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Saturday, September 7, 2013

John's Albums of the Month: July 2013

Hey everyone,

So, I thought it might happen. Here we are in September and I'm posting about July. It won't happen again, I promise! But yes, finally July is over with in my world. It was definitely a down month, where highly anticipated albums from Jay-Z and Robin Thicke didn't really hold up. On the bright side, it made July much closer from a rankings standpoint. In fact, I kept shifting albums around up to today. Anyway, check out what I picked!

Honorable Mentions: Grant Hart - The Argument (Domino), AlunaGeorge - Body Music (Island), Kirin J. Callinan - Embracism (XL), Gogol Bordello - Pura Vida Conspiracy (ATO), Van Dyke Parks - Songs Cycled (Bella Union)

10. True Widow - Circumambulation (Relapse)

Bands who christen a specific mash-up genre as their sound don't always work out, but Dallas "stonegaze" trio True Widow is onto something. Their third album "Circumambulation" is the best distillation of the band's sound, the droning yet gritty rhythm section of bassist (and part-time vocalist) Nicole Estill and drummer Slim Starks grind along to Dan Phillips' chunky guitar riffs and serene vocal melodies. It should sound like pure doom and gloom, but the surprising vocals lend a My Bloody Valentine-gone-stoner rock edge to songs such as "Four Teeth" and "Creeper". Even "Numb Hand" sounds like an echo of "Only Shallow" with more sludge. Though "Circumambulation" is far from the flashiest metal album this year, it's one of the most captivating. Its aching plod will hypnotize you if you're not careful.

Key Track: Creeper

9. Anna von Hausswolff - Ceremony (Fat Possum)

The pipe organ can certainly sound great, but there's not much of a precedent for its use in indie rock. Until now, that is. Gothenberg, Sweden singer-songwriter Hausswolff used her local church's organ to serve as the backbone for her sophomore album "Ceremony", making it both ethereal and monolithic. Though the music isn't overtly religious, it's clearly church-inspired on the titles alone ("Funeral for My Future Children", "Liturgy of Light"). Which means those expecting an easy pop album are in for a surprise, as Hausswolff opens with two slow-burning dirges and takes a full ten minutes for her to sing. But where, Hausswolff could get lost in her own reverb and Karl Vento's moaning guitar, she also displays serious pop sensibilities on "Mountains Crave" and "Sova". Most importantly, the pipe organ is not a distracting gimmick, but effectively woven into a fabric that's somehow equally muscular and delicate.

Key Track: Deathbed

8. Letlive - The Blackest Beautiful (Epitaph)

Post-hardcore; if you've ever rolled your eyes at another screamo band or scoffed at Warped Tour, you know it's a divisive genre. Yet there is still a progressive segment that revitalizes the genre by incorporating punk and metal influences. Los Angeles quintet Letlive do just that on their third album "The Blackest Beautiful", a focused punch that turns skeptics into believers. While many post-hardcore bands sound overwrought and formulaic, Letlive used industrial clutter ("The Dope Beat"), blistering punk ("Empty Elvis") and crisp speed metal drumming ("That Fear Fever") to show that it doesn't have to be predictable. Lead vocalist Jason Aalon Butler keeps this eclecticism grounded with angry screams, but even he dabbles in Rage Against the Machine-esque rap metal banter. Unhinged, raw emotion is still the name of the game, but it's great to hear an album that also keeps you thoroughly off-balance.

7. Daughn Gibson - Me Moan (Sub Pop)

Central Pennsylvania isn't exactly an oasis of talent from which acclaimed artists emerge, but it does have one trick up its sleeve. Carlisle-born Josh Martin started as a drummer for stoner metal band Pearls and Brass, but has recently garnered praise for his solo career as Daughn Gibson. His sophomore album and Sub Pop-debut "Me Moan" is a unique mix of old-school country over somber electronics. Martin's deep baritone has the twang of a country crooner that's endearing even when he warps his vowels nearly to the point of self-parody. It may sound preposterous, but the mutated boogie of "The Sound of Law", the drum-and-bass shadowed honky tonk of "Kissing on the Blacktop", and the Burial-influenced ambient textures used effectively on songs such as "Won't You Climb" and "Phantom Rider" actually work. “Me Moan” is startling in that way, containing a daring sound that somehow sounds natural.

6. Weekend - Jinx (Slumberland)

Slumberland Records has had a solid string of noisy pop rock albums this year, from Veronica Falls to Girls Names, but "Jinx" is a big feather in their cap. The San Francisco shoegaze/lo-fi trio's sophomore effort isn't so much a blending of those two genres as it is an expert superimposition. The post-punk heft of "Mirror" and "Sirens" is intentionally obscured by extra echo and reverb, while "Celebration, FL" is an spacier take on Tears for Fears-style college rock. This is not to say that "Jinx" is only defined by its influences. "Oubliette" is jangly and forboding, with singer and bassist Shaun Durkan's long, slow vocal melody beautifully dissonant. Meanwhile, "July" and "Adelaide" are chock full of noisy punk outbursts that keep you on your toes. Such an expansive sound could have been muddled, but Weekend recall My Bloody Valentine in their ability to crystallize a stark and fully-formed song out of the abyss. 

Key Track: Oubliette

5. Speedy Ortiz - Major Arcana (Carpark)

Just two years ago, Northampton, Massachusetts indie rock quartet Speedy Ortiz originated at singer-songwriter Sadie Dupuis' summer camp, where she was teaching songwriting and recording on the side. Talk about humble beginnings. But debut "Major Arcana" is a satisfying product of that hard work, a display of Dupuis' biting wit and sneering that Stephen Malkmus of Pavement used so well. That influence goes way beyond Dupuis; "Major Arcana" is full of jagged 90's riffs and indie nostalgia, but the send-up is so good that it's hardly bothersome. Besides, there are cracks that show the unique character of Speedy Ortiz., such as an extra measure or tricky time signature is thrown in so fast that you almost miss it. "Fun" is terrific pop punk with a quiet-loud dynamic worthy of the Pixies, while "No Below" reveals surprising depth when Dupuis' middle school angst makes her feel "better off as being dead". For a band so indebted in a decades-old sound, "Major Arcana" is a well-crafted debut that shows lots of promise.

Key Track: No Below

4. Alela Diane - About Farewell (Burnside)

At the risk of sounding corny, breaking up is hard to do. Portland, Oregon-based Alela Diane ended a long relationship, but unlike most breakup albums it's she who initiated the split. As a result, Diane's fourth album "About Farewell" is filled with deep, complex emotions. After all, how do you let go of someone you know so well when you know it will break their heart and yours? Diane not only makes the tough decision, but shows quiet dignity in the face of its emotional consequences. The contradictions are also apparent, where she lets him go on the title track and asks him to dig deep, but still reminisces about him deeply on "Colorado Blue". Finger-picked acoustic guitar and strings are usually the only components of the album's sparse arrangements. All of that space makes it sound like Diane is lost in her head with her own harmonies. But though most of the tracks are folky musings, there's still the stomping "The Way We Fall" that shows Diane has some soul. A deep album both musically and lyrically, "About Farewell" shows Diane coming into her own without sounding overly sentimental.

Key Track: The Way We Fall

3. Hiatus Kaiyote - Tawk Tomahawk (Flying Buddha)

There are progressive R&B groups such as Little Dragon and Quadron, and then there's the future soul of Hiatus Kaiyote. This Melbourne, Australia four-piece is seeking not only to move past barriers, but to rip them to shreds. In their brief history, they've garnered praise from ?uestlove and Flying Lotus and signed to producer Salaam Remi's label, all on the strength of "Tawk Tomahawk". The album grazes 30 minutes and half of the songs are under two minutes, but there are few R&B albums this year that are better pound-for-pound. Guitarist and singer Nai Palm is infinitely crafty, a superb vocalist who can sound both sweet and downright abrasive. The backing band of bassist Paul Bender, drummer Perrin Moss and keyboardist Simon Mavin are no different, letting loose on longer tracks "Mobius Streak" and "Lace Skull". After hearing the minute-and-a-half bangers of "Ocelot" and "Boom Child", it's easy to think that Hiatus Kaiyote only works in short, mad bursts. But then they reign in their craziest tendencies for "Nakamarra", making Palm and co. a force to be reckoned with.

Key Track: Nakamarra

2. Pet Shop Boys - Electric (Sony)

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, a.k.a. the London synthpop duo Pet Shop Boys, have been legends of their genre since the mid-80's, but every star fades. At least that's what seemed to be happening on their 11th studio album "Elysium", a release maligned for its more ambient sound. Ten months later, "Electric" opener "Axis" renders their previous album irrelevant when a minute of beatless electronics is interrupted by Tennant's "turn it up". From then on, "Electric" lives up to its name through an onslaught of explosive dance beats that are firmly entrenched in Pet Shop Boys' origins but still sound remarkably fresh. "Bolshy" is pure fun and goofy love over pounding drum machines and a myriad of syncopating synths and pianos. But "Fluorescent", with its low, claustrophobic synths and "Halloween"-esque melody, is as dank as "Bolshy" is bright. Just when you thought that was impressive, they also managed to pull off a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The Last to Die". In essence, Pet Shop Boys sound so good on "Electric" that it must surpass even their fan club's wildest dreams. It's amazing what going back to the basics can do, especially when it's reinforced by such a revitalizing confidence. As "Axis" puts it: "electric energy".

Key Track: Axis

Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power, the duo behind Bristol noise/drone electronic group Fuck Buttons, don't adhere to a more specific sound than making big-sounding music. And by big, I mean London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony big, where two of their songs were prominently featured. Their third album "Slow Focus" arrived a year nearly to the day after that ceremony and four years after the lauded "Tarot Sport". Long story short, Fuck Buttons are still on their own level partly because of their expansive sound and partly because of their willingness to turn their sound inside out. Not that Hung and Power changed their foundation, far from it. What "Slow Focus" accomplishes best is the introduction of more nuanced rhythms, brought to the forefront by the album's hip-hop influence. "Brainfreeze" acts as a mutated 2-step that starts with thunderous floor toms and ends with beat emphasis on one and three. "The Red Wing" even resembles a straightforward hip-hop track for a second, complete with midtempo breakbeat and what sounds like a crude attempt at sampling. All of this could sound pretty hokey coming from the doomsday masters we know and love, but thankfully Fuck Buttons still very much know how to be brutally epic. They've even kept the piercing buzz and wail of those stratospheric synths from "Tarot Sport". "Slow Focus" is a satisfying new wrinkle to their terrific sound and another great album for one of the most exciting electronic acts in music today.

Key Track: Brainfreeze

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