After the ending of the White Stripes, and the hiatus of his other bands, it only seemed natural that Jack White would eventually try his hand at a solo album. Going in, I wondered how White could or would change his sound from his tried-and-true trademark blues, and garage rock sound. After all, the later White Stripe albums began to fade and sound somewhat rehashed from their previous efforts. With Blunderbuss, however White manages to bring back the sense of edginess, and freedom of his earlier work. There’s a lot to like with his solo album, although it’s a little front heavy, it’s still a great listen all the way through. With “Missing Pieces” and “Sixteen Saltines” it’s as if White got back to the basics of what made his songs so great in the first place. A lot of fast paced rhythms, and distorted guitar solos that are just fun to listen to. On the later tracks, White continues to mix things up by blending country and folk influenced arrangements together. This is a record that began more as a collaborative effort between artists that morphed into a solo record. So it’s an accomplishment that Blunderbuss sounds as cohesive and coherent as it does. If you’re a fan of Jack White and his many bands, I would highly recommend checking out his new work.
Jason Pierce, the leader of Spiritualized has had a long interest in creating new music that sounds more like a throwback to an earlier time in rock history. Over the years that direction has changed in small ways, but Pierce has always maintained a nostalgic feel to his music. “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” continues his pursuit of creating great music that mixes both gospel and rock. Although his lyrics often contain religious overtones, and even taking his band’s name into consideration, Pierce still insists that he’s not a religious person. He seems to only use those themes to become more self reflective with his lyrics and song writing. This record is a lot more grandiose and epic sounding than probably any of the other Spiritualized albums. It’s not quite the shoegazing sound that was present in the 1990’s. However, at this point the band has become much more than something that fits into only one genre, Pierce has made sure of that. Tracks like “Too Late”, and “Freedom” sound like something from a 1970’s Kinks album, “I Am What I Am” is much more of a gospel and blues influenced track, and the final song “So Long You Pretty Things” is a tribute to David Bowie. So you can see there are influences coming from a few different places. There’s been a couple of albums I’ve listened to this year that try to invoke a retro rock sound, but I think Sweet Heart Sweet Light does the best at capturing the spirit of the music.
Originally starting out as a new-wave band, Chromatics have altered their sound slightly over the last ten years. They haven’t gotten away from the dreamy guitars, or slow beats, but have added edgier, darker sounds that somehow blend so well with the band’s synth-pop vibe. “Kill For Love” is full of seemingly simple melodies that are catchier and better with each listen. Although fairly long, with 17 tracks and clocking in at over an hour and a half, the album is definitely a must listen. The band draws influences from some of the most unlikely places, as the first song from Kill For Love is a cover of Neil Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)”. Some negatives might by the use of canned or synthetic tin sounding strings that are used repeatedly, but I think it works well with Chromatics overall lo-fi approach to recording. The album is bookended by both great beginning and ending tracks that encompass the entire work. Even though we’re only a few months into 2012, it’s pretty safe to say this is one of the best of the year thus far. I would highly recommend checking this album out, apparently it releases at the end of May. But if you don’t want to wait that long, it’s currently being streamed in its entirety on soundcloud by the band.
M. Ward - A Wasteland Companion (2012) / Rating: 3/5
Don’t let the album name fool you, this is not some deeply dark depressing turn for M. Ward and his music. “A Wasteland Companion” brings the usual mix from M. Ward, nothing all that different or exciting. The songs, “Me and My Shadow”, “Sweetheart” feature Zooey Deschanel (how the hell did he get her?! Man what a get). But all kidding aside, you have to wonder at this point what the real difference is between a M. Ward solo effort and a She and Him album? Obviously it means less Deschanel, but she does seem to pop up in background vocals throughout Wasteland Companion. It could be possibly the idea that most of the M. Ward solo songs are more personal to him, I’m not sure. As I said before in my Shins review, bands have to walk a very fine line between becoming repetitive album after album or pushing their sound so far that alienates their core fan base. M. Ward does add some new and interesting soundscapes with the use of edgier guitar effects, and orchestral strings. Though he doesn’t push it far enough, I’m not sure how many more records of M. Ward acoustically doodling on his guitar I can listen to. But then again, there’s always the next She and Him album.
Bear In Heaven - I Love You, It’s Cool (2012) / Rating: 4/5
“I Love You, It’s Cool” is the third studio album from Bear In Heaven, and the follow up to the highly successful “Beast Rest Forth Mouth”. The band has been known to mix things up quite a bit from album to album, and with their latest release it’s no different. I’ve noticed a trend among several indie bands as of late, who’ve started to go down the “80’s pop synth” avenue (see Chairlift, Frankie Rose, or Grimes). I Love You, It’s Cool definitely has a very electronic, 80’s pop vibe to it as you may have gathered even just from the artwork. The first song from the album, “Idle Heart” is a great song that really introduces everything well. The rest of songs follow more or less along those same lines, but at times it can become somewhat repetitive. However, there’s enough uniquely blended electronic indie rock pop to keep most listeners happy. Sometimes bands experiment with a different sound and direction because they’ve accomplished what they’ve wanted to do in other genres, but more often than not it’s just a band who’s run out of ideas and are grasping for anything. I’d like to think with Bear In Heaven it’s the former, since it’s only their third release and they’ve left a lot of space for new growth. Of course if you’re a fan of Bear In Heaven this is a must get, and worth checking out if you’re curious.
With “Interstellar”, Frankie Rose has her first record as just simply “Frankie Rose”. She’s had a backing band before with “Frankie Rose and the Outs”, and of course played with the Vivian Girls, and Dum Dum Girls. At first listen, I thought Interstellar reminded me of another record that came out this year, Chairlift’s “Something”. Where Chairlift seem to strive for an 80’s pop synth throwback, Rose’s Interstellar is more reminiscent of 80’s post-punk/new wave. There’s something haunting about her sound, yet still filled with a lightness that’s also very pleasant. The French duo AIR, are one of the few other bands that come to mind that possess such an ability to take you to dark places musically but still sound very lite. I wouldn’t say the album is filled with catchy, immediate songs that get stuck in your head, but it’s definitely a grower. Interstellar is worth repeated listens almost entirely for its dense layers. So if you’re into post-punk or new wave bands from the 80’s, I would highly recommend checking out Frankie Rose.
“Open Your Heart”, The Men’s third album is definitely an enjoyable listen. It’s not exactly packed with a lot of emotional depth, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. The Men who originate from Brooklyn, continue to build off last year’s record, “Leave Home” which was an even more edgy/hard rock driven effort. Open Your Heart is less chaotic than Leave Home, and is more structured in terms of songwriting and songcraft. It has its moments of very quick bursts of fast tempo rock music, and then switches gears completely into 7 minute slow building instrumental ballads. This sort of back and forth keeps the listener engaged into wondering what exactly might be next? The Men are influenced by many hardcore and grunge bands of yesteryear, and some even consider The Men as being a “Post-Hardcore” band. That may or may not be an appropriate label, but I believe that they create very engaging music that can appeal to a lot of people.
Daniel Rossen - Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP (2012) / Rating: 5/5
Normally I don’t usually review EPs, but I have a bit of a soft spot for Daniel Rossen and his bandmates in Grizzly Bear. “Silent Hour/Golden Mile” is his first solo outing, although Rossen has also released work with his other band, Department of Eagles. This collection of five songs is everything we’ve come to expect from Rossen, and quite more. The first song that struck me from the EP was “Silent Song”, with its nostalgic guitar sounds and great rhythm. For whatever reason instrumentally, Silent Song reminds me of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” just with a faster tempo. That may or may not be a good comparison, but Rossen seems to have become more and more confident in his songcraft with each outing. His voice has also become so much more assured, stronger, and confident from the days of his first Department of Eagles album. Another song from the EP that stood out is “Saint Nothing”. Pitchfork recently interviewed Rossen, and recorded a performance of him playing Saint Nothing. I highly recommend checking that out, as I believe it captures the essence of that song quite well. Whether or not people look at Silent Hour/Golden Mile as a great EP or just a bunch of Grizzly Bear reject songs that couldn’t make the cut, Rossen has proven time and time again that he’s a legit creative force. Personally, I think Silent Hour/Golden Mile is great because it feels like a throwback to another era, but still sounds fresh. Rossen’s music has always been able to strike at some emotional core within me, that’s why as I mentioned earlier I have a such a soft spot for his music. Obviously, I’m really excited, as I think a lot of people should be to see where Rossen goes with his work in the future whether with it’s with Grizzly Bear or solo.
2007’s ‘Wincing The Night Away’ is in my opinion the best Shins album to date. It has a truly great mix of light pop indie rock with just enough emotional weight and depth. After seemingly five long years, The Shins have returned with an almost brand new lineup, and a new album “Port Of Morrow”. The reason I brought up Wincing The Night Away, is that I was curious of how The Shins new effort would live up to their previous work? Port Of Morrow doesn’t necessarily disappoint, but it doesn’t quite revive the magic that once was The Shins either. Some of the songs off of Port Of Morrow, strike me as very pop oriented in a way that it’s almost like listening to an extremely watered down version of The Shins. It could be the strenuous schedules of touring and recording that can begin to wear on a band’s creative output. Or maybe it could be just the perils of life, growing older, and having children that changes people. Greg Kurstin (who produced Port of Morrow) recently said in an New York Times interview, “A band needs to change and take a bold step, although you don’t want to alienate anybody […] Every now and then I would check in with James [Mercer], like, ‘Are you O.K. with this?’ He’d be excited about it and say, ‘I think this is the best record I’ve ever made,’ so we just went for it.” I believe Kurstin’s point about not wanting to alienate anyone is totally true. It’s great for bands to want to change up their sound and grow in new ways, as long as it doesn’t stray so far away from where the band originally started (see Coldplay). Port Of Morrow certainly at times pushes those limits, but never strays too far away. The bookend tracks, “The Rifles Spiral” and “Port Of Morrow” are worthy of any Shins best of compilation. As for the future of The Shins, I hope that James Mercer continues to push his music in new ways that keeps albums feeling fresh, but never loses sight of what made The Shins so exciting in the first place.
Mark Lanegan Band - Blues Funeral (2012) / Rating: 3/5
The first track off this record, “The Gravedigger’s Song” (also the first single) offers a promising start to what sounded like a great blues rock record. As the album progressed, track by track the blues began to slowly fade away and introduced was a more electronic/synthetic sound that seemed to clash with the band’s core elements. Mark Lanegan has such a deep, rich voice in very much the same way that when Tom Waits or Rob Dougan are paired with a soulful blues song, it can carry a lot of emotional weight. The album seems to lack cohesion because as I mentioned, “Blues Funeral” seems to change from track to track. I think it’s great when bands or artists experiment with their sound in new ways, but usually it’s not done from song to song but rather album to album. However, I really enjoyed The Gravedigger’s Song, and I think at the very least it’s definitely worth checking out.
Lambchop is pegged as being “alternative country” but to me “Mr. M” feels to me as if it has more of a jazz influence. Musically the album is very well composed, the strings add a warming atmosphere that is comforting and welcoming. It’s music that would definitely be great playing in the background, and while that may sound like a backhanded compliment, not every piece of music needs to be an awesome headphone jam. At times it sounds like Mr. M could be a score to a film, as there are a couple of instrumental breaks that really embellish the cinematic soundscapes. The last track on the record is the haunting piano driven song “Never My Love”. Which I think perfectly encapsulates the entire album in one song. However, as beautiful as this is, I’m not sure if I would find myself wanting to listen to Mr. M on a repeated basis. For all the emotion this album can invoke, I would more than likely listen to other similar but more immediate records before this one.
At first listen, Hanne Hukkelberg’s new album sounds a bit like tUnE-yArDs meets Joanna Newsom with a dash of Micachu and the Shapes thrown in. In fact, the first two times I listened to Featherbrain I couldn’t stop comparing it to other people, which was utterly infuriating. If you go deeper, however, the album is really something original- a forceful horizon of melancholic landscapes that chirp and skip with electronic hollowness. Hukkelberg’s vocals, while obviously inciting a whole host of comparison, are truly fearsome and powerfully evokative, with the barnstoming ‘Noah’ showcasing the talent of her range. The second half of the album turns into something of a dark wonderland, with ‘Too Good to be Good’ and ‘The Time and I What We Make’ echoing with a haunting close. Her clear classical training and innovative use of a range of instruments (the thumb piano in ‘The Bigger Me’ earning her a lot of credit in my eyes) demonstrates a virtuoso mastery of music, and ultimately leads me to believe it was in fact Hukkelberg who influenced the whole slew of current compatriots herself.