Saturday, May 29, 2010

High Violet - The National

High Violet

The National
4AD Records.

SCQ Rating: 90%

Much of Boxer’s bid for “modern classic” status resided in its celebrated use of restraint. Gone were the half-drunk assertions that likewise humored or haunted ‘Karen’ or ‘City Middle’ and gone were Matt Berninger’s therapeutic bellows that lionized ‘Abel’ and ‘Mr. November’. By substituting Alligator’s isolated bouts of energy with rich subtleties – Bryan Devendorf’s rhythmic percussion, brass and string arrangements, plus the help of Sufjan Stevens and Padma Newsome, which never hurts - Boxer avoided acting as the comedown record it could’ve been, branching out instead of spiking upward. If that 2007 effort presented a skeletal inkling that The National were becoming expert arrangers, High Violet hammers the point home, taking their great material to higher, more resonant levels.

In an interview with Drowned In Sound, Matt Berninger explained the resounding goal of the band was to meet expectations by delivering something “awesome”. By that measure, High Violet contains the same less-is-more quality songwriting circa Boxer with a kitchen-sink’s worth of understated embellishments scrubbed in. Not that any of it sounds calculated or opportunistic; merely, High Violet sounds as if The National wanted to make a universally loved record, and threw all they had into it. The results are hard to ignore. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’’s atmospheric momentum moves contagiously across several varied but upbeat (well, ‘upbeat’ by National's definition…) highlights: ‘Terrible Love’ stomps over a lo-fi foundation of graying tones, rustic yet modernly compressed, while ‘Conversation 16’ builds just a few decibels shy of an Alligator climax with the strangely astute relationship-summation “I was afraid I’d eat your brains / cause I’m evil.” It takes a brilliant wordsmith like Berninger to contextualize such a phrase without letting it cheapen the narrative but it’s the two sets of brothers, the Dessners and Devendorfs, who make every hair on the listener’s arms stand straight while it’s sung.

A solid argument can be made that The National are never in finer form than on their slower songs. High Violet adds to that already arresting canon with songs at least partially indebted to the band’s growing vivacity for arrangements. ‘Sorrow’, a tightly strummed slice of melancholy replete with fractured piano and a rising choral, feels like a widescreen adaptation of ‘Daughters Of the Soho Riots’. Further down the record, ‘Runaway’ placates gentle mantras similar to ‘Start A War’, only backed by solemn brass instead of strings. Because The National have such a singular sound, this lineage traced to older material is inevitable and largely considered sport, since none of these semblances steal the thunder of High Violet’s upgrades. As a finale, the progressive couplet of ‘England’ and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ serves their sad-bastard reputation splendidly; ‘England’ as an arena-closing epic unlike anything previously recorded to tape and ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ as a show-off, one so beautiful and easy, only Berninger’s lyrics give it any quandary to wrestle over.

As someone who makes a daily effort to stay informed on new music – not to mention being a longtime National fan - I find it difficult to assess a record of High Violet’s hype without falling privy to its hyperbole or backlash. If High Violet is The National’s finest release, it isn’t terribly obvious. Like previous records, this one contains an oddball or two (‘Anyone’s Ghost’) that seeks only to serviceably fill gaps between the brilliance. What High Violet handily makes apparent, however, is that the long-running better-record debate pitting Alligator against Boxer just got twice as complicated. We should move beyond fickle comparisons at this stage of The National's career and simply bask in one of indie-rock's few active dynasties.

Be So True EP - MillionYoung

Be So True EP

Arcade Sound Ltd.

SCQ Rating: 77%

MillionYoung, formerly known as Mike Diaz, has been garnering a fair deal of attention on the heels of his latest EP, Be So True. While many will relate this rise in profile to the company Diaz keeps - Pitchfork-approved Delorean and fellow chillwave-soul Toro Y Moi are current tourmates - MillionYoung holds his own over the course of Be So True’s quarter-hour, layering electro-inspired keys over beds of dreamy atmosphere. Sure his one-man-plus-laptop set-up jives predictably to indie’s recent onslaught of bedroom artists, all nostalgia-driven and retro-motivated, but Diaz doesn’t shy behind his reverb.

Instead, Be So True EP evokes a slightly more assertive approximation of Junior Boys’ electro-pop, understating that Canadian duo’s romantic proclivity in favour of club-ready immediacy. ‘Cynthia’, with its playful bass keys and digital flourishes, broadens the Junior Boys’ detailed intimacy to anthemic levels as Diaz calls out in effect-muddled vocals. Arguably better is ‘Soft Denial’, an 8-bit coda-stream delicately entangled with cut-up melodies and a hazy choral reminiscent of Memory Tapes so confidently displayed, you’d be forgiven for missing how carefully constructed it is. Despite how synthetic his equipment sounds, Diaz achieves warmth from these compositions courtesy of some surf-ravished guitar tones that deepen ‘Mien’ and the vocal-hooks melting all over ‘Day We Met’. Like a lot of chill-wave related projects, Be So True’s easy appeal can feel like a cheat, the momentum of its beats so transparently propulsive, its vocals caught in the wake of Merriweather Post Pavilion and –really now - all that chillwave has defined itself as since. What saves MillionYoung’s easy appeal from just as easy criticism comes down to songwriting as, over five tracks, Be So True EP displays versatility at every step. Few records can double-agent so successfully between the club and the bedroom; for that reason alone, MillionYoung finds occasion to fascinate.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Check This! - Wallscenery Demos

Check This!

Wallscenery Demos

SCQ Rating: 69%

Check This!, like a shout you hear right before something drunken and disastrous happens, is an apt title for James Hicken’s sophomore release as Wallscenery Demos. A twenty-three track opus alternating between unhinged folk explorations, fuzzed-out beats and raw instrumentals, Check This! doesn’t branch out so much as explode like a firecracker, its embers – both magnificent and inconsequential – falling without plan or harmony. Such variety makes for a garage-sale of an album but also considerably ups the odds of everyone finding a few worthy gems herein.

The first of these worthy gems, for my money, is indeed the opener, ‘I Kept It Real’, a low-key composition punched-up with fuzzed-out guitar and a fantastic psychedelic breakdown. Blurring directly into ‘[The Last Days of Heavy Metal]’, the first in a series of scattered instrumentals, and capped with the layered ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’ To Say’, Check This! struts an impressive range of songwriting throughout its first third. Half of these highlights’ value can be assessed through the delicate atmospheres Hicken wields amid his lo-fi aesthetic, like the soft nocturnal tones hovering over ‘I’m Not Around’ or menacing beneath ‘Watch Your Back’. These fine touches iron out some of the more abrasively raw moments, although ‘[One of These Days One]’, in its distorted, skeletal form, flows so perfectly you’ll wish Hicken explored the sketch beyond its thirty-second timeframe. Yep, Check This! is full of contradictions – many of them engaging, some frustrating.

Wallscenery Demos also prides itself on a chameleon-like need to swerve recklessly between levelheaded songwriting and bizarre are-you-serious buffoonery. While the record’s second half carries a few more gems (the classic-rock infused ‘They’ve Fallen Down’, ‘My Highest Regards’), they’re neighboured with some gritty beats and amp-blown distortion (‘Raw Shit’, ‘Bring That Shit Back’) that hardly sequence well together. These audacious but out-of-place tracks break what fragile cohesive hold Check This! managed over its early tracks, and distracts from Hicken’s utmost strengths. Although I appreciate Wallscenery Demos’ gauntlet for its unique blend of influences – not to mention his willingness to self-destruct – Check This! attempts too many tricks at once. Whether his upcoming 2010 record reigns those bipolar elements together or not… I can assure you that it’ll still be worth seeking out.

Boca Negra - Chicago Underground Duo (No Ripcord Review)

Boca Negra

Chicago Underground Duo
Thrill Jockey Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 6
SCQ Rating: 64%

For any hot-blooded music adventurist, avant-jazz records should harness high expectations for the sole reason that all rules are, in effect, broken. As long as its listeners are acquainted with jazz and excited by its standard forms, its fluent rhythms, this futurist sub-genre should be a cakewalk of subjecting classic templates to radical reinvention. This premise of endless possibilities, while exciting when spouted off in jargon, doesn’t often translate well to tape. What happens post-structure? How does one weigh traditional jazz trademarks against an unbridled desire to dive into sonic unknowns? In other words, if avant-jazz is by definition the evolution of jazz, how does its soul usually get lost in the shuffle?

Boca Negra, the fifth release by Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor, doesn’t answer any of my genre-existential questions so much as further enshroud them. Yet still, I’m oddly satisfied. Even amid this record’s most loosely structured, grating moments – the aimless improvisations for 'Green Ants', the shrugging effects on 'Roots and Shooting Stars' – Boca Negra carries the flexible spirit of jazz in tow, maintaining its soul instead of crawling the nihilistic wasteland avant-jazz efforts often settle for. This - for lack of better word - authenticity vindicates some compositions that initially sounded slapdash, transforming the randomly bonkers tones of a track like 'Left Hand of Darkness' into a svelte, almost romantic rumination. Other songs unveil their treasures more generously; 'Hermeto' is a melodic coda of interloping keys and 'Confliction' hammers its baggage over traumatic piano chords before fading into a wasp’s nest of tight bass, deft percussion and shrill horns. By challenging their audience with constant dynamic shifts, Chicago Underground Duo inevitably render Boca Negra a prickly affair – hard to unravel, tougher to comfortably lose oneself in – and that makes rare moments of uncluttered beauty all the more pleasurable. Finale 'Vergence' utilizes electronic textures more honestly than its predecessors and basks in the after-hours glow of its minimal beats and sweeping ambience without losing a pinch of avant-jazz cred. The result truly dwarfs the cathartic outbursts employed throughout much of Boca Negra, and transcends my jargon about revolutionizing a genre. No thesis, no bells or whistles; Vergence just goes out and creates anew.

My high expectations for Boca Negra, misguided as they were, have been consoled, if not met, by the realization that if any act can legitimize avant-jazz beyond its narrow niche (never mind my aforementioned doubts), Chicago Underground Duo have the verve and creativity to enable it.

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

Saturday, May 22, 2010

An Open Letter To the Scene - Walter Schreifels

An Open Letter To the Scene

Walter Schreifels
Dine Alone Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%

Indie-rock suffers from low self-esteem and who can blame it? Even before birthing the “Alternative” cross, indie-rock seemed unable to flag down critics unless it was drenched in confrontational noise or bohemian pretentions (Sonic Youth, Sebadoh). And to this day we’re compelled by these bands that toy with transgressions untouched by their more conservative major-label counterparts, addressing stereotypes (Xiu Xiu), creating scenes (Animal Collective’s freak-folk card) and instigating world or zeitgeist influences that mainstream culture won’t catch onto for a few years yet. I’m speaking in broad-strokes with purpose here because my point is this: writers need an angle and indie-rock, in its dressed-down, rock-out basics, almost seems defiant by not joining the masquerade. Walter Schreifels has a decorated history among indie-rock’s legacy (leading hardcore acts Youth Of Today, Gorilla Biscuits, plus a slew of others) and reminds us how affecting straight-forward indie-rock can be, unadorned and pretention-free, with An Open Letter To the Scene. God help me if I know what to say about it, though.

Working with a palette that would make your average laptop-saddled chill-wave act blush, Schreifels sticks to a muscular selection of acoustic guitars and brisk percussion on his solo debut. ‘Requiem’ and ‘She Is To Me’ flex surprising emotion out of its clear-cut arrangements, the former an upbeat tell-all that plunders relationship baggage, the latter a smitten love-song riding over a girl-group drumbeat. Even in the record’s textbook sweet moments, however, you get the impression Schreifels is looking through the blurred bottom of a bottle. A lot of this disaffectedness is communicated through his voice, which despite covering a range of styles and nailing some key multitracked harmonies, carries enough grain to convince you he doesn’t really give a shit. It’s this nonchalance that makes ‘Ballad of Lil’ Kim’ so much more than the throwaway track its title suggests, perforating riffs like a Paul Westerberg classic while Schreifels wonders how the rapper is sans make-up and posse. After a few spins, the track’s surprisingly touching and just another indication of how understated this half-hour of power really is.

Since much of An Open Letter To the Scene comes off effortlessly - to the point it almost demeans the lengths some bands go to for a good song - its few stumbles are largely ignorable. ‘Don’t Gotta Prove It’ has a solid riff but little substance whereas ‘Shootout’ is almost too comatose with its own melodrama to wake up. These are small critiques though, that I rarely use the skip button to bypass. Like a much-needed reality check, Walter Schreifels brings indie-rock back to that less-is-more scene that celebrated bands like Eric’s Trip and Pavement. It may be too broad to pigeonhole for the hipsters and maybe that’s how Schreifels screens them. He boasts more than enough hardcore cred to warrant such a theory.

Chasing After Shadows... Living With the Ghosts - Hammock

Chasing After Shadows… Living With the Ghosts

Hammock Music.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Finding a promotional copy of Chasing After Shadows… Living With the Ghosts in the SCQ Inbox was the first time I’d ever heard of Hammock. Yet in the week since that discovery, I’ve happened upon a baffling amount of articles on Hammock’s oeuvre, each one drooling for a first-listen of this 2010 release. It begs the question: where have I been? How has a self-described post-rock pillager somehow closed his ears to the mention of Hammock these past many years? As a Sigur Ros completist to boot, I’m surprised Hammock’s performance at the Riceboy Sleeps exhibition last year (an invitation by Jonsi Birgisson himself) slipped me by. Regardless, to any fan of mellow post-rock, the time is ripe to dig into Hammock (the duo of Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson) with this, their fourth proper full-length album.

From the initial seconds of ‘The Backward Step’, you can hear why Jonsi would be such a fan. A patient meditation of guitar and percussion zoned out with pools of gently shifting ambience, this opener plays out one of post-rock’s classic modern templates: fleshing out a composition in full-band mode, then amping up the symphonic flourishes. It doesn’t explode, if that’s where you figured it was heading next, and avoiding that crutch is part of what makes Hammock such reliable company. Instead it crests rather elegantly on the hinges of melodies and dynamics that creep up on the listener, surrounding your sensibilities as opposed to crashing all around you. An album of varied comforters, ‘The Whole Catastrophe’ laments over a swoon of orchestration while ‘Breathturn’ evokes a refined slice of Sigur Ros balladry, their Hopelandic just a series of complimentary coos. In its most ambitious moments, Byrd and Thompson deliver prominent (if heavily treated) vocals and widescreen melodrama on ‘You Lost the Starlight In Your Eyes’; a track that bleeds like M83 but works here, in rare doses, as a change of pace.

For an album dedicated to such a monochromatic but powerful veneer, the most pressing hopes from a listener-standpoint are (1) that the band keeps it interesting, (2) that they don’t sidetrack unexpectedly into some garage-rock stomper, and (3) that they know when to quit. Hammock prove quite capable of keeping listeners spellbound to their romantic haze without falling into restless experimentation but, like its over-the-top title, Chasing After Shadows… Living With the Ghosts tries to pack too much into its single-disc format. Although every individual song is noteworthy and worth hearing, it’s equally undeniable that every song nibbles from the same glacial-paced, emotional reverie; without doubt, a few dropped tracks would've given its surviving compositions more meaning, less meandering. Still, for an album I can barely listen through, front to back, in one sitting, Hammock’s latest has been in constant-rotation this past week. A beautiful tapestry of wistful nostalgia that will surely find its niche.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Women + Country - Jakob Dylan

Women + Country

Jakob Dylan
Columbia/Sony Records.

SCQ Rating: 67%

Seeing Things wasn’t just a surprise favourite for me in 2008, it was the return of a ghost I’d kept as company years earlier, one I abandoned after the MOR blandness known as Rebel, Sweetheart. More than a folk record, Seeing Things wiped the board clean – no more band, no more radio-play anxiety – and by sounding entirely timeless, those ten stripped-back songs presented Jakob Dylan as the heir to a genre he’d spent the past decade running from. It wasn’t a masterpiece – hell, it didn’t need to be – but Seeing Things was a poignant display of Dylan’s best strength: intimate storytelling that dabbled in light and shade, family and nation.

In that respect, Women + Country may seem like a predictable follow-up, with Dylan’s protagonist still doubling between famished farmer and everyman soldier, but it isn’t. Trading Rick Rubin’s minimalist approach for T Bone Burnett’s arsenal of session-players, this sophomore solo effort boldly announces itself as an almanac of last century’s Americana, with ancient stabs of ragged rhythm guitar (‘Standing Eight Count’) and brass-stomping Louisiana blues (‘Lend a Hand’). Although no one would question his impressive contributions to the Wallflowers’ break-out Bringing Down the Horse, Burnett seems oblivious to the subtleties of Dylan’s recent direction and what made Seeing Things tick. Dylan’s voice hasn’t thinned, he’s simply found more effective ways of deepening his lyrics through intonation, and some of Burnett’s heavy-handed arrangements smother that intimacy. A jaunty saloon-esque piano may lend promise to ‘They’ve Trapped Us Boys’ but its two-note bass strut – as if prepped for early Johnny Cash - challenges Dylan’s rasp. When wielded sympathetically, however, Burnett’s embellishments create a lush backdrop for ‘Nothing But the Whole Wide World’ or weary-eyed country on ‘Truth For a Truth’.

It isn’t just the haphazard arrangements shaping this disc’s destiny. As the origin of Women + Country goes, Burnett tested Dylan to write ten songs in the vein of ‘Nothing But the Whole Wide World’, a previously recorded track for Glen Campbell. Now if there’s one aspect to songwriting you shouldn’t rush, it’s probably the song-structure underlying all the bells and whistles, right? Well, that emphasis on speed-writing accounts for some of Women + Country’s sketch-like moments. Although much of the record’s second-half tends to drag, the hollowing-out point is reached on ‘Smile When You Call Me That’; an exhausted, middle-of-the-road country song that makes a convincing caricature of Dylan and Co. as a burnt-out bar-band. Never has Dylan written a song so similar to an Uncle Kracker tune.

For all the tricks up its sleeve (Neko Case, where are you?), Women + Country has surprisingly little to say. That isn’t to imply it’s at all unlistenable or aggravating. In my books, a change in direction is always commendable and the partnership of Dylan and Burnett has certainly crafted a singular statement – swampier, mustier even, than Seeing Things. But this serves better as an Americana fix than as a good Jakob Dylan album, in no small part because the production outshines the songs.

Rhizomes - EFFI BRIEST


Sacred Bones Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

In case you’re all wondering the same thing I was, rhizomes are the horizontal stems of a plant that reside beneath soil. All worm-like and bright, these tubes allow the plant opportunities to reproduce and, in the event a rhizome is cut up, its pieces will grow anew. So, what, I’m giving out pointless factoids on vegetation now? Yeah sorta… but only because the title fits EFFI BRIEST’s debut material like a spindly glove. Each song on the aptly named Rhizomes acts like a viaduct, leading its listeners into a murky, psychedelic underground.

An experimental-rock sextet specializing in tripped-out guitar drones that entwine into massive, groove-laden song-structures, EFFI BRIEST don't sound like – forget the sexist, all-female band comparisons – anything currently stunning the indie-scene. Now “massive” might seem like a misleading descriptor for an LP clocking thirty-five minutes in length but that hard-to-believe runtime highlights what’s so alluring about this Brooklyn-based group’s craft. Working long-form grooves and percussive loops into ever-deepening mantras, the title track and ‘Long Shadow’ command a far greater aural space than their length in minutes suggests. While ‘Cousins’ feeds off of swirling atmospheres, contrasting their raw guitar tones with a twinkling display of haunted keys, other tracks (‘Nights’) dispels that soft disparity in favour of 70s jams with world-music influences. Even songs like ‘Wodwoman’ and ‘X’ that hover around the three-minute mark have the presence of Eastern-tinged black-holes, as rooted in the exotic krautrock of Can as the angular post-punk stylings of early Cure.

It’s a delicate balance, no doubt, combining the raw aspects of EFFI BRIEST (Kelsey’s impassioned yelps, lotsa guitar) with the smooth bass-hooks and occasional ambience on display. Whether writing a nocturnal lullaby for the disaffected (as on ‘Shards’) or a dance-ready triptych (on single ‘Mirror Rim’), EFFI BRIEST prove themselves worthy successors to The Rapture’s early promise… just, you know, trading that DFA group’s house-party funk for eerie dissonance. By the way, upon further investigation, rhizomes can also be defined as philosophical theories that permit random points of entry and exit. Yep, that works too.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Walls - Walls


Kompakt Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

As far as techno labels go, one would be hard-pressed to find a roster with higher quality standards, artist for artist, than Kompakt. While producers like Thomas Fehlmann, The Field and Gui Boratto represent their domineering crossover relevance, Kompakt’s lesser-celebrated records, which commonly fall between the cracks of those titan’s releases, often say far more about the state of progressive electronica. So it’s curious that the latest under-the-radar act to bear Kompakt’s logo, Walls, stakes their sonic trademarks to electronic-rock fault-lines with a debut that might be the German imprint’s most accessible hybrid to date.

Born through a matter-of-fact heartbeat and humid synths that hiss as though breaking free of shifting soil, Walls announces itself like an earthquake clenching its plates under civilization. We’ve heard variations on this sonic eruption before which is why, at the three minute mark, ‘Burnt Sienna’ breaks like a phoenix through the layers of active decay with a simple dance hook that at once switches gears while placing the track’s varied trajectories in odd synergy. Now that they have our attention, the London-based duo of Alessio Natallzia and Sam Willis stretch their fuzz-strewn electronics into varied song-structures, some loose like the airy keys and resonant guitar of ‘Soft Cover People’, others tight and punchy like the drum-machine kraut of ‘Gaberdine’. At its most abstract (as on ‘Austerlitz Wide Open’), Walls evokes the netherworld psyche of Black Dice’s Beaches & Canyons while, at its grooviest (the highlight ‘Hang Four’), Natallzia and Willis use a doped-out disco beat to pulsate some reverb-drenched guitar and frantic effect-loops.

Although executed on a far more organic level, Walls has Kompakt’s M.O. all over it, employing different speeds to create boldly complex electronic rhythms. That’s just this debut’s skeletal surface though, as what makes Walls such an enigmatic listen is trying to decipher which gears are pushing the compositions forward. There are copious amounts of haze but none of it is excused as smoke and mirrors, they fade techno trademarks in and out of focus and even throw vocals into the mix – all without frustrating the listener. By allowing the majority of their hooks to lay camouflaged in this tangled half-hour debut, Walls look eager to pave their own M.O. for being Kompakt’s only electronic jam-band. All the power to them.

Flugente 2 - Flugente

Flugente 2


SCQ Rating: 73%

Nearly fifty years after his death, Woody Guthrie is just starting to get his due. In the past decade alone, Guthrie has been inducted into multiple Halls of Fame while his work in music and poetry have earned him four Grammy nominations, three of which he won. What makes all of this buzz, which eluded him during the healthy years of his life, so ironic isn’t that his talent was overlooked at his prime, but that his biggest hit, ‘This Land Is Your Land’, remains a cultural treasure that supersedes the most memorable of radio’s mainstream hits. In few other cases can I think of a one-hit wonder as tragically underappreciated as Guthrie, so it almost seems fitting that many talented folk artists carrying the famed troubadour’s torch also reside deep beneath the public eye.

Ahead of the pack is surely Flugente, solo project for The Blam ringleader Jerry Adler. His voice, an unhinged rasp of yearning, could easily belong to a man approaching mid-life crisis but it’s Adler’s guitar-picking, punch-drunk and limber, that reveals his youth on Flugente 2. That energy enlivens a track like ‘I Swear To Tell the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God’, a humorous but thoroughly cynical tale of jury duty, and validates Adler’s storytelling voice next to Guthrie’s or Dylan’s. Memorable as that yarn is, Flugente 2’s highlights are all rooted in somber arrangements that showcase his melodic acoustics and earnest lyrics. ‘It’s Not Just the Summer That Is Ending’ seems to catch Adler aging with his autumnal imagery while ‘I Can’t Wait Anymore’ rests upon terse finger-picked chords and a piano-tapped chorus that breaks him free of all rust. Both resonate like instant classics and seem destined to make waves – be it now or in fifty years. I'd prefer now. Seriously, these songs need to be heard.

As sharp and well-groomed as most of Flugente 2 is, it’s countered by a smattering of tracks that defy the listeners’ embrace. First to disappoint is ‘Which Side Am I On?’, a longwinded ramble with no discernable lyrical aim beyond exhausting every rhyme in Flugente’s rhyme-book. At least that track sounds in keeping with Adler’s rustic introspection; ‘Apeman’, on the other hand, suffers from a smorgasbord of problems, the least of which being that it’s a Kinks cover. Gently performed and – let’s face it – pretty hokey, ‘Apeman’ ends the album on a disparaging note, diluting Adler’s wit and charisma into an out-of-context whimper. Only in extenuating circumstances like this can the idea of closing on Flugente 2’s previous track, ‘America the Beautiful’, seem like a really good idea.

That only a few bad apples have rubbed so much resentment into this listener should speak volumes of Flugente 2’s hinted genius. If Jerry Adler can hone his political sentiments in ways he’s proven capable of wielding with the emotional, Flugente might just achieve the recognition that eluded modern folk's grandfather.

Semi Circle EP - Shigeto

Semi Circle EP

Ghostly International/Moodgadget.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Recently I had the pleasure of sitting in on a poetry workshop that, for a few hours, discussed how a single line-break or preference of punctuation can shape and distort how a poem is read. Poetry’s lawless world of syntax, where anything can transcend if it’s positioned just right, trades contrived for exciting with seemingly minute details, and electronica thrives by the same gray boundaries. Shigeto, moniker for Zach Saginaw, seems to be well-versed in bending genre rules on Semi Circle EP, his gauntlet of a debut for Ghostly International.

Loaded with a heavy back-story – that of Saginaw’s grandmother, who was imprisoned in an American internment camp for citizens with Japanese roots – Semi Circle only seems burdened on opening segue ‘Beginnings’. Over the subsequent sixteen minutes, Shigeto’s wall-to-wall techniques nearly disguise his historical crate-digging. Hip-hop beats are consistently manipulated, at times combined with heavy Toro Y Moi-styled fades (as on ‘There Is Always Hope’), or supplying the urban grit under ‘Eternal Life’’s cascading piano-work. ‘Bakers Blunt Basics’ is the electronic adaptation of that unreliable faucet in your house that rises and drops in pressure, all unpredictable swings in pitch and tempo, while the romantic keys of ‘Embrace the Cold’ progressively go tone-deaf, morphing into an IDM-inspired icicle-march even Pantha du Prince should marvel at. However these instrumental tracks are connected to the regrettable era that imprisoned Saginaw’s grandmother, Semi Circle makes for an adventurous quarter-hour as well as an inspired tribute. And if you’re feeling raw about how short it is, no worries; this EP is just a precursor to Full Circle, Shigeto’s full-length due out on Ghostly later this year.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

May Update

Two nights ago, Caribou and Toro Y Moi played a fantastic show at The Babylon here in Ottawa. I hadn’t seen Dan Snaith and Co. play in almost five years so it was great to hear their refined takes on old classics as well as the newer, dance-infused material. Speaking of new material, we also picked up Tour CD 2010 (pictured above) which is loaded with an additional sixty-nine minutes of music that didn’t make the album! Disclaimer: the first track is nearly fifty minutes on its own, and a mindbender at that. In honour of that concert (and, in part, because I have my No Ripcord review of Toro Y Moi just sitting around…), SCQ has featured reviews of both acts’ latest records today.

Also of note:

Hot on the heels of Embers From the Underground, SCQ will be unveiling another equally-sporadic feature aimed at spotlighting excellent, unsung record labels. Each profile will introduce the label in focus while reviewing a varied selection of their releases. Hopefully the first edition, which features a cool, DIY imprint from Montreal, will post by the end of this month.

Thanks for reading!

Love SCQ.

Swim - Caribou


Merge Records.

SCQ Rating: 88%

I’m ready to talk about Andorra now. The five-month period running from mid-August through December, 2007, felt like a Twilight Zone episode, where I was the sole opposition to a fleet of bloggers and friends insistent that Dan Snaith’s fourth full-length was among the best records of the calendar year. And by “opposition”, I mean I didn’t participate, instead taking each instance of excited hyperbole as reason to reinvestigate my copy for that something I must’ve missed. The same problem that plagued me then exists today: there was nothing to find. Beyond collecting a few of Snaith’s most conservative, Zombies-influenced pop songs, Andorra was Caribou diluted; a filtering that erased all his psychedelic flourishes in favour of pale, computerized sketches. Eschewing melody and every trademark Manitoba/Caribou had earned, Snaith incidentally proved that being too meticulous could end up sounding oblivious.

The reason I’m so eager to discuss Andorra two and a half years after the fact is Swim, 2010’s follow-up that reinstates Caribou’s grab-bag of hippie-organic oddities while pushing electronic-pop to the warm fringes of whatever synthetic trademarks the genre has left. And interestingly enough, the best starting-point to argue the massive differences between these two records lies in its sole kinship: techno. While Andorra’s intricate pulses warded off the possibility of exhausting Snaith’s rise-and-crash dynamics (introduced on Up In Flames and nuanced into The Milk of Human Kindness’ krautrock styling), Swim finds the Dundas, Ontario native wisely merging his patented climaxes with the dance rhythms of his recent repertoire. Better yet, Snaith uses this powerhouse strategy to get insidious; ‘Odessa’ would make a swell remix of a 50s horror soundtrack if it’s creeping bass-hops weren’t simultaneously so funky and ‘Bowls’ digs fresh clay out of somber tones, drifting as stealthily as a trip down Heart of Darkness’ eerie riverbank. The resonance of these tracks owe much to Snaith’s emphasis on organic bells and whistles but are incalculably deeper due to his layering, which places brass and woodwind instruments spontaneously over a composition, instead of nestling it firmly into place. Take the manic horn squeals that provide a rush of ecstasy to ‘Kaili’’s digital storm, or the shadowy moods evoked from the saxophone/trombone combination on ‘Hannibal’; these embellishments become crucial markers for Swim, compiling a masterwork of impulsive pop-art production that thrills off of bending the rules. What better example can I offer than the arpeggio guitar-line in ‘Found Out’, which oscillates hypnotically out of tune before a subtle chord change finds it blazingly evolved - in-tune, sure, but emotionally charged as well.

Swim adequately instigates a peace-offering with Andorra, pointing out that Polaris Prize-winning record’s growing pains while teaching how to imbed psychedelic influences into taunt, lively dance rhythms. Hell, this new record owes a lot to Andorra's missteps and stands upon the shoulders of Caribou’s prior work to represent another extroverted refinement, more textured than Up In Flames without forsaking any of that breakthrough’s presence. With compositions that boast some of Caribou’s best vocal and instrumental efforts while flexing on kinetic and expressive levels, Swim is more than a return-to-form: it’s living up to Dan Snaith’s potential.

Causers Of This - Toro Y Moi (No Ripcord Review)

Causers Of This

Toro Y Moi
Carpark Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 7
SCQ Rating: 71%

A few months ago I read an interview with Bradford Cox in which the Deerhunter ringleader/Atlas Sound mastermind playfully sounded off on glo-fi, and what he suggested was a crown stolen from him. Whether he’s serious or not, there’s a solid case lurking behind his claim for birthright. Not only was Atlas Sound’s 2008 debut a haze-riddled bedroom record of groundbreaking proportions, it even featured a song entitled 'Ready, Set, Glow'! I’d take sides but the point is already moot. Between that interview last fall and the present day, glo-fi or chillwave or whatever you want to call it has become an eye-rolling gag, having opened the floodgates for a bevy of well-meaning but hopelessly hazy bedroom acts seeking a place in the sun. If the powers that be awarded Cox his glo-fi subgenre now, I don’t think he’d show.

So what about Toro Y Moi (AKA Chazwick Bundick) and his quietly anticipated full-length Causers Of This? Well, strange as it seems, despite close personal ties with other chillwave acts and assuming the tag – essentially guilty by association – Toro Y Moi doesn’t belong in this subgenre mess. At least not compositionally; by utilizing a throng of 80s-inspired signifiers and beats cut-up like a dreamier Flying Lotus, Causers Of This flirts with retro R&B records as often as any sound pigeonholed to the summer of 2009. 'Freak Love' sounds like a late-nineties boy-band cassette after it spent five minutes in a swimming pool, with pre-sets thrown into a sweltering, undulating atmosphere and a break-beat slowed down as if accidentally sexed up. Such effective sound-manipulation lies at the heart of Bundick’s technique, which evokes the speaker-in, speaker-out psychedelia of 'Blessa' and the stuttering, hip-hop beats that carry him through these thirty-two minutes. In his most surprising moments, as on 'Lissoms', Bundick creates a buzzing instrumental that smoothly (almost invisibly) incorporates vocal samples and a ton of eerie synth-undercurrents without sounding like a grab-bag of random, well-spiced sounds.

It’s easy to commend this album on the sole basis that despite coating his tracks with an incomprehensible amount of tripped-out trickery, Toro Y Moi still branches out into less protected songwriting. 'Low Shoulders' takes honourable shots at Studio’s Balearic-inspired dance while 'Imprint After' finds him verging on the grating vocal-stylings of Passion Pit. The majority of Causers Of This, however, can be translated by the example of 'Fax Shadow', a track so overwhelmed by its own technical prowess, it forgoes seeking out the merits of a functioning song. To call Bundick’s method a collage approach would be offering the benefit of the doubt; to call it blenderized is closer to the truth. We could sit here all day pondering what songwriting is more authentic, the kinetic instincts of stitching stylish sounds together or patiently fleshing ideas beyond thirty-second intervals, but I’m sure a new subgenre name is already prepped to bail us out.

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

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Black Sands - Bonobo

Black Sands

Ninja Tune Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

In late 2008, I looked for a nostalgia trip in You Don’t Know, the triple-disc Ninja Tune compilation that sought to prove precisely what the title implied: that I didn’t know the scope and reach of the London-based imprint. Sadly, they were right (Pop Levi… really?). Before selling it last August, however, I pillaged what small discoveries I found worth keeping and, surprise-surprise, both Bonobo tracks made the cut. Whatever you call his craft, be it downtempo, nu-jazz or ugh… chill-out, Bonobo (AKA Simon Green) has stayed true to his aesthetic without straying from the indie-cool consciousness that abandoned trip-hop nearly a decade ago. How Green appears to have clung to crossover relevance all this time boils down to the same two-step strategy that vindicated The Cinematic Orchestra’s Ma Fleur in 2007: (1) reduce your output to a record every four years and (2) show your age.

Arriving four years after Days To Come, Black Sands carries the quiet majesty of an audiophile-engineered jazz record, enunciating rich tones of brass and wind instruments in fusion with deftly programmed electronic beats. Sounds familiar, right? No doubt, the fact that so many of Bonobo’s contemporaries (or in some cases, copycats) have fallen off the map does instill his style with a renewed purpose, filling a genre-hole as if it’s a public service, but the critical step in remaining prominent will always be evolution. A quick listen to Black Sands will identify only the dated labels I’ve listed above, while its progressive genius hides in the countless details that unveil themselves upon closer listening. Take the brisk IDM slices and Burial-esque vocal-sampling that plays over ‘1009’’s sorrowful strings, or the island-rhythms that throw ‘We Could Forever’ into an unbalanced groove. How about those loose hip-hop beats that lay ‘Kong’ in an early-evening summer haze, and the dull but grimey saw effect that evokes a slow-motion nightclub beneath the breezy haze of ‘Eyesdown’? Offering no shortage of subtle embellishments I long to salute, Black Sands is the opposite of background muzik and requires a patient ear.

Granted, there are moments on record that suggest Green might be taking all of us on another nostalgia trip. In its smooth bass and lite-jazz arrangement, ‘El Toro’ opens like an AM radio intermezzo while the vocal contributions of Andreya Triana sound dangerously close to Zero 7 (and by Zero 7, I mean 2001). These backward glances are merely showing the roots from which Bonobo has risen, from the ashes of chill-out into a sophisticated ambassador of jazz and electronica. Black Sands is more than Green’s finest album, it’s the culmination of all trip-hop’s forgotten promise and, if tracks like ‘Kiara’ and ‘Animals’ don’t land on the next label compilation, it’s possible that no one will know Ninja Tune.

Mount Benson - Apollo Ghosts

Mount Benson

Apollo Ghosts

SCQ Rating: 73%

Around this time of year, when mild breezes beckon our windows open and sunny days convince us to wander the outdoors underdressed, an album will usually arrive bearing extroverted tunes with a classic-rock veneer. At first its arrival may seem commonplace, its chugging electric guitars merely conventional, but this annual occurrence of an album awakens the side of me summer left behind and, in every song, I hear its buoyant chords from the Muskoka chair in my mind. Mount Benson, the sophomore full-length by B.C. natives Apollo Ghosts, earns my bid for 2010’s Cottage Get-away Record.

With that imaginary award now on the table, I feel the need to make clear that beneath Apollo Ghosts’ indie-rock tones of warm guitar, nothing about Mount Benson is conventional. Littering thirteen songs over the course of twenty-five minutes and having most undergo sudden structural upheavals, the trio of Adrian Teacher, Amanda Panda and Jay Oliver would seem intent on sabotaging themselves if these songs weren’t so damn addictive! ‘Hub City’ and ‘Charms of Cars’ feature Pavement’s spindly-wired guitar bits and slacker pacing, not to mention Teacher’s vocals which range from a ponderous Stephen Malkmus to an unleashed, DIY holler. These fun-loving exercises in off-kilter rock are tempered by the Belle & Sebastian-esque ‘To a Friend Who Has Been Through a War’ and ‘Brown To Grey’, a disarmingly succinct boy/girl duet. Both are poignant reminders that Apollo Ghosts get by just fine without the electric juice. All of these stylistic departures would get tiresome if it sounded as though Apollo Ghosts put effort into them, but every swing of the compass needle occurs at such an organic level, you hardly double-take when ‘Things You Go Through’ delivers a straight-forward anthem anyone can relate to.

In fact, of the many pools cannonballed throughout Mount Benson, Teacher & Co. never sound out of their element or against the current of better judgement. Some listeners will commend such versatility while others will wish Apollo Ghosts had committed themselves to fleshing out some of their many flash-in-the-pan moments of genius. As someone stuck between these two opinions, I still insist that Mount Benson benefits from its relentless, if haphazard, idea-plucking. Being blindsided by a swift assault of clever lyrics and burrowed emotion will always supersede getting what you expect and, if you feel the same way, Mount Benson might just be your new favourite album. Cottage or no cottage.