of lilting listeners, punches out with prominent beats and up-front vocals which open with the rather direct “I’ll always remember you / you’re in my heart forever”. Considering how instantly gratifying it feels, the track’s title is a bit ironic; if anything, their last full-length sounded like ghosts on a tape. On In All the Empty Houses EP, Epic45 sound right next to us.

Waiting For Tomorrow - Cheju

Waiting For Tomorrow

Distant Noise Records.

SCQ Rating: 64%

Following the release of Broken Waves on Boltfish Records, Waiting For Tomorrow is Cheju’s second full-length of 2009. Having finished seven records in six years, such is the break-neck pace Wil Bolton has preferred throughout his career, issuing humble love-letters to relaxed beats and tender melodies. Distinguishing itself from the pack, Waiting For Tomorrow leans closer to rainy day ambient music, often letting the beats rustle half-realized in the back of the mix. The resonating piano that leads ‘Birch’ shares the spotlight as sparingly as ‘Amner’ allows its mumbling keys to speak up, while ‘Salt House’ is a lovely folk progression that fails to develop into song. Moreso than previous affairs, Waiting For Tomorrow has a contemplative edge that unfortunately sounds as if Bolton recorded this waiting for inspiration instead of soundtracking it.

Luckily Cheju’s latest doesn’t spend all its time wandering around the house. As the stuttering beats of ‘Grid Reference’ off-center some lovely keyboard melodies, ‘Unfold’ is classic Distant Noise electronica, all shimmering keys and laptop loops that spawn the wide-open feel only shoegaze can instill. These tracks are oasis’s, however; the few instances which find Cheju’s structures fastened down and eagerly motivated, among Waiting For Tomorrow’s beat-driven efforts or not. Although technically beat-oriented, ‘Half Remembered’ and ‘Loom’ keep time with tired, unwavering breakbeats; the former running a complacent seven minutes. For a disc so short on surprises, it’s downright shocking that ‘Neon Drift’, the longest track here at nearly ten minutes, feels like a godsend. What begins like another buzzing stalemate takes shape with Bolton’s treated guitar work, which echoes eloquently over a soundscape that organically grows from buzzes, to underwater gleams, to deft beat-programming.

The odd yawn aside, there’s nothing stylistically or technically ill-fated about Waiting For Tomorrow; in fact on paper it sounds low-key and pretty. And I can’t even argue that. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Cheju doesn’t seek any new ventures that haven’t already been pillaged and discarded by the likes of Arovane and Ulrich Schnauss a near-decade ago. Waiting For Tomorrow doesn’t underwhelm because it isn’t progressive, it underwhelms because it operates as if progression in electronica never happened. For an artist of such prolific nature, Cheju's conservative streak seems quite at odds with what should be a gradual evolution.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

As Good As Gone - Nudge

As Good As Gone

Kranky Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

While hardly one of Kranky’s most prolific acts, Nudge deserve the recognition of being among the label’s most irreplaceable. Navigated by Brian Foote, whose mixing and production work have recently helped birth debuts by Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza, Nudge also features the talents of Paul Dickow (from Strategy) and Honey Owens (of Valet). Amassing these unique electronic artists not only forms Kranky’s sole supergroup, it anticipates the collective’s long-awaited follow-up to Cached; a record that fused worldly dub to an eager assortment of clattering experimentation. Well, the wait is over. Closing a five-year absence, Nudge return with a recording that cloaks itself in winter-still atmospheres yet is too imaginative and unruly to hibernate.

Leaving Cached’s spunky demeanor to 2005, As Good As Gone is an entirely different creature; serene and cagey at first glance, these songs carry menace with such a delicate touch, listeners are liable to be soothed into the record’s creeping paralysis. Opening amid the warm afterglow of ‘Harmo’, Nudge appear content to craft a quaint ambient piece when its acoustic charms are gradually, systematically devoured by an encroaching darkness led through Owens’ frosty vocals. This ominous mood – neither anxiety-free nor downright sinister – surrounds these seven compositions and limits our field of vision, complimenting and contrasting the whitewash of ‘Verdantique’ with the anchored dub of ‘Two Hands’. The most haunting track, ‘Aurolac’, also happens to be the most conservative, rippling crystalline guitar codas off downcast bass-lines while the lighter ‘Tito’ endures hordes of eccentric buzzes and twangs for Owens’ airy singing, mouthing words without syllables. As odd a pairing as these tracks are neighboured together, ‘Aurolac’ and ‘Tito’ both exude patient breakdowns that push Nudge beyond easy classification. Sure, As Good As Gone lives up to its ambient leanings but it’s too progressive and shape-shifting to rest as evening mood-music. From jam-band structured breakdowns to the psychedelic guitar-squall on ‘Two Hands’, Nudge defies labeling (well, until that ambient-prog tag catches on) and rewrites the standards to which left-field electronic records should strive for.

As the aptly titled ‘Dawn Comes Light’ clears the fog with a long-form rumination, rising and settling by a lone guitar, a rapturous distortion erupts like sunlight burning Nudge’s fragile atmosphere into twinkling ethers. And although this deafening close, like other individual tracks, sheds little light on a narrative, As Good As Gone’s song-cycle is too cohesive and playful to cast off as unattached experiments. This is chilling head-candy, full of lavish soundscapes and raw instrumentation that equate to more than the sum of its parts. Challenges and rewards abound, Nudge have reemerged offering us a record worth sneaking into hibernation with… and right in time.

Some, When Alone, Cease to Exist - An Axe

Some, When Alone, Cease to Exist

An Axe
Decorum Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

When a young band of musicians seek to meld their love of “Nick Cave melodrama, Shadows twang and Roy Orbison croon” - as their bio states – into a cohesive, new sound, I confess to carrying a few reservations. Those aren’t flavours of the month being name-dropped there; those are timeless acts who have each claimed their stake by cutting a piece off the rock genre for themselves. And few bands – no less a group who’ve been together barely a year – risk approaching such revered company for fear of falling under pioneering shadows. Then again, you can’t truly achieve without setting the bar high and An Axe do just that with Some, When Alone, Cease to Exist; a recording of fatalist balladry and minor-key unrest that lives up to its bio.

Having cut their collection of songs down to a purposeful and direct four-track EP, An Axe imbed each composition with its own frightful imagery as if each belongs to a respective environment. The opening chimes and rollicking guitar of ‘Ship’ suggest an arrival by sea, whereby this Bristol-based quartet intends to explore the tales and tribulations of a less civilized age. Make no mistake, these are songs that belong to desperate times or desolate surroundings. Pianos echo as if stabbed in a darkened saloon, drums pound sparingly their ritualistic rhythms, and Chris Nicholl’s vocals hurdle the band’s confrontational melodies, assuming a lower croon on ‘Ship’ or a higher, delicate timbre as on ‘Island’. As visionary as An Axe – featuring Samuel Lewis (guitar), James A. Holland (piano) and Justin Clark (drums) – prove themselves instrumentally, Nicholl’s flexible vocals are indeed the icing on the cake, lilting and haunting Some, When Alone, Cease to Exist’s otherwise stark existence. Listen no further than ‘Taxidermist’s Bride’ to understand this band’s atmospheric prowess; how their web of moist guitars intermingle against unforgiving cymbal taps and morose lyrics which together form a sinister narrative befitting of Mr. Cave himself.

Another possible dark-horse influence, Robert Smith, devised a recording technique in the early 80s that sought to include a giant abyss among the bass, drums and guitar. In his mind, emphasizing a glaring absence in the arrangements not only hollowed a composition out, but also introduced a numbing emotion that no overblown, additional instrumentation could muster. An Axe seem to understand this less-is-more strategy, and while the collection runs a brief fourteen minutes, Some, When Alone, Cease to Exist is a varied sample of this young band’s vision and skill. Let’s hope to hear a full-length from these lads soon…!

Mister Pop - The Clean (No Ripcord Review)

Mister Pop

The Clean
Morr Music

No Ripcord Rating: 5/10
SCQ Rating: 57%

As surely as curious youngsters are digging through their parents’ old Zeppelin and Creedence LPs, curious hipsters are downloading early Clean albums. It’s as inevitable as the past is recyclable; the closer indie-rock came to mining late 70s alt-punk, the wider The Clean’s comeback platform unfurled. And given the fact that Morr Music has recently dedicated itself to modernizing New Zealand’s indie rep (last year’s Surf City EP, this year’s all-star covers double-disc of New Zealand’s alternative scene), it’s no surprise to find Mister Pop arrive via the popular German imprint. Yet for all that groundwork laid – not to mention the anticipation of The Clean’s first album in eight years – Mister Pop feels, well, off-topic… as if Morr’s twelve-month-long surf-rock pandering was built to teach a fatalistic lesson: you can’t go home again.

So erase your expectations of disaffected guitar riffs and proud loser anthems; The Clean aren’t interested in revisiting the past or living up to their pulse-pounding heyday. Instead Mister Pop aims for a psychedelic pleasantness where economic, mid-tempo tunes occasionally cross offbeat, worldly instrumentation. As with any record capable of alluring both carpoolers and stoners, the results here are varied. Lead single ‘In the Dreamlife U Need a Rubber Soul’ best characterizes The Clean’s aged jangle-pop, as relaxed vocals and unwavering structure offer melody but few surprises. The Clientele-esque rattle of ‘Back in the Day’ and Velvet Underground rip-off ‘Factory Man’ follow suite accordingly, showcasing dime-a-dozen chord progressions and lazy lyrics. Sure, nobody mistook The Clean for poets in their prime and I can look beyond each song’s chorus being a verbatim repetition of the song’s title, but clunkers like the spoken-word rambling “I’m not here for a long time / I’m just here for a good time” (‘Back in the Day’) or the aimless “A real-life factory man / and I’m no better than he cause I’m a factory man too” (‘Factory Man’) call into question whether this release is just a cash-in for the band. Thankfully Mister Pop retains some of the quartet's forward-thinking sensibilities with the effects-laden ‘Tensile’ and the barely audible no-wave backbeat of ‘Are You Really On Drugs’. To crudely divide Mister Pop’s straight-forward pop from its synthesizer-driven instrumentals, The Clean manage to give us a few decent guitar riffs. Of course, coming from an eight-year absence, that’s a polite way to infer disappointment.

Where this album truly feels loved by The Clean is on the instrumentals, which are multilayered landscapes of eloquent synths that provide the real personality to Mister Pop. Organic yet mystical, these lyricless passages reintroduce some much-needed uncertainty with the krautrock push of ‘Moon Jumper’ or ‘Simple Fix’s lush swansong. How these twee-approved embellishments help the record are hard to prove, seeing as none of them give Mister Pop the edge it sorely needs. Yet, in the least, the gentle sighs render Mister Pop as intermittently pretty as it is prosaic, and point toward a new, if unstable, direction for the band.

(This review was originally published on No Ripcord...)