Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center To the Circumference of the Earth - True Widow

As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center To the Circumference of the Earth

True Widow
Kemado Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

On the eve of their debut release, I excitedly directed a friend to True Widow’s blog, which features teaser videos and band-written preambles. As someone sensitive to video’s ability to coerce music into a lifestyle brand, I’ve since sort of regretted providing that link. Don’t get me wrong: the videos are well executed and provide visceral photography of the band’s latent intensity, but they also offer a deductive first impression. As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center To the Circumference of the Earth should be the statement in these videos, and not merely a soundtrack for the shots of tattoos and spliffs that garner ample screen time.

No offense intended to skin-ink or weed – both have a deserving spot as accessories on rock’s mantle – but those videos merely overstate what True Widow’s full-length already illustrates on its own: dark and powerful snapshots of a sprawling Americana. From the thunderous low-end that brings ‘Jackal’ to life, this self-described “Stonegaze” band wields genuine intent, merging a heavy dissonance against Nicole Estill’s understated coos. The effect – both cutting and comatose – proves a launching point for the remainder of the disc, which gravitates toward both the epic (‘Boaz’) and straightforward, metal end (‘Night Witches’) of the band’s scope. Although Estill’s voice ushers As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center To the Circumference of the Earth into earshot, Dan “D.H.” Phillips handles the majority of vocal-duties from here on in. His first cut, ‘Blooden Horse’, happens to be the record’s best; a bare-boned electric guitar progression – reminiscent of Sun Kil Moon – which carries the band’s looming squall. A surprising amount of melody survives the record’s incessant growl, however, some of it chiming in like the heroic guitars that rise over ‘NH’, other parts soaring like the backing-vocals on ‘Skull Eyes’.

What’s so captivating about True Widow, in both set-up and songwriting, is that nothing here seems contrived or embellished. This trio feels no need to decode the cryptic nature of their lyrics, to dress up or excuse their heaviness as anything other than honest expression. And this core strength abolishes all that’s superficially interesting about the band. I don’t understand how any high person can listen to a track like ‘Doomseer’ without ending up in the fetal position but, clearly, True Widow’s “Stonegaze” has its sights set. As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center To the Circumference of the Earth's purpose reverberates far further than even its title suggests.

Mexico City - Toby Burke

Mexico City

Toby Burke
Perfect Black Swan Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

Trying to distinguish between Toby Burke’s songs as Horse Stories and those under his own name initially seems pointless. Both distill Burke’s natural gift for songcraft without trying to pull away from each other in any obvious contextual way. Unlike November, November, his 2010 release under the Horse Stories moniker, Mexico City studies Burke’s personal vignettes through a more immediate lens, with each song being captured as opposed to being presented after countless refinements.

To Burke’s credit, this raw approach doesn’t steal much of his songwriting’s mystique. The first minute of ‘Cantina Crawl’ feels out his makeshift studio – an apartment in, you guessed it, Mexico City – before locking into a steady acoustic pick, occasionally haunted by piano, whereby Burke recounts drunken Saturday nights and the working-class weekdays that incite them. Abandoning the studio polish on these tracks feels right, allowing the piano to swell around Burke’s sentiments on ‘Young For Life’ and muddling the percussion on ‘The Great Escape’. Burke’s minimalism remains balanced, even when the rougher production boasts a sweltering closeness that renders ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ such a claustrophobic wonder.

That’s Burke’s Mexico City, though - a transient lowland where each song’s protagonist plots their daily escape. And judging by the album’s recording, which managed nine songs over the course of nine days, it looks as though Toby Burke survived his key role in the narrative. Don’t let Mexico City’s origins fool you; despite the document’s casual conception, Burke brings his unnerving best to these inspired sad-sack odes.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Spring Albums 2011

Greetings SCQ Readers,

Us northerly folk have survived another long winter and it appears – knock on wood – that spring is finally upon us! That means storing away those blizzard-approved indoor records and taking some fresh tunes out into the rain-soaked streets. Of course, I write this from my cocoon of an apartment, where I haven’t stepped outside today for fear of worsening my recent fever. Still, the glass of my balcony door hasn’t felt this warm since last fall so we’re definitely heading toward milder days. These SCQ choices should provide some headphone-love for country, ambient and synth-pop fans alike.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Love SCQ

Sleep Beneath the Willow - Daniel Romano (Spring Albums 2011)

Sleep Beneath the Willow

Daniel Romano
You’ve Changed Records.

SCQ Rating: 85%

If Workin’ For the Music Man required some gestation time, it was likely because Daniel Romano’s solo debut had more in common with the Daniel, Fred & Julie collaboration than anything the songwriter had done with Attack In Black. Old-time country and heartbreaking folk ran deeper in his veins than that one-off project could satisfy, and Romano has now placed all of his cards on the table with the resonating Sleep Beneath the Willow.

Armed with the rich production of a 70s country record, Sleep Beneath the Willow allows Romano to converse with the legacies of Conway Twitty and George Jones on a near level playing-field. Granted, Romano is dutifully playing tribute to an era of country these giants created but the authenticity of these songs go hand in hand with the Attack In Black frontman's originality. Opener ‘Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)’ catches up to Romano singing in a low, almost Johnny Cash-styled register but his range – which loosens up for the track’s spellbinding chorus – quickly becomes recognized as just another small risk taken by this former punk-rocker. The core idea of crafting a country album in the spirit of bygone AM radio favourites should be ostracizing for artist and listeners alike but instead it’s kismet; as surely as ‘Hard On You’ should be considered a modern classic, this era was Romano’s to successfully tap. Electric guitars resonate with pedal steel as atmosphere behind the subdued ‘Knowing That You’re Mine’, fiddle drifts over the bare acoustics of ‘Paul and Jon’ and female backing-vocals dress even the most devastating ballads with soft bar-booth illumination.

In fact, the greatest risk Romano takes with this project is perhaps his determination to stick by Sleep Beneath the Willow’s muse so stringently. Due to its predominantly downcast tempo, early listens tend to blur groups of songs into a twilight haze of bittersweet sadness. Stick with it, however, and Romano’s latest proves powerful enough to make the convincing Workin’ For the Music Man sound transitional by comparison. Some wisely placed upbeat numbers also shake potential listener malaise; ‘Helen’s Restaurant’ offers a shot-in-the-arm of honky-tonk rock whereas ‘There Are Lines In My Face’ infuses a grumbling low-end to define its wonderfully heavy subject matter. Sleep Beneath the Willow is just the latest chapter in a discography destined to become one of Canada’s cherished.

Ways Of Meaning - Kyle Bobby Dunn (Spring Albums 2011)

Ways Of Meaning

Kyle Bobby Dunn
Desire Path Recordings.

SCQ Rating: 83%

Little about Kyle Bobby Dunn’s new album explicitly suggests spring listening although, really, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything explicit in the minimalist composer’s tonal exercises. Bearing an ambiguous sense of beauty quite capable of scoring fall or winter with nearly the same resonance, Ways Of Meaning fits the spring season best because it represents a sort of clean slate. The heart of Dunn’s style hasn’t changed – those sterile yet emotional sound-waves remain lovingly intact – but his modus operandi feels renewed, his approach further refined.

Spanning six tracks and forty minutes, Ways Of Meaning marks Dunn’s gentle transition from airy sound-environments to precise ambient pieces. Curtailing the length of his compositions by about half, Dunn has taken a risk; after all, part of A Young Person’s Guide To Kyle Bobby Dunn’s allure was getting lost in twenty-minute slabs of undulating mood. Ways Of Meaning still offers that escape from discernable structure with the fifteen-minute ‘Movement For the Completely Fucked’ but the rest of these tracks (most between five and six minutes in length) dive straight into the emotional complexity of Dunn’s temperament. These highlights are better described in moods than instrumental dissection; from the resolute glory of ‘Canyon Meadows’ to the stifled uncertainty of ‘Touhy’s Theme’, Dunn showcases his knack for warm tones with an immediacy that’s borderline addictive.

Whether smitten by the soothing cascade of ‘Dropping Sandwiches In Chester Lake’ or the nostalgic atmospheres of ‘Statuit’ (which sort of recall The Cure’s ‘Funeral Party’, no?), listeners will come to recognize this as the most accessible release of Dunn’s young career. Still straddling the blurred line between post-classical and ambient, ignorable yet listenable, Ways Of Meaning is both purposeful and voraciously consumable.

Kaputt - Destroyer (Spring Albums 2011)


Merge Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

I’ve never quite known what to make of Dan Bejar. His Destroyer catalog, while prolific and inimitable, has always held me at arm’s length because of the man’s idiosyncrasies. Yes, his songwriting is accomplished and his lyrics pursue grand narratives but I’ve found that those quirks – which largely define him as an artist – also distract us from a considerable shortcoming: Bejar can’t sing with any traditional persuasion. Still, he’s a master of the stylistic shift and his latest, on Kaputt, naturally suits his verbose delivery and fey lilt.

Composed of atmospheric saxophone, infectious drum-machines and a seemingly limitless variety of synths, Kaputt induces a sonic world worthy of exploring. One can almost feel the neon glow of Bejar’s downtown and, since the record operates via an unmistakable 80s lens, it’s a setting rife with drugs and sex. These influences sit in the backdrop for the most part, referenced occasionally just to feed Bejar’s restlessness in advance of a night out. And that’s just what Kaputt scores so well: that anticipation before wandering out into the polluted air of a Saturday evening. Although the percolating bass lines and sax elevate ‘Chinatown’ and the title track in this respect, even the more atmospheric slow-burners (‘Suicide Demo For Kara Walker’, with its flute lead and all) feel apt for apartment-dwelling in advance of hitting the bars.

Kaputt isn’t a complete departure for Destroyer but its focus on sound does admirably marginalize some of Bejar’s frivolities. And I have to hand it to him; in both his crooning and lyrical choices, Bejar flawlessly compliments the shape-shifting nature of this project. Yet it’s the freshness of these atmospheric appeals that make this record so loveable.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The King Of Limbs - Radiohead

The King Of Limbs

Self-released/XL Records.

SCQ Rating: 82%

In Rainbows had its pop-clairvoyance, Hail To the Thief had its sprawl. Amnesiac clung to its outright weirdness and Kid A owned otherworldly stateliness like no other record. Indeed, I’d need to drift back as far as Pablo Honey to find a record that lacks an inarguable presence quite like The King Of Limbs. Which seems so wrong; feeling even partially ripped off by an album so obviously pointed in the right direction, one stepping timidly back into the experimental folds of Amnesaic but with the accessible point-of-entry that made In Rainbows such a draw. Whereas that 2007 album prompted chatter – about the worth of music, the state of the industry, etc. – that surrounded and ultimately backed the quality of Radiohead’s music, The King Of Limbs’ questions only spawn further doubts: where’s the album’s theorized second half, why hasn’t the band, a month and a half post-release, accepted any interviews? Were our expectations unfair?

As a subscriber to wishful thinking and those conspiracy theorists looking for The King Of Limbs 2, I’ve even held off writing this review because, like most fans, I’ve been waiting for something to happen. But even if Radiohead do leave this full-length at eight songs and thirty-some-odd minutes, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The rhythmic codas and peppered bass lines that open ‘Bloom’ suggest an epic establishing shot, with Yorke swimming in a spaciousness built to accommodate dense vocal effects and a horn section. ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’ and ‘Little By Little’ dutifully step things up, recalling the urgency of Hail To the Thief but stretching it into cinematic poetry, sans anger. The campaign for climate change still pierces these lyrics but the band sounds at peace, with tracks like ‘Give Up the Ghost’ and ‘Codex’ acting as the most relaxed entries in Radiohead’s catalog since, I don’t know, ‘True Love Waits’?

That sense of conflict is mourned on occasion, as what’s missing here isn’t quantifiable by its number of tracks so much as what they say to one another. With upbeat material for the most part segregated to the first half and sparser songs held to the latter side, The King Of Limbs’ sequencing doesn’t help unite these halves with any kind of unfurling flow. Yeah, the spritely ‘Separator’ closes the disc but it lacks the guts to properly bookend those beat-oriented early tracks in any meaningful way. ‘Codex’ seems polarized from the album’s genetics, ‘Feral’ is a curious but inconsequential experiment; these aren’t complaints, just abnormalities, like rough edges overlooked during the “bigger picture” end of recording.

In a sense, all that stands between the substantial presence of previous albums and The King Of Limbs are a few segues (‘Hunting Bears’, ‘Treefingers’) and the occasional risk (‘Myxamatosis’, ‘Life In a Glass House’). That some studied refrains or atmospheric theme-building might’ve tipped this release into a sturdy LP validates our spoiled indifference. The record’s still brilliant and certainly worth waiting for, but it’s unnerving to see the small omissions that might've helped create another classic.

Radiohead - lotus flower by smithblogsatlanta

Angles - The Strokes


The Strokes
RCA Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

A wrench snagged up the Strokes’ promotional gears just weeks before record-release when Pitchfork aired a ten-year retrospective that quoted band members clearly disgruntled about Angles’ recording process. Upon first read, it signaled doomsday for the NYC group once relentlessly billed as rock saviors but the word-of-mouth it created (in no small part among Pitchfork devotees who shun like a reflex) has actually rendered Angles an effective litmus test for determining the Strokes’ continued relevance in certain cliques. Would-be pundits online were outright panning it on the day of its leaked while major print publications (Spin, Los Angeles Times) quickly championed it as if vying for way-late cool points. For those old-school fans waiting on a physical release, it was difficult determining which group you could trust.

What nobody likely predicted was that the Strokes had a grower record in them, one that would come out at a time when the band is no longer post-millenial sensations or scrappy major-label underdogs. To be a Strokes fan in 2011 – especially in the face of an album reportedly pieced together by various members when pressured and alone – means depending upon one’s own judgement and no longer relying on the undeniable cool that deemed their first two LPs universally accepted. Although its risks likely emerged not because of a common goal but as an effect of shitty band relations (where the closest contact Casablancas had to the band was by emailing his vocals to the studio), Angles reflects that fragmented experience in a way that's mostly complimentary.

The reggae-tinged lark that is ‘Machu Picchu’ forecasts not only a great album that never comes to be, but a flurry of other career moves over its following half-hour. On one hand, ‘Two Kinds of Happiness’ continues in the vein of Room On Fire’s occasional retro muse with a Billy Idol inspired anthem whereas ‘Games’ ups the polish for a dance-friendly pulse. These detours, after a few listens, sit pleasantly with their lankier guitar-fare (‘Taken For a Fool’, ‘Under Cover Of Darkness’), making good on the unspoken promise of a Strokes album less bloated than First Impressions Of Earth but still lightly experimental.

Repeat listens, while crucial, won’t buffer out Angles’ odd weak point. The trajectory of ‘Call Me Back’ quits just when it’s gaining momentum and the half-finished ‘You’re So Right’ pillages the considerable steam built up by the record’s first three tracks. Moments like these have stifled fans’ cries of “comeback” but they’ve also beckoned the trolls from their caves; those same kids who’ve long accused the Strokes of being privileged, overnight success-stories. Old habits may die hard for some, but nearly a decade after the band’s peak popularity and subsequent backlash, Angles offers enough quality to keep both the fan-boys and haters somewhat frustrated.