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Album Review: Spoon – They Want My Soul

August 8, 2014 in Album Reviews

 

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Spoon

They Want My Soul

Release Date: August 5, 2014

Score: 8.5

By Zachary Kaczmarek

It’s baffling to think about, but with their eighth album, Spoon reminds us all that in the wake of 90s indie rock acts fizzling out or imploding and tarnishing legacies in the process, their career has yet to fully yield. The results haven’t always been dazzling or fresh, but Daniel, Eno, and Pope have been one of the most consistent acts since they formed, and they’ve done nothing but establish themselves as a solid pillar in rock, especially during their impressive string of releases during the 2000s. Even when they reached the point of exhausting their creative spark on their last release in 2010, Transference, there were still choice cuts that prevented the record as a whole from being a tragic letdown. Sticking to their fail-safe style, Spoon continue to meet expectations while throwing in enough risks to keep They Want My Soul from being a bland rehash of the past.

After touring in promotion of Transference, the band took a break to work on their own projects and find something that would “reinvigorate” them, as front man Britt Daniel worded it in an interview with The Line of Best Fit, and it seems that his side project Divine Fits, Jim Eno’s work as a producer, Eric Harvey’s solo record, and Rob Pope’s work with The Get Up Kids, have introduced the flair that the band was seeking. The changes that Spoon welcome are not necessarily jaw dropping or worth writing a headline about a transformation taking place and with their undoubted consistency there’s no need for a major overhaul or the use of trendy gimmicks. “Inside Out” instills a surreal, dream pop sheen that is built on a steady dose of reverb-heavy, electronic drum hits, wobbly bass lines, and atmospheric synthesizers which present a loose, carefree and experimental side of Spoon that syncs up perfectly with the attitude in a line like, “Break out a character for me/Time keeps on going when/We got nothing else to give”, sentiments that Daniel sings in a raspy strained tone, with no reservations – a sentiment that Daniel relies heavily on this theme of mental exhaustion brought on by all those who he views as conmen that are attempting to steal a piece of him. Pressing on with new ideas, bigger, louder sounds, “Knock, Knock, Knock” uses a spacey soundscape of alt rock, the occasional sweeping synth-harp, and choppy, condensed drum kicks that paint Spoon like a futuristic indie rock act of tomorrow, and therein lays the marvel of They Want My Soul.

As forward thinking as Spoon can be nearly 20 years after their debut, they still draw upon this wise, sage persona that kindly looks back at some of their best moments. Unabashedly, they ride familiar soulful chords and timings that often get labeled as “dad-rock”, as songs like “I Just Don’t Understand” and “Let Me Be Mine” flash back to the Spoon of old and tether to their strengths while the ambitious synth loops and atmospheric progressions that drive “Outlier” and close out the record on “New York Kiss” look further down the road. Insert any old adage about having cake and eating it, or enjoying the best of both worlds, because as cliché as they might sound, Spoon do exactly that in their balancing act of staying true to their roots while simultaneously wielding the potential to stimulate and inspire a new generation.

Essential Tracks: “Inside Out”, “Rainy Taxi”, “Outlier”, “New York Kiss”

Album Review: Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

July 31, 2014 in Album Reviews

 

Jenny-Lewis-The-Voyager1

Jenny Lewis

The Voyager

Release Date: July 29, 2014

Score: 9.0

By Zachary Kaczmarek

Jenny Lewis as a solo artist has never really been the most exciting listening experience, not because she lacks passion or vocal ability, – even the biggest Rilo Kiley detractors who have heard even one of their tracks can attest to her bold personality and range – but due to the lack of creativity that left her stripped down bluesy pop sounding like bored recreations of her now defunct band. The former Rilo Kiley front woman established decent footing on her first solo effort back in 2006 with Rabbit Fur Coat, which featured the Watson twins, but her 2008 follow up, Acid Tongue, took a step back due in large part to the crutch that was a revolving door of unnecessary collaborations and cameos which unintentionally reduced Lewis to a small contributor on her own LP. The Voyager however seemingly goes out of the way to give Lewis the spotlight that she was always capable of owning, and with production from alt-rocker Ryan Adams, it bravely tosses aside the strictly, blues-tinged, indie rock that Lewis has surrounded herself with her whole career in favor of an unexpected turn towards honey-coated guitar pop.

Wrapped in a bright array of rock and blues and filtered through a poppy lens, Lewis maps out her struggles and dreams which are both insightful and charming. The lead single “Just One of the Guys”, is an airy, Beck-produced, arena-sized anthem to the pressure that Lewis’ faces as a childless woman in her late 30s and the resistance against her biological clock. The drum beats are crisp and reverb-heavy as they echo out into a cloudy sky, the backing vocals angelic and yet so defiant and strained, creating an atmosphere that is not exactly akin to the typical major existential crisis, but that’s a testament to the allure and magic that Lewis is able to bring.

Even when the topic is taboo or slightly awkward, Lewis still manages to orchestrate a pleasant experience. In fact, the entirety of the song nearly soaks in with ease as Lewis goes back and forth before putting the matter to rest once and for all with the show stopping line of the entire album. “There’s only one difference between me and you: When I look at myself all I can see/I’m just another lady without a BABY.” Not leaving any of her work to personal matters to interpretation, Lewis never ceases to swiftly close out the most pivotal moments with exclamation. One moment she’s reeling you in with saccharine harmonies and choruses, and the next she casually moves on to kicking out the chair and throwing lyrical haymakers.

And yet, as alluring and charismatic as “Just One of the Guys” proves to be, it’s incredibly misleading, in the best possible way imaginable, because it shares very little in terms of sound with the rest of the album. When the single initially dropped there was the impression that Lewis was simply trotting out another light, traditional, pop record drawing from the 60s and 70s, perhaps similar to a She & Him record, which never seem to divert from the opening track and churn out one singular sound for 40-something minutes. But that criticism could not be more wrong when guitar solos like the one that is featured on “Slippery Slopes”, which abruptly introduces a psychedelic, face melting, wah pedal madness that should feel out of place in a sea of harmonized “oh, oh, oh, oh”s, but instead only intensifies the moment that Lewis and Adam somehow pulled off.

This fascinating pairing of skip-along pop rock and outside influences is risky but it’s responsible for giving The Voyager all of its stamina and durability. The brilliant transition on “You Can’t Outrun Em” – which opens with a seedy, twangy, Metallica-esque guitar intro before seguing into Lewis’ typical exotic, acoustic pop – is a real eye opener and demonstrates Lewis’ adaptability at this point in her career, molding her velvety, sublime vocals around whatever style invigorates her, and the genius is that every variation feels natural.

Emotionally, The Voyager matches the audacious musical spirit that is embedded in nearly every track that Lewis and Adams worked crafted, and there’s no doubt that the title of the album is perfectly suited for the introspective side that Lewis displays. In recent interviews Lewis has been incredibly vocal and candid about admitting how painful the years that followed Rilo Kiley’s dissolution were, and as she sings the chorus on the title track –which is also coincidentally the closer – “The Voyager’s in every boy and girl/If you wanna get to heaven get out of this world/You’re the voyager/You’re The voyager”, “I’m The Voyager”, it becomes apparent that The Voyager is one of those rare pieces of music that attests to the healing powers that an album can possess. In the wake of reflecting upon the loss of her constant, her equilibrium, Jenny Lewis sculpts the album of her career – with Rilo Kiley or as a solo artist – by venturing off into the deep recesses of the unknown and using her music as the vessel. Except the real headline is how she managed to bring everyone along for the ride.

Essential Tracks: “Just One of the Guys”, “Slippery Slopes”, “You Can’t Outrun Em”, “The Voyager”

Watch Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart breakdance and act as members of Jenny Lewis’ band in the video for “Just One of the Guys” below.

Best Albums of 2014…So Far

July 17, 2014 in Best of 2014, Lists

 

BESTALBUMS

By Zachary Kaczmarek

Seeking out the best music from endless genres that are constantly evolving can be an arduous task. Reviews can dance around the subject and tend to take the drawn out approach instead of giving a simple thumbs up or down – admittedly this writer is guilty of this as much as any other. But to save you the reader hours of sifting and consolidating, we’ve compiled a list of the  best releases that 2014 has bestowed upon us to this point in time.

18. Katy B – Little Red

Katy_B_-_Little_RedKaty B’s debut represented the perfect mixture of Americanized R&B-pop a la Beyonce, Aaliyah, and so on, combined with house and funky UK beats that have catapulted names like Disclosure to worldwide success. Unlike her debut, Little Red invests in various ballads which tap into a more solemn place below the surface that goes beyond club bangers and a night out on the town.

 

 

17. Clipping. – CLPPNG

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In the world of hip-hop there are the innovators, constantly incorporating previously unrelated elements into their compositions, and then there’s clipping. There’s no question that the industrial mix of glitch synth and snares limits the reach and appeal of clipping’s sophomore album, but the sound as a whole is cleaner and well-polished without sacrificing the bizarre off kilter approach on Midcity. Daveed Diggs does not posess the greatest flow or the most insightful lyrics, but his style fits in well with the abrasive lo-fi approach of Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson.

 

16. Protomartyr – Under the Color of Official Right

protomartyr

Upon first listen, Protomartyr sound disjointed and sloppy, simply flailing around for the sake of it – the vocals of Joe Casey which sound improvised and off the cuff at times have a lot to do with this. But this reckless style is also their greatest strength, plowing through multiple tracks without a care and somehow establishing a consistent rhythm along the way. It’s not random chance or dumb luck that Under the Color of Official Right sounds good by the time the gem of the album ‘Come and See’ tears into its reverb heavy chord progression. Protomartyr has its share of gaping flaws – an overabundance of chaos, scraggly, sloppy vocals to name a few – but they wisely turn those critiques into pillars of strength. Under the Color is meant to be enjoyed in an unhinged state of bliss, not in a coffee shop, analyzing the deeper implications of their uninhibited nature.

15. Warpaint – Warpaint

Warpaint_-_Warpaint_album

The self-titled release by LA-based quarter Warpaint, favors musicianship and slick grooves over the cavernous vibes that their debut, The Fool, relished and bathed in. There are certain moments that feel like more of an exercise than an impassioned LP, but in the end their strengths – psychedelic riffs and fills and a newfound mid-tempo druggy haze – win out and make up for a slightly generic sound. Each expert display of musical brilliance is accompanied by a Portishead style of shadowy appeal to love and everything else that comes with making brooding rock music.

 

14. EMA – Future’s Void

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Tackling the theme of technology and some of the unintended negative consequences is not why Erica M. Anderson pervades a sophomore slump, but rather the way that she scores a dark, complex society with complementary sounds and loops, and the presence of dejection and anxiety looming overhead, is what prevents an overused concept from seeming empty. She adopts more abnormal samples and dramatic synthesizers than guitars this time around, but it’s fitting considering the disgust towards the modern obsession over technology and social media. The spooky part about her bleak perspective is that the future in question is not a post-apocalyptic world staring at us from afar, but a world that already exists, re-imagined with sinister electronics.

 

13. Lykke Li – I Never Learn

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Setting aside the bright melodies and uplifting, dance-inducing arrangements, Li finds herself churning out one melancholy ballad after another. The percussion is softer, the lyrics are somber, and Li’s sound as a whole is perfectly retrofitted for a classic breakup album. I Never Learn may not have a defiant urge to seek independence or find confidence in a free fall, but it does show a toughness that aspires for more than just self-loathing. More than anything, Li masters the art of the bare-bones ballad, a skill that the pop of her last two albums – a pop which she now claims to hate – could not fully harness.

 

12. tUne-yArDs – Nikki Nack

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If tUne-yArDs self-titled debut was the proper introduction to the zany mind of Merill Garbis, Nikki Nack serves as the collection of moments that solidify her brand of messy, avante-garde pop not as trend that ran its course, but as a viable sound that will carry tUne-yArDs for years to come. Garbis tightens down the loose structures and unleashes all sorts of havoc, lyrically with her politically/socially charged quips, and sonically with a full arsenal of popping, Afrobeat percussion and layers of spastic vocal samples. As strange as and chaotic as Nikki Nack can be at times, it never strays away from the idea that this is pop for a strange new generation.

11. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow

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Riding the recent wave of Scandinavian pop that has infiltrated ears in each corner of the world, Danish singer-songwriter Karen Ørsted, or MØ as many now know her, fuses hip-hop laced beats and percussion with moody hooks that have a unique anthemic presence. Sure, the vocal delivery and inflections will have some making silly claims that Ørsted is aping Lana Del Rey, but the heights that Ørsted’s choruses soar to and the eclectic interaction between guitar licks, horn rhythms, and bass is undeniably hers and hers alone.

 

10. Freddie Gibbs and Madlib – Pinata

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Gangsta’ rapper Freddie Gibbs is not the world’s most underrated MC or one that needs reexamination, his discography is, for lack of a better word, decent. But Madlib, whose influence runs through the veins of modern hip-hop, lays down some of his finest beats and production work to cast Gibbs in a different light, one that has Gibbs delivering the performance of a lifetime. The diverse samples and spacious layout draw the best out of Gibbs and his narration of street life, and to this point create the best hip-hop LP of 2014 thus far.

 

9. Eagulls – Eagulls

Eagulls-Album-Cover-608x608The debut from the Leeds post-punk group Eagulls do not take home any awards for originality – but to be fair how many completely original acts these days can stake such a claim? The influences are unashamedly worn on their sleeves – the Clash, the Cure, perhaps a heavier-sounding Joy Divison – and the truth is there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a remarkable skill that Eagulls have mastered; being able to parley the soul and contempt of their British rock heroes into fresh explosive brand of punk. It never sounds like a cover band trying to relive a golden age because the urgency and manic personality that Eagulls channel so well, is far too pulse-elevating and convincing to be a half-assed homage.

8. The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

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What a criminal statement it would be to mistake Lost in the Dream as a stunted ode to classic rock. Despite the unmistakable traces vintage Americana, psych rock, and the folk of Dylan, Lost in the Dream finds its own personality by inserting a ballad or two and feeding off a newly added new wave component. There’s not a lot of parity from one track to the next – the similarities can become tiring – but the results are definitely more satisfying and consistent than if the band had recorded a diverse, scatterbrain LP that explores conflicting sounds for the sake of being well-rounded.

 

7. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

Small_Gold_Album_-_First_Aid_KitThe irresistibly heartfelt folk pop of Johanna and Klara Soderberg reaches new heights on Stay Gold, ditching the simple aesthetic for a beefed up sound that makes every climatic moment feel larger without sacrificing any purity or sincerity that made their first two records such a delight. While Stay Gold may not be sexy, unpredictable, or fringe, its consistency ends up being the saving grace – especially in an age where even the most veteran acts can put out a dud.

 

6. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness

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Maintaining her love for the heartwarming twang of the 50s and 60s, Olsen turns away from the charming, quaint rock from her debut. The elements of garage rock allow Olsen to channel fuzz drenched, frustrated sentiments that were far too bold for the passionate, understated songwriting of Half Way Home. The grittier distortion that underlies Olsen’s lyrical chops show just how versatile Burn Your Fire can be – breaking hearts with silent acoustic ballads and generating unrest in lovers quarrels through psych rock. However Olsen chooses to frame her work – gentle or caustic – it tugs on heart strings all the same.

 

5. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

St_Vincent_artworkAnnie Clark’s fourth LP is not exactly the best jumping off point for newcomers. Clark’s self-titled record is lyrically stirring, taking sardonic jabs at selfie takers and consumers, and also fearless in its adventurous style sonically. The haywire personality that is characterized by freakish guitar tones and jazz-based rhythms is stronger than ever as Clark allows herself to explore new extremes while still working within a very broad definition of pop. It’s an undeniable marvel that marries pop and art like few other albums in the past decade have been able to do. Comparing the exciting gambles that Clark takes on this eponymous record to the work of her contemporaries does not feel right, not because it’s a discussion of styles that relate to each other like apples and oranges, but because it seems Clark could one day end up in far grander and more intriguing discussion, with the likes of Bowie and Byrne.

4. Royksopp and Robyn – Do It Again

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When a collaboration of this magnitude occurs, it’s difficult not to expect something unparalleled and brilliant that ventures into new territory or redefines a genre. Unfortunately, Do It Again does not expand the boundaries or implement a shelved idea, but meets expectations and allows the unique pop sensibilities of Robyn to coexist and flourish inside the large array of synths and beats that Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland construct. Do It Again is the peak of sophisticated synth pop that has the potential to produce an enjoyable, dark horse, hit single of the summer (“Do It Again”) and still be incredibly daunting with all its complex and intricate parts.

3. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

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Storytelling is often an underrated skill in today’s music but Mark Kozelek prides himself on constructing some of the most compelling and powerful lyrics that 2014 has brought us so far. The lengths vary between 3 minute cuts and 10 minute free form, evolving tales, both of which are equally gripping and heavy, even for the genre of folk. Kozelek effortlessly transfers all of his experiences, joys, and woes onto anyone who lends an ear. The art of being subtle or mysterious never crosses Kozelek’s mind as he thrives on songwriting that prioritizes being forthright and candid. Whether a line is embarrassing or demoralizing, Kozelek stands tall, because there is no charade or persona to which he is a slave, and his loyalty to honest storytelling is what makes Benji one of a kind.

2. Swans – To Be Kind

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If Swans have proven anything it’s that a band is never over the hill and the freshest of rebirths could occur decades after forming. The experimental rock pioneers last album, The Seer, redefined the limits for expansive rock that almost feels too large to process at once, and To Be Kind possesses the same colossal weight. It’s not hard to feel engulfed in tracks that can reach the 30 minute range and morph countless times over, adding layers upon layers of eerie guitar noises or chants and mantras. There aren’t as many chilling moments that haunt the mind in the way The Seer did, but To Be Kind is every bit as versatile, meticulous, and unnerving as any album that Swans have released.

 

1. White Lung – Deep Fantasy

white-lung-1402422002Lengthwise Deep Fantasy might not seem like much to gawk at – the run time falls just short of 23 minutes – but Vancouver post-hardcore act White Lung make every second count on their third LP, which is nothing short of a swift kick in the ass musically. The opening blows of kick drums and overwhelming explosion of hissing riffs generate the kind of unhinged intensity that is impossible to fake and Mish Way’s Kathleen Hanna-meets-Karen O. vocal delivery propels each pummeling sequence of furry with a confidence that has a slight pop addictiveness. Albums of this kind usually don’t suck in the casual listener that fancies pop or charting alt-rock, but in an age that has less boundaries and more cross-over than ever, Deep Fantasy has the potential to do just that.

Album Review: White Lung – Deep Fantasy

July 15, 2014 in Album Reviews

 

white-lung-1402422002White Lung

Deep Fantasy

Release Date: June 17, 2014

Grade: 9.5

By Zachary Kaczmarek

White Lung possesses a high octane motor and the kind of ferocity that is impossible to fake. Sure, maybe for a track or two the average punk or hardcore band could match the blistering, relentless torrent of fury; but for an entire album? Not likely. This is a record that triggers all the right fervent emotions that lay below the surface and commands them masterfully. Vancouver has gained a reputation within the past few years of churning out white hot punk rock as if it’s their main export, and Deep Fantasy only elevates that status.

Biding time is something almost sacrilegious in the eyes of the quick, pummeling mindset that Deep Fantasy drapes itself in. As quick as the run time may be – a total of twenty-two or so minutes – the deliciously face-melting riffs, violent pounding kick drums, and piercing vocals of Mish Way are powerful, efficient, and achieve more than most bands could in forty minutes. The joys of this tightly packed album are not just based on pure rage alone as ‘Face Down’ proves, with breakneck melodies and in-your-face lyrical splinters like “The dumb won’t make a sound, when you want them/Ugly dies face down.”

Way’s kamikaze presence and hasty lyrics are inarguably the reasons Deep Fantasy kicks so hard and still manages to have addictive qualities without compromising any of the viciousness that was plentiful on Sorry and It’s Evil. The chaotic Way establishes herself as one of the best in the land due to her siren-like Fever to Tell-era Karen O.-meets-Kathleen Hanna, type highs that she calls upon, matched with chilling yells and screams.

Sonically, it’s hard not to gush over the versatility that White Lung discovers on their third go at it. The lighter, but still very aggressive ‘Snake Jaw’ utilizes bright chords and quick alternate picking that stand out among the ravaging bursts of distortion on heavier tracks like ‘I Believe You’. But as far as unparalleled sounds go, the epitome of Deep Fantasy proves to be ‘Drown With the Monster’, an anthem for thrashing around eviscerating everything in sight.

White Lung’s destructive masterpiece might not be for everyone – hell, mentioning a combination of words such as hardcore, post-hardcore, or punk in the same sentence could very well elicit a premature “that’s not really my cup of tea” from friends or colleagues as if it’s taboo. But if there ever was punk/hardcore album that could bust down the barrier between fast-paced jagged aesthetics of this caliber and the casual listener who consumes nothing but the finest middle of the road music, Deep Fantasy is it. It’s a devastating, nasty, and hellish ride – in repetitive doses – but by the end an immediate repeat listen or two is inevitable.

Essential Tracks: ‘Drown With the Monster’, ‘Down It Goes’, ‘I Believe You’, ‘In Your Home’

Album Review: Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence

June 17, 2014 in Album Reviews

 

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Lana Del Rey

Ultraviolence

Interscope/Polydor

Release Date: June 13th, 2014

By Zachary Kaczmarek

 Score: 7.5

 

There really is no gentle way of describing how messy and aggravating Lana Del Rey’s debut album, Born to Die, was in its understated Nancy Sinatra -“woe is me” – style of lounge-pop. It was the type of record that you desperately wanted to enjoy but ending up tossing away due to the cheap production, insipid arrangements, and the endless flow of clichéd lyrics that a teenager might resort to when depicting angst-filled love. But perhaps it was the unfair standard that was placed on the album by dazzling singles like “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans”, which led bloggers and fans alike to the conclusion that Del Rey was the troubled and poetic songstress that music was craving. Despite the embarrassing letdown that was Born to Die and the harsh speculation that Lana Del Rey might be nothing more than a cleverly marketed brand, the queen of crooning decided to return with an album that attempts to prove that she is more than a calculated image or a poorly executed concept – receiving a production makeover with from the Black Keys Dan Auerbach.

Unlike its predecessor, Del Rey’s much improved sophomore LP manages to give itself a fair chance by correcting a major flaw on Born to Die – avoiding the temptation of blurring all the musical elements into a bland soggy dome of sound. That’s not to say that a change in representation somehow portrays Del Rey like never before, but Auerbach’s approach does breakdown the unengaging sound barrier that Born to Die hid behind. It would be difficult to imagine “West Coast” having any sort of appeal without being able to distinguish the brooding synthesizers lurking in the background from the crisp drum fills that propel Del Rey’s vocals, or the chorus in “Shades of Cool” finding any sort of traction without the perfect amount of reverb to lace the vocals with. It would be criminal to award Dan Auerbach all the credit for the album’s successes, because Del Rey does belt out a few verses that are out of her comfort zone, but at the same time it’s foolish to pretend that he is not playing a vital role in revamping the sound of an artist who is not exactly known for enthusiastic melodies.

Stylistically Ultraviolence trades in the “misunderstood rebel with a dark past” for an equally cynical “hopeless romantic” persona. The best way to absorb some of the more self-obsessed lyrics and the self-loathing that characterizes the majority of the 12 tracks is to understand that Del Rey truly is a revolving door, a chameleon, and rather than gracing the stage or screen with her melodrama she chooses to create the musical equivalent of pessimistic soap opera by playing various roles. In near-identical fashion to Born to Die, Ultraviolence plays out more like a movie script where Del Rey is once again cast aside for her significant other’s addictions, leaving her to reflect on her self-worth, or lack thereof. The real difference in this sequel is that the main character isn’t playing a tragic victim, but instead an arrogant female Kanye West that demands attention and is not to be trifled with, as noted multiple times on “Money, Power Glory” – “You talk lots about God/Freedom comes from the call/But that’s not what this bitch wants/Not what I want at all”.

Taking a break the looming black cloud dramatics and hustler attitude, Del Rey moves past the usual themes and takes a stab at critics with the tongue-in-cheek “Fucked My Way to the Top”. The chorus – “I fucked my way to top, this is my show” – is not exactly a line that might end up in Bartlett’s Book of Quotes, but it serves as a reminder that regardless of the how or why, Lana Del Rey, for better or worse, is most likely here to stay. It also serves as proof that trying to consistently enjoy Del Rey’s music can be an exhausting task that involves too much give and take for the casual listener. For every enticing line or well-executed display of range, there’s a corny metaphor about love, and with every decent chord progression there’s an outro that drags on 30 seconds too long. It’s this unfortunate trade off that can make Ultraviolence more appealing as a list of singles shuffled into a playlist rather than a full dose of melancholy. But with a dedicated fan-base like Lana Del Rey’s comes the luxury of plateauing, or taking risks that isolate and cause lots of eye-rolling, meaning that this unique style of her’s is unlikely to change for even the harshest of critics. After all, it is her show.

 Essential Tracks: “West Coast”, “Brooklyn Baby”, “Fucked My Way to the Top”

 

Album Review: First Aid Kit – Stay Gold

June 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

Small_Gold_Album_-_First_Aid_KitFirst Aid Kit

Stay Gold

Release Date: June 10th, 2014

Columbia

Score: 8.7

By Zachary Kaczmarek

 

First Aid Kit’s style of folk-pop –which may very well be one of the most fresh perspective’s the genre has had to offer in the last decade – masterfully flirts with the traditional twang-laden sounds of the 70s and the tight structured melodies of contemporary folk. With only three full length albums and one EP under their belt – Stay Gold being the third – the Söderberg twins, Johanna and Klara, already feel like mainstays in folk, constructing melancholic songs that are equally uplifting as they are heartbreaking, all while laying down greatly impassioned acoustic chord progressions and classic sounding harmonized vocals. Stay Gold builds upon First Aid Kit’s last album, The Lion’s Roar, and its successes – vivid storytelling, an energetic mix of instruments, and beautifully harmonized choruses.

Emotionally, First Aid Kit maintain their conflicted view of the world by neatly juxtaposing life’s joys with its treacherous roads and deep-seated fears of fading and becoming a shell of what once was. The title track addresses these concerns with an ominous string section looming overhead and powerful chorus lines that slice right through the heart – “What if a hard work ends in despair?/What if the road won’t take me there?/Oh, I wish for once, we could stay gold.” Throughout the record the Söderbergs consistently hit the mark by unabashedly wearing their hearts on their sleeves and wrapping their best compositions around the raw moments and revelations. “Shattered and Hollow” makes a similar imprint in large part due to humble admissions – “I am in love and I am lost/But I’d rather be broken than empty” – the gentle pitter patter of snare drums, and a swiftly finger-picked guitar melody.

The nucleus of Stay Gold however, is not when First Aid Kit is at their lowest but rather when they’re triumphantly embracing their disposition. “My Silver Lining” pairs unyielding lyrics – “These shackles I’ve made in an attempt to be free/Be it for reason, be it for love/I won’t take the easy road” – with a fascinating interaction between Klara Söderberg’s guitar fills and the piercing downward-spiraling string section in the background, cementing it as one of their most endearing songs to date. Aside from being the marquee track on the album, it also shows how far the sister duo has progressed, stacking walls of harmonious sound and enough hooks to fill multiple songs, which is a far cry from simplified guitar and keyboard driven staples in their catalog like “Ghost Town” or “Tangerine”.

Softer confessionals like “Cedar Lane” serve as a reminder that before First Aid Kit stepped into this new realm folk that is littered with alluring pop hooks and dramatic arrangements they were a traditional folk duo capable of evoking tears with nothing the bare minimum. Whichever gear they choose to manipulate the heart, Johanna and Klara Söderberg do so with precision and grace, bridging the gap between the classic folk and the complex pop-infused songs that have elevated their status as songwriters. While Stay Gold may not be sexy, unpredictable, or fringe, its consistency in an age where even the most veteran acts can put out a dud ends up being the saving grace.

Essential Tracks: “My Silver Lining”, “Stay Gold”, “Waitress Song”, “Fleeting One”

Album Review: Lykke Li – I Never Learn

May 7, 2014 in Album Reviews

 

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Lykke Li

I Never Learn

LL

Release Date: May 5, 2014

Score: 8.5

By Zachary Kaczmarek

 

Reflecting on some of the all-time classic breakup albums – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space, and Beck’s Sea Change – it’s clear that the great songwriters are not merely speaking their unfiltered, broken thoughts on record or whining in a Morisette-like fashion, but transforming those disparaging emotions that swirl around love lost and creating something universal and transcendent. The mysterious power of the post-breakup album is that it satisfies the need to vent and purge the negative while simultaneously being empowered. Both the artist and the listener can listen together in awe and be at loss for words thinking about how a broken heart could be reworked into a compelling series of tracks, and sometimes be seen as a source of inspiration. On the contrary Lykke Li’s third LP, I Never Learn, manages to be just as forceful as any of the aforementioned, and it does so not by inspiring strength in others or finding a fire deep down inside her own soul, but by being brutally honest even if that reality is bleak and without hope. It’s the type of dark, realist pop album that values only the essentials, trimming any excess and filling the gaps with Li’s masterful vocals.

Starting off an album as somber as I Never Learn requires finesse, and Li understanding this very well, chooses not to open with the explosive banging of tribal drums or neo-soul synth, but tender, hollowed out acoustic chords that rest firmly on the sound of mournful strings rising and falling. The title track “I Never Learn” is quite the mix of joy and sorrow, highlighting the core of the record, which is an exasperated Li taken aback by the wondrous feelings of love, which unfortunately are nothing more than memories that leave her motionless and mesmerized. “I’ll die here as your phantom lover/I never learn, I never learn”, the final lines ring out, as Li emits vibes of helplessness, reliving a moment that she is convinced will play out time and time again.

In a similar fashion to how the opening title track relies on a stripped down palette, the most vulnerable cuts like “No Rest for the Wicked” and “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone” hinge on the tension that is created by uncomfortable silences and complete surrender to which Li submits herself. For an artist who has left a mark by carefully layering and engaging the ear with constant activity, recording a bare heartbroken ballad like “Made of Stone”, which has the qualities of a spontaneous bedroom recording, is a jaw dropping moment. This track alone is one of the indicators that this entire experience is all too real for her, denying every instinct that has made her past two albums great and simply steering into the skid while embracing the void that she writes about. She no longer feels a connection with songs that seek out happiness and instead chooses to wisely reinvent herself in a way that draws on this new gothic side. While hearing more contrast from the Swedish songstress would provide alleviation from the relentless waves of bittersweet despair, it’s satisfying to see a talent like Li ascend to new heights as a songwriter and accomplish such a feat without the textured soulful pop that was once assumed to be a given with any song of hers.

For anyone hoping to hear brief flashes of the lighter sounds that characterized Li’s first two releases, Youth Novels and Wounded Rhymes, “Gunshot” may be enough to suffice, with its pounding drums in the chorus, slick grooves on the piano, and layered vocals during the refrain. Among a collection of melancholic confessions, “Gunshot” distances itself as one of the few moments where Li defiantly seeks to mend what is lost, only to be shot down; “And the shot goes through my head and back/Gun shot, I can’t take it back/My heart cracked, really love you bad/Gun shot, I’ll never get you back”. The placement as the center track of the album is perfect, allowing for a succinct peak of rage and frustration, before quickly devolving into a series of beautifully somber pop arrangements.

Rather than writing a contrived happy ending simply for the sake of ending on a high note Lykke Li closes out the album with some sobering lines – “If you save your heart for mine, we’ll meet again, we’ll meet again.” I Never Learn quickly run its course, lasting only 33 minutes and change, but constantly beckoning for another listen, and tugging on the heart with an addictively haunting charm. It’s a sequence of devastatingly beautiful black on black moments that pop music occasionally touches upon for a track or two, but never dares to embrace as a recurring theme. It’s common for most songwriters within the genre to recklessly spill their heart through a pen when documenting the emotional highs and lows of shattered romance, but rarely does an album of this kind hit so deep below the skin as swiftly as Lykke Li’s.

Album Review: St. Vincent – St. Vincent

February 25, 2014 in Album Reviews

 

St_Vincent_artworkSt. Vincent 

St. Vincent

Loma Vista/Republic

Release Date: February 25, 2014

Grade: 9.0

By Zachary Kaczmarek

 

 

The past few years for Annie Clark have been interesting to say the least, collaborating with David Byrne on a duet album, Love This Giant, touring for said album, and causing many to second guess what her next album would sound like. Would it lean more towards the jazzy art rock that Byrne brought to the table on their collaboration, or venture off into a bizarro new direction that could start where her last record, Strange Mercy, left off? The correct answer, which her self-titled fourth album provides, is both. Clark’s latest collection of sounds serve as a musical coronation on which she weaves back and forth between the funky brass that characterized Love This Giant, the dulcet melodies that made her first two albums so irresistible, and the electrified essence on Strange Mercy that bridged the gap between prog rock and pop.

St. Vincent perfects the seemingly impossible balancing act that Clark has been working towards since her debut, which is to craft something alluring and equally gutsy. “Birth in Reverse” is the epitome of this balance, taking the grim theme of death, and oddly characterizing it as a mundane happening with an infectious chorus, just another day in the life. Accompanied by Clark’s signature crunchy and freakish guitar tones, the second track on the album sets a course for an LP that thrives on embracing unorthodox moments and morphing them into compelling perspectives worth understanding.

“Bring Me Your Loves” embodies this off the wall mentality, broadening boundaries and throwing away any preconceived notions of what a St. Vincent song should sound like. The various interstellar sounding synthesizers overlap and bend in pitch, creating an eerie sci-fi vibe, backed by Clark’s spooky harmonized vocals. “I thought you were like a dog, but you made a pet out of me”, she sings, making a very disheartening realization about love.

In between the twisted romance and uncomfortable themes lies the critical David Byrne influenced anthem, “Digital Witness”, in all its brass tinged glory finds Clark ironically pointing out “people turn the TV on it looks just like a window”. But the message is really hammered home in a chorus that begs the sarcastic question “If I can’t show it you can’t see me/What’s the point of doing anything?” The quip is swift and witty enough to get the point across about living life vicariously through social media, but not so preachy and overbearing that one could imagine Clark as an out of touch adult wagging her finger and handing out dull life lessons.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, steady atmospheric songs like “Prince Johnny” and “I Prefer Your Love” succeed just as well without the waves of fuzz-drenched guitars and drum beats, providing spacious arrangements for Clark’s voice to ascend. “I Prefer Your Love” cuts through the perplexing abstract lyrics that are the cornerstone of songs like “Regret”, and reveals the songwriter at her most raw, showing her endless affection for her mother who was ill at the time she wrote the lyrics. It’s the most vulnerable three and half minutes that Clark has recorded to date, allowing a place of worry and tenderness to become very public and exposed. The weight of troubling thoughts is conveyed masterfully in one of the more poignant lines – “Sure as mother licking her finger to wipe the blush and smudge from my cheek, and wonder what will become of your little one”- as Clark contemplates what life would hold if her mother were to pass.

Attempting to categorize the prog pop masterpiece that is St. Vincent proves to be a frustrating exercise in futility. For the sake of convenience, it’s much simpler to analyze each element and notable influence of Clark’s sound as opposed to inventing a verbose genre title that describes what it sounds like. Musical trends often times prove to be cyclical, whether on a popular level or even in music that’s slightly off the beaten path or avant-garde. But for the time being, Annie Clark’s music seems to exist within a vacuum, taking no part in reemerging trends like disco and R&B, and possessing unique qualities that render comparisons with any current artist rather pointless. Clark has risen to new heights as an elite songwriter and musical adventurer, claiming the universe of guitar-driven art pop for herself.

Essential Tracks: “Birth in Reverse”, “Digital Witness”, “I Prefer Your Love”, “Bring Me Your Loves”

Concert Recap: Pixies w/ Best Coast @ Comerica Theatre (Photo Gallery)

February 25, 2014 in Concert Recap

 

Best Coast

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Pixies

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Photos taken by Zachary Kaczmarek

Album Review: Phantogram – Voices

February 18, 2014 in Album Reviews

 

c333b420b1a9ad99ab6229a84d42910d Phantogram

 Voices

 Universal/Republic

 Score: 7.5

 By Zachary Kaczmarek

 

When Phantogram initially started out, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel were embracing the label of “street beat” and “psych pop”, which as their debut Eyelid Movies proved, couldn’t be a more apt description of their sonic freshness. Sure, there were a multitude of interweaving melodies, loops and riffs, but at heart of every great song on Eyelid Movies there was always an ear-catching trip-hop rhythm and the hauntingly catchy vocals of Barthel. Voices continues to stress the essential building blocks that made Phantogram stand out in the first place, and even makes a few bold attempts to create emotionally transparent moments that their debut was lacking.

In wild and hectic fashion, Voices hits the ground running with the tightly wound “Nothing But Trouble”. Starting out with a forceful drum beat and churning synthesizers, the song follows a typical Phantogram formula, but unexpectedly Carter ends the song with a haywire guitar outro, sending the track into funky noise pop territory. The second track and peak of the entire album, perhaps Phantogram’s greatest composition of their career thus far, “Black Out Days”, takes the duos greatest strengths and finesses them into an addictive 4 minute anthem. The buzzy synthesizers, durable beat, echoing guitar riffs, and Barthel’s siren-like vocals spliced and stacked on top of each other showcase Phantogram’s successful marriage of mesmerizing “psych pop” and hip-hop.

It can never be said that Voices doesn’t aspire for something grand with all its precise interlocking parts and smooth transitions. The intro for “Fall In Love” begins with a brief loop of a violin which startlingly transforms into with Barthel crooning over warbling bass and sharp backing strings, while Carter’s reverb coated cords provide depth and create the feel of a massive landscape.  If there is one improvement on how Phantogram composed songs five years ago versus the Phantogram of today, it’s the confidence they have in establishing a consistent sound that more often than not, delivers as promised. But the drawback to their format as it currently exists is the inability to work outside of that comfort zone.

The glitchy M83 influenced tracks, “Never Going Home” and “I Don’t Blame You”, which feature Carter on lead vocals, strive to generate deeper sentiments but instead lead to uninspiring results that muster only a fraction of the urgency and charisma that Barthel uncannily delivers in her best moments. The counterproductive lull from these overly sentimental instances ultimately zap Voices of any kind of momentum or excitement and leave Barthel to pick up the pieces. In contrast to the many successes on Voices that operate within Phantogram’s boundaries, the downfalls can all be attributed to the moments that peel back all the layers in order to create something heartfelt, like Carter’s somber performances, as well as a few of the more tepid tracks on the back end of the album, a la “Bill Murray”. 

At its finest, Voices is able to match the intensity and vigor that had listeners speaking high praise of Eyelid Movies. Instead of trying to encompass a wide scope of sound, Phantogram tightens their grasp on a riveting sound that they can call their own. Even though there’s not a significant amount of growth or an indelible mark left behind, Barthel and Carter orchestrate a reassuring statement that cements the duo not as a fly by night product of fads or trendiness, but an act that will continue to produce engaging albums for years to come.

Essential Tracks: “Nothing But Trouble”, “Black Out Days”, “Fall In Love”, “Howling at the Moon”

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