Tag Archives: indie rock

Review of Rice Cultivation Society’s SKY BURIAL.

rice cultivation society

 

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.

Key Tracks
“King Midas”
“Sky Burial”
“Honey Hide”

Purchase: Mecca Lecca Records

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The National’s TROUBLE WILL FIND ME

the national

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.”

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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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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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The Most Under-Appreciated Albums of 2012

2012 has been a pretty good year for music.  Every genre has received some kind of hit record: for folk-indie, there was Mumford and Sons’ Babel; for R&B, there was Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; for hip-hop, there was Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, for pop, there was Taylor Swift’s RED.  Perhaps it’s because it was a good year in music, there’s been several albums that have kind of fallen by the wayside.  The collection of albums below have gone through 2012 without much appreciate.  Here, this means that the album didn’t receive much critical or commercial attention — Grizzly Bears’ Shields is excellent, and underappreciate by audiences at large, but it was championed by critics and it has found its way on many “Best Of…” lists already.  The following list of albums is by no means ordered.  Stay tuned for a list of the most disappointing albums of 2012 coming soon!

damon albarn Dr Dee

Damon Albarn — Dr. Dee
It would be hard to Damon Albarn to release anything that goes under the radar.  Sure, Dr. Dee was noticed, but it was largely dismissed upon its initial release.  The album is a folky British opera that chronicles the mysterious John Dee — a consort to the queen, scientist, magician, mathematician, and astronomer.  Who would have thought that audiences weren’t interested in traditional operas about obscure 16th century alchemists?  The album is littered with Blur-esque acoustics by Albarn, but the majority of the album is traditional opera.  Critics were hoping for a small scale, intimate set, but instead, they got a strange, esoteric passion project.  SAMPLE THIS:  “Apple Carts” and “Preparation.”

liars WIXIW

Liars —  WIXIW
Those fans that were hoping that Radiohead would return to their uncompromising, electronic tendencies (Kid A and all) got their wish with last year’s King of Limbs.  Anyone still feeling a bit unsatisfied should seek out Liars’ WIXIW (pronounced “Wish You”).  The band has been no stranger to changing their sound between albums or being inaccessible: WIXIW changes none of that.  On the face of it, it’s an electronic record set with many of dance-ready beats.  A deeper listen reveals the paranoia and menace of the album.  It’s an album that rewards repeated listens, and while it may take a few to get used to the dense electronic atmosphere the band creates, it’s well worth the time.  What initially feels like a claustrophobic and harsh set of songs gradually opens up to be a surprisingly open and rich record.  SAMPLE THIS: “No. 1 Against the Rush” and “His and Mine Sensations.”

Django Django

Django Django — Django Django
It’s the band so nice they named it twice — four times if you take into account this is a self-titled record.  When I first listened to Django Django’s debut record, I knew that this was the record that everyone would be talking about in 2012.  The album has everything a listener could want: it’s well produced, it’s catchy, it’s fun, and it spans an array of genres, constantly keeping you guessing what comes next.  The band effortless shifts between surf-rock, electronic music, traditional Egyptian, and world music, but they never forget to give the listener a melody to remember.Django Django opens with the sound of nature before giving into the sounds of an arcade-like PacMan synthesizers.  It’s the perfect metaphor for the album itself: it’s an album that marries very natural sounds and melodies with fun electronics.  The album came in went with some people noticing it (NPR), but for the most part, it was lost in the rush.  Check this album out!  SAMPLE THIS: “Hail Bop” and “Waveforms.”

Grass Giraffes transportation

Grass Giraffes — Transportation
The Athen, Georgia-based band carries on the musical traditional.  The band’s debut release, the Transportation EP is a stellar mix of pop-rock and psychedelia.  Grass Giraffes’ music is sure to please anyone looking for more music by the Elephant Six collective.  The EP is only 5 songs long, but the band leaves its mark on the listener by giving the audience melodies that are irresistible and spot-on musicianship.  The lyrics here are just as smart and sharp as the lyrics, and if Transportation offers anything, it’s the hope that this kind of music (whose epoch seemed to fade out after Neutral Milk Hotel’s excellent In The Aeroplane Over the Sea) isn’t quite on its way out just yet.  SAMPLE THIS: “Backstories” and “Better Alone.”

Dan Deacon america

Dan Deacon — America
Dan Deacon has been skirting around massive audience appeal for some time now.  He’s a hard guy to pigeonhole:  his background is in classical music, but he is constantly trying to push the boundaries of electronic music.  America offers one of the best examples of what Deacon is capable of: the first half of the record is a handful of short, melody-heavy pop songs, and the back half of the record is a sprawling instrumental.  It’s hard to understand why Deacon isn’t a bigger figure in the mainstream consciousness — his music is either too electric for classical listeners or too classic for electronica listeners.  America does a great job marrying the two approaches, and if any release this year makes electronica fun, smart, and beautiful, it’s this one.  SAMPLE THIS: “True Thrush” and “USA II: The Great American Desert.”

Jesca Hoop the house that jack built

Jesca Hoop — The House That Jack Built
Tom Waits once described Jesca Hoop’s music has refreshing as “going swimming in a lake at night.”  It’s a surprisingly apt description of her music, and on that front, The House That Jack Built succeeds.  Hoop, who recorded this album after touring as part of Peter Gabriel’s band, pushes herself in a ton of different directions.  This album is a bit more streamlined than her previous work, but it’s also more accessible — fans of Hunting My Dress may be a bit disappointed with the decidedly poppier approach Hoop takes here, but it pays of in dividends.  Although Hoop’s musicianship is pristine here, what really shines is her lyrics; the material spans a wide array of subject material, but nothing is as profound as her reflection of death on the haunting and minimalist “D.N.R.”  Hoop’s music feels too poppy for the indie-audience that she records for, but here’s hoping this fantastic album finds its audience.  SAMPLE THIS: “Ode to Banksy” and “D.N.R.”

Aimee Mann charmer

Aimee Mann — Charmer
Aimee Mann has been around for a while now, but 2012’s Charmer feels like she’s found new inspiration.  The 90’s alternative rocker’s latest album is a fun, slick record that never forget to put the melodies up front.  Complimenting Mann’s guitar this time around is a Cars-like synthesizer. The album is accessible, but it’s immensely listenable — this is a record that never fails to just be a fun record.  Even though some of the subject matter turns sour (“Disappeared” or “Living A Lie”), Mann couches it all in poppy songwriting.  Collaborations with James Mercer from the Shins and Tim Heidecker from Time & Eric give the songwriter enough room to maintain her own personality while offering new takes on her music. SAMPLE THIS: “Charmer” and “Soon Enough”

Exitmusic-Passage

Exitmusic — Passage
Celebrities playing in bands is not a new spectacle.  Everytime you here about a Keanu Reeves and Dog Star or Russell Crowe and 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, it’s hard not to imagine that these are ployed attempts at artistic credibility.  These celebrities play in their band, but they never want that to be the focus of the music; Billy Bob Thornton, for example, nearly cancelled a live interview because the radio DJ singled him out in a question.  Exitmusic, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all.  The group is a husband/wife duo featuring Boardwalk Empire’s Aleksa Palladino on vocals.  Their album, Passage, has all of the atmospheric bombast that a Sigur Ros record has, and it’s just as beautiful.  Simultaneously beautiful and haunting, this is a record that works both as background music and music to lose yourself in.  SAMPLE THIS: “Passage” and “Sparks of Light.”

Hot Chip in our heads

Hot Chip — In Our Heads
Here’s an album that initially received a bit of a buzz at first only to seemingly sizzle away.  Hot Chip has been around for a while now, and their records have been mixed at best.  Sure, some are better than others, but none of them have been as consistent as In Our Heads.  Part R&B, part electronica, part dance, this British group’s latest record features the band at its very best.  The band’s positive outlook makes In Our Heads not only a great album, but one that you’ll enjoy spending time with.  If the music isn’t trying to create a groove to dance to, it’s dropping melodic hooks that will keep listeners coming back for more.  SAMPLE THIS: “Motion Sickness” and “Let Me Be Him.”

Future of the Left plot against common sense

Future of the Left — The Plot Against Common Sense
I don’t know the last time I listened to an album so brutal.  Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense is noise-rock at its finest, made all the most harsh by the fact that they just don’t seem to make bands like this anymore.  Not only is the music aggressive, but the lyrics are just as sharp as the melodies here.  Moving from cynical to satirical, Future of the Left tackles subjects such as the music industry, Hollywood, the Occupy Movement, and um, bad restaurants.  It’s one of the year’s best, as long as you’re willing to endure the fast, noisy, and raw sound that’s thrown at you.  SAMPLE THIS: “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman” and “Beneath the Waves an Ocean.”

Honorable mentions:
La Sera — Sees the Light
Mynabirds — Generals
Hopsitality — Hospitality

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