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

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Incubus proves less is not more with latest album

Since emerging from Calabasas, California in the early 90s, alt rockers Incubus have developed a reputation for taking a different musical approach on every record.

No two Incubus discs are the same, they used to say, and I suppose you could argue that's the case today. But on their more recent records it seems like they're just looking for a different way of doing the same thing.

Once, Incubus was cool because they stood out from the crowd. When they were first getting big, circa late 90s and early 2000s, nu metal was the big thing. Those days it seemed like the "vocalist" for just about every band was some asshat wannabe rapper wearing a red baseball cap, backed by a clueless guitarist who did little but chug away on his E string.

Incubus wasn't like that. They put their focus where it mattered: on composition, musicianship, and writing. Plus they had a vocalist who actually could sing.

At some point something changed. Up through Morning View, just about every song felt like a cohesive band effort. You could listen to each track and hear the influence each guy had on it.

But starting with A Crow Left of the Murder, there were several songs where I couldn't honestly say that was the case. Crow was front loaded with several pop hits which highly emphasized the role of the lead singer. But Incubus has always sounded best when the talents of each band member is being fully utilized.

Too bad that rarely happens on If Not Now, When?

Incubus has opted for a very mellow, stripped back sound to accompany a set of straightforward hook driven pop songs. Instrumentation is minimal; there's an extremely simple drum beat on almost every song, along with maybe piano or keys.  Guitar fades into the background so seamlessly you'll barely notice it's there.

This is easily Incubus at their most one dimensional. Their past albums spotlighted a variety of styles, but here there is very little diversity or variety from track to track. There's nothing wrong with having pop songs at a middling pace with bass, drums, and vocals, but it becomes an issue when that's all you do.

But it can't be all bad, right? After all, these guys have the mighty Mike Enzinger on the six string. I'd be hard pressed to think of another guitarist with a play style resembling anything like what he does, and I can't picture Incubus without him.

But the shame of it is, is that you barely get to hear him on this record. I had to check the booklet just to make sure he was actually still even in the band. His signature sound is MIA on the first three tracks, and it isn't until "Thieves" we get a reminder he's still here. Even so, it's just a fleeting riff here, a simple pattern there. He's got a nice solo on "Adolescents," but by then it's too little too late.

It doesn't help that every song sounds like it was written for a 16-year-old girl. "Promises, Promises" features some dopey drivel about Brandon finding himself or some shit, "Thieves" sees him mumbling some gibberish about a god fearing white American, and on "Friends and Lovers," we get to witness Boyd's moving argument that being a friend and a lover is totally a-ok.

Now before you typecast me as some dreadlocked, herb smoking Incuphile who hated everything after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. consider that I liked much of the writing on their later albums. Yes, it's not just that the writing is bad on this album, it's even a downgrade from their more recent material.

Take a song like "Dig," for instance. It's a thought provoking tune that measures the complexity of human relationships and emotion, all while cleverly wrapping it in a double meaning based on the word dig.

"Agoraphobia" is a song based on a sensation of constant fear and panic which managed to tap into your emotional circuitry in a way you wouldn't think. The best line on If Not Now, When? features Brandon getting mobbed by some freaky chick in a black hat and thigh highs.

There are some positives. "Isadore" is a nice breezy song with a cool melody. The rhythm section gets its chance to shine on "Switchblade," which features a rippling bass line and a groovy, propulsive drum beat that ever so slightly reminds us of Incubus's funky roots.

But the real gem is "In the Company of Wolves," which truly does sound like something Incubus has never done before. It starts off with a type of 70s prog folkish riff. Then when the vocals come in, you'll wonder if the band changed singers. But no, you'll quickly realize, it  is Brandon, singing at the top of his octave range, which we've rarely heard before.

It gives off kind of a 70s-ish "Behind Blue Eyes" type of vibe. Things get even stranger in the second half, when the song builds up to a fuzzy, noise type crescendo, with the effect of an emotional catharsis.

And that brings us around to Brandon. For the most part, he does a fine job on this album. The issue is that he has to carry it all on his own, due to the way the music is arranged.

Surely there will people who would like this record. If you're a fan of pop music, or if you like strong male vocalists, If Not Now, When? might be right for you. Specifically, if your ideal Incubus track is something like Paper Shoes, Dig, or Mexico, this album might be a good investment.

But there's another brand of Incubus fan out there, the type that likes the funky zany shit; the type that likes to headbang to "Blood on the Ground" or "Light Grenades" while also having something catchy thrown in.

In my mind, I can visualize what I think they were going for with this stripped back approach. Probably a quiet, intimate record along the lines of Phil Selway or Nirvana Unplugged. But the in your face pop vibe makes that nigh on impossible to pull off.

Brandon is no longer the same guy who tried to call AAA but his card was expired. And as I said at the beginning, the past few Incubus records have been a slightly different way of doing the same thing - repackaging pop hits. It's just that If Not Now, When? drives that point home like none other.

Score: 55/100