Sufjan Stevens and I share something in common: we both grew up spending summers in Eugene, Oregon. I used to go with my family to visit my grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins, often for weeks or months at a time. Stevens went to stay with his mother and stepfather for a few years, from the ages of 5 to 8.
The instant I heard that Stevens’ new forthcoming album, Carrie & Lowell, would center around Oregon, a rush of excitement flooded me (there was even a track specifically called “Eugene!”). Stevens obviously has a history of paying tribute to different states, and so I looked forward to putting the album on and letting Stevens’ always-exquisite songwriting take me on a trip back to a place that I hold dear. I knew that the album would also deal with the death of Stevens’ mother, but I subconsciously pushed that to the back of my mind. I wanted to focus on Oregon.
Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
The multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird has a distinguishable sound, and his latest album puts it to good use. Break It Yourself features Bird at his most ornate, providing an even more inviting listen than previous releases. It’s choc-full of a variety of genres, from folk to classical to baroque pop. “Danse Caribe” is a perfect example of this genre melting pot. It begins with a clear Americana influence as the violin quietly imitating a slide guitar. Around the 2-minute mark, Bird employs a more “world music” vibe, reminiscent of attempts by Vampire Weekend and Beirut to do the same, before returning back to the South with an 1800s-era fiddle solo. And that’s just one song. “Lusitania” is a duet with critical-favorite Annie Clark from St. Vincent. What I love about the track is that it doesn’t go about broadcasting its obvious beauty. “Lusitania” is understated, yet gorgeous throughout, ending with a happy-go-lucky whistling melody and string bass that echoes Van Morrison in his Astral Weeks days. Bird excels lyrically as well. “Sifters” is a tale that finds him asking a lover “what if we hadn’t been born at the same time?” He wonders aloud whether they would still care for each other if one of them was much older. And “Hole In the Ocean Floor”, clocking in at over 8 minutes, is simply lovely. Break It Yourself on the whole is very pleasant and peaceful. It’s easy to put it on when the mood’s not right (i.e. like I did while riding a crowded subway to work) and miss the full effect. This album is for a lazy Sunday or a chill drive at dusk. Sit back and enjoy. Rating: 8.5
Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
I like Sleigh Bells, despite the hate they get from (rightfully) skeptical critics who consider them a fad, more concerned with style than substance. Their debut Treats had in-your-face singles full of swagger. However, Reign of Terror doesn’t measure up. The songs simply lack the same punch. The double bass drum from the drum machines provide an uninspired and frankly boring backbone to most of the songs. There are some bright spots. “End of the Line” is enjoyable and lead single “Comeback Kid” is awesome, as catchy as anything they’ve done. But it’s surrounded on the album by mediocrity. In an interview with Grantland (plug time: Grantland is the best blog ever), Sleigh Bells guitarist Derek Miller himself admitted that “If every song on the record could be ‘Comeback Kid,’ it would be, but you’re lucky if you get one like that.” They really hit a gold mine on that song. The rest is okay, but nothing special. Rating: 6.0
Sleigh Bells – “End of the Line”
The Men – Open Your Heart
Much like my post on Japandroids’ “Wet Hair” from their awesome 2009 album Post-Nothing, The Men capture that same raw, youthful energy. I’m tempted to say it’s a very “listenable” album, but just as we call political candidates “electable,” those terms can be kind of hollow. Isn’t every album “listenable” in a way? But the term fits. I’ve breezed through the album multiple times and it’s just a joy to listen to. Opening track “Turn It Around” starts Open Your Heart off with a bang as good as ever, pounding us with a riff that would make Rod Stewart and the Faces proud. The title track is also loud, catchy, and riff-heavy. In my opinion, the seventh song on the record, “Candy”, is one factor that brings this album from good to great. “Candy” is an acoustic Rolling Stones-esque number that provides a perfectly-timed break from the onslaught of electric guitar. Not only does it prove the Men’s versatility, but aesthetically it makes the album more enjoyable as a whole. It’s a welcome drink of ice-cold water before you get back in the game and start melting people’s faces off again. I hadn’t heard of the Men until a week ago, but they’ve made my favorite album of the year so far. Get it. Rating: 9.0
The Men – “Open Your Heart”
White Rabbits – Milk Famous Milk Famous sounds like a Spoon album. A lot. And it’s not a coincidence since it’s produced by frequent Spoon producer Mike McCarthy. This Spoon-like (Spoon-fed?) sound is kind of a shock when juxtaposed with their amazing critically-acclaimed 2007 debut Fort Nightly, which is solid enthusiastic indie rock that bears little resemblance to the nonchalant swagger of Milk Famous. Don’t get me wrong, I love this sound, even if it’s blatantly lifted from a superior band. I don’t care so much about that. Lead singles “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” are straight-up awesome. But the songwriting skill is kind of lacking in the rest of the tracks. Most of them have their moments, like the triplet shuffle in “Everything Can’t Be Confused,” but the songs themselves can hardly be classified as anything more than just that: moments. If you’re not going to have a beginning-middle-and-end verse-chorus-verse structure in your songs (i.e. if the whole song sounds the same throughout), then you need to have a supremely catchy groove to carry your interest throughout. “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” accomplish this beautifully. The bass and piano/guitar lines are engaging enough that the repetitive grooves of the songs never lose their momentum, much like Spoon’s “Don’t You Evah”. But the thing is, the rest of Milk Famous doesn’t hold your attention. The album’s not bad. It’s actually pretty dang good. But the disappointment lies in the fact that it’s not as great as it could be. Rating: 7.0
Get the whole albums by Andrew Bird and The Men. Download “Heavy Metal” and “Temporary” by White Rabbits and “Comeback Kid” by Sleigh Bells.
Cloud Nothings released their self-titled debut last year, and while it was enjoyable and promising, it sort of faded into all the other lo-fi indie pop/rock albums with short and catchy tracks, not really standing out among its “competitors.” One year later, their sophomore effort Attack on Memory is a giant leap forward, maintaining their pop sensibility but giving it a post-hardcore edge. Personally, anything with the label “hardcore” makes me wary. I love hard rock as much as the next guy, but usually when the singing turns to screaming, I’m out. However, Cloud Nothings don’t overdo the “hardcore” stuff, much to their advantage. Their new sound is displayed in album opener “No Future/No Past”, an ominous dirge of sorts with a foreboding piano that builds to an angsty end. “Wasted Days” is an extended 8:54 long jam which ends in lead singer Dylan Baldi yelling “I thought I would be more than this!” The new and assertive 1-2 punch of “No Future/No Past” and “Wasted Days” then gives way to songs such as “Fall In” and “Stay Useless”, more reminiscent of their debut but with more of a grunge flavor. The rest of the album continues the juxtaposition of pop rock with brash and angsty rock, with the latter usually winning out. Ultimately, it’s a powerful album meriting multiple listens.