Saturday, December 31, 2011

Black Keys zoom down your alleyway with El Camino

The Black Keys are bluesy, ballsy, and best of all, they're back. The Akron, Ohio, natives were saluted for their adherence to good old fashioned rock music on their 2010 breakthrough Brothers, and El Camino makes no effort to radically break away from that blueprint.

The Black Keys pull no punches and raise no smokescreens. Mixing rock, blues, and slight tinge of soul, El Camino is the band's decleartion that this is who they are and what they do, and like it or not, this is how it's going to be. Although I've got a strong feeling you're going to like it.

The opening notes of "Lonely Boy" are raw, loud and uncompromising, and set the stage for what's to come. Big, catchy choruses serve as the meat and potato of the album, but each verse gives Dan Auerbach a chance to display his patented hipness that gives the music a slight indie vibe.

If you like rock guitar, "Gold on the Ceiling" will be your wet dream.  It opens with some great riffing before breaking out a grooving keyboard piece. You'll quickly find yourself bopping your head to the groove of the chorus, but the best part yet is the slick little guitar lead that comes right after.

For the most part, El Camino sticks to a pretty strict formula. "Little Black Submarines" is one of the few times when the script is set aside.The acoustic guitar, coupled with Auerbach's seraching vocal, calls to mind the softer, folky side of Led Zeppelin. It's a buildup to the second half, where the fuzzy wall of guitar feeback begins to cascade upon your earbuds, and Patrick Carney capitalizes with some oh so perfect fills. This leads to a feeling of pure catharsis when Auerbach cuts loose during the final verse and chorus. It's tough to think that Jimmy Page himself wouldn't be impressed. 

The Black Keys also bring a bit of soul to the table with "Stop Stop," which sounds like it could be a Temptations song. The main riff is a slice of funkadelic heaven, the bells in the chorus provide a flavor of old school Motown, and when Auerbach hits that high note you'll be ready to boogie like it's 1976.

El Camino is relatively straightforward and tends to rely heavily on its choruses, which can cause the album to feel a bit repetitive at times.  But it is very, very catchy and is well executed piece of rock with a remarkable amount of zing. Hats off to El Camino -- it is one of the best records of the year.

Score: 87/100

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ghost Protocol's mission? Not entirely impossible.

I initially wasn't excited when I heard there was a new Mission Impossible film on the horizon. Nothing personal against action films, but I find that most titles from the genre are little more than a sugar rush -- chock full of adrenaline and nice window dressing, but little in the way of substance. Though perhaps the standard can't be thoroughly applied to the Mission Impossible franchise. Mission Impossible II was the coolest thing in the world to my seventh grade mind, but tastes and theories change.

Would Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol ignite a similar spark?

If nothing else, director Brad Bird does make some effort to buck the rules of the genre to some degree. The IMF is disbanded and disavowed after being accused of detonating a bomb within the Kremlin, which ensures that Ethan Hunt and his merry men have their back against the wall throughout the duration of the film.

The main plot sees Hunt and his crew attempt to stop Swedish nuclear scientist Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) from obtaining Russian launch codes and launching a nuclear weapon. The catch is that the Hunt's team is off the grid and in the dark, and has to draw up all their plans from scratch. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Ghost Protocol is that it bucks the trend of elite spy team who is always in control of all things at all times.

The film's sense of dramatic tension is simply astounding, and it derives from the fact that the team's plan seems so improbable. Something is always going wrong, and a good deal of that derives from the actions of the bumbling Benji Carter, (Simon Pegg) who has been upgraded to a field agent since the last film. He attempts to assist the team with his computer hacking skills, but often does more harm than good. Often to humorous effect.

And there is also the fact that Ghost Protocol simply executes its action scenes much better than most action flicks do. The pacing is breakneck, and the stunts are out of this world. You get to see chase scenes through a sandstorm in Dubai, a climactic battle inside a technologically advanced parking garage, and a game of switcheroo played against a dazzling femme fatale. And then there is also Tom Cruise's gasp inducing climb up the side of a building using nothing but sticky gloves. What's not to like?

In many action films, the acting often tends to take a backseat to cinematic action and dramatic tension. Ghost Protocol is no exception, but there are some examples of quality acting. Paula Patton tackles the role of IMF agent Jane Carter, and her grief and furor is highly evident as she embarks on a quest to avenge a fallen colleague.

Jeremy Renner also does a top notch job playing the role of an analyst with a conflicted past. If there's a weakness, it's that some of the characters aren't fully fleshed out. Patton's role gets downgraded later in the film to the point that she's little more than a bombshell , and I can't help but wish I had more backstory on the mysterious assassin Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux).

Perhaps in the end, the action film genre is just going to be a genre that I don't see much substance in. However, I do have to give credit where credit is due. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol delivers a level of suspense and tension that is second to none, and is a masterful representation of all that an action film should be

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Steven Wilson's star shines bright on Grace for Drowning

I'm a collector and I've always been misunderstood
I love the things that most people always overlook.

These two lines could sum up how Steven Wilson has built his career. Wilson has always had a peculiar outlook which has always colored not only his music but also his view on things in general. He's always gone outside the bounds of what people thought music should be, or could be, and in the process he's developed some of the most thoughtful and pertinent music in recent memory.

On his latest solo record, Grace for Drowning, he's tinkered the formula even more. His previous outing, Insurgentes, was a very eclectic record, hopping from one musical style to another. Conversely, Grace for Drowning builds up slowly and deliberately, enveloped in a fog of ambiance and mystery.

Wilson has never shied away from utilizing extended instrumental pieces in his music. In fact, he's released a pair of 100 percent instrumental albums with Porcupine Tree, which helps explain his decision to eschew lyrics on the first two tracks on Grace for Drowning.

After a brief uplifting intro, the album kicks in with Sectarian. The beginning sounds like the prelude to some epic battle, then tapers off after awhile but hits you with a sweet bassline. But the moment when it became obvious that this album wasn't going to play by the rules came during the heavy conclusion to the song. It was not at all what I was expecting and totally threw me for a loop.

From there we get into the real meat of the album. "Deform to Form a Star," easily one of the best songs of the year, opens with a series of absolutely beautiful piano chords and is accompanied by vocals to match.

The chorus feels dreamlike and mystic, as if a star is being formed before your very eyes. And there are a pair of majestic guitar solos to boot. The lyrics Wilson sings wrap around a haunting melody, focusing on the raw emotion of listlessness and despair. In the opening verse, he croons:

"No god here I'm sure,
this must be the cure
for all this carrion
and aimless drift"

In many ways, the sentiment delivered here is the overriding theme of Grace for Drowning; Wilson's words deal with picking up the pieces and attempting to deal with stagnation and regret. Though the event that prompted him to pick up the pieces is never made totally clear.

The thread continues onto the next track, "No Part of Me," which seems to be about a former lover that he realizes he never had true feelings for. Musically, the track is defined by a frantic and frenetic drum beat, but the music over top of that is hazy and and relaxed. It's a total contrast. But it's clear that the song is building up to something big, and then it hits in the second half when a meancing heavy riff breaks out, along with a guitar solo.

Then comes "Postcard," on which Wilson might as well be John Lennon lording over his piano. The track is still downbeat but has a vague sense of optimism that was largely absent on the two preceding tracks. It's like going through hell after a breakup, and then you finally hit that point when you realize that things might actually be okay, and that it isn't the end of the world as you know it.

The first disc concludes with "Remainder the Black Dog," a song title that sounds pretty creepy of its own accord. The eerie piano riff that plays through most of the song will nothing to dispel that notion. What impresses me about this track is how many different types of solos the band plays off that initial piano riff.

About halfway through you get a free form jazz solo played over a heavy riff, followed by a wall of riffing and some spastic solos, which then leads into a great bassline and acoustic guitar riff. There's a bit of minimalism, some ambiance, some messing around on the drumkit, and even a flute solo. It's enough to make even Yanni's head swim.

The second disc I don't feel like is as strong. My favorite song on that one is "Index," a very downbeat, minimalist piece with slight tinges of electronica. The theme of the song is about a compulsive collector who becomes obsessed with trying to organize and catagorize everything and it eventually puts a great mental strain upon him.  "Track One" is nice, but doesn't feel fully fleshed out, and "Belle De Jour" is an okay attempt at a New Age sounding intro piece. It's just that we have enough of those on the album already.

This brings us to "Raider II," the 23 minute behemoth and clearly the intended centerpiece of the album. The song's premise focuses on the elements that are damaging our planet and lives, to which Wilson assigns the term "Raider." The first 8-10 minutes are are great. Wilson's delivery grows increasingly intense on each verse, and the instrumentation is as taut as a drum. Later on it gets a bit indulgent. There's your fair share of progressive rock guitar noodling and several minutes of minimialist ambiance, but he's simply repeating himself.

If there is a major criticism of Grace For Drowning, it is that does perhaps feel a bit indulgent at times. While we do get to see more than a passing glimmer of the man's talent, I can't help but feel like this album is simply an indulgence for him. Much of the album feels like he's just dicking around; it's like he's trying to wade though layers of sonic soundscapes to see what sticks to the wall and what doesn't. Sometimes the album sounds somewhat unfocused, particularly on the second disc.

The 1-2-3 punch of "Deform to Form a Star," "No Part of Me" and "Postcard" is terrific, and I also really liked "Remainder the Black Dog" and "Index." It's a very good album, but Wilson seems to be more concerned in tinkering with various progressive landscapes and experimenting with different songwriting mechanics. It doesn't appear that he's aiming to make his next career defining LP here. That can wait until the next Porcupine Tree LP.

Score: 89/100

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Th1rt3en not a lucky number for Megadeth

Megadeth has been building up a head of steam over the past few years. United Abominations was a nice kick in the pants that served notice to all Dave Mustaine doubters. But 2009's Endgame delivered the band's biggest statement in over a decade. That album was a career revitalizer, packed full of aggressive energy and brimming with thrashy take no prisoners riffing that signaled a full fledged return to form for the Southern California metallers.

How do you follow that up?

Apparently not by sticking with what got you to that point in the first place. Th1rt3en vies for much simpler song structures and cuts away most of the excess riffing and intensity that made Endgame such a standout. Instead, Dave Mustaine is left to carry much of the load with his voice rather than his guitar, and the results are about what you'd expect.

The guitar solos are nice, for sure. The opener, Sudden Death, perhaps comes the closest to capturing Megadeth's signature thrashy rage. The lead single, "Public Enemy No. 1" has a nice lead in that recalls the carefree exuberance of 1980s heavy metal, coupled with a blistering solo that takes me back to the Peace Sells days. But only for a moment.

One major problem is that most of the song structures are very simple and formulaic, whereas Endgame had fewer qualms about mixing things up. Another issue is that Dave's vocals are really no longer up to par at this stage in the game. Mustaine's voice was widely considered the fly in the ointment on Endgame, but everybody was too busy paying attention to the instrumentation on that album to care.

His voice in general comes out very flat and lifeless, and when coupled with the safe and predicatble song structers it causes the album to feel flat and lifeless as well.

Lyrically, Megadeth continues with many of its conspiracy/anti-government themes, but it often comes across as more farfetched. On "Millenium of the Blind," Mustaine urges the American people to abandon U.S. leadership entirely, while "New World Order" treads on similar material we've heard Dave spout all too often before.

But perhaps the political soapbox suits Megadeth better, because the lyrics certainly don't get better when they tackle other subjects. "Fast Lane" feels like an old, cold retread of "1320" from the previous album, while "Whose Life (Is It Anyways?)" is a blantant attempt to cash in on the teenage angst/Hot Topic crowd.

"Wrecker" starts off with one of the best intro riffs on the album, but is quickly washed away by lyrics dealing with drama and realtionship issues. "Guns, Drugs, and Money" at least goes for a slightly different bent, telling of a doomed drug dealer who winds up in a heap of trobule after trying to execute a drug deal south of the border.

Th1rt3en isn't the worst album Megadeth has done but it does come across as extremely derivative and lackluster. Most of the best riffs are only found in the intros in most songs. There are some nice solos too,, but Megadeth seems to have forgotten one key thing.

Metal is all about attitude, which is one area where Endgame never faltered. Amidst all the riffs and the mayhem, there was always a cocky, fighting spirit that permeated that entire album. Th1rt3en, unfortunately, feels completely dead by comparison.

Score: 68/100

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trash Talk's Awake: the most devestating nine minutes of 2011

Not everyone understands hardcore. But for those who do, there's nothing else in the world that gives you a similar sensation. When it's done right, you feel something sweeping you up and taking hold of you. You're not sure if it's the kickpedal of the drums or the power of the message, but you don't want it to let you go.

Trash Talk is not the type of band to mess around; there are no frills, no excess, just straight ahead, stripped down thrash/hardcore. Their latest EP, Awake, has injected a welcome sense of variety into my playlists this year, and anyone who's interested in checking out this great band should consider this an excellent entry point.

Like the crack of a gunshot, Awake hits you with violent force. And at just under nine minutes, it shows up, slaps you in the face, and then it's gone again. It leaves you wanting more, but never overstays its welcome.

Many hardcore bands try too hard to dress it up, but Trash Talk stick to what they know best. It kicks off with the title track, a take no shit anthem tailor made to get your fist pumping in the air. Then follows "Slander," which packs in so much visceral brutality into such a small time frame that even Ian McKaye would be impressed.

Lee Spielman sounds like he must be totally devastating his vocal chords with each scream, and the rhythms pounded out by guitarist Garrett Stevenson will force you into prime headbanging position. For that matter, Sam Bosson's snare rolls prove that he's not a man to be trifled with.

It all wraps up with "Gimmie Death," the most devastatingly visceral track in the collection. It features Spielman dealing with intense feelings of disillusionment:

"I thought I was important. I thought I had worth. I used to think the world needed me, until I needed the world."

The frustration and confusion that he feels creates a wave which simply crushes the listener.

Awake may be short be sweet, but every now and then you need something raw and unrelenting to give you a kick in the ass. Listen to Awake before you hear any other hardcore disc this year.

Score: 89/100

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anthony Wilson dazzles with his take on Brazillian jazz

What a joy it is to be in possession of Campo Belo, the latest album from jazz guitar genius Anthony Wilson. Wilson has always had an affinity and connection for Brazil and for the many styles of South American jazz, and he now aims to bring that sound to an American audience.

Wilson shuttled down to Sao Paolo and collaborated with a fine trio of Brazilian musicians - Andre Mehmari, Edu Ribeiro, & Guto Wirtti - and the time and care invested in this record really shows. The result is music that is very fluffy, vibrant and carefree, and has the potential to light up an evening with great company. Campo Belo is as warm as the sunshine on your face, as tasty as a wad of cotton candy, and as authentic as a stroll down the streets of old Rio.

Wilson kicks off this collection with the album's title track, which manages to mix many of his signature emotions all into one track."Campo Belo" is an extended suite that feels like it's on it's way to somewhere -  as if it has some grand point that has to be made. The piano clangs in the background while Wilson deliberately produces every note, making sure not one of them is wasted. About five minutes in the track changes pace, however, and becomes mellow and free flowing like a lively party.

"March to March" is an attempt to expound upon a particular mood or atmosphere; in this case it could be the perfect background for a relaxed evening with friends. The light, easygoing piano work will carry you away to pleasant times.

Other highlights include "Edu," which features stimulating interplay between the piano and guitar. But most notable is the accordion, which gives the track a festive, springlike atmosphere. Before the end, "Edu" tosses some curveballs by mixing in some slightly more dramatic passages before coming back down to earth.

This paves the way for the real highlight of the album, "After the Flood," which noticeably cranks up the intensity. With its sweet guitar leads it's very energetic and ear grabbing. And there are a multitude of slick interludes and breakdowns that are complimented perfectly by the ting-ting-tang of the cymbals in the background.

Of course, there are many more laid back moments on the album, including the elegant and breathtaking "Etna," which could serve as background music to an evening on the balcony of some luxurious hotel overlooking the city, with drink in hand.

And then there is "Transitron," the closer, which sounds like nothing else on the album. It opens with wild arrangement of guitars and pianos, while the snare rolls signal chaos in the background. After about two minutes the song settles into an ominous groove. It ripples with a certain type of energy not found anywhere else on the album, making "Transitron" a clear highlight.

I was not familiar with Anthony Wilson's works up to this point, but I admire the way he is able to cultivate a particular mood and promote awareness of this wonderful type of jazz. So grab your best buddy and be sure to tip your martini waiter well, because Campo Belo will provide you with the soundtrack to kick up your feet.

Score: 81/100

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ghost to a Ghost delivers cheap thrills, little substance

Hank III has finally cast off Curb's shackles.

The heir to one of country's music's greatest legacies has gained many a supporter by giving a stiff middle finger to the Music Row syndicate. Hank has always been about presenting himself as a tough guy, a rebel and redneck. If half the tales he tells of his drinking and drugging are true, he could veritably put most rock stars to shame.

Hank became very critical of Curb Records in the latter stages of his tenure with them. So now that he's on his own label, has Hank finally produced the magnum opus he's been promising?

Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown dual album assault certainly has been billed as such, but it's going to be tough to label this as Hank's masterwork. The country based Ghost to a Ghost is musically fine, and Hank is as bold and crude as he has ever been, but perhaps not quite as clever. A good chunk of the album sees Hank spewing the same tired material - that he's a broken down rebel just looking for a good time. This wouldn't be a big deal for many artists, but you don't listen to Hank for his music. You come to hear what he has to say.

The first two tracks - "Guttertown" and "Day by Day" are very similar to one another in thematic content and delivery. Both feature catchy, foot tapping beats but are a bit repetitive. "Ridin' the Wave" shows off a bit of his Assjack/heavy metal influence as it is a bit more hard nosed and aggressive than anything else on the album, while still mixing in a predominant country influence.

"Ghost to a Ghost" also features Hank's patented sense of wit and attitude, but more often than not it misses the mark here. The biggest offender is "Don't You Wanna," which sounds as if Hank wrote it in the bathroom of a greasy trucker's bar in 20 minutes. In broad daylight. The result? It's laughably juvenile and sophomoric, a stark contrast to previous efforts where he's often been slightly more tongue in cheek when it comes to his crudeness.

Ironically, the best songs on the album aren't even by Hank himself. Midway through the album, he sings a duet with Ray Lawrence Jr., preforming two of his songs. They provide an awesome dose of old school country. There are no shenanigans, just a display of raw emotion as the two reflect on love gone bad.

Also noteworthy is "Trooper's Chaos," a song about dog hunting. The main hook features a dog barking in rhythym to the music. I'm not sure that works so well, but I do dig the old timey sounding banjo in the background and I give Hank props for trying out a slightly unique concept.

"The Devil's Movin' In" showcases Hank at his dreariest and most mournful, while "Cunt of a Bitch" tells the bawdy tale of a scandalous women who seduces men then knocks them out and steals their wallets. It all concludes with the waltz like title track and album closer.

Ghost to a Ghost is vast improvement over Hank's lifeless 2010 effort, The Rebel Within, and is a lively, listenable disc with its fair share of catchy tunes. However, you won't see any of the political, pissed of Hank; this album is fairly repetitive in terms of subject matter and doesn't seem to deliver a great deal of thought or imagination. It's good enough if you're in the mood for mindless rebel outlaw tunes, but will be a let down for anyone who wanted to see Hank do something more than simply toe the party line.

Score: 77/100

Guttertown evokes images of an old fashioned gutter stomp

Now this gets a bit more interesting.

The first half of Hank3's double album, Ghost to a Ghost, is the much more accessible of the two and is basically business as usual for Shelton. But those of us who know Hank know he's always had an experiential side, and the second disc, Guttertown, tosses away the rule book. Hank aims to recreate the historical musical traditions of the Deep South, but does it in his own zany way. Much of Guttertown is authentic, much of it is oddball, some of it is even unsettling. But it will provoke a reaction from you in one way or another.

It's immediately obvious that one of the album's key strengths is its ability to set a mood. The opener, "Goin' to Guttertown," begins with 3 minutes of crickets chirping until Hank's mournful voice comes in and introduces the core concept of Guttertown.  He's backed up by a chorus of wild animals screeching, chirping, and buzzing in the background in a wild cacophony.

When Guttertown is at its most lively, it resembles an old fashioned backwater bayou stomp. There is a large emphasis on Cajun music that permeates many of the songs.

One of those is "Getto Stomp," which delivers an ode to drinking in Guttertown, and "Musha's," which lights the room ablaze with its accordion play while also eliciting energizing Cajun shrieks and shouts from Shelton himself. If that's not enough, he also mixes a little French into some of these tracks to give it even more of an authentic feel. Parlez vous francais?

But it doesn't take long to get the sense that all is not well in Guttertown. It's is a desolate, forlorn place where few souls dare to linger; the sensation quickly washes over you. Consider the sense of apprehension in "The Dirt Road," or the almost-a-funeral-dirge that is "The Low Line."

Hank also packs in a number of noise tracks that delivers a dark mood. Some of them are pretty innocent, like "Chord of the Organ," which consists mainly of simple sustain notes on an organ. But "It's Goin' Down" is slightly more sinister, which features the sound of an iron gate blowing and rattling in the distance. "The Round" sounds something like a cross between a squeaking iron machine and a chicken clucking, with the sounds of children's voices eventually coming into the foreground.

What adds to the creepy factor on many of these noise songs is that everything sounds like it's happening off in the distance, so you can't get a complete read on what is going on. But perhaps most disturbing is "Trooper's Chaos," which consists mostly of agonized dog howls. Later on, a series of voices come in that sound almost demonic.

Outside that, most songs have a backwater country feel. "I Promised" and "Move Them Songs" are a pair of tracks featureing Eddie Pleasant and both prominently feature stripped back arrangements and a very tinny audio quality,as if they were playing out of an old timey radio. "I'll Be Gone" boasts a loud cajun accordion with banjos and fiddles galore, along with a vocal performance rough enough to make a cat hiss.

But it's not all gravy. At times Hank gets a bit too cutesy and avant-garde for his own good. There's a run of mood songs in the album's second half that drone on and really go nowhere. It starts with "Trooper's Chaos," which then fades into the dreadful "Chaos Queen," a rough display of bellowing vocals over a forlon organ. Overall it's a mess.

Then you get "Thunderpain," with its thunderclaps and a vocal style similar to the track before it. If you listen closely you can tell the vocals on a few of these songs are meant to be a take on old time Southern soul, but the way Hank sings makes it slightly hard to tell.

But two of the best tracks are collaborations. They work brilliantly because his guests are every bit as oddball as Hank.

First up is "Fadin' Moon" with Tom Waits. Music Row country is often known for sentimental, pitch perfect ballads between people like Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley or somebody. "Fadin' Moon" spits directly in the face of all that. It's a can of cajun kickass; it's a bastardized version of a duet, as Hank's piercing howls are complimented in spectacular fashion by Tom's indecipherable grizzled growls.

One of Guttertown's big accomplishments is bringing the soul back into country that the Nashville syndicate ripped out, and "Fadin' Moon" serves as one of the chief examples of that.

Before the album ends, Hank throws one more left turn at you. Oddly enough, there's no real hint of country on the closer, "With the Ship." In fact, with its quirky melody and lyrics, and it's general goofball style, it would fit in much better on a Les Claypool album than on Guttertown.

But that's Les's loss and Hank's gain, because "With the Ship" is one of the most kickass songs you'll hear this year. It's a song about, well, going down with a sinking ship, and the duo concoct as many ways as they can of saying it. Coupled with a catchy drum beat, you're likely to find yourself repeatedly humming the melody to this one.

Guttertown is, without a doubt, a unique album, and not one you're like to immediately get into. I considered this album a throwaway on first listen, but unlike Ghost to a Ghost this disc takes time and effort to be able to reap its rewards. It isn't perfect; there are some moments that are not really experimental. They're just plain stupid. But Hank has opted for a gritty depiction of the Old South, and like it or love it, there's one thing you can't deny: Guttertown is a place that you don't ever want to go.

Score: 79/100

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Memphis rapper Cities Aviv delivers hip hop for the soul

Gavin Mays has always tried to do something different.

Mays, better known as Cities Aviv, once kicked it as the vocalist in a hardcore band. Ever since the Memphis native got involved in hip hop, he's been busy dodging comparisons to Three Six Mafia, regularly drawing comparisons to RZA, and rewriting the entire handbook on Memphis rap.

Digital Lows, his debut album, does so many things right. Mays shows great insight with his lyrics and a great sense of passion with his voice, but the beats are the show stealer. You're going to be exposed to such vivid imagery that you'll swear you're playing stickball in the crowded city streets.

The beats are heavily steeped in 70s style soul and funk. It creates a lush tapestry on which Mays constructs his rhymes; there is a wide range of emotions being conveyed. There's a sense of passion and authenticity in his voice as well as a sense of urgency, as if there's this one key concept that he has absolutely got to get through to you.

He is also a master at infusing his personality into his writing. He'll gladly tell you about his favorite rapper, Big Pun, and how much better he is than Tupac. And he won't hesitate to give you a glimpse of reality on the Memphis streets.

"For the future, how can I get excited? At 25 and black, I'm supposed indicted," he declares on "Black Box," which brings a heavy dose of soul both in the beats and in the voice of Memphis's own Fille Catatonique.

Other favorites:
  • "Die Young" switches up the formula a bit with a clanging metallic electroncia beat, while "Tounge Kisser" is a brief interlude which blends electronica and hip hop.
  • "Meet Me On Montrose (For Ex-Lovers Only): the beat is set to the tune of Oh Lori by the Alessi Brothers, and also samples said song. Mays recalls the carefree jubilee as he reminisces on a former love from his youth.  
  • Also flawless is "Doom x Gloom," is a brisk track that dredges up some very dark and ominous emotions. Imagery of drug use and hallucinations create some unsettling sensations. Mays asks: "Was she real or apparition? I don't know, cause when she talked I never did listen."
  • "Fuckeverybodyhere:" great track for when you just want to say fuck everything. Really enjoy the aggression in this track. And it's capped off by the soulful sample of Steely Dan's "Midnight Cruiser."
  • Capping off the album is "Float On," which is essentially a cover of a cover. Mays raps over Blackbird Blackbird's electronic cover of the Modest Mouse tune, though the lyrics are all his. It brings about a mellow, wistful, and dreamy close to the album.
Digital Lows really resonates with me because I love the diversity that Cities Aviv was able to bring on each and every track, while also presenting a flow that is heady and inspired. Great beats, great lyrics and great delivery; what more could you ask for?

Score: 92/100

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Eww! Yuck sludges up the Mercy Lounge

    Yuck pummels the Mercy Lounge with their grimy lo-fi assault.

    Say what you will about big time concerts featuring major fanfare and well known artists, but sometimes you can't beat seeing a little indie band kick it. As I made my way to the Mercy Lounge last Wednesday, the scene couldn't have been more perfect.

    The weather was warm outside but you couldn't help but notice the slightest touch of autumn in the air. The Mercy Lounge is one of those small intimate venues where everyone gets a shot at getting up close to the performers. Sort of like The End but much nicer.

    It's one of those places where you can enjoy the taste of $3 Miller High Lifes while chatting with the chick at the merch stand who seems a little too buzzed for her own good. And you never know who you'll meet at these shows. The show started almost an hour late, so I shot the shit with this one guy about 90s alt-rock, Indiana, and upcoming concerts we wanted to see. All the while, he was doing his darnedest to convince me that this guy at the bar was the lead singer from the Black Keys.

    Daniel Blumberg does his best Dinosaur Jr. impression.
    And don't forget the ladies. Not everybody loves an indie girl, but I find it's hard to beat the sight of these chicks in their berets wearing black stockings and denim skirt clutching the neck of a Black and Tan bottle.

    The band in question? Yuck, who have garnered critical acclaim for their take on 90s alternative rock, and for capturing the zeal of bright eyed youthful exuberance. Their set was marked with aggressive fuzzy guitar and loud feedback between songs.

    There is an interesting dynamic to Yuck's sound. Crunchy rockers like "Georgia" capture the raw fist pumping excitement of Dinosaur Jr. while songs like "Suicide Policeman" and "Shook Down" see them prove positively proficient at channeling a band like Pavement.

    Throughout the 12 song set, Yuck covered most of the album highlights as well as throwing a few surprises at us. "Milkshake," from their recently released 7" Milkshake/Shook Down single. We also got a look at a new song, "Soothe Me," which spotlights vocalist/guitarist Daniel Blumberg's pained cries in the main hook.

    "Get Away," with its melodic guitar leads, is an obvious highlight. As was "Georgia," which is usually a spotlight for bassist Mariko Doi. I found it disappointing she didn't sing lead like on the album, with Blumberg tackling lead vocals while Doi was relegated to a bystander doing only backup vocals in the chorus. Guitarist Max Bloom stepped in to handle the shouty parts in the final chorus. They sound well together, but I really liked the arrangement on the album also. 

    It all led up to set closer "Rubber," which smacks heavily of Sonic Youth. I wasn't a major fan of this song on the record, but I can't help but be absorbed by how the band rocks out like no tomorrow.

    Mariko Doi delivers with her voice and her four strings.
    The Stone Roses-ish "Sunday" was the only obvious hit missing from the setlist, and not surprisingly a small contingent of fans kept calling for that song throughout the night.

    Finally, Bloom responded, "Sunday? It's fucking Wednesday." Blumberg dryly remarked to him that he gets a 7/10 for stage banter.

    With all said, Yuck presents a unique quandary as to what it is that makes them so critically acclaimed. The musicianship, other than maybe lead guitarist Max Bloom, is nothing extraordinary and Yuck wasn't all that energetic on stage. I had to wonder if this is a case of a band getting noticed just out of mimicking their influences very closely.

    Then I thought: nah, the songwriting itself is just too damn good.

    Sunday, October 9, 2011

    Opeth's Heritage puts focus on thinking man's gothic folk

    Whenever your favorite band opts for a major change of direction, the results usually aren't pretty..

    I've seen it happen countless times; bands that I was adored morphed into something totally unrecognizable. They lose touch with what made them great, usually for reasons no more noble than a simple cash grab.

    They always have their defenders: those who claim they're naturally evolving or changing, and that the old school fans need to get over it. But who are we kidding? It's not coincidence that this supposed "evolution" is always toward a vastly more commercial direction.

    But every once in a blue moon, a band elects to make a considerable shift in sound or philosophy and it actually works. Such is the case with Opeth's latest record, Heritage. Leading up the release, apprehensions were culled over the revelation that Heritage would eschew death metal vocals, which had been a key element in the band's music heretofore.

    But that's not that only major change taking place in this most recent observation of Opeth; most of the fundamental metal elements are gone as well. Rather, Heritage is much more of a gothic folk record. The unbridled elements of 70s prog and folk that Opeth has mixed in with its metal on previous records takes center stage here.

    Metal purists will be disappointed, but anyone who was able to appreciate both halves of Opeth's dual pronged attack should be pleased with the results.

    When I first heard the lead single, "The Devil's Orchard," I was unimpressed. My main misgivings were over how thin the guitars sounded, and after repeated listens I still hold this as a legitimate complaint. But I'm more interested in the way they have been able to make something fresh and new while still infusing it with their signature sound.

    Other highlights include "I Feel the Dark," which opens with a slinky acoustic riff and sticks to folk territory for the most part. But there is a great heavy section that will leave you in awe. In ancient folklore, "Nepenthe" was mythical drink that had the power to cause you to forget your hardships. Hearing the ethereal guitar work that opens said track might have a similar effect on the listener, but if it doesn't then Martin Mendez's jazzy bass groove should do the trick.

    Then you have "Slither," a rollicking rocker dedicated to the memory of Ronnie James Dio, which Akerdeldt says is custom designed to sound like a Rainbow song. It sounds nothing like Opeth has ever done, but the sound suits them so well I wouldn't blame them if they penned a few more tracks like this in the future.

    "Famine" has a breakdown with sludgy guitar and a demented flute solo which sounds like a deranged combination between Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull. "The Lines in My Hand" is a short 3 1/2 minute burst of groovy bass, and energetic guitar leads packaged in between a pair of longer epics. "Haxprocess" strikes an ominous mood, while closer "Marrow of the Earth" is essentially an extended suite of a track like "For Absent Friends" or "Patterns in the Ivy."

    The first half of the album is easily more accessible, with tracks like "The Devil's Orchard," "I Feel the Dark," and "Slither," which are instantly recognizable classics. The second half is slightly more difficult, but reward repeated listens.  Heritage may not be up there with gold standards like Blackwater Park or Deliverance, but it is still a solid entry into Opeth's catalog, and provides a vibe that only they can pull off.

    Score: 87/100

    Monday, October 3, 2011

    Tune Yards deliver grooving rhythms to the Exit/In

    You've got to get a load of this setup.

    Merrill Garbus, the mind behind Tune Yards, came to Exit/In Friday night and put on one of the best shows Nashville will see this year. But to understand the appeal of her widely heralded live show, you first need to wrap your head around her equipment setup.

    Directly in front of Garbus is a board with enough switches and effect pedals to put the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to shame. It's resting on top of a rug with highways on it -- the type you'd see in a small child's room.

    So loud you can practically hear her through your monitor

    Surrounding her microphone stands are a pair of floor toms, a pair of snare drums, a Korg synthesizer, and a hi-hat with a tambourine on top. Oh, and also her signature ukelele, with black masking tape covering the sound hole under the strings. She never leaves home without it.

    After stepping onstage and taking a moment to survey the scene, Garbus cuts loose into a wild session of vocal improvisation characterized by African-themed chants, whoops, and hollers. It's the opening strains of "Hatarai." The crowd doesn't quite know what it's in for yet. There's a rumble here. And then a rattle there. What has she got up her sleeve?

    On the record, "Hatarai" features several vocal tracks layered and looped on top of one another. To replicate that live, she activates a switch which plays the backup vocal parts to play through the speakers, while Merrill herself sings lead. It's a technique that allows her to create much more sound than one person could reasonably expect to generate.

    The most iconic stringed instrument not named Lucille.

    The lush, dense arrangements of "Hatari" soon give way to "Do You Want to Live?," a song with an excellent call and response section designed to get the audience's mojo flowing.

    Garbus's larger than life personality is written all over her latest record, w h o k i l l, but in a live setting there are many details in the music that are hard to appreciate strictly from hearing the record. Listen to a song like "Gangsta" on the album and you might think to yourself, "Wow, this song has an awesome bassline." Hear it live and you realize the song literally couldn't exist without the bassline.

    Simiarly, the extended saxophone solo at the end of "Bizness" provides the perfect soundtrack for some AAA grade booty shaking. Another great live song is "Powa" which is relatively reigned in, at least by Tune Yards standards. The hard, driving chords cut through the gentle acoustic melody to remind you there's a raw emotional nerve being struck here. And when she cuts loose at the end of the song, it's really something else.

    And of course, seeing her break out the synthesizer for "My Country" was also a unique treat.

    But if you're going to talk about Merrill's many instruments, you can't leave out the ukelele. Not many people would think of the ukelele as an aggressive instrument, but the way Garbus plays it she may as well be Jimmy Page. The piercing blare that buzzes from her Fender amp nicely accents the acoustic picking typically heard throughout each song.

    Merrill Garbus implores you to groove to the beat.

    The set moved by at a brisk pace, lasting just over an hour. She presented herself to the crowd well, occasionally making brief chit chat and opening up about sometimes feeling self conscious over having videos of her performances uploaded to Youtube.

    But make no mistake: Merrill was in command this night. By the end, nearly the entire crowd was grooving and getting down to the sound of the bass, sax, and the pounding rhythm of the drums. Tune Yards have established themselves as a legitimate creative force, and one of the top acts to visit Nashville in recent memory.

    (Oh! I almost forgot Pat Jordache, the opener. The man who once shared a band with Merrill Garbus brought his own band to the stage and gave an admirable performance. Not unlike Tune Yards, they were heavily rhythm based, with a pair of percussionists, and Pat Jordache himself donning the bass guitar. The sound was light breezy indie rock, with frantic tremolo strumming, pretty melodic picking, and the deep soulful voice of Jordache himself. Bravo, I say!)

    Friday, September 30, 2011

    Opeth's folk metal assault rains down on Cannery Ballroom

    Mikael Akerfeldt sang that God is dead. But it's not true. God was on the stage.

    When Opeth swept into Cannery Ballroom Wednesday night, it's fair to say they carried the crowd into a rapture with them.

    The titans of prog metal kicked off the show with their latest single, "The Devil's Orchard," and with the eerie wash of blue lights enveloping the crowd, it wasn't hard to feel like you were being transported somewhere otherworldly.

    Who's ready for some metal? This guy fuckin' is!

    Their latest album, Heritage, puts major distance between the band and their black/death metal roots, and the live act seems to be following the same philosophy. The 12 song setlist focused on Opeth's lighter, folkier side.

    Heritage and Watershed, the two most recent Opeth albums, formed a good chunk of the setlist, with tunes like "I Feel The Dark" and "Porcelain Heart" getting the crowd revved up early. But one of the biggest surprises of the night was when the band totally folked out with a mini-acoustic set, in which Akerfeldt played no fewer than three separate acoustic guitars. And it was punctuated with a pair of lesser known cuts - "Throat of Winter" from the God of War III soundtrack and "Patterns in the Ivy II" from the deluxe edition of 2001's Blackwater Park.

    But of course, Opeth  wouldn't be Opeth if they didn't unleash some heavy metal. Akerfeldt introduced "Slither" by announcing it was written in memory of Ronnie James Dio, and it was inspired by his work in Rainbow.

    "Now you can all headbang like it's 1978," Akerfeldt declared.

    As soon as he began ripping off those riffs, the moshers went apeshit.

    Opeth's old guard: Akerfeldt and Mendez.

    And as an added treat, Opeth also played one of the best songs in their catalog -- "A Fair Judgement." A flawless combination of ethereal metal, 70s proggy acoustic folk, and majestic guitar solos, hearing this song live was an experience that was on my bucket list. I was totally pumped to cross that one off.

    Akerfeldt also proved himself to be a great frontman with an awesome sense of showmanship. The performer/crowd interaction was the best I've ever witnessed. He hilariously ripped on metal bands who constantly down tune their guitars, made fun of Napalm Death's "You Suffer," and bantered over the pros and cons of eating ribs in Nashville.

    And last but not least, I can't leave out the incredible drum solo by Martin Axenrot. The rest of the band stopped for about five minutes to let Martin do this thing, which resulted in an incredible display of precision as he kept perfect time while roaring away with the double bass pedals.

    If there was one disappointment, it was with the lack of Mikael's death metal vocals. I don't mind them dropping that on the records, but to ditch them at live shows means some of the band's biggest concert staples get dropped from the setlist.  Songs like "The Leper Affinity," "Master's Apprentices," and "The Grand Conjuration" are a major part of Opeth's identity. If those songs are never played again, then it's like they're not even the same band they once were.

    Fellow Swedish metallers Katatonia were the openers, and they were no slouch either. Their captivating blend of gothic and doom inspired metal held the crowd spellbound.  Jonas Renske's hypnotic vocals melded seamlessly with Daniel Liljekvist's lightning fast crossovers and wicked tom work, and the crushing guitar assault of Per Eriksson and Anders Nystrom completed the package. Katatonia pulled out a few sweet numbers, including "Leaders" and "My Twin," which were instant hits with the crowd.

    Katatonia are not a force to be trifled with.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011

    Wilco's The Whole Love is a whole slab of awesome

    Wilco is one of those bands you can never sleep on.

    Nearly a decade removed from their most esteemed album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, circumstances have changed for the Chicago-based rockers. There was a time in which Wilco couldn't do anything without causing everyone to stand up and take notice.

    My senior year in high school was the year A Ghost Is Born came out, and everyone was talking about that record. It was everywhere. You couldn't escape the buzz from that album if you bought real estate under a giant boulder.

    But if you were one of those, like me, who soon tired of the Wilco hype, you eventually got your wish. It wouldn't be fair to say the hype died, but I don't remember the previous two albums generating the same level of hysteria we saw with Ghost.

    But now it is 2011 and I've got to eat my words. I finally decided to give Wilco an in-depth listen, and I see what the big deal is. If there's a new wave of hype over the latest Wilco record, don't expect to see me run for cover. Because if there's any justice, The Whole Love should start a revolution of its own.

    The Whole Love seems to strike a medium between the two extremes the band painted in the 2000s. It's certainly more level headed than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, but is more adventurous than their last effort, Wilco (the album). The opener, "Art of Almost," builds up slowly, leaving you wondering what exactly this album has in store for you. But when the extended guitar solo kicks in, you know you're in for one hell of a ride.

    As a listener who appreciates variety, The Real Love is an easy sell. This album has it all, from sprawling epics to clashing rockers and well crafted pop nuggets.

    "I Might" sees the band combining pop and rock styles like second nature. You are treated to strong hooks that are punctuated by guitar pyrotechnics going off left and right. When Jeff Tweedy's voice kicks in during the chorus, I can't help but notice he sounds a bit like John Lennon.

    And speaking of Beatles influence, another treat comes on "Sunloathe." It's dreary at first, but picks up as it goes along. The second half reminds me of the Abbey Road medley, particularly in regard to the harmonies and drum fills.

    One fact Wilco fans should be well aware of is that there's nothing quite like the effect of a dynamic frontman. There are few tracks that better accentuate that than "Standing O," a rollicking rocker on which Tweedy confidently asserts himself -- "Maybe you've noticed I'm not afraid of everything that I've done / Maybe you've noticed I'm not the same as almost anyone."

    And if you like Wilco's lyricism, "Dawned On Me," will also be high on your favorites list. I enjoy the aggressive attitude and the way the words wrap around each verse. Look at the second verse:

    "I've been lost
    I've been found
    I've been taken by the sound"

    It's simple, but dramatic when delivered the way Tweedy does it.  This is the song most deeply ingrained in my head right now.

    "Black Moon" and "Rising Red Lung" are mellow, quiet, and thought provoking. They're the two songs on The Whole Love that best reflect on Wilco's alt-country roots, and they're the two songs that best represent my state of mind when I'm ready to chill out.

    "Capitol City" has a jovial, bouncy, show tune-y feel to it. "Open Mind" is an emotional ballad, with lyrics that tug at your heart strings. Then you have "Born Alone," one of my personal favorites. At first glance it's your typical pop/rock gem, but near the end it gets reflective and really rocks out.

    The Whole Love comes to a close with "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" a devastatingly vivid 12 minute chronicle on the deterioration of a relationship between father and son. Pay close attention to the lyrics and it'll produce a lump in your throat.

    What makes Wilco great is the sincerity of everything they produce, coupled with the unique musical ideas that seem to turn up on each of their records. The Whole Love is the perfect album if you're looking for something refreshing, or for anyone who's a fan of great songwriting.

    Score: 90/100

    Sleep ∞ Over: Forever is composed of nows

    Stepfanie Franciotti recently had to deal with a falling out of sorts. Her fellow members in Sleep ∞ Over, Christa Palazzo and Sarah Brown, split during the recording of their debut album, leaving Franciotti as the sole member of the band.

    But if you thought would slow her down, think twice. She finished the project solo and has bestowed upon us Forever, a stimulating foray into the world of richly textured noise/dream pop.

    The music in general is very airy and spaced out, with a liberal dose of ambiance and a strong propensity to set a mood. Francotti's ethereal vocals quietly slip into a track and gently wash over you, subtly coloring the atmosphere and setting your mind at ease. Think Beach House, My Friend Wallis, and Silver Pines.

    "Romantic Streams" is the clear standout track, and easily one of the best songs of the year. It is very reverent and powerful while being catchy at the same time. When Franciotti's whispy voice mixes with the somber, subdued synth melody, pure magic happens. Then drums intensify near the end which creates an even more stunning effect.

    "Romantic Streams" is practically worth the price of the album on it own. Which is a good thing, because none of the other tracks on the album can quite match it. "Casual Diamond" and "Stickers" feature strong melodies, but don't possess the same punch in the gut effect as "Romantic Streams."

    From there, you move into more experimental and spaced out territory. In interviews, Franciotti has testified to being a black metal fan, and some of the atmospheric elements found in that style of music are also present on Forever. Particularly effective is "Cryingame," which is ominous, foreboding, and mildly disturbing. The rest of the cuts don't stick with me that much due.

    Some of them are nice, like "Behind Closed Doors. Some of them are bizarre, like "Untitled," which is 24 seconds of what sounds like a demented merry-go-round. But I like to hear a strong central hook, and some of these are a bit too ambient for my taste.

    The album title was inspired by an Emily Dickinson quote - "Forever is composed of nows."

    Don't expect Forever to be the album that gets her noticed now.

    Stepfanie Franciotti is a definite talent and brings a fresh approach to a watered down genre, but Forever is just too inconsistent for me to consider it a great album. If there were a few more tracks like "Romantic Streams" and a few less like "Flying Saucers Are Real," we would have had a real winner on our hands.

    Score: 76/100

    Thursday, September 22, 2011

    Justin Vernon cranks the volume knob on Bon Iver's latest

    At once I knew I was not magnificent.

    Justin Vernon delivers this statement on "Holocene" the third track of Bon Iver's self-titled sophomore release. His moment of raw self-realization is a humbling admission on all fronts. Anyone who's ever felt the way he describes here will immediately get it. And those who haven't will have a doorway opened in their minds.

    Vernon's method of communicating is on a different wavelength from most of his contemporaries: he's able to take a particular emotion and explain it in a way that is universally understandable. Bon Iver is like an emotional catharsis; his quiet, stripped back approach and trademark falsetto promise to deliver a dynamic impact upon the listener. And when you've finished, you feel like you've learned something new about yourself.

    This album releases in the wake of For Emma, Forever Ago, a record that focused on longing and regret. Not to be outdone, Bon Iver has a theme of its own - each track is named after a specific location, and is an ode to the memories that were made there.

    Unlike Emma, this album is much less overt with its folk influences. Much of the backing music has much more of a post-rock feel to it. The opener, "Perth" spells this out as clearly as any track on the record. But what hasn't changed is the intimate impact Vernon delivers.

    The songwriting tends to focus on personal relationships, and the memories they leave behind. The lyrics are usually rather vague, but have a very nostalgic and reminiscent feel to them. It's like he's speaking to an old friend about good times and no one will totally understand all the details of what is being said except the two of them.

    While "Holocene" and "Perth" are the clear moody highlights, there are a few slightly more upbeat tunes for variety. Or at least upbeat by Bon Iver standards. "Towers" could be the soundtrack a leisurely wagon ride on a dirt road, while "Minnesota, WI," and "Calgary" give Vernon an excellent chance to show off his lower register.

    With all that said, however, I can't help but feel that Bon Iver is something of a step back from Emma.

    Emma excelled in having a very earthy, folky roots feel, particualry in songs like "Skinny Love" and "The Wolves," which Bon Iver lacks for the most part. In all honesty, it sounds like it's trying too hard to be a Hallmark card at times. The cheesy synthesizer intro on "Beth/Rest" is the biggest offender, but tracks like "Hinnom, TX" and especially "Wash." deliver the sonic equivalent of a Tylenol PM.

    It's a very good record no doubt, but certainly not for everyone. Bon Iver is one of those artists who excel in one area and one area only, and you have to really be into it to enjoy the record as a whole. He seems to be trying a bit too hard at times, and I usually get bored about halfway through the album.

    In the end, Vernon was correct. Bon Iver is not magnificent. But there are some real gems here, and if you've never witnessed the magic that Justin Vernon can conjure at his best, there's no better time to do so than now.

    Score: 79/100

    Thursday, September 15, 2011

    Arch Enemy's recipie proving stale on Khaos Legions

    So I'm not feeling the new Arch Enemy album. It's got its moments, but something about it just doesn't quite ring right. For those who haven't kept close tabs on the band, they've basically stuck to their guns ever since installing the always dynamic Angela Gossow as vocalist.

    The result? Well... these Swedish/Gothenberg melodic metal outfits tend to have a limited shelf life, and Arch Enemy isn't exactly proving immune to that trend. There has admittedly been little evolution in the band, and it begs the question of how fresh Arch Enemy's idea well is.

    The entire record is horribly one dimensional. Structure wise every song is virtually the same. The verses are heavy, raw, and thrashy, but every time there's always a noticeable shift in tempo that leads to a catchy melodic chorus. It sounds like a blatant attempt at commercialism. Granted, I'm a big advocate of melody in  metal, but I'm really not feeling the approach they went for here.

    Interspersed between verses and choruses are a patchwork of nice little guitar leads and interludes that definitely create an Arch Enemy flavor, but even here it isn't pulled off as well as it has been in the past.  

    Wages of Sin, for example, was absolutely crackling with intensity. It was taut, well edited, and smacked your eardrums with the force of a jet engine. And the guitar leads on that album were deeply inflected with a Gothenberg flavor, something wholly absent on this record. So clearly Arch Enemy doesn't display the same zest and zeal they once did. But does that make Khaos Legions a bad record?

    Not exactly. Guitarists Michael and Christopher Amott certainly are still talented, and Gossow puts together a great performance as usual. There is also a common lyrical thread that ties most of the ablum together, as there is a focus on the theme of rebellion and defiance.

    On the back of the album Gossow can be seen wearing a jacket with the words resist, rebel, reclaim on it, which sums up the spirit of the album pretty perfectly. She has the troops fired up for battle on "Under Black Flags We March," while she seethes at religion on "Bloodstained Cross." Not the most original topics in metal, but the personality she displays helps make it a little more original.

    In the end, though, it's hard to call Khaos Legions as anything more than mediocre. "Through the Eyes of a Raven" is the only track I'm really excited about, as it features an absolutely spectacular backing riff behind the solo, and also has a sweet acoustic outro. The closer, "Secrets," is probably the most intense track, and therefore stands as another highlight (although I use the term loosely).

    But the lack of variation causes all the songs to flow into another, and what you do get isn't the best work the band has done. It's certainly not bad, but if you're looking for a great metal disc you could do much better.

    Score: 73/100

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    Goblin delivers dark and twisted journey into rap's netherworld

    I'm a blogger, and I write reports about hipster indie music. Do you think Tyler the Creator wants to stab me with a pitchfork?

    Goblin, the Odd Future phenom's sophomore album, hit under a huge wave of hype following the release of the initial single "Yonkers."  Dark, brooding, and methodical, "Yonkers" was able to conjure many feelings that rap hadn't really been able to generate for awhile. But it also created very high standards for the rest of the album.

    Does it live up to the hype?

    There's no disputing that Goblin does many things well. Like Bastard, his previous album, Goblin is set up as a conversation between Tyler and his counselor. Most of the tracks create a dialogue between the two, which Tyler uses as a vehicle to take us on a tour inside of the mind of a mentally unstable young man. Lyric wise there's quite a bit of gritty stuff that you're going to need to take with a grain of salt.

    "Transylvania," which features some of Tyler's sickest rhymes and flows, is an easy standout. The vampire themed lyrics are humorous and serve as a  nice touch. "She" features my favorite beat and boasts a red hot slow jam chorus from Frank Ocean, which delivers a liberal dose of sensuality.

    "Her" is Tyler's best work lyrically. It tells of romantic inclinations he has toward a particular girl. Just when he's about to make his move, she gets back together with an ex. He does a great job of describing the sense of heartbreak and wounded pride:

    "I could tell them the truth and just say she didn't like me much
    but instead I lie and say she moved to Nebraska."

    There are a pair of tracks around the album's midway point, "Nightmare" and "Tron Cat," that are totally laid back with mellow R&B beats. I wasn't too impressed with either of these initially, but I came to appreciate how Tyler is able to work with a wide variety of beats and establish a very tangible mood on these tracks.

    "Sandwitches" and "Radicals" are both aggressive and hard hitting tracks, but "Radicals" suffers from being a bit self indulgent and floats around in too much ambiance. The verses are killer though.

    There is, however, a run of weaker tracks near the close of the album. "Fish/Boppin Bitch" is nothing special, but Tyler does find a demented flow near the start of the song.

    That is followed up by "Analog" which mainly features Hodgy Beats, which is just a weak track in general and doesn't seem to serve any purpose.

    Then you get "Bitch Suck Dick," which is an abrasive in-your-face track that comes out of nowhere and disappears before you have time to realize what's even going on. "Window" is okay, but I don't like to listen to the last part.

    Goblin is certainly a solid effort, but it's not without its flaws. Tyler seems to put too much focus on shock factor here, and the album tends to wander at points. But Goblin is a very unique record, which sees Tyler establish a strong personality while also exhibiting great rap skills.

    It's not rap album of the year, but you aren't like to find anything that leaves an impression on you like Goblin does.

    Score: 83/100

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011

    Iamamiwhoami is the master of electro/dream/synth pop

    Jonna Lee has made her bed and is ready to lie down in it. Even if that bed is made of toilet paper.

    Iamamiwhoami is the electro-pop side project of Swedish singer Jonna Lee, which launched in 2010 under a great shroud of mystery. Initially no one knew who the artist actually was, as Lee's visage was obscured in numerous ways.

    In one video she was covered in mud, in another her whole body was wrapped in plastic, and she was even disguised as a giant salad. Each new video was filled with cryptic clues that seemed to raise more questions than they answered.

    But the biggest mystery now is how more people haven't heard about her.

    Maybe her method of distribution has something to do with that. You won't have luck looking for an iamamiwhoami disc on the shelves; Lee releases only a single song at a time and posts it to her Youtube page. And, of course, iTunes and Amazon.

    After a string of stellar releases to end 2010, Lee had been silent for the first five months of 2011. That is, until she struck with ;John in May, an exuberant, up-tempo dance number with a decidedly sexual bent. The video, which featured Lee dancing on a bed of toilet paper, was impressive.

    Her latest single, Clump, is much more subdued in comparison. In this clip, Lee is now laying on her TP bed and presumably doing the nasty. It looks as though it's the last place on earth she'd prefer to be, and the wistful tone of the song complements this perfectly.

    The production work is fantastic. If you're producer, you'll positively have an eargasm to this. For that matter, even if you aren't a producer you'll be floored. A bottom end propelled by thick, sludgy beats offsets Lee's soaring vocals. And it builds up to a dreamy synth bridge which is the stuff of legends.

    If you haven't listened yet, treat yourself:

    Saturday, August 27, 2011

    The Features offer flawless mix of garage rock and southern groove

    All this time we've had a great rock band in our own backyard, and most people never noticed.

    The Features, who hail from Sparta, Tennessee, have been touring the local circuits around Nashville for well over 10 years, but haven't really seemed to get their due. Mixing the garage rock sound of The Strokes and White Stripes with the southern fried groove of Kings of Leon, the band was able to sign a deal with the Serpents & Snakes record label, run by -- who else? -- the Kings of Leon themselves.

    In July, The Features released their latest full length, Wilderness. It boasts a straight ahead driving rock sound, but Matt Pelham's vocals is where it begins and ends. His voice can go from a mellow croon to a raucous rowdy howl.

    Heavy rockers like "Kids" and "Rambo" should delight, but the greasy southern rock formula hits it peak with "Big Momma's Gonna Whip Us Good," a grooving rhythm based track that sees Pelham urgently arguing for greater environmental awareness.

    And The Features look to sweep your girl off her feet with "How It Starts," which could very well be the band's answer to Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On."

    The boys also show us they're capable of solid songwriting, with lyrics that are sometimes humorous and always clever. "Kids" tells the story of a man who drove his parents nuts when he was young only to endure the ordeal from the other side of the coin when he has kids of his own.

    "Golden Comb," accented by its rumbling bassline, describes a snooty, high maintenance woman who Pelham can't seem to please no matter what he does, while "Fats Domino" is an 50s style doo-wap ballad dedicated to the joys of old time rock and roll. It feels like a modern take on Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music."

    There' s also some clever little accents built in to inject a particular mood into the music. The lead in riff and guitar solo on "Chapter III" give off a wacky carnival vibe, while the intro to "Rambo" has a very slight hint of a Quentin Tarantino/Pulp Fiction" type vibe.

    Wilderness doesn't break much new ground, but it is a fun carefree rock record that's great for kicking off your shoes, stomping your foot, and letting loose. Pound for pound, you'll have a hard time finding an album this year that does a better job of pulling off that vibe.

    Score: 81/100

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    Holy crap, it's been a year already?

    As hard as it is for me to believe, today marks the one year anniversary of my posting on this blog as a part of Totally Unauthorized. I started with the desire to express myself on a broad variety of music; I wanted to show off to people what I liked, what I was listening to, and to hopefully open a dialogue about the biggest new record or a new artist with sure-fire potential.

    The lack of conversation so far has been a bit disappointing, which leaves a central point of emphasis for the coming year. But most of all, I feel it appropriate to reflect, show off what I've been doing here, and hope to gain some recognition for what I've got going on. Oh, and my first post, you might ask? It was on Arcade Fire's The Suburbs.

    In no particular order, here's a look back at some of my favorite albums of this past year:

    Amon Amarth - Surtur Rising
    Swedish melodic metallers stick to their formula, but turn in another winner with Surtur Rising.

    Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
    Robin Pecknold & crew guide us on a CSN&Y-themed adventure through indie folk.

    Panda Bear - Tomboy
    Noah Lennox keeps the melodies and intricate layering flowing on yet another critically acclaimed LP.

    Ott - Mir

    Ott mixes, electronica, psychedelia, and dubstep as he takes you on a voyage though your subconscious.

    tUnE yArDs - W H O K I L L

    Merrill Garbus's loud personality and unique approach to songwriting make w h o k i l l a runaway hit. 

     Tyler, the Creator - Goblin

    Goblin didn't live up to the hype of "Yonkers," but it still featured great delivery and a fresh approach.

    Cities Aviv - Digital Lows

    I just discovered this album a few days ago, but it's already made an indelible impression. Memphis rapper Gavin Mays delivers a 70s urban street sound to go along with his laid back rhymes. Definitely an artist to watch.

     Iamamiwhoami - ;john and Clump

    While not technically an album, Swedish pop star Jonna Lee has delivered some great stuff under the name iamamiwhoami. The dreamy synth pop of Clump and the energetic dance beat of John are two of this year's most overlooked gems.

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Heirlooms of August show potential with folk/country blend

    Alright, I've got one for all you country/folk fans. In the 90s, Jerry Vessel played bass for the Red House Painters while Mark Kozelek stole the show. But with his new project, Heirlooms of August, Vessel boldly announces that he's ready to step out from behind the curtain and show off his own songwriting skills.

    Forever the Moon is chock full of acoustic folk, a dash of country, and vividly realized pastoral imagery. You'll hear your fair share of tunes about a guy in a straw hat planting tomatoes on a hot summer day.

    The album's most standout attribute are the harmonies delivered by Vessel and Vivian Ginn. It's similar to many of the great male/female harmony combos: Alison Krauss and Union Station, Gillian Welch and Colin Meloy; perhaps even Win Butler and Régine Chassagne if either of them felt inclined to pick up a banjo.

    There are some very well penned lyrics in place that pack an emotional punch. The title track is an ode to a father's love for his child. He talks about the birth of his son and then links it into an analogy about rain bringing new life to the earth. I find it a very nice touch.

    "Anyway, Sweetness," is another gem. With lyrics that tell of the misdeeds and regrets of an alcoholic lover, it bears resemblance to Brad Paisley's and Krauss's "Whiskey Lullaby."

    Other standouts include "Annie," the tale of a knockout cello player, and "Beautiful Summer," a tune dedicated to drinking lemonade, watching baseball, and playing hide and seek on a hot summer day. Vessel sings mostly solo here, allowing his husky, mellow voice to shine through. He sounds okay, but is better when singing with Ginn.

    However, the album does have it's share of problems. The harmonies are a nice touch, but the arrangements honestly aren't all that clever. Most of the time both vocalists sing the same notes, just in a different octave. It's alright, but a little more creativity would go a long way.

    The songwriting itself is hit or miss. Some of the concepts are well thought out, but aren't properly executed or are awkwardly juxtaposed.

    The biggest offender is "Blackness from Blue." Musically and concept-wise, this is one of my favorite songs, but the way in which the story is told is a total mess. Vessel begins by singing about his brother, who has a deep love for some woman.

    But a couple stanzas in he ditches that idea to sing about his child and how she almost died, or at least I think it's about his child. He's addressing the song to a particular subject, but it isn't clear if he's singing to his child or about his child.

    Later, he talks about taking her to a festival and giving her his hand. So at this point he's clearly talking about a love interest, but when the transition came between singing about his child and lover is pretty murky.

    By the end, whoever he's singing about dies and then apparently never existed in the first place; he reveals he dreamed her up his mind. By this point I'm too confused trying to figure out who died and what happened to his kid and what the hell his brother had to do with anything. And I still never found out who he's addressing the song to!

    Then you have "A Flower My Love Grows," which seems to have some difficulty wrapping its lyrics around the meter of the song in the first place. Then you have this awkward anti-Christian phrase juxtaposed in near the end which makes no sense and seems wildly out of place. Have a look:

    "And I know why some folks like to dream of heaven
    but I don't believe anything they claim
    and all the Jesus freaks seem so obsolete
    and for them I've nothing but my scorn and rage"

    Slapped right in the middle of a song about enjoying the finer things in life. All my scorn and rage? The Jesus freaks are obsolete?  This is an album about peace, tranquility, and enjoying a baseball game on a summer day. Where on earth did this come from?

    Tobymac does not approve, and neither do I.

    And on the closing track, Vessel makes the outrageous claim that children are practically the only decent people on earth. Sorry Mother Teresa. Guess that excludes you.

    Mother Teresa: Clearly a douchebag.

    "Marianna's Peace" begins with a great melody, but there are several tempo changes that keep popping up which continually speed up and slow down the song, and it severely messes with the flow.  Potentially a really nice song that's marred by some questionable composition.

    In all, this really isn't a terrible album. Despite its oddities, it does a commendable job of setting that planting seeds in your orchard with an old oil lamp by your side type of feel. And it packs some nice tunes.  

    Forever the Moon won't be the greatest album you'll hear this year but if you're a fan of intimate, stripped back folk ala Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver, or if you're looking for something countryish without the overkill Nashville spitshine, you may find much to like here.

    Score: 69/100

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Merrill Garbus's w h o k i l l is tuned to perfection

    Is there still doubt that Merrill Garbus is one of the most unique and fascinating singers and writers out there? If so, then hopefully her second full length, w h o k i l l, will do much to displace that.
    BiRd-BrAiNs, Garbus's first album under the moniker tUnE-yArDs, was a thought provoking collection of home recordings with dynamic arrangements and rather tinny audio quality. On w h o k i l l, she's gotten a big boost with the addition of bassist Nate Brenner, along with clearer audio quality, but the spirit is the same.

    That she would choose to add a bassist says a great deal.  Garbus is a percussion and rhythm minded musician, and this philosophy lays the entire foundation for what goes on here.

    Take a look at "Gangsta." It starts off with Garbus pounding a pair of large African drums, then an ear grabbing distorted bass enters the mix, and you have the basic beat which the rest of the song will play off of.

    There is also a dash of world music aesthetic introduced via jazzy African horns, drums, and vocal arrangements which pop up periodically throughout the album.

    Speaking of vocals - there's few who do it like Garbus, and it's a true spectacle.

    Garbus is a intense performer with a powerful voice and style all her own. On stage, she can often be seen manning a ukelele or banging a giant tribal drum. She uses her voice not only for singing but also to create certain effects that fit with the music. Her voice can go from being rough, low pitched and manly to being airy and feminine and back again several times within a single verse or chorus.

    By extension, there is quite a bit of musical ground that is covered on this record. "Es-so," which speaks of the pressures on women to stay physically fit, is a groovy tune with a slightly ominous feel.

    "Powa" is a mellow, emotional tune about sexuality, while "Killa" boasts bonafide pop hooks and spotlights political braggadocio from Garbus that calls to mind Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.

    But most chilling of all is the off kilter lullaby "Wooly Wolly Gong, which combines lo-fi acoustic guitar, Merrill's hushed vocals, and an eerie set of lyrics to create something both truly beautiful yet deeply unsettling.

    Other highlights? Besides the whole disc? The rockin' "You Yes You," and the jazzy world fusion of "Riotriot" are also standouts.

    And I would be remiss not to touch on Garbus's attitude and lyrics, which is also a key part of the tUnE-yArDs formula. I feel these capture her essence pretty well:

    "There is a freedom in violence that I don't understand. And like I've never felt before."

    "I'm a new kind of woman; I'm a new kind of woman. I'm a don't take shit from you kind of woman."

    "Now that everything is gonna be okay/ now that everything is gonna be alright. What if baby I cannot see the sound/what if baby I cannot hear the light?"

    There are several different levels of depth to the lyrics, which provides a welcome level of complexity. Most of the topics on the album deal with femininity, sexuality, or violence.

    No question this is one of my favorite records of the year - Garbus's individuality and creative energy are second to none right now.

    w h o k i l l reflects a refreshing and bold attitude from an emerging artist, who's here to let everyone know she's one of the most enterprising and unique voices you'll hear in 2011.

    Sing it, sister.

    Score: 93/100