I'm watching Oregon in the early stages of what will very likely be a smackdown of hapless victim of the week Washington. The lightning quick action of a Ducks game makes for a weird backdrop for the sounds emanating from my headphones, the chill vibes of Glass Animals' debut EP Leaflings. The four-track release combines the methodical beats and heavy-lidded melodies of SBTRKT with the smoky underpinnings of Justin Vernon's Gayngs project. Artful and soulful with a low-key danceability, Leaflings is prime late-night listening and an auspicious glimpse at an act whose prodigious songwriting mastery I hope we get to hear more of very soon.
Maserati's songs are instrumental, but I'd hate to call them a post-rock band, if only because most people equate that with boring. Rather than endlessly building up to crashing crescendos, they charge hard out of the gate and keep the grooves pumping right to the finish line. The have a sound that combines the spacy guitar tones of Dredg, the progressive flair and electronic accents of early Mute Math and Planet of Ice-era Minus the Bear, all tossed in a blender with !!!'s funky, galloping rhythms. The instantly catchy results make for a rare instrumental record that sounds just as good, and maybe better, blasting out of stereo speakers as it does through headphones.
Allah-Las is one of the year's most enjoyable collections of three-minute guitar pop songs, with a dozen strikingly taut tracks that lovingly revive the cherished hallmarks of late-sixties rock: chiming guitars, mild psychedelic edges and folk inflections. What's most surprising about Allah-Las is that, despite their consistency in production value and fairly traditional songwriting approach, they manage to remain compelling throughout and dodge accusations of "all their songs sound the same." From the classic melody and structure of "Sandy" to the instrumental "Ela Navega", each cut seems crafted with a vintage hook-first mentality that never seems to go out of style.
The Mountain Goats Transcendental Youth
It seems we're never too far away from the next record from the prolific John Darnielle, and his latest comes at a perfect time to join the hit parade of magnificent fall albums released over the past month or so. Transcendental Youth, with its bright, clear piano tones and stately horn swells, is easygoing pop music at its finest. It's a perfect fit with Darnielle's understated flair for insightful storytelling. While some see him as sort of a depressing songwriter, Transcendental Youth sounds to me like a celebration of the human condition, which by its nature is composed of both triumph and tragedy. Inspiration hits right from the get-go, as he commands us to "do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive" on the opener "Amy aka Spent Gladiator", and "White Cedar" is about as uplifting as songs get. The breadth of experience and emotion wrapped in colorful allusions from the pop cultural to the biblical add up to another winner from The Mountain Goats.
Mumps, etc. is Yoni Wolf at his most musically adventurous, which is saying something. The album's thirteen tracks weave fluidly between hip-hop, indie rock, chamber pop and oddball folk; it would be an interesting listen with no vocals at all. But of, course, that's not what draws everyone to a Why? record. Wolf's clever armchair philosophizing never disappoints, and he brings the goods on the new shit, too, trademark nasal whine and all. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to cherry-pick and parse him lyrically. His headspace can't be easily summarized by the stray pithy one-liner. With Why?, all you get is honesty, and these confessionals, like all their others, might seem like downers. I wonder if anyone's thoughts are this morbid all the time. But some low-key hope comes on the closer "As a Card". Wolf professes, "I'll hold my own death as a card in the deck to be played when there are no other cards left." Despite some suicidal ideations, it seems he's in the game till the bitter end. As Wolf keeps on keepin' on, and his roller-coaster journey toward finding out who he is continues, we can only hope he keeps taking us along for the ride.
Tiny Victories Those of Us Still Alive EP
For an EP titled Those of Us Still Alive, it sure contains a lot of imagery of death and dying. And yet, there's a weirdly warm sense of comfort in these lush, sun-dappled chillwave-y tunes. Tiny Victories combine dense sonics with simple pop-friendly melodies in a way that makes their songs sound unique but familiar. The opener "Mr. Bones" joins Okkervil River's "Your Past Life as a Blast" on the list of wildly successful songs with very little melodic variation. It's really gorgeous, though, in a Cut Copy-goes-yacht-rock way, and one listen is enough to have you humming it all day. So far, the Brooklyn duo, composed of Greg Walters and Cason Kelly, have released just these five tracks, but they should serve as quite the aperitif for anyone seeking a dreamier, less-chirpy incarnation of Passion Pit.
The "glory days" when the "scene" marched out band after band just like The Sidekicks is a fiction, an idealization of the past propagated by my own mind, but Awkward Breeds takes me back there anyway. Along with albums by Audio Karate, Piebald, Saves the Day, The Forecast and Weatherbox, it's a mainstay on the jukebox in my perfect alternative world where it's always summer, I'm forever young and drunk, and whatever it is I'm feeling, I'm feeling it intensely. It's instantly catchy and Pinkerton earnest, and pretty much everything a pop-rock record should be. Saying that The Sidekicks make me feel like a kid would imply I've ever felt otherwise. But they do make me wish I still were.
Ringo Deathstarr are partying like it's 1991. Their sophomore album Mauve, like last year's Colour Trip, is a throwback to a time when feedback and noise were at the height of fashion. Of course there's some obvious My Bloody Valentine worship going on, especially on "Fifteen", but they make sure to hit all of the influences from the golden age of shoegaze, from the candy-sweet vocals meets brash distortion of The Jesus and Mary Chain to the slightly more pop-rock oriented approach of The Breeders. The one-two punch of "Slack", a comparatively breakneck-paced jam, and "Brightest Star", a slow burner with a beat and atmosphere reminiscent of The Cure's "Fascination Street", make for quite the dynamite combo. It would be technically correct to call Mauve an imitation, but that seems to imply that it's not as good as "the real thing." And while it might not be Loveless-- and it's certainly not as zeitgeisty-- it captures, very effectively, noise-rock at its most narcotic and pulse-pounding. If it's a knockoff, it's certainly not a cheap one.
An Awesome Wave is an awesome album. What Alt-J have done on their debut is remarkable, and we can only hope they can manage to avoid drowning in hype and expectations. The record is at once memorable, alluring and haunting. It's been referred to as folktronica, a term I've heard used in referring to everyone from The Books to Freelance Whales. Alt-J sound like none of those, or anyone else, really. The album's easy melodies, which at times display a level of understatement akin to The xx, contrast with its complex layers, which rather counter-intuitively, act not as a barrier to entry but as a hook in and of themselves. The lush atmosphere is perfect for a late weekend night spent in or a rainy Sunday afternoon, some period of inactivity where this Wave can just wash over you.
I've read that the world's most succinct word is supposedly "mamihlapinatapai," a word from Yagan, a language indigenous to Tierra del Fuego, meaning "a look shared by two people, each wishing the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves." That's an awful lot to say with one word, and a reasonable explanation of why you'd need to escapes me. But if that's impressive, it's still nothing compared to what Caspian can say using no words at all.
Waking Season is my favorite post-rock release of 2012. By a country mile. Some albums make us think, give us something to ponder. Some albums make us feel joy, others sorrow. Waking Season is a work of such staggering beauty and intensity, it's difficult, maybe impossible to define in such terms. Like a glorious sunset over the ocean, it evokes feelings not of happiness or sadness, but oneness with our ability to perceive. It urges us, sometimes subtly, sometimes forcefully, that sentience is a wonder not to be taken for granted.
Frightened Rabbit State Hospital EP
Canvasback / Atlantic, 2012
Scott Hutchison has always had a bipolar thing going on. On The Midnight Organ Fight, the Frightened Rabbit frontman followed "Head Rolls Off", one of the most life-affirming songs I can imagine regardless of your worldview, with the downtrodden "Backwards Walk" ("I get hammered and forget that you exist") and the downright bitter "Keep Yourself Warm" ("It takes more than fucking someone you don't know to keep warm"). The Winter of Mixed Drinks brought us the inspiring and optimistic "Swim Until You Can't See Land" and the fatalist "Skip the Youth". I think it's this, on top of their pristine indie-pop arrangements and melodies of course, that keeps me coming back. Some days I have unbridled confidence for the future, others absolutely none.
It's nice to see that leaving FatCat for the big leagues hasn't changed Frightened Rabbit one bit. The opening title track closes with a chest-beating swell and the proclamation, "All is not lost!" It could very well be the anthem that pushes them to the next level of popularity. But it wouldn't be a Frightened Rabbit disc without Hutchison in drunk-and-depressed mode, and boy do we get that with "Boxing Night". Along with the introspective mood swings, they've also carried over the widescreen indie-rock production that's characterized their albums. It's the sort of grand-gesture sound that has turned Arcade Fire into a big-ticket draw. If their upcoming full-length can keep the ball rolling like this, with the full heft of Atlantic backing it up, a similar level of success might be possible. It certainly would be deserved.
Produced by Tame Impala's Kevin Parker, the debut album from Paris's Melody Prochet is a wonderfully reverby soundscape that borrows the eclecticism, smoky production and dreamy female vocals of Phantogram, the synth accents of Kraftwerk and Stereolab, and the psych-rock guitars of its producer's main act. Prochet drifts back and forth between English and French-- the latter I'm literate in, but have trouble with the spoken word. Not that it matters. The lush, shimmering atmospheres are clearly the order of the day here, and the aptly titled Melody's Echo Chamber is a blissfully hypnotic affair that's wildly successful as ear candy for the headphone trippers.
Rewd Adams and The Last Skeptik How Not to Make a Living
"I remember when I worked in an office and I earned a monthly salary. But I spent every day in that office wondering how long I could put my head in the photocopier for before I got cancer just to end things because it was so mundane. Now at least if I'm broke I'm not bored. I've got Twitter."
Bri'ish rapper Rewd Adams clearly has a distaste for the workaday lifestyle a lot of us are resigned to living until just about the time they bury our asses. It's thanks to albums like How Not to Make a Living that I manage not to be bored while I'm making mine. Adams' swaggering "real talk" and raised middle finger to the Man aren't anything new, for hip-hop, punk rock or whatever, but he owns the no-compromise schtick compellingly and his delivery and sense of flow are spot on. But what jacks the album up a few notches more is the sterling production of The Last Skeptik. The last few years, I've become a big fan of great sounding rap records, and they don't come a whole lot better than How Not to Make a Living. In what is something of a kitchen-sink approach, The Last Skeptik offers enough variety to scratch whatever itch you might have for beats and samples. And if you're unemployed and disaffected, Adams will give you even more reason to love it.
Neil Halstead Palindrome Hunches
Most famous for fronting '90s shoegaze pioneers Slowdive, Neil Halstead as a solo artist shies away from fuzzy torrents of guitar, favoring an intimate stripped-down sound. You'd be tempted to call these songs folk, and with their copious amounts of acoustic guitar and gliding strings, no one would argue with you if you did. However, it's the delicate piano that stands out and gives songs like "Bad Drugs and Minor Chords" and the title track an air that's reminiscent of early Belle and Sebastian. Lest you think I'm implying cloying pretenses of sophistication, check out "Full Moon Rising", the album's earnest and reflective emotional centerpiece, and the sparklingly gorgeous closer "Loose Change".
Calexico are a tough band to pin down, but easy to enjoy, and this is as true as ever on their latest album Algiers. Whether they're employing Murder by Death style brooding cello, brassier mariachi-esque arrangements, or stripped-down acoustic guitars, their songs are direct and rich with subtle charms. Anything Algiers may lack in pyrotechnics, it more than makes up for with easygoing, amiable tunes that are beguiling and heartfelt. It's a workmanlike effort that may be something of a sleeper amid the more overtly attention-grabbing recent releases, but given the opportunity, it displays more than enough attention-holding power to match its flashier contemporaries.