This week, The Strokes release their new album, Angles, their first since going on an “indefinite hiatus” after touring for 2006’s First Impressions of Earth. That’s a long time for a band that burst onto the scene in 2001 with a huge, “we’re bringing in an entirely new era of rock music” buzz around them.

The band has said some not-so-cheery things about the recording sessions for Angles, even going so far as to say that it was an "awful" experience. That might make someone expect it to sound as fractured as the recording process that created it, but for the most part that isn't the case.

If the band’s hiatus was an attempt to take some time off and refresh their creative batteries, then it’s safe to say it was well-timed. First Impressions of Earth was decent, but at that point, as the band’s third album in 6 years, it was apparent that they were running out of ideas. The music on Angles is VERY different from the tried-and-true “Strokes sound”. The songs are not straightforward rock numbers with vocalist Julian Casablancas slurring his words over Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr.’s guitar riffery.

Instead, Angles is filled with much more abstractly arranged and structured songs, such as album opener Machu Picchu. Sounding like it was lifted from a Talking Heads album, it’s a great introduction to the odd vibes of this album. There’s no lack of groove on this one, accentuated with some echo-y guitar work and some sweet percussive touches. Casablancas snarls about putting your body to the test and trying to find a mountain I can climb before humming over the instruments toward the end. It seriously sounds like it could be a song made in 1986, and that statement is meant in the best way possible. After calmly singing most of the song, Julian yells a bit at the end until the whole thing comes to a raucous finish.

Under Cover of Darkness, the most Strokes-ian song on the record, finds Casablancas sounding younger than he did on Is This It way back ten years ago. It’s a bouncy, catchy song, primed for radio play, despite Julian’s claim that he won’t be a puppet on a string. Valensi’s guitar solo after the first chorus is pretty juicy, too.

Things start getting weird with Two Kinds of Happiness. Beginning with Julian’s low-register humming and building steadily with staccato guitars, the song is notable for its inability to really go anywhere yet still remain interesting. It builds and builds, bringing in some fast guitar noodling before going back to the downbeat vocal harmonies. It’s definitely an experimental song, and one that a lot of casual Strokes fans may find very confusing.

You’re So Right, written by bassist Nikolai Fraiture, ramps up the strangeness, with even more off-key vocal harmonies and Casablancas sounding as if he was making up his vocals on the spot. You’re So Right is not a crisp, tight song, but rather another attempt at being really unpredictable and experimental. Despite its bizarre elements, the song works thanks to the ominous tone and frantic drumming by Fabrizio Moretti.

The chorus of Taken for a Fool is reminiscent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which is admittedly a strange comparison to make when discussing the Strokes. Julian says things like You’re so gullible but I don’t mind/I don’t need any more women right now/ Monday, Tuesday is my weekend right before another great instrumental break driven by Moretti and his drum kit. This is one of the album’s strongest tracks, with every band member at his best.

Games brings back the 1980s again, synth and gentle guitars giving way to a strong chorus featuring Casablancas’ layered vocals. Its downbeat, low-key flourishes are similar to those found in You’re So Right, but this song will probably be easier to get into than the previous one, in part due to the synth and a pretty smooth instrumental part in the middle.

Call Me Back is the album’s mellowest moment, and is a bit more straightforward than the adventurous, all-over-the-map sound of the other songs. Because of that, the song is not as grabbing as the others. But hey, every album needs a slow jam, right?

Things pick up again with Gratisfaction, a song that sounds oddly familiar and yet new at the same time. Maybe the sound is “vintage”, maybe it’s “throwback”, but whatever it is it’s a good time. On Metabolism, Julian laments that I want to be outrageous/But inside I know I’m lame, which could either be some scathing self-criticism or just words that fit the verse. Whatever their intent, the song is a standout in the same way You’re So Right and Games were. The downbeat instrumentation gives the song a quiet intensity that fits Julian’s vocals perfectly.

The album closes out with Life Is Simple In The Moonlight, a tune that finds Julian mostly singing softly and often along with the guitar melody. Rather than end the album with a bland softer song, Life Is Simple wraps things up on a catchy and memorable note.

Angles is a much more challenging Strokes record than the previous three. Their hiatus and the markedly different approach with this record suggest that they were bored with their old sound. On this new one, there are also shades of Julian’s solo album Phrazes for the Young, which was also very 80s-tinged and synthed-out much in the same way Angles is.

These songs aren’t as immediately accessible as Last Nite, Reptilia or Someday, but they’re a solid representation of where the band is now. The album is the end result of a tumultuous, high-pressure experience in the studio, and has given the band the same kind of intensity and hostility that they had back in their early days.

Despite their current internal conflicts, Angles is the Strokes saying that they’re back and making new rules this time, and it will be interesting to see where they go from here.

See you at Coachella, dudes!

I was gorging myself on a late-night channel-surfing buffet last week when I stumbled upon a strange rock video on MTVU. The song was oddly late 1990s/early 2000s in style, with some skinny dudes hopping around on some NYC streets.

Turns out this band is called New Politics, and they’re apparently from Denmark. As unfortunately unremarkable as the band name is, their music would probably get the same reaction from most listeners.

What struck me during the video (for the song Dignity, which is included in the end of this review) was how much it reminded me of high school. Namely, it sounded like an amalgamation of every band I listened to during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Beastie Boy raps, generic rap/rock chord progressions, pseudo-angst bottled up in catchy verses and a Weezer-esque melodic chorus, it was all there.

Curiosity led me to seeking out the band’s recent debut album, released in June 2010.

The most descriptive thing I can say about the album is that it sounds like it’s a relic from a time capsule from 1999 that some high school kids put in the ground and dug up over the summer.

The album kicks off with Yeah Yeah Yeah, the “bouncy lead single” from the album. Its oh-so-familiar sounding main riff gives way to lead singer David Boyd’s angry (?) lyrics asking what you want from me, cuz you’re fucking killing me and so on. Everything about the song is extremely predictable, but it still manages to embed itself in your head, as I found myself humming it the next day at the store.

Dignity boasts the Weezerish tendencies, from the Beverly Hills verses to the sweeping Say It Ain’t So chorus, but the song is about angst and “giving guns to the children” or something. It’s quite energetic though, and also burrows itself in your head like a tapeworm in your stomach.

I attribute that quality of the record to the production used on the songs. Every song sounds crunchy and smooth, with the requisite acoustic strumming for the bridge (a trait that happens throughout the record) and perfect sound levels between the instruments and the vocals.

Nice job there, RCA Records.

The rest of the songs manage to touch on just about every aspect of the 1999-2003 era, such as Give Me Hope, with its driving synth and high-pitched vocals sounding like one of those “The” bands like the Vines/Hives/Strokes on too much Mountain Dew and Sour Patch Kids.

Love Is a Drug again hits Strokes territory, but also adds a bit of The Bravery’s grittiness, probably due to Boyd’s vocal effects, not including the sassy rap-rock tweaks they seem to insert into every song.

Listening to this whole album is quite an experience, since I find it really crazy to imagine that a major label like RCA helped conceptualize music like this in 2011. This stuff sounds like 2002 Warped Tour side stage material (specifically this song/band). I’d be shocked if this album or band really goes anywhere, since this sound is so outdated.

Nuclear War (ugh, more almost political references) includes a Linkin Park nod in the pre-chorus, leading into declarations of being the enemy and starting wars and whatever. Oh, and it also has acoustic strumming in the bridge.

Burn keeps the high energy going, throwing in some shouting, again getting caught up in vague political “let’s burn it down” lyrics. Sigh.

We Are the Radio talks about the nation being in fear and guns and war and stuff, and again it’s formulaic Rage Against the Machine-lite.

What kills me about this album is that I actually *like* its throwback to the late 1990s vibe. I’m unhealthily obsessed with my nostalgic music from middle and high school, so a band that manages to sound like all of the bands I listened to at once is somewhat appealing, but the bland, uninspired lyrics about starting wars (with who? The mall security guards? Math teachers? I’m confused) mixed with the “Rap-Rock 101” song structures just makes this thing a misfire.

It’s great music to listen to while at the gym, as I did today, but it’s not really good for much else. Had this come out in 2002 it would have been just as overlooked as I expect it to be today, in 2010-2011. It’s just too simplistic and unimaginative for its own good.

If the lads in New Politics were consciously aiming to sound like Rage, Weezer, Linkin Park, innumerable pop-punk and hard-rock radio bands and the Beastie Boys, then kudos to them for being spot-on with their efforts.

If not, then, well at least you made a nice high-budget music video or two with major-label money, right?

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AuthorCheese Sandwich
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Nirvana, the Pixies, Mudhoney, and buzzy anti-corporate indie-punk.

Did you think those words would be mentioned in a review of Cage the Elephant’s new album Thank You, Happy Birthday?

Yeah, didn't think so.

When Kentucky lads Cage the Elephant lit a fire under the indie rock scene’s ass with 2009’s self-titled debut album, they quickly rose in notoriety. Songs like Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked and Back Against the Wall, hit singles from the disc, are still being played on FM rock radio stations. The band’s alluring blend of soulful bluesy rock and understated punk aggression turned many heads and allowed the band to support that album for the next year, playing tons of festival gigs.

After some downtime, they have returned with their follow-up to their smash debut record, and it sounds like something Kurt Cobain would dig.

The album starts off strongly, Always Something slinking along creepily with an Arctic Monkeys-ish feel to it. The song leads into Aberdeen, presumably named after the tiny rainy town in Washington that spawned the “grunge” movement, Kurt Cobain, Mudhoney, and many other prominent bands and individuals of that movement. Aberdeen is one of the “catchiest” songs on the album, and the most suited for radio play, with lead singer Matthew Schultz alternating between his usual lazy drawl and a bit more energetic vocals for the chorus. The guitars in the bridge are very grungy and dissonant, too.

As Aberdeen closes out, Schultz repeating “way back!” as the music drops out to some eerie backup vocals, the best part of the album starts up. Indy Kidz, a violently spastic song beginning with Schultz sarcastically saying “I wanna be just like you” before erupting into a frenetic, In Utero-esque freakout, is astounding. The song viciously lampoons the “cool kids” of the indie music scene, peppering in some off-key buzzy yelling (again coming off like Kurt Cobain’s ghost). The music is all over the place, riffing and chugging and slowing down and picking the pace back up and stopping and letting Schultz yell and scream some more, with or without a beat behind him. It honestly sounds like Nirvana, in the best possible way for a song released in 2011.

Perhaps ironically, the next track, Shake Me Down, is the album’s first single. Following up the fiercely aggressive punch of Indy Kidz with a more ear-friendly tune like this creates a pretty jarring transition, but it works since Shake Me Down is solid. Crunchy rhythm and drums, melodic vocals, an accessible overall quality, it’s all there.

Cage the Elephant holed up in the backwoods of Kentucky and listened to the Pixies, Mudhoney, and 1950s surf rock for inspiration for this record, and you can hear it in tracks like 2024 and Sabertooth Tiger.

A prevalent theme on this disc is the band’s refusal to adhere to a “catchy” sound. This is one of those instances when a band has a smash debut record, gets a lot of attention and exposure, and then grows bitter with the whole situation. Sell Yourself is an example of that, disjointed, off-kilter riffs churning while Schultz yells “sell yourself, don’t be a fool”, itself a criticism of the band’s rise in success. The song is abrasive, just as the band wants it to be.

Whereas similar tactics have been attempted by other bands like MGMT (whose sophomore album Congratulations seems to have made everybody mad, fans and critics alike), Cage the Elephant instead did it right, creating something very unique and challenging.

Just look at the transition from Sell Yourself to Rubber Ball – the first track a clustercuss of noise and pissed-off energy, leading into a slow interlude that sounds like a lullaby. They’re exploring all types of sounds and energies on this album, and it works.

Right Before My Eyes has more old-school vibes, a straightforward song that boasts one of the album’s best choruses, right before my eyes the whole world lost control. It would also work on the radio, perhaps maybe appealing to fans of the band’s radio songs.

Around My Head sounds like Brit Pop and the Pixies combined, and if it wasn’t for the weird ooh ooh ooh ooh ah ah ah ah monkey chirps before the chorus it’d be one of the album's strongest songs.

Japanese Buffalo is another WTF? moment on the album, starting out like the Beach Boys before going down the “frantic sped-up garage rock” route, which a friend of mine referred to as “Iggy Pop doing Pinkerton”. All Schultz really says in the song is “alright? Okay. Uh huh.” over and over, and then some more yelling, before it slows down for some melody and, of course, more screaming. And buzzy guitars.

Album closer Flow starts out a bit in Kings of Leon territory, with jangly acoustic guitars and some mostly reserved vocals by Schultz. Surprisingly, it doesn’t explode into more screaming and aggression, instead keeping its hushed tone throughout. It’s a nice calm down after all the musical rollercoasting that goes on for the first eleven tracks. After some silence, a slowed-down acoustic reprise of Right Before My Eyes finishes the album off.

With Thank You, Happy Birthday, Cage the Elephant has really done something I hadn’t thought possible. They’ve created music that is both an homage to their heroes and something confrontationally original. They could have gone down the “indie buzz band” route and released crowd-pleasing recreations of their debut, but they didn’t.

Instead, they crafted songs bursting with the same kind of aggression and anti-corporate energy that Nirvana did with In Utero. These guys have made it pretty far, but now that they’re there they aren’t afraid to do what they want, all the time criticizing the scene and themselves.

It’s just a great (and somewhat unexpected) record, and while it may be one of the first releases of 2011, it may find itself on many "Best Of 2011" lists come next December.

Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys may be My Chemical Romance’s new album, and their fourth full-length release, but one thing’s for sure: This ain’t no emo party.

Whereas 2006’s The Black Parade propelled the band to arena-filling, eyeliner-donning hero status with its dark, angsty blend of edgy emo rock and poppy goth flair, Danger Days finds the band charging into new territory with precisely-executed abandon.

The album, a “theme album” that purports to be a radio transmission from 2019 after the world ended or something, gives the band room to explore different styles and melodies, all the while refusing to adhere to the “MCR sound” that made them so popular.

Here, the band is the “Fabulous Killjoys”, outlaws battling an evil corporation of some sort.

After a lead-in intro radio transmission calling for the Killjoys to “make some noise!”, single Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na) takes over, with its in-your-face hook and catchy aggression. The song serves as the band’s “Hey, we’re different now, deal with it!” declaration, a middle-finger to the face presented in a familiar childhood playground taunt. The energy doesn’t let up for the entirety of the song, and the blistering guitar solo toward the end caps it all off.

Bulletproof Heart is less abrasive than Na Na Na, but it’s also one of the catchiest moments on the record. The guitar riffs are not unlike the sort you’d hear on a Green Day record, which isn’t surprising considering Rob Cavallo produced this album as well as almost every Green Day record to date. Vocalist Gerard Way’s yells of Gravity/don’t mean too much to me are pretty infectious, as are Ray Toro’s exquisite guitar leads. Production-wise, the song explodes with laser sounds, cascading backup vocals, and an incessantly engaging refrain. It’s one of the brightest moments on the album.

As with most “concept albums”, it’s usually easy to get lost in the music and fail to notice lyrical themes and all that stuff. With Danger Days, there’s so much melody and crashing drums and top-notch production that the themes may get lost in translation, but the first five tracks all incorporate a theme of moving and running. On Bulletproof Heart, for example, Way says we have to run away from here because these pigs are after me, and that theme continues in Sing.

It’s a more subdued song than the previous two, with some tender piano touches accentuating the drum beat and Way’s vocals. The whole feel of the song is reminiscent of Lostprophets, especially songs like Rooftops and Last Train Home, with that super-epic buildup and exploding chorus thing going for it. The song has a great atmospheric feel, punctuated by Way's command to “keep runnin!”

Planetary (GO!) is all Pro-Tooled out, with keyboards, a dance beat, slick vocals and a bouncy up and down rhythm. Way shouts out the lyrics, again exclaiming that I can’t slow down/ I won’t be waiting for you, as the song builds to its chorus, which almost sounds TOO much like Powerman 5000’s When Worlds Collide. Despite that, the song is a fun ride.

The synth party continues with The Only Hope for Me is You, another huge sprawling epic radio song. It’s catchy in that sing-along radio MCR way, but it isn’t as edgy and creative as some of the other songs on Danger Days.

Party Poison, which channels The Hives, is a revved-up song about how This ain’t a party/Get off the dance floor/ You wanna get down/ Here comes the gang war /You’re doing alright/I got the answer/ ‘Cause all the good times/They give you cancer, and so on.

That one leads into Save Yourself, I’ll Hold Them Back, arguably the album’s best song. After a downtuned Incubus-esque guitar lead-in, the song takes off to familiar MCR territory and more Na Na Nas in the background.

If the first few songs were about running, the middle portion of the record is about fighting, as Way sings about fighting with the devil and how We can live forever if you’ve got the time.

S/C/A/R/E/C/R/O/W (a slower tune about hiding) and Summertime (a power-pop anthem with synth nods to The Cure) mellow things out a bit before the all-caps DESTROYA comes along and picks the energy back up. Its driving riff and Way’s layered shouting imply that the MCR guys have more than a passing admiration for hardcore legends Refused. You don’t believe in God/ I don’t believe in love/ they don’t believe in us /but I believe we’re the enemy, Way screams over and over, and those lines combined with the power riffs make DESTROYA another one of the album’s best songs.

The Kids from Yesterday then mellows out the vibe again, with more synth and dance-y rock beats.

After a closing monologue from “Dr. Death-Defying” that ends the radio broadcast theme and the National Anthem fades out, the punked up energy blast Vampire Money closes out the album. Gone are the “Killjoy” alter-egos that the band employed thus far, as Way calls out to the other members of the band before the song gets going. The song must be some sort of post-script or epilogue to the story, after the Killjoys’ story has ended. It’s not a quintessential MCR track, but it’s a fun ending to a wild ride.

In closing, Danger Days is an incredibly ambitious album from a creative band. Gone are the sequined black suits and costumed mall-goth that My Chemical Romance was four years ago. Don't go into this record expecting hauntingly poetic songs like Helena, Mama, or Give 'em Hell, Kid, or you'll be disappointed.

With this record, they’re clearly taking things to a different level, and while Danger Days isn’t perfect, it’s a pretty solid collection of songs with a unifying theme: orderly chaos. The album tackles different styles, melodies, speeds, and energies, and it will be really interesting to see how the band follows up this opus of an album next time around.

Bird by Bird is the second musical project to form after the dissolution of The Matches, the pop/punk band from Oakland that basically broke up in 2009 with a fantastic "last show" at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

I've been a fan of the band for ten years or so, but this review won't serve as my "OMG I loved the Matches, so sad they're gone, etc" post. For that, read my review of ex-Matches singer Shawn Harris' new project Maniac here.

Bird by Bird, helmed by Jon Devoto, the quite skilled lead guitarist of the Matches, is much more along the lines of the Matches' music than Harris's Maniac project.

The songs on Albatross, BxB's debut EP, is a well-produced collection of of emotion, grit, Bruce Springsteen-ian melancholy, and some characteristically great guitar work from Devoto. Lead single Delirious opens with a very familiar guitar sound, the type Devoto used on many Matches songs, and it leads into a bouncy, melodic song about getting hopelessly "delirious around you". Its video, which was just released this week, features a lot of sweet street guitar-jamming in public places (a tactic the Matches liked to employ before/after shows). Check it out:

Devoto's voice, which I hadn't really heard before this EP, is a bit rough around the edges, but it works very well with these songs. You can hear the emotion behind his singing, and thus the offbeat, uber-creative songs leave quite an impression on the listener.

Where Did You Go? starts out acoustic before a crunchy wall of guitar riffs takes over, and gives the song a really big, catchy sound. It might be my favorite track on the collection. It also has a great solo halfway through, leading into a refrain of "We must be the change", a hopeful call to action (I think).

It'll Be Alright begins with a off-kilter vocal hook that took me a few listens to "get", and the song's stop-start rhythm, combined with that challenging melody exemplify how Devoto is far from content to churn out more standard, run-of-the-mill guitar rock, instead offering up something that deserves appreciation for its willingness to be different.

That was one of the best aspects of the Matches as a band, their refusal to adhere to the conventions of pop-punk and just write easy three-chord songs about girls and high school. As they progressed, an almost entirely new band emerged, and it was really sad to see that creativity die when the band called it quits.

Just as Maniac gave Shawn Harris a new creative voice with which to continue what he started with The Matches, Bird by Bird gives the same opportunity to Devoto. Heavy Eyelids, the EP's closing track, is a more straightforward acoustic tune, but the precision of his guitar plucking and the power of his voice shows off that he's ready for more time in the spotlight.

Jon just announced that he's going into the studio again for a new recording, and if he builds off of Albatross's understated, emotional songs in the right way, his next release might find an even larger audience.

Check out Albatross if you liked the Matches, Jon Devoto, or simply like authentic, real music.

Posted
AuthorCheese Sandwich

It’s been a great last two years for Kings of Leon.

They released their new album, Come Around Sundown, today, and it comes on the heels of 2008’s minivan mom-approved smash Only by the Night.

Long-time fans/casual listeners of the band know that their heyday is long since gone, at least creatively. That’s not surprising for most bands who hit it big after a long time in the “underground”, but when you do it the way Kings of Leon have, it warrants critique. This last July, as one of the biggest bands in the world, they walked off stage after three songs in St. Louis because some birds were not-so-metaphorically raining down a shitstorm on the band. What’s more, Caleb Followill, the band’s front man, even says he “fucking hates hipsters”, which I guess makes him a super-cool hipster, for ironically hating those who ironically hate?

Anyway, he goes on to say that “We’ll gladly be the next generation of bands that aren’t going anywhere.” Statements like that make it obvious that they don’t care anymore about being real “artists”, and instead prefer to be a “product” that is mass-marketed and crowd-pleasing. As a result, Come Around Sundown is more of the watered-down rock-lite that made them as popular as they are today.

This new album exists to capitalize on the smash success of Only by the Night, the 2008 album that flooded FM radio stations and the general consciousness with mid-tempo annoyances like Sex on Fire and Use Somebody. Those songs elevated the band from mid-level, long-suffering indie stalwarts to stadium-hopping globetrotters, which probably felt good to the Followill guys, who had endured nearly ten years of mainstream anonymity despite churning out some pretty impressive records (namely Aha Shake Heartbreak and Youth & Young Manhood).

Alas, those days are long gone, and Come Around Sundown is filled with rehashes of the formula that made Only by the Night such a hit. I can’t say I blame the band for doing the same thing again, but they really don’t have anything new to contribute to their catalog. I read that Caleb improvised much of the lyrics on this new album in the studio while recording the songs, as if the lyrics themselves are afterthoughts. They might as well have improvised the music, too, since it’s all the same type of stuff they’ve done their entire (recent) career, only with the “Bland” knob turned up to eleven.

The End is inoffensive, but unremarkable, a pretty good preview for the rest of the songs. It does have some nice buzzy guitar work from Matthew Followill, and Caleb’s voice is in the same pitch and range that it always is.

Lead single Radioactive combines stadium-ready U2-style guitars and gospel-ish vocals, and for some reason reminds me of Dave Matthews Band, even though it doesn’t really sound like a DMB song. Maybe it’s that talk of something being “in the water”, I’m not sure. It’s more engaging than Sex on Fire or Use Somebody, but still falls in the “meh” category.

Pyro, with its Coldplay-like guitars and quiet melody is aesthetically pleasing, if not for Caleb’s whiny wailing in the chorus, in which he repeats I won’t ever be your cornerstone over and over. The song has a nice, simple melody that makes it somewhat pleasant to listen to, but his nonsensical lyrics and the vocal bellowing make it hard to consider it a highlight.

Mary, the next track, is almost insufferable, with more wailing, high-pitched vocals and a pseudo-Southern blues-style feel to it. After the mundane chorus repeats over and over, Caleb elevates his voice EVEN MORE to an almost duck-like quacking sound. No thank you. The song does have a slick guitar solo halfway through, but that quickly dissipates and the quacking takes over once again. Barf.

It’s hard to call out many of these songs as highlights, as this was one of those albums that you start playing and before you know it you’re on track eight. The songs just flow together in a big bland puddle of chirps and echo-y guitar chords, with some half-assed lyrics thrown on top for the hell of it.

The Immortals sounds very British (think Arctic Monkeys or someone like that) with its bouncy bass riff and The Clash-like guitar effects, but that good feeling goes away with the Use Somebody-ish chorus, which makes it yet another Stadium Anthem Kings of Leon Song. Sigh.

This isn't to say, though, that the album is completely terrible. Back Down South, using what sounds like slide guitar and a folky rhythm, sounds like KOL’s attempt to appeal to the indie kids, the sort of kids who listen to Blitzen Trapper and Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. In the end, the violins and elaborate instruments that are at work on this song give it a woodsy country feeling, and it’s probably one of the most enjoyable moments on the album. A song like this makes Caleb’s “I hate hipsters” declaration seem a bit contradictory.

The rest of the album is more of the same, unremarkable crowd-pleasers that the band is now content to churn out. The tunes do tend to have pretty juicy bass lines, courtesy of Jared Followill, though.

When Kings of Leon premiered Use Somebody on Saturday Night Live in 2008, my friend and I thought “wow, sounds like they’re trying to imitate U2, yuck” and sure enough, that song (and its album) propelled the band to the kind of level it had sought for years. As a result, Come Around Sundown is a very safe album for the band to release, with half-assed songs that cop a toned-down version of the types of songs they used to create pre-superstardom. They’re not at a point where they need to top themselves, as they’ve already peaked commercially. As a result, this album is a canned version of their prior efforts, with the creativity and edge removed, replaced by repetition and inoffensive FM radio filler.

It’s no secret that Kings of Leon used to be a pretty good rock band. With commercial success comes the inevitable decline of quality, and they are a prime example. What once was a quirky and likeable indie rock band is now a stadium-ready power ballad-producing band of unmotivated rich men.

In closing, I fully expect this album to be played in the background at countless wine and cheese parties in lavish upscale apartments in midtown Manhattan by socialites who bought the album at Borders.

Bleck.

Posted
AuthorCheese Sandwich

Spencer Kent had his album release party on September 10 at the Aura Nightclub in Studio City.

It was the first time he performed his album, The Optimist, with a full band, so spirits were high and everyone had a really good time.

Just this week, he and his crew put The Optimist up on iTunes, so if you were curious to hear the music that I recommended so highly a few weeks ago, it’s now just a few clicks away.

The album starts out with the acoustic strumming of Spoiled Gut, a slamming number that serves as a head-turning intro to the record. The song is very upbeat, and the electric guitar providing the driving melody gives it a vibrant sense of life. Many of the people who heard The Optimist before it was released said this was frequently their favorite song, so it’s definitely one you’ll want to check out.

That song leads into You Never Say Anything Nice, a tender song formed in the wake of a troubled relationship (you know the feeling, I’m sure). It’s a melancholy type of song that reminds me bit of Jimmy Eat World, due to its wordplay and the emotional resonance Spencer’s vocals elicit. It also has an almost country-ish feel to it, thanks to the twangy guitars and Kent’s soaring vocals.

That song in particular represents the personal nature of The Optimist; most of the songs’ lyrical content and themes are loosely (or not-so-loosely) based on things Spencer has gone through in his life. There isn’t any contrived, inauthentic subject matter here, it’s all 100% emotion and grit, packed into relentlessly catchy, well-crafted tunes that have a lot more going for them than just catchy melodies (which are there, don’t get me wrong).

Spencer really shares his innermost feelings and thoughts on this record. Songs like Dead as a Dog and Scalpel have such an introspective feel to them that at times it feels like you’re hearing a dude sing his personal diary to you. It’s like audio-voyeurism, presented by the man himself (so you don’t have to feel guilty).

Must-See TV is one of the album’s best points, a riff-tastic, radio-ready tune with a theme that belies its upbeat and peppy sound. The jarring guitar chords and cascading chorus of voices give it a vibrant energy that make it one of the album’s standout tracks, for sure.

Purpose of Breath and Molly Works the Night Shift are more upbeat songs with darker lyrical content, a combination that Spencer likes to use frequently. Purpose, concerning life’s hardships, and Molly, about, well, Molly working the night shift for dirty transients with “briefcases of blood”, demonstrate Kent’s skill as a lyricist, telling stories that demand attention and setting them to memorable, hooky songs that embed themselves in your head.

The last three tracks on the record, Oblivion, Cliches, and The Optimist, close out the record with a proverbial bang. Oblivion has an Incubus-y feeling to it, with some guitar reverb creating a soundscape that suits lines like I’m a rag doll getting clean/ Spinning around in your washing machine perfectly.

Cliches is my favorite moment on the album; its flat-out gorgeous piano melody creates a haunting atmosphere of music, one where Kent again bares his feelings and allows his voice to be the star. No guitars this time around, the song is a showcase for his voice, and it does so in impressive fashion.

The Optimist, the epic album-closer title track, is another storytelling song adopting the “scorned lover” persona that Kent assumes for the album; strings and violin arrangements play off of his voice effectively, allowing his voice to be the star once again.

With The Optimist, Spencer Kent has really made quite a statement; that a songwriter was capable of something this polished without the aid of a label or much outside help is great. He cites Radiohead, Elliott Smith, Thrice and Brand New among his musical inspirations, and such inspiration is reflected in the songs on The Optimist.

With all the stuff out there being considered “good music”, it’s great to see an artist like Spencer Kent get out there and try to inject some more authenticity and real, honest, emotions into the music world.

Check out his website at www.spencerkent.net if you’d prefer a physical CD to iTunes downloads, and to keep an eye on any upcoming live gigs.

On the newly-released Invented, Jimmy Eat World waste no time announcing that things are a little different this time around.

The acoustic strumming and handclaps that make up Heart Is Hard To Find are a far cry from the guitar-heavy sound the band usually employs on album openers (see: Bleed American, Futures, Big Casino).

Guitarist/vocalist Jim Adkins sings this song in a lower register than some casual JEW fans might be accustomed to, delivering his lyrics with a tender, heartfelt inflection. The first words on this album are I can’t compete with the clear eyes of strangers/ I’m more and more replaced/ By my friends each night, and combined with Adkins’ delivery they create a whimsical sense of melancholy that characterizes the rest of the album well.

The song is a fantastic start to the record, a diverse collection of songs that are really among the band’s best in their career.

After the folky, string and bell-laden number kicks things off, My Best Theory returns to Jimmy Eat World radio single territory: buzzy guitars, catchy vocals by Adkins, a bouncy drum beat by Zach Lind, and a memorable hook. It has a really nice groove, and maintains a darker edge to it throughout (probably due to the driving guitar riffs).

Evidence is a more experimental track for the band, and almost comes close to sounding like Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace-era Foo Fighters. The song doesn’t really have a “hook”, per se, but its steady rhythm and guitar crunch give it a great overall sound. The bridge is the part that most reminds me of the Foos, as the guitar effects are similar to those employed by Chris Shiflett and Dave Grohl. Hang up a sheet/ Between our things/ Won’t have to see/ Evidence, Adkins sings, while a whirlwind of guitar noises erupts behind his voice. It’s one of my favorite parts on the album.

Higher Devotion sounds like it will be a JEW radio hit in the next couple months, and it’s not too bad (disregard the “can you feel my eye lasers hit” line if you can). The dance-y chorus and high pitched vocals calls to mind Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole, as both songs use a similar combination of percussive noise and danceable rock riffs. It took me a few listens to really appreciate this song, but in the end it’s not too bad. It’s like The Middle – not great, but will probably end up a radio hit for the band, should they choose to release it.

Movielike is one of my highlights of the album, with a killer melody and an interesting lyrical theme about a messy break up (I think?) in New York. The narrator speaks of his situation being Nothing movie-like/ Nothing magic/ People just tire to fight the constant battle/ Waiting to see a sign?/ Then you’ve seen the best already. I guess I appeal to the concept of New York not being all it’s cracked up to be, even though I haven’t experienced a messy situation like what this song concerns. Musically, the jagged beat and acoustic guitars (again) add to the song’s downbeat lyrical content quite well. It’s a great combination.

Coffee and Cigarettes returns to the JEW radio formula, a relentlessly catchy tune about a “townie kid” gathering up his life and heading West. I like narrative songs like this, the kind that tell little random stories about fictional characters. The song is pretty straightforward musically, with somewhat generic riffs plodding through the verses and chorus, but the addition of bells here and there, as well as backup vocals by singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews give the song a memorable overall sound. This song also sounds primed for radio play, and that’s not too bad of an idea, given its pleasant feel and the infectiousness.

The choruses of backup vocals in tracks like Heart is Hard To Find, Evidence and Coffee and Cigarettes, combined with the bell chimes and assorted percussive tools used here and there really reminded me of Arcade Fire. Some of the songs on Invented have the same kind of sound that Arcade Fire uses all the time. I don’t know if that was intentional, but it’s something that struck me when listening. Adkins and the rest of the band used a non-traditional approach (at least by their standards) to the songwriting process this time, so perhaps the new method helped produce the, ahem, inventiveness of some of these tracks.

The three-song span of Stop, Littlething and Cut allow the band to slow down a bit and get sensitive, with backup vocals by Rachel Haden on Stop and lush violin work and piano plucks accentuating Littlething. Cut features some more impressive vocals, again using a chorus that plays off of Adkins’ voice pretty well. These three are good enough in their own right, but aren’t really among my highlights of the album.

Action Needs an Audience is a break from the softer stuff, with guitarist Tom Linton manning the vocals this time. That ought to please Clarity fans. The song has another great riff and steady beat, and almost doesn’t sound like Jimmy Eat World (probably due to the absence of Adkins’ voice). Linton has a scruffy voice that fits the song well, and overall it’s one of the best moments on the record.

The last two tracks, Invented and Mixtape, are what you’d call “show-stoppers”. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering the strength of Jimmy Eat World album-closers in the past (Night Drive, 23, My Sundown, etc.). Both are low-key affairs, Invented starting out as tender acoustic ballad that steadily grows in energy until a raucous finale. Its overall tone and feel, as well as Courtney Marie Andrews again adding her voice to the mix, are just great. Lyrically, the song is just as impressive, Adkins offering up the refrain of You’re always in my head/ You’re just what I wanted/ I live in constant debt/ To feel you, invented. The emotion of the song really comes across by the time it starts building (around the 4:30 mark), and the electric guitars come back in and play off Adkins’ passionate vocals until the tune fades out. It’s far and away one of the best songs I’ve heard by the band, and is definitely one of Invented’s best tracks.

Mixtape is less wordy than the previous track, but again concerns the “troubled relationship” theme that the band uses a lot. Continuing the theme from Movielike (breakups, sadness, being alone), Mixtape’s refrain of You don’t get to walk away, walk away now/ It’s too late, you can’t walk away, walk away now encapsulates the sorts of emotions and feelings that go along with such situations. Invented and Mixtape are incredible album closers, packing as much tenderness, emotion and raw subdued energy into thirteen and a half minutes as possible.

In closing, Jimmy Eat World has really crafted a beautiful record with Invented. While it isn’t as “catchy” or guitar-heavy as their bigger releases, it’s a wonderful collection of mature, expertly-crafted songs that find the band at its very best.

Jimmy Eat World has been around long enough to be able to branch out a little bit, and if this record is any indication, I can only imagine where they’ll go from here.

Linkin Park SUCKS!!”

I’ve heard this phrase for about ten years now, beginning way back when fifteen-year-old me picked up Hybrid Theory in the fall of 2000, much to the dislike of my friends and their super-cool, “it’s only good if it’s hardcore/punk/real metal” music sensibilities. Music snobs, this review isn’t for you.

That sentiment only got louder as LP became The World’s Most Popular Band, circa 2003 with the release of Meteora. They took the style made popular by bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit and made it more accessible to more people, and as a result their hybrid of hip-hop, hard rock/metal and electronica polarized the general public, creating enemies in those music fans who hate popular things because they're popular.

Well, the band has, since Meteora, only gotten BIGGER, with 2007’s uneven Minutes to Midnight propelling them even higher into the stratosphere of mainstream music and worldwide supremacy. This only made the “haters” even more pissed off, especially those who said the band had “sold out” with MTM’s significantly more mellow sound and less of the in-your-face-and-filled-with-angsty-lyrics thing that put them on the map.

Well, with today’s release of A Thousand Suns, Linkin Park have shown the world that they don't care what you want them to sound like.  In fact, I’m positive this album will turn a lot of LP fans into the type of person who says “yeah, I listened to them before they really sucked”.

The thing is, though, that this album doesn’t suck. It’s actually extremely intriguing and ballsy.

Listening to the strange array of noises and songs and interludes and speeches and other curiosities that make up the disc, I realized something I hadn’t quite realized before.

Linkin Park is NOT a “rock band”. They’re a fantastic pop band.

That’s right, kids. Chester Bennington, Mike Shinoda, Joe Hahn, David “Phoenix” Farrell, Rob Bourdon, and Brad Delson are no longer the hard rock outfit you once knew.

Just listen to the eclectic and surprising collection of music on A Thousand Suns and you’ll understand what I’m saying.

I pre-ordered the album and received via email a digital download of the entire album in one uncut mp3 track, so it would appear that the band intends this thing to be consumed as the sum of its parts instead of a bunch of tracks jumbled together.

In that context, what they’ve done really stands out as a cohesive collection of intricate instrumentalism and precision.

Album opener, The Requiem, features some Robot-Tuned female vocals reciting lines from lead single The Catalyst, leading into The Radiance, a 50-second speech from Robert Oppenheimer set to some future robot planet marching noises.

The first full song, Burning in the Skies, is not the familiar barrage of guitar riffs and anger that you might expect. Instead, it’s a hushed, mellow piano-driven tune with Shinoda on main vocal duties. Bennington takes over for the chorus, offering lines like I’m swimming with the smoke of bridges I’ve burned. As with most Linkin Park albums, I have no idea what they’re really talking about, as lyrically they’ve always been about puffed-up wordplay that doesn’t really mean anything yet resonates with the listener. The song sounds like it could have been on Minutes to Midnight, had that album had some of the same techno-beeps and computerization that Transformers single New Divide provided.

The next real song on the album, When They Come for Me, is my favorite track from the record. Its percussive explosion of drums and rhythm set to some buzzy guitars gives it this really strange and alluring atmospheric feel, almost as if it’s an attempt to make a song in the style of Nine Inch Nails doing James Bond theme music.

Shinoda drops a line in this song that I think is the key to this whole record: I am not a pattern to be followed/The pill that I’m on is a tough one to follow/I’m not a criminal, not a role model/ Not a born leader/ I’m a tough act to follow/I am not the fortune and the fame/or the same person tellin’ you to forfeit the game.

I think he’s alluding to the fact that the media and LP fans whined that Meteora was “too much” like Hybrid Theory, then when the band totally revamped their sound with Minutes to Midnight as a response to that, it was “too mellow” and the fans whined and bitched that it wasn’t as cool as Hybrid Theory or Meteora. This must have made the band feel pretty incapable of satisfying their audience. Mike’s line about not being a pattern to follow nor “the same person tellin’ you to forfeit the game” (itself a line from Points of Authority from Hybrid Theory) sounds like a statement to the whiners that “we’ve changed, get over it”.

Musically, the song is great too, mixing tribal drums, vocal chants and hip hop/techno beats seamlessly. It’s a new kind of sound for them and the result is just mesmerizing.

Robot Boy isn’t as great, instead being a low-key piano-driven jam that isn’t terrible either. It’s just not a high point on the album individually. It does work well as an interlude, though.

Jornada del Muerto, a real interlude, is effective enough with echoed vocals and heartbeat rhythm building into the next track, Waiting for the End. This was one of the songs the band released a few weeks ago, and its pseudo-reggae vibe made no sense on its own, but in the musical context of this record it fits perfectly. It’s still a bit weird hearing Mike and Chester adopt some dancehall-ish vocals, even if they don’t do it 100% authentically.

Blackout is the strangest track on the album, with Bennington’s screaming and choppy, reversed and remixed voice set to a synth beat and staccato rhythm. His weird talk-rap used in the song’s verse was strange at first, considering he hasn’t ever really done this before, but it adds an element to the song that makes it stand out even more. This track is more of a showcase for Mr. Hahn on the turntables, and he puts on quite a performance.

Wretches and Kings is also one of the album’s best moments, and probably the closest thing to the “old sound” that the band gets. Shinoda’s MC duties on this one are familiar, and Bennington’s chorus, despite the tinge of almost-hip hop/reggae, is vintage LP. It’s also nice to hear Brad Delson actually get to play some guitar riffs, too.

Wisdom, Justice & Love samples MLK, setting his words to a slow piano melody, before becoming Robot-Tuned toward the end and leading into Iridescent.

This song is Stadium Anthem Linkin Park. Another piano-led exercise, it finds Shinoda and Bennington splitting lead vocal duties, singing about the search for hope and being lost and desperate and things of that nature. The song builds and builds until an epic, lighter and glowing-cell-phones-waving-in-the-air chorus. As a whole it sounds very U2-ish (not unlike Shadow of the Day from MTM), but it’s also really aesthetically pleasing, probably due to the soaring chorus of voices that kick in with the guitar toward the middle. It may seem odd, a feel-good track from a band known for anger and aggression, but it’s very musical and pretty uplifting.

Fallout adds more interlude beeps and whirls and robot voices before The Catalyst kicks in. We all know that song and its surprising (at first listen) structure, going from drum blasts and DJ scratches to a repeated vocal hook that builds into a techno freakout before relaxing into a melodic piano outro.

The album’s closer, The Messenger, is a tender acoustic ballad with Chester singing and, sometimes, screaming. The scratchiness in Bennington’s voice relays an energy and passion that hasn’t been expressed this way in a LP song before. The line When life leaves us blind/Love keeps us kind is repeated over and over, and sticks with you long after the song fades and the album comes to an end. The song sounds like an epic 1980s hair metal ballad, but without all the cheesiness. Instead, it’s quite moving, and that’s not a word I had ever expected to use regarding a Linkin Park song.

In closing, A Thousand Suns is definitely not for everyone. There is no Crawling, no Faint, no In the End, and definitely no Given Up to be found here. There are also only nine full songs, the rest being interludes, which could irritate some listeners.

If you can keep an open mind and appreciate a band’s growth and evolution, though, then you might “get” this record. People who don't like the band probably won't like this record inherently, but they do have quite a knack for changing styles and challenging themselves, that much is certain.

This album is incredibly ambitious, and whether or not you like what you hear, they at least deserve credit for trying. Bands of this stature don't usually produce albums with the potential to polarize their fanbase as much as LP has done with this one.

Just don’t expect a lot of blistering guitar riffs or anything that you really remembered and liked (or hated) about Linkin Park.

They’re different now, so deal with it.

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Evaluating a Weezer album these days is quite a task.

For one, to appreciate (or disregard) the band’s music accurately requires the listener to have a certain knowledge of the context of each of their albums.

That is, if you listened to the band’s breakthrough “Blue Album” from 1994 and then 2009’s Raditude, without knowing the background of both albums or where Rivers Cuomo & Company were mentally when they wrote the songs, the likely result would be confusion and, potentially, an upset stomach.

Hell, that’s the reaction that even die-hard Weezer fans have been giving the band’s post-Pinkerton output for the last fourteen years, disappointed time and time again.

No, Rivers won’t ever re-create the angsty self-doubt and sexually-charged insecurity of Pinkerton as efficiently as he did in 1996, but with the band’s Epitaph debut Hurley (released next Tuesday but streamed on Myspace this week), he may have come as close as possible to (at least partially) satisfying the ever-irate blogosphere and legions of demanding superfans spread out across the globe.

That was a run-on sentence, but at the heart of its mumbling is the key to this review: Hurley, Weezer’s eighth studio album, is the best thing the band has put out since Maladroit (2002). Sure, it’s hokey and a couple tracks are throwaways, but the majority of the album is the kind of stuff that made all of us middle-class brats become so obsessed with Weezer in the first place.

That’s a lot for me to say, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to like this album so much. First of all, I’m not a fan of LOST, so having Hurley’s goofy face as the ENTIRE ALBUM COVER kind of pissed me off. I don’t care if the band likes the show, that’s an obnoxious choice for album art. Also, the title of the album, which supposedly may or may not reflect the band’s love for (and recent deal with) the clothing company Hurley, also seemed a bit shameless. Despite those hiccups, the quality of the tunes more than make up for the artistic misfires.

Lead single Memories, while not as instantly infectious as some of Weezer’s most notable singles, kicks off the album in energetic fashion. The din of an orchestra swell gives way to a steady rhythm and propulsive guitars, with Rivers reminiscing about the times "When Audioslave was still Rage" and recounting various events that may or may not have been part of his life. The AP review of the album said that the song “sounds like Andrew WK covering the Killers”, and I have to agree about the AWK part. The relentless, pounding rhythm of the song never lets up until it fades out.

Ruling Me finds Rivers doing what he does best lyrically, pining about the intricacies of girls and dating and women and how he’s often on the sidelines wanting something he can’t get. Cries of Everybody wants somebody they can dream of all night long in the chorus, set to thick vocal harmonies bring to mind the long-underappreciated Fountains of Wayne.

For that matter, the album as a whole sounds like Weezer tried to channel the kind of self-aware-yet-brilliant music that Adam Schlesinger’s genius power-pop band has churned out for years.

Ruling Me is one of my favorite tracks on the album, and sounds like it could have been written by the band 10 or so years ago. It’s shimmery, it’s fun, and it’s not filled with silly pop culture references. It’s a standard Weezer gem.

Trainwrecks is less of a romp, but it’s memorable in its own way. A flurry of instruments accentuates the steady guitars and drumbeat, provided by Pat Wilson. The pre-chorus, soaked in synth, sounds somewhat Sugar Ray-ish (cringe if you must), and Rivers talks of one day “cutting our critics down to size” and “crashing a Diddy party in disguise”, but the song itself isn’t as offensive as those two lines.

The next track, Unspoken, is hands-down my favorite from the disc, and has the kind of old-school Weezer sound to it that the fankids have whined about for years. It starts out with a much younger-sounding Rivers singing to an acoustic guitar played by Brian Bell, before some flutes join the party, spicing things up a bit. Rivers here is again singing about relationships, with the refrain of And if you take this away from me/I’ll never forgive you, can’t you see/Our life will be broken/Our hate will be unspoken repeating over and over, because it’s so damn good. Two minutes in, the acousticness gives way to an oncoming electric explosion (including some bass power from Scott Shriner), and a thunderous guitar riff gives the last minute some serious "bob-along-in-your-car-as-if-no-one-can-see-you" qualities. The refrain mentioned above is one of the most quotable Weezer hooks I can remember in quite a while, and in my opinion Unspoken could and should become one of the band’s “classic” songs. It’s that good.

After it fades out, though, Where’s My Sex comes in puts a damper on things. Musically, the chugging riff reminds me of a weird hybrid of Green Day’s Brain Stew and Good Charlotte’s I Just Wanna Live (yeah, I know). Lyrically, Rivers is singing a song about socks, but somehow the word he uses is “sex”. If that’s supposed to be witty, I don’t get it. It also has a strange off-key bridge toward the end, making the whole thing sound a bit rushed.

Run Away is a decent mid-tempo number with more Fountains-eque “ooh” vocal hooks all over the place, but the folk-y Hang On, the next track, put me back in a good mood again. Featuring quirkster Michael Cera on background vocals and playing a ‘hurdy-gurdy’ (yes, really), the song manages to sound like an homage to John Mellencamp (the main riff sounds like Small Town), Queen’s Under Pressure (Rivers’ vocals in the verse) and Pete Townshend’s Let My Love Open the Door. Despite these distractions, the song is one of the album’s strongest moments, with a really rich melody and irresistible singalong quality, both key factors for any great Weezer tune.

Smart Girls finds Rivers again obsessing over the fairer sex, while a drum machine pounds out another relentless beat married with more group chorus vocals. The song features the album’s only guitar solo, and it’s short but sweet. The song as a whole has a 1980s feel to it, and it works well.

Brave New World is a more hard-driving song with a leading riff and some vocals in the chorus that sound like the band Lit, circa A Place in the Sun. That is to say, it’s another exercise in power-pop-rock precision.

The album concludes with Time Flies, a stomping acoustic song where Rivers really captures what people have liked about his songs over the years with the line some sad day they’ll be taking me away/But I won’t be dead/‘cause even when I’m gone this stupid damn song/will be in your head. He’s right, you know. Rivers is self-aware (sometimes heavy-handedly so), but this time he’s dead-on.

That’s a fitting way for Weezer’s best album in nearly a decade to end.

Frankly, if this album isn’t able to finally shut up the whiners and babies demanding Pinkerton 2.0, then it’s just impossible to satisfy them. With Hurley, the band has truly created the best music they possibly could at this stage in their career.

Weezer fans have grown to dread each impending album release, being conditioned to expect the worst (considering the albums between Maladroit and this one). Hurley, though, finds the band recapturing a bit of the youthful qualities and melodic chops that made everyone like them in the first place.

Rivers doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone anymore, but he basically did so anyway with Hurley.

I'd say it's safe to bust out your =W=eezer shirts again without feeling that sense of wistful nostalgia that used to make you miss the band's 'golden age'.

The real Weezer is back!!

Birds of Tokyo just released their third full-length album, the self-titled Birds of Tokyo. Hailing from Perth, Australia, this is a band that I’m sure you have never heard of (if you’re from the USA, at least). I wouldn’t have ever have heard about them either had I not gone to see Hot Leg perform at the Viper Room in March 2009. Hot Leg featured Justin Hawkins, the lead singer/spandex wearer of the Darkness, that hokey but fun glam rock band from England from years ago…remember them?

Anyway, Birds of Tokyo opened that show, and I was blown away by their set. I guess it would be easy to call them a “rock” band, but they incorporate some interesting orchestrations and darker melodies to their songs, not unlike fellow Aussies Silverchair (another highly underrated band out of the country).

Birds of Tokyo have won several awards in Australia and routinely have big hit singles on the radio and sold-out, successful tours all over the country…yet I have NEVER heard anything about them anywhere here in the States. Ever.

That’s a shame, because they’re really a very talented, multi-faceted band worthy of your time. Their debut album, Day One, had some gems on it, such as Black Sheets (which sounded like what Incubus could have sounded like had they retained any semblance of their early edge) and Wayside. I didn't think its follow-up Universes was quite as good as the debut, but it still had Wild Eyed Boy and Silhouettic, both solid songs that were big hits in their country.

Their new album, though, ups the ante even more. The band sounds more polished and stadium-worthy, which I’m sure they are in Australia. The album’s first single, The Saddest Thing I Know, balances some dark lyrics and an upbeat melody really well. Vocalist Ian Kenny is the band’s strongest element, in my opinion, as his voice is a bit unique but suits the music excellently. At the Viper Room gig, he also employed some great stage presence, bringing a subtle but powerful element to the live show.

Album opener Plans, currently blowing up on Aussie radio, starts out softly before Kenny starts singing and the music builds to an epic chorus. It’s a great song for the band to bust out as the album opener on their third album, already being big stars. It has that kind of feel to it.

The Dark Side of Love boasts some great melodic guitars during the verses before a radio-friendly chorus kicks in. I don’t mean “radio-friendly” in a bad way here, it just has that bouncy melodic vibe to it. Birds of Tokyo are a great indie rock radio band, I guess I can say it that way, and it works really well.

Adam Spark lays down some slick guitars all over this album, whether they’re in the forefront of the music or if they’re in the back, accentuating Kenny’s vocals (which tends to be the case).

That’s the case with In the Veins of Death Valley, big boomy guitar riffs not really driving the song so much as laying the groundwork for the melodies (think of what Brad does for Linkin Park but with more variations in the chords). This song in particular has some nice keyboard work and orchestration going along with the song, giving it a nice haunting touch. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the record.

Circles slows things down a bit, and almost veers into adult contemporary territory with its piano work and almost falsetto-vocals by Kenny, but these flourishes don’t ruin everything, thankfully.

Wild at Heart starts out in Linkin Park territory (new school LP, with all the melodies and instruments and stuff) before branching out to better territory. It changes tempo abruptly but fluidly. I find this song pops up in my head throughout the day more than any of the others on this record, so be forewarned that it might get stuck in yours as well.

The Gap finds Kenny channeling his inner Matt Bellamy, and the song has crunchier guitars than most of the other tunes thrown into the mix. This song is definite “stadium anthem” material, with majestic crowning riffs and soaring vocals. I’d be surprised if it isn’t another huge hit single for the band.

On The Unspeakable Scene, the band finds itself channeling its inner Silverchair (post-Diorama) with great efficiency. Kenny really sounds like Daniel Johns here, with some eccentric multi-octave vocals and choppy, quirky guitars and melodies all over the place. It’s one of the better tracks on the album, too, really demonstrating the band’s versatility.

Album closer If This Ship Sinks (I Give In) closes things out in grand fashion, starting out quietly and erupting into a wall of guitars and urgency, before wrapping up with a somber outro accompanied by more elaborate strings and piano. It’s quite majestic.

The only problem I can find with this album is that there’s no American distributor. This album, just like the previous two, hasn't been released here, and that’s too bad. I had to track this album down on iTunes, where it’s mislabeled as having been released in 2005. A band like this deserves more attention than it has…sure, they’re huge in their home country, but they should be big here too. They’re apparently taking Silversun Pickups out on tour in Australia in the next couple months, so hopefully the Silverlake golden boys (and girl) put in a good word or two and Birds of Tokyo find themselves more active stateside. I can dream.

I was fortunate enough to randomly notice them at a tiny gig in Los Angeles a year ago. I hope that wasn’t the only time I’ll see them.

Pick up Birds of Tokyo if you want to check out an accomplished, under-the-radar indie band that is well worth your time.

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AuthorCheese Sandwich
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The 90s were certainly at no shortage of quirky rock bands (Faith No More, Brainiac, Ween, etc.) but Soul Coughing unquestionably had a place of their own. While dabbling in jazz and hip-hop was hardly unheard of, very few bands were willing to so fearlessly immerse themselves in each genre, while still remaining identifiable as a rock group.

Head soul cougher Mike Doughty led the group through their remarkably tasteful mix of blues, electronica, and the aforementioned styles with rock (and even later, combining alternative with elements of drum and bass), but what he most importantly brought to the proverbial table was his experience as a performing poet. Doughty's surreal, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and offbeat delivery proved to be a defining aspect of Soul Coughing's sound; he knew just how to simultaneously express his point, baffle listeners with seemingly non-sequitor references, and combine his voice with the song's beat and mood.

Screenwriter's Blues is a testament to this, as he builds up praise of moving out west for the menial aims of becoming a... well, screenwriter, as he refers to the greatness of fucking models only to derisively point out near the end that "The radio man laughs, because the radio man fucks a model too." While he may have come across as overly smarmy, Doughty proved quite willing to show his more sensitive side as well, namely on songs like the closing Janine, or the penultimate track Mr. Bitterness, on which he sounds so resigned that he is actually able to express genuine pain. The mere fact that he was so willing to drop the smart-ass facade which most alternative acts are (and have been) so unwilling to rid themselves of is incredibly refreshing, and the emotion shown pays off wonderfully. On True Dreams of Wichita, Drought muses over a messy breakup as a very busy, lively beat goes on behind him, with simultaneously cheerful and perturbing hints to both blues and jazz. While his talent does take the band quite far, there is even more to the group than one might expect.

This leads me to the other true standout of the band, which was keyboardist and sampler Mark de Gli Antoni. As far as sheer creativity with application of obscure samples in beats is concerned, he has truly gone unrivaled since this album came out - two particular examples are Bus to Beelzebub and Down to This. His brilliantly inspired manipulation of Raymond Scott's Powerhouse (if you're not familiar with the title, chances are excellent that should you hear the song, you'd recognize it instantly) constitutes the beat for Beelzebub, while Howlin' Wolf and the Andrew Sisters are paired to utter perfection for the latter. The song manages to sound like both alternative and hip-hop with a bizarrely accessibility, driven by a sharp funk while retaining a dark, almost disturbing quality in the background samples and Doughty's unsettling agreement that we take the ankles while he takes the wrists.

Ruby Vroom's fearless venturing has no doubt influenced a great many bands to run with their own ideas, as they had so admirably done. Soul Coughing's debut was an intensely original and highly influential piece of work, and while it was certainly well written and catchy, it deserved high marks for its sheer adventurous nature alone. A criminally underrated album, one of the most unique and intelligent debuts of the 90s.

Chris Shiflett never takes a break. When he’s not out touring the globe with the Foo Fighters (heard of ‘em?), he’s spending time with his other band, Jackson United. When he’s not spending time with JU, he’s devoting his efforts to still another band, Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants. The man has an absolutely ravenous appetite for creating music, and we're all really lucky for that hunger.

The Dead Peasants’ debut album was just released this week, and I caught the band’s show at The Hotel Café on Wednesday.

The sound of this band is decidedly different from Jackson United. That band, while still fronted and guitarred by Shiflett, is more punk-rock than the Peasants, whose songs use a pedal steel guitar (played on the album by Greg Leisz), which adds a twangy flavor that thankfully isn’t too country-music ish for my tastes.

My two favorite tracks from the album are Get Along and God Damn, both rock/folk songs led by Shiflett’s guitar work and vocals. I’ve always liked his voice on the Jackson United tracks and now with the Peasants; it’s a bit scruffy and raw sometimes, but it fits the music well.

Each song more or less has a bunch of different instruments being played at the same time, from the pedal steel guitar to the piano/keyboard arrangements by Derek Silverman. God Damn has some of the album’s richest melodies, in particular the lead guitar riff, which plays off the keyboard to create a really pleasant sound.

Overall, the songs on Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants have a certain Tom Petty quality to them; the folksy, bluesy chords and rhythms sound like they could have been created decades ago. That new-but-vintage feel is one of the best qualities of the music.

Burning Lights starts out with some pedal steel that adds flavor to the verse and helps the song sound like what I would expect living on a farm to sound like every day (in my dreams).

Live, these songs sounded even more vibrant; Silverman, Marty Rifkin (playing the pedal steel live), Shiflett, Eric Skodis (drums) and Luke Tierney (bass) played with the efficiency of the skilled, battle-tested musicians they are. I’m continually impressed by Shiflett’s versatility, as he spends Foo Fighter downtime touring and recording music with all these other projects. All these years, I’ve always considered Dave Grohl a tireless rock and roll warrior, lending himself out to all kinds of projects during his main band’s occasional breaks, but Shiflett is right up there as well.

Speaking of the Foo Fighters, it’s not as if Taylor Hawkins and Nate Mendel are slouches themselves; Hawkins just released a new record with his other band, Taylor Hawkins & the Coattail Riders , and he plays occasional gigs in the classic rock cover band Chevy Metal (which is also worth checking out). Mendel, himself, is busy lately touring with Sunny Day Real Estate, his pre-Foo band. So it’s obvious that none of the Foos are content to sit back at home and relax, they’d rather keep making music nonstop. More power to them (and us, as we get to absorb all this goodness).

At Hotel Café, the Peasants threw in a Merle Haggard song and an old tune called Lightbulb (or something like that) which was also really cool, but alas isn’t on the record.

An Atheists Prayer is arguably the most soulful track on the album, with Shiflett singing in a more tender register along with the more relaxed, bluesy chords and percussion. It’s a highlight of the record, for sure, partly because of the slick reggae-ish outro at the very end that ties up the song perfectly.

Baby, Let It Out builds for a few minutes until breaking out into a raucous instrumental break that was great at the show. You can almost sense the jam forming in the verses, with the background guitar packing a bit more of a dark, ominous tone, but it still caught me off guard the first time I heard it.

Overall, the show was fantastic, and I’m probably going back next week for the third week of their residency at Hotel Café.

One of the best things about Foo Fighter-related gigs is the “friends hanging out playing some tunes” vibe. Some members of the crowd are family and close friends, so it almost feels like sitting in on a private gig. Pat Smear was at the show this week, and I’ve seen Nate at previous Shiflett-related gigs, so who knows who will show up next week?

I’d recommend the album to anyone who likes good, soulful rock & roll music that doesn’t sound like those bands who try to copy Bruce Springsteen (which seems to be quite popular these days).

The songs on this album are much more than a prominent guitarists’ “other band”; they stand alone extremely well on their own. In interviews Shiflett has mentioned that this is his main band right now, and it is evident in the passion and precision he used in crafting the songs and channeling that energy into the live show. It’s really great.

These songs also helped me realize that this sound has found its way onto a few Foo Fighters tracks, namely Summer’s End from Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. That song threw me for a loop with its country-inspired, soulful bluesy wail, making it one of my favorite tracks from that record. I’m assuming Chris had something to do with that, as evidenced by the output of The Dead Peasants.

Side note: the band before the Peasants was called Guggenheim Grotto, two musicians out of Ireland who played pristine, hauntingly beautiful acoustic/piano songs that resonated with me deeply. They ended their set with a ukulele rendition of Radiohead’s Creep that was incredible. I highly recommend them as well.

In all, the show at Hotel Café was a great little gig, tucked away at an amazing venue I plan to visit much more frequently from now on.

Chris Shiflett has a great thing here with the Dead Peasants, and I look forward to seeing them again soon.

Oasis doesn’t need an elaborate introduction. The British lads basically had the world by the bollocks since around 1994. You don’t need me to describe Liam and Noel Gallagher, the feisty brothers who made up the core of the band, with Liam on vocals and tambourine duties and Noel as the principal songwriter and occasional singer. They swore, they fought (each other), they drank, and they created some blissful BritPop music that paid more than a casual homage to their heroes in the Beatles and the Stone Roses.

The band, who broke up in 2009 with a climactic backstage brother brawl before a show in Paris, just released a definitive boxed set entitled Time Flies…1994-2009, which contains every one of their UK-released singles, from 1994’s Supersonic all the way up to 2009’s Falling Down.

Missing from this set is Champagne Supernova, arguably one of the band’s best songs, and one of the handful that caused a stir in the United States. It wasn’t technically a UK single, so it isn’t included in this set. I ordered the US version on Amazon, which is supposed to contain the song, but received the normal UK version. Oh well.

The twenty-eight songs on this two-disc set contain some of the best BritPop music to have ever been laid down in a studio.

The collection starts out with Supersonic, the band’s debut single, off of 1994’s timeless Definitely Maybe, and Roll With It, off of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, the band’s 1995 album that launched them to super popular stadium band territory.

Everyone knows Liam & Noel are, well, supremely quotable blokes. Noel rose in infamy making outlandish, extremely self-aggrandizing statements about his band’s importance and has tended to come off as a bit of a prick over the years, honestly. Liam is even more antagonistic, with his “I don’t give a toss” personality and a palpable sense of self-importance that is not unlike that of his brother. While their combative personalities turned some people off of the band, it was something that drew me to them, as their outright “Britishness” struck me as magnetizing. That, and Morning Glory was my first-ever CD album that I purchased, so there’s also that.

The fact of the matter is, though, that they’re responsible for the BritPop movement that emerged in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. It went on for a while in the UK before we paid attention here in the States, but you just can’t deny the impact of songs like the classic Wonderwall, the hopefulness of Live Forever, the moving Don’t Look Back in Anger, the bloated but memorable D’You Know What I Mean?, and the rest of the songs on this set.

Every album the band released is showcased here, of course, from Definitely Maybe through 2008’s underappreciated Dig Out Your Soul, which serves as a fine cap on their prolific career.

Oasis weren’t a band for everyone. While we in the States only seemed to care up through Wonderwall and Champagne Supernova, amused by their adoration for the Beatles and their larger-than-life charisma, I remained a fan for the rest of the band’s career. I’ve been lucky enough to see them two times, at a half-empty Shoreline Ampitheatre in Mountain View, CA in 2005 and then at Oracle Arena in Oakland in late 2008. The fact that they might actually be finished for good is sad to think about, as I’ve enjoyed most of their catalog, even 1997’s Be Here Now, the follow-up to Morning Glory that was, as Noel has put it, the result of “four guys on drugs in the studio, not giving a fuck”. Still, it’s hardly shocking that we’ve reached the end of the band, given the number of times Liam & Noel have had verbal (and physical) spats.

This package is even more impressive considering that Disc 3 is a DVD with ALL of Oasis’s music videos over the years. I love things like that, and it makes this already amazing collection even better. Disc 4 is a live set from the Roundhouse in London in July 2009, weeks before Noel quit the band once and for all.

So to recap, you have two discs of 28 of Oasis’s biggest singles, then a DVD with all the videos, and a live set thrown in for kicks. The booklet is nice too, filled with quotes from fans and Liam & Noel themselves about songs and fans’ attachment to the band. The “box” itself is a really slick clamshell-type thing that, when opened, is a picture of a huge crowd from a densely-populated Oasis gig. This whole collection is extremely satisfying, and it’s a great way to go out as a band.

In closing, I was sad to hear that Oasis was no more. When Noel got in a fight with Liam and called it quits, a big part of my musical upbringing went by the wayside. Thankfully, this collection exists for me and other fans to always remember the band and their legacy.

I don’t care if you always hated Oasis, Liam, Noel, BritPop, England, brothers, buzzy guitars, hype, accents, or anything affiliated with that. BritPop was an important musical movement, and Oasis was a big part of it.

Time Flies…1994-2009 is a fitting au revoir for a band that was bigger than its peers, a band that often encompassed working-class longing in its lyrics while retaining a sense of melody and style that didn’t betray its members’ outright swagger and enthusiasm. Noel, Liam, and the revolving door of bassists and drummers may have closed the book on their musical career, but their songs will live forever.

It’s time for a spotlight article on a local band I’ve seen a few times in the past couple months. It's always good to see bands do things themselves, without a label, and Los Angeles-based band Harris Grade is one of those bands. They self-released their first full-length album, Lipstick Politics, back in April. I saw them at the Troubadour for the CD release and picked up a copy for myself, as their blistering set caught my interest.

While the live show is arguably the band’s strongest aspect, the songs on Lipstick Politics aren’t too shabby themselves. Front man Robyn August has a strong voice that carries the upbeat songs well, such as Wildfire and Lipstick Politics (Dirty), which contains the album’s most potent guitar riffs, courtesy of axemen Caleb Healey and Alex Von Hollen.

This record sounds like it was taken out of the early 2000’s and transported to the present day. That’s a good thing in my opinion, as I have a special fondness for bands of that era. Harris Grade captures much of the same energy and catchiness as a good percentage of bands back then seemed to have.

After the aggressive opening to the disc, Call Me Crazy slows things down a bit, with Robyn breathily singing over some acoustic strumming. On tracks like this and Angeles he demonstrates his ability to really sing, and does so pretty well. I think they opened the Troubadour set with this song, with Alex & Caleb sitting on stools, VH1 Storytellers-style.

If there’s a gripe I have with the album is how short many of the songs are; the 1-2-3 punch of Dear Failure, Wildfire, and Lipstick Politics (Dirty) are all under three minutes. I wish they would have been a bit more fleshed out here and there, but that’s not really a big deal.

Sign of the Times is uptempo burner with some nice buzzy guitars, but it’s all over too soon.

Angeles is another acoustic tune, with Robyn lamenting how money and privilege are seen as more important than the things that really matter. A string section kicks in towards the end, and it adds a nice element to the song.

Bassist Jason Friday and drummer Greg Fulleman provide a steady rhythm throughout the album, and live they’re even more powerful. Each band member goes off in concert, running around the stage with an energy and sense of enthusiasm that I used to see bands like Story of the Year employ on various Warped Tour stages.

I can recommend Lipstick Politics to anyone who was a fan of bands of the early 2000’s and beyond, such as the aforementioned Story of the Year, Senses Fail, the Used, Anberlin, and Saosin.

I can also recommend that you check out iTunes for the song Hold On For Your Life, as it was on their previous EP but is not included on this album. It’s a gem.

And if you like anything you hear from Harris Grade, don’t sleep on catching them live, as it’s a lot of fun.

When picking the genre for the album, St. Vincent Décor, I reluctantly chose alternative rock as its home. Not to say that Arizona-based Blackmarket doesn’t involve alternative rock in their arsenal, it’s just that they feel much more like an honest, infectious and unflinching “rock” band. Not only is the group comprised of the all too rare three-piece, but because of it they rely heavily on huge hooks and monster guitar riffs. Oh, and the album checks in with 10 tracks at just over 30 minutes -- it really doesn’t get more rock ‘n roll than that. As is the case with any band that delves into the world of three-minute songs, big choruses and clear-cut rock songs, you will inevitably think to youself at some point, “I feel like I’ve heard this song before.” This is because you have. What Blackmarket is doing isn’t the most innovative in music, nor is it meant to be. The album banks on the fact that good music is simply good music. Whether or not St. Vincent Décor changes your life is hardly the point. The point is to showcase three solid musicians who truly enjoy what they are doing.

Blackmarket St. Vincent Decor Album Cover

Mike Emerson, Langdon Chieffo and Daryl Lamont comprise Blackmarket, playing together since they were in junior high. A comfortable chemistry is clear from the opening track, “Tongue Twister Typo.” Almost no time passes before the drum rolls kick in, huge guitar riffs following closely behind, finally coming together with a bass that aggressively grooves towards the introduction of Lamont’s vocals. His voice is everything you might expect from a rock singer; slightly scratchy, slightly agitated and more than slightly willing to belt a line or two.

“Blue Lemon,” finds the band willing to tone it down in regards to the guitar, opting for acoustic over electric. Lamont and company refuses to slow the pace though, using a mellotron (keyboard) to fill in any empty spaces in the music. The song sets a brisk pace from the onset and does not let up. The chorus, like most on the album, is instantly approachable.

Like a lot of rock bands though, Blackmarket suffers from the notion that there just has to be at least one acoustic track on the album. I, personally, never really understood this unwritten rule. “Catch and Release” is by no means a bad song, in fact, it is better than most others attempts. Problem is, when listening to song after song that offers up big sounds and bigger choruses; it just seems unnecessary to slow down the action. Really though, this is just me finding something pretty small to complain about amidst a whole lot to be happy with.

blackmarket st. vincent decor

After listening to St. Vincent Décor,  I came upon a pretty obvious realization that I hadn’t really ever consciously thought of: I really love music, and I really love reviewing music. Because of this, I can tell you that while I enjoyed this album thoroughly, it is in no way groundbreaking, which is sure to send the “serious” music listeners scurrying to find the newest buzz band to blog about. As for the rest of us, we are left with an unassuming album that is infectiously fun to listen to.

I’d say we win.

These days it has grown exceedingly rare to see bands releasing albums within a year of each other (one of the scant exceptions being Portugal. The Man), so to see one of last year's most popular supergroups, The Dead Weather, furnishing a sophomore effort ten months after their fairly impressive debut is indeed a pleasant surprise. The potential downside to this, of course, is that with such a small amount of time to work with, there's not much time for a great deal of progression with the music. And it's true that Sea of Cowards, the group's latest, isn't quite as forward-thinking as it might be, but it still finds the quartet toying with their sounds and trying new things.

The Dead Weather do try a few new things this time around, and they all work very well; the only problem is that they're hardly tried often enough. Take The Difference Between Us, which remains faithful to the band's bluesy rock template but tops it off with a great, almost sinister synth line, or Gasoline's organ driven hook, giving it an even more authentic 70s rock feel. Then there's Dean Fertita's heavily processed guitar on tracks like Looking at the Invisible Man and Jawbreaker. These are all great moments on the album, but they are the extent of the band's experimentation, and while the songwriting has definitely improved, it hasn't really changed, and it gives these songs less chance to really stand out.

Another thing worthy of note is Alison Mosshart's vocals - she's grown even more confident with her role as the band's frontwoman, oozing charisma both cool (I'm Mad) and sexy (I Can't Hear You). The only thing is that Jack White's presence is much more apparent on this record, and it takes away from her performance - not in it that it undermines her or even lessens her performance, but simply that this results in less of her to hear, and frankly White's high pitched register doesn't work quite as well with the dark, 70s hard rock sound the band is going for this time around. The real issue with Cowards, however, is the sameness to the songs. As mentioned before, there are some tracks that show more interesting ideas than others, and the overall songwriting has grown a good amount, but this results in everything blurring together a bit. Cuts like Hustle and Cuss or No Horse do sound better than most songs off of the first album, but they don't quite stand up to Horehound's singles, either. The songs are unquestionably good, but they lack a certain catchiness, and sound better when heard as part of the whole set than by themselves.

So is Sea of Cowards better than Horehound? It's hard to say. While the songs here branch out a bit more and are better composed, it lacks stand out tracks and therefore makes it easier for the songs to blend in with each other. It's not a huge step forward, but given how quickly it followed its predecessor, they show an eagerness to experiment and a genuine passion for the music they're making together, and even for a supergroup with this kind of talent, that's hardly a bad thing.

Those unfamiliar with shoegaze should probably be made aware of some staples of the subgenre. Generally, heavy effects create a drone of distorted guitar, working cohesively with vocals that act as another instrument in order to accentuate the melody lost in the fuzz. The lyrics of such groups tend to border on the side of melodrama, speaking of heartbreak, loss and uncertainty. When measured by these standards, Makaras Pen, the Buffalo, New York-based band fit quite well within the genre on their self-titled debut album. This is not to be confused though; Makaras Pen are nowhere near as self-deprecating as any number of contemporary emo groups that could be mentioned. There are no cheap, emotional ploys used to grab the listener’s attention. Instead, the band relies on their extensive knowledge of shoegaze and their long-standing friendship to convey true sentiment. Added to the plethora of comfort and familiarity within the group is the twist of including touches of aggressive indie rock to the mix. Lead singer, Emma Willis, offers sensitive and heartfelt vocals to sad yet hopeful lyrics. The spacey ambiance created by the wailing effects of the guitar (provided by Doug White and Jon Nemi), solidifies the forward motion of each song.

Album opener, “Currents,” makes itself immediately accessible by offering upbeat, 80’s style gloom pop to the high register of Willis. Guitars strum, vocals over-dub and drums drive the song ever forward. When the chorus kicks in, the music slows to a head bob-inducing pace, due in large part to the heavy distortion layered on top of everything else that is going on.

“Falling Deeper” opens with a similarly gloomy intro, but finds a lighter note in which to present the chorus. The 80’s feel is heavy, punctuated by the laser-like effects of a somber guitar. Willis contributes to the cheerless tone with lyrics, “Words we shared they seem so faded/What’s said between us dies within us anyway.” Despite this, Willis’ delicate, warm vocals keep the song from reaching full-blown melodramatic levels.

makaras pen self titled

Throughout the listen, the one word that comes to mind most frequently is consistency. While this is generally a positive for most bands, it hurts Makaras Pen a bit. The vocals of Willis, the spacey effects of the guitars and the largely grave nature of the album can feel too measured and predictable to command the listener’s complete attention.

What Makaras Pen has done with the release of their self-titled album is contribute to the recent development that has involved bands beginning to make shoegaze relevant once more. Since fading from the public eye in the early nineties due to the emergence of grunge, groups such as M83, Silversun Pickups and Broken Social Scene have borrowed from the lost genre, dubbing a new movement known as “nu-gaze.” The newest album of this movement is utterly listenable, bound together by Makaras Pen’s mastery of the genre. Of course, the one problem the group faces is keeping the songs from blurring together. As the album moves further along, some listeners may grow weary of the persistently downtrodden mood that accompanies most of the tracks. Overall though, Makaras Pen delivers a well produced, inviting and genuinely interesting album that should have listener’s looking back in the past, as well as to the future, to the far-from-dead genre that is shoegaze.

Posted
AuthorAndrew Lopez

Back in January, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser said that the new MGMT album, Congratulations, was not going to have any standout single material, and would be more of a complete body of songs. Despite this, Flash Delirium was released three months later as a free download, a "taster" for the new album, they called it. Fans went in groves to give it a listen, and for the most part promptly hated it, flooding internet forums and voicing their disapproval. Much of the discontent came from the simple fact that it didn't sound like the smash hit singles from their debut as MGMT, Oracular Spectacular, even though the band themselves had said that this was not what to look for. Thankfully, the track, and Congratulations overall, seems to have grown on the fans for the most part, and rather deservedly at that. While the Brooklyn duo's sophomore effort is a notable shift from their earlier work, resembling the Flaming Lips song they contributed to last year a great deal more than Oracular, it's still a fantastic record with interesting takes on several sixties-prominent genres.

It's hard to sympathize with fans who are unhappy with the more sixties informed sound on Congratulations, as they obviously weren't really listening to the bulk of Oracular Spectacular. Psychedelia has always been a large part of the duo's sound, and now that it has come to the forefront, it brings a slightly different type of pop approach with it. The hooks are still brilliant, recalling the best of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys, and even The Beatles circa 1967 with their echo slathered melodies and contrasting note progressions. It's even been given a touch of camp as well (the organ on Song for Dan Treacy, for instance), which gives it all the more charm.

Congratulations' momentum runs strong from its beginning to its peak, with the twelve minute (and amazingly listenable) Siberian Breaks, a jumble of at least six different songs strung along together, each distinctive but morphing into one another seamlessly. The track has an incredible smoothness to it, managing to keep itself immersing all throughout, always quite a feat for such a long song. Breaks is almost a microcosm of the album containing it, with not only the style but fantastic flow mirroring that of Congratulations on the whole. It's Working and Dan Treacy are paired wonderfully, exhibiting the blends of surf rock and British invasion psychedelia that VanWyngarden and Goldwasser have adopted. Flash Delirium has the most reminiscence of the alternative dance style largely left behind, with fuzzy synths backing the flute solos and organs, which is probably why it was the track released as a preview of the album last month. Delirium is packed with great hooks (which makes the backlash it received all the more baffling), and builds up to an intense climax in which the song crashes into the next track, the lovely and somber I Found a Whistle.

This is where Congratulations stumbles slightly. Brian Eno and the closing title track have considerably weaker melodies, with the latter sounding almost like a watered down B-side from Oracular. Lady Dada's Nightmare is one of those songs best described as more interesting than actually good, sounding like The Flaming Lips covering an early Pink Floyd instrumental, and taking plenty of artistic liberties. It's a well crafted instrumental, and certainly fits in with the album's mood, but just can't live up to the more tastefully imaginative first six songs. Someone's Missing, for example - the third cut - has the same issue as these three in that it's simply not very compelling. The reason it still works is because it's only two and a half minutes, and doesn't have a chance for the melody to wear out its appeal. The ending trio each last at least four minutes, which gives ample time to reveal just how shaky they are.

The sixties psychedelia sound is tackled wonderfully here, and while Congratulations slumps towards the end and gives a somewhat weak finish, the first two thirds are chock full of outstanding moments, with great hooks thrown left and right and masterfully handled momentum. For a band with a widely hailed debut album, a sophomore slump is even more difficult to avoid. And while this isn't exactly a masterpiece, it's extremely successful on those grounds alone.

As the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. "We didn’t change anything," drummer and co-vocalist Steve Ansell modestly said of his band Blood Red Shoes' latest, Fire Like This, in a recent interview. "There are still just guitars, drums and singing. I think that for us it was about getting better at what we were doing." Indeed, while his and vocalist/guitarist Laura-Mary Carter's latest outing feels like a retread in places, the Brighton duo shows definite maturation in the songwriting on their sophomore effort.

Opener Don't Ask essentially picks right up where the duo's debut, Box of Secrets, left off. Initially it's a bit underwhelming to hear Fire Like This sounding so similar to its predecessor, but like I said, initial. Firstly, hearing more of the terrific, grunge inflected garage rock from Secrets is truly a joy. There's a distinctly raw, visceral nature that Ansell and Carter give off, whether it's the fist-pumping chorus of Light It Up or the slow, melancholic build up of When We Wake. Secondly, the musicianship and songwriting really have been upped a notch. The songs are not as straight forward as they were before; they play a bit more with structure, which pays off beautifully on Keeping It Close and the album's biggest surprise, Colours Fade. Colours is a slow burning, seven minute long track which is loaded with outstanding melodies, and is able to take its time as it progresses without getting repetitive or boring - quite impressive, considering that they're only two albums in to a genre best suited for three minute blow outs. Ansell's drumming has become quite a bit more sophisticated, and his and Carter's vocal patterns (lead and backing alike) have grown more consistently striking. As good as Secrets as, it still had its weaker moments, and Fire definitely has an overall stronger sound.

The higher level of sophistication does not come at the expense of the unbridled energy that was so abundant in the debut, luckily. It Is Happening Again's almost Pixie-esque midtempo loud/quiet stomp is simultaneously crushing and lively, while Count Me Out is propelled by Ansell's alternating fast and slow drumming. Heartsink is another very well structured track; it's more dependent on the catchy vocal patterns and hooks, and lets its great, aggressive trudge take over at just the right moments. This is ultimately Fire Like This' biggest strength, the way that all the qualities from the debut come together with a sharper sense of organization. On Secrets, qualities were more assigned to each song rather than divided evenly, and there's an enormous sense of that here. The latter portion of the album does wind down nicely though, and the instrumental closer Sulphites is, like Colours, much more inventive than one might think, cleverly layering on guitar parts until it abruptly concludes.

Blood Red Shoes' latest doesn't sound like much of a step forward at first, but despite its simple and unpolished sound, Fire Like This is an intricate piece of work. It rewards repeated listens with the improvements in the band's songcraft and offers a good deal more versatility. Ansell and Carter have definitely lived up to the promise their debut made, and if this is any indication, they still have their best work ahead of them.