Mikal Cronin
Mikal Cronin
Trouble In Mind

As the force behind Charlie and the Moonhearts and as a sideman with Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin has no doubt played an integral part within the healthy musical microcosm developing in San Francisco over the part few years. However, that’s not reason enough to expect more than an on-par garage-rock record from the man on his self-titled debut. Or maybe it is. Subsequently, Mikal Cronin, however surprisingly or not, is a record that can’t be overestimated, as it’s sure to blow more than a few lids.

While Cronin is firmly entrenched in the guitar overdrive and aesthetic of his environs, the album takes enough liberties as to never be ghettoized to any one dimension. As its opening vocal harmonizing would indicate, “Is It Alright” is at its heart a doe-eyed pop song, but when Cronin digs his teeth in, it becomes an exaltation of wooly riffs, though a gust of flute bursts through at the end. “Apathy” borrows a page from pal Segall, who helped engineer the record, with a mix of fuzzy pop nodes and furry freakouts. “Green and Blue,” meanwhile, ventures further into the black hole, its refrains becoming increasingly blurred as the song progresses. Somewhere along the album’s progression Cronin shifts to a mode of songsmith, favoring a tailored approach over kicking out the jams, but for the most part it never lessens the record’s impact. Throughout it all, it’s obvious he knows exactly what he’s doing and that we never for a minute should have doubted him.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Apathy”

Meg Baird
Seasons on Earth
Drag City

Consider for a moment that in addition to being a member of brooding psych-folk ensemble Espers, singer-songwriter-guitarist Meg Baird keeps some serious time in Philly noise-rock trio Watery Love. Baird’s solo recordings are certainly based in the traditions of acoustic music, yet her approach is largely removed from Folk’s (with a capital “F”) tendencies toward earnest sermonizing and dry, self-indulgent introspection. This isn't to say that Seasons on Earth, her Drag City follow-up to 2007’s Dear Companion, isn’t deep; rather Baird deftly employs the genre’s elemental tools to create an album of restrained beauty and subtle poignancy. But to be sure, Joan Baez she is not.

Playing the role of the album’s main songwriter here, Baird utilizes unassuming melodies that gently wind through major and minor passages. Her guitar resonates with clear, crisps tones and is enhanced by the steel work of sideman Marc Orleans. Taking her strongest musical cues from English folk and its ’60s and ’70s reboots, her wistful voice evokes such UK sirens as Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins. And although Baird’s timber tends to favor the moor over the mountain, Orleans is able to tap into the unmistakable bittersweet sounds of an entire century of American roots music within a single shimmering lap-steel lick. His guitar playing is never intrusive and adds exquisite embellishments to Baird’s stark compositions.

Though stripped down in terms of compositional complexity, many of the songs here still drift well past the six-minute mark, allowing them to expand and create their own palpable atmosphere. Baird’s lyrics offer impressionistic signposts through the album’s bucolic cosmos, but they never expressly direct the listener as to where to go. Indeed, it’s not the words to which one ends up clinging, it’s the voice.

Possessed of such a devastatingly lovely instrument, it would be easy for Baird to stick to being an interpreter. And Dear Companion, composed mostly of covers and traditionals, occasionally felt like a showcase for just that. Seasons on Earth, conversely, contains only two (perfectly chosen) non-originals, the Mark Almond Band’s “Friends” and UK proto-shoegazers House of Love’s “Beatles and the Stones,” both of which are reduced to an almost particle level and recast as her own. Baird has stepped up as a songwriter here, discovering her own melodies and words, and in the process further defined herself as an artist of confidence, skill and heart. In short, Baird has found much more than simply her voice on Seasons on Earth.
Nate Knaebel

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah exploded onto the music scene in 2005 with an uber-enjoyable self-titled debut boasting a sound as quirky as their name. Led by the perpetually-slurred (and entirely endearing) vocal stylings of Alec Ounsworth, the five-piece was at the forefront of a jubilant new era of indie-rock, where punctuated drums and eccentric hooks reigned supreme. That was six years ago, and though it’s been almost four years since Clap Your Hands released the largely disappointing Some Loud Thunder, the fivesome is finally back with the follow-up. Yet despite an obvious progression as a band, Hysterical doesn’t amount to quite the bang for which they were hoping.

The album finds the band in a precarious state, wrestling with an old formula (that wasn’t broke, by the way) and a newer, fuller sound. The problem is that it doesn’t translate in the same way as the straightforward songs that made their debut so impressive. Take for example, “Maniac,” a track awash in lush horns and strings and everything under the sun. The only thing that distinguishes it as Clap Your Hands is Alec Ounsworth’s trademark yowl. The most interesting, or in this case, distinguishable, song on the album is the first track, “Same Mistake,” where the chord progression strikes the nostalgia nail on the head. Subsequently, though, Hysterical sort of meanders its way into a hazy, indistinguishable din. The band changes the pace a bit on slower, drawn-out efforts like “Misspent Youth” and the string-infused “In a Motel,” yet it still feels like they’re playing the same hand over and over again.

Ultimately, the issue with this album is not the utter lack of hooks or the fact that it seems to last six songs too long, but that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have lost their sense of direction. Growing as a band is one thing, but growing without paying credence to your foundation, in this case, makes for a jumbled, mindless, well-played whirr.
Jennifer Farmer

Go Tell Fire to the Mountain

Deep in our American hearts, we always want another British invasion. I know that if I’m really honest with myself that there’s probably nothing that could thrill me more than if some “next big thing” from across the pond would come over and reinvent the wheel for us once more. By the same token, I’m also aware that it’s very unlikely in this era of the snake eating its own tale that such a thing will ever happen.

Case in point is WU LYF and their debut album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. They’ve been heralded as a new breed while at the same time being likened to everyone from the Birthday Party to Animal Collective, which is to say they sound like everything you’ve heard before, but perhaps, also cumulatively like nothing else. That my peers in the press have been frothing at the mouths over the Mancunian band only goes to show how easily manipulated they are, with just a calculatingly posed photograph being all that it takes to conjure a bit of mystery and danger. Listening to Go Tell, however, quickly dispels the smoke and mirrors. Even singer Ellery Roberts’ mumbled vocals can’t hide the fact that this is just a mix of naughties sonic cliches. The ringing guitar lines, the multi-culti rhythms and the constant echo are as formulaic as they come these days; if the band was American, depending on which traits were played up, they’d either be Vampire Weekend or Man Man, which is to say a big ball of affectations and predictable fashion choices. For now, I’ll take American industriousness over such posturing any day of the week.
Stephen Slaybaugh

All Hours

Things have been mighty quiet for Ivy. The NYC trio formed in ’94 and released an EP soon after, but it was when 1996’s “I Hate December” maxi-single happened to coincide with the rebirth of lounge that the band achieved any measurable success. The band—comprised of singer Dominique Durand, Andy Chase and Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger—maintained a steady stream of releases until 2005, when they went on hiatus. After nearly six years it would seem a pretty safe bet that the break was permanent, but lo and behold, they’ve gotten back together and result is their sixth record, After Hours.

Despite a slightly worrying, almost clubby beat on the opening song, “Distant Lights,” the band pick up where they left off, with understated pop songs cut possesing a cool undertone and shot through with a lo-fi electronic support anchored by a pop-rock backbone. The record is held together by Durand’s restrained, almost detached voice that makes the tales of love lost and found ring true. If nothing else, this record shows that Schlesinger still has a tight grip on how to write a good pop song. While the hooks are plenty, there are actual songs wrapped around them. After Hours is a successful balance between glossy and roughed-up moments, a tricky balance if everything wasn’t so damn tasteful. Here’s hoping that it won’t be another six years before the next album.
Dorian S. Ham