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.