Tag Archives: alternative

Vampire Weekend’s MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY

vampire weekend modern vampires of the city

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.”

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Deerhunter’s MONOMANIA

Deerhunter

 

SHORT STORY:
Monomania is a great record. The band maintains a delicate balance of experimentation and accessibility. A must-own if you liked their previous record.

LONGER STORY:
I’ll just preface by saying that I absolutely love Deerhunter. The Atlanta-based band feels like a mad scientist, throwing together genres, tropes, instruments, and ideas into a cauldron all the whilst cackling madly. In 2010, the band released HALCYON DIGEST — an album that would streamline the band’s music into a (mostly) no-frills version of Deerhunter. The album was commercially and critically successful, but importantly, it felt like the band had turned a new exciting corner. For that reason, 2013’s MONOMANIA has been highly anticipated — would we get another HALCYON DIGEST? Or would the band turn its next corner and move on to new sounds? Would the band retreat back into its past catalog in response to their newly received attention? The answer to these questions is “Yes.” MONOMANIA is sort of all of these things.

The album starts off with “Neon Junkyard” — it’s a tumbling tune that mostly dictates the course of the album. It takes 20 seconds for the song to take a coherent form, but before this time, “Neon Junkyard” is an amorphous collage of sounds with none of them really fitting together. At the magical 20-second mark, all the music catches in step and we get a very clear, precise melody that occasionally detours and meanders. The band has described this album as “Nocturnal Garage,” and while that description is apt (like the album’s cover), I think “Neon Junkyard” might be more fitting. As a whole, this album is made of old, discarded parts: lo-fi alternative rock, 80’s era shoegaze, Hank Williams-era country, etc… The band has taken all of these parts and thrown a neon light onto it all, so what could come across as a strange, experimental, self-indulgent is now accessible, catchy, and well… fun to hear.

The second track “Leather Jacket II” is a confident, sneering rocker similar to something The Hives would release. “The Missing” is in the vein of “Desire Lines” and “Fountain Stairs” from HALCYON DIGEST; it’s a “normal” song as far as Deerhunter goes, and what makes this song great is what makes all of Lockett Plundt’s penned tracks good (a solid melody, a shoegaze atmosphere). The song would probably make a good starting point for anyone new with the band, and you can think of it as a way to dip your toes into a chilly pool music-wise. It’s probably not a mistake that the record’s most accessible song comes directly before “Pensacola,” the record’s strangest. “Pensacola” sounds like the Hank Williams and Pavement had a child that was sick of Florida and decided to hit the open road. The song might be the only track on this album that feels like Deerhunter is completely out of its comfort zone (and having a great time doing so), but it works — the song is a rambling boot-slapping ode that couldn’t be further in musical space from “The Missing.”

“Dream Captain” borrows one of rock-n-roll’s most famous lines (“I’m a poor boy from a poor family”) and repurposes it into the beginning of a haymaker chorus. The title track is notable for its last 3-minutes: the song goes off the rails and turns into a cacophony as Bradford Cox chants “Mono-monomania” over and over again. Trust me here, it’s sounds much cooler than it reads here. The final track, “Punk (La Vie Anterieure)” ends on a lo-fi note, with the band barely playing its way through the song. While I say that the band is barely playing, I mean this in jest of course, but that’s the perception of it and what makes this (and other Deerhunter albums) so great. There are plenty of points on this record that sound nearly out of the band’s control, but these moments are all firmly in place — when the music begins to careen off course, it always feels structured and planned, so it always feels exciting but never sloppy.

Bradford Cox, the frontman of Deerhunter notorious for his bizarre on-stage (and off-stage) antics has written every track here except for “The Missing.” If anything, this record doesn’t feel as personal as anything he has released in the past (Deerhunter or Atlas Sound). For that reason, I suspect that Deerhunter has become his “rock-n-roll” project where his most solo Atlas Sound has become a place to release his melancholia. I wouldn’t say that there’s an ironic distance here, but more of a carefree, shrug of an attitude.

Overall, MONOMANIA is a great record, and one that only suffers from comparison. There are plenty of points where this album rises to the heights set by its predecessors, but it’s different and it has different intentions. Additionally, some of the tracks here suffer from comparison as well: “T.H.M.” feels just plain boring when you put it in the context of “Pensacola” or “Neon Junkyard,” but the truth is it’s a good song that is in the middle of a great record. I suppose that MONOMANIA never really comes together as a whole (although it is bookended with similarly styled tracks) — the record feels a bit more like a grab bag of Deerhunter tracks. At any rate, I highly recommend this album to any fan of indie-rock or alternative. If you are new to the band, MONOMANIA might not be the best place to start. I’d recommend 2010’s HALCYON DIGEST before this, for beginners, but most of what makes that album so great is also present here as well. If you haven’t enjoyed a single Deerhunter record before, I don’t think this one will break the cycle for you either.

Essential tracks to sample/download: “Pensacola,” “Monomania,” and “Leather Jacket II”.

 

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Atoms for Peace: AMOK

 

AMOK Atoms for PeaceThis record has been a long time coming. Atoms for Peace initially began when (Radiohead’s) Thom Yorke took his solo record on tour. The band’s sound adopted a good deal from Yorke’s solo album THE ERASER: it’s sometimes paranoid, sometimes jittery, sometimes claustrophobic. If Yorke’s name wasn’t enough, Atoms for Peace sure has the pedigree of a great band: (The Red Hot Chili Peppers’) Flea commands the bass, (Ultraista and Radiohead’s producer) Nigel Godrich plays guitar, (Ultraista and Beck) drummer Joey Waronker provides half of the percussion with Mauro Refosco laying down most of the electronic beats. The band’s music is an interesting mix of electronic and material music, a nd it is often hard to tell where the real percussion stops and the electronic percussion begins.

Some of this material is pretty old, and band members have hinted that they have been sitting on it for a while now before its release. “Judge, Jury, and Executioner” was debuted in 2009 (it shares no relation with the similar Radiohead song). AMOK was created within a handful of days – the writing process for the band started with all musicians in the studio, free-form jamming without creating “takes” or stopping. Afterwards, the hours of material that they created was gleaned through, and the members picked out parts they thought were particularly interesting or beautiful. This makes for a great academic exercise, but what about a great music-listening experience?

The problem with AMOK is also its strength. The album is concerned primarily with being interesting: achieving new sounds, creating strange transitions, using instrumentation in different ways. The chief concern here is not the listener. Many of these songs are pleasant, but they often lack the melody that will keep you coming back for more. It reminds me a good deal of Radiohead’s last record, THE KING OF LIMBS, which was often jittery and songs sometimes lacked a clear throughline. Now, of course, all music doesn’t need to be a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus traditional song, but the real joy of AMOK comes from approaching the music in a cerebral way. This isn’t good background music, but it is good music to find yourself in if you’re willing to. If you are a listener that appreciates the way music is put together, there’s a lot on this record that you may find of intrigue.

It’s hard not to compare this Atoms for Peace record in the grand scale of Radiohead/Thom Yorke projects – in many ways, it is truly its own beast. Even though there will be plenty of sounds that you’ve heard before in past records, there’s enough new stuff here to keep listeners guessing and interested. The album opens with “Before Your Very Eyes,” and it’s a perfect example of what listeners are in for: the song begins with a shaky guitar-riff that twists and turns into an electronic sound, and it’s heard to distinguish when one sound ceases and another begins – there’s so much going on, so many layers, that you can pick up on new pieces with each listen. “Dropped” gives a stuttering synth that opens up over Mauro Refosco’s percussion. “Unless” sounds like a cut from Yorke’s THE ERASER. Some songs never really quite congeal: “Reverse Running,” “Judge, Jury, and Executioner,” and “Ingenue” generally stick with a musical idea throughout their duration, but they seem to be AMOK’s weakest tracks.

Overall, AMOK didn’t hit all of the right spots for me. It’s a good record, and it’s definitely worth a listen, but it’s hard for me to believe that someone would opt for this over Flying Lotus, or other Radiohead albums. If you’re looking for a good electronic band inspired by Afrobeat, I would recommend Joey Waronker & Nigel Godrich’s other band, Ultraista. Ultraista is a bit more accessible, and a bit more poppy; it may not be as interesting, but it’s a more enjoyable record for my money.

Songs to sample/download: “Default”, “Before Your Very Eyes”, “Stuck Together Pieces.”

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Tegan and Sara: HEARTTHROB

tegan-sara-heartthrob

Before HEARTTHROB, Tegan and Sara’s 2009 album marked the biggest change in the band’s sound.  The band’s sound was much more streamlined than it had ever been before, and HEARTTHROB continues this trend.  This record is, for better or worse, more produced, more streamlined, and more electronic than anything Tegan and Sara have ever done before.  For those keeping track of these kinds of things, SAINTHOOD was a very split album: the songs penned by Sara were much more electronic and melodic (“Alligator”, “Night Watch,” “Red Belt”) and Tegan’s output was more in the vein of power-pop and alternative rock (“Hell,” “Northshore,” “The Ocean”).  This time around, the distance between these songwriters has closed, and now, it’s difficult to tell who has written what.  Even though this makes for a more cohesive record in the end, it comes at the cost of the variety and surprise that many of the past records had.

The album opens with its lead single, “Closer.”  “Closer” is a good, solid, catchy tune, and it’s filled with many of the twin-on-twin harmonies that has become a hallmark for the band.  The song lays the harmonies, electronic percussion, and synthesizers on nice and thick.  Chris Walla (who produced the previous two albums and guitar player for Death Cab for Cutie) has been replaced with a small handful of other producers.  Greg Kurstin picks up the bulk of the production work here – known for his work with Sia, Kylie Minogue, Pink, and Kelly Clarkson – and he definitely leaves his mark on the duo’s sound.  “Closer” sets the tone for the rest of the album: it’s heavily melodic, but underneath all of the shiny production, there’s a well of heartache that Tegan and Sara have used for inspiration.  “Love They Say” is one of the album’s songs tracks — it begins with just vocals and an acoustic guitar.  The song works so well because it feels like one of the more organic tracks here, and the vocal interplay because Tegan and Sara makes it feel quite comfortable.  The closing track, “Shock to Your System” is a heavily percussive way to end the record, but it refrain “what you are is lonely” stands out like an anthem.

For me, this album doesn’t completely work.  Before this album, I’ve enjoyed each new album more than the previous one.  HEARTTHROB isn’t bad – it’s surely better than most electronic-pop music out there – but it doesn’t come close to the heights of SAINTHOOD or THE CON.  Listening to this album, there’s a small part of me that mourns one of the more interesting power-pop duos working today.  Tegan and Sara have made music that was heartfelt, earnest, and interesting — there was something new and exciting about it.  Halfway into HEARTTHROB, I could have sworn I had heard this album before already.  The best predictor of whether or not you’ll like this album lies in your reaction to the lead single “Closer.”  If you loved any of the band’s previous albums, you might hate this one, but you might also go crazy for it – it all depends on what you enjoyed most about the band. Either way, listen to this album a few times before making up your mind on it.

Recommend tracks to sample/download: “Closer,” “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” and “Love They Say”

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Track Review: Japandroids’ “Continuous Thunder”

Fans of Japandroids probably know the story all too well — in fact, it seems like their story might even be more widely circulated than their music.  The Canadian duo, after years of performing at small venues, decided to give up on their dreams.  They decided that, after all of the blood/sweat/tears, enough was enough.  The two created their first full-length album, Post-Nothing, and launched a farewell tour of sorts — one last hoorah before calling it quits.  It was no doubt because of this urgency, this go-for-broke energy, that the album turned out to be a hit (at least as far as indie-music goes).  The album gave the band the attention and the success that it needed to continue.  In 2012, the band released their follow-up, Celebration Rock, but it was unclear how the band would try to follow up their one-time farewell-note.

Celebration Rock is one of the most apt titles ever for an album.  The record is 8 tracks of joy, energy, and nostalgia — it’s a remembrance and celebration of youth well spent and misspent.  Staying up until 3AM talking with friends, driving semi-buzzed down lonely highways, these are the images that Japandroids conjure in their music and lyrics.  The album starts off with the sound of fireworks popping in the distance, and after its running time, the album concludes in the same fashion.  This final song, “Continuous Thunder,” is different though, in tone, style, and timbre: the percussion isn’t going off the rails, the guitar (while fuzzy and distorted) is more concern with creating texture than it is chugging out riffs, and vocalist Brian King is singing is heartfelt, but it’s not as urgent as the previous 7 tracks.  All of the ingredients are there, but they add up to something completely different.

“Continuous Thunder” is just as nostalgic as anything else on the album, but there’s a sense that the song isn’t just about a love gone past — it’s about two people, in love, remembering their past together.  The lyrics, within the first verse, summarize not only the song, but the entire album.

heart’s terrain is never a prairie
but you weren’t wary
you took my hand
through the cold, pissing rain
dressed to the nines
arm in arm with me tonight
singing out loud
yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah….

The two people here have planned a night together, and though the plans don’t necessarily go well, they make the best of it.  It’s not unlike the kids that were forced out of the bar in earlier songs.  This couple doesn’t care that it’s raining — they’re just happy to be together.  This song has all the same love-of-life imagery that Celebration Rock carves out, and it further expands the idea by showing that all that you really need in life is your other half.   But does that make this song purely romantic?  Not necessarily.  King goes on to wonder how things would be if he had all the answers and his partner had the body she wanted — would their love burn brighter?  Here again, King is acknowledging the imperfection of youth, and through the entire album, this is never taken as a strike against the fact.  The imperfection is what drives it: what makes it beautiful.

The album ends the same as it begins: with the popping of fireworks in the distance.  Only this time, the imagery is transformed and recontextualized — instead of kids partying and setting off fireworks, the celebration is for the beginning of two people, the beginning of a couple, and a turning point for both of their lives.  As the sound of percussion gives way to this sound, it’s hard not to imagine two lovers standing beneath the explosions in the sky.  While it’s easy for nostalgia to be an easy acknowledgment of things we once loved, it also gives us the opportunity to look back and fall in love all over again now that we’ve come as far as we have.

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