Monday, December 31, 2012

Totally Unauthorized: 2012 Album of the Year Awards

After such a mind blowing year for music, the only appropriate action to is to try to make sense of it all. After a pretty meh musical year in 2011, the past year has provided so many outstanding releases that it's hard to know what to do with them all. Many of those albums were released by artists that rank as personal favorites, and many artists have been added to that roster.

2012 will be remembered as the year of Frank Ocean. The Odd Future hookmaster released a statement confirming his homosexuality before dropping Channel Orange, one of the most highly esteemed albums of the year. Whether you see Ocean's statement as a heartfelt message of encouragement to the LGBT community, a ploy to boost hype for his album, or somewhere in between, one thing cannot be denied: Channel Orange is one of the year's most highly acclaimed albums. It has been sweeping album of the year awards from various publications and may well score top honors from the Grammys in February. Ocean is unquestionably one of  2012's top winners.

2012 will be remembers as a year of loss. 92-year-old Sitar legend Ravi Shankar died on December 11. He had not only become the pride of India's music scene but had emerged as an icon the world over. Audiences were endeared by his dizzying play on the sitar, an instrument many had never heard of before Shankar's emergence. Jazz piano impresario Dave Brubeck died on December 5 at the age of 91. Brubeck established himself as one of jazz's top bandleaders during the bebop era of the 50s and 60s, delighting the public with shuffling tunes such as "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Also tragic was the death of Natina Reed from 90s R&B pop stars Blaque, who was hit by a car in October. Reed was 32.

2012 will also be remembered as a year of comebacks. British rave legends Orbital released Wonky, their first album since 2004, released to warm critical applause. Less noticed was the return of country/western/rockabilly artist Dwight Yoakam, whose 3 Pears was a ravishing return to the fore after a seven year break.

But most of all, 2012 will be remembered as the year of Pussy Riot, the courageous Russian female punk band who was jailed in March for speaking their convictions about Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Their case involved the music world but also transcended it, raising questions about freedom of expression and what rights we are entitled as pleas for the band members' release grew to a fever pitch.

And yes, lest we forget, there was a ton of great music worth detailing. Here is Totally Unauthorized's Top 12 albums of 2012, preceded as always by a few miscellaneous categories.

(Top songs of the year and live acts of the year have been moved to their own separate posts, found here and here).

Comeback Album of 2012
Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth

2012 marked itself as a year of heavy commercialization of the genre. Reggae stalwarts Rebelution's Peace of Mind was an uplifting but decidedly pop-based reggae record, while Matisyahu descended further into a dancefloor techno funk. Heck, even Snoop Dogg went reggae. But full marks go to reggae's elder statesman, Jimmy Cliff, who succeeded in giving us a record that rings true.  It had only been eight years since his previous album, but seems like it's been much longer than that since the authentic sound of Jamaica crackled through our national consciousness the way Rebirth has.

Best Bandcamp Album  
Koi. - Malestrom

Bandcamp is one our most overlooked and underrated resources for unearthing new music, even though there is a surprising amount of great material hidden there. Koi. has produced an album full of pulsing electronic music that is exuberant, cheerful, and evokes images of a warm summer day. There really isn't much else to say other than just listen to it.

Biggest Disappointment of 2012
Best Coast - The Only Place

Best Coast's debut Crazy For You took a great concept and executed it in a great way. The sunny, lo-fi presentation had been done before, but Bethany Cosentio's sense of personality manifested the style in a way it had never been done before. The Only Place, by comparison, is over produced, oversanitized, and in the process reveals something about Bethany that the murkiness of the debut helped cover up - the girl can't write. If nothing else, it could have been a fun, feel good pop record, but Cosentio's constant whining and emo lyrics ruin even that. Her career seems to be in a tailspin, and a tour with pop punk retreads Green Day doesn't seem to be the elixir needed to lift Best Coast out of their funk.

Totally Unauthorized's Most Viewed Post of 2012
Goatwhore - Blood for the Master

Seriously, what were people searching for? Originally posted to this site in March, this review of the blackened death metal outfit's fifth album Blood for the Master was more effective in generating traffic for the site than any other piece posted this year. This was a nice album which is worth revisiting from time to time, but ended up falling off my radar screen due to the lack of innovation. That didn't seem to bother the denizens of the Internet, who gorged on Goatwhore and kept coming back for more. I am not sure what to think about this.

Most Overrated Album
Japandroids - Celebration Rock

Credit them one thing -- the writing on this disc is excellent. Celebration Rock brilliantly sums up that beer spilling, out of control period of youth where you're crazed to live it all up while you still have the chance. It reminds us well that sooner or later the clock's striking midnight and these opportunities will be lost forever. What hippy cliques like Pitchfork failed to grasp, however, was the fact that the band itself leaves much to be desired. A layer of fuzz tries, but fails to cover up the fact that the singer can't sing, and he can't shout loud enough to distract us from the damning lack of imagination in the music composition itself. The result is like Longfellow writing on a napkin: a poetic message delivered in a format not built to last the test of time.

Best New Artist
Purity Ring

This came down to Frank Ocean and Purity Ring. Unlike Purity Ring, Ocean already had a full length release in Nostalgia Ultra. He also recently announced he may not release a followup to channel ORANGE. So Purity Ring represents the best hope for the future. This Canadian synth pop duo fascinates with their deep, low frequency electronic backing tracks, while the angelic voice of Megan James provides a nice counterbalance. With lyrics that are sometimes grotesque, sometimes abstract, their debut album Shrines has often been compared to taking a trip through a warped enchanted forest, or journeying through a twisted gingerbread house.

12. Katatonia - Dead End Kings

Anyone surprised by Katatonia's mellow direction on Dead End Kings hasn't been paying attention the band's recent trajectory. Since establishing themselves as one of Sweden's top doom inspired metal acts, Katatonia have progressively gotten softer and more atmospheric on each passing record. Dead End Kings now presents a band with a sizable cadre of tricks. Their method resembles a thoughtful craftsman reaching into his toolkit, always retrieving the right utensil for the job. When needed, they can pull out mesmerizing female backing vocals to complement their dreary effect; they can pull off flawless piano ballads, craft tracks that capture an atmospheric beauty of a driving rainstorm. And yes, they can even pull out the metal when needed. "Buildings" contains one of the band's sickest riffs ever, on what is supposedly Katatonia's "mellow" album. They haven't gone soft, they've just learned to play to their strengths. As Dead End Kings proves, they have plenty of them. 

11. The Tallest Man on Earth - There's No Leaving Now

The release of Kristian Matsson's third full length gave the Swedish singer/songwriter some new toys to play with. Specifically known for conjuring a trail blazing folk ethos with nothing more than his guitar and scratchy voice, on There's No Leaving Now Matsson begins to diversify instrumentally with light flourishes of electric guitar, woodwinds, and forays into multitracking. Yet the core values remain the same. The addition of new dynamics never diverts attention away from Kristian or his accomplishments with pen and guitar. He retreats from the white hot urgency presented on his previous works, which causes the album to lack some of the impact that The Wild Hunt and Shallow Grave had. Still, it's hard to shrug off the quiet introspection of "Revelation Blues," the high spirited frontier journey of "1904," or the ravishing success of Matsson's piano ballad on the album's title track. 

10. Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory

Dylan Baldi got started with a proclivity toward making bedroom punk, but his ambitions have led to much more. Kicking around in the suburbs outside Cleveland, Baldi crafted roughly an album and a half worth of pop punk that was sunny and bright although miserably produced. That changed after teaming up with famed producer Steve Albini. The sound presented here represents a cold and icy nature, most notably so on the album's centerpiece, "Wasted Days." It advocates a bleak, suffocating outlook while awing the listener with its cacophonous post punk instrumental section. But the band also demonstrates proficiency in bouncy pop punk, slow droning anthems, and technical offbeat drum rhythms. The songwriting on the album's second half doesn't feel as fleshed out as some of the early cuts, but not a single track on Attack on Memory misses the mark.

9. Tame Impala - Lonerism

Lonerism is unquestionably one of 2012's most colorful releases. Frontman Kevin Parker has crafted a vibrant album full of wonder, and totally smattered it with seventies psychedelic synths. Lonerism favors keyboards to guitars, in contrast to their previous album, Innerspeaker.  Bu they go much farther than simply pulling from the classic age of rock; they make it seem as though these sounds were invented yesterday. "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" owes a debt to the era of Motown soul, while demonstrating the strength of Parker's songwriting chops. It should speak powerfully to anyone who's ever been stuck in a rut, no matter the situation. If that doesn't convince you, look no farther than mind expanding keyboard work on "Enders Toi," a track title that roughly translated, urges you to let yourself be hypnotized. If Lonerism doesn't do it, there's not much chance anything will.

8. Iamamiwhoami - Kin

Kin, the first full length album from Iamamiwhoami, certainly represents a move to the center for the experimental electronic duo. Jonna Lee, known in Sweden for her mainstream pop albums, along with Claes Björklund, crafted god tier production work and an alien like vibe on a slew of singles released in 2010 and 2011. Kin is clearly much less bizarre, but still captures the key elements that made the project great. There is a focus on crafting pop based electronic songs that are much less experimental than what we've heard from her in the past. But Kin covers a lot of ground. "Play" is a seductively sexy love ballad fit for Silent Hill, while "In Due Order" showcases Lee's industrial edged rancor. "Kill" showcases some implacable backbeats,  "Goods" is the penultimate futuristic dance tune,  and "Good Worker" even offers social commentary on the role of woman. Yet the ultimate essence of Kin can be found in those beats -- those sublimely captivating, hypnotizing and otherworldly beats. 

7. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean could have taken it easy on channel ORANGE. He's a young man with plenty of time to forge his legacy, and Tyler had a monopoly on all the Odd Future headlines at the time, so what's the rush? Fortuantely Frank decided not to do that, and we're all better off for it. His debut solo album is true tour de force, brimming with some of the year's most memorable songwriting. "Thinkin' About You" gives him the chance to wow us with the raw power of his voice, while "Super Rich Kids" weaves a stunning portrait of upper class urban decadence. "Sweet Life," an ambiguously cynical look at beach house extravagance, is built around a slick Neptunes beat while Frank sets our mind's eye racing with his peaches and mango imagery. And there is the two for the price of one "Pyramids," which is essentially a techno soul song that gives way to progressive R&B, two styles of music no one even knew existed before Frank. channel ORANGE loses a few points for being slightly bloated; it could have benefited from a little editing, but Frank's creative process is up there with almost anyone right now.

6. Grizzly Bear - Shields

Indie folk heroes Grizzly Bear reached new heights in their career with 2009's Vecktamiest, but if there was one caveat it was that the album was a bit too pristine. Any band with a name like Grizzly Bear had rightfully ought to try to present some ruggedness into their sound. Shields is characterized by magnificent sing alongs, wonderful harmonies, hypnotic guitar playing, splashes of psychedelia, and the much welcomed emergence of Christopher Bear as a thunderous and dynamic drummer. Daniel Rossen's "Sleeping Ute" sounds like a romp though an abandoned forest, while "gun-shy" showcases the year's most spellbinding harmony arrangements  The band even shows they can play outside their normal formula on the ambitious and experimental closer "Sun In Your Eyes." The only main downfall is the minimized role of the dynamic Ed Droste; had he been more prominent, Shields could have ranked even higher.

5. El-P - Cancer 4 Cure

With Cancer for Cure, Brooklyn rapper El-P has crafted the prototypical young man's angry rap album. Every moment is soaked in intense vitriol and aggression. His rapping is smooth, free flowing, and always hits hard. Even the beats sound like they want to start a knife fight with you. He never skirts confrontation; in fact, he goes to great lengths to make it a central theme of the record. On "Tougher Colder Killer," he declares," To the mother of my enemy, I've just killed your son/ He died with his face to the sky and it cannot be undone." Later on the album, he plays the role of interrogator, declaring that he will do whatever necessary to extract information from you. So what's his problem, exactly? He's just doing a great job getting the listener pumped up and energized. Like the musical equivalent of Red Bull, Cancer For Cure finds itself doing what metal once did: affirming the masculinity of its audience, and whipping them into a frenzy.

4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Alleljuah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

Anyone's who's invested considerable time into this record can attest to the fact that it will ring through our collective consciousness for some time. As a fully instrumental tale told over the course of four distinct movements, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is no ordinary piece of music. The heart of the album is built around two tracks -- "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire" -- that clock in at 20 minutes apiece. Over their duration they run the gamut of almost every conceivable emotion, from fist pumping exuberance to dewy eyed catharsis. They are different from one another as they can possibly be while still sounding like part of a collective whole. But there is also a strong element of apocalyptic doom, reinforced by a pair of eerie and unsettling drone tracks. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is so effective in establishing the sound of the endtimes that when the crescendos come crashing down, it isn't unreasonable to wonder if this is the last sound you will ever hear. 

3. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music

R.A.P. Music is hardly the first album to confront race relations. But while many of those albums take a confrontational, us vs. them approach, Killer Mike instead focuses on painting a compelling image of black America, summarized by the acronym he presents in the album's title - R.A.P, or rebellious African people. With his arms defiantly crossed on the album's cover, there is no secret what type of attitude is being espoused. The album's title track paints a moving portrait of the musical and cultural history of African Americans, while the bitter and biting "Reagan" illustrates effects of the drug war instigated against inner city inhabitants. Killer Mike is acerbic, caustic and full of venom, but it makes his social commentary all the more illuminating and unforgettable. From a musical perspective, R.A.P. Music succeeds because it boils rap down to its most core essentials. In a time where the genre is too often diluted by dubstep, dance music, or other elements, this is a much needed gesture.

2. Beach House - Bloom

If anyone out there is still asking the unfortunate question if we really need another album from this band, then take this as your cue to kindly shut the **** up. Guitarist Alex Scally noted during a Pitchfork interview his indignation at this assertion he claimed people were actually making. The Baltimore duo's fourth LP Bloom provides all the repudiation to that theory one could ever need, along with a whole lot more. What impresses so much about this band is how they have gotten deeper and more captivating with every album. The basic framework of each song is well constructed but simple pop music, it's what's behind it that makes this music special. Alex Scally is like the pied piper, mesmerizing listeners with his dreamy tremolo solo at the end of "Myth" or with his instantly memorable playing that can be found on any track of the album. Victoria Legrand does her part with her booming, majestic voice, while subtly coloring each composition with her deft keyboard work.

 1. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Where to begin with this album? The songwriting, the structure, the lyricism, the raw emotion and passion found here; it's all something that's wonderful and captivating and terrifying all at once. The full scope of each song on The Idler Wheel is so awesomely complex, yet at the same time is eminently presentable and accessible. In the most basic interpretation, it is a singer/songwriter album predicated heavily upon piano and possessing a very homespun texture. Yet there are idiosyncrasies that can exist only on an album like Idler Wheel. Fiona Apple is a very bizarre woman, prone to erratic and irreconcilable behavior. These attributes appear in full force on Idler Wheel, but the profession of music proves to be the perfect canvas for our star crossed starlet. 

Her writing takes on a free flowing, poetic nature, best evidenced on "Every Single Night" and "Daredevil," while "Left Alone" features an almost hip-hop style flow; Apple possesses a command of her delivery not unlike that of a slam poet. She does, however, excel at pop based song structure that is more conventional (at least by her standards). "Werewolf" cleverly uses metaphor to characterize her feelings toward a romantic interest she is not destined to have, while "Valentine" presents a strikingly detailed imagery: a dinner plate at a high end restaurant stained with teardrops. There are plenty of other examples, but what is important is that Idler Wheel rejects anything we've come to expect from modern music. Apple's constant bending and tinkering with the rules injects a new sense of vitality in music that has been sorely lacking, and one that is necessary to the sustained well being of the art form.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Totally Unauthorized Year End List: Top 75 Songs of 2012

Throughout the year I've been posting quarterly updates on the best songs from 2012. Here is the culmination of that: the top 75 songs spanning the entire year. My goal was to include as many artists as I could provided I felt they were worth of recognition, without repeating anyone. Every song listed has impacted me in some shape or from over the past 12 months.

Tallest Man on Earth's "1904" emerged as my favorite. I appreciated its melody, the intricately woven trail worn texture, and its abstract lyrics that give the imagination room to roam. It was the song I kept coming back to more than any other in 2012.

1. Tallest Man on Earth - 1904
2. Beach House - Myth
3. Fiona Apple - Left Alone
4. Grizzly Bear - gun-shy
5. Frank Ocean - Pyramids
6. Iamamiwhoami - Goods
7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Mladic
8. Killer Mike feat. Bun B, Trouble, and T.I. - Big Beast
9. Orbital - Distractions
10. Storm Corrosion - Storm Corrosion

11. Jimmy Cliff - Children's Bread
12. Grimes - Oblivion
13. El-P - The Full Retard
14. Menomena - Heavy is as Heavy Does
15. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - The Lion The Beast The Beat
16. Kendrick Lamar - Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst
17. Lotus Plaza - Strangers
18. Tame Impala - Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control
19. Cloud Nothings - Stay Useless
20. Lambchop - Gone Tomorrow

21. Ty Segall Band - I Bought My Eyes
22. Eluveitie - Rose For Epona
23. Crystal Castles - Sad Eyes
24. Swallow the Sun - Labyrinth of London (Horror Pt. 4)
25. Burial - Ashtray Wasp
26. Advent Sorrow - The Wrath in Silence
27. Katatonia - Lethean
28. Lupe Fiasco - Form Follows Function
29. Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind
30. Animal Collective - Applesauce

31. Purity Ring - Fineshrine
32. Koi. - Pinwheel
33. Alcest - Là Où Naissent les Couleurs Nouvelles 
34. Sleigh Bells - Demons
35. BadBadNotGood - Rotten Decay
36. Diiv - Doused
37. Dum Dum Girls - I Got Nothing
38. Dwight Yoakam - 3 Pears
39. Yeasayer - Fingers Never Bleed
40. Of Monsters & Men - King & Lionheart

41. Brad Mehldau Trio - 26
42. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
43. Porcelain Raft - Unless You Speak From Your Heart
44. Goatwhore - In Deathless Tradition
45. Soap&Skin - Voyage Voyage
46. Accept - Hung, Drawn, & Quartered
47. Emily Portman - Old Mother Eve
48. Fang Island - Kindergarten
49. The Big Sleep - Four Wishes
50. Lifeformed - 9 Bit Expedition

51. Daniel Rossen - Silent Song
52. Okera - In Solitude
53. The Shins - Simple Song
54. Pussy Riot - Putin Lights up the Fires
55. Janus - Promise to No One
56. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Kinski Assassin
57. Jack White - Trash Tongue Talker
58. Adele - Skyfall
59. A Fine Frenzy - They Can't If You Don't Let Them
60. Leech - Turbolina

61. Black Breath - Sentenced to Life
62. Graveyard - Slow Motion Countdown
63. Trash Talk - F.E.B.N.
64. Kathleen Edwards - House Full of Empty Rooms
65. Domo Genesis - Prophecy
66. The xx - Angels
67. Kings - Galaxy Wave
68. Off! - Wiped Out
69. Dinosaur Jr. - Watch the Corners
70. Destini Beard - My Last Goodbye

71. Oddisee feat. Oliver Daysoul - You Know Who You Are (Acoustic)
72. Brothertiger - I've Been Waiting
73. Clubroot - Left Hand Path
74. Mount Eerie - Through the Trees Pt. 2
75. Dan Deacon - Lots

Friday, December 28, 2012

Totally Unauthorized Presents: the Top 10 Live Shows of 2012

It's always fun to debate who put out the best albums of each year, and what the best singles were. But it is never wise to lose focus of which bands put it all out there when it counts, and which ones don't. After spending the past year canvassing the best acts to cross Nashville's city limits, these are the 10 bands who put on the best shows this year.

10. Zammuto 

June 27 at Ryman Auditorium

Nick Zammuto, coming off his success from Books, needed an outlet to project his weird and wacky ways and has more than delivered with his eponymous band. Serving as the opener to Explosions in the Sky, they claim the distinction of being the only opening act to make this list. Mr. Zammuto showed great innovation, using mass media and technology as a supplement to his band's performance  A marquee projected videos designed to complement their songs; one clip showed a guy doing tricks with a tech deck skateboard, while another featured a Christmas tree catching on fire. Highly technical and offbeat drum patterns laid the foundation for Zammuto's sound, which ranged from rock music with funky digitized vocals to hard edged raging rave techno.

9. Local H 

December 20 at Mercy Lounge 

This is a slightly unexpected pick, since this just occurred a few days ago. Yet it turned out to be the perfect capper for the 2012 concert year. Gathered before a sparse crowd at Mercy Lounge, Scott Lucas and Brian St. Clair pulled out all the stops to make sure everyone had a great time. Their dingy, dirty hard rock attack was simple yet effective. They had the crowd enthusiastically shouting along with the refrain of "California Songs," which jeers the oversaturation of songs dedicated to the Sunshine State. They joined in later on another song on which they were shouting about a high fiving motherfucker. It was tough to make out the rest. To cap it off, Lucas and crew preformed a cover of Rush's "2112" in honor of the pending Mayan "apocalypse," then capped it off with a demented performance of "Jingle Bells."

8. Graveyard

January 20 at Exit/In

With a name like Graveyard you might expect the sound of doom and death, but you haven't truly lived until you've heard rock like this. Graveyard doesn't try to hide their influences. Their sound is unabashedly inspired by 70s classic rock. Everything from the way they dress to the way they play to the way they rock is vintage 70s. Joakim Nilsson is a fiery, passionate rock singer with enough soul to make the devil salivate. With a high energy bassist in Rickard Edlund, a pulverizing dual guitar battery, and enough heart to convert even the most ardent critics of heavy music, these Swedes seem to have a better understanding of what makes rock music great than most American or British bands today do.

7. Godspeed You! Black Emperor

October 12 at Cannery Ballroom

Godspeed You! Black Emperor seemingly exists on an otherworldly, spectral plane. The 15 minute drone that opens each show seems much greater than the sum of its parts; it could possibly be a sound generated by a machine in the future, broadcasting through time and space. No one does a show like Godspeed. There are no lyrics, no spoken word, not even a microphone anywhere on stage so the listener is left to make whatever of the music they will. Their sound is not conventional. During the long droning buildups, it's best to just shut your eyes and let the music slowly surround you. When this nine piece outfit finally reach the crushing, crashing crescendos, however, it will be an experience unlike any other. The sound quality was simply incredible; no disc or Ipod could ever hope to come close. The 43 minute piece "Behemoth," along with fan favorite "Storm" from their vaunted Skinny Fists album were among its chief beneficiaries.

6. The Tallest Man on Earth

July 23 at Cannery Ballroom

To be frank, Swedish folk singer Kristain Matsson doesn't put on much of a stage show. The stage is rather barren, with only a piano, a pair of guitars, and the man himself. There isn't much to look at, and fanfare is almost nil. Does he need it? Please. Matsson exercises a unique command of his audience by weaving a connection with the listener precious few artists ever take the time to cultivate. His woodsy, folky, frontier melodies, his gentle guitar and piercing lyricism presents a portrait that dares you to not get lost within it. The moving elegance of a piece like "Where Does My Bluebird Fly" washes over its audience like ripples in a pond. Meanwhile, the cracking "King of Spain" is filled with such a potent, essential sense of urgency that it effortlessly creates the sort of static jolt that not only reaffirms we are alive, but that the world is a vibrant and moving place we should feel privileged to exist within.

5. Cloud Nothings

March 20 at The End

On their breakout album Attack on Memory, famed punk producer Steve Albini gave these Cleveland rockers a thin, icy, and cold sound; but that is a markedly different from how the sound the band had up to that point. In person, Cloud Nothings present a much heavier, rawer, and more muscular sound which drove the crowd nuts in the tiny confines of The End. In just over 30 minutes they ripped through the entire Attack on Memory album, presenting it in a totally new way. Dylan Baldi's piercing shrieks on "Wasted Days," the frenetic and offbeat drum patterns on "Cut You," and the crowd shout along invoked on set closer "No Future No Past" made for a wholly compelling night of heavy rock delivered by one of indie rock's best up and coming bands.

4. Kathleen Edwards

January 28 at Exit/In

There are few performers as passionate or thoughtful as Kathleen Edwards.. The Canadian folk/singer songwriter lit up Exit/In in January by pouring every drop of herself into her performance  The intensity is etched plainly all over her face, from the burning drive behind her eyes to the way her head shakes ever so slightly when belting it out. Ringing tracks like "Back to Me" hit like a gale force dervish, but she also showed she could excel at quiet numbers. One of the most touching moments came when the band left her side for a performance of "House Full of Empty Rooms," one of the most introspective and moving songs in her catalog. An unexpected surprise was the appearance of her beau, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who overwhelmed the crowd with a volley of emotional guitar solos.

3. Beach House

September 15 at Marathon Music Works

Baltimore dream pop duo Beach House take the cake in terms of immersion and setting atmosphere. They don't pull anything fancy. Their set doesn't sound much different from the record, but any music fan with a pulse should thrill to be draped and shrouded in the sounds of Bloom and Teen Dream. Beach House are on a clear upward trajectory, with each album showing considerable improvement over the one that came before it. Victoria Legrand's voice cut through the mist and darkness with a ringing clarity and power, while Alex Scally's lush guitar work carted the crowd into a haze. They hit the essential tunes in their discography, from the effusive "Myth" to the booming "Take Care," while also providing several surprises from their back catalog. Without doubt, Beach House shows were among the most hypnotic experiences to be had anywhere.

2. Crystal Castles

October 11 at Marathon Music Works

The appeal of a Crystal Castles show is that it is like an out of control train whose brakes have failed, and the whole contraption is rumbling ahead at full speed. The crowds are insane, constantly moshing, thrashing, and gyrating. The core fan obsession is geared toward Alice Glass, who climbs over the barricade to crowd surf several times throughout the show. Giving Alice a shove to propel her through the crowd, and getting tangled up in her microphone cord are all very electrifying experiences. The music itself isn't too shabby either. Ethan Kath's beats range from icily dissonant to warm, full of passion, and fully emotive. The only downside was the sound wasn't that great. The low beats sounded fine but the higher pitched twinkling beats didn't come through very well. If not for that, this show might have taken the top spot. But what Crystal Castles present is an alluring frontwoman going farther than virtually any other artist to ignite a crowd, backed by some of the most inventive rave/dance electronica in recent memory.

1. Grizzly Bear

September 18 at Ryman Auditorium

Grizzly Bear's set at the Ryman brought together all the elements necessary for a fantastic performance. The first was top notch material delivered from an experienced, imaginative band in the prime of their career. For an hour and a half they weaved their blend of pastoral indie pop, complete with a dizzying array of vocal harmonies. There is a great sense of variety inherent in this material. "Sleeping Ute" and "Southern Point" concentrate on painting a rough, woodsy aesthetic while "Two Weeks" and "While You Wait for the Others" are clean cut bona fide indie pop hits.

Their set benefited from unrivaled art direction. Rich shades of purple lit up the stage while deep orange and red hues captured the essence of the season. The band also benefits from a standout frontman. Lead singer Ed Droste carefully tailored his remarks to fit his crowd. He commented on the recent college football game between the University of Tennessee and Florida, which took place while the band was playing in Knoxville two days earlier. He also congratulated a newly engaged couple in the crowd, while jolting the audience to their feet during key moments of the show.

And to cap it all off, it all took place in one of the most acoustically perfect buildings in the nation, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Every little nuance of their intricately structured harmony arrangements, every flourish of Daniel Rossen's guitar, and every ounce of power delivered from Christopher Bear's drumkit rang through triumphantly. As a nice homage to Nashville, they decided to take full advantage of the moment by playing an acoustic version of "All We Ask," a divine sendoff to the best live show of 2012.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Lonerism's warped synths provide clear direction for Tame Impala

Aussie psychedelic rockers Tame Impala have grown by leaps and bounds since their last record release two years ago. Their debut, Innerspeaker, was a promising piece of psychedelic inspired rock, but Lonerism goes much farther in all possible directions. It's an album defined as much by the bombastic and highly stylized keyboard riffing as it is the sky high tenor and profound insight of frontman Kevin Parker. It's deeply rooted in 60s and 70s rock traditions, yet sounds and speaks like no other record.

It sprawls forth like a warm summer day, rarely revealing a sense of urgency but rather taking its time as each song slowly develops within a hazy, lazy bath. As an opener, "Be Above It" is rather underwhelming and comes nowhere close to showing off Parker's potential, but the two tracks immediately following it consist of tightly structured pop nuggets that begin to give a much clearer picture of what Lonerism is about.

In the wake of Innerspeaker, the band became besieged by a deluge of Beatle comparisons. The most obvious similarity lies in the stunning similarity Parker's voice bears with John Lennon. There are also a number of instrumental flourishes that pay homage to that great band. But don't make the mistake of trying to write them off as Beatle impostors. For one, the Fab Four never had electronics like this.

"Enders Toi" immediately sets the tone for the album. Its spacey, warped and tripped out synthesizer patterns figure heavily into the framework of the album. It is catchy, taut, and tightly edited, with a great vocal performance and a vibrant bassline that is given plenty of room to breathe. The following track, "Apocalypse Dreams," is even spacier and more magnetizing . These tracks deliver the same kind of profound shock you got the first time you heard the Beatles "Free as a Bird" and hearing Lennon's voice unearthed for the first time since his death in 1980.

However, Parker quickly espouses the notion that he's trying to craft an album full of sing alongs. Many of the pieces on Lonerism are structured around the texture and fabric of the song as opposed to a distinct sense of melody.

"Mind Mischief" starts with a hazy, lazy guitar riff with a major George Harrison vibe, before moving into a series of drum fills that sound like they could have been played only by Ringo. "Music to Walk Home By" is another track bolstered by in your face synths; the keyboards and drumming are the standout elements on the track.

Lead single "Elephant" is the album's tastiest and crunchiest rock song, with a warped middle section and some clever vocal inflections implemented in the final verse, while "Nothing That Has Happened So Far has Been Anything We Could Control" conjures up early morning technicolor fantasies from the 1970s. Its intro and general vibe sounds like something Black Moth Super Rainbow might do.

Parker is also quickly establishing himself as one of today's strongest writers, and "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" is one of his greatest statements. It captures remarkably well the spirit of frustration that comes from expending great energy to move forward while seeing very little fruit of your labor. It benefits from a soul inspired chorus that reaches for the skies, counterbalanced by more mellow verses that bring it back down to earth. Some very loud Ringo like drumming in the last chorus is a nice touch.

In addition, there are many little fantastic little lyrical nuggets sprinkled all throughout the album. On "Apocalypse Dreams" he pierces us by asking, "Are you too terrified to try your best/ just to end up with an educated guess?" Later, on "Everything that has Happened...," he notes "Every man is happy until happiness is suddenly a goal."

"Keep on Lying" is another song with a great concept. It is very catchy for the first half, talking about a relationship with a girl where he isn't in love but struggles to find the nerve to tell her. The second half is all instrumental and spacey and keyboard heavy.

Some numbers miss the mark unfortunately  The album's weakest point comes on "Why Won't They Talk To Me?" The entire tune is middling and hazy, with a repetitive main refrain that doesn't really go anywhere and just floats around.

Many of the songs unfold at a lazy pace, though sometimes this is more of a hindrance than anything else. Many songs tend to float around in space and drag on at times, and it doesn't always feel like the music is tightly edited or even knows where it's going all the time. Parker's vocal performance is fine, although on some songs he doesn't show off much range. A lack of melody on other pieces causes the album to lack a sense of urgency it could sorely use.

Beach House guitarist Alex Scally has long complained about people listening to his band  for strictly for their sound in general, when he is trying to put focus on the individual songs. But Parker has seemingly done the opposite here. Aside from a few prime cuts, Lonerism seems geared more toward emitting a particular type of sound as opposed to focusing on structuring and crafting the individual songs themselves. This results in an album that is inconsistent, has a tendency to drift around too aimlessly, and loses its sense of direction even on its stronger pieces.

What Parker has accomplished on Lonerism can't be understated; Tame Impala's sounds are clearly rooted in the 60s and 70s, yet they sound specifically like no band from that period. Yet the opportunities he missed must also be observed; a little fine crafting and tuning here could have helped this album be truly exceptional rather than one that is just above average.

Score: 86/100

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chicago two piece Local H pulverize Mercy with punishing hard rock

Scott Lucas is a very serious man, and in all things it's easy to tell he's very intense. At least that's the case when it comes to preforming live with his long running garage rock band, Local H. The two piece Chicago hard rockers hit their stride in the mid-90s with a run of semi successful singles and have kept it going ever since.

Scott Lucas of Local H goes nuts during a shred session at Mercy Lounge.

On an oppressively blustery and windy Thursday night, Lucas took at the stage at Nashville's finest club venue, Mercy Lounge, in a stonewashed plaid shirt that a piece of vintage 90s fashion. He looks like a less photogenic version of Leo DiCaprio, though his music rings through with such a straightforward, aggressive vigor that there is no doubting the sincerity of his craft. The playing isn't very technical aside from drummer Brian St. Clair, but who says raw aggression can't be every bit as engaging?

His sound, is geared toward creating far more noise than two guys should be capable of making. This is achieved partly though playback switches that activate guitar rhythms,  partly through an echo effect applied to his mic, and partly through pure badassery. The raw energy put out by this two piece is reminiscent of the Japandroids; that is, if the Japandroids were in their forties -- older, smarter, wiser, and perhaps more cynical. But no less viscous.

He was pretty energetic -- jumping off speakers, headbanging, even grabbing a fan's phone at one point a fiddling with it before handing it back and resuming his playing. And he had several surprises in store for us all though the night. Notable setlist standouts included "Bound for the Floor," from 1996, essentially the band's biggest hit. It has a washed out 90s atmosphere reminiscent of grunge and Nirvana without explicitly sounding like either. It's perfectly acceptable skateboarding music.

Lucas also shows off his humor on "California Songs," on which he derides the vast volume of songs paying tribute to the the Golden State. He had the crowd enthusiastically shouting along with the central refrain, "No more California songs!"

"And fuck New York too!" he spat.

Brian St. Clair, left, and Scott Lucas comprise Chicago based hard rock band Local H.

Mayan references were impossible to get away from, even here. Lucas got into a conversation with one fan
over whether we were all going to burn up at midnight or at 5 am. Later, he drove the point home with a cover of Rush's "2112." It all ended with a demented Christmas carol. He looked like a mental patient while singing Jingle Bells while a piercing layer of feedback buzzed in the background. It concluded with Lucas shouting the final refrain.

Local rockers 100 Watt Opera warmed the seat for him, who brought a vintage high flying rock attack to Mercy. Their sound bared strong resemblance to Van Halen or perhaps some random NWOBHM band, albeit without the godly solos. Instead we had to suffice with a series of low volume wah solos from the strings of lead guitarist Jesse Floyd.

Singer William Baugh sounded like he was trying to do a simultaneous impersonation of Bruce Dickinson and Blaze Bayley -- and a poor one that at. The band was high spirited and crunchy enough to be engaging, though not very fulfilling.

Lucas himself kicked off the night with an acoustic set, preforming under the name Scott Lucas & the Married Men. The set consisted of about five or six heartfelt and meaningful tunes, culminating in his howling cover of "Ain't No Grave."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Peter Jackson puts Tolkien's Hobbit novel under microscope

These days we seem to expect our epic fantasy to be impossibly complex. The current standard bearer, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series (more widely known as Game of Thrones) features a cast of hundreds packed into thousands of pages of ancient lore, exotic peoples, and enough conspiracy theories to make even Lost look pretty linear by comparison. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time also comes to mind -- a series so complex and long running that it wasn't even finished in the author's lifetime.

But it has not always been this way. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit has achieved the most transcendent honor of all. It is a fantasy novel that has risen above the trappings of its genre to become one of high literature's more respected works. Published in 1937, it was originally intended as a children's book. At its core, it is a simple adventure story; the plot is not complex in any way. Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield and his band of 13 dwarves are on a quest to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug. Renowned wizard Gandalf the Grey recruits the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins as the 14th member of the company and the stage is set. It is this tale that director Peter Jackson now brings to the big screen, following the heralded adaption of the Lord of the Rings series.

The displaced dwarf company will stop at nothing to reclaim their home.

On the surface, it is easy to see how the simplicity of The Hobbit can cause the final result to be markedly different from other recent adaptions of fantasy works. Although there is a good foundation of lore and backstory, the scope is not large. The novel itself is mainly concerned with tracking the progress of this merry band of warriors, detailing their triumphs and setbacks as they engage each new obstacle in their path. Unlike many other works of fantasy, The Hobbit novel features no key story lines taking place halfway across the world, or on different planets, on in different timelines. Everything is focused on the here and now.

This might make Jackson's plan to split the book into three films appear dicey, especially given that only one film was dedicated to each Lord of the Rings volume. But what he chooses to work with instead is The Hobbit's primary strength - Tolkien's boundless imagination. The first 30 minutes of the film is dedicated to detailing the lore and history of Thorin's dwarf race, which includes tracing lineages and recounting the glory that was the dwarf kingdom. In short, the type of stuff fantasy fans geek out over. But when it gets going, it really gets going.

Jackson's presentation of The Hobbit is a fairly muss free and faithful adaption of the original source material. Over the film's two and half hour running time our little band duels with trolls, orcs, stone giants, and much more. The dwarf "invasion" of Bilbo's hobbit hole, orchestrated by Gandalf, should be familiar to anyone who's thumbed the first 30 pages or so of the novel. Ian McKellen once again does an admirable job as Gandalf, who at this point in the storyline is not that prestigious in the wizarding world but shows considerable foresight. His quirky nature is on display early in the film with a quote pulled straight from the pages of Tolken's novel. The scene occurs when Bilbo wishes Gandalf good morning:

"What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

Gandalf the Grey espouses widsom to keep his crew from drifting off track. 

Richard Armitage, who also shares the spotlight in the role of Thorin, depicts a generally sullen, brooding leader of a dwarf company faced with near impossible odds. The role doesn't require Armitage to show off a broad range of emotions, but he does a great job showing Thorin's inner fire and makes his stubbornness seem authentic and believable. The dwarf band he leads is a hearty and rough but lovable bunch; the costume design and styling of their facial hair is spot on and shows an incredible amount of detail.

Then, of course, there is Martin Freeman in the role of the titular character, Bilbo Baggins. His role is easiest to identify with, as he is often unsure of himself and feels conflicted, but his sense of honor urges him onward. He is sometimes bumbling. When trolls steal a pair of horses from the dwarves Bilbo hurries after to investigate, but not before grabbing a couple of soup bowls he had set down. His journey to find himself is as universal as it is heart warming. It is a path that won't reach its terminus until the series end, but near this film's conclusion Bilbo delivers simple but stirring declaration of his humanity when he answers charges from dwarves who doubt his sincerity to their cause:

"I often think of the shire. You see, that's where I belong. That's home. You don't have one. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can."

Bilbo Baggins reaches within himself to find strength he didn't know he had.

There are some deviations from the source material. The wizard Radagast the Brown, a character only alluded to in the pages of Tolkien's novel, makes an appearance, spends a considerable amount of time establishing himself as some sort of hedgehog healer, and warns Gandalf of a threat posed by a mysterious necromancer. These changes serve primarily to bloat the film rather than to elucidate any of Tolkien's themes, which becomes an issue in a film already as slow paced as Peter Jackson's Hobbit.

As expected, the film's set pieces and art direction is second to none. The creatures of Tolkien's world are stunningly rendered and detailed, and the physical landscape is also gorgeous. Everything from Bilbo's Shire to the crumbling rain soaked mountain trails to the expansive, mountainous caves the crew gets lost in is nothing short of beautiful and picturesque. The score is appropriately sweeping and cinematic, but doesn't sound like anything that hasn't been done before and as such doesn't stand out much.

But it would be criminal to omit mention of the Gollum scene, essentially pulled directly from the book. Bilbo gets lost in an interminable network of caves, and his only chance for escape is to win a game of riddles against Gollum. Lose, and Gollum devours him. The sense of tension in the scene is palpable; cat and mouse game between the two is well paced and deviously structured.

If there is one criticism of the scene -- and it is very minor -- it would be that a small bit of the tension is lost from the book. The mind's eye has a way of shaping characters that may differ from the way they are portrayed in film  In Tolkien's novel, Gollum is a very grotesque creature. Meeting your end at his hands would not be a good way to go. In the film however, it's hard to get the sense that the shrivelled Gollum is capable of doing serious damage to the armed Bilbo. But to be fair, there isn't much, if anything, the filmmakers could credibly do to reshape the fan favorite Gollum.

The always apprehensive Gollum fashions himself into the creepiest game show host ever.

Peter Jackson's Hobbit film is in many ways a great triumph. Fans thirsty for a new Tolkien adaptation or those simply searching for a the next big box office event will likely be elated. As an adaptation of of Tolkien's work, it faithfully captures the necessary scenes and doesn't show too much ambition from the writers or filmmakers (in stark contrast to the latest season of HBO's Game of Thrones).

Yet one begins to see rather quickly the implications of adapting a rather simple novel into three full length films. Pacing is the film's main issue; it lumbers and lurches through exposition for roughly the first hour. It is great material in written format, yet when depicted on the sliver screen something seems to be lost in transition. Simply put, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes too long to get started, and when it does the additions and deviations do more to detract from the experience than add to it. It remains to be seen where Jackson will go with the plot threads opened here, but one can only hope that the best is still in store.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Godspeed's return takes listeners on journey to hell, but not back

Is it coincidence that Godspeed has returned at this very time, in this very place?

Godspeed You! Black Emperor was one of the first and best post-rock bands, laying down a foundation with the crushing opus Raise Your Fists to Heaven Like Skinny Antennas. With a three pronged guitar battery, two drummers, and a litany of other various effects and instruments, the Canadian band perfected a sound based on slow, churning buildups that would eventually launch themselves into a massive tidal swell of heavy, emotionally intense walls of guitars and melody, before finally deconstructing itself and ending as it began. Song lengths averaged around 20 minutes. Imitators soon emerged. But following 2002's Yanqui U.X.O., Godspeed quietly packed up and slipped off into the night.

That changed with the release of Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, announced roughly two weeks prior to its October 16 release. Word of a new Godspeed album leaked when the band nonchalantly began selling copies of it at their merch table during their latest tour, before it had even been commercially released.

Now they have returned, on the eve of the Mayan endtimes, and have produced an album that could very well be its soundtrack.

The album consists of two full length tracks, 20 minutes apiece in length, along with two abbreviated drone pieces. Opener "Mladic" is a roaring, rumbling, doom laden piece with full throated guitars playing a theme which sounds like a Russian hat dance at the apocalypse. No doubt this is the most aggressive and hard rocking piece on the album. Several trends become quickly apparent. There is almost always a layer of drone supplementing whatever the lead melody is, and this drone is always shifting and evolving. It's quite impossible to pin down its exact nature for any length of time.

Sophie Trudeau's violin is almost never used as lead instrument, in the classical sense, but is rather used as a tool to add various coloring and texture to the drone. At the beginning of "Mladic," she sets a mood with a Middle Eastern/Russian tinged lead, one of the few times Trudeau's playing is plainly visible. Other than the violin, the band's drone is created by an immense switchboard capable of creating a dynamic litany of effects, along with the continual feedback delivered from the strings of Godspeed's three guitarists.

"Mladic" follows the classic song structure developed by the band since its infancy, which means the first five to six minutes of the song consist of this drone, building up the tension for what is to come. When they let loose, they really outdo themselves. During the opening those three guitars lumber like sleeping giants, yet when the main melody kicks in the listener is left in awe of the power those bandmembers are able to harness from their instruments. From there the song proceeds like a roller coaster, quieting and slowing the pace only to build back up again. By the time the song concludes to sound of clanking metal tin cans, Godspeed have unleashed a tour de force, an oeuvre that leaves the listener breathless and winded. Its ability to communicate such dark thoughts and feelings with only the benefit of instrumental sounds is so impressive that it serves to make spoken language look like a primitive institution by comparison.

"We Drift Like Worried Fire" takes a much different tack. The build up displays how proficient the band is at utilizing drone in innovative ways. The lead melody remains relatively simple for the first few minutes while the drone in the background continues to shift and evolve. Slowly, the rest of the instruments begin to come in, and begin to produce post rock that sounds like their take on a sound Grace Cathedral Park or This Will Destroy You might go for.

At its height, the song is like a great catharsis; it provides a strong emotional appeal that can and will tug at your heart strings. It gets droney and esoteric along the way, but it gets powerful again near the end with the chugging clanging of the guitar, the awe inspiring leads of the violin and cello, the drumming, and the combination  of various other instruments. If "Mladic" is concerned with apocalyptic doom, "We Drift Like Worried Fire" tends to view the world with misty eyed wonder and a genuine sense of tenderness.

Of the two drone pieces, "Their Helicopters Sing" is the more engaging. Bridging the gap between "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire," it initially sounds like Trudeau is trying to saw through her violin strings. The piece exudes a general sense of dread, and sounds like bagpipes playing from the moor of the dead. "Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable" is the de facto album closer, but serves as more of a moment of reflection rather than a traditional closing track. It takes on a very alienlike quality; other than that little can be said of it other than it consists mostly of a busy drone with little else to support it. The layers slowly strip away to close the album with a gentle hum.

A general way to think about the album is this: "Mladic" represents the end of the world, "Their Helicopters Sing" illustrates the realm of the dead/dying afterward. Then, "We Drift Like Worried Fire" provides optimism and hope that maybe mankind will pull through, until "Strung Like Lights..." squashes all hope and marks the end in cold, debilitating fashion.

There's no question Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! can be a difficult record. It consists of only two suites that can truly be considered main attractions, with each piece intended to be observed as a unit. This can cause the album to seem shorter than its 50+ minute run time.

But ultimately that's trivial. The album evokes dark feelings and moods, though often drives with an enlightened spirit and can generate a true sense of optimism. This is the post rock record for those who don't listen to post rock. Though it's an instrumental record, it has plenty of things to say; the amount of messages it can send is limited only by the listener's imagination. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is among the greatest of achievements due to the band's ability to speak volumes with only the limited tools at hand.

Score: 93/100

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor sequel fixes key issues from Lasers

What type of statement do you make after the most disappointing album of your career? With a blank cover, a blank jewelcase and and no text in the booklet, Lupe Fiasco decides it's best to forget image and let the music do the talking. After being embroiled in a nasty label dispute that sent his third album, Lasers, down in flames, Lupe returns with his long awaited followup just over a year later.

Clashes with his label bosses interminably delayed the release of Lasers, and when it finally hit shelves it bared little resemblance to the albums that put initially put Lupe on the map. The first step to reclaiming  credibility with long time fans starts with the release of Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, which he first announced in 2009.

It is a major improvement over Lasers. The shameless lack of authenticity in the danceclub beats is generally rectified, and the revolving door of Top 40 pop collaborators that marred Lasers is mostly held in check. The first eight tracks present Lupe's opening argument for his continued relevance, and he attempts to get back to what made him an overnight sensation in the first place.

The album's theme is dedicated to focusing on America, and surveying its social, political, and race related issues. "Strange Fruition" sees Lupe criticizing the ADD generation, while going after his usual targets - economic and racial inequality. A heavily vocoderized vocal from saxophonist Casey Benjamin glues it all together. He attacks pedophilia in the clergy on "Lamborghini Angels," while "Ital (Roses)" points out the shallow and false imagery in modern hip hop, while sounding very much like a modern hip hop song itself.

The album's best track is by far "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)." The lyrics are as crisp and poignant as anything Lupe has written; he reels off a laundry list of social and political ills, including the over proliferation of social media, deceptive practices employed by retailers, and the declining American education system. As always, he tackles issues in a clever and witty way but also with a sense of urgency. "It's all one song short of a setlist/ a couple croissants short of a continental breakfast," he declares.

It also has the best beat on the album. Unfortunately, it's not his own. The brassy horn beat was pulled from  Pete Rock & C.K. Smooth's 1992 hit "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)." Lupe's piece is still effective if you're willing to overlook the fact that beat isn't his own, but it does ding his credibility a bit. At least he has good taste.

Lyrically, however, Lupe seems more effective when he selects a single topic and sticks to it for the course of a song. A prime example is "Bitch Bad," on which Lupe gives a detailed breakdown on miscommunication and misunderstandings between males and females centering around the word bitch.

He discusses how, through parental misguidance and uninhibited access to the Internet, young boys and girls get an eyeful of hip hop culture and come away with different ideas on the role of women, which leads to a disconnect between genders. The lyrics are relevant and well thought out; however the production is a different story. The beat sounds like something pulled from a Nelly record from 10 years ago, and when you factor in his low energy, elongated drawl it adds up to a track that is less musically effective than it should be.

Another well focused track is "Unforgivable Youth," which concentrates on looking back through mankind's past, then uses it to forecast a possible doomsday scenario for America. Jason Evigan's hook provides a worldly and historical flare while also sounding like something that could work in a high class urban environment. It's the most innovative track Lupe's come up with since "All Black Everything."

The laid back freestyle "Form Follows Function" is another album highlight. The beat is very mellow and chill, and the lyrics demonstrate that Lupe can be poetic and free flowing without having to wax about society's ills.

Some tracks hit wide of the mark, however. Poo Bear makes a pair of appearances on the album, neither of them worth crossing the hundred acre woods for. The most regrettable of the two comes on "Heart Donor," a half baked attempt at smooth R&B with a warmed over hook that makes Chris Brown's latest effort seem commendable. The other track he's featured on, "Brave Heart," is a slight improvement with its martial hook and beat, but is still one the album's weakest.

The merry go round of no name collaborators that made Lasers such a joke soon becomes established on Food & Liquor Pt. 2, it just takes until the second half of the album for it to kick in. The overall quality is much better than it was on Lasers, however it's difficult to find a guest that makes a significant positive contribution to the album. The oh so debonair Bilal kicks in suave but ultimately empty hook, while Lupe spits a few verses that have little or nothing to do with the sentiment being expressed in the chorus.

Some of the songs on the album's second half can be enjoyable if you're willing to admit that they are what they are: catchy, gloss covered pop singles created for corporate profit, but that still display a certain level of charisma and ingenuity. Jane $$$, who sings a chorus about the USSR government on "Cold War," sounds like an anonymous hook singer ripped from the second disc of Tupac's All Eyez on Me. But the concept of the cold war, which seems like an odd topic for a rap album, begins to seem clever when Lupe relates it as a personal cold war he wages everyday over the death of someone close to him.

Lupe gets pulled off his game on "Battle Scars," a pop song with a prominent chorus delivered by Aussie singer Guy Sebastian. He drops his intellectual  politically conscious style to deliver what is basically a dramatic breakup song that sounds tailor made for relationships we had when we were 16. The silliness of comparing that to an actual war, along with the reverent tone the song tries to take makes it so trite and melodramatic that you could be excused for assuming Avril Lavigne was one of the lead producers. Everything about it is so fake and sappy, straight down to Lupe emphatically shouting "Never!" on the final chorus.

Sebastian, for his part, is a fine singer but is indistinguishable from the army of corporate pop vocalists. It doesn't help that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Matt Mahaffey, the guest singer from "State Run Radio" off Lasers. Atlantic's formula seems to be so derivative that even Lupe's various guest singers start to sound alike from one album to the next.

Lupe's last hurrah comes on the closer, "Hood Now," which may sound lazy and repetitive to those who aren't paying attention. But the song is actually a brilliant demonstration of the gains made by African American society into a culture that was once dominated by whites. Among his examples are the Ivy League education system, professional basketball, and of course, the White House. "They gave us scraps/ some of it old/ we cooked it up/ and called it soul/ it's good now/ it's good now/ you like that?/ It's hood now," he boasts.

It all adds up to a record that's a real mixed bag. It's easy to want to root for Lupe; he's one of the few rappers today who stakes his reputation on delivering substance in his message. But he also made career decisions that led him to Atlantic Records and a severe commercial over saturation of his sound. His debut, the original Food & Liquor album, was characterized by low key beats that gave Lupe the space he needed to do his thing. Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, conversely, just doesn't capture the same authentic feeling, and bears little similarity to its predecessor save for the intro.

Though it has its moments, it still feels like a corporate piece of malfeasance with little goal other than turning profits. Atlantic Records seems to be the culprit behind this more so than Lupe. With such a deep well of talent, his best move would be to pull a Radiohead and form his own label upon the expiration of his Atlantic contract. He likely has the fortune and popularity to pull it off. But either way, fans of his first two albums, along with hip hop fans in general, can only hope his next record for Atlantic will be his last.

Score: 77/100

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Crystal Castles continue their evolution with tormented third release

It's an age old question. There are those among us who feel like music should strive to be cheerful in nature: that it should be something to lift our spirits and should always provide a rosy disposition. Yet there are others who see beauty in the bleakness, who view despair as a delicacy. If you're one of these, Crystal Castles has an album for you.

They haven't taken long to leave their mark. After a promising debut in 2008, the Canadian electronic duo struck gold with their sophomore album II, one of the most distinctive electronic albums of the past several years. The release of III reinforces a striking fact about Crystal Castles that every album they have released are markedly different from one another.

Their debut was a visceral, aural experience rife with clinking and clunking of old video game machines, while their sophomore release drew much more heavily from IDM and refined their production; the electronics on that record were as sharp as a razor's edge. Main composer Ethan Kath has ensured that III shares little in common with those, so it's tough to make a direct comparison. But it doesn't take long to determine that it's much more atmospheric and even more dream like than its predecessor.

Crystal Castles have typically been a tough nut lyrically, with most of the vocals being glitched beyond comprehension. But would you have guessed Alice Glass as defender of the downtrodden? It seems to be what she's going for. In numerous interviews, she's spoken extensively on issues pertaining to women's rights and equality as well as flagging quality of life and limited rights of people around the world. These themes heavily inform III.

Lead single "Plague" shares fears of military and economic oppression on a third world scale, while noting we may be contributing to this descent with our own actions. The music is carefully building up in the background, bubbling and broiling until Alice at last reaches her grand realization: "I am the plague!" Her sense of rage and apprehension is palpable from the instant you hit play.

The theme is revisited several times later, including "Wrath of God," where Alice's muffled voice warns against the loss of independence and heritage. With its thumping, throbbing bassline and its organ driven, cathedral like lead melody, this is techno that feels fit for the Sistine Chapel.

The presence of muffled vocals is a recurring trend the band uses to augment the downbeat and dreary sound of the album. The technique shows up again on "Pale Flesh." The lead in consists of high pitched, glitchy electronic work that pushes the upper frequencies of your sound system. Alice's voice is so muffled, echoy and reverb coated that it sounds more like a flock of birds frantically fluttering in their cages than an actual human voice. This is one of the most suffocating, bleak and oppressive songs on the disc, but it does soften up a bit here and there so as to allow time for some quiet musing.

Some of their greatest opportunities to honestly affect a listener have come on their more melodic work, and they certainly haven't abandoned that. "Affection," for example, has the heaviest IDM influences and as such resembles the material on II most closely. Like "Celestica," it stakes its reputation on Alice's breathy vocals, and when her voice goes low it is truly one of the most stunning moments on the album.

"Kerosene" is also one of the album's more melodic pieces. Its rumbling, phantasmal bass synth glides into your eardrums like a storm front billowing out of your headphones. It rests on a variety of glitch/IDM lead melodies to augment the effect, along with Alice's crystal clear vocals.

One of the big strengths of III is its diversity  "Sad Eyes" is one of the album's heaviest rave pieces. A pulsating bass beat gyrates underneath, creating a hot dance stunner that still manages to evoke a cold emotional spectrum. "Insulin," at just over a minute and a half, follows in the tradition of "Fainting Spells" and "Doe Deer" as one of the most difficult, dissonant, and experimental tracks in their catalog. A liberal static fuzz emotionally distances you from the track, while Glass's voice is garbled far past the point of recognition.

Elsewhere, "Violent Youth" proves Crystal Castles are capable of injecting warmth into a song. With its fun, bouncy beat, it's easily the most upbeat of III's offerings. The low, warbling bass synth from "Kerosene" also shows up in a couple of other tracks, including "Transgender" and "Telepath." "Telepath," the album's only instrumental, goes through a variety of phases. It's very glitchy sounding at first, then becomes more spacey and atmospheric.

Despite its violent title, album closer "Child I Will Hurt You" is quite the opposite of what you might think. Like their previous album closers "I Am Made of Chalk" and "Tell Me What To Swallow" it is much more downbeat and low key, while sounding nothing like either of those songs. "Child I Will Hurt You" presents a mellow, tranquil  and peaceful vibe for the first and only time on the album, while the twinkling electronica provides a familiar dreamlike element.

Because each Crystal Castles album is so vastly different from one another, it all comes down to the listeners' own musical preference as to where III will rate in their catalog. This is an album dominated by rave elements,  atmospherics, and presents generally cold and bleak but beautiful sonic dimensions. Personally, II  is their most consistent album and therefore is a slightly stronger overall. But there are more than a few guy/girl electronic duos around, and none of them are nearly as distinctive as Crystal Castles. They have their own style, and the variety of ways in which they express it on III is truly remarkable. Tragedy doesn't have to be your true love to appreciate that.

Score: 89/100