Tuesday, August 12, 2008

New Music: Microcastle

I’ve put off reviewing Deerhunter’s new album, Microcastle, for a while since its leak. Quality has nothing to do with this decision; it’s a great record. Instead, I was a bit troubled by the timing of the leak – it happened at the start of the summer, even before a release date (Oct. 28) was announced. I just didn’t feel good hyping something that may or may not even come out. Well, several weeks ago, the date was posted alongside the album artwork. I just couldn’t wait anymore.

The band’s previous release, Cryptograms, was a surprising high point from last year, as was its companion EP, Fluorescent Grey. Lead singer, Bradford Cox, put out a fantastic solo album (Atlas Sound, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel) early this year that will pace high on the ladder at the end of the year. Deerhunter is suddenly prolific, an improbable surprise to those who were introduced to the band through their rough 2005 self-titled debut. How they progressed from there to the beautifully polished songwriters they are now is anyone’s guess.

Enough about their backstory… How is Microcastle? Wonderful!

Like Cryptograms, Microcastle starts out with a pretty instrumental piece (“Cover Me, Slowly”) that flows into a nifty lead track. That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Sure they have those echoing sounds, vocal effects, and that propulsive drumming; but Microcastle is happier, catchier, and more listener-friendly. After listening to Cryptograms about a million times, I could probably write a dissertation about its connotations with mental illness, how each track interacts to tell a musical story, how the compositions are near perfect, etc. Sure I could do that, but here’s the catch: it took me about a million listens to be able to get it. Microcastle doesn’t need to grow on you, it’s already there.

Considering how busy Bradford Cox has been lately, it’s not really a surprise that he hands the vocal duties to guitarist Lockett Pundt for a couple songs (including the opener). Cole Alexander (from the Black Lips) also takes vocal duties for a track (Saved by Old Times), leaving Cox’s signature voice to about 3/4ths of the album. That’s okay, really, because guest vocals are a fun idea. The album is supposed to be fun: if Cryptograms was all about depression, Microcastle is all about what happens afterward.

Deerhunter just have fun with this album. “Nothing Ever Happened” explores Krautrock. The lyrics on “Agoraphobia” are so morbid, they’re silly. “Cover Me, Slowly” starts the album with a decidedly epic chord progression. “Saved By Old Times” features the line, “We were captured by Victorian vampires with elaborate designs.” Gone is the creepy weirdness so prevalent of Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey: the band seems to have shifted their colors.

The new Deerhunter is not only fun, they know how to, well, rock. Several songs are loud and bombastic, and, dare I say it, epic. “Never Stops”, “Neither Of Us, Uncertainly”, and “Twilight At Carbon Lake” each build to grandiose finales, and the album purposefully goes through a little valley (“Calvary Scars”, “Green Jacket”, “Actavia”) in order to build up to a huge conclusion. Like U2’s best albums, Microcastle is both inspired and inspiring.

Sure, it’s not as great as Cryptograms (the best album from the recent shoegaze re-hash), but Microcastle doesn’t want to be. It’s a smart, fun, catchy pop album filled with rewarding hooks and sounds and noises. Its buildups and falldowns are emotionally affecting, and every piece works the way it should. Microcastle is one of the best records of the year.

EDIT: You can buy it on iTunes right now. Please do so... It's worth it!

Nothing Ever Happened - Deerhunter

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Don't Forget About... Lesser Matters

The next entry in my series spotlighting under-appreciated albums.

You know, I’ve listened to this so many times, I probably don’t need a refresher listen to write this post. The Radio Dept,’s Lesser Matters is not only one of my favorite records, but it’s a flawless album…

It’s not that it’s groundbreaking or revolutionary or genius or any of that; Lesser Matters won’t blow your mind. It is, in fact, a relatively straightforward pop/rock album with shoegaze undertones.

Unlike most shoegaze, however, The Radio Dept. doesn’t try to wash your feet out from under you with noise. They, instead, transport you to another time and place with ambience. Take, for example, “Slottet #2”. On the surface, it’s a little instrumental break in the record. A bit deeper in the mix lay echoes of rustling leaves. This smart little addition instantly puts you on a country lane in the fall, making the song necessary to the flow of the album. Brilliant.

This approach works great with the vocal tracks, as well. A touch of ambient haze makes each song seem like a fond memory, placing importance and familiarity on the reflective lyrics. Though I was only 10 in 1995, the song bearing the same name makes me nostalgic for the days of my distant childhood. When they sing, “You can’t touch me ‘cause I’m way beyond you today,” in the song “Strange Things Will Happen”, the listener is really placed on an emotional plateau. If everyone viewed art as the search for emotional beauty and serenity, this would be a hallmark of the music medium.

It’s not as if that’s even the highlight of the album, though. If anything, the shoegaze element is simply an afterthought, a footnote in the list of things that makes Lesser Matters so great. At one point I got so stuck trying to choose a song off this album while making a mix for my soon-to-be wife, I decided just to give her the entire CD. It’s like every track is the record’s strong point. In a perfect world these would be hits burning up the charts. If only…

But that’s the thing; Lesser Matters isn’t about “what if,” it’s about what was. If you want a quiet evening of reflection, pop this sucker in and sit back – it’s a memory stimulant. Gosh, the first time I heard this thing, I didn’t leave the couch until I completed the third listen. Each minute of Lesser Matters distracts you from your surroundings and puts you somewhere else. It’s the audio equivalent to reading a great book, and, being 43 minutes long, it’s highly (but not dangerously) addictive.

Oh, and it’s not just an album full of great individual songs. Lesser Matters works great as a whole, starting out with a fast pace and traversing a unique ebb and flow. They give and take, stopping for a breath with the afore-mentioned “Slottet #2”. When Lesser Matters concludes, it does so with flair and perfect timing. Each arrangement is packed with melodies and hooks, but not so many to make the listener’s head spin. Each composition suits the song just right. There is nothing less than ideal about this record.

As is the case with such brilliant debuts, The Radio Dept. has spun their wheels a bit since they put out Lesser Matters back in 2004. The Swedes' last few releases, while pretty good, lack the same unspoken something that makes this one so great. That’s okay, though. This album will provide memories for a lifetime.

The Radio Dept. - Lesser Matters

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Goodbye... Wait For Me

The latest in my series about albums to be deleted from my iPod.

There’s an underground British scene creating some great music right now. It’s cranking it out at a frantic pace, with nearly every release being borderline essential. Taking cues from, but not aping, important pop forefathers, this scene is arguably the future of the underground and a refreshingly creative alternative to the run-of-the-mill fodder largely being released right now.

The Pigeon Detectives are not part of this scene.

A band called The Libertines was formed in the late '90s. They took cues from such NME favorites as The Clash, The Jam, and Oasis. The Libertines broke up after two mediocre albums, but were a huge commercial success anyway. This was due in no small part to the critical bandwagon driven by, surprise surprise, NME and Q magazines. Their legacy has now reached legendary status, and their followers (re: posers) are burning up British radio and charts. This means whatever creativity The Libertines once claimed to own has been mined and stripped of all value. Now the first wave of imitators (see: Artic Monkeys) have imitators of their own. Heaven help us.

Yes, The Pigeon Detectives are one of these rip-off rip-offs.

Let’s get one thing straight. The Pigeon Detectives don’t suck. They are a pretty good technical band: they play tight, seem to have aptitude at their instruments, and are well-produced. No, my problem with has nothing to do with their aptitude. I just wish they’d, you know, try.

You can’t fault a band for using standard song structures. Most songs are written that way because it’s what works. But The Pigeon Detectives have other common (re: cliché) elements to their songs: hand-claps (see: The Kaiser Chiefs), responding backing vocals (see: Artic Monkeys), danceable staccato guitar lines (see: Franz Ferdinand), and attempts at “humorous,” self-effacing lyrics (see: every other band in this lousy genre). And they do it pretty well. The thing is, there are hundreds of other bands doing the exact same thing!

The world doesn’t need another Jam/Clash/Oasis/Libertines/Arctic Monkeys/Franz Ferdinand/Kaiser Chiefs.

The thing is, their sound isn’t even that good! It’s danceable, but not that danceable. It’s driving, but not that driving. It’s clever, but not that clever. Man, it all just sounds the same.

I know I haven’t even mentioned their album, Wait For Me, yet. Do I have to? I mean, c’mon, I can’t even tell the songs apart, much less these bands. I wouldn’t listen to The Pigeon Detectives even if I liked this type of music. Go listen to dubstep, England’s other current underground music scene. It’s inspired, groundbreaking, creative, and just… better. This garbage? Delete.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Don't Forget About... Witching Hour

The next entry in my series spotlighting under-appreciated albums.

The club scene is one I’ll never know. It’s dark, glamorous, and devoid of emotion. The occupants of the best ones, it seems, dance not because they want to, but because they have to. Icy stares suggest having a night out is some kind of duty. No, this is not something for me. It is, however something with mysterious appeal…

Enter Ladytron, a British band whose reputation from the get-go was shrouded by their involvement (and arguably pilfered sound) of the club scene. It seemed the critics and public alike didn’t take it as seriously as the group and their compatriots. The band’s music was for clubbers, made by clubbers, and there was little appeal outside those boundaries. At least until 2005 when they released Witching Hour.

Like any other great album, Witching Hour works on various levels… It works as an ode to the aforementioned club scene, with every song pulsing with an aggressive fury urging listeners to dance. Lyrically, this is a love letter to nightlife: with subject matter rarely venturing past lullabies of endless weekends, Ladytron is sticking to what they know best.

Witching Hour also works as a breakthrough album, fusing their already-established electronic sound with the re-emerging shoegaze flavor. The newfound echo and ambience of their keyboards and guitars makes Ladytron sound like they are hosting a dance party in a haunted house. Of course, the creepy Bulgarian lyrics of “Fighting In Built Up Areas” make this an apt comparison. Track after monster track pummels the listener until their head spins, and the record’s hazy sound makes you just feel like you’re in a club. This isn’t just Ladytron’s best album, it’s one of the best dance albums ever.

Another trait of great records is the closing song, and Witching Hour follows suit with “All The Way”. Like the rest of the album, the lyrics are sung with little emotion. The music, however, tells the real story here. The song’s tension and release puts the listener into a reflective state, as if something worth remembering just happened. It’s the sound of Ladytron going home after the party, looking forward to the next.

Though Witching Hour is unquestionably Ladytron’s high point, 2008 follow-up, Velocifero, is nearly as good. This is encouraging news, as very few bands can affect a listener like Ladytron. Their sound is that of pure escapism, the essence of club life. They don’t bring the listener to their element, they bring their element to the listener: that is the mark of a worthwhile group, and a trait few bands possess. Bravo!

Ladytron - Witching Hour