Remember when the story was all about her perplexing vocal sounds? Six years later and Joanna Newsom puts out a three-disc, two-hour magnum opus, and it’s the first absolutely essential release of the new decade. Ys arrived like a telegraph, and needed expert ears and/or a great patience to decipher, but in the first 10 seconds of Have One on Me, Joanna’s singing (on “Easy”) about “my man and me.” It may not be the first time Ms. Newsom has referred to herself in a song, but it’s the most direct and impactful that I can recall. That intimate start sets the standard for the album. Sure, the lyrics are still impenetrable at times, but mostly it feels like you’re listening to Joanna herself singing, and not a character she’s chosen for this incarnation.
That’s just one of the many kinds of songs that Newsom does so well on this album. There are also songs like “Jackrabbits,” “Autumn,” and “Kingfisher” that sound like ancient legends or love songs that she’s uncovered in a cave somewhere and transliterated for us from lost tongues. And then there are wonders like “Good Intentions Paving Co,” perhaps the most immediately and widely appealing song on the three LPs, but only one example of how she can actually get her groove on when she wants. Three minutes from the end of “Baby Birch,” the meditative mood is ruptured by a staggering drum figure as the background vocals fill out the suddenly propulsive arrangement. All Newsom really needs to swing, though, is a piano, as she readily proves on the bluesy “Occident.”
“No Provenance” is the first of several moments of total aesthetic arrest on the album. It’s another one of the Joanna Newsom songs with a strangely winding melody and an accompaniment so sparse the harp sounds lonely. Then she gets to the chorus and sings “in your arms, in your arms” as simply and plaintively as a lost child’s tears. Time stops and you can’t even think about things like appointments, traffic, or the internet. You just want to find the person making that noise and make sure she’s not alone. It’s that power and the ability to draw the listener in so incredibly close that the world at large fades away that Newsom deploys with incredible acumen and frequency throughout Have One on Me. And it makes this collection of artifacts a rare gift to all us lesser, ever-listening mortals.
While it’s probably tempting to compare Iceland’s Seabear to bands comprised of their fellow countrymen, the group, which grew out of the one-man project of singer Sindri Már Sigfússon, occupies the same downy plane as Nick Drake and the Shins rather than the cataclysmic spectrum of Sigur Rós or the fanciful erraticism of Björk. It may be a seemingly less exotic locale, but the songs that populate Seabear’s sonic lands are no less evocative.
At first on the band’s appropriately titled sophomore album, We Built a Fire, songs are not so much erected, but rather emerge from a flickering light. Leadoff cut and first single “Lion Face Boy” is probably the most appropriate example of this obfuscated approach, a shimmery melody coming into focus as the song progresses. Eventually, though, the record’s foggy atmospherics lift, and the album bounds into a dewey mix of low-country folk and glazed pop. This works best on the buoyant “In Winters Eyes,” where Sigfússon and company almost quite literally wipe away the sleep to ply their wares in a brighter light. Through it all, We Built a Fire conveys a penchant for understatement, which just might be its greatest charm.
MP3: “Lion Face Boy”
Adam Green occupies the same crossover niche of Conor Oberst and Andrew Bird—that being sulky, good-looking young men who prefer to keep their guitars un-electrified. However, he’s always been more exploratory and decidedly less poppy than his peers. Minor Love is, in a lot of ways, his career culmination—even more so than his stint in the oft-adored, oft-maligned Moldy Peaches.
Green is still playing sad-bastard folk music, of course, but it’s his brand of sad-bastard folk music. Deliberate, frank, barely two minutes, the songs are about the primary colors of lost love and something as slight as finding a store that will sell cigarettes underage. The closest comparisons are no longer the relatively “safe” melancholy of Belle & Sebastian or Eels; they’re the Mountain Goats, Mount Eerie and Bill Callahan—all artists that unequivocally own their sound—and that speaks for Adam’s growth as a whole. He’s still funny, he’s still hip, he still makes all the Apple Store rats swoon. (Hell, he even namedrops Mr. Gatsby on centerpiece “Stadium Soil.”) But he’s, perhaps for the first time, appealing to jaded, heard-it-all-before music elitists too. Minor Love is the rare record that has something for everyone and everything: your dad, your discontent pop-isolationist, that mix you’ve been meaning to make, and a long drive across desert highway. And it all ends up being an impressive testament to Green’s lasting relevance.
MP3: “What Makes Him Act So Bad”
Aloha used to be a musician’s band, a kind of post-post-hardcore progressive rock with jazzy time signatures and band-geek instrumentation. They were just this side of inaccessible, but still garnered a whole bunch of attention because T.J. Lipple played a vibraphone or a marimba on stage, setting them apart from others of similar ilk like Q and Not U and Joan of Arc.
The novelty of a giant xylophone isn’t enough to make a band interesting, but fortunately for us there is much more than wacky instruments to Aloha. Their last release, Light Works, featured comparatively easy-listening songs like “Body Buzz” and “Equinox,” more reminiscent of Wilco or Mojave 3 than Cap ’n’ Jazz or Mogwai. With Home Acres, on the other hand, Aloha has stepped back into the propulsive, kinetic sound that made them so exciting at the outset.
Starting the record on “Building a Fire,” bass guitar gurgles out of the darkness along with thumping toms, while the vocals creep from an echoey lagoon and meet up with the vibes. “Moonless March” eerily mimics the rhythm and melody of “Monster,” a recent track from another band born out of Northern Ohio, Coffinberry, but cranking up the power as soon as the vocals kick in. Aloha has still managed to incorporate the effortless pop sound from the last few records, especially on “Microviolence” and “Black Out.” The last track, “Ruins,” should probably end up on an iPod commercial or as the theme for some new hip HBO series. The vocal melody gets stuck in your head, and the slamming rhythm at the end of the song will compel you to bang your head and drum on your steering wheel as you sing “waiting for a getaway car that never came.” Home Acres is an incredibly well balanced album, ebbing and flowing in and out of reverbed haze and heart-pounding rhythm. After much experimentation, Aloha has finally found exactly the right way to sound.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy
The long-gestating solo debut by former Beulah frontman Miles Kurosky is a great case study in how evolving from one’s primary roots does not always have engaging results. So much time has elapsed since the break-up of Beulah (five years) that it’s a difficult undertaking to evaluate The Desert of Shallow Effects without bias, without realizing that there’s little separating Kursoky’s singular musings with Beulah’s mellifluous finale, Yoko. It’s been well over a decade since Handsome Western States was initially released, and for some, that brilliant slipshod of Brian Wilson aesthetes and its majestic follow-up, When Your Heartstrings Break, were enough to blindly adore the band well past their expiration date.
The overarching dilemma that faces Kursosky on The Desert is that he has run out of melodies and tends to pad these slight, yet arduous, songs with excruciating levels of arrangement. It almost sounds as if each measure of “Pink Lips, Black Lungs” is met with a new set of instruments, a new distraction from the limp verse/chorus formula on display. Let’s call it Of Montreal syndrome: a headache inducing task of trying to follow along. Still, for the better part of the record, his ambition is nothing less than grand, and often times quite beautiful, as (the patented Beulah) horns, strings, rustic strums and Eastern European influences do make for a pop psychedelia that hasn’t really been explored much since the ’90s. “An Apple for an Apple,” for example, bursts from the speakers like sunshine and bubblegum, propping up want for the good ol’ days of the Elephant Six. Kurosky though, should take a lesson from the finer songs here, like the rollicking “I Can’t Swim” (perhaps the closest we’ll get to the beginnings of Beulah) and the bittersweet twang of “She Was My Dresden,” where less is more, and a vulnerable songwriter is not guilty of overdoing it.
Kevin J. Elliott
It’s a bit hard to believe that We All Got Out of the Army is the 14th solo record from Robert Pollard. The former Guided by Voices frontman and mastermind has always been prolific, but he continues to defy any thoughts that he might be slowing down, as this LP is the 10th Pollard-related album (including solo releases and numerous side projects) to be released since 2008.
Overall, the record has a sound and feel similar to Pollard’s other LPs produced in conjunction with Todd Tobias. “Slik Rotor” and the title track sound like the standard Pollard “rock” songs from the past three or four years: energetic with decent melodies. Likewise, “On Top of the Vertigo” and “Rice Train” sound like the standard Pollard “weird” tracks from the past three or four years: playfully sloppy and a bit dissonant. This is all to say that people who have loved Pollard’s recent records are going to love this one as well.
There are, however, a number of cuts on We All Got Out of the Army that really shine and might have broader appeal. “Talking Dogs” and “Cameo of a Smile” have some really infectious pop melodies. “Post-Hydrate Update” features another great Pollard melody and lyrics that mix the commonplace and surreal in a way that the line “there is loneliness everywhere” seems to lead logically to the song’s closing refrain of “she ran off with an elephant and a reindeer.” Perhaps the highlight of the record is “Your Rate Will Never Go Up,” which takes a place alongside the best of latter-era GBV, throwing a lot of great hooks and change-ups into its 110 seconds.
It has long been a truism that the constant flood of Robert Pollard records makes it tough for those who aren’t fully committed to keep up with the man, and it also can be a bit daunting for newbies who otherwise might want to see what all the fuss is about. We All Got Out of the Army has enough going for it to warrant at least a listen from both parties.
Denton, Texas quartet Bridges & Blinking Lights seem to be from the “grab random-ass words and name things” club. How else can you explain the band name and the title of their second record, Heroes, Guns & Snakes? It seems like it should refer to something very specific, but then you realize that maybe not.
That ambiguous feeling is an apt response to the record as a whole. There’s nothing bad, and in fact there are some very good moments, but there’s something slightly off about the record—and not in a quirky endearing way. It’s like looking at wallpaper that’s not quite hung straight. Though unnoticeable if you just glance at it, once the imperfection is perceived, it’s maddening.
Maybe it’s the way that singer-guitarist Jake Wilganowski’s voice comes off somewhere between a congested Perry Farrell and Rod Stewart. Perhaps it’s the way that so many of the songs don’t seem to come to an end as simply run out of momentum. Or it could just be that too many songs are just that much too long. These things don’t make it a bad record, and calling it deeply flawed would be too harsh. Instead, Heroes just needs an editor and some TLC.
What Bridges & Blinking Lights gets right is in crafting some very strong moments. For example, there are bands that would kill for the first three minutes of “Consuela.” When the band does go on instrumental excursions, it isn’t random or showy, and there’s a nice sense of logic to how the pieces fit together. But once those extended instrumental middle sections finish, the songs tend to lose momentum by the time they circle back to the verse.
But another way to look at Heroes is not to dissect the parts, but to look at it as one big multi-part narrative, ignoring the individually weak moments to take in the grand statement. But that may be—like with the title—just reading too much into it.
Dorian S. Ham
Kicking around under the name Blessure Grave for a couple of years now, former Night Wounds instigator Toby Grave has been mining the early death rock and goth scenes more so than anyone else in recent history. Touch points include Joy Division, Death In June, Christian Death, and Sex Gang Children, with a sound bass-heavy with tribal drum machine patterns and laced with sparse guitar and Grave’s ruminations on life and death.
The Learn to Love the Rope EP (2009) was nearly flawless and the 2008 cassette-only Unknown Blessures was almost as solid. The new LP, Judged By Twelve, Carried By Six, starts strong with a spooky instrumental and two of the better cuts on the album, “The Cycle” and “A Thousand Drums.” “Stop Breathing,” from Learn to Love the Rope, makes a return before the album slows down and begins to drag for a track or two. The pace picks back up around ”Echo” before the record finishes with “Feeding the Silence,” a song that’s been available around the internet, but never made it onto an official release. It’s easily one of their best songs and it’s good to see it finally officially released. The CD version tacks on the remaining four tracks from Learn to Love the Rope, all of which are stellar, making for a great album for those who miss the darker days of post-punk.
The strange conundrum of skilled, classically trained musicians in the sell-your-soul-for-a-buck music industry often occurs when they feel the need to fit into one genre or another. Or worse still are those such musicians who, catering to the critics, feel the need to separate and classify every ounce of music. Psuedo-Linnaean arguments aside, there are, unbelievably, some bands that manage to avoid all this, and the exceptionally skilled musicians that make up Clogs are of this rare breed. Comprised of four highly skilled players, including two members of Brooklyn-based the National, the Clogs exist in another realm and, with their latest release, another time. They manage to avoid pitfalls, delivering beautiful, praiseworthy music time and time again. Known largely for instrumentals and a penchant for hauntingly exquisite melodies, on their fifth release, The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton, the band doesn’t delineate from the latter, but this time Bryce Dessner and company have left lone instrumentals behind and ventured into the world of vocals. The payoff is lovely, if at times a bit medieval.
Creatures is a splendid journey through time and musical forms. The most pleasant surprise on the album comes within the first six minutes, with the fabulous a capella “Cocodrillo” and the uplifting string piece, “I Used To Do.” For not really utilizing vocals on previous albums, the Clogs do a fine job swapping their de rigueur string harmonies for the beautiful, vocalized equivalent on “Cocodrillo.” If only they would have continued that mantra throughout. The stuffing in the middle is Creatures’ only (slight) downfall . Here contrived operatics infringe upon otherwise stirringly emotional string melodies.
However, things turn around brilliantly by the sad and touching “Last Song,” which incidentally, and thankfully, is not the last song. The rest of the album flows magically from there: mesmerizing vocal harmonies return with help from Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) on the chill-inducing “Raise the Flag” and continue with the aid of Sufjan Stevens on the bittersweet final track, “We Were Here.” Genre-transcending and, quite plainly, stirring, Creatures is worth a listen for the skillful and cohesive musicianship alone. The resulting tour of emotions is merely an awe-inspiring added benefit.
MP3: “On the Edge”