Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Wincing the Night Away by The Shins

You rarely hear about a difficult third album. So often music writers toss around such a label for a band's sophomore release, a sure sign that the heady days of a successful debut record are over. From their days in Alberquerque (that's right, the place Bugs Bunny should have turned left at), the Shins have come along way; their debut Oh, Inverted World was a critical, if not commercial hit which didn't receive its much-deserved attention until two things happened. One was Natalie Portman. Describing 'New Slang' from that record as a song that will 'change your life' in The Shin's number one fan Zach Braff's directorial debut Garden State (he also used it in an episode of Scrubs he directed) unveiled the band to the oh-so-hip indie scene and beyond. The other was the all time classic, piece of guitar pop genius second long player, Chutes Too Narrow. Now they were everywhere. And now people expected solid gold. Hence Wincing the Night Away, The Shins' third release, comes with the burden of expectation placed upon it by that most demanding segment of the music listening public.
And it frankly does sound like main man James Mercer has laboured under this pressure while producing Wincing the Night Away. That's not to say that it's a bad record: certainly not. There are songs here as good as any from Chutes Too Narrow, namely the oh-so-hummable lead single 'Phantom Limb' (apparently about two lesbians, although no-one on Earth would know that had Mercer not said so in an interview) and the upbeat banjo-toting 'Australia', while opener 'Sleeping Lessons' has a tempo change at just the right time to kick off the album. However, the record reeks of having tried just a little bit too hard; most notably the overt synthy-ness, which, while occasionally useful, seems like it was done purely so Wincing would not be accused of being Chutes Too Narrow II.
The Shins are still a great band, and this is a very good record, and it stacks up against pretty much anything around right now. Except Chutes Too Narrow. Must be difficult.
3 stars

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake

Unfashionable music is often a risky business. Throwing your proverbial hat in the ring when the music listening public's taste aren't inured to your particular ideosyncratic styles can be a minefield. But storming out of nowhere has come Midlake, a Texan quintet of music majors, making sounds more reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac, Granddady and even The Beach Boys, rather than the current Talking Heads/Duran Duran/New Order 80s rehash-new wave crop, or the 70s-80s heavy rock apers such as Jet and Wolfmother.
'The Trials of Van Occupanther' is pretty. Undeniably, irresistably pretty. And pastoral. And in a musical soundscape dominated by dudes in tight jeans desperately attempting to 'keep it real', a band happy to proceed at a leisurely stroll, replete with the kind of vocal harmonies Brian Wilson and James Mercer would be jealous of is a wondrous thing. When, in the wonderful 'Bandits', vocalist Tim Smith gently coos a tale of being robbed while out looking for a 'rabbit and an ox', the impact is more significant than it was probably intended. In this way, Midlake share much in common with Muse, who, at first glance, are about as similar to Midlake as Pantera are to Elton John. Both offer an escape from 'reality', by musing (pardon the pun) on those things a bit more existential than how to pay for milk or get to the pub.
Do not panic when you hear “Roscoe,” it’s still 2006, and you’re still surrounded by people who listen to Nickelback and try to explain the complexities of how the band’s lyrics help explain their inner most insecurities and thoughts. While 'Bandits' reflects on the appeal of dispensing with the comforts of home and living as a rogue, Van Occupanther is less wistful, the actual story of Van Occupanther may be more obscurant than overt or literary, but the music is so perfect it’s impossible to hold the narrative shortcomings against Smith and the rest of the band.
If an escape from the regular, everyday, and the mundane without reverting to putting on 'Rumours' for the millionth time, look no further than Midlake, circa 2006.

4 stars

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

All time top ten - #3 - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

You must have heard the story by now. In early 2001, Wilco offered their new record, 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', to execs at Reprise Records (a subsidiary of Warner Music), ready for release. The suits didn't hear cash registers ringing, and turned it down, telling the band they wanted more country and less alt. country. Wilco refused to change a thing and wound up buying out the contract and posting the music on their website. And then everything exploded. 5 star reviews came out of the woodwork, tens of thousands took up the music and the then-burgeoning blogsphere ran riot. Reprise wanted back in, but Wilco signed to Nonesuch records (ironically enough another Warner subsidiary)for twice as much as they bought their old contract out for, making the Reprise suits appear biblically short-sighted.
Against a backdrop such as this, it's easy to see why people can get caught up in the rapturous claims of brilliance that now surround this record. Fortunately enough, the record itself is just that.
It's apparent from the opening, psychadelic drone of 'I am Trying to Break Your Heart', complete with bursts of of-kilter drumming, snatches of guitar and alarm clocks, that this is no ordinary pop record. When the pop is there, it's nothing short of quintessential, 'Heavy Metal Drummer', 'Kamera' 'I Am the Man Who Loves You' and 'War on War' equal parts nostalgia and futurism, many times closing by devolving into chaotic hum and buzz, and in the case of the amazing 'Poor Places', morphing into the dischordant, disembodied voice of a Mossad spy recording droning the titular 'Yankee....Hotel...Foxtrot...' again and again.
But it is the record's quieter, more reflective moments that truly give it it's classic status. In 'Jesus, etc.' the album finds ts heartbeat, a poignant, lovely and utterly desperate plea for simpler and happier times. 'Radio Cure' and 'Ashes of American Flags' in the hands of lesser beings would rapidly have been viewed as filler; here, they're raw emotion, singer Jeff Tweedy intoning 'All my lies are only wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new....I would like to salute/The ashes of American flags/and all the falling leaves/Filling up shopping bags'. And it's Tweedy's lyrics that are the unsung (pun utterly intended) champions of YHF. If it's playing the noun-as-verb game on 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart', croaking 'I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue'. Such jive-talking lyricism is certainly not out of place on YHF. But it is the yearning, pain, regret and, ultimately, hope that set this record apart; 'Distance has a way/of making love/understandable' from 'Radio Cure' speaks this in dolby surround.
The album closer, 'Reservations' contains the line 'I've got reservations about so many things, but not about you'. This encapsulates the longing, love, pain and drink that YHF is soaked in, and what makes it one of the truly great records.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Stand Your Ground by Little Barrie

In 2005, Little Barrie appeared on the scene with their debut record, 'We Are Little Barrie'. Such an unassuming title was a good indication of the unpretentious, fun loving music contained within. Not only fun and unpretentious, but dazzlingly good. 60s garage rock melded with modern pop sensibilities and a sparse sound was the most danceable release of the year. Then they got rid of their drummer, Wayne Fulwood. The man was the heart and soul of the debut record, his wailing jazz vocals (both lead and backing) lending a feeling of timelessness and groove. Replaced by Billy Skinner on this year's new release, 'Stand Your Ground', whose drumming is just as tight as Fulwoods, Little Barrie present a record that's the equivalent of recieving a box of chocolates only to find that your favourite fudge flabour isn't in there. It's still good, there's nothing much to complain about, but it's missing that special something that normally makes you go looking for a new box as soon as the old one is finished.
Replacing previous knob-twiddler (I'm referring to his production role) Edwyn Collins with (now veteran producer) Dan the Automator is an inspired choice, 'Stand Your Ground' retaining the stripped back feel, while somehow finding space for some volume and texture which only does good things. However, the songs feel increasingly like the Barrie Cadogan show (and yes, I know it is HIS band, hence the name). Where on 'We Are Little Barrie' the interplay of all three musicians (Lewis Wharton providing some of the years coolest basslines) was a clear strength, now Wharton is often relegated to sitting lonely and bored on the root note, while Skinner keeps a tight, if uninventive rhythm, and both stand back to watch Cadogan hold the melody while singing both lead and backing vocals.
Don't expect this to be the record that hurls Little Barrie into the Mainstream (lead single 'Love You's chorus is so bad it is barely made up for by the awesome remainder of the song), as there's no stand out classic single, those who were hoping for another burst of joy from a band that knows and acknowledges its roots without apeing them will probably wind up a little disappointed.

2 1/2 stars

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Friday, January 05, 2007

The Crane Wife by The Decembrists

So rare is it that a band can straddle the seemingly infinite gulf between what is conventionally titled 'rock/pop' and 'prog rock', but when track two of The Decemberists' new release, The Crane Wife, the 12 minute, Pink Floyd-esque, 3-part epic 'The Island-Come and See-The Landlord's Daughter-You'll Not Feel the Drowning', kicks in after the sweeping gorgeousness of album opener, 'The Crane Wife 3', you know you've stumbled onto something magic. Taking all the whimsy and melody from 2002s Picaresque, while dispensing with the bouncing pop of '16 Military Wives', Colin Meloy and co. have adopted an undeniably proggy approach, and it pays off in spades.
With 2 tracks reaching over 10 minutes, shifting from rolling lullaby to stomping multi-faceted monster, not a note is out of place, not a word wasted. Case in point: the introduction of a Gaelic-influenced rhythm section and vocal melodies and harmonies to the aforementioned album opener is nothing short of inspired.
Winsomely balancing frivolity and gravity, the Decemberists assemble an oddball menagerie of the usual rogues and rascals, soldiers and criminals, lovers and baby butchers-- but they've got a lot more tricks up their sleeves than previous albums had hinted.
On this, their fourth album, The Decembrists have finally found their Qi, and it's on display for all to see and hear. And it looks and sounds great.

4 1/2 stars

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Into the Dark by Jess McAvoy

Much as it is the lot of those who write about music to heap effusive praise upon those who push boundaries, redefine genre, challenge conventional notions of popular music and all that bollocks (and much as this writer is given to those same failings), sometimes it takes a simple, beautiful record to stick its head out above the dross to remind you that music is about good songs. Nothing more, nothing less. Bells, whistles, and computer-generated effects count for nothing in the face of rhythm and melody. And Jess McAvoy's new release, Into the Dark, is exactly that record.
Released independently, Into the Dark is a collection of beautifully written, perfectly sung, heartfelt and straightforward songs about nothing so immense as world politics and global warming. Like Bob Evan's recent release, McAvoy's songs convey tales of suburban romance set to music that is gorgeous in its simplicity, McAvoy's rich, honeyed voice weaving stories of love and lust with the same wonderful joy de vivre.
Embellishments are few, but when they arrive they are never wasted, such as the glorious banjo that gives 'Take You In', with its middle-Australian vibe the kick it needs. Piano tinkles here and there, and electric guitar occasionally appears to lend character and volume. But it's 'See How I Go', with its extraordinary vocal melody during the chorus, that announces Jess McAvoy as the female singer-songwriter to look out for.
Aus music is awash with talented women at the moment: Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko, Clare Bowditch, Jen Cloher, Mia Dyson, Holly Throsby, Macromantics all producing music of genuine international quality (although Missy seemed to lose her way a little once success beckoned); but Jess McAvoy perhaps more than the others, makes music that speaks to everyday Australians with a clear and unwavering voice.

4 stars

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