Tiny Masters of Today

What expectations could one hold for an album written and produced by a brother and sister team aged 15 and 13, respectively? Given that the novelty has been in gestation before Ivan and Ada entered their tweens, with a debut album and a number of prestigious shows under their belt, there should be a certain amount of weight anticipated with Skeletons, the Brooklyn based group’s sophomore offering. Surprisingly, the trio (Jackson, no relation, plays drums) is more than adept in the studio and on their respective instruments, rarely resorting to amateurish pratfalls or imitation to cushion any lack. Think Noise Addict more than Hanson and the Shaggs more than Smoosh.

Granted, the riffs on Skeletons are fairly pedestrian, a deliberate three-chord Ramones in-a-skip kind of chug. But after dressing their songs with dayglo beats, turntable scratches that time forgot, chirpy glockenspiel, and well-placed synths, there’s a sense that the Tiny Masters are aware of their limits and are simply having a blast in the learning process. In many ways, the craft applied in songs like “Drop the Bomb” and “Understandable Honesty” is reminiscent of the Grand Royal era of the mid-90s, a time when everything from hip-hop to hardcore had a place in the same arena—and back then including the kitchen sink didn’t sound contrived. Even as there are some embarrassing moments of influence from that time on Skeletons (Bis anyone?), for the bulk of the record the Tiny Masters’ approach comes from a punk perspective (though I doubt Ada has many skeletons in her closet as she sings on the title track). It’s a shame that most of their peers fall for the Miley Bros. pap they are spoon-fed instead of a two-minute rager called “Abercrombie Zombie” or the incredibly cool (for tweens anyway) diatribe against the industry in “Pop Charts.” In essence, the Tiny Masters sound post-jaded, as if they’ve already dealt with the hullaballoo that comes with early buzz, and in a stuffy scenester paradise like Brooklyn—or indie rock in general—they are in the minority.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Skeletons”

Miike Snow
Miike Snow

With Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (as Bloodshy & Avant) produced one of the more enjoyable megahits of the past decade, garnering adoration from hipsters and Disney Channel devotees alike. Unfortunately, Karlsson and Winnberg were never able to capture lightning in a bottle a second time and their professional career since then has been spent keeping artists like Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Britney barely afloat with a litany of forgettable singles. The duo’s latest project, Miike Snow, features a much less recognizable vocalist by the name of Andrew Wyatt, an in-house producer for Downtown Records and classically-trained indie rock journeyman. Sadly, the results are once again unremarkable as the group’s self-titled debut attempts to split the difference between the thumping house-pop of Bloodshy & Avant’s past work and the laidback singer/songwriter electronica popularized by Postal Service, while finding little success on both fronts.

In defense of Karlsson and Winnberg, much of the blame falls on Wyatt whose inelegant lyricism and overwrought vocal performance are at odds with the album’s relentlessly catchy production. The aptly-titled “Song For No One” would be a sunny slice of pop confection if not for the singer’s lazy non-sequiturs, which sound awkward and incongruous against the track’s carefully polished melodies. Elsewhere, on “Silvia” and “A Horse Is Not a Home,” Wyatt’s delivery is breathy and bombastic, which might work if his lyrics weren’t so shamelessly ponderous (particularly on the latter track where he is all too enamored with his own clumsy equine metaphors to have any real fun with the song).

But if this project becomes something more than a one album diversion for the production duo, there may be reason yet to look forward to future releases, as Miike Snow is not entirely bereft of inspired moments. On “Burial,” Wyatt does a fine Ezra Koenig impression over a feather-light funnel cloud of swirling piano lines, while jittery bass synths propel an irresistible falsetto-tinged chorus on “Black and Blue.” But most of the songs, including the catchy lead-off single “Animal,” have all the makings of a summertime smash hit before building too early and eventually devolving into little more than pleasant background music. In this sense, Miike Snow is unlikely to find a home outside of pseudo-hip clothing store playlists and reality show soundtracks.
David Holmes

Mos Def
The Ecstatic

This is Dante Smith as a bandleader, not a rapper. And this isn’t a record, it’s a caravan. Yes, he raps more than a little bit, but this record is mostly about Mos introducing you to some of his favorite artists, and playing you his favorite beats. Witness “Casa Bey,” essentially a recording of Mos spitting non-stop braggadocio over a barely remixed song by Banda Black Rio, a Brazilian funk band.

Mos comes out hard on “Supermagic,” rhyming and wailing over the dissonant guitars of Oh No’s beat (“Heavy” from Dr. No’s Oxperiment) and follows it up with a vaguely cokish-rap on “Twilite Speedball,” produced by the less-famous half of the Neptunes. He’s often got a catchphrase or two for the hook, and there are lots of attitude-filled, syncopated chants and tautologies in the cracks here and there, but this is one of several tracks which are almost all filler, at least as far as Mos’ performance is concerned. For most of the album, he seems content to either let the beats do the talking or to make his point and move on before an actual song can develop. That’s not always the case, though, and there are cuts of real and raw hip-hop that are definitely worth hearing. “Auditorium” features Mos and the creamy voice of Slick Rick over the sitar-tinged “Movie Finale” from Madlib’s Beat Konducta 3&4: In India. Perhaps it’s because the beat is less frenetic, maybe it’s because he knows Slick Rick has a good chance of showing him up on his own album, but Mos is finally able to chill-out and fall deeply into the groove, throwing down two solid minutes of tight, complex verses before the Ruler, sounding like a natural in this environment, turns out an unforgettable story.

Beyond that, Mos Def does solid work on “Revelations” (a.k.a. “Savage Beast” on Madvillainy 2: The Madlib Remix), merging actual rapping with singing and chanting in equal measures. The clap-happy “Quiet Dog” is the closet Mos comes to his old True School i.d., and “Pretty Dancer” will satisfy a number of folks looking for something more like the feel of The New Danger. As for the Black Star fans, look no further than “History,” featuring a guest spot from Kweli and an old Dilla beat.

Two of the final three tracks on the album come together to perfectly sum up what this album seems to be about. “Roses,” by Georgia Anne Muldrow, is a perfect example of Mos as curator. It seems that Muldrow recorded the song straight-up, and then recorded Mos interjecting and singing back-up after the fact. Strangely it’s one of Mos’ best graphs on the record, but I’m still not sure if the song might be better-off without him. As for the closer, the aforementioned “Casa Bey,” it’s a really wild song, Mos molds his flow through several changes in tempo and time signature, and it’s easy to imagine it being a show-stopping closer for Mos Def’s 2010 Rolling Thunder Hip-Hop Revue. So if you’re looking for an experience that sounds like Rawkus circa ’98, look elsewhere. But if you dig the idea of Mos Def as hip-hop’s worldly ringmaster, man has he got a record for you.
Matt Slaybaugh

Mannequin Men
Lose Your Illusion, Too

With their third album, Lose Your Illusion, Too, Chicago’s Mannequin Men are by no means rewriting the book of hard-knocked rock. (And just to be clear, nor is this a Gun N’ Roses revision either.) But playing a fast and furious mix of Criminal IQ–like punk and pop undertones, the band really has no need for ingenuity when there’s plenty of room in the cracks to make their own mark—and this time they have.

Singer Kevin Richard’s nicotine-stained larynx (wondering aloud what happened to his money on “Never Lived By Myself,” he concludes that he “probably spent it all on smokes”) is the perfect foil to Ethan D’ercole’s rough and ready guitar licks. Add in too the cracking rhythm section, and the Mannequin Men have found their calling, here brought to a greater fruition than ever before. “Chopper” is four-and-change minutes of sonic whiplash, a dervish that mines a hook and beat worth repeating over and over. Similarly, “WTF LOL” spells out text parlance over a spiky rhythm and economic, but no less sharp, riff. It’s not all rock ’em sock ’em; “Kinda Babes” is a short and sweet, bluesy reverie. To reiterate, though, this isn’t rocket science, but the Mannequin Men still deliver quite the bang nonetheless.
Stephen Slaybagh

Quest for Fire
Quest for Fire
Tee Pee

When signing to Tee Pee Records, Quest for Fire must have understood that they were joining a label famous for stoner rock bands like High on Fire and Nebula. They also had to have guessed that by choosing a name like Quest for Fire, people would probably classify their music under the genre. Yet with their self-titled debut, Quest for Fire have pushed back from that simple tag and produced lush, heavy, psychedelic music that’s worth hearing no matter what your state of mind is.

Quest for Fire opens with the fast, heavy riff of “Bison Eyes,” the shortest track on the album at a little more than four minutes. Don’t get too comfortable with the pace of the first song, however, because by the next cut, “Strange Waves,” everything slows down to a speed more suited to the cosmic guitar solos and kaleidoscopic riffs that really define the album. Songs like “The Hawk That Hunts the Walking” and “You Are Always Loved” take a similar approach, shredding through long, melodic guitar pieces that match the dreamy vocals perfectly. “Next to the Fire” is arguably the best song on the album, though, because of the way its intense, Sabbath-like riffs and gorgeous psychedelic solos mix together flawlessly. Touching on Hendrix and Floyd, as well as Sabbath and Zeppelin, this mixture of ’70s rock is what sets apart Quest for Fire from the average group of heshers. Quest for Fire dips into the past while maintaining a modern sound that breaks the stoner rock mold, and it’s damn exciting.
Matthew Plotnik

MP3: “Bison Eyes”