Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Tallest Man on Earth continues to forge beautiful folk melodies

In a game where indie musicians are continually trying to innovate, Kristian Matsson makes his fortune by turning back the hands of time. Better known as The Tallest Man on Earth, Matsson is forging out a legacy among the greatest names in folk history. His approach is very simple. No glitz or glamour here, The Tallest Man is just one guy with a guitar making music for your soul.

Matsson has been remarkably consistent over the course of his six year career, which has now hit another milestone with his third full length, There's No Leaving Now. It has a bit of that homespun sound like you were listening through an old phonograph.

The breathtaking melodies make it hard to not sing along, the acoustic finger picking is crisp and clear as ever, and Matsson's voice, while raw and sometimes scratchy, gives a very human vibe to it all.

Acoustic instruments are his weapon of choice, though he'll occasionally switch up. The lead in riff to album opener "To Just Grow Away" is backed by an acoustic rhythm while an electric guitar adds a mellow flourish over the top.

The most complex element is his lyrical themes. Taken literally, his lyrics seem to lack focus and don't even necessarily make sense, but the key is to focus on the big picture. Each song communicates an emotion or a specific set of imagery, so reading his lyrics is more akin to flipping through a picture book as opposed to reading a novel.

Lead single "1904" is packed full of references to the sun, earth, dirt trails, and wildlife. He begins to get a bit esoteric beyond that, but his voice clearly communicates the tone he wants to set, and the images are distinct enough to give each song a unique flavor. There are also songs that sound like they're directed to a specific person, but we don't get all the details about what's going on.

It's like hearing one side of a conversation, or hearing him reference some past event that the person he's addressing is familiar with, but the listener doesn't fully know what's going on. There's a certain beauty to this; it's much like passing a busy street and hearing snippets of conversations as you pass by. At any rate, Matsson certainly has a elegant and poetic way of putting things.

But it isn't all guitar based. The album's title track sees Matsson's voice backed by a piano instead of a six string. Of his many skills, his piano playing has picked up the most. "Kids on the Run," from his previous album The Wild Hunt felt like it had piano for piano's sake. But "There's No Leaving Now" feels much more natural. The chords, although simple, ring out with a majestic tone, which suits his voice perfectly here.

"Criminals," with its complex finger picking, is another gem, while album closer "On Every Page" features some of Matsson's most striking lyrics:

"I don't remember where I learned to die
but I'm humble for the rocks when I try
and somehow I am lowered onto the waves
and now with you I feel the sun and the salt on my face."

It's tough to say what his best album is because everything's so consistent, so figuring out what place There's No Leaving Now occupies within his catalog is no easy task. The best you'll likely do will be to just decide personal favorites. But this should be good news for appreciators of his previous work.

If you're looking to see him to branch out in new directions keep looking, but if you appreciate the mastery of Shallow Grave and The Wild Hunt then rejoice, because There's No Leaving Now easily stands in the pantheon beside them.

Score: 92/100

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tallest Man on Earth's live set takes listeners to new heights

For someone who goes by a stage name like The Tallest Man on Earth, Kristian Matsson spends a lot of time hunched over. The Swedish folk singer has captivated audiences with his stripped back acoustic sound, so you might expect his show to have at least some sort of impressive visual element to match. But on stage, he really isn't much to look at.

His beanpole figure is stretched into an awkward gait, sometimes playing while lifting one foot off the ground. He doesn't say much on stage either, but proves he's savvy enough to play off a crowd. There's more than a few performers who likely couldn't get away with such a lack of attention to their posture, or with such a stripped back presentation. But here's the thing: Matsson is so talented it doesn't matter.

Kristian Matsson knows just what to do to hold a crowd spellbound.

To the contrary, it even works in his favor because it forces you to focus on exactly what he is doing. Many shows today invest heavily into fancy light shows, or take up half the stage with effect pedals and switchboards. Unquestionably, there have been phenomenal artists who have employed those tools to brilliant use, but Matsson excels in something that seems to be becoming a lost art. He goes on stage alone with nothing more than a guitar, a piano, and minimal stage lighting, and he captures a crowd.

It's easy to say he succeeded, if the turnout was any indicator. I make an effort to be one of the first to arrive at shows, but I arrived at the venue a full hour before the doors even opened and was already behind the eight ball. I haven't stood in a line that long since I saw Paul McCartney.

The results were certainly worth it. His set was comprised of several top selections from his latest, There's No Leaving Now, as well as fan favorites from his two previous albums. His voice is rough, raw and loud, but there's a sheer beauty to what he sings and plays.

His lyrics, read literally, often seem to lack focus or at times don't even make sense. But what he's trying to do is convey a certain mood or communicate a particular set of imagery. There's a rural, nature motif in much of his material. In fact, two of his popular songs are built around references to avian wildlife: Where Do My Bluebird Fly" and "Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird." It practically allows you to picture the Swedish countryside in your mind's eye.

His namesake song, "The Gardener," was a fan favorite, as Matsson expresses his desire to "stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe." He let the crowd take over and sing the final refrain. The lively "King of Spain" was another standout, as the opening chords had the crowd clapping along. Matsson's foot stomp during the song's final long hold note was also a great moment.

Tim Showalter from Strand of Oaks lets that fiery feeling spill forth.

Of course, the newer material didn't disappoint either. Hearing "1904" without the iconic lead guitar in the opening was certainly a change of pace for a song that I've played way too many times as it is. Hearing only the rhythm guitar was actually an improvement, I daresay. When he turned to the piano for "There's No Leaving Now," he proved his talents don't end with the six string. His playing became even more heartfelt and expressive. His chords were simple, but also melodious and heart rending.

During his encore, he played "Revelation Blues," another personal favorite from There's No Leaving Now, before closing with "The Dreamer," the defacto title track from Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird EP. The sheer elegance and beauty of the piece was truly something to behold.

Philadelphia-based Strand of Oaks kicked off the evening with a tantalizing blend of dusty rugged folk rock. Tim Showalter looked like a frontiersman with his long flowing mane, and delighted the crowd with odes to  drinking 40s and John F. Kennedy. He impressed with his mellow croon, but like Matisson proved he was capable of reaching deep and unleashing torrents of emotion.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fiona Apple's Idler Wheel demonstrates impeccable eye for detail

Fiona Apple has cemented herself as one of today's most dynamic voices. Her prose is poetic, bearing similarity to Emily Dickinson. And like the Amherst poet, they both have been through great personal trauma, and their eccentricity likewise colors their work. The Idler Wheel... is one of the most original, complex and intricately structured pop albums in recent memory.

On the surface, the topical focus appears to be on Apple's failed relationships, but delve deeper and it you can see the spotlight is upon Apple herself and her own shortcomings. This is an emotionally grueling record; most of the time it sounds like she's getting ready to have a nervous breakdown. By album's end though, she recovers a bit to flaunt a strong and even seductive side.

Opener "Every Single Night" seems to be an ode to her insanity, with descriptions of butterflies floating in her brain and an odd African Swahili sounding chorus. She hits an impressive flow that seems effortless, but you can tell intense care and scrutiny went into the composition.

Another key aspect of this album is its sense of variation; many songs are intricately layered and structured in a way that each verse can sound fresh even though she's sticking to the same basic melody. Take "Daredevil." The first line of the song:

"I guess I just must be a daredevil"

is broken up into three lines, with short pauses between each line break:

I guess/
I just/
must be a daredevil/

These little stutters give an air of thoughtfulness to the song, as if she's carefully considering each word. But once that's been established, she omits the pauses at the start of the second verse to give it a different feel and demeanor. By changing the rhythm and meter within a song, Apple keeps things fresh without changing the basic structure of the song.

"Jonathan" is among the most unusual love songs you will ever hear. It's ominous, brooding and foreboding with a disjointed main piano riff that she amazingly builds a vocal hook around. She reveals she's willing to go to any lengths to be with her man, even overlooking things he's done with women in the past.

"Left Alone" is an easy album highlight, and likely one of the best songs in her catalog. The lyrical theme is about being so calloused by failed relationships that you shut yourself off to all possible future love. It opens with a sashaying piano melody in an offbeat time signature, which sets the tone. She sounds numb and downbeat on the opening verse, but the emotion explodes starting in the first chorus. The second verse sounds like she's trying to return to being numb but can't quite bottle all her emotion. Once again, there's plenty of variation within the verses.

"Werewolf" features a strong central refrain: "Nothing's wrong when a song ends in a minor key."

If you weren't paying attention, you might think she's offering obtuse advice on writing music.The song is built upon metaphor, talking about unrequited love and comparing the object of her affection to a werewolf, a shark and a chemical compound. But in the end she turns the spotlight on her own deep seated issues. Look at the way she describes their relationship:

"We are like a wishing well/
and a bolt of electricity"

Apple's genius becomes clear when you realize the business about a minor key is actually a metaphor for their entire relationship. At the end, she repeats the refrain several times, as though she's trying to convince herself. And the whole time you probably thought the song was just an ode to stuffy songwriting philosophies.

The album closes with a pair of more optimistic tracks. Apple beckons her lover on the rough around the edges single "Anything We Want," while "Hot Knife" stands is vastly different from anything else on the record. 

The structure is built around overlapping Apple's lead vocal over a chorus of background singers. It may sound chaotic and unorganized since they're singing different things at the same time. But it is perhaps a fitting culmination to a record that is built around structuring things to sound unorganized while actually having an intricate plan the whole time.

On The Idler Wheel... you see her world through Apple's eyes, but in a way that reveals a central truth about her flawed nature. And we might just see a little of ourselves in Apple's distorted image from time to time. Some of it is a bit weird so it might not be a record for everyone, but it is still through and through a pop album. These songs will get stuck in your head. So if you've got friends who are into more generic pop music and you want to introduce them to this, I've some advice: tell the truth, but tell it slant.

Score: 93/100

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Jack White returns to the fore with ravishing music history lesson

It's said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Jack White isn't looking to kiss anyone's ass, but that won't stop him from diving into some of the most magnetizing sounds of eras gone by. Since the last White Stripes album in 2007, White has been laying low with a few albums from The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, but this marks his first major recorded release since announcing the end of the Stripes.

 The aptly named Blunderbuss hits you square in the chest with a compelling blend of country, blues, folk, and rock and roll. But he isn't about to let us forget he has a few of his own tricks up his sleeve. Album opener "Missing Pieces," for example, is carried entirely on the strength of his own charisma and magnetizing personality, and sounds like no one but White.

It opens with a quirky keyboard pattern, and ends with White making a rather unusual metaphor for the ending of long, meaningful relationships. This continues into one of the album's singnature pieces "Sixteen Saltines" which highlights White's goofy side while bringing back the heavy garage rock sound championed by The White Stripes.

Then White throws another changeup in the form country/folk ballad "Love Interruption," which seems destined to be one of the year's most buzzed about singles. The lyrics are notable here; specifically, White has a sideways way of explaining things that appears a bit quirky at first. "Love Interruption" opens with this line:

"I want love to
Roll me over slowly
Stick a knife inside me
and twist it all around"

It might be hard to see what his point is at first. Later, it becomes clear he's talking about the breakdown of love and the devestating after effects. He describes things in ways that probably wouldn't occur to the average person, but once you see where he's going it's tough to think of a better way of putting it.

As the album progresses, it feels increasingly like White is trying to pay homage to the rich musical heritage of America and the UK. The title track, which prominently features steel pedal, is probably worthy of the top spot on the country music charts. The swaggering blues of "I'm Shakin" sees White all shook up, while "Trash Toungue Talker" is a tribute to rock and roll, following in the tradition of greats like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Louis.

There's also a pretty noticeable Beatles influence found on the album's back nine. "Hip Eponymous Poor Boy" is a shuffling 70s folksy rock song which is so faithful you might swear it was Paul McCartney on vocal. "I Wish I Could Go To Sleep" wouldn't sound out of place alongside The Fabs singles circa 1968, while "On and On and On" takes its cues from a different Beatle. It captures the quiet musing of a George Harrison Beatles song, while looking at the world with a similar type of exploratory spirit.

It all comes crashing down with "Take Me With You When You Go," one of the most eclectic pieces of music released in recent memory. It opens with some funky vocal harmonies complemented with fiddle, which sets up a buzzing Black Sabbathy riff and a totally fuzz covered guitar solo. All the while, White philosophizes about how making moves to help yourself can put someone else in a compromising position.

If Blunderbuss has any downfall, it's that perhaps it feels a bit safe. Any album that makes an overriding attempt to look back to past popular music styles is going to run the risk of not being terribly progressive. Based on its own merits however, everything White attempts he does beyond reasonably well. He connects his own personality into the sounds of past and present, giving the youth a solid reminder where the sounds of today sprung from.

Score: 87/100

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Totally Unauthorized 2012 Mid Year Recap: Top 10 First Half Albums

It is no understatement to say that 2012 has been a crazy good year for music. This year has seen my tastes shift much more towards bands that are big on the indie circuit, although there's a great deal a variety within the stuff I've been spinning. Metal and hip-hop have been a bit disappointing, but here's to hoping they'll bounce back big in the second half of 2012. With that said, here's the best of the best, so far:

Honorable mentions:

Badbadnotgood - BBNG2
Porcelan Raft - Strange Weekend
Burial - Kindred EP

10. Orbital - Wonky

Looking to make a comeback? It's tough to do it much better than Orbital, who returned the rave/techno scene after an eight year hiatus sounding like they'd never left. The brothers Hartnoll display their ability to set a beat, incorporate dub elements, and even successfully remix/remake an old classic. Even if it takes another eight years for a followup, something tells me it'd be worth the wait.

9. Lambchop - Mr. M

It requires more effort from the listener, but a little subtlety from an artist can go a long way. Lambchop's Kurt Wagner is a master at this. He mixes his folky alt country approach with a little bit of lounge jazz, but he's comfortable enough to poke fun at many of the sounds he emulates. Tracks like "Buttons" and "The Good Life" also deliver a very welcome dose of personality.

8. Eluveitie - Helvetios 

You mean to tell me folk metal masters Eluveitie have put out a concept album about a Gaulish war, told from the viewpoint of an Irish tribe? People have grown mutton chops for less. Unlike many metal bands, Eluveitie aren't confined to just guitar and drums. Bagpipes, accordions, flutes, and much more are called in to create a compelling sound. You may not be able to pronounce their name, but you can tell it spells awesomeness.

7. Jack White - Blunderbuss

Fresh off the dissolution of The White Stripes, Jack White knew he had to hit back in a big way. Blunderbuss touches musical styles rooted deep within our psyche, from blues to country and rock and roll. But in the midst of it all, White shows he still has a knack for turning out his trademark garage rock sound with "Sixteen Saltines," one of the year's most captivating singles.

6. Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action at a Distance

Lockett Pundt is a thoughtful songwriter. As one of the key players in Deerhunter, he's also got a sound of his own. On his second solo album, he guides us through personal narratives that range from heavy, feedback drenched rockers to melodic Deerhunter like pieces, while also touching base on exploratory Stereolab influenced numbers and even smoky westerns. Even apart from his primary band, Pundt is still redefining the boundaries of music as we know it.

5. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...

Shame on me for sleeping on Ms. Apple. With The Idler Wheel... she has released a gut churning collection of avant-garde pop. As always, her lyrics cut through to the heart of her condition. She sounds pretty emotionally and psychologically exhausted here. If not, she's putting on one hell of an act.

4. Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory

When you're ready to kick things to the next level, you'd best go all out. That seemed to be Dylan Baldi's mantra as he worked on Cloud Nothings' breakthrough album Attack on Memory. The Cleveland indie/punker teamed up with famed producer Steve Albini to produce a collection of songs that range from bitter and acerbic to bouncy and free spirited. Few can claim to approach the craft with near as much fervor or sincerity as Baldi.

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

There's nothing flashy about what Kristian Matsson does, and he doesn't go out of his way to break new ground. What he does do is make music for the soul. His sound is always rich, vibrant and outward looking. With just a simple acoustic guitar and a scratchy voice, Matsson says the things we've always wanted to say but never knew how. 

2. Beach House - Bloom

When dream pop is done right, it is one of the most enchanting forms of music known to man. On their fourth album, the Baltimore duo improve upon the formula that made their breakout album, Teen Dream, such a success. Bloom presents a deeper, denser sound, atmospheric instrumentals, and the always engaging voice of Victoria Legrand.

1. Iamamiwhoami - Kin

It's a shame this album won't be better known. Jonna Lee's voice is always icy, yet at the same time hypnotic and entrancing. She covers the spectrum of emotions, from full of love and passionate to dissonant and industrial sounding. There are fat dance beats, and there are subdued numbers. But the main reason she stands at the top is because she has done more than any artist this year to challenge my notion of what music can be. This may not be the only album of its kind, but I wouldn't want to be tasked with finding it.