Check out this playlist I compiled for the best songs of February 2014. There’s been too many good albums this month, so be sure to hear out this primer.
You can find a write-up of this and more at: Earbuddy.net
The sky burial is the Tibetan tradition of placing human remains in high stone pillars, exposed in such a way that predatory and scavenger birds may help migrate the soul. There’s no burial in the sense that the body is stored underground or cremated. It’s simply returned to nature. There’s a reason Rice Cultivation Society used “sky burial” as their third album title – the band’s got death on the mind. That doesn’t mean that Sky Burial has to be another sad-bastard rock record, and the band approach it like a sky burial – a return to nature. Rice Cultivation Society is the songwriting vehicle for New York’s Derek Smith, but don’t mistake it for another bedroom project. While Smith handles the songwriting, he’s got a band of equally talented musicians backing him up. The band have been around for a few years, releasing a couple of LP’s, but Sky Burial might be their best yet. They’ve mostly traded in their garage-inspired bouts of mania, but this 10-track record’s brand of indie-folk-rock is as beautiful as it is impressive.
Sky Burial ranges from mid-90’s lo-fi alternative rock (“Honey Hide”, “Bunny in the Sun”), to some pretty stunning, crystalline indie-folk (“King Midas,” “Church of Love”), to 60’s singer-songwriter (“Fading Stars”, “You Oughtta Don’t Know”). Derek Smith comes close to writing songs that sound like Radiohead (circa The Bends), some that sound like Dan Bejar’s work as Destroyer, and some that sound like Simon & Garfunkel. Even though the tone and genre of the songs might differ, they all sound like they’re from the same band. The album’s pacing doesn’t do it any favors though – the first half of the record is stacked with its most memorable songs. The latter half of Sky Burial (after “Bears Staring at the Universe”), is good, but it feels like the band has already creatively shown you its hand by that point. There aren’t really any surprises left, and the midtempo tracks spill over the 5-minute mark without much justification.
Although Rice Cultivation Society’s influences might be is pretty diverse, Sky Burial maintains a fairly consistent attention to detail, particularly with the instrumentation. Even on the loosest tracks, the band’s music always feels very neatly arranged and organized – not a note out of place. All of Sky Burial feels pored over, with each sound meticulously recorded and mastered. As musicians, Rice Cultivation Society knock it out of the park by keeping things tasteful rather than overcomplicated or cerebral. The acoustic instrumental track “Bears Staring at the Universe” demonstrates a ridiculous penchant for musicianship on the band’s part as multiple guitars create a singular sound. The quiet, folksy opener “King Midas” interrupts its chorus with glittering and delicate electric lead-guitar. And boy oh boy, the bluesy title track has just about everybody doing something interesting.
Sky Burial doesn’t so much reward repeated listens as it rewards attentive listens. This music isn’t big on hooks or snappy lyrics, but it is incredibly, meticulously crafted. Listeners not paying attention will likely miss a lot of what makes this record good (I know from experience). There’s tons of nuance here for the audience to find, and Rice Cultivation Society doesn’t beg you to focus on it. Instead, their music stands still, allowing you to walk around it, look it up and down, and appreciate it. Fans of the Dodos and Grizzly Bear ought to find a lot here to love, but Derek Smith and company have a novel enough sound that it really doesn’t matter much if you don’t like the aforementioned bands. Sky Burial name-checks a lot of past musical moments, but it’s a record that could have only been made right now in 2013.
Purchase: Mecca Lecca Records
Call the genre whatever you want (art-rock, post-rock, experimental, ambient, downright tasty), Iceland’s Sigur Rós is one of the best bands of the current generation. Big claim, I know, but Kveikur only solidifies the band’s stature as one of the genre’s best. If you like Sigur Rós, go ahead and pick this record up.
In past years, Sigur Ros has been criticized for having a “formula”. If you’re a fan of the band, you probably have some idea of what this formula is: soft, atmospheric music, swelling chord changes, and a gigantic build up that leaves the song on a massive crescendo. Perhaps the band has been aware of their critics. Since 2008’s Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust, the band has retreated from their past “slow-burn to explosive finale” tendencies. Their 2008 record found the band attempting to write more conventional pop songs (well, what would be pop for Sigur Ros, I suppose), and 2012’s Valtari was an exercise in decrescendos. Valtari (a record I love), was created around music starting somewhat big and working its way down – the album even ends on a 3-song streak in which each proceeding song is a bit softer and a bit more minimalist than the last. For this reason, coupled with the loss of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, I was prepared for a minimalist exercise with Kveikur.
Earlier in the year, the band released “Brennisteinn” as their single to promote Kveikur. This feels a bit misleading (not dishonest though) – the single doesn’t really represent what the album sounds like, but rather, it indicates that Sigur Ros is still tooling around with their sound. To put another way, the rest of Kveikur doesn’t sound like “Brennisteinn” – instead, it seems to be an assurance that we aren’t getting another Valtari, or another ( ), or another Von. Because this song leads the album, it starts Kveikur off with a near-industrial crunch. At almost 8-minutes, it’s one of the most unexpected turns for the band.
Similarly, second-released single “Ísjaki” isn’t as representative either. Ísjaki is busy in ways that most of Kveikur isn’t, and Jonsi’s vocals constantly keep the melody moving along. But these two singles together tell the story of Kveikuer perfectly – many of the moments on Kveikur are characterized by poppy melodies thrown against a jagged backdrop. The title track for example has Jonsi singing incredibly catchy vocals over distorted electronics. These moments give the album’s cover (a boy holding an old gas mask over his face) some context. Other tracks like “Yfirborð” and “Stormur” try to strike a similar balance, with Jonsi staying squarely in the spotlight this time around, rather than letting the music play on without him like we’ve seen in past releases.
The band continues toying with its sound, so there is plenty of new things to hear here though. Musically, this record feels like a mix between Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust and Valtari – these songs are perhaps a bit more straight-forward than the Sigur Rós we are used to, but every song is loaded with a healthy dose of atmosphere. By the time the closer “Var” comes around, it feels like we can finally rest. It’s a quiet, ambient track that gives listeners a chance to reflect – so much of Kveikur is loaded with business, it feels somewhat relieving to have this moment before circling around back to “Brennisteinn.”
If you haven’t liked anything you’ve heard by Sigur Rós so far, you probably won’t find much on Kveikur to change your mind. For fans of the band though, this album is a must-hear. Don’t let the lead track “Brennisteinn” scare you away – there’s plenty here of the band you know and love, but there’s also plenty that you’ve never heard from them before. This might be my favorite of their’s since 2005’s Takk…
Notable tracks to download/sample: “Ísjaki”, “Yfirborð”, and “Kveikur”
The National is in the middle of a hot streak. Don’t get me wrong, all of their albums are worth a listen if you enjoy contemporary alternative rock (or whatever they call it these days), but their three album run of Alligator, Boxer, and High Violet have been some of the best albums released in their respective years. So when I realized that The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me, was nearing its release date I wasn’t exactly hyped or ecstatic. After all, music from their past records is still just as good years later as it was when I first heard it – additionally, I felt confident that the band would put out another great record. I was never worried that The National would put out a bad album or even a mediocre one.
Everything that made Boxer and High Violet great are back: the atmospheric swells, Berninger’s mournful croon, the nearly rhythmic and propulsive percussion, the melancholy and personal lyrics. By and large, if you’ve enjoyed the past work of The National, you’re sure to enjoy Trouble Will Find Me. The album is a slow burner – perhaps even slower than High Violet. It’s not inaccessible by any means, but many of the songs’ twists and turns, many of the lyrics’ confessional turns of phrase, become more salient with repeated listens. The band’s music is meticulously constructed, with every melody, rhythm, and tone seemingly not only exactly where it should be, but where it has to be as if there were no other option.
The album begins with “I Should Live in Salt” bears more than a striking resemblance to High Violent’s opener “Terrible Love.” The song begins in skeletal form: an acoustic guitar, Berninger’s voice, and a few slight synthesizers. The phrase “you should know me better than that” is repeated throughout the verse (much like the title phrase of “Terrible Love”), and the song slowly builds to what feels like an anthem. “Sea of Love” – the band’s first video in support of Trouble Will Find Me – starts with rapid snare taps that make the song feel on the verge of an enormous crescendo. “Sea of Love” follows a few different changes of tempo and sound, and it contains the album’s namesake lyric – it’s sure to be one of the album’s most prominent tracks.
My only real complaint with Trouble Will Find Me is that the band doesn’t really expand its musical palette from previous records. Tonally, it sounds a lot like High Violet, and most of these songs would have fit perfectly in place with that record. Maybe it’s for this reason why I wasn’t hyper-ecstatic about the album’s release – it feels too comfortable. It feels like a warm sweater that I’ve worn for years now. I don’t mean to suggest that the band needs to run out and experiment with electronica, but the band’s sound is by now very familiar.
Fans of The National owe it to themselves to check out Trouble Will Find Me. It’s a great album that only further extends this band’s fantastic catalog. If you’ve never listened to The National before, this record is a good one to start with, but I might recommend Boxer over it for beginners. I’d recommend this band to fans of Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, or Iron & Wine – while The National don’t sound exactly like these bands all the time, they share many sensibilities of songwriting. Listeners who have never been convinced of The National’s merit probably won’t find reason to change their minds here – Trouble Will Find Me is made of the same exact ingredients that endeared them to so many people in the past. Trouble Will Find Me is a great record sure to be on many Best Of 2013 lists.
Essential tracks to sample/download: “I Should Live in Salt,” “Sea of Love,” and “Don’t Swallow the Cap.”
If you’re reading reviews about Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, you are gonna hear the word “mature” over and over. The band has (intentionally?) cultivated a reputation for being bratty smartasses. Whether it be the lyrics centered around posh lifes or the ironic wardrobes of the band members, I think that Vampire Weekend has been disregarded in some circles as being aggressively twee. Modern Vampires of the City is set to change some minds though — the album, and the lyrics in particular, is in my mind, the band’s career highlight thus far. Modern Vampires of the City is thoughtful, catchy, fun, weird, and well-crafted. On this album, Vampire Weekend captures some of the magic that made Animal Collective’s Merriwether Post Pavilion so good — the songs here are strange, eclectic, and progressive, but for all of its unfamiliar parts, everything is centered with great pop-centric melodies.
Vampire Weekend’s bread-and-butter has been their ability to take modern indie rock and fuse it with traditionally-African sounds. While this is still largely true on the quartet’s third album, it may be less true than it has been on previous albums. Instead, the music feels more eclectic here than it ever has been before. Every now and then, the guitars or vocals will twang with some of the African motifs, but for the most part, the band seems more interested in trying out new instruments or vocal modulations. The album begins with “Obvious Bicycle” and “Believers.” These first two songs are fine, the first is a midtempo, laid back song that doesn’t really announce the album in any way; the second track is more upbeat with some folk/americana vibes carrying it through its run time. However, beginning with the third track, “Step” the band finds its footing — the song has a well worn feeling, both musically and lyrically, as frontman Ezra Koenig recalls the places that he has been, presumably on tour away from home. It’s characterized by a soft melancholia that never overplays the emotion.
“Diane Young” seems to be one of the early favorites on the record. The song is a fast, synthesizer-driven, R&B-infused pop song — where I may have called attention to the lyrics on Modern Vampires of the City, this track certainly isn’t a good showcase of that. Instead, the song is just 2 minutes and 40 seconds of good times and fun. “Hannah Hunt” recalls some of the same sounds that “Step” uses, but to arguably greater effect: it’s one of the most warm and beautiful songs on the record with just the right amount of restraint. “Everlasting Arms” is driven by African-themed percussion; the bass and keys take a backseat to the drums and vocals here. The song has a strong melody, and it sounds the most familiar of the bands’ work out of all of the tracks collected here. “Ya Hey” is one of the catchier songs on the album, and it makes use of some high vocal modulation that is sure to annoy some — the band makes it work here in this context though. The lyrics deal with religious/existential doubt as seen from a young Jewish person — who knew crippling religious doubt sound so fun? “Ya Hey” (or “Yaweh” — get it?) is probably my favorite track on the entire record. The final track, “Young Lion” is less than two minutes long, and it leaves the record on a note that is just as fuzzy, grey, and distant as the album’s cover art.
I would recommend this album to anyone interested in modern alternative/indie rock. Vampire Weekend’s third album shows a band that grown tremendously since 2010’s Contra — the music and lyrics are all sophisticated but not stuffy, different but not pretentious, and well crafted but not overly technical. I would recommend Modern Vampires of the City to fans of Yeasayer, Animal Collective, MGMT, or Passion Pit. If you are a fan of the band, hearing this album is non-optional. If you’ve listed to the band’s previous two records and not been impressed, Modern Vampires of the City offers enough new sounds and ideas that the band may be worth trying out again. Myself, I wasn’t head-over-heels for their self-titled debut or Contra, but I absolutely love this album. I really hate the name of it though (I’ve been trying not to comment on it this entire review).
Essential tracks to sample/download: “Diane Young,” “Ya Hey,” “Hannah Forever,” and “Everlasting Arms.”