Monday, September 30, 2013

Indie rockers Yuck boldly return with new ideas and new frontman

Yuck frontman Daniel Blumberg made a curious decision earlier this year. After roughing it out with various projects, he had finally achieved his biggest breakthrough to date with his band's self titled debut in 2011. At the seeming height of his success, Blumberg walked away to focus on a project called Hebronix, leaving bandmates Max Bloom, Mariko Doi, and Jonny Rogoff scrambling for a new direction. The good news about the band's sophomore album, Glow and Behold, is that it is recognizably Yuck. They haven't transformed into an entirely different band, as some naysayers prognosticated around the time of Blumberg's departure.

To the contrary, the band now presents a more mature sounding record that is no longer as beholden to their influences as they were on their debut. Nor are they buried under a wall of distortion like they were before. And while their first album sounded like a starry-eyed teenager's 90s pop bedroom fantasy, the Yuck of Glow and Behold sound much more grown up and musically adventurous. Their change in perspective becomes immediately obvious on "Out of Time," a breezy, self assured indie rock tune with crisp guitar and a smooth, serene vocal performance from Bloom. Doi, now serving as the band's primary backing vocalist, delivers a gorgeous vocal aria to close it out. Bloom, for his part, does an commendable job taking over the frontman's role. Whether you prefer Bloom or Blumberg in terms of vocal capability will come down to personal opinion, but the two are cut from the same cloth. Neither are particularly flashy or showy -- just solid, quality singers.

The change in direction is more obvious in other areas, however. Whereas Yuck was an album bolstered by strong hooks and catchy melodies, the followup is more concerned with the background texture and coloring of the songs. "Lose My Breath" and "Middle Sea" may be reminiscent of their older material, but "Rebirth" draws inspiration from a different corner of the 90s. With its haze filled and hypnotic chord pattern, it sounds like a My Bloody Valentine song, thus showing they can be true to their 90s roots while doing it in different ways. In other places, the experimentation is more subtle. "How Does It Feel" offers some new touches by delivering spacey slide guitar, along with a Neutral Milk Hotel style horn section in the beginning.

There are a few softer ballads along the way, some more successful than others. "Nothing New" is the most emotionally raw and honest piece on the entire album, while others like "Somewhere" do an admirable job but don't live up high bar set by previous pieces like "Suicide Policeman" and "Sunday." And of course, the title track and album closer is another bonafide piece of great indie pop/rock. Yet despite all of the positive developments, Blumberg's absence is still roundly felt. His skills as a guitarist and songwriter cannot be understated. The melodic guitar leads that were a highlight in previous songs like "Get Away" and "Shook Down" are heard much less often on Glow and Behold.

Although songs like "Glow and Behold" and "Out of Time" certainly offer up catchy indie pop, the rugged Dinosaur Jr. inspired cuts from Blumberg boasted much stronger melodies, were tighter, and more anthemic. They tended to stay with you longer due to the simplicity of their delivery and the exuberant celebration of youth that he infused into those songs. Those type of intangibles are difficult to replace, and alas Yuck sounds much less likely to let their hair down here. Therefore, it's a difficult case to make that they're better off without Blumberg; for that matter, it's hard to argue that this record is better than the first. Fair or not, it seems it's Glow and Behold's fate to be compared to their Blumberg era material. But if you're willing to look beyond that you'll find Yuck is still a vibrant and creative force laying down their new identity, and seem to have the opportunity to move in directions even Blumberg couldn't take them.

Score: 84/100

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Totally Unauthorized 2013 3rd Quarter Playlist: July - September

September kicks off the fall season, and that always means plenty of great new music is hitting the shelves. This year is no exception as there has been plenty to get music lovers excited, and that trend seems sure to carry on into the later fall months. July and August, meanwhile, were a little less exciting than they've been in years past, but there were plenty of great tracks that flew under the radar.


Sip from a chilled glass of wine as you enjoy this classy, brass laden piece of throwback jazz. Director David Jaffe has organized a very smoky, 50s sounding piece that tempers the sound of clarinet with soft horn and trumpet to forge a concoction that sounds as elegant as it does nostalgic.



Brooklyn rapper Ka is pensive and thoughtful, but also delivers gritty street realities. Bearing resemblance to Nas and The Wu Tang Clan, Ka reflects the great heritage of the New York rap scene. He proves he's no lightweight on "Our Father," a dark mafia-esque tale of blood and revenge.



This sounds like something playing from an alien spaceship's boombox, mixed with a little Crystal Method, and topped off with something I can't describe. I can't decide what I like best -- the urgent, industrial drumming, the demented seagull sound, or the fact that this song sounds like it's ready to swallow the world.



"Chum" is a dream coated nugget of philosophical introspection, and the most compelling cut from his major label debut. A moody, moving piano beat backs Earl as he explores his relationship with his estranged father, his kinship with Odd Future cohort Tyler, the Creator, and the pressures of delivering in the music industry.


Garage rock wunderkid Ty Segall changes his approach a bit on his latest album, spearheaded by this acoustic, folk based number. Segall gives a powerful emotionally charged performance as he weaves his tale of loss and regret, yearning for days when things were better.


Italian musician Mauro Remeddi turned heads last year with his eclectic blend of electronic indie pop, and now looks to show he's more serious on his sophomore release. "It Ain't Over" is a taut and driving tune that sees Remeddi turning out some of his most delicate and yearning vocals of his career.



Subtlety is key for UK producer Matthew Barnes, the man behind Forest Swords. This eight minute closing suite from his excellent Engravings album feels like it's being broadcast from a faraway smoky place, as a myriad of vocal samples, piano keys, and abstract synth patterns drift towards you from out of the mist.



Trent Reznor dialed back the intensity on the latest Nine Inch Nails album, and the result is sleek mood pieces such as this. The verses are buzzy, slinking, and subdued, but the chorus is a force of nature. Clanking guitar combines with Trent's impassioned vocal to create a concoction that will knock you on your ass.


Crunching power pop chords and blistering solos carry this driving anthem as alt-rock goddess Neko Case busts our her tale of badassery. When she declares, "You didn't know what a man was/until I showed you," it's hard to decide whether to consider her sexy or to be terrified of her.


Monae has always had a silly side, and it is in fine form on this track. On the surface it comes across as a fun, dancey number decked out with 60s girlpop vocals, but look deeper and you'll see an apocalyptic tale complete with zombies marching in your front yard. I cannot get this song out of my head. 


The veteran British rockers return here with one of the most tantalizing cuts from their acclaimed new album A.M. Alex Turner's smooth, sensual croon drifts over a grooving, R&B style beat before ending in a hazy wash of alt-rock goodness in the final stanzas.


Acclaimed Scottish synth pop trio Chvrches may be getting lots of attention for their hit singles, but don't sleep on this tune. It builds and churns as it goes along, mixing a sinister, underwatery sounding synth riff with Lauren Mayberry's urgent vocals to craft a track that delivers a solid punch from beginning to end.


A fun, playful vibe permeates this alt-rock stomper from California sister trio Haim. The uplifting and pearlescent vocal performance is sure to fill you with warmth, while a subtle rock and electronic vibe is carried out underneath.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Scottish electro poppers Chvrches present exuberant synth fantasy

Glasgow electronic pop trio Chvrches have been steadily gaining attention over the past year thanks to a slew of catchy singles and their Recover EP earlier this March, and the anticipation has reached a fever pitch thanks to the release of their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe. They've captured hearts and minds so far by presenting exuberant and addicting synth pop, and their full length offers very little deviations from the sound hinted at by their early singles.

They aren't dark and suffocating like Crystal Castles; they make no effort to be highly experimental like The Knife, and they certainly aren't downright fucking crazy like Grimes. They utilize an extreme back to basics approach, presenting their sound as simply and as straightforward as possible. For this reason, Chvrches will likely come across as very basic and elementary to anyone who's been listening to this style of music for awhile. However, the thrust of their success so far has not been so much due to ideology as it has been to the execution itself.

This album is filled with very cute, happy and uplifting music carried by the always spirited and adorable voice of Lauren Mayberry. With her high pitched, sweet and sugary voice, she's naturally going to draw comparisons to Megan James of Purity Ring. Yet Chrvches sound is much simpler, as they make an effort to put everything right on the surface. In many ways, it sounds like an album geared toward teenagers or high school age kids with its twinkling rave backgrounds and its themes focusing on interpersonal relationships.

Yet the passion and the level of earnestness with which they present the material make it accessible to a wide variety of age ranges.Some lyrics have a definite bite to them. On "Gun," Mayberry declares herself to be a gun, and it's you she'll be coming for. Some low pitched gurgling electronica running under the verses adds to the song's confrontational style, while still keeping with the album's by maintaining a general upbeat nature.

"Tether," meanwhile, is a slow gushing ballad that sounds like a breakup anthem, complete with some spacey guitar strums that washes over the listener like waves in the sea.  Most songs begin simply enough, and then add layer upon layer, building as it goes until it ends with a nice finale. It's predicable song structuring, but still remains effective. Although the sound is heavily keyboard based, every now and then you can hear a little bit of guitar which brings in some very minor new wave/post punk influence. "Night Sky" is bolstered by an 80s inspired surf guitar sound, while "Lies" sounds something like U2 doing New Wave.

To be sure, this is not a particularly deep record, nor does it bring much new to the table. As Iain Cook said to Pitchfork's Rob Cohen, the band aims for their melody to be "up front and immediate." This draws the listener in easily on the first few playthroughs, but leaves little to discover on repeat listens. Therefore, The Bones of What You Believe is best consumed by those in need of a soundtrack for a party or club type setting, or just anyone who wants to have a good time and not take their music too seriously.

Score: 74/100

Monday, September 16, 2013

Forest Swords - The Weight of Gold

Forest Swords is the work of UK producer Matthew Barnes, who turns out a fresh approach to electronic music on his debut, Engravings. The sound is hypnotic and somewhat psychedelic, but also has an ancient, tribal feel to it. It sounds like electronic music people would have listened to hundreds of years ago, if it had existed back then. But it also has a very distant, smoky, and much more modern texture to it. If you liked Burial's Kindred EP from last year, chances are you'll dig this as well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Janelle Monae spares no expense in dazzling on The Electric Lady

When Janelle Monae hit the scene in 2010, she was intent on taking no prisoners. The arrival her debut, The Archandroid, signaled the emergence of a breathtaking and multitalented new pop star who could excel at a wide variety of styles scattered all across the musical spectrum. The followup album forges ahead in the directions suggested on The Archandroid, but pushes them to even more dizzying heights.

The Electric Lady, which contains Suites IV and V of her ongoing Cindy Mayweather saga, is balanced around a finely crafted dichotomy; Suite IV is generally characterized by high octane, explosive dance tracks featuring larger than life synths that draw influence from an array of various eras, while Suite V relaxes the pace and gives Monae the chance to impress on a series of shimmering ballads. She wastes no time getting started on "Givin' 'Em What They Want," unquestionably one of the most defiant, foot stomping blasts of attitude unleashed on public airwaves since Queen's "We Will Rock You." A space age guitar solo laid down by none other than Prince himself gives the piece dramatic flair while simultaneously driving Monae's point home.

One of the most defining characteristics that sets Monae apart from her pop music contemporaries is how her songs often progress and develop into something more than they were when they began. "Ghetto Woman" begins as a very loud, synth driven 80s pop/R&B stunner before transforming into a hard hitting piece of socially conscious hip hop. Similarly, the closing track "What an Experience" starts off as a mid-tempo ballad before adding in gospel influences and picking up the pace to end as an optimistic number delivering a message of hope.

Over the course of the disc's 67 minute run time, she covers all bases by touching on funky 70s style beats (The Electric Lady), smooth soul ballads (Primetime), chilled out jazzy numbers (Dorothy Dandridge Eyes), and even mellow Spaghetti Western ballads with a classic, old school feel (Look Into My Eyes). She also shows an uncanny knack for being able to contrast styles. "Dance Apocalyptic  sounds upbeat with its jangly 60s girlpop, but its subject matter discusses topics such as the end of the world and a zombie outbreak in Atlanta. She also has no shortage of friends to help her do her damage. Erykah Badu makes a minor guest appearance on "Q.U.E.E.N.," but Solange's guest spot on "The Electric Lady" is a bonafide sizzler.

The warped and wigged out nature of The Electric Lady's opening tracks provide for a much quicker burst of pleasure than The Archandroid. However, The Electric Lady also feels much more like a product designed for mass consumption than The Archandroid. The opening sequence of songs comes across like a series of tracks vying strenuously for mainstream radio airplay. Some of the melodies begin to wear thin after repeating plays, and the ballads tend to lack the emotional weight supplied by some of her contemporaries in the R&B field.

However, it's Monae's specific approach that makes her such a fresh, invigorating  and adored artist. She adopts a futuristic, spacey, and funky philosophy hinted at by hip hop duo Outkast, but not really suitably explored by many well known artists since then. With the release of The Electric Lady, Monae seems primed for her biggest break yet.

Score: 88/100

Friday, September 6, 2013

Iron Maiden's goulish presence lights Bridgestone Arena ablaze

Dave Murray, Steve Harris, and Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden unleash a torrent of heavy metal at Bridgestone Arena.

There are no shortage of bands who try to turn their live show into a visual spectacle, but some know how to do it better than others. Realizing that pretty imagery can only go so far, British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden employ a laser like focus upon every aspect of their show, from the stage setup and pyro straight down to the setlist and onstage acrobatics. They pay homage to the rich history of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene from which they sprung, idolizing the street smart back alleyway British punk clad in black leather.  This is a stunning live event the likes of which only Maiden could pull off, designed to dazzle your senses on every level.

The theme for the Maiden England tour, which hit Nashville's Bridgestone Arena Thursday night, is based on their 1988 album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, a synth laden futuristic fantasy concept album touching on themes of evil, magic, and superstition. The back half of the stage was filled with platforms designed to look like icy glaciers, resembling the ones seen on the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album cover. The scene was complete with a ghoulish Eddie zombie peering down from the back wall.

Frontman Bruce Dickinson burst onto the glaciers clad in his long, flowing coattails for set opener "Moonchild," looking like the tour guide for a historic British battleground. The entire band put on a acrobatic and high energy performance, never lacking a sense of great showmanship. Guitarist Janick Gers kept throwing his leg up on the balustrade beside him while playing, while Dickinson dashed around atop the glaciers and twirled his mic stand into the air with a great sense of precision. He addressed the crowd early on, who was clearly hungry for their Maiden. The band hit Municipal Auditorium a handful of times on their 1980s tours, but their last Nashville area date took place at Starwood Amphitheater in 1991. He also stoked their anticipation for events to come later in the night. "Hopefully the building can survive," he kidded. "Nevermind. Could use a new roof anyway."

Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson tells it like it is.
Maiden gave fans plenty of reasons to bring the rafters down with the sheer power of their musicianship alone. The setlist was packed with plenty of short punchy jabs designed to get your body rocking. Turbo charged protest anthem "2 Minutes to Midnight" burst loud and clear from the amplifiers, while the slick and synth laden rocker "Can I Play with Madness" tells the story of a young man's encounter with a devious prophet. They delved deeper into their back catalog for "The Prisoner," a defiant and triumphant tune that was preceded by a clip from the television series of the same name.

However, the band's most impressive performances came on the longer numbers. Guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Gers showed off their stunning ability to syncopate their timing and actions around one another when they launched into the complex, gyrating rhythms of old school standard "Phantom of the Opera," while the closing coda of "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son" featured dueling guitar harmony godly enough to make Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana snap their guitar strings in envy. Dickinson's vocals were powerful, booming, and almost always on point. Some of the high notes in "The Trooper" seemed to escape him, and some general wear was evident in his voice as the night wore on, but otherwise he was nothing short of stellar. His most impressive moment came when he let loose a low, ringing, haunting howl on heartfelt ballad "Fear of the Dark."

There was no lack of great visual moments either. Whether it was giant ghoulish sphinxes, demonic beasts in the background, or crazed zombie air pilots, there was always something to delight the eyes and ears. It was Dickinson himself, however, who delivered the most iconic moments of the night, triumphantly waving the U.K. flag during "The Trooper," and donning an aviator's helmet during the soaring power metal anthem "Aces High."

Bay Area thrash metal heroes Megadeth warmed the seat for Maiden, and put on a ravaging performance of their own. Dave Mustaine and crew brought plenty of headbanging and ripping solos, interspersed with video clips of Wayne's World characters referencing the band. They tore through a brisk nine song setlist in less than an hour, pausing only for Mustaine to briefly address the crowd before the final song, "Holy Wars... The Punishment Due." Always a politically charged songwriter, he took time to espouse his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Syrian situation. It was hard to hear what he said after that because some guy the row down from us started loudly bellowing about how Obama sucks penis. He also reached out to the home crowd by mentioning that he had briefly lived in Nashville.

The real show stealer, however, was guitarist Chris Broderick. He incinerated the airspace with jaw dropping solos on "Symphony of Destruction" and most notably on "Tornado of Souls," an ardent fan favorite just based on its guitar solo alone. The short set made it hard to feel like fans were getting the full Megadeth experience, but they made the best of the time they had. 

Chris Broderick and Dave Ellefson of Megadeth shred the night away.
Related posts:

Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier review
Megadeth - Th1rt3en review

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Trent Reznor struggles with his sense of restraint on Hesitation Marks

It's been four years since Nine Inch Nails vanished from the limelight, and the band that returns bears considerable differences to the one we saw before. Frontman Trent Reznor has gone through an undeniable maturation process since the initial disbanding of the band, which includes the birth of two sons. Has becoming a family man mellowed out the former rage filled industrial/goth rocker? Hard to say, but one thing's clear: Hesitation Mark, is a significant departure from the band's previous offerings.

Whereas 2005's With Teeth, and 2007's Year Zero, in particular, leaned heavily on familiar formula of contrasting downbeat verses with powerhouse choruses, Hesitation Marks is a much more all-around subdued affair, working its magic in much quieter and subtle ways. There are nods to the band's industrial influences here and there, and even some experimental tracks introducing elements never before heard in Nine Inch Nails's music. And of course, Trent still finds time for his trademark sense of angst and pessimism. He's just found new, more grown up ways to do it now.

"Disappointed" is the keynote example of this. Whereas in his youth Trent might have opened up with a volley of screaming guitars and a torrent of anguish, here the damage is done by fuzz covered vocals, coupled with an anxious tremolo riff to create a suffocating sense of despair. Nor does he offer any sliver lining from the lyrics, as Trent spells out how nothing ever seems to go right: "Do you ever want to just get outta here/ So disappointed; just disappear."

The two advance singles win the award for best in show. "Came Back Haunted" is the most obvious homage to The Downward Spiral glory days, complete with a lurching mechanical keyboard riff that sounds as threatening as it does infectious. "Copy of A," meanwhile, is a case study in how to slowly build over the course of a song, letting all the effects simmer in the background until reaching a big finish complete with overlapping vocals and plenty of buzzyworthy keyboard effects.

Also of note are a couple of experimentations Reznor has whipped up. Those weary of the dreary old Nine Inch Nails should be most interested to hear "Everything," a new wave tinged piece drawing inspiration from The Cure, with 80s-esque backing vocals and Adrian Belew's chugging guitar. This song is the biggest departure in the band's career, and easily one of the most upbeat songs in their catalog.

"All Time Low," on the other hand, takes its cues from Trent's buddy Josh Homme. Reznor made a guest appearance on Queens of the Stone Age's newest album ...Like Clockwork, in June. Perhaps not coincidentally, that album bore a song called "Smooth Sailing," a significant departure for that band which sounded much more like a Nine Inch Nails song than the sludge rock they had been known for. Perhaps also not coincidentally, "All Time Low" is the closest that any Nine Inch Nails tune has come to sounding like a Queens of the Stone Age song. The funky guitar licks that back the verses and chorus sound like it could have fit in seamlessly on ...Like Clockwork. However, it does morph into its own piece as it advances, finishing with a spaced out, starry eyed twinkling coda.

There's no question that Reznor deserves credit for changing up a formula that had been Nine Inch Nails's go to game plan throughout the 2000s. Yet in spite of all that, Hesitation Marks is an album that sorely misses that big punch and can't seem to recover from it. Everything is so restrained, mellow, and withdrawn that it all becomes monotonous well before the end of the album's one hour run time. There's a few songs here and there with somewhat big, punchy choruses (Various Methods of Escape, I Would For You) that also benefit from sleek, high tech production, but it still can't seem to shake the fact that Trent feels too afraid to let his hair down. It's reminiscent of what Bjork did with Vespertine -- releasing a downtempo, after hours record as a followup to a pair of albums on which kicking her heels up was never an issue.

Average pop rocker "Satellite" and wandering, dreary mope fest "Find My Way" presses that point and lets the album down as well as any song here. There is some variety to be found, and some musical ideas worth exploring, but Hesitation Marks can't seem to break past an inherent sense of self restraint that keeps these songs from developing into than they ultimately became. The return of Nine Inch Nails in any capacity is always a welcome development, but Hesitation Marks is merely an admirable effort rather than the home run many of us were hoping for.

Score: 77/100
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How to Destroy Angels - Welcome Oblivion review