Sunday, July 08, 2007

Calm Rock

Wilco- Sky Blue Sky

Too many people try to define Wilco. One day they’re alt-rock, then they’re alt-country, noise-folk, or white-boy-indie-gospel. The question of where they belong has plagued indie zine and Rolling Stone journalists alike. But on their latest album, they embrace something that spans every genre they’ve touched: melody. Leaving the distortion of most of A Ghost is Born behind, Sky Blue Sky is a nearly genre-apathetic album that is satisfying, yet unfortunately unobtrusive. What could have been a great return to the country edge that’s followed them through all of their work instead turns into a blend of folksy somnolence. Of course there are highlights. The R&B beat of “Hate it Here” is one of those great breakup songs that both subdues and uplifts, where the protagonist asks “what am I going to do when I run out of shirts to fold?” and he realizes his lost love is never returning home. And “What Light” will make anyone swing and sway with an easy, crescendoing chorus.

If they were trying to get away from the noise they made on their last album, Wilco went too far in the opposite direction. If A Ghost is Born was an experimental Saturday night, this album is a Sunday morning album, to be enjoyed while sipping coffee and reading the Times in a sunlit kitchen. Maybe on their next effort they’ll find that balance between calm and energy that they’ve been able to make so beautifully in the past, possibly one that would be better suited for a weekday afternoon or evening. But for now, don’t expect this album to generate much excitement.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

On With The Show

Rufus Wainwright- Release the Stars

Sometimes you’ve got to wonder what happens in Rufus Wainwright’s head. How he can figure out to put together horns, weird keyboard effects and a full backup chorus into one pop piece. He doesn’t seem to think in songs, but in orchestras. Release the Stars is full of these big and foreign sounds. It starts off with “Do I Disappoint You,” a theatrical journey sounding almost like Sondheim decided to write a musical in the Middle East. After a brief foray into the political with “Going to a Town” (whose lyrics have a whiff off Allen Ginsberg’s “America”) he brings us back to the simplicity and fun of his catalog with “Nobody’s off the Hook” and “Between My Legs,” reminding us that he offers more than just the melodic melancholy of “Hallelujah” fame. No matter what he’s singing about, he manages to make light of the darkest of affairs. In slideshow he casually reminds his lover “I better be prominently featured in your next slideshow /'Cause I paid a lot of money to get you over here, you know?” His love stories are sordid and usually failed, but whether fact or fiction he looks past the heartbreak to show us the beauty in having loved and lost.

If this album is flawed it is only through its extravagance. He adds a brass band when he only needs a horn or a chorus when there is more emotion in his symphonic voice. And while the brassy, Motown of “Release the Stars” makes a fabulously uplifting ending, one wonders what it would sound like if it were just him and the piano quietly serenading you in a smoky bar after one too many neat whiskeys. Maybe he needed the extra noise because he moved out of the bar and onto the Central Park Summerstage. Maybe one day he’ll learn that everyone in a sold out arena would be quiet to hear him in the back row. But for now we’ll just have to accept the magnificent racket he’s making.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


So after a long hiatus, travelling around and being completely out of touch with the pop culture scene (something I'm still having trouble accepting), I'm back and hopefully will be updating a lot more. So the three of you that read this should start telling your friends. Anyway, here we go.

6/5/07- The Pipettes @ Highline Ballroom, NYC

I have to admit I’m a terrible feminist when it comes to music. Most of the time I find female singers whiny and overly emotional in their songs. I know it’s a part of a double standard. When a woman sings about a heartfelt breakup she’ll sound sensitive and weak, whereas that same quality is admirable and sweet in guys. But you have your Donnas, your Regina Spektors and Fiona Apples, and now you have your Pipettes. In fact, you have everyone who played their show at the Highline Ballroom on June 5th. The warehouse districts newest venue is open and dark, managing to make such an open space feel intimate. That intimacy worked well for Marit Bergman, the shy songstress from Sweden. She puts a spin on 60’s folk inspired songs by lacing heavenly harmonies with themes like rape, lesbian sex and loneliness on Halloween night. There was even a tune about Mama Cass, a fitting tribute considering her easy rhythm guitar and soulful soprano. Smoosh too channeled the past, this time in an early punk/new-wave fashion with clashing drums and distorted keyboards. And considering these girls didn’t look older than 15 it was certainly an impressive show. But of course the piece-de-resistance was the Pipettes. Matching dresses, matching hand movements and cute accents completely enchanted everyone in the audience. They went through almost their entire first album, plus some new songs from their EP. They brought the crowd in with their choreography and made sure no one went home without having a good time. And that was the difference with these women. They’re all about having a good time. Sure they may ignore any other emotion that afflicts a typical woman, but they’re representing a facet of the female population that doesn’t normally get much light: the happy girl. We get enough spokeswomen for the heartbroken girls, the girls rising from the ashes of a breakup, the girls wondering when they’re going to find their way in the world. But once in a Cyndi-Lauper-Moon there are those girls who are just genuinely happy to be alive and want to share that with everyone. The one downside? There just wasn’t enough. With some of their shorter songs clocking in at around a minute and a half, they sped through their repertoire in about 40 minutes. Hopefully next time they come around they’ll have a few more tunes to charm with, but that night there wasn’t a mopey girl in the house.

Friday, April 13, 2007

“You thought the Beatles were taking you on a magical, musical journey? Fuck that! These guys are!”

It's a double feature!!!

Fountains of Wayne- Traffic and Weather

Fountains of Wayne are masters of their craft as any fan knows (and I am one, so everything I’m about to say is coming from someone who really enjoys them, owns every album, and has seen them live twice). However their 4th album raises the question: When does mastery turn into boredom? Ever since their 1st album in 1994 they’ve capitalized on sunny pop songs that idolize the everyday, especially if the everyday involves cars. They highlight the common conversations, the drives to work, the boredom of the cubicle, the monotony of middle class life. But over 10 years after their first try, the formula hasn’t changed, and it’s starting to show.

Their single is “Someone to Love,” an ode to the bored twentysomethings coming home to empty couches and bad TV. Unfortunately, it’s not the right song for a single, and most definitely not the right song to start an album off with. The disco groove hints at something exciting, but it leads nowhere. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. And that’s just the problem: the song isn’t anything. It doesn’t draw you into the album, nor does it make you shout in horror. It just happens, and moves on. Surely there should be a bigger reaction than this.

The next song is much better. “’92 Subaru” has the rock riffs, pop handclaps and quirky subject that have defined FOW in the past. But at this point, it sounds forced. Almost every song has a more passionate counterpart on a previous album. The country tune “Fire in the Canyon” can be matched by Welcome Interstate Manager’s “Hung Up on You.” “This Better Be Good,” a song about the right girl with the wrong guy is easily beat by “Leave the Biker” on their self titled album. They even do another song about a scatterbrained but endearing girl (“Revolving Dora”) with the same anti-gravity metaphors as Utopia Parkway’s “Lost in Space.” A speck of originality comes with “Planet of Weed,” which is either an earnest tribute to the drug or a satirical bite at lazy hippies, and sounds just as charmingly drowsy and forgetful as if you were smoking up with them.

If you’ve never heard them before you’ll know they’re good, but if you have then you know they’ve done it better. The main problem is that while they are masters of pop-rock, they’re masters of 90’s pop-rock. If this album was released 15 years ago it would be an instant hit, much like their first album. But 1992 is too recent to be fashionably retro, and they end up sounding jaded. And where is the soul of a song like “Troubled Times”? When did the kitch and the cars get in the way of emotion? They sound as done with the 90’s as the 90’s are with them, and ready to use their talents with something different.

Kings of Leon- Because of the Times

Upon playing this album for my roommate as we sat down to dinner, her first exclamation was “Jesus Christ, how many types of songs can these guys fit onto one album!?” And upon multiple listenings, the answer is: very many. Their first album was a punch of southern dirt-rock, while the second veered into the skinny-panted indie realm, and about half of it left me silently screaming “there’s nothing wrong with dirty southern rock! Turn around and go back!” With their third album, Kings of Leon has emerged from the southern grit, passed through indie and made it all the way to something resembling progressive experimentalism without flaw. And while some of the songs wear their influences on their sleeve, the whole thing is another great album by an increasingly versatile band.

The opening is…uncomfortable, sounding drastically different than anything they’ve done before. It’s something along the lines of prog-rock with a metal chorus and a continual blues riff. And it’s intoxicating. After 7 minutes of that you’re good and primed for where the album is going, and it’s not looking as strange as it was before. “Charmer” immediately channels the Pixies, and solidifies their movement into rougher territory. At this point my roommate and I tried to play the game of which-band/style-does-this-song-sound-like?, and though we were successful at a few (“My Party” definitely has the NIN avant-garde static), we realized most of the songs aren’t easily placed. We’d be thinking Van Halen when they’d slap us with the Stones, or of UB40 when Lynyrd Skynrd would show up. And even when we made those connections, they weren’t complete. They don’t repeat the past, but rather let their individuality be genuinely influenced. Even when they poke a peephole back to their first album with “Black Thumbnail,” they don’t sound like they did back then. They sound like a new band playing with their old sound.

It’s that newness that’s so surprising. They’ve released three albums, each sounding minimally like the others, yet each sounding distinctly like Kings of Leon. Maybe it’s Caleb Followill’s unmistakable vocals, or the familiar subjects of alcohol and mistakes. Or maybe it’s the soul. No matter what they’ve recorded, they always sound like they put everything into it. They don’t change just to be different, they change because they’re actually changing as a band and finding something valuable in the different sounds. And if they’re this good at everything they try, let’s hope they keep trying.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Embrace the fanciful

Remember that time when I said I had a great review of The Shins new album? Well I didn’t find the review, but I found the album again, so here’s a second attempt to write what I wrote on that fateful plane ride to Madrid.

The Shins- Wincing the Night Away

Whenever I listen to The Shins I can’t help thinking of summertime. Even when they’re singing about darker subjects, the resonating electric guitars superimposed over the buoyant acoustic guitars and James Mercer’s high pitched but soothing half screams always leave me with a sense of the fantastic, the absurd and the sunny. The formula works for them, and works really well on Wincing the Night Away, even if it’s starting to wear thin.

They open up with the muted keyboards and distorted vocals of “Sleeping Lessons,” where that acoustic guitar teases and builds in the background until the climax of the last verse. What a release. It’s familiar and fun and reminds us who we’re listening to. They continue like they always have for a couple songs, and then decide to get a little more experimental on us after lulling us into the comfort of their personal brand of awkrock (you like that term? I just coined it. Feel free to spread it around, because if we need anything else on the music scene right now it’s definitely more exclusive genres).

“Sea Legs” starts with a stop-go drum track and a grooving bass that leads to a breakdown of strings, electronics and funk. The metaphors are just as beautiful and bizarre as ever (Of all the intersecting lines in the sand/ I routed a labyrinth to your lap), but this time in a different package. Well done. “Red Rabbits” is just as bizarre with the same amount of experiment, only accompanied by a great combination of strings, keyboards, and what I can only describe as rhythmic bubble-bursts. And really, what is modern music without playing with the fun settings of synthesizers?

From here, the album gets a bit more sinister. First with “Black Wave,” which plays with repetitive rhyme and whispering echoes of vocals, and then with “Split Needles.” The harmonies are more melancholy, the instruments more cacophonous, and the lyrics ironically optimistic (We'll set you up with some odd convictions / Because you're finally golden, boy). It’s vaguely creepy without being overly dark, and of course we’re valiantly saved from falling too far into the gloomy abyss by the quirky and quaint “Girl Sailor.”

The Shins have accomplished a hard task: making a well balanced album. It’s not so dark to bring your mood down, nor is it distractingly upbeat. It’s an any-mood album in that there’s something for whatever you’re feeling. Dark, silly, relaxed, optimistic and subtle. They’ve realized they can play with the tambourine-plus-acoustic-guitar-equals-charming formula, and though it’s a small step, it’s a step in a great direction.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What's playing abroad

I had a great review of the Shins new album. Seriously, you should have read it. It was the greatest review ever written. That’s usually the case for the one that got away. Unfortunately after my laptop and iPod were stolen, I couldn’t reproduce it. I mentioned that living in Italy would be hard for listening to new music, but European MTV playing in bars has lead to some fun new discoveries, which I will discuss to the best of my ability starting now:

“Grace Kelly” by Mika- A fun, danceable beat with slightly nonsensical lyrics gives this song the feel of a childhood schoolyard song backed up by Queen. Indeed Mika admits “I try a little Freddie / I’ve gone identity mad,” and the bouncy piano matched with the guitar and handclaps channels the late Mr. Mercury. The universal feeling of wanting to change yourself for your lover takes on an upbeat quality, where usually the tone is much more mopey and lovelorn. It’s what a good pop song should be, and a brilliant choice for a debut single.

“Shine” by Take That- Glam! Oh my god Glam! I think that’s as descriptive as you can get for these guys. Staging a comeback from early 90’s success, they continue making music in the glam-rock/disco-pop vein.. The song is a manifesto to the closet glitter kids to “let it shine,” but also incorporate the sweetness of a love song with the simple refrain of “you’re all that matters to me.” And while it modifies the Glam motif by adding a bit more of an electric sound, Take That stays within the retro realm. Their style is further cemented by a Busby Berkely-esque music video, complete with the lead singer donning a white tuxedo and dancing on a luminescent staircase. Call it contrived, but in this case that’s not a bad thing.

“Rehab” by Amy Winehouse –Motown from a young girl with a voice beyond her years. Hearing this I thought I was listening to a possible sampling of a jazz standard put to an R&B beat. She sings defiantly of a broken girl trying to mend herself. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a happy song with melancholy lyrics. It has enough of an oldie’s feel to please the indie kids looking for a fun throwback, and enough modernity to work in the clubs. But whoever you are, it makes you want to close your eyes and do your best Aretha Franklin impression along with this Brit songstress. Yes, I said Brit. With her and Joss Stone, does anyone know where these girls get their voices from?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Well then...

So soon after starting this there might have to be a hiatus, as I am going abroad to Rome for a semester and my lovely friend and co-writer Matt is heading into his last semester as an engineer in Boston, so needless to say there will be little time for writing, though we will always be on the lookout for new music in our adventures. If anyone has an idea for an album we should review, or even wants to submit a review themselves, feel free to e-mail them to Not to say there won't be reviews, they may just be few and far between until summer rolls around. Thanks for reading and keep checking the page!