Sunday, February 27, 2011

Iron & Wine shows off sense of groove with Kiss Each Other Clean

Genre: Folk/Alternative
Warner Bros.
Running Time: 44:06

Nearing the end of February, we find ourselves at a bit of a crossroads.

January seemed to be a month of change; several artists, including Cage the Elephant and The Decemberists, released records that were significantly different to their previous albums, while the month of March is filled to the brim with exciting and noteworty releases.

February, on the other hand, was mostly devoid of anything I care about, for the most part. Radiohead put out another buzzworthy release, as they often tend to do, but with not much on the horizon it seems like an opportune time to review a favorite recent release of mine that I haven't had time to get around to lately.

Samuel Beam of Iron & Wine has long been known as a guru of folk music, but Kiss Each Other Clean sees the singer/songwriter attempting to expand his palette a bit. There's a distinctly less folk/acoustic feel on this album, and going in I suppose that's what I was expecting. You know, something along the lines of Bright Eyes.

But Beam has often incorporated more of an urban/groove type influence into his tunes, and nothing makes that more evident than Kiss Each Other Clean. The opener, "Walking Far From Home" threw me for a loop right away with the distorted vocal in the opening.

If cuts like "The Trapeze Swinger" and "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" were designed to make your girl get all weepy and starry eyed, many of the offerings found here are crafted to make her get down and shake her booty.

Just listen to the funky horn part on "Big Burned Hand" and tell me you don't want to get down. But fans of earlier Iron & Wine releases will still find much to like here. The album still contains Beam's fantastic sense of songwriting, which includes great lyrics.

"Tree by the River" seems Beam reminiscing to an earlier time with an earlier love, something that many people can easily relate to. However, most of his lyrics don't really focus on anything concrete; they're based more upon creating a dazzling sense of imagery.

Vocal wise, Beam has always had a tenderness to his voice that I've always found to be one of the main appeals of Iron & Wine, and that is still present here. I suppose the main reason why I like this album is because of the great sense of melody combined with clever and intelligent lyricism.  

Kiss Each Other Clean does have more of an alternative/groove type feel than maybe some of his previous works, but Iron & Wine fans can rejoice that Beam is still putting out the type of music we have all grown to know and love.

Score: 85/100

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Decemberists' latest offers vibrant selection of indie country/folk

Genre: Indie Folk
Running Time: 40:42

So I haven't been writing much on here lately cause I been so damn sick. If there's anything I hate, its something that bars the way to forward progress.

Which explains why I've been so grumpy lately. But enough of that. For now, I have to present to you the first ass kicking record I've heard in 2011.

Or to put it more accurately, it's a great record on a initial listen, but it has one fatal flaw: the more you hear it, the more stale it becomes. The record I'm speaking of is The Decemberists latest, The King is Dead. My initial reaction to melodies on this disc was akin to your first experiences with a new sweetheart feelings of excitement and passion gripped me.

The first track, "Don't Carry it All," had me instantly hooked, so much so that it was a couple days before I could get past that track to listen to the rest of the album. When I did, I found that The King is Dead is an album that lives up to its billing - it's a folk/pop album with a definitely poppy sound that is much simpler and down to earth than what we've heard previously from the Oregon folksters.

Their previous album, 2009's Hazards of Love, was a slightly overwrought concept album that followed a love affair based in colonial America. The Decemberists had risen to fame as a folk outfit with decided Neutral Milk Hotel influences. They took their act to the major labels for the first time in 2006, releasing The Crane Wife on Capital Records.  

The Hazards of Love was notable for introducing more of a heavy rock driven sound into the band's repertoire. That rock sound is gone on The King is Dead, but the mixture of the folk sound with country is so alluring that you won't miss it.  

The King is Dead greatly simplifies the formula from the previous albums, a move that I think works well. The Decemberists are seen mostly as a folk band, but most of the songs here have a decided pop influence that will have you stomping your foot and singing along.

Nothing makes this more clear than the opener, "Don't Carry It All" with it's lazy and easy-going melody that's catchy and infectious. And there's a wide variety of instruments used to create the country sound, including banjos, fiddles, pump organs, harmonicas, and bouzoukis.

Then, there is of course the vocals delivered by Colin Meloy, who sounds just as comfortable doing straight up folk as he does with a mixture of pop, country and folk. His easy melodies are instantly recognizable and are simple to pick up.

However, if you a fan of the female lead vocalists on The Hazards of Love, as I was, you may be disappointed to learn that you won't hear any of that here. The only female vocals you'll hear here are that of Gillian Welch, who contributes backup vocals to the album.

"Down by the Water" is easily one of the standout tracks with its driving groove, while "This Is Why We Fight" is a war story fueled by a propulsive bassline. "All Arise" is a nice folksy romp, while "Rox in the Box" perhaps has the most pertinent lyrics:

"Of dirt you're made and dirt you will return
So while we're living here
Let's get this little one thing clear
There's plenty of men to die; you don't jump your turn"

Then of course you have the June and January Hymns, which are more like traditional folk songs with less pop influence. The Decemberists have produced a traditional, folky sounding album that expands their cupboard of influences while still maintaining their core identity.

I come away with the feeling that the album is a bit top heavy. Songs like "Don't Carry It All," "Down by the Water," and "Rox in the Box" make me want to sing this album's praises, but then you hit songs like "Rise to Me," "June Hymn," and "Dear Avery" which don't ring through quite as clearly when compared to the album's upper tier material.

Another issue is that the melodies, with all their confection and sugariness, tend to get old after awhile. At some points I would almost go as far to say that it begins to seem synthetic. This album did hit #1 on Billboard - there's a reason for that.

Indeed, there were times in which I thought my romance with the album was growing stale, and might soon be at an end. But for all it's little kicks and imperfections, The King is Dead is an album still worthy of delivering a rollicking good time, which may be exactly the thing you're looking for to kick off the new year in music.

Score: 83/100