Tag Archives: music review

#26: Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe

(Glassnote, 2013)

chvrches_the_bones_of_what_you_believe

(Image from soundstagedirect.com)

I came upon Chvrches via another of my channels for discovering new music: Jian Ghomeshi’s Q on CBC Radio (other discoveries from there include two of my now favourite bands: Austra and Elbow). It’s through there that I gain exposure to most of the new Canadian bands I listen to and has me paying close attention to the candidates in the running for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize that Canada awards to its top album of every year. Chvrches, however, being the hottest thing to come out of Glasgow since Franz Ferdinand, is sadly not eligible for that award.

What is demonstrated on The Bones of What You Believe is the modern power trio working at its finest. Yes, admittedly, the whole trio sound has been replaced by machines – by and large, synths fill in for both guitar and bass (though the guitar makes a cameo appearance in a couple of tracks, it knows its place on this album) and drum machines take over the tireless job on all but two of the tracks – but this still rocks! The songs very much resemble arena rock anthems, but reduced in scale and put in a cube. Every one of Lauren Mayberry’s melodies are instantly memorable and singable – reaching, but not straining and very affecting. The synth riffs that back many of the big choruses here – were they a tad slower and played on guitar – easily fulfill that emotional, fist-pumping, energetic feeling that a good ol’ riff oughtta give you. The backbeat pounds incessantly to the beat of your foot stomping on the ground and the big tom splashes on “Science/Visions” get you psyched for the impending chorus. Every element is already there to energize you and get your head to bangin’.

But there’s no need to change a thing. New forms of music will always take their cues from the old, and this is no different – all the pieces are there, they are just in a different place (I know synth pop is hardly old, but its status of rock-usurper is still coming into being). In place of edginess, there is relentless peppiness (though the synth sounds of “Under the Tide” will have you convinced the synths themselves are trying to stage a bloody coup). The palette of vocal instrumentation is expanded as the vocals weave in, out and between the synth lines (the bouncing loop of vocals that opens the album on “The Mother We Share”, or the punctuated sighs and shouts in the background of “Lies”) – there’s no lack of emotion or gut feeling. Unlike the wave of synth popularity, there is no sense that the synths are being used to replace another, ‘real’ instrument – we’ve come to terms with the synth’s identity as itself, and Chvrches have embraced that attitude with aplomb.

This album is a fantastic chronicle of synthpop’s rise to power and an excellent collection of songs to just get you pumped -the overall energy is fantastic and the melodies hit all the heights you want them to without sounding forced or belaboured. Produced with just the right balance of slickness and space so that you get caught up without getting overwhelmed, The Bones of What You Believe is another fully-formed debut LP that both makes a great musical statement and promise for the future.

9/10

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#25: Lorde – Pure Heroine

(Universal, 2013)

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(Image from recordstore.co.uk)

It’s very rare that I listen to an album blind (deaf?) anymore. I will usually sample a track or so before committing to purchase – don’t want to a spoil a majority of the experience. Even if I’ve yet to even hear a track on the album, the reputation of the particular band/album will have gotten to my ears in one way or another, making me feel justified. So when an album appears in front of my eyes with an austere cover (seen above) that registers zero information in my brain, my eyebrows will begin to arch even as that sneaking suspicion passes through the back of my brain: “what if it’s crap?” I tried to use all the clues available: prominently available on its own rack, on sale, so there’s probably quite a marketing push behind it. Had a sticker advertising “Tennis Court” and “Royals” as being on it, meaning it must be getting some kind of airplay. Could be good, could just be another pop album. I let the idea of ecstasy at getting a completely foreign album to me die and quickly look the album up on Wikipedia on my phone. Praise! Bought.

It’s not that my tastes are necessarily dictated by critics on the internet – though it’s hard to argue that that is how my ears are pointed to a lot of recent releases – but there is often overlap, and is nice to be able to participate in what quickly becomes codified as cultural cache. I have seldom been steered wrong by a general critical consensus.* Rather than confining my listening, that practice has gotten me into listening to more music than I would not have normally listened to than anything else and opened up my mind to more and more from disparate genres.

Lorde is 16-year-old New Zealander Ella Yelich-O’Connor attempting to carve herself a piece of the ample pop pie. She has a fantastic voice, and her melodies are all solid tunes (and often earworms, especially in the case of lead single “Royals”). The main thing that caught my attention going through the album, though, is something which a lot pop these days seems to lack but Pure Heroine seems to have in spades: space. There is room from every song to breathe here – no huge waves of synthesizer and incensed four-on-the-floor beats. Her voice is free to wheedle as it will (layered with her own harmonies), with only a couple of instrumental accessories – a strong array of electronic beats and some synthesizer (mostly filling in the bass and a few chords). There is nothing to distract the ear from the melody here – just a bare but sturdy framework to hold it up.

The content of the lyrics on the album do not belie Yelich-O’Connor’s youth, but the distance and hindsight with which they are written do: “I’m kinda over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air” she sings on “Team,” commenting as a consumer of the same musical arena in which she’s dropped this album, and pushing her pop peers aside at the same time. Nothing she sings about seems to be beyond the scope of what she’s experienced in her life so far, but it’s striking the amount of disillusionment she has having set in already at sixteen – “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies” she croons in “Royals”, hitting right to the heart of and laying by the wayside the marketing/culture feedback loop impressed upon teen girls. Later in “Royals”, she uses the language of the songs and culture she’s satirizing to list off various accolades and possessions worth bragging about that she says everyone’s all about just to reject them afterwards.

At ten songs and 37 minutes, Pure Heroine is perfect album length – not a huge investment of time, but enough to get an idea of Lorde’s songwriting style and to already get excited about whatever her next project is. This is a masterfully formed debut album one only wonders how her music will develop if this is what she’s capable of now.

9/10

*This is why a majority of my entries are positive reviews – I review every album I listen to in full during the year, but the albums are usually vetted beforehand before I listen to the whole thing. The ones I pick are ones I feel I am likely to enjoy.

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#22: Locrian – Return to Annihilation

(Relapse, 2013)

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(Image from relapse.com)

My mental journey from hearing about to sitting down and listening to this album was a tumultuous one, and one that starts me thinking about both the rampant, unchecked categorization of today’s music, and the passing of that categorization as commodity among fans of any particular genre.

Discovering the existence of the album came, as it often does, from browsing my favourite music review sites to see a) which bands/albums had cool names/artwork and b) were highly rated. Locrian hit me immediately as being a shorthand for “complex musical writing” as it is the last and weirdest of the modes and Return to Annihilation, while seeming a little on the blatantly dark side, combined with the whitewashed, foggy, desolate looking cover of an empty parking lot, which suggested an abandoned world. I was in.

I sampled myself a track, and found it fit the exact mood I had expected based on seeing the album – scratching, growling, drawling stretches of noise and feedback (but not irritating or ear-stabbing), punctuated with drums; meandering, melancholy guitar and various short loops. The instruments would flit in and out, leaving the message of noise strongly with me, which perfectly matched the atmosphere created by the cover – an atmosphere I wanted to experience in full. Definitely a priority purchase.

The album being lesser-known by most brick-and-mortar music store standards, I waited until I had the opportunity to go to the big HMV in Toronto.  casually looked through Pop/Rock, laughing and knowingly shaking my head at not finding it there. Scratching my brain, I next tried Electronic, thinking maybe I didn’t catch the all electronic elements that could have been there. No dice. I was just about to resign myself  to the fact that this store might not even have it, checking Punk out of desperation. Nothin’. I flipped open my phone and decided to look up the band on Wikipedia, hoping it would provide a clue as to where I should look. It did. Past the other categorizations, the words Black Metal lasered themselves into my brain as I numbly trundled over to the Metal section and swiftly found the album.

Black metal, are you KIDDING ME!? Double bass drums going a thousand miles per hour? A dude with death mask make-up screaming unintelligibly!? Black metal is, unfortunately, nowhere near my bag. My face fell. A blurb on the CD used the words again and I found myself wondering if this was going to be worth it. What if the track I heard was a one-off? Looking again at the title of the album in that light made me nervous. I steeled my resolve, however, and trusted my ears over my brain.

And I was right to do so.

From that noise, that instrumental yawp, the whole album is created. Some turn into sweeping, grand performances piece by piece (“Return to Annihilation”), and some begin with quiet picking and descend into a maddening din (“Two Moons”). The album very much sounds, both literally and figuratively like “Obsolete Elegies”, the title of the final, 15-minute-long track. These are songs pieced together in the underground, trying to be heard above the roar of the machines keeping everything in place. Low, scraping, drawn bows across basses and fuzzed out synths provide the crawling sense of doom which pervades the album, and the few vocals that do occur ARE screamed metal vocals, but the context has been completely changed. They are buried under layers of noise, and sound quite distant – a last gasp of raw humanity trying to survive.

This is a very assured album – not trying to prove anything, just presenting it. Nothing is overblown, nor is anything typical. Beyond just being ‘noisy’, it rewards close listening, as the songs never find themselves in the same place for very long – they move, they build and they collapse again. Glad to see that a) my fears were for naught and b) categorization only works in so far as people can hear a thing they find familiar from somewhere else, as a shorthand – it does not boxpress the music itself.

9/10

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#21: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito

(Interscope Records, 2013)

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(Image from wikipedia.org)

I’ve got to keep my eye (or, rather, ear) on Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The last I checked in with them was, admittedly, 2006’s Show Your Bones, where they had simmered the wildfire that was their debut album (2003’s Fever To Tell) down to a more precise blaze, eschewing the wilder parts of their sound for focused riffs and stronger melodies. They still, however, kept their guitar-drums-vocals punk instrumentation intact. A mere seven years later, I stumble onto Mosquito and find codas jammed with choral vocals (“Sacrilege”), a simmering slow-burner set to the beat of the clack of a subway train (“Subway”) and electronic beats all the while? You can’t go home again.

That’s not to say the urgency of the early albums is lost – the title track, under layers of guitars and, of all things, bass moves along at quite a clip, with Karen O as the master of ceremonies, as always. Gone are the shrieks and the orgasmics of the band’s early days, but certainly not her energy dynamics – she’ll still place a whisper where you expect bombast or twist a phrase up into her nasal sneer when she sees fit. But as the sound of the band introduces more and more instruments and techniques, and overlap further and further with some of the other electronic/synth acts of the day (Metric in particular comes to mind), her vocals as a focal point become increasingly important to hang onto. “Slave” opens with a loop of what sounds like horns honking, followed by a smooth, kinetic bassline and drum machine smacks going off every which way (the instrumentation of the band turned inside-out), but it serves to underpin the vocals just as deftly.

That’s not to say that Nick Zinner can’t come up with a good riff or three any longer. On “These Paths”, an incessant, ghostly synth line sets the tone and haunts the rest of the song as the other elements slowly build, causing a hiccup in the percussion in the beginning every time it occurs (to which the beats eventually become immune). The line is not the pinhole path that would take you through the song in the band’s early days on a jagged riff, but a noted presence nonetheless, around which the whole feel and energy of the song emanates – the race to the end has been cancelled and the participants all sit in a circle trying to come to terms with their feelings.

It would seem that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have, as one does with age, become more thoughtful in their approach, and gone from freewheeling 2-minute raucous rides to a more atmospheric feeling –  not that there’s anything wrong with that. Each distant echo, strange beat and synth patch plants their stake further in the ground; their sound infinitely more personalized than a straight drum beat and power chords with the occasional riff. They’ve moved, in the interim during which I wasn’t listening, from a small excursion into punk for me and plunked themselves down again amid the formidable indie electronic/synth acts of today that I find on my rotation quite regularly. This a great document of a band moving and progressing with the times while keeping the flavour that got them noticed in the first place.

8/10

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#15: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

(Bad Seed, Ltd., 2013)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

Mr. Cave is back with another reading from his horrorshow tome. Though his songs have become less overtly macabre and hellish than they were in the Bad Seeds’ earlier days, there’s no doubt that Nick Cave can send a chill down your spine like he was ringin’ a bell. On Push the Sky Away, it seems that fear and sin are less the orders of the day than tension and queasiness. There’s nothing relaxed or laid back here – every track is bent double, sitting on the edge, waiting for a release that usually doesn’t come. They just go on, like little snapshots from an ongoing, frustrated life. “Nowhere to rest/nowhere to land” croons Cave in “We No Who U R”.

Cave is, obviously, the master of ceremonies here. Very seldom does he let himself boil over into throwing vitriol – he just presents the facts as they are (to him) in a low moan that has you already mourning. “Ah, the local boys” he reminisces during “Water’s Edge” (the highlight of the album for me), recounting their horrible encounters with the “girls from the capital” in a delicious use of repetition as both parties “reach for the speech/and the word to be heard”, as drummer Thomas Wydler unleashes some inner fury, contributing only sporadic, arrhythmic fits and refusing deliciously to hold down any kind of beat. The only time he breaks his icy resoluteness is on “Higgs-Boson Blues”, which is by no coincidence the longest song on the album. It’s the only one long enough to give Cave the chance to boil over and when he finally loses the game of chicken he’s playing to keep his composure to the end of the song and starts spewing his own unique brand of dark inanities: “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah/As the simulated rainy season begins/She curses the queue at the Zulus/And moves on to Amazonia/And cries with the dolphins.”

Apart from that track, there aren’t too many that could be called rockers on this album. The moods are groovy, often quiet as if holding onto a secret that they’ll only allow themselves to get a few chords into before smiling and wagging a finger. The fuzzy electric piano is Cave’s weapon of choice here, plunking down sharp, shuddering chords (“We No Who U R”) or meandering between harmony and melody (“Wide Lovely Eyes”), while Warren Ellis’ guitar stays rhythmic and brooding without ever unleashing its considerable power. Almost everything is played in a percussive capacity, creating a nice melange in every bar of a variety of timbres popping and cracking right on queue. The occasional flute (“We No Who U R”) or string section (“We Real Cool”) glides right on top.

Push the Sky Away is a great example of Cave’s potency. As his career has progressed, he’s become less interested jumping out in front of you, casting fire and brimstone in your face while laughing, and more apt to point out the devil sneaking up behind you as you pass the tip of his lit cigarette in a dark alley. At first listen, this album seems like a relatively sedate affair, but constantly walks the line between haunting and creepy. Even the simplest arrangements have no way to earn good will here. Cave muses aloud and we crane our necks to listen, in spite of the fact that we likely don’t want to hear it.

9/10

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#14: Atoms for Peace – Amok

(XL, 2013)

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(Image from gigwise)

This is a homecoming for me, of sorts, as I got into Radiohead (now one of my favourite bands) via The Eraser. Initially I had slung Kid A (now one of my favourite albums) through the headphones before throwing them off in frustration. It was only when I heard The Eraser that I found myself warming to Yorke’s voice and the jumbly, bloopy sounds happening all around.

But I need to get my beeps booped somehow, and with no Radiohead album in sight, what has now become a full-fledged Thom Yorke side project is rising to meet those needs. This album has its beginning in Thom’s solo electronic venture, The Eraser, and the band is comprised of musicians he used to tour that album, with Flea of RHCP fame covering the low end. Atoms for Peace (named after a track from The Eraser), however, is a different beat altogether from Yorke on his lonesome. The sound of a full roster here is evident from the get go, with each part moving and locking into place around you. The Eraser had Thom’s vocals soaring and diving against what seems like a mostly ‘flat’  backing track – the effect was that of Yorke singing  on top of playback from a tape recorder (though it was effective, nonetheless, for that album). There was a homogeny there, whereas the Z-axis is employed on Amok, and each piece is easier to consider separately.

Maybe that’s why Yorke’s vocals don’t lift off quite as much here. There’s no vocal hook here as memorable as the one from The Eraser’s title track (“and it’s doin’ me in/doin’ me in/doin’ me in/doin’ me in”) and he, for the most part, keeps his voice in its lower register, where it occasionally hovers dangerously close in range to some of the other instruments in the song. There are more low moans and held notes – very wispy and ephemeral, it blows through the hard cityscapes created by the rest of the instruments, occasionally snatching a newspaper up in the draft, but mostly inconsequential. The real show is happening elsewhere.

Flea’s presence here is a welcome one, and a lot of the reason for the thickness of the tracks. He provides a smooth depth to the overall sound, moving deftly through each track with confidence (whereas Yorke’s vocals mark uncertainty). As to be expected in electronic tracks, the basslines are oft repetitive, but never boring, as there is enough variation from your standard afterthought low end track for Flea’s presence to really make itself known. Having a dedicated bassist focusing on a single aspect of a given track really makes the instrument shine.

Often times, the loops here are given a long leash, so you are able to hear them build up of wind down as they go, effects fading after one pass and the returning again after the second (“Ingenue”). One thing I would have liked have seen more of, but was glad to have what we got were the interjections of non-tonal sounds thoughout, as the buzzes of electricity (“Dropped”) or electronic egg being hurled at and sliding down the wall (“Unless”) provide some nice atmosphere or small hint of a narrative with just a simple sound. It keeps the proceedings from sounding one hundred percent organized or plan and lends a little credence to the idea of the chaos inherent in the name of the album.

Apart from the electronic handclaps, which I don’t know if I’ll eve get used to, Amok has a great variety of percussive tones and busy beats working its way through each track. The album credits both a drummer (Joey Waronker) and percussionist (Mauro Refosco), as well as Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich both credited with programming, so a majority of the aural space is dedicated to adding to, countering and enhancing the beats, with only the synthesizer, bass and occasional guitar filling in the spaces in between. The different layers and types of percussion provide a very full sound, unlike The Eraser, and because of that, Amok may be and easier move for Radiohead fans than the former.

7/10

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#12: Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

(Warner Bros., 2013)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

I’m going to be honest, the first couple of times I listened to this album, it came as a shock to me when it ended. A lot of that I can chalk up to the relatively short running length of the album (it falls a few minutes short of the 40-minute mark). It bears the hallmarks of a classic pop album in that way – sub-40-minute running time, no songs past 4 minutes (“I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” and “Now I’m All Messed Up” being the exceptions, tipping the scales at 4:19 and 4:09, respectively), and each a solid, densely-packed little nugget of catchy melodies and ear-catching tones exploring personal themes of love and heartbreak. It also all kind of sounds the same.

There is an insistent beat that moves throughout every track of the album, moving it along at a reasonable pace, doling the bass drum out fairly and liberally which serves to sort of flatten a lot of the proceedings – you never get a chance to forget you’re listening to a pop song; there’s no sort of “out” moment that makes you cock your head and say “wait a second…”, there’s no sharp chord or quail that juts out.  It’s all determined by the straightforward beat.

The glossy production has a lot to do with the uniformity of the sound. The details within the tones of the songs have been tweaked to within an inch of their lives. The synthesizers are buzzing with just enough gain to be noticed, very occasionally pulling back their lips and baring their teeth, but never with malice. Every corner of the aural space is filled right up most of the time, leaving no space for extra emphasis or ‘heightening’ come the chorus (the slower piano-based “I Was A Fool” provides a couple moments of respite).

Having a homogenous sound is detrimental in some ways, but can afford the listener a different perspective on things. Since each song is using the same set of instruments – the same constraints – it’s easier to focus in on the differences that do exist between each song. In the case of the sisters Quin, it’s the melodies.

The melodies themselves are quite engaging – swooping down, stopping and starting, charting an actual interesting course through each song, in sharp contrast to the ‘bed’ upon which the melodies sit. These comprise the heart of the album and the rewards to be taken away from it. They are surprisingly heartfelt and would sit just fine on top of a threadbare acoustic guitar as they do in their original context.

When blended together, Tegan & Sara’s voices actually sound like a patch on a very articulate synthesizer, which provides a solid vehicle for delivering the melodies – a very rounded, whole sound with the harmonies woven into the structure as opposed to just sitting on top of the ‘real’ melody.

Overall, I found this album fairly disappointing. The core of the songs are quite good, and would not be out of place in a singer-songwriter context, but are confronted on all sides by instruments taking up the vast amount space that exists between the headphones and a glossy sheen that lays on top that would rather you dance instead of getting too close.

6/10

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