She & Him
Volume Two

She & Him were one of the surprises of 2008. Actors who want to sing is a well worn road, but the unlikely pairing of folk troubadour M. Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel was an eyebrow raiser. However, the resulting record, Volume One, charmed people who were burned by The Return of Bruno and were not sure how to feel about Scarlett Johansson’s Tom Waits covers. While it would have been easy to chalk up She & Him as a one-off vanity project, Ward and Deschanel discouraged that idea by taking the act on the road and giving the debut a winking title. After all, if there’s a Volume One, at some point there should be a follow-up. And it’s true: She & Him have returned with Volume Two.

As to be expected, Volume Two is like the flipside to She & Him’s debut. Much like the previous record, it plays like a collection of ’50s and ’60s pop 45s that someone stumbled upon at a yard sale. It’s a fine line between gimmick and tribute, but Ward and Deschanel manage to stay on the right side of the equation.

But part of the problem is that they play it almost too close. One of the things that made Volume One work so well is that they weren’t afraid to throw in goofy moments. This is the “mature” version. Volume Two is by no means a collection of stone-faced dirges, but it’s missing its predecessor’s giddy fun. This is more apparent when the album begins to drag. It’s only about 47 minutes long, but that’s a whole other 10 minutes more than Volume One. Considering that both records consist of 13 songs, that’s a fairly significant addition. Where She & Him once delivered a pop gem in less than three minutes, anything longer now seems like “Stairway To Heaven.”

Yet that seems like a minor quibble. The songs on Volume Two are still laced with sunshine, and Deschanel has some great moments, namely the impossibly gorgeous “If You Can’t Sleep” and a playful duet with Ward on NRBQ’s “Ridin’ in My Car.” While the album eventually loses steam, there are enough strong individual moments to warrant a request for Volume Three.
Dorian S. Ham

Bettie Serveert
Pharmacy of Love
Second Motion

After gaining recognition with an outstanding debut, Palomine, in 1992, the stature of Bettie Serveert has been seemingly in decline ever since. It’s not for want of trying; the band has recorded seven albums and a live record in the interim. Yet Bettie Serveert has never been able to replicate the winning visceral and emotional equation of Palomine, which possessed the perfect amounts of guitar crunch, oft-kilter melody and post-adolescent ache. Each subsequent record has failed and succeeded in a small multitude of ways, and the Dutch band’s latest and ninth album, Pharmacy of Love, is no different.

Pharmacy begins with “Deny All,” a big pop song too ambitious for its own good. Throbbing with go-for-the-gusto countenance, the song is overdone, and as a result, devoid of character or edge, almost crushing any desire to go further. The band fares better when allowing themselves some slack, as on “Love Lee,” where the smoky hues of singer Carol van Dyk’s voice are given room to smolder. “Souls Travel” is somewhat similar in the lazy haze in which its imbedded, but the album’s winning instances are isolated by the album’s prevailing winds, which tend to over-inflate even what could be its most intimate moments.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Deny All”

Matt Pond PA
The Dark Leaves

Matt Pond is the only consistent member of a long list of players that have collaborated to create Matt Pond PA albums since 1998. He’s been pretty prolific in that time, as far as songwriters go, with eight LPs and seven EPs under his belt, and has performed with Keane, Guster and Liz Phair, although he garnered the most attention from covers of songs by Oasis and Neutral Milk Hotel that were featured on The OC. The music is polite and radio-friendly, and precedes the recent flood of folky, alt-country bands finding their way onto primetime teen-focused TV on the WB and UPN.

“I can’t remember which movie taught me purpose. I can’t remember which movie taught me pain,” from “Remains,” sums up the sentiment of this innocuous album. I similarly can’t remember which songs on this record might have made me feel the need to listen to it again. The Dark Leaves fails to leave a memorable dent as a whole. Throughout the album, the music isn’t bad—mostly soft guitars and delicate lap steel with Matt Pond’s straight-laced, but emotional, vocals leading the melodies—it’s just that the songs are so inoffensive and bland that they miss the mark of stimulating the listener. The lyrics mostly deal with personal memories and fail to strike upon anything worth relating to or really remembering. “Running Wild,” the most upbeat song on the record, shuffles along with the drums and could possibly be a throwaway track that Arcade Fire deemed unworthy of using. Regrettably, the only thing worthy of notice on The Dark Leaves is that the last song is named “First Song.” This album does make decent background music, but it’s nothing you’d want to crank up and pay some attention.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Archie Bronson Outfit

In 2006, the sophomore outing by the Archie Bronson Outfit enchanted a sizable fanbase and a host of tastemakers by doing the unthinkable: writing sexy, angular, and intensely ferocious songs. But go ahead and skim the gushing reviews and passionate acclaim for Derdang Derdang. There’s no definitive logic, truth or depth exposed or uncovered within the discourse (if you could even call it that). The album rocked—that’s it.

So here we are four years later and, as it should be, the band has gained a degree of mystique by its absence and purposeful underexposure. With the exception of some big festival dates and the announcement that one former half of the DFA, Tim Goldsworthy, would be taking a seat at the production helm for album number three, that was four years of absolutely nothing. Until now, with the record arriving like some tacky wrapped message from Gilligan’s island. Unfortunately, the album art serves as the perfect wrapping paper for the thoughtless, over-produced (and predictable) 10-song debacle.

If that sounds harsh, and perhaps a bit obtuse, then you obviously haven’t made it pass the 20-second mark of opener “Magnetic Warrior,” whose fuzzbox distortion remains a constant for the entire album. “Hoola,” a lame attempt at a dance number, successfully aids the listener in identifying the culprit of this disappointing dud: unchecked “dream team” studio pairing driven by the same pathos that makes Rick Rubin consider releasing a boxset of his pet goat covering the Righteous Brothers. Skip this one, and hope that a lesson was learned.
Phil Goldberg

The Internal Tulips
Mislead Into a Field By a Deformed Dear
Planet Mu

Let’s get this out of the way: the Internal Tulips’ debut, Mislead Into a Field By a Deformed Dear is beautiful. It’s an experimental album, sure But like with, say, the Books, that experimentation always leads to stunning music before impenetrability. Every song is mangled in error-message glitch, dripping with amniotic fluid and emblazoned with creaky psych folk, but only in the prettiest way possible.

Mislead is a deliberately paced record. Everything moves markedly slow, which in a way distances itself from the relatively fast-paced operandi of the ’60s psych and tech-house prog from which they take most influence. The record seems unearthed, excavated from the soil, drudging along still half-asleep. While recalling Kid A, it is one of the most intimate albums I’ve heard in a while. Live instrumentation (check the swooning violin curl on “Parasol”) and electronic blips synthesize into a singular, distraught feeling. It’s warm, but not comfortable.

Mislead might come off a little boring at first, but honestly, it doesn’t take much patience before it begins to reveal itself. What you’re left with is an album that’s beautiful, haunting, and remarkably original—like a natural evolution to what the Olivia Tremor Control started. Keep these guys on your radar.
Luke Winkie

Eddy Current Suppression Ring
Rush to Relax

Drawing from many strains in the post-punk gene pool—the angularity of Gang of Four, the spit-shined pop of the Clean, and the slapdash irreverence of the Shimmy Disc catalog, among others—Eddy Current Suppression Ring hatched a fittingly frenetic offspring with their second album, Primary Colours, in 2008. In what would seem to be an effort to capture their best off-the-cuff inclinations, they recorded its follow-up in one six-hour stretch. They must have successfully tapped those synapses because Rush to Relax is every bit its predecessor’s equal, full of jagged glimpses into the band’s collective being.

Appropriately for its title, the opening “Anxiety” is full of fits that stop and start, lending a herky-jerkiness that continuously keeps the listener off-balance. That, of course, is a good thing in this context, as part of ECSR’s appeal is the bumpy ride. On the six-minute “Tuning Out,” a similar effect is achieved by butting simplistic (but catchy) lyrics up against some high-strung guitar work and suitably throbbing bass, then stretching it out for maximum opaqueness. On the other end of the spectrum, “Walked Into a Corner,” even at just under a minute, is one of the best of the bunch. It’s brisk and blunt, sung-spoken commentary against a punkish bashing. Top honors, though, go to “Second Guessing,” which adds keys to the proceedings and just a tad more sophistication as the song melts into a moody psych diatribe. It may be natural selection, but ECSR proves that sometimes all it takes are some good instincts and the wherewithal to use them.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Anxiety”