Tuesday, November 30, 2010

We Are Scientists: Barbara (2010)


(PIAS)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

for some reason i have always thought
that we are scientists were a "fun" band
"fun" in the vein of other
critically derided
bands i appreciate, a list which includes
depeche mode (adore) and the red hot chili peppers (love)
and the kings of leon (don't mind as much as supposed to)
who i will defend tirelessly
as masters of melodrama
and california sludge
and melodramatic sludge
respectively

but as songs from this new album
"barbara"
surfaced in the shuffle mode included with my mp3 device
the crude thought which popped into my head
ha, more like "we are... not good"
an unflattering title which nevertheless proves quite appropriate
a perceptive conclusion, in retrospect

you see, the better we are scientists songs from the past
and the two somewhat palatable ones
on this record "barbara"
they are recycled synthpop
sounds like
hmm
a flock of seagulls
or maybe wang chung or haircut 100
but like self-aware wang chung or haircut 100
or slightly dumber flock of seagulls
a distinction many wouldn't bother to draw
because they are not flock scholars like myself over here
this album's examples of such include
"break it up" -- not a patti smith cover
and "rules don't stop"
songs i don't have the automatic
impulse to skip or turn down
unlike
the other eight

this album is thirty-one minutes long
thirty-one minutes
i say to you

it sounds like fucking incubus
bowling for soup
new found glory
lit
with smarmy faux-indie vocals
all the kind of shit
that made my 1990s adolescence suck
and lacking even the hedonistic honesty
of lit or len or blink 182
more like those smug fuckers semisonic
who were worthless
or more like the dickhead way ben folds five
would sound to me
if i discovered them in my twenties
instead of at age eleven
when they held the moon

and now the homework assignment
can you name for me
an album whose title is simply a lady's first name
that is not terrible.
and layla does not count.
these albums are usually recorded
by boys with an axe to grind
much like album reviews that
are formless poems.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Girls: Broken Dreams Club EP (2010)


(Matador)

RECOMMENDED

Disclosure: I have yet to hear Girls' debut LP Album. No particular reason for that. I just missed its moment and now it's waiting in the queue. But I can always spare a few minutes for a 12" or EP so I thought I'd use this as a taster. Only problem is, having not heard the full album, I can't comment properly on how much of a departure it is. But I can say it's far from what I expected, and seems to be a radical personality change compared to the lo-fi flamboyance that shot these Californians onto the hip scene last year.

Broken Dreams Club wins me over immediately with "The Oh So Protective One," a lovely, lilting Everly Brothers pastiche that fits well with the '50s-centered wanderings of the Walkmen and Deerhunter this year. It's not merely that it's a beautiful throwback; it's exceptionally heartfelt and well-written. Nearly as good is the jangling, wistful "Heartbreaker." The four tracks that follow expand on the mood admirably, peaking and cresting with the lazily charming seven-minute "Carolina."

With shades of calypso, gentle power pop, and lovelorn country, this lush little EP presents surprising eclecticism and reach for its thirty-minute length, even if none of its songs reach out and grab like the two openers. Regardless of your familiarity or opinion of Girls, I bet you'll find something to treasure here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Matthew Dear: Black City (2010)


(Ghostly)

RECOMMENDED

Opening with plodding, atmospheric alleyway noises, Black City is, so its author claims, a concept album about a metropolis that teems with life constantly, day and night. The city is unnamed, but it isn't difficult to imagine his hometown of Detroit, one of America's musical ground-zeroes, as the prime inspiration for music that smacks of a pulsating, almost scarily relentless nightlife kneeling under the world's weight. Carrying heavy inspiration from Brian Eno and some of his work with Talking Heads, this ambient synthpop from DJ and producer Matthew Dear is certainly cerebral, but also curiously inviting. It's dreary and claustrophobic, but it's a dreary and claustrophobic party.

The Bowie comparisons are easy to make because the committment to mood and concept is so absolute. The Eno comparisons are easy to make both because Dear talks about him frequently in interviews, because no one who makes electronic music these days doesn't owe a debt to Eno, and because Dear's deep-voiced drone is an aesthetic callback to those early Warm Jets-era albums, here with a pronounced emphasis on stomping beats and lofty soundscapes. The nonchalance and strange warmth of the vocals do much to offset the busy musical glitchiness.

It's for this reason that Dear has an advantage over his cutting-edge electronica peers: his classical pop smarts keep you coming back. The jam of the record is the balls-to-the-wall 2:28 nonsense "Soil to Seed," which perfectly encapsulates the album's hellish Gotham ideal while also offering dancefloor-ready nastiness. Skittering synthetic nonwestern beats, slick basslines, and a carefully manipulated Prince-like vocal make for the exquisite coldhearted funk of "I Can't Feel," perfect four-on-the-floor for the self-conscious cool kids. Don't like that? How about some Miami Vice soundtrack fodder on "Slowdance" (with a bit of Jungle Book chant) or the polyrythmic pushing of instant dance music classic "You Put a Smell on Me?" But Bowie and Eno also come through in sheer ambition; "Little People (Big City)" is a scattered, psychotic epic on the order of "Age of Adz," equally precise, equally sprawling: spacey ambience, white noise, hooky bliss, and plenty of joyous rambing across nine-minute real estate, all of it golden.

Unfortunately, Dear can't sustain this focus for the full length of the album. After an early peak that begs repeated listening and body response, we descend into a messy second half that wanders off into arid, nondescript tangents. Later cuts like "Shortwave" and "Monkey" scrape with bold forms but meander into darkness, while others ("More Surgery" in particular) start in drugged-out noodling territory and never escape. (Bits of "Gem" could pass for Enya.) Nothing bad, just eternal and dull, like the morning-after party from hell. It might even function as a mood piece, but after the charge and excitement of the early songs, the hangover disappoints. We have here a brillaint EP needlessly stretched into a serviceable album. Then again, maybe that's Dear's point; if, as he argues, the 24-hour clock is a scourge, what better way to display it than to record its hazy, migraine-dappled consequences?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Das Racist: Sit Down, Man (2010)


(Mishka)

RECOMMENDED

"Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" was about as auspicious a career beginning as "Short People." And if you're about to tell me about how smarmy this hipster alt-rap is, well, I pretty much agree. As if "consciousness rap" wasn't a shitty and one-dimensional enough label, now we have to contend with a further pointless fragmentation, the same exact bullshit that's got rock & roll in general thrown off into various separatist ghettos. Fine, but Das Racist aren't "alternative" (which in rap music is code for bland and unoriginal) and they're not a joke. MC Paul Barman was joke-rap. This mixtape, DR's second released in 2010, is real shit that has a stunning level of imagination within its modest trappings.

Since coming off their novelty phenomenon track, Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez have been hailed as leaders of "hyperlink," an MC style that consists of Family Guy-esque references strung together haphazardly. The band prefers "dadaist," and I see their point. Rather than the cultural degeneration suggested by the hyperlink rubric, I hear a certain punkish energy and breathless excitement that feels copped from the sunny days of Paul's Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising. Whereas the old-school fetishizing of Jurassic 5 and the early Black Eyed Peas came off false, strained, and lazy, Das Racist are the first specifically throwback crew in a while to actually use their consciousness as a vehicle for an individualist expression.

The production doesn't aim for the populist jugular the way De La Soul and the Beasties once did, but it is nearly as adventurous as their best work. Yes, there's sensory overload at times, but the thing operates wonderfully as a whole. The rapid-fire flow can be forced at times, and there is a palpable fear of being too direct which could end up getting these gifted, smart dudes in artistic trouble, but the lyrical depth and charm are appreciated. It's fun stuff.

Keep in mind this isn't a proper album -- I expect Das Racist's first actual LP will deserve far more praise than I'm giving this -- but a mixtape that comes with all the usual mixtape trappings. You're meant to root through and parse this thing discovering shit. It's supposed to be confusing and overwhelming, which it is, so you'll help build some hype. Do so and hopefully soon we'll get some full-fledged, focused illness from these guys. I guarantee you'll look forward to it after hearing this.

And hey, why are you still reading? This shit's downloadable for free. Go grab it now.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Pernice Brothers: Goodbye, Killer (2010)


(Ashmont)

If the members of R.E.M. had never met until this year and started a band now, this is probably what they'd be doing: crafting tired-sounding ballads and force-fed rockers with minimal mess and an almost apathetic exclusiveness. The Pernice Brothers probably don't play with their backs to the audience, but it wouldn't be a terrible fit if they tried it. Goodbye, Killer feels like an indie rock Dire Straits, a perpetual laid-back serenity but with none of the broadminded friendliness of, say, the Weakerthans.

Never mind the adult contemporary streak that drives so many alt-rockers past middle age and (one must grudgingly admit) occasionally yanks excellent work out of them; how are the songs? Indistinct, mostly, although greater familiarity with Joe Pernice's particular quirks seems to be making it a hit with his fans. After hearing so much about the literate ache of his lyrics, what I hear seems just overly labored. Musically, this is very lite alt-folk or alt-country at the most resigned extreme, not particularly related to the lush music that once put the Pernice Brothers on the map.

It has some of Wilco's charm but not a lot of their vitality, and is a bit too easygoing to have much beyond a pleasant calming effect. The only melody that sticks is the early highlight "We Love the Stage," a self-aware cabaret chronicle of life on the road that you'll keep with you. Otherwise, although the clean production amplifies rather than squanders the DIY spirit (and possesses some welcome contrarian nods to actual mainstream country music), you won't find much energy, nor will you find songs that justify the aloof performing. Still, you could do worse as far as atmosphere for a late afternoon hammock snooze.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to Dress Well: Love Remains (2010)


(Lefse)

!! CAUTION !!

The ghostly soul music notion that drives this project by Brooklyn graduate student Tom Krell is a nice idea. Possibly by design, though, the resulting album takes a potentially beautiful idea and squanders it with excessively lo-fi trappings. The distortion, microphone feedback, and clipping don't fall into a musical place at all. That may be the point, but it doesn't make for pleasant listening to anyone who cringes when a balloon gets rubbed.

Krell seems intrigued by musical decay, and his hand-me-down Michael Jackson and Whispers melodies are worthwhile; he has some potential as a songwriter. His singing is more dubious; though convincingly noctural, it never betrays much emotion that feels genuinely like his own. As an arranger and producer, despite his well-reasoned ambitions, his blends of drone and R&B aren't ready to gel yet. If you're at all bugged by the sound of damaged tape, stay away. If you love the sound of damaged tape, buy this immediately. If it distresses you to hear perfectly decent pop songs addled by damaged tape, well, you just don't get it, maan. I don't either. Happy Thanksgiving; sorry for the short review.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Curren$y: Pilot Talk II (2010)


(Def Jam)

RECOMMENDED

Immediate sequels such as this are very seldom a good idea. Market oversaturation is a genuine risk when there is so much music in a given year to process. If an artist releases two records in the space of four months, the first becomes a promotional tool for the second, or vice versa. Since the recording dates are in such proximity, a waiting period could hurt as well. What's a guy like Curren$y -- who must have a fucking stockpile of material after all the label-shifting and shelving he did in the last half-decade -- to do with all his shit? To Def Jam, a Pilot Talk II might seem like the best option and it may well be, but it's difficult to consider it as an actual followup to his extraordinary Pilot Talk. It's more of an extension and exploration, deepening the original's virtues (including economy -- thirteen songs in forty minutes) but also throwing in some dubious elements. Think of it as an atypically major bonus disc, but one with absolutely killer material: "Fashionably Late" is a decent starting point, building from an impossibly funky piano piece driving a beat straight out of a Gil Scott-Heron record. These aren't just leftovers, even if they have that context.

A large part of Pilot Talk's appeal came from Ski Beatz's beautifully intricate production work that elevated the mere idea of a jazzy backing track to a complex live band explosion of melody and soul. The second installment offers even more Beatz and he works even harder here; in terms of its visceral rush of sounds and moods, you're unlikely to hear many more varied albums this year. If Pilot Talk was full of suggestions of a backdropping of Curren$y with sophisticated, artful, but sympathetic musicality, II engulfs the rapper entirely with those same ideas. If the earlier album was a nod to the chilled out feel of early Roots (and Roots-like oddball experimentation does continue here on the head-spinning, how-the-fuck-is-this-the-first-single "Michael Knight," the rhythmically batshit "O.G."), this is a wall of fucking sound. Ski Beatz deserves top billing for what he does here: ambient funk out of the gate on "Airborne Aquarium," the tricky jazz guitar of "Hold On," the cartoon slow-mo of "Real Estates," pure velvet soul on the wonderful Marvin Gaye tribute "Montreux," and plenty of heavenly piano and sax all over the place. Ski's shit doesn't sound like anything else under the hip hop umbrella right now, and that's a big deal.

Curren$y, who wasn't born yesterday nor later on that evening, isn't resting on his laurels; perversely, that's one of the problems. His best lyrics were fun and goofy last time around; now, they're often outstanding tonguetwisters throwing out references to the Dapper Dans, Kriss Kross, and Waffle House, while stretching his favored airplane and hash metaphors (some sex, too; dig the "Flight Briefing" sample of... well, guess) to what must constitute their outer limit, creating many laugh-out-loud rhymes and gags -- all the way to his dream of a talk show that'll be a cross between Donahue and Springer, ingeniously backdropped by the record's most emotional, pretty soundscape on "Silence." But Curren$y's also taken a couple of No-Doz capsules since July, it seems, and we end up missing out on the laid-back charm that made his monotone flow on Pilot Talk so delicious. His newfound cockiness hurts some of his weaker passages, too, with a whole slew of generic "bitches" rants that make the guy seem far less interesting than he really is.

When all is said and done, there is plenty to love on his LP, and it's unfortunate that it's so completely overshadowed by this week's release of, you know, that other hip hop record. I hope a lot of folks give Pilot Talk II a chance when the Turkey Day dust settles, but I really hope they go ahead and pick up both Curren$y albums of this year. They wouldn't function as a double, but they do work well in conjunction; combined, they suggest great things ahead for this finally-budding performer.

[SEE ALSO:]
Pilot Talk (2010)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)


(Def Jam)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Congratulations; thanks to Kanye West, this week you are part of a Cultural Moment. West's clumsily titled, phenomenally strange and wondrous fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is permeating conversations, media, and listening habits like no other record in recent memory. There may not be a public consensus on West, but there is certainly an impressive roster of folks across all landscapes and identifications who are passionate about his music.

It's ordinarily difficult to retain enough perspective to be nostalgic about the days when a new record by, say, Bob Dylan or Prince or Neil Young would be greeted like a message from on high, a desperately needed State of the Union commentary from someone so intimately trusted yet so safely far away. These were the days of actual cultural architecture, the crafting of the vernacular that framed a lived-in world, a time more than a place, a cross-section of life more than a state of mind. Like all elements of our pop culture, music's now fragmented, and it feels more individualistic and bottomless that way: the possibilities of discovery are endless. But then an album like this comes around and that giddy, communal feeling of gathering around to hear the newest message returns; how often can we truly know, as we do this week with Kanye, that our discoveries are synchronized with those of so many millions of others?

It's a powerful, marvelous thing. Why's it happening with this particular album? It's not simply because it is the new Kanye West album, it's not simply because of the hype generated in the weeks ahead by the appearance of dazzling songs like the snarling anthem "Power" and the utterly triumphant "Monster" (featuring a show-stopping verse by Nicki Minaj), although that certainly helped. It's because it is an immaculately crafted, confessional work of art by a major mass-media figure with a can't-keep-his-mouth-shut complex on the order of John Lennon (except Lennon probably wouldn't have cared enough to disrupt something as benignly dumb as the MTV Video Music Awards). It's because West has passed the ultimate test of the creative genius who doubles as a media punching bag, the same test Michael Jackson repeatedly failed: he courts and embraces the attention by making the entire universe a stage for his darkest secrets, thoughts, fantasies. West is fascinating because he isn't afraid of his bizarre extremities, or of fucking up and admitting it later, or of not fucking up at all but apologizing anyway (as with his recently revived Bush comments of 2005). But his work is brilliant because of his apparently genetic gift of turning his own utterly ridiculous situations into a juggernaut of humiliating, heart-on-sleeve sulks in irresistible pop song form. West has always been special, but Fantasy showcases him as a master, as one of the all-time greats, as a man capable of being the best in the goddamned world, a man whose creative restlessness coalesces perfectly with popular emotion. This is his Songs in the Key of Life.

West has always been expert at the elevation of his undeniable eccentricities into universal problems. He gets flak for his idiosyncratic performance style and occasionally clipped, bizarre lyrics, but both have to earn credit for their humanizing force -- West is beloved as much for his technical flaws and periodic prodigal immaturity as were David Byrne and Brian Wilson in their days. That's what makes us trust him so intuitively; this is a man who found his way into national attention as a performer by rapping with his jaw wired shut after a car accident. His disinterest in glossing over his weaknesses is what enables him to not just impress but inspire amazement and adoration. One could spend an essay or two dissecting the wounded, malicious, heartbroken "Blame Game," full of the sort of shit most people would be embarrassed to even whisper in public, musically and lyrically; its every line suggests an extra meaning and a half, its every moment possessive of innumerable aural secrets.

So let's hear it for the weirdos, and the geeks; rock & roll's had their share of both, but few have made this kind of celebratory, naked hay of their alienation, and virtually none have been as articulate. It typically takes a certain confidence to hide so little; Marvin Gaye had it, as does Leonard Cohen. West often sounds terrified, lyrically if not in his performing, but refuses to allow this to stop his stream of invention. His chilly, minimalistic soundscapes on openers "Dark Fantasy" and "Gorgeous" offer disorientation worthy of Kid A. Sequencing is top-caliber as well: the three-dimensional shimmer of "All of the Lights" is offset ingeniously by the assaultive "Monster," the classic soul and cheerful experimentation of "Devil in a New Dress" contrasts the haunted, Age of Adz-like "Runaway" and the tortured partier "Hell of a Life" just enough to create the most divine three-track run of the year. All are plainly the result of endless tweaking and perfectionism; it's geek rock, folks.

Of course, West gained initial notoriety from his skill as a producer. The sound of Fantasy, nearly all of it coproduced by West, is another throwback in its sonic palette that dares everyone else to try and keep up, like the old days when each new Prince album would offer new head-spinning ideas to set the industry on its head, which this shares the potential for with few other recordings of its era. On "Runaway," "Monster," and the audaciously tricky "Lost in the World," West is mining new territory, going on tangents, and it sounds as though he's even holding back a bit on all but the most unapologetically hedonistic cut, "Hell of a Life." Even the most elaborate production, "All of the Lights," never comes off as overly busy. For all its length and extremity of expression, this is an arresting album of impressive restraint.

It's difficult yet to place this in the context of Yeezy's career except to note that it's the first of his records in nearly five years to really build on his initial promise: good as Graduation was, it felt like a classic third LP rehash; and while 808s & Heartbreak is an excellent album, it qualifies still as a stopgap experiment in comparison to the intense focus here. One improvement carried over from the prior two LPs is the near-absence of skits, lending the thirteen tracks an unadorned starkness; the songs are stronger, more complete, more fulfilling of West's eclecticism than anything he's done since his Jon Brion period. The record builds and sustains a mood, then explodes at specific intervals ("Power," "Monster," "Runaway"), but those sustaining, sweltering emotional moments are what make it so ingratiating and memorable; moreover, each cut stands completely on its own, from the pissy crankery of "So Appalled" to the undeniably grand Dropout throwback "Devil in a Blue Dress" -- opposite extremes that feel of a piece here. Discounting two mood-piece interludes that run less than two minutes each, not one song is a weak point.

2010 has seen a torrential downpour of exceptional releases from artists established and new; that a record released so near the year's end should position itself at nearly the top of the heap is remarkable, but it deserves the honor. The record is subtler, less immediate than The College Dropout, sure, but its cumulative effect is shattering, and the shadow it casts over one's impulsive feelings toward other music is most remarkable. The primary urge one has after a full listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is to hear it again, right now, this instant. So here's a bold-ass statement that shouldn't be: Kanye West is an asset to America. His craft and sensibility are the perfect expression of what pop music has amounted to as of 2010. Creativity, huamnity, individuality like this is something to jump up and celebrate. Fortunately, it seems that's what most of us are doing. Fuck the surely-impending backlash.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wild Nothing: Gemini (2010)


(Captured Tracks)

RECOMMENDED

Dream pop of the ‘90s lives on in this elegant one-man synthpop nod to Belle & Sebastian, Lush, and the Las. Virginian Jack Tatum crafts chamber pop songs under a sensory-overload electrical storm. Modesty is his power and his failing both; the songs are subtle enough to benefit from his polished, big-idea digital arrangements, but at times they seem to beg for more breathing room, and more willfully expressive vocals.

Attempting to fully grasp Gemini, Tatum’s full-length debut under the self-deprecating rubric Wild Nothing, feels too much like predicting the future: the group’s entity and formation are still a work in progress. Only after the completion of Gemini did WN become an actual complete band for the sake of live shows that have reportedly proven more engaging than the record begins to let on. Tatum is still in the process of discovering his voice as well. Affecting a Stuart Murdoch (“Live in Dreams”) slash Kevin Shields (“O Lilac”) nonchalance at first, the second half of the album sees him periodically stretching to a convincing, melodic Billy Corgan screech on the shimmering “Bored Games” and even a bit of cooing Morrissey on the Ronettes (by way of the Jesus and Mary Chain) clone “My Angel Lonely.”

Whether this is Tatum’s permanent project or not, he’s one to watch, and even if few songs on the album stand apart, its textured, chilly, intimate mood will make it a favorite for many. It perfectly captures the gothic mood of sub-Nirvana alternative in the days of 120 Minutes, a trip well worth taking again.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sleigh Bells: Treats (2010)


(Mom + Pop)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Like fellow glorified cheerleaders Fang Island, Sleigh Bells craft ultrawattage, high-spirited, intolerably annoying pop for folks who actually enjoyed pep rallies in high school. Parading lyrics like "You can do your best today!!" the duo come off like guidance counselor rock -- sunny, bright, repetitive music that would inadvertently drive a borderline case to suicide.

Oh, and this stuff is loud. Loud, like, tastelessly, needlessly, irresponsibly loud. Treats might qualify as the worst mastering job of the year, compressed to shit and maxed out until everything pushes to a migraine ceiling. There's no reason to believe this isn't how Sleigh Bells wanted it. It's like staring into a fresh flourescent bulb for half an hour, or eating three bales of cotton candy before riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. No matter how young you think you are, this isn't good for you.

Signature track "Rill Rill" is gaining a reputation for its uncredited copping of a sample from Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That." It's amazing that it takes something that trivial to get people outraged at these clowns. I'd comment more specifically but that would require listening to this shit again. Stay away. Drink five energy drinks if you need to wake up this badly, for god's sake.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Emeralds: Does It Look Like I'm Here? (2010)


(Editions Mego)

!! CAUTION !!

Here's a trio from Cleveland kindly providing us with ambient, theatrical synth-sludge that takes lengthy, loose form for an hour. The noise is too intrusive and gurgling to be agreeable, too harsh to be pretty, too shapeless to be enjoyable, not shapeless enough to be interesting. My girlfriend said "I feel like I'm listening to shitty music in space." I don't know that it's altogether shitty. The guys in Emeralds sound like they're having fun. We're the ones who suffer.

As when we spoke of Flying Lotus in this space, in many ways this is a mark of my perhaps embarrassing foot-dragging in regard to electronica. I thought I loved avant garde but these stabs of malfunctioning-computer effects, the watery distortions of jazz and dance that come screaming through -- this isn't the sort of weird I relate to. So chalk this to me being unqualified to review this if you like.

In this case, however, I feel as though I know at least a little bit about ambient, as well as the analogue psychedelia and shoegaze to which Does It Look Like I'm Here seems to aspire, and this doesn't connect. I always thought the first goal of ambient was not to present itself, not to stand out. Trippiness comes across, but the music is too repetitive and long-winded to make the right impression. I could use more material like "It Doesn't Arrive," three and a half minutes of feathery easy listening that gradually builds and sustains a mood much more satisfyingly than the droning, endless, maddening title track. The warmer textures and variance on "Access Granted" help make it a keeper, but the remainder is all the more cast off by its charm.

Emeralds' music may be conceived in the spirit of Music for Airports but it unequivocally demands attention at all times; it's busy, uninviting, and abrasive. The group's sheer quantity of releases seems to suggest this is all quite easy for them. I'm sure there is something to be said for all of it, but I'd require training to hear the difference. It certainly feels like niche product to me.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Spoon: Transference (2010)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

Well, here's a surprise: an album by Spoon of the kind of stuff Spoon is good at -- classic-sounding, melodic, razor-sharp boyish rock music. Transference is the band's seventh album; it's as consistent and enjoyable as any of the others. As ever, the band comes off as professional and exceptionally competent, everything coming in the perfect size and dosage -- the vocals break just enough, the atmospheric numbers rollick just enough and the rollicking numbers vice versa, the hooks all pass easily through; the record feels remarkably like listening to modern rock radio in the days when it had some level of decency. "Written in Reverse" is the ideal example, a blissfully controlled vocal and just the right muscle to its easygoing swagger.

Merge Records' cofounder Mac McCaughan once said of hearing Spoon's Girls Can Tell in a bar that the record came off with such a classicist charm that he briefly mistaked it for the Rolling Stones. Spoon does indeed come across with the relaxed confidence of the Stones in the '70s; you can hear it in this album's "Out Go the Lights," the sort of laid-back, addictive late night mood piece that was unveiled so effectively by the Stones at their tightest, or "Goodnight Laura," a classic circa-1973 mood-piece ballad. Spoon periodically displays the reverence for punk that one often assumes is the hallmark for bands in their position, but as on "Got Nuffin," it's always without pushing too hard, always with a certain respectable distance that keeps any strain from seeping through. (On a mostly unrelated note, is it me or does "I Saw the Light" sound like it should have been on the soundtrack to Disney's Jungle Book?)

The consensus on Transference seems to be it's a weaker album than Spoon's prior efforts on Merge; the slight discordance of growth here and there aside (love the studio twiddling on "Who Makes Your Money"), I don't really see the big difference. This band always seems to offer what's expected; the grooves are pleasing, but they're airtight and almost too dispassionate. It's actually possible to hear "Nobody Gets Me But You," here positioned as the danceable climax, and mistake it for a slow burn stoner romp. Though not boring, Spoon's records feel like background music to me; they sound excellent while they're on and it's easy to get caught up in them, but it's difficult to remember much about them after they're over. I don't mean this critically though; I love background music.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor (2010)


(XL)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Patrick Stickles -- literature major, Harvard student, dyed-in-the-wool rock & roller -- is a whirlwind. Within his capacity as the frontman of New Jersey's epic punk rockers Titus Andronicus, he is a channel for unapologetic emotion: triumph, mourning, disappointment, rebellion. We're so many years away from the Clash and the Rolling Stones, but somehow these basic principles have never been abandoned by the young people who are meant to be reached by pop music; an anthem of displacement or lust or thrilling, depressing drunkenness fires them all up the same way. It takes a special kind of human being, though, to take the plunge so eloquently, so directly, and so unpretentiously.

The Monitor, named for Civil War lore -- the USS Monitor was the Union's vessel involved in the first battle between two ironclad warships -- is everything a rock band can hope for as a sophomore effort: expanding beyond freshfaced promise, it offers intelligent lyricism, conceptual ambition that isn't betrayed by dinky ideas, deeply felt performances, visceral kick, asides and secrets aplenty, and the ability to generate fist-pumping awe. Oh, it's also very possibly the best rock album of 2010. It comes on like some lost marching band pounding its way into the fog. Those unfamiliar can contemplate a Southern rock version of Neutral Milk Hotel, or a more ethereal and bookish Replacements, or a wilder R.E.M., or a historically obsessed Old 97's, but that only begins to scrape at the endlessly affecting, powerful music herein. Some will feel the way they did upon discovering Funeral and remembering that maybe naïve teenage feelings belonged in rock & roll after all.

Only there's very little naïve or teenage about this: Splicing in speech (Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Jefferson Davis, etc.) and metaphor of the Civil War, it's an inordinately adult record, a document of internal struggle with self, love, self-love, self-hatred, family, anger, drugs, rejection, whatever. (Maybe even murder, on "Richard II," which fits both the bitter spit of hatred and a Scooby Doo reference.) They occasionally shred and thrash with abandon, but on much of the record TA plays with surprising conservatism, almost suggesting a mildly off-kilter revision of The Band. But Stickles pushes them over the edge into beyond-the-pale territory with his vocal fray, half-crazed and half-astonisngly beautiful lyrics, and the entirely believable threat that he could simply fall apart at any moment.

Stickles tosses in lyrical references to Billy Bragg, Bruce Springsteen, and the Velvet Underground, but his suspicion of all things, his determination to push himself in the wrong direction, is somewhere closer to the Hank Williams school. On the opening track, he snarls "I want to realize too late that I should never have left New Jersey." There are certainly times that Stickles' words are suffocatingly personal, and it seems physically painful for him to sing them ("So all I want for Christmas is no feelings, no feelings now and never again... I have surrendered what made me human and all that I thought was true / So now there's a robot that lives in my brain and he tells me what to do" simultaneously belies and fits perfectly with the emo march behind it), but there is also effortless, frank beauty to be found. The stunningly moving (and hilariously labeled) drinking song "Theme from 'Cheers'" will remind many of Rhett Miller at his peak, clashing hedonism with resigned, knowing self-awareness ("Let's get fucked up and let's pretend we're all okay") as it pictures a wasted weekend of drinking passing into an infinite number of them and finally closing on the eventual discussion of grandchildren at a bar, and the ride out of the world on a stretcher. The clear-eyed vision is tempered by wails of protest: "Those dreams are lying in the still of the grave, what the fuck were they for anyway?"

Titus don't really document contented moments, nor are they concerned with overblown dramatics. All of the flourishes feel justified, partially because something like "God knows how many times I've said this before, but I really don't feel like doing this anymore" actually reads and sounds like a man who's had it, for real. No clue how much the ring of truth translates to reality, but the record wouldn't be the same without it: "Down in North Carolina, I could have been a productive member of society / But these New Jersey cigarettes and all they require have made a fucking junkie out of me." The delivery of a line like "If you talk and nobody's listening, then it's almost like being alone" renders its slight angular, arhythmic nature shattering.

The aim of much of the rage and uncertainty is deliberately vague, but at least some of it -- "The enemy is everywhere, but no one seems to be worried or care" on the dual rallying cries "Titus Andronicus Forever" and "...And Ever" -- seems inevitably political. "Four Score and Seven" raises the stakes: "After 10,000 years, it's still us against them / And my heroes have always died at the end... It's still us against them / And they're winning." But the most impassioned, fiery cries are saved for the chaotic, cathartic but intensely focused finale, "The Ballad of Hampton Roads."

Epic punk is undoubtedly not a new idea, but this certainly seems to carry the stripped-bare attack of a punk anthem to the limit of its literary possibilities. Sure, "Sister Ray" (17:27) is three minutes longer than this (14:02), but the steady building and release of its tension, and certainly the not-at-all-coolheaded vocal, offers a more multifaceted screaming into the void. The song amounts to a haunted cry, a protest against everything, a rejection of dread and an embracing of uncertainty, and most of all, an unadorned primal-scream emptying of frustration. "Is there a girl at this college who hasn't been raped? / Is there a boy in this town that's not exploding with hate? / Is there a human alive ain't look themselves in the face without winking / Or said what they mean without drinking / Who will believe in something without thinking 'what if somebody doesn't approve' / Is there a soul on this earth that isn't too frightened to move?" After turning the gun on himself ("Half the time I open my mouth to speak it's to repeat something that I've heard on TV"), Stickles makes suicidal promises ("When I drink I'm going to drink to excess / And when i smoke I will smoke gaping holes in my chest"), and no, dad, he's not making this up, before pleading pathetically, comically, humanly "I'd be nothing without you, darling, please don't ever leave." It also has bagpipes.

It would be a mistake to overlook the album's more textured songs. The calm, (even) sadder, gospel-tinged "To Old Friends and New" is an anthemic dysfunctional-family lament. Piano aggression, cathartic strings, and a slapped-together Beggars Banquet or Sister Lovers sound mark "Four Score and Seven," beautifully wounded. The gleefully insane "A Pot in Which to Piss" builds to defiant wiry punk but opens up on a brooding dirge that suggests intimacy, hope, and crippling fear. My favorite line is "You ain't never been no virgin, kid, you were fucked from the start" but there's another, quite telling bit in what sounds like a psychodrama about a band's attempts to make it: "You can't make it on merit, not on merit and merit alone / Dan McGee tried to tell me, 'There ain't no more Rolling Stones' / They're all going to be laughing at you." That an album like this could be issued to no more fanfare than it's received suggests the only reason there's no more Rolling Stones is we're too lazy to find them. The Monitor is real shit. It's dangerous, it's addictive, it's harrowing, it includes a recital of a Walt Whitman poem, it's playful, it's rock & roll -- if you've any kind of a taste for the weird and true, waste no more time getting to know it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No Age: Everything in Between (2010)


(Sub Pop)

!! CAUTION !!

That yellow warning print is probably not deserved, but I find this record frustrating enough that it seemed appropriate.

There's apathy and there's apathy. There's Pavement and there's this. There's awkwardly wailing above a beautiful din and there's painfully whining over an anonymous wall. There may be a glitch in the punk rock fan who can't see the good in this, the same issue I have with virtually all metal, but it's not impossible for it to come off as terrible. Perhaps some of us have become overly accustomed to a modern understanding of punk that verges on pure pop.

It's tempting to think of Wire when confronted with Everything in Between, which amounts to art-skate music the way Pink Flag amounted to an art-rock renovation of punk itself. That's one of many elements of No Age's new album that are great. To boot, who isn't all for bouncing beats and trashy guitars and minimal evolution past the core? We all love low-fidelity noisemaking and the hard hit of a beyond-basic band setup. But there is also something to be said for the universal impact of precision and clarity, and -- if the record's not meant to encompass either -- barring that, beauty to our beloved muddiness.

The songs on this record squeal and fade for a nonstop half hour without much of a direct hit. The set of influences and aesthetic purposes seems all mismatched and flipped around; these songs that would sound so convincing with a more varied sonic approach, and this compelling, terse sound that is too massive to properly fit these songs. There is no reason to doubt that the adolescent anthems here are as secretly eloquent as has been reported. The way in is just damned hard to find.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Delorean: Subiza (2010)


(Matador)

RECOMMENDED

Delorean is a fascinating DIY case study writ large -- a band tasked with creating not only their own audience but their own entire scene. Based in Barcelona and unhappy with the near-nonexistent dance music community, they inaugurated, developed, promoted, and ingrained in the localized music universe an intriguing style of electronic composition. Determined to share it, they worked and worked and worked until something stuck.

Today they are a widely acclaimed Spanish treasure, signed to True Panther Sounds (now a subsidiary of Matador) in the U.S., thus bringing their third album Subiza to a world’s worth of curious folk with expansive tastes. Only problem: the record opens slowly with three draggy numbers, revenge-of-the-drone Jock Jam "Stay Close" to torture chamber pop "Real Love" to featherweight easy listening "Endless Sunset," all overly reliant on pedestrian skittering and currently-in-vogue vocal noodles.

With track four, "Grow," Delorean begins to feel like a functioning band, and the back two thirds of the album bring consistent pulsing pleasure for dance floor reflection. "Grow" initially comes off as another bit of sample burlesque but the precise, pleasing beat kicks in, a lite-jazz riff blasts through, and the gently passionate, faintly accented vocals of Ekhi Lopetegi wash over with imperfect faux-digital drive. Insistent but politely so, the track aptly defines intelligent dance music in five minutes.

The remaider of Subiza happily lives up to that promise. "Simple Graces" suggests mid-‘60s R&B without aping it, and Lopetegi translates the musical tension of the four prior tracks into purebred joy. The samples, at times conjuring the Avalanches, at last fall into line seamlessly. The populist bent of "Infinite Desert" and "Come Wander," both celebrations of early Hi-NRG, makes them must-hears for any Pet Shop Boys fans lingering around the indieverse.

Never deliberately a dance unit until their circumstances demanded such a reaction, Delorean’s pop roots come through, beat notwithstanding, as the record draws to a close: despite the club soundscape, "Warmer Places" is Beach Boys purity at heart, shimmering harmonies and all, proving it’s not only the BBs’ weirder shit that merits modern attention and influence. Feverish optimism and an infectious beat render any context for "It’s All Ours" irrelevant. It is just delightful, lounge-tinged pop with the slightest, warmest hint of the weird. This is where the band’s heart seems, admirably, to truly lie. My sole wish for album the fourth: less Caribou, more LCD Soundsystem.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (2010)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

So I'll tell you right off, cover art's not something we'll be discussing much around here because that's what design blogs are for. But take a good long look at that album cover above. See it enlarged here. Bizarre as it sounds, the image defines this recording almost frighteningly well. Its classicist, very old and ghostly atmosphere; its deceptive mystery; its infinite distance from our or any reality; but its tangible sampling of something that was once an actual moment. The viewer is compelled to consider all of the record's themes before s/he even hears it -- memory, loss, unrequited want, and the dreamlike haze of passed years -- or knows the title. Take the song "Basement Scene" as a theis statement; sounding like a great, scratchy old record heard from many rooms away somewhere deep inside another apartment or room, it effortlessly beckons those introspections. That night, that look in his or her eyes, the reason we didn't do this or that, and then the real reason we didn't do it.

When you look at that picture, you're seeing a man named Dennis Dinion dressed in drag for a 1982 pageant at an Atlanta venue called the Star Lite Lounge, which closed the following day. According to this (the source for all of what I'm telling you, so I hope it's accurate), Dinion was a substitute teacher by daylight. Years later, the Star Lite became a sign shop that once employed a man named Bradford Cox. Around two decades after this photo was taken, Bradford Cox formed a band called Deerhunter.

Deerhunter is a rock band that plays rock music, not "ambient punk," the term they seem to prefer, at least not anything that can be pared down to "ambient punk," or "ambient," or "punk." The only word that isn't overly reductive for them is "rock." Their stock in trade, depending on your perspective, is either a grasping at classic, emotive pop form from within a fuzzed-out bubble or a grasping at abrasive heat and release from within the framework of classic, emotive pop songs. I say the latter, because the feather-touch pop hook on "Memory Boy" sounds not the least bit labored, nor does the straightforward and reflective garage sound of "Coronado," but does it really make a difference? Halcyon Digest sounds like night time. It has the mystery and intensity of actions taken, hedonistic or desperate, that will result in who knows what after sunrise. The key to its enigma is surprisingly simple: Deerhunter is hardly emotionally aloof, it's just that the feeling is all in the music, not the vocals, which are cool and disaffected, unfazed by the enchanting kicks of joy from a room full of guitar persuasion. But there's beauty in the casual. Witness the way it tempers the high punk rock drama of "Desire Lines" until it begins swimming in circa-Bunnymen college jangle pop; the song ends up teeming with life, demanding to be revisited.

Although the band's chosen to open with their strangest offering here, the dynamic stop/start slow burn "Earthquake," this isn't experimental music; it's an experimental recontextualization. Even "Earthquake" ultimately is a warm bath. If you buy the notion, which isn't entirely unbelievable, that all the core ideas of rock & roll were explored by 1969 and most of them by 1959, and that we've just been refining and delving deeper in those same ideas ever since, then Halcyon Digest won't persuade you otherwise. Like the Walkmen's Lisbon and Hot Chip's "Slush," it is 2010 recorded music that is built from 1950s ideas. Plainspoken expression, sure, but to be more specific, Deerhunter here tackles not just doo wop, like both the Walkmen and Hot Chip, or Sun Records, like the Walkmen, but lush mainstream pop and country, even a shade of lounge and Beautiful Music, somehow a symbol of all of the faraway importances and expired sensibilities that seem so gently acknowledged and lampooned by the gentleman on our LP cover, in turn an artifact of a now equally vanished time and place.

If there is a dot to connect here from some dusty pile of 78s to now, it is Television's first two albums, Marquee Moon and Adventure. Indeed, "Fountain Stairs" could nearly pass for early Television, offering Verlainesque lyrics, apathetic collegiate vocals, earnest chiming, and those aural city lights, while "Sailing" sounds like a missing link between Adventure and the band's calm, beautiful 1992 comeback album: the minimalistic and focused intensity, the oceanic sound, the infinite restraint cast off by a subtle heaviness of thought. Television's followers insisted they were a punk rock band; leader Tom Verlaine insisted he was a poet. But the theoretically harsh, angular noises they made that fell so sweetly on neo-street corner songs like "Prove It" and "Careful," as though they had always been there, presented the idea of rock not as a continually evolving singular beast but as a vernacular in which to operate, a forever-renewable resource. It is for this reason that Deerhunter is not retreading, they are revisiting, and with a heavier heart and more beautiful baggage than ever before. "Don't Cry" could be a sequel to "Prove It," but in every heavily reverbed note is a gorgeously expressed sadness. The chamber-intricacy and John Lennon vocals of "Revival," with its persuasive but easy Brit-Invasion or Motown beat, could have existed at any point in the last fifty years and is thus provided with a feeling of an infinite life.

That Hot Chip song is an interesting comparison because of the odd emotional solidarity it suggests between doo wop and adult-contemporary soft pop. The way Deerhunter pushes Television's instincts is by conjuring up memories of a subgenre that didn't yet really exist at the time of Marquee Moon: dream pop. Electronics and ancient pop collide with the Smiths and the Jesus & Mary Chain on "Helicopter," in many ways the emotional climax of the record. The closing "He Would Have Laughed," a dedication to recently deceased friend Jay Reatard, is an wailing epic of sad elation that belongs in some classic Truffaut film, or rather in the Walkman of a film appreciation student circa 1987 who loves Truffaut. Deerhunter has historically carried elements of shoegaze, but this album uniquely casts two forms of long-past decades as a mutually reliant life soundtrack, a rationalizating, categorizing of the past -- a wistful and pressing desire to comprehend and cope with it. Perhaps the reason that Halcyon Digest feels so universally magic is that not one of us isn't familiar with that feeling. Moreover, the album begs to become an ingredient in that cataloging. I can't think of a higher compliment to pay than that when I hear this music, I flash back and re-score my life with it. It couldn't feel more right, and I bet an armload of 45s that the same is true for you.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Twin Shadow: Forget (2010)


(4AD)

RECOMMENDED

Call it chillwave if you like, but we appear to be in the middle of an '80s revival. Although this record remains obscure enough that it lacks even a Wikipedia entry, it shares with the more celebrated Before Today by Ariel Pink (reviewed below) a firm foothold in a sound that ten years ago seemed entirely passé but has now established itself as a mark of indie bands at all levels of popularity. The question of when this began is somewhat interesting and merits a brief tangent.

No pun intended. Most folks will probably remember a band of pseudo-goth poseurs called Orgy who made chart hay out of a ponderous cover of New Order's "Blue Monday." That was 1998. Three years before that, an independently released record called Get Lost by the Magnetic Fields self-consciously aimed for a fusion of the '80s ironicists Pet Shop Boys and ABC with classicist pretensions toward Cole Porter and the Brill Building. The Fields' preceding record, their first with wide distribution, was a brilliant synth-country experiment called The Charm of the Highway Strip which must have sounded at the time like a deliberately incongruous revival of out-of-date keyboard noise. In fact, Strip was recorded in 1988. It sounded like a tribute, but it was really the genuine article, in a similar universe to the seldom-acknowledged fact that the first version of the Beatles formed in 1956.

By the 2000s, the Magnetic Fields were celebrated as a national treasure and signed to a major label. Near-mainstream bands like We Are Scientists were scoring hits with backward-looking singles aping the mid-'80s production style of music that was in its heyday considered too "pop" for the underground scene. Dance and club music, never far from the '80s spiritually (Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys have remained peerless hitmakers in that genre long after the peak of their mainstream popularity), began to consciously, unguility revisit the feeling and spark of two-decade-old synthpop hits. Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem's hip revision of PSB and OMD was followed by the still-massive Madonna's direct acknowledgement with singles like "Hung Up." The four biggest bands in indiedom owe debts obvious (Arcade Fire reincarnates Depeche Mode and U2; Death Cab for Cutie's biggest hit is arguably a rewrite of DM's "Enjoy the Silence") and subtle (Vampire Weekend stakes its career on their audience's memories of Paul Simon's Graceland, whether they will admit it or not; the Shins emerged from three-year shadows this year with an able cover of Squeeze's "Goodbye Girl").

The point being: the music of the 1980s, particularly synthpop and alternative, is well-mined territory. But it is unusual for it to be approached with the sort of lyricism and vocal capabilitiy of someone like Brooklyn's Twin Shadow, real name George Lewis Jr., a Dominican Republic-born singer-songwriter with a tentative, sweetly lilting voice and a major burgeoning talent of the new, non-lo-fi lo-fi -- think of it as minimalistically created music with aims for high-level pop impact, the idea put across by Stephin Merritt on Highway Strip all those years ago. Twin Shadow's debut album, produced by Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear, is essentially a sophisticated variant on New Romantic synthpop, with extra production shades of New Order, Suicide, Tears for Fears, the Go-Betweens, Josef K, the Cure, and of course PSB and DM. His sweetly sad dabblings in the field are quite appealing, but the reason to hear this record is its more warm-blooded qualities: the singing and the lyrics are what to watch for here.

On the very indie opening track, "Tyrant Destroyed," equipped with a slow ominous build, the words reveal an unexpected fragility: "As if it wasn't enough just to hear you speak / They had to give you lips like that / Like all of your sadness reduced to a color / Then painted upon... / How could I forget you / And who was I to think that on a Saturday night / That you would really bike home alone / And the way that I left you / Just hanging on Sundays / Let fair skin boy take you home." On the soft rock drone "When We're Dancing": "I am trying to remember all the things that I've known / They all shine soft and stand alone / Like I picture you waiting at the end of a bridge / But it's hard for me to render all the things that we did." The outwardly confident, cyclical "Yellow Balloon" reveals a gorgeous aching: "In the pines we learn to speak / Bend your knees, forget to breathe / If you hear your mama calling, get away from me... / Secret handshakes, the swimming hole / Keep awake, and we will not grow old."

None of these have music to match the depth of emotions in the words, even though Lewis sings them beautifully. They are buried under nostalgia that may or may not be part of the story but doesn't feel nearly so necessary as he probably thinks. He could get away with far less embellishment, and his songs would benefit for it. The sepia tone that the throwback sound adds only really clicks on two songs. "Shooting Holes at the Moon" is a masterful big-beat evocation of choppy 1986 production, vocally and melodically suggesting Echo & the Bunnymen or the Smiths. The persuasive melody of "Castles in the Snow" is enhanced by perfect self harmonies; its period-piece echo cacophony is entirely in service of emotion. The same can't really be said of something like the new wave retread "I Can't Wait"; the Talking Heads/Information Society pseudopop of "At My Heels," driven by what sounds like a toy drum machine; the shimmering 1980s wall of sound of "For Now." These come off like retro trips burying ideas that are far more interesting.

Part of the reason I can't fully buy the final product, as enamored as I am of some of its elements, is that I think this sort of pop production was built for hook-filled pop singles; Lewis reveals himself, sure, to be a master of the pop sound... but not so much of the pop hook. "Tether Band" has the sound of a buried Depeche Mode album track but feels at times like a semi-shapeless meander through synth noise; yet again, the intimate vocals feel completely out of place, hovering above and beyond what surrounds them. "Slow" convincingly suggests Hot Chip, "Forget" is a singsong Prince slo-jam with requisite college rock lite-droning in the manner of Beach House, but neither song matches its window dressing particularly well. This is fun to a point as a sort of exercise, but it's also distracting.

My diagnosis is this is too goddamned polite. Twin Shadow has the potential to be a giant if he just lets himself go a little bit. He has a powerful, sensual voice with ample emotional capability. I firmly believe he has some brilliant music in him and that we'll be hearing a lot about him in the next few years. And I'm willing to bet that'll be because he lets go of some of his attachment to the admittedly wonderful music he and I both listened to and loved growing up and strips this material down to its core. It is more than worth the effort. Take away the gimmicry and you have eleven outstanding songs here. Ariel Pink may have worked up genuine magic from a regeneration of the past, but that's his gift. Twin Shadow's gift is writing subtle, sorrowful songs about loss, memory, and regret. Forget seems inexplicably determined to divert us from noticing that. Fear of embarrassment might be the one thing holding this possible future master back from transcendence; I can't wait to find out.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The-Dream: Love King (2010)


(Def Jam)

RECOMMENDED

There is a moment on this record that almost made me spit my cereal all over the poor drywall: It's a song called "Yamaha" on which the young R&B master writer/producer The-Dream embodies the Purple Rain era so perfectly, emulating not just the sound and vocal inflections (note fucking perfect) but the songwriting -- if not the lyrics -- of a classic Prince album cut to such an extent that I was sure I'd pressed the wrong button. You can chalk this up as cheap or crass, but anyone who wishes Prince's '80s output was a bottomless well -- in other words, most anyone with any damn sense -- will find it hard to deny that their pulse starts to rush for a minute there. Holy shit, it's 1984 and there's new motherfucking Prince. If I had nothing else to thank The-Dream for (and I do), I thank him for that feeling.

The-Dream is on his way to being a Quincy Jones figure, having cowritten and coproduced some of the most earthshaking crossover hits of the last half-decade, chief among them Rihanna's propulsive "Umbrella" and Beyoncé Knowles' universal "Single Ladies." Either of those is enough to place him firmly in world consciousness, but The-Dream is also a solo artist who sings silky-smooth, frankly sexual slo-jams with an unusual depth and a mild avant garde bent that places him in underground sympathies. The-Dream probably doesn't take himself as seriously as peak-period Prince did; he's more likable and guarded. But he's also less honest, and is more fond of calculated risks than the unfiltered kind. The human cracks of this enjoyable, occasionally brilliant LP are hidden under a haze of trickery and at times even routine.

Which isn't to say you won't dig Love King; its weaknesses are nearly invisible if you take it a bit at a time (it runs 54 minutes). Listen to tracks one through four, or five to nine, or ten to twelve, and you'll have hearts floating above your head. If you're alienated by modern R&B, I'm unaware of any writer and performer who can make an easier time of converting you, convincing you that soul expression has never lost its sophistication and delicacy. Let's pretend Love King is three extended-play records and see how it goes:

EP #1 is the most dubious, opening with a song that spells out its title in the chorus and namedrops "T-mobile" while introducing an insanely annoying gimmick of a throaty, slowed-down Dream vocal reiterating or rambling along across both channels. T.I. provides the record's major cameo on the extremely silly, musically generic "Make Up Bag," a not-at-all-sexist lecture of sorts explaining that the best way to win a lady back after you've fucked her over is to simply buy her very expensive foundation. It reminds me vaguely of the Contours' "First I Look at the Purse" and does employ the classic image of a woman swearing at The-Dream while wearing only panties. The highlight of these four cuts is easily "F.I.L.A.," a remarkable layering of menacing synth wall and syrupy R&B with a "pursue her / do her" rhyme and the hook-filled elated feeling missing from lots of romantic jams. "Sex Intelligent" comes harder; its choppy, robotic grind and light Parliament suggestion are agreeable but feel too studied.

That's one of the problems with Love-King -- its many good ideas are spread too thin. A song like "F.I.L.A." or "Abyss" or "Yamaha" or "Turnt Out" is overflowing with tricks and mad tinkering, while other songs and moments fade into nothingness. One thing undeniable: The-Dream's way with a hook is staggering. Even the weakest songs here will break the will of the most resistant sooner or later. One only wishes he was always working at the level of which he's capable and was less easily seduced by superficial gimmicry. I also have to object to the widespread declaration of The-Dream's music as raunchy or somehow notably explicit. The guy revolves a whole song around not wanting to say "fuck"; this is tame as shit mostly, and I think it would be stronger if it weren't. The-Dream often doesn't seem to be going quite as far as he wants to. He says he'll never be a pop star, he's too raw, but nothing here feels raw enough to start or end a career to me. His lyrics are clever, sure, often ingeniously minimal ("I'll never be the face of a magazine"), self-effacingly funny ("I know this may sound stalkerish..."), and, okay, sexy ("Are you one of those girls that mean 'go' when they say 'stop?'") but he's generally singing politely about vanilla sex, which doesn't strike me as the subversive act that's been depicted.

EP #2, as we're calling it, opens with the baffling retread "Sex Intelligent Remix," best ignored. After we fire into overdrive with "Yamaha," "Nikki, Pt 2" is one of those "ideas" songs; it lives up to Eno's old notion of vague music with its lilting string/synth backdrop and a sort of shapeless vocal with its share of absurdities ("You fuckin' with you fuckin' with you fuckin' with my house"). "Abyss" does a better job of carrying the momentum with a trance or house layer over some fuck music, a kissoff venting session with a powerful chorus. And "Panties to the Side"... well, let's wait a second to talk about this one.

Why do I think The-Dream sounds like a faker even though he explicitly states otherwise? ("If you get tired of fakin' it, call me.") Because he sounds defensive, for one thing; there's less love and romancing here than conquering, and conquering indeed based on an outdated girl-in-every-port romanticism. He's all about the pursuit, like Leisure Suit Larry. The-Dream's love life has also been plastered on tabloid covers enough that we know he's not exactly the "love king," not that it would matter except his estranged wife is Christina Milian. Can I admit here I had kind of a crush on her? He shouldn't do her wrong, man, and if he's so smart about love and shit -- which is all this fucking record is about -- well, what the fuck, dude? Why am I talking about this here? Where are my notes? Oh, here we go...

The final EP catapults us onto 1997 urban radio as envisioned by David Lynch. "Turnt Out" brings us The-Dream's killer falsetto and offers a near-guarantee of involuntary movement. The bangerness of it all is aided by the crazy production which features dense detail and much ticklish, subtle and unsubtle aural tooling. "February Love" we'll address in a moment. Closing track "Florida University" is more than dumb -- it's dumm. Cee-Lo does this kind of thing better and he doesn't have the shirtless golden boy voice that makes the whole enterprise inexplicably disturbing.

Regarding "Panties to the Side" and "Febraury Love" and disregarding the feeling of joy transmitted on contact by "Yamaha," what we have here are two brilliant songs, brilliant so far beyond everything else on the album that the rest of the party gets overshadowed. "Panties" opens with a sample of the MGM logo and bursts into a unique fat-synth dance with whispering fucktalk and apocalyptic autotune; a million ideas from almost as many eras of pop music fire at the bystander, and for once, Dream taps it all with lyrics worth the explicit tag. But "February Love," with its jazzy movements, its perfect integration and dismantling of current trad R&B production, its opening city wastescape by piano, its otherworldly haze, its adorable degenerate harmonies, its sheer unmistaken liquidity... this is the stuff The-Dream is made of, and I want more of this unbridled invention. Possessed with the ability to work within a chosen idiom while shoving the outside-imposed limits aside without so much as a shrug is the mark of some serious fucking artistry. I bet there's more to back it up; can't wait to hear it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Midnight Juggernauts: The Crystal Axis (2010)


(Siberia)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

A pretty big part of me assumed that 2007's excellent Dystopia was the furthest this Melbourne space-synth collective could ever go, and honestly, the very existence of the followup fell completely under my radar -- not because I wasn't interested but because their North American following (and distribution) is next to nonexistent; I accidentally discovered the record was out during a Wikipedia binge. So three months after its release, I put this on expecting the same sort of quirky, operatic, trashy electro stuff we got the first time around. Instead, I get what can only be termed dance-prog, an album of shuffling beats, giddy pretensions, and mammoth largeness that counts as one of the most persuasive, addictive throwbacks of the year (next to fellow Aussies Tame Impala). The record is surprising, sure, but the operative word is "fun." For all the melodramatic underpinnings the Juggernauts may share with Muse or the Killers, their music has a levity their U.S. and U.K. peers lack -- you can sense them grinning through their most over-the-top numbers -- and the busy, cataclysmic result is simply a blast to listen to.

It had been a while, so in order to compose an informative review of Crystal Axis I returned to the Juggernauts' full-length debut to verify that my suspicion was correct: this new album is far more varied, and though it contains fewer guaranteed dance-club enliveners, it comes across as more fully realized and consistent. Most songs on Dystopia were cut from a (most agreeable) cloth, and the record strung the listener along on a quest to find which slight variant on the formula worked best. The Crystal Axis makes some essential case for itself as a full-fledged, no-skipping, no-shuffle, surrender-completely LP. It also reveals a distinctive identity, one that could sit well with most, falling halfway between the proto-alternative soundscape of synthpop and the ambitious goofiness of progressive; that probably sounds terrible, but it's not. The record only loses my patience for a few seconds during "Virago"; virtually everything it presents is enjoyable at its core, and most of it comes equipped with a post-modern cheekiness that packs the space between the beats and reinforces the ultimate indie-rock idealism of regular, literate guys making nutty noises 'cause they wanna.

Indeed, "The New Technology" by itself has more variance and texture than the entirety of Dystopia, and it's one of the least impressive tracks, a telling detail because it's great: engaging drum hook, bleeping keyboards that would make 2010 Sufjan Stevens jealous, expressive and enthusiastic vocals by Andrew Szekeres, and a menacing but pleasingly harmonic breakdown. Szekeres is a major asset to the Juggernauts' unorthodox sonics, a mixture of analogue and digital creation that lends all of their output a certain gurgling fog, with his able, low-key warmbloodedness that occasionally suggests Matt Berninger fronting a Depeche Mode tribute.

The straightforward but joyous technoplay of that cut and "Cannibal Freeway" are as routine as this record gets: Disregarding two appropriately disorienting bits of linking material, we have ten tracks arranged in one of the smarter sequences I've heard lately. The album is arranged to build up to, between, and from two obvious peak points. The first is the four-alarm, balls-to-the-wall single "Lara vs. the Savage Pack," an instant classic that might take the mantle of Nastiest Dance Song of the Year from Crystal Castles' "Empathy." Nothing on Dystopia, not even the psychotic "Nine Lives," pulls out all the stops like this for pounding disco that retains a confident rock bent; the band's performance is batshit off the rails, but Szekeres makes it: his casual surfer-dude vocals offset the heaviness to hottest, tightest perfection; all he gets in return is to brush the magic pop bliss button.

The other peak also showcases the Juggernauts moving completely beyond their prior work; "Wheels of Fortune" feels a bit like a lost Ian Broudie song. It's bouncy mass-appeal pop, and although the band filters it through their typical Cure-gothic textures, they are unafraid of the songcraft and of putting all their energy into selling the "reach up, touch the sky" chorus as an unironic celebration. It's so unexpected that the excellent composition itself is nearly beside the point.

The Crystal Axis doesn't attempt to match these two strokes of near-perfection, it just crafts a sort of aural narrative to lead to, from, around them. This works in the record's favor as a listening experience by giving it a three-act structure of sorts. The Juggs introduce themselves as a baggage-free and less self-absorbed Interpol with the heroic disco-bent opener "Vital Signs" then begin to sweeten the new wave sound and concede a total banger with "Lifeblood Flow." Later on, when "Lara" has just left the speakers shaking, "The Great Beyond" feels like a minor letdown, but its smirking tension and moody, heavy groove fall into place quickly enough. The easing of intensity is necessary to lead into the more playful second half.

"Virago" is the kind of contradiction post-punk fans used to live by. It's a dread song, a drug song, but it's textured, playful, funhouse-mirror glam. And what I can make out of the lyrics is some shit about zombies, so... By "Dynasty," when the band's winding down for the night, they're just goofing around, but their goofoffs are more than merely charming. They feel like other bands' standouts; the track's almost Goldfrapp-esque '80s nod and hook-filled chorus are entirely convincing, and "Fade to Red" offers the '80s as filthy and hyperemotional as they are in your head. Ingeniously recorded, it's teenage angst on wax, the finest and longest-lived of all rock & roll traditions.

This is the way I wish it always worked -- the fun album you carried around with you three years back blossoms into something that convinces you that its progenitors have more to say and you'll still be there to hear it. This record's testy, shaky vibe comes off feeling mostly like a celebration of testy, shaky vibes. And that's the kind of art I want in my music.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Wavves: King of the Beach (2010)


(Fat Possum)

RECOMMENDED

I really didn't want to enjoy this stupid record. Is that a terrible thing to say? Wavves' primary personality, Nathan Williams, comes off as a lifeless, unoriginal fucktard -- the kind of slacker that mainstream press was agog over in 1992 or so -- to the point that I wrote off his music before I even heard it. But as with peers and pals Best Coast, Wavves work in a vernacular that I'm sorry to say is dear to my heart. If anything, they're even more explicit about it, going so far as to sample the Crystals. King of the Beach, the most high-fidelity Wavves LP thus far, is too much of a pleasure for my cynicism to win out.

Back in January when someone told me surf-rock, perhaps the most antiquated of all subgenres (and one of my most beloved), was making a comeback, I scoffed; between this, Best Coast, and Surfer Blood, I'm starting to see their point. And not just because of the warped pothead "Wipeout" quote that opens "Idiot." These young bands don't operate in the surf music language as originally understood; Wavves really owes more to Blink 182 and Weezer than to Dick Dale, but the indie-surf acts have a command of rock & roll legacy as emotional vehicle that would have once doomed them to the power pop bargain bin ghetto. In a world of blog promotion, that isn't so, and a band like Wavves with a unique bent on established ideas can go much farther.

Of course, the reverse is also inevitable -- the populism of the internet allows some true wank to push its way into our consciousness. Wavves and Williams give us a representative slice of online-made rock stars at their best and worst. Worst because the vocals are tired and uncharmingly lazy, the songwriting lacks bite and a creative voice, and the celebration of apathy -- lots of lines about not giving a shit (seriously, not one but two songs with that as the chorus) about anything except, of course, weed -- is dullsville straight out of a shitty gen-X marketing campaign. Best because, goddammit, this is fun as all hell to listen to.

The first couple of tracks come bursting out like some cartoonish hits from modern rock radio circa 1999; I lived through that once and don't really want to again, so King of the Beach doesn't really win me over until the Ronettes and/or Jesus & Mary Chain ripoff that opens the restrained, echo-drenched, minimalistic "When Will You Come," which sounds like someone's having a field day in the best popworld -- it sounds like youth, the beach, all that wonderful stuff. The weird stereophonic spaced-out surf craziness continues with "Baseball Cards," which sounds like nothing else, and "Convertible Balloon" which sounds like Blondie but is still spectactularly executed. Even the Pixies-lite "Linus Spacehead," ELO-heavy "Baby Say Goodbye," and Green Day-cloning "Green Eyes" are solid tunes, well and fully produced. But it's the remarkable "Mickey Mouse" that suggests Nathan Williams might actually have something to teach if he ever wakes up fully. Built entirely on a sample of the first couple of seconds of "Da Doo Ron Ron" and boasting one of the wettest, most body-bursting drum sounds I've heard on record, it is the groove to beat here and is easily the best reason to hear this album.

Summer's over now, so this can't soundtrack yours unless you're in the southern hemisphere, in which case have at it. The rest of us can give in to the undeniably seductive popcraft and hookery in play here. Or we can get persnickety about how if Nathan Williams doesn't seem to care about the music, why should we? Or we can listen to Surfer Blood, who add a surrealistic bent and some genuine lyricism to the neo-surf trend, more Pavement than Blink. Or we can shut up and let this dunderheaded pop music beat us over the head. It feels good. Just leave before it does any permanent damage.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today (2010)


(4AD)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

We think of lo-fi as a crucially uncommercial music. But why? So many of us have been drawn to, say, Daniel Johnston because of his skill with a melody much more than the tape hiss screaming across his recordings. Avant garde wunderkind Ariel Pink has taken this a step further with the ambitious studio recording Before Today, a dreamlike hybrid of radio songs and private eccentricities that acquires the immediacy, the familiarity, the New of the finest rock albums through its defiant preoccupation with sounds.

Sounds that we recognize and unite with are captured here with what almost seems like an attempt to encapsulate the idea of alternative rock music in a skewed, theatrical rundown of its various tangents since the mid-'60s. Nearly every track sounds like the almost-forgotten radio soundtrack of someone's emotionally aching high school nights, but all from different years, and yet all with perversely the same underdog sensibility. But lo-fi it remains, yet the intention now seems to be quite specifically to make aged music, sounding distant enough in time to become explicitly surreal. The result is gripping and often surprisingly (gorgeously) sad, conjuring up memory and loss.

We're not made of stone around here, so let's play Connect the Dots with alt-rock and Ariel Pink's LP: The roots lie in '60s garage-rock, represented here by a magnificent cover of the Rockin' Ramrods' "Bright Lit Blue Skies." Skip forward to the years of disco and '70s power pop and we receive the Fleetwood Mac-esque "Round and Round," the record's highlight, which is saying a lot. A jazz-fusion / funk / reggae interlude allows the instrumental "Reminiscences," while UK and NYC punk get their due with "Revolution's a Lie" and the insanely accurate "Little Wig" (a dead ringer for Richard Hell and his original collaborators, Television) respectively. Opening track "Hot Body Rub" suggests disorienting, throes-of-death ska. The completely convincing "Fright Night (Nevermore)" absolutely nails new wave circa Orange Juice and Gary Numan. The lite-funk synthpop of "Beverly Kills" successfully mixes '70s Talking Heads with '80s pop excess, captured even more expertly with the brilliant soft rock burlesque "Can't Hear My Eyes." After that, take your pick: tricky underground post-punk ("L'estat"), mid-'80s college-indie ("Butt-House Blondies"), ingenious goth rock ("Menopause Man").

Quite a voyage. It's difficult to even point to standouts, the record is so consistent, except to mention that "Hot Body Rub" is dubious, "Round and Round" is one of the loveliest, most arms-raised feeling-infinite celebratory songs I've heard in a long time, and "Fright Night" will endanger the lives of anyone hearing it with a temporary and violent urge to be a teenager during the 1980s. All of these historical notes and ideas are filtered through a busy, hazy soundscape, evocative of a four-track tape partially copied over, that gives them crucial idiosyncracy. It's also obvious that the record was enormously fun to record and create -- you can't hear the attention to detail in "Can't Hear My Eyes" without smiling -- but that wouldn't be possible without Ariel Pink's careful, restrained songcraft and cleverly casual lyrics. He's composed these songs not for the intellectual thrill of a trip down sonic memory lane but to form the soundtrack to a heightened life we'd all like to live. The album is about the secret associations that come with all music; because it sounds like a forgotten mixtape, it presents the urge to peel away layers of mystery to find the life underneath.

For someone who grew up on the same music and attitudes as Ariel Pink, it is bound to be a surprisingly moving experience -- it's not derivative beacuse the songs are so good, the approach so singular -- and I'd wager you can plant a given song from a mixtape of actual period music corresponding to its conceit without even a slight suggestion that it doesn't belong. The winding melodies and affectionate singing (plus those lush, powerful backing vocals) could work without the context Ariel Pink lays down, but why resist the world he's invented and cribbed when it feels so good to live in it for forty-five minutes? For someone who didn't grow up on Joy Division and Love & Rockets, the result might be even more profound: this isn't our music, as much as we might have longed for it to be at times, but in this setting it suddenly is ours, all the late nights and subtle connections and fading laughter that "Round and Round" might've soundtracked in 1982 can unequivocally belong to those who weren't born in time. What's more, as hard as this music hits you instantly, this emotional depth unfolds over repeated listens; you'll find yourself growing ever more attached to this as you spend time with it, which is saying a lot for something that requires no great leap to begin with.

The music Ariel Pink makes here may not be the most original you've heard in 2010, but it is among the most heartfelt and impressive. And the guts from whence these noises arise, the breathlessly excited manner in which they're presented, these are what makes Before Today one of the most rewarding releases of the year. Do whatever you gotta do to hear it and immediately equip your vehicle with it for the next night drive in your life.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Curren$y: Pilot Talk (2010)


(Def Jam)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

A relatively overlooked New Orleans MC who's meandered around from label to label for the better part of the last decade releases possibly the best hip hop record of 2010? I can get behind that narrative. But Curren$y's own ample skills aren't the bulk of what knocks this one out of the park. Pilot Talk owes much of its instant impact and feel of just-above-underground innovation to producer Ski Beatz, known for placing a sonic stamp on Jay-Z's first few albums; as smart and fast-paced as Curren$y's rhymes are, the virtuosity Ski Beatz brings places this record a cut above with his bent-backward live-band noise but allows it to retain the modest, low-key feel of a mixtape.

Those who doubt that rap has anyplace new to go as it enters its fourth decade would do well to start with the breathlessly vibrant "Breakfast," one of the top jams of the year for sure. Originally produced by Mos Def (who guests elsewhere) for a mixtape, the track is fleshed out now by Ski Beatz with a full-band arrangement that presents jazz-rap as never before, fusing a lonely trumpet with an undeniable beat and an onslaught of clever Curren$y lyrics ("illegible letters in my ledger they can't read 'em"). It moves so fast and cuts out so early (less than three minutes) it will leave you spinning around with a total-WTF expression. As often as this territory has been mined, "Breakfast" somehow comes off as a new angle. And that's merely the tip of the iceberg, the opening of the curtain to everything that will follow.

What initially won Curren$y a cult following, going all the way back to his Young Money days, was his pot-stoked, laid-back flow; his preoccupations are weed and airplanes, and the metaphorical collision of both (note "Skybourne," which is like an airline commercial for smoking up). But what will expand that cult here and hopefully on the sequel (out in two weeks) is the backdropping of his obsessions with expansive, intricate live band work. Most of the songs are still built from loops, but Ski Beatz brings in lush enhancements that suggest all manner of emotions but still persist in pounding with "the potency of the beat." Once you give the record a chance and hit the seventh cut, Pilot Talk does not relent until the end, offering a superb seven-track run probably unmatched by anyone else in any genre this year.

That's not to say the first half doesn't have its keen offerings: "Audio Dope II" is uber-trippy grind and chaos like a video game from hell, as offbeat and fascinating as anything on the album. The others can't match up to that but you'll hardly object to the 1980s neo-soul feel and fiery electric guitar of "Example," the nifty electro-backed but overly plodding "King Kong," and the misterioso kaleidoscopic (with cool guitar loop) "Seat Change," which makes perhaps the most of the pilot metaphors of anything here, dragged down only by a routine Snoop Dogg cameo. "Roasted" is the lone actual dud, and it may be victim of sequencing; its flute dirge is a letdown after "Breakfast," plus it wasn't produced by Ski Beatz and it shows, although the anti-Minute Maid diatribe in Curren$y's verse is significant: "I'm enjoying a lemon press, not that Minute Maid crap / They squeeze the lemons they selves."

All the cuts I haven't mentioned yet? All fucking dope. The most conventional, commercial-sounding track you'll find here is "Prioritize," which proves Curren$y's star power; his calm delivery makes it shine. Everything else is left-field and nutso, from the stoner-techno of "Life Under the Scope" to the intense, over-the-top choral disco of "Address," but exemplified best by the 1-2 punch of "Skybourne" and "The Hangover," both smooth funk/lite-jazz jams with tight-as-fuck grooves and relentless drums that stand up to circa-'96 Roots, both about getting high ("Gotta have eight lungs to come puff with me"); "Hangover" even has an Alfred Hitchcock namedrop. If these don't get you moving even a little bit, attend the nearest UrgentCare. Melodic basslines and intelligent, unassuming lyrics are the only consistency; everything else is up in the air, so you can land on the fucking alien ship of "Chilled Coughphee," driven by a wickedly wrong piano line into a classic disorineting late-'60s rock & soul sound (think an even more warped Betty Davis) as easily as the anthemic hip hop celebration "The Day," with brilliant guest turns by Jay Electronica and Mos Def, bringing it back to the fresh old school and alternative rap at its absolute best.

The guest verses in general are impressive, but part of the reason Pilot Talk is such a massive success is its minimalism -- the songs are mostly short and unencumbered with skits and club pretensions; only three songs exceed four minutes. This is precisely why I find myself responding to Pilot Talk the way I wanted to respond to Big Boi's album, which was often delightful but was fattened up with too much sagging nonsense and went on forever. Immediacy, charm, intelligence, and some of the truly new killer sounds of our time will make Curren$y's Pilot Talk a classic star turn. People are missing out if they haven't gotten around to it.

And finally, confidential note to Island/Def Jam: Release this motherfucker on vinyl, please. Thanks!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

She & Him: Volume Two (2010)


(Merge)

RECOMMENDED

What do you get if you take AM radio hits of the early '50s through the mid-'60s and drain them of all traces of subversion? The Carpenters, if you're unlucky. Otherwise, you might come up with this. Curiously, I'm finding, that's not really a complaint -- just an observation. She & Him craft a time warp stripped of context that's really about the cheekily oddball personalities who might think recreating AM gold is a great idea.

I do not come to this record with high expectations (hence the most-of-the-year delay in listening to it), but I find myself enjoying it a lot. She & Him's Volume One is an album that a lot of folks I know really love, but I never warmed to it. Although I'm a devoted fan of M. Ward, and usually of Zooey Deschanel's acting (at least in Almost Famous and The Good Girl), the record always seemed empty and bland to me, marred specifically by the somewhat by-the-numbers songwriting and production, the derivative but unconvincing performances, and most of all, Deschanel's unpracticed, hesitant, awkward voice. I see why it's charming but It Don't Charm Me.

To be frank, her voice itself isn't much better on the sequel, but the broad success that met She & Him two years ago has helped her: she comes across as plainly more confident, which makes this easier going. Better yet, Ward's involvement seems far more pronounced -- many of the backing tracks sound like M. Ward twists on established ideas rather than just hobbyist imitations of those ideas. But what really brings makes this a fun piece of work for me is the songcraft and production; Deschanel is leaps and bounds over where she was as a songwriter on the '08 LP, and the pair's assurance lends the songs a divine, irresistible shimmer.

The major convincer for me was the moment I found myself completely falling into "Over It Over Again." Positioned near the end of the album, it comes after several strong cuts, but it marked the moment when I felt my long-held convictions about this act mostly erode. For one thing, more suggestive of the Bangles than the Shirelles, it's a stretch for them, and with its sheer infectiousness and the incisive majesty of Ward's Roger McGuinn-like 12-string doodling, it actually implies something like love for the material, material that's been conceived and executed more carefully than I might have once suspected. "Home," a song that pulls more stunts and feels more complete than the entirety of Volume One, furthers the image with the revent, beautiful, ever-so-mildly tricky feel of the Beach Boys circa late '66. And Deschanel's melodicism -- if not her lyrics -- have visibly reached some level of expertise with "Don't Look Back," a distinctly '60s Laura Nyro homage that could convert or fool an expert in the field.

That's because Deschanel and Ward are experts, in the time they've spent adoring and dissecting the music from which they derive their ideas. But whereas a simple communication of that shared interest might have once been the goal, with much more of the world watching they've at least pressured themselves to raise to an equal artistic ambition with their heroes and heroines. I can say "doo wop-guitar hybrid, uplifting pop carousel, a gradual building to symphonic-pop contained catharsis" and be describing three different songs on the prior release, but here all of those apply to the casually crazed opener "Thieves," which is designed and played with enthuasism and strength, two elements virtually absent in this group's earlier effort. M. Ward fans will actually enjoy stuff like "Me and You," which features his guitar and stylistics bent lovingly for the echo-drenched retro Nashville sound, instead of grinning blankly through it wondering why the fuck. And while I had a soft spot for Zooey's Smokey, it must be said that she succeeds far less equivocally with her dead-ringer Connie Francis on the misty-eyed, undeniable cover of Theresa Brewer and/or Skeeter Davis' "Gonna Get Along without You," while she and Ward both triumph warmly on NRBQ's "Ridin' in My Car," a song which is as perfect a choice for this group as can be fathomed.

The largest victory here comes from M. Ward's production, which has abandoned the homemade generics of She & Him songs past. "Lingering Still" nearly sells itself as exotic pop pap recorded at Western or Gold Star for some Capitol lounge thingo in 1959; it doesn't just try to remind listeners of a Nancy Sinatra 45, it's inches away from being one. As the influences in the songs Deschanel is writing grow more antique and less obvious, as they perversely betray a more consistent voice, so does M. Ward's production acquire an impressive sheen of pop process that allows Brenda Lee bump and grind ("I'm Gonna Make It Better") to sit alongside dusty Dusty chamber pop ("Sing") and Patti Page schmaltz ("Brand New Shoes") without cloying, stuttering, or misdirecting. To boot, it's difficult to imagine Ward managing to find a way to present the communal choral of "Into the Sun" and disorienting prettiness of "If You Can't Sleep" with such aplomb when this was a new group. His accomplishment owes a great deal to the unabashed influence of lush period easy listening, which seems to be turning off a few fans of the slightly more ragged Volume One. Hey, if we're tossing out easy listening-influenced pop music, better let those copies of Pet Sounds, OK Computer, and Another Green World go, eh? Just saying.

Okay, but confession: I still can't quite get past Zooey Deschanel's voice. Look, I love unconventional singing. And Deschanel has improved vastly in the last two years; she knows herself and her limitations better, her voice has more stability and eclecticism, and she generally sounds like the celebration of her popcraft has offered a musical self-esteem boost. A quick listen to "Home" and "Ridin' in My Car" and any of the country-infected numbers (which actually glimpse Linda Ronstadt at times) beside anything from Volume One will illustrate a profound evoluton. But she still has that inescapable feeling and stigma of actor-turned-singer; even if her (correct) suspicion of the appeal of her songs and her modest rolling out of them is inspirational, admirable, that voice still has the thinness of the new.

Maybe that won't last either, but She & Him is hardly about virtuosity in any existing form or skill. What's curious about the youthful reaction to them is that nostalgia is the emotional key of their sound and vision. Regardless of the trad boy-girl lyrics, every one of the songs on both records is, because of the style and production, about a bygone universe that's beginning to bury itself in the memories of our parents and grandparents, a world that film and radio and TV celebrated and brought to life in our youth before it moved on to the expired obsessions and memories of a younger generation. Am I saying She & Him is about nostalgia for nostalgia? I am, and I'm also saying that I am at last beginning to understand why that's fun, emotionally affecting, and even.. gulp... interesting. This isn't a life-changing record, but for me as a onetime She & Him agnostic, it's one of the nicest surprises of 2010.