Friday, May 31, 2013

Sun soaked Cali rockers Best Coast jager it up at Nashville's Exit/In

Sunny California pop rockers Best Coast played a nice set at Exit/In Wednesday night, but more and more I feel I'm growing out the demographic for this band. The wave of teeny boppers that dotted a large part of the crowd was pretty jarring and not what I expected, though maybe I just haven't been keeping up. They started out as a lo-fi, fuzzy and totally blown out indie garage rock band with singles like "Sun Was High (So Was I)" and the original version of "Up All Night," which doesn't exactly scream 14-year old music. Yet many of those up near the front looked like they had to scam an ID to get into this 18 and up show. I stuck around long enough to snap a few shots of Beth and crew and then booked it toward the back, where fortunately the age range was a little more diverse.

The set itself was fortunately pretty skewed toward Crazy for You, which is still one of my favorite albums of 2010. On this site I have made no bones about my distaste for the band's latest album, The Only Place. Despite a couple of catchy songs here and there, it's far too sanitized, syrupy, and strips out almost everything that was musically interesting about Crazy for You. They kicked off with my personal favorite song in their catalog, "Goodbye," a sentimental grunge coated rocker which reveals a great deal about frontwoman Bethany Cosentino's personality, while ending in a wash of emotionally charged and powerful cascading vocals.

Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast strums a sunny tune.

From there they bounced around from upbeat, bouncy rockers (Crazy for You, The End) while also touching on some more poignant slow dance numbers designed to tug on your heart strings (No One Like You, How They Want Me to Be). There were also a couple of new songs inserted into the mix, including the recently released "Fear of My Identity." It's a nice number, and restores some of the homespun and crunchy nature stripped away on The Only Place.

It's a nice enough live piece, although after a while all of these songs drift by at such a midsummer's pace that they start to very similar to one another. Though, it's tough to deny that the songs themselves are still pretty solid. They're all pretty infectious and insatiable, even when the writing isn't always the best.

A few other couple notes of interest is that Best Coast's set included something they have never hinted at on the albums -- jamming. They transition between the slow, melancholy part of "I Want To" into the fast part was given extra long jam treatment, and they did it again on the main set closer "Each and Every Day." It wasn't much to get excited about -- mostly just fast strumming of repeated chords. It felt more like they were just aiming at surprising the audience rather than something that could actually grow to be a component of the band's sound. The fact that they jammed was interesting; the jamming itself was not so much.

Hilariously enough, after the first song of the encore, Beth requested Jager shots for the entire band, which she promptly downed onstage before tearing into set closer "Boyfriend." It proved to be ill advised. It led to her forgetting some of the words and gave a generally off kilter performance, which is uniquely embarrassing when you consider that "Boyfriend" was the initial single that led to them getting noticed in the first place, is still a setlist staple for many of the band's fans, and is easily one of the best songs in their catalog.

One of the other highlights of the night was local rockers Bully, who kicked off the evening. Despite their clear youth pulled off a seasoned and well structured set. Singer/guitarist Alicia Bognanno remarked a couple times onstage that the band had only recently just started and that she felt nervous, but this only helped endear the audience to her and by the end of the set the entire crowd was most definitely behind her. If nothing more, the performance should definitely encourage more confidence for future outings.

It was very obviously Best Coast/girl/grungy inspired, but she moved around with deft and precision on the neck of her guitar, and the tunes showed a knack for solid songwriting. The sound on the vocals was turned way down, as it was for the band that came after them, but from what could be surmised she had a fine voice. A comedic moment ensued when the band began leaving the stage and someone in the crowd shouted "One more!" She turned and said something to the effect of "That's it! We literally don't have anymore!" This prompted a chuckle from the crowd. Though still obviously in the formative stages, this should be a local band to keep an eye on. Give them a few years and they could well be on a Best Coast level themselves.
Related posts:

Best Coast - The Only Place review 
Best Coast - Crazy for You review 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dark Tranquility continues to cultivate trademark sound on Construct

Of all the virtues possessed by melodeath bands, a long shelf life isn't often one of them. For most bands it plays out one of two ways: either they stick to their guns and become derivative, or they discard their entire core philosophy in favor of jumping on trends, often burying the ideas that led them to prominence in the first place.

Swedish Gothenburg/melodeath godfathers Dark Tranquility have flirted with both outcomes at times, but they remain among the best of the bunch due to their dedication to a shared vision, and their consistency in executing it. Their 10th full length, Construct, doesn't change the blueprint much and generally consists of slower paced to mid tempo crunchers, but the band does their damage in enough ways to keep things varied and maintain your attention. One of the key themes is an expanded emphasis on the airy, atmospheric side of their sound. "Uniformity" is laden with excellent keyboard work from Martin Brändström and benefits from Mikael Stanne's impeccable baritone vocals. It lends of sense of stoic grandeur to the track, while sounding like their take on Katatonia's patented brand of atmospheric metal.

Speaking of which, "State of Trust" is dominated by clean vocals that very much capture the vibe championed by Katatonia frontman Jonas Renske, or perhaps Steven Wilson. It certainly stands out within their recent catalog. But of course, melodic metal has always been the band's forte, and yet again they do not disappoint. "The Science of Noise" boasts a downright catchy chorus which is followed up with some great winding melodic guitar passages; if this isn't the album's best track it's certainly one of the top two or three. "Endtime Hearts," with its twinkling keyboards and driving guitar passages, is reminiscent of Children of Bodom song, while "Weight of the End" boasts some of the album's best headbanging sections.

However, those looking for something fast and visceral would be advised to look elsewhere. "Apathetic" is one of the fastest and most aggressive songs the band has penned since 2005's ultra aggressive Character. It's anchored by Anders Jivarp's pounding drums and a kickass solo, but unfortunately it's the only real screamer Construct has to offer. The only song that noticeably falls flat, curiously enough, is the opener "For Broken Words." It does feature a nice verse riff from guitarists Niklas Sundin and Martin Henriksson, but its attempts to focus on atmosphere are somewhat awkward. It features several passages consisting mostly of just the bass, drums and vocals, but it's too slow to develop, and feels entirely too tepid and unsure of itself. As for the bonus tracks, "Immemorial" serves up more catchy metal while proving the band still has some grit, while instrumental closer "Photon Dreams" feels like it should have been a little more fleshed out.

As always, the instrumentation is first rate. There's not much about any of the individual performances that really grab your attention -- rather, the focus is on demonstrating how each part of the whole works together as one cohesive unit. Stanne's vocals are full of their trademark bubbling, sneering wrath, and he has shown great improvement in his clean vocals. The lyrics, meanwhile, are typically glum and moody, delivering a darker undertone to the project as a whole.

Anyone familiar with the band's output following their 2002 album Damage Done won't find any major breakthrough or revelation here, although Construct does come at a pivotal time in the band's career. It sees them picking themselves up and re-energizing following 2010's We Are the Void, which notably lacked punch and seemed to be the first major sign of lethargy and monotony setting in.

Dark Tranquility have managed to adjust and make alterations to their sound over the years without sacrificing their credibility, and there's good reason they remain one of today's most viable and well respected metal bands. Construct excels at upholding one of the band's innermost principles of consistency along with catchy and well constructed songwriting, and can stand ably in the band's catalog alongside Damage Done, Character, and Fiction.

Score: 84/100

Monday, May 27, 2013

Daft Punk - Giorgio by Moroder

The latest Daft Punk record, Random Access Memories sees the French electronic duo fully indulging themselves in their1970s funk and disco influences. This marks a bit of a departure for the band, but is a treat for us listeners. The album comes off as a calling card for the cool, suave and groovy; think of it as this generation's answer to Steely Dan's Aja. In fact, if Donald Fagan and crew had been majoring in discotheque back then rather than jazz, it's not hard to imgine the result would have been something like this. "Giogiro by Moroder" stands out, however, thanks to the fact that it's a bit different from the rest of the album's material. It's more focused, more intense, and borrows less from the retro-disco influence. The result is that it's much more fresh and modern sounding, while still featuring the spoken word guest spot from famed disco producer Giovanni Giorgio Moroder to tie it in with the main theme of the album.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Yeah Yeah Yeahs face stark reality of shifting identies on Mosquito

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are mellowing with age, but they aren't in a hurry to let you know. From an initial glance, the New York electro-pop rockers fourth album Mosquito seems to be as riled up and tripped out as anything in their back catalog.

It features attacks from aliens and killer mosquitoes; it is an album of gospel choirs and Dr. Octagon. And like always, frontwoman Karen O still has a knack for getting deliriously twisted from time to time. But a few spins through Mosquito will reveal that there's an entirely different type of undercurrent being channeled here. It's not just simply softening their sound; there's a definite focus on ambiance and atmospherics, and it's starting to become the rule more than the exception.

With the riot grrrl rage that marked Fever to Tell, this seemed like a band that would never grow old. But consider that their debut is over a decade behind them, and that and Karen O is a little more than five years away from her 40th birthday. It's not surprising that Mosquito is by far their least aggressive record to date, and sees the band struggling to adapt now that their initial gameplan has run its course. It certainly rasies the question whether aggro/indie/garage rockers such at the YYY's are really meant for longevity, and if they aren't perhaps past their prime.

Chill out and downtempo tracks form the album's backbone, and they do it in several different ways. There is an emphasis on establishing a singular ambient sound effect and expanding outward from there, whether it be the soft click clack of the train track on "Subway," or the majestic caw of seagulls on album closer "Wedding Song." It provides a constant soothing presence the listener can come back to, but it becomes much more than that.

Elsewhere, the band explores other nuances. "Slave" resembles a Muse song with a spaced out electronic vibe and some entrancing guitar work, which leads into some twinkling at the end along with Karen's urgent shouts. The mellow trend continues through several other tracks; "Always" is bolstered by some soothing electronic washes, "These Paths" is picked up slightly by Karen's climactic falsetto at the end, while "Despair" tends to follow the theme established on the rest of the album by being dreamlike and exceedingly forgettable. "Under the Earth," meanwhile, fails in an altogether different fashion. It was intended to sound like a roots reggae song, but its oriental keyboard riffs causes it to sound much more like something from the Far East than the coast of Jamaica.

There are a few songs that set a much trippier and wacked out vibe. "Area 52" grabs your attention iwth its kicking drums and distinctive guitar riff, while Karen tells the insane story of a wigged out alien invasion.  Elsewhere, the crew demonstrate their ability to conjure a spaced out hip hop vibe for special guest Kool Keith, who does a first rate job at creating a chill atmosphere. Last but not least, the title track sees Karen making herself as engaging as possible with a barrage of vocal pyrotechnics.

Out of the slower tracks, "Subway" and "Wedding Song" stand out thanks to the serene chill out mood they create, with "Wedding Song" being the best slow jam in the set. With its reverent, serene guitar work, it comes across like the band's take on The XX, while also summoning the spirit of Beach House with its background ambiance.

Unfortunately, the few standouts that pepper the disc aren't enough to save it from mediocrity. Although they can conjure up a variety of interesting soundscapes and techniques, the fact remains that the songwriting itself is lacking depth and repetitive. To their credit, they manage to distract the listener from this somewhat by conjuring an array of mildly interesting sounds and techniques, but a glance at the lyric sheet shows just how basic the song structures are and how often passages tend to repeat themselves."Under the Earth"  has a repetitive lead in bolstered by a repetitive chorus and repetitive refrain, while other songs like "Mosquito" and "Sacrilege" feel a bit bare bones in terms of structure.

At the very least, the band has succeeded at creating a nice varied texture of moods and sounds, but at the end of the day it's not enough to compensate for the aimless drifting present in the majority of these tracks. Mosquito comes across as an album in need of a serious kick in the pants, delivered by a band slipping out of their comfort zone.

Score: 73/100

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Vampire Weekend pushes pop's boundaries with ambitious third LP

Is there any frontman more astute at dealing with the fickleness of the indie blogosphere than Ezra Koenig? Rather than ride trends like so many other bands, the songwriting core of New York indie pop superstars Vampire Weekend filter out the excess background noise and have easily turned out the biggest artistic leap forward in their career.

Though their first two records were both standout, Modern Vampires of the City is more ambitious and forward thinking than anything in their career. It finds Koenig musing on heavy topics, ranging from religion and God to death, society, and history. Meanwhile, the sonic landscape has been altered and bears little in common with the afropop/Paul Simon aesthetic that dotted the first two albums. Rather, Modern Vampires of the City pulls from a diverse array of sounds and influences to weave together something that sounds familiar, but the presentation is fresh and unique.

Death is a continual theme explored on the record; "Unbelievers" tackles the topic of heretics burned at the stake, "Everlasting Arms" paints the scene of a couple's final embrace before a dramatic death, while lead single "Diane Young" was originally slated to be titled "Dying Young,"  but was shifted into a homonym in an attempt to lighten its mood.

Aesthetic wise, Vampire Weekend continue to focus on crafting catchy pop music while creating a constantly shifting and continually evolving palette of influences to back it up. There is a running theme of soul/gospel overtones that dot the album's landscape, beginning with the vocal arrangements of Koenig and his background singers on album opener "Obvious Bicycle." "Ya Hey" the most striking example of this, however. It contains imagery ranging from God to the motherlands of Israel, and features Ezra being backed up by a holy aria of gospel singers, while singing in what sounds like language pulled straight out of the Bible. 

Along the way there are some rapid fire tracks backed up with spoken word sections (Finger Back), some yearning ballads (Hannah Hunt), some occasional electro buzz, and even historical musings. "Step" references the splendor of Angkor Wat and Dar es Salam, while the haunting "Hudson" details the death of Henry Hudson. Gurgling and bubbling synthesizers in the background seek to emulate the tide of the Hudson Bay where Henry vanished.

This album represents the biggest development of the band's sound to date, and in fact one of the biggest breakthroughs for virtually any band in recent memory. The amount of different effects they come up with is staggering; just to come up with the idea to put some of this stuff in is more than what would occur to many bands, but to mix it together and make it all work is nothing short of astounding. Even more so when you consider that there really isn't a weak track in the bunch. Pop music is often viewed as lacking substance or even considered disposable, yet albums like Modern Vampires of the City, along with Justin Timberlake's recently released The 20/20 Experience, are proving that pop can be a complex organism, and a legitimate art form in and of itself.

That isn't to say that this is a perfect album. Koening's insistence on belaboring the point about death and spirituality can be overwrought and heavy handed at times, and the result is Vampire Weekend's attempt to forge their masterpiece sometimes seems less than effortless. It certainly doesn't match up to their self titled in terms of sheer joy and fun factor. Which means that the debate over whether this is their best album is not so clear cut as it may seem, even if it is their most advanced work.

Yet at the end of the day, there's a lot to dissect here, which is not common for a predominately pop based album. Among an ever shifting collage of sound and mood, historical figures from the past resurrect themselves, while Koenig takes sober glimpses into the possible, if not likely future of our generation. It's not hard to tell you're in the presence of a band operating on a another level, surely inspired by some higher power.

Score: 90/100

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Deerhunter deftly avoids a one track state of mind on Monomania

Atlanta indie rockers Deerhunter have reached the apex of an arc they have traveled since the beginning of their career. Each subsequent release has trended toward cleaning up their sound and crafting shorter, more tightly constructed tunes, which culminated with their breakout 2010 effort, Halcyon Digest. So after riding that rail as far as it can go, what's next?

There is the temptation to pull an Animal Collective, who veered sharply back toward their old school sound on the followup to their watershed album Merriweather Post Pavilion. But Deerhunter's response has been far more intricate. Their new album, Monomania, maintains the sharp focus demonstrated on Halcyon Digest while confidently displaying a messier, less frilly, and more free spirited sound. The result is a record that's much more challenging than its predecessor, and ultimately more rewarding.

Frontman Bradford Cox has drawn from some new influences to give rise to an abrasive, rough around the edges sound. As he attested in a Pitchfork feature article, Monomania draws inspiration from the likes of Hank Williams, John Lee Hooker, and Bo Diddley. If you're a fan of those artists but don't have much background with Deerhunter you likely won't see much resemblance. However, looking at it through Deerhunter lenses reveals a much more swashbuckling and swaggering sound than we've seen from this band thus yet. More than ever Cox is becoming a lightning rod as frontman, and is proving to be a fascinating one at that. On several songs here he fashions himself as a transient figure -- a wandering vagabond who is caught in the moment of not knowing what he wants to do, but knows he hasn't found it yet.

This manifests itself best in Monomania's traveling songs, the most enamoring of which is "Pensacola." The song, about hopping a bus to Pensacola, boasts a southern rock vibe with its crunching, rollicking guitar riff. Cox certainly comes across as down on his luck: among his problems is the fact that his woman just ran off with another nan, and with nothing particularly holding him down he's just looking to move on. The theme continues on the next track, "Dream Captain." Once again he seems pretty bummed out, mentioning that he has no one to take care of him. So he urges the ship captain to take him away. He realizes the stark nature of his situation while still hoping for the future, wondering if he can find his place on board the deck of the company ship.

Most convincingly, the band even prove they are capable of conjuring this sense of desolation without always riding the woe is me vibe. Album opener "Neon Junkyard" sounds like a postcard sent from the edge of nowhere; with its dusty desolate backdrop, it's not hard to imagine Cox wading through a wasteland of bright lights and faded streetsigns.

At times, the band pushes their sonic intensity even farther up the Richter scale. "Leather Jacket II" is bolstered by an instantly recognizable wailing guitar riff. Cox's indiscernible vocal fades in and out of the muddled mix like a broken transistor radio, while guitarist Lockett Pundt lights it up with a headbanging riff that demonstrates a bonafide sense of groove. But even that can't hold a candle to the album's title track, easily the craziest song in the set. It builds up briskly, exploding in a churning maelstrom as Cox repeatedly shouts the song's title phrase over an inferno of fuzz, clashing guitars, and tortured shrieking solos. It ends with the distant ragged buzzing of a weedeater motor.

Then, of course, there are the more subdued, shoegazey pieces that Deerhunter are well known for. Tracks like "The Missing" and "T.H.M." are mellow dream coated pieces that easily could have fit on Halcyon Digest or perhaps Microcastle. "Sleepwalking," in particular, displays a hypnotizing Interpol inspired closing coda, something that could also be said about "Desire Lines" from Halcyon Digest. These songs are well done and capture the spirit of what Deerhunter have been doing for a long time, but they are typically the most straightforward of the selections here and therefore the least interesting.

Already one of the more unique bands inhabiting the blogoverse, Deerhunter have proven they had only begun to push the limits of their intoxicating sound. Monomania contains their most nuanced, fertile, and mature writing to date. Most encouraging, they pull off the tricky task of staying true to their roots without floating in the nebulous broth that dragged down their early material. As far as Cox goes, he's made a stunning transition following his string of solo/Atlas Sound records; his voice was once a small brick in their wall of hazy sound, and now he has emerged as a dynamic and relatable frontman. The themes of travel, transience, and being down on your luck are sure to appeal to any young person living through a roughspun and ramshackle existence. No matter whether you're scraping by today or bear memories of doing it long ago, Cox and crew have concocted a brew that is soul affirming, and incredibly, incredibly affecting.

Score: 93/100
Related Review: Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest