Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Moving to Tumblr, dudes

I've decided to give up on Blogger. I don't want to be confused with the illegal/crappy mp3 blog culture here, and I feel like Tumblr is more "healthy." It feels empty/fake around here, and I'm lonely. Also, I'm tired of AdSense.

Still figuring out what I want my blogging experience to be and where I want to fit in internet culture. I want to write more, and not just via the (archaic?/irrelevant?) music review format. I feel tired/vexed by people who ask me to publicize their poorly-made music. I want to find some way to combine my webself as a musician and my webself as a writer/student/cool guy. All this felt like a perfect storm.

Sometimes I'm afraid that I don't know how to utilize the internet. Sometimes I feel really intimidated by it. I get the sense that there will eventually be a "Web Recession" once the last pre-internet generation dies off. Will it be a good thing or a bad thing that everyone is online, all the time?

This is the kind of stuff that I want to begin to explore/write about. I will still talk about music, but expect everything to be more personal, less journalistic, and more "Web 3.0." Until I get moving on Tumblr, follow my tweets @joshhungate.

Thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you on the new site :)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Brooke Dainty

Last week my old friend Brooke Dainty asked me to write a music review for her personal/photography blog. So I did! The band is Beach House, and you can check it out here. Brooke is a photographer, and an excellent one at that. If you need a tasteful, affordable photo session in Springfield, MO, look her up!

Tune in next week, when I'll be reviewing Local Natives' Gorilla Manor!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Local Natives - Gorilla Manor

Being a music critic requires the ability to form a fairly concrete opinion and evaluation of a band after a single listen. Consecutive play-throughs are necessary to assemble supporting details and descriptive elements, but I've found that my final verdict often ends up very similar to my initial reaction. I think this has less to do with the actual listening process than the thought process of "deciding" whether or not I like a band.

When I first listened to Local Natives' Gorilla Manor, I was decidedly unimpressed. The group's high, mellow harmonies sometimes contrast starkly with their odd hooks and flitting melodies, which led me to process their sound as over-eager and immature. Meanwhile, songs like "Sun Hands" and "Cards & Quarters" feature very unusual phrasing and melody, but without the foreignness and spectacle of Grizzly Bear or the folk sincerity of Fleet Foxes.

"World News" is what changed my mind. The song's conversational lyrics and approachable melody make it the most down-to-Earth song on Gorilla Manor. It escalates comfortably into a soaring and satisfying vocal climax, a feat that recurs frequently on the rest of the album, especially in the intimate, orchestral "Who Knows Who Cares." While these two songs may be the most "traditional" pop-sounding tracks on the album, they open the door to more open-minded works like "Camera Talk" and the exquisite "Cubism Dream."

Ultimately, the reason I misjudged Local Natives was the fact that I didn't see them as a "name-brand" group, like I would a Vampire Weekend or Animal Collective. This is easy to do with a new group, but it relegates their music to being interpreted as derivative or irrelevant, regardless of inherent value.

The truth is, Local Natives are outstanding newcomers. Their instrumentation is varied but not distracting, and their arrangements are logical, dynamic, and effective. A strong follow-up album that expands on their existing aesthetic under a more diverse song base could be what pushes them over the edge into indie stardom.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Midlake - The Courage of Others

Midlake's The Trials of Van Occupanther was the first album I reviewed on this blog, and it's still one of my all-time favorites. There's something so deliciously mild about it that few other bands can manage. As a sophomore album, it does everything it should: it makes up for a less-than-stellar debut, builds a musical brand, and sticks to what it does best. After four years of recording, Midlake's latest release, The Courage of Others, marks a perfect third point of maturity for the band; in it we hear a group of artists with a clear vision and focused expression creating a triumphant, one-piece album.

Much has changed since Occupanther. The central role of piano has been usurped by flute, giving the songs an older, dreamier feel. As a whole, Courage has an ancient, almost Tolkien sensibility; although Midlake have never been a feel-good, summer band, it's clear they've escalated their rural-rock motif to one of full-blown gothic blues. With Occupanther, Midlake was widely compared to Fleetwood Mac, but now King Crimson seems more apt. This shift to a more European sound isn't completely out-of-the-blue--Midlake first achieved exposure in England in the early 00s.

Lead singer Tim Smith's lyrics, still opaque as ever, take on a mystic quality completely suited to his voice. His singing style is one of the most obvious holdovers from previous albums, and remains relatively unchanged. In addition to the typical double-tracking, however, some new songs include a female vocalist, perfectly contrasting the overall dark tone of the album.

Courage's intended atmospherics are apparent with every listen. While keeping much of the same melodic mindset, the band's arrangements and style choices are far more cohesive. Each song feels justified, like it belongs there. There is little incentive to skip tracks, since they all blend so well together. In the case of most other bands, such a balanced sound would come across as bland or repetitive, but when executed this tastefully it counts as a compliment to the group's artistic expression. That level of unique expression is evident throughout the album--the glowering, scorched guitar solo in "Winter Dies," the shift between 7/8 and 6/8 time in "Core of Nature," the deliberate, ominous opening of "Rulers, Ruling All Things," and the countless perfect harmonies on almost every song.

Although I'm not sure The Courage of Others will ever replace Van Occupanther as far as my iTunes play count is concerned, it makes many reassuring technical strides that not all bands care to make. A sequel would have been too easy for Midlake--instead, they had in mind an evolution, broadcast through a separate style altogether. The pendulum is in full swing. Unfortunately, this sets a difficult precedent for any future albums they make: can they re-imagine themselves again in service of producing a great recording? If their developments so far are any indication, the answer is yes, although it might be another four years in coming.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yeasayer - Odd Blood

The definition of “yeasayer” is “a person with a positive, confident outlook.” While this can certainly represent the attitude of a young, talked-about band, it’s also strangely fitting of their music. The songs on Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, aren’t as clean or catchy as work by contemporaries like Passion Pit or MGMT, but the overall mood is just as bright underneath. The band’s Myspace page lists their genre—perhaps honestly—as visual/gospel/showtunes.

With Blood, Yeasayer excels in blending eclectic, rhythmic backing arrangements with relatively sensible vocal melodies. On an album this chaotic, though, it’s hard to make a more specific description of the group’s mentality. The artists clearly went out of their way to create a dynamic experience for the listener, utilizing vocal distortion, time signatures, and often downright strange elements to keep the element of surprise. This exploratory attitude lends itself to longer arrangements (50% of the songs play past the four-minute mark); the creativity is appreciated, but at times the pacing suffers, as less-interesting songs get drawn out with unexplainable riffs. There’s often not enough musical footing for the listener to navigate the album’s surreal, shifting heights.

Standout track “O.N.E.” showcases the band at full stride. A stream of alternating syncopated beats echo over an ever-present kick drum, while simple, searing lyrics (“Hold me like you used to, control me like you used to,”) float over an arrangement that phases between dance and contemplative pop. “I Remember,” the clearest song on the album, shows that Yeasayer are completely capable of recording eminently listenable music. The lyrics are almost always clearly defined, reinforcing the welcome mindset of vocals being the backbone of the band’s music, around which the complex instrumentation can be built.

Although Odd Blood proves that Yeasayer is anything but derivative, it also shows that a sophomore album should do more than expand repertoire—it should distill the group’s sound into a recognizable brand. Music should be unique by virtue of coherency, rather than by using broad attitudes of experimentation. Expect to hear good things from Yeasayer as they continue to mature in their development as a band and pin down that positive, confident sound.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Vampire Weekend

"In December, drinking horchatas," sings Ezra Koenig on the opener of Vampire Weekend's new album, Contra. The light, syncopated melody fizzles out any lingering remnants of the day's past playlists, and you're hooked. The marimba, of all things, takes center stage, and then the brash drum line, accompanied by the epic "Whoa, oh oh, oh oh, oh oh," chorus belter. "Horchata" harkens back to a similarly early-in-the-year game changer Merriweather Post Pavillion and its lead track "In The Flowers." Both songs set the stage for the rest of their bands' respective albums, and like MPP did in 2009, Contra has already set the bar high for the rest of the year's releases.

Vampire Weekend, once merely fledgling indie starlets, have in the space of one album progressed to full-grown indie rock standard-bearers. Their self-titled debut, while snappy and unique, lacked subtlety, drive, and dynamics. It offered a rough sketch of what was to come later: an inventive lead singer, unique melodies, and energy, energy, energy.

Stylistically, Contra is a growth, not a shift, in the band's philosophy. Among the few subtle changes, Koenig's voice seems more intense, and his timbre is a bit deeper when it needs to be. The use of guitar is not as jarring as before, and the instrument takes on a supporting role to the keyboards, synths, strings, etc. Unfortunately, the group's drive for something new sometimes escalates into overboard expressionism; occasional melodic subtlety is often lost under broad strokes of careless layering in an attempt at depth.

While the band still owns the evolution of its unique sound, it's clear that some outside influences have played parts in their development. "California English" resembles a ramped-up version of Dirty Projectors' "Temecula Sunrise." (Koenig's high, sometimes-yelping voice already compares to DP's Longstreth.) Ezra may also have taken some inspiration from The Very Best after being featured on "Warm Heart of Africa," giving "Horchata" its contrasting electro/rustic beat with marimba overlay.

Contra ends with a slow and tender, surreal epic: "I Think You're A Contra." The song is a rare simplicity in an album of dense arrangements and even denser lyrics. But despite its apparent restraint, "Contra" has a grandness--a sizeable mass that is sometimes lacking in VW's songs. This might be the most literal aspect of the group's development: that they have risen from trite to tangible, from a style that's present to a style that's omnipresent.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chiddy Bang - The Swelly Express

There's something about the idea of a hip-hop concept album that immediately appeals to me. And if it's a debut, packed with tasteful samples and creative flows, then all the better. The Swelly Express is the tale of a group of striving college-ages and their experience breaking into the music scene.

Musically, these kids couldn't be more ready to break out. I can't think of anyone else who could go from sampling this to Sufjan Stevens to Joe Strummer to MGMT all on the same album, twisting and molding their featured songs into completely new melodies. Refreshingly, there's no underlying booty thumping, dancehall drive present, and no beyond-sick spits or turntable radicalism either. Chiddy's front man Chidera Anamege seems to deliberately circumvent the typical rapper tropes, leaving out the trite verses about cars, money, ho's, and the ubiquitous hard-knock past. It's a sign of our times that rappers are writing about working hard and not hard times.

It's hard to talk about a major rap album without mentioning collaborations, and while Chiddy Bang don't have options like Timberlake (guests on every track, producers playing musical chairs), the collabs they got stand out. Fellow east-coasters like Passion Pit and The Roots' Black Thought add some appreciated sparkle--the Pit track is one of the album's highlights. It speaks to Chiddy's talent that their song-making unit is so self-contained.

I could write an entire post just quoting Anamege's best rhymes--rest assured, Express is full of genuine chops. With a group so young it's hard to tell where they'll go next, but they'll definitely go far. Even in today's brimming musical landscape, it's plain unhealthy for labels to skip over talent like this. But for now, it's not too late to get on board The Swelly Express.