Review: Sea of Cowards (The Dead Weather)

Where to begin..?

I think most of us indie folk are familiar with the Jack White name. He’s emotional, he’s crazy, but at least he can put on a show. And when he is surrounded by his extremely talented musical allies, he’s actually kind of great.

Sea of Cowards is a very intense, but somehow naturally progressive next step for a still-fairly-new band. It was only last year that Horehound, their debut, slipped into the scene via White’s “temporary” Third Man Records store. And it’s an unusually positive sign to see this much productivity from what one might call a sort of “supergroup.”

But these tunes are much more enjoyable, overall, compared to the Horehound material. First of all, musical collaboration is noticeably more cohesive and free-flowing, and the compositions are blatantly bolder and much grittier.

Alison Mosshart, the “official” vocalist for the group, is a raging werewolf, and she ferociously owns anything that she touches. She scowls and howls through the fiery “Gasoline,” and seduces like a minx in the wake of the canon-like percussion in “Jawbreaker.”

And, as usual, White makes his “cameo” vocal appearance in several very sporadic and “unique” moments throughout the fairly brief record. “Blue Blood Blues” is his bitter, blaring anthem of anguish, whilst “Old Mary” reveals a dark narrator in White that is both believable and bizarre. Members Jack Lawrence (bass) and Dean Fertita (guitar) match White’s weirdness with their dirty, diabolical duties and gravel-coat the compositions with their ambitious attitudes.

In conclusion, if you can take an earful of fuzz and fire, Sea of Cowards is your game.

82%/B

Review: Magnetic North (Aqualung)

And to imagine that Matt Hales (also known by his musical sobriquet, Aqualung) recently considered abandoning his music career…

An Aqualung record is always an incomprehensible equilibrium— A gamble of a love for true pop and for a memorable melody against a desire for a mature, deeper, cohesive album structure. And out of any modern singer/songwriters I can name, Aqualung is the only one who has mastered this balance, and there’s something very special in this department on Magnetic North.

Aqualung’s technically sixth record is a daunting work of pop art that stands out remarkably well in our current “2010’s” era. Not only has Hales returned to his original form, but he has more energy, creativity, and self-possession than ever. From the intimately aching groove “Lost,” to the bullishly bouncy opener “New Friend,” musical unity and lyrical personality are the foundation upon which Hales builds his magnum opus.

The greatest quality that Magnetic North exudes is an incredible sense of resourcefulness in the arrangement domain. What Hales lacks in melodic immediacy, he surely expiates in distinctive arrangements. Thanks to the admirable talents of Magnetic‘s female guest vocalists, innate treasures such as “Sundowning” and “Time Moves Slow” evolve into inescapably blissful ballads with “classic”-level potential.

The one additional aspect that showcases Hales’s artistic progression most vividly is his applaudable effort to accomplish something new with each of his twelve compositions. The even more admirable part to this aspiration is that Hales knows not only when to pour on the suitable side sound decor, but also when to leave it all bare. The title-track is a skin-and-bones, piano-and-vocal monologue that doesn’t just sum up the album, but catapults the set into completely new musical territory, harkening back to the Still Life sessions and catching the listener completely by surprise.

Matt Hales has really outdone himself, as I am confident he will continue to do if he decides to continue to bless us with such magnificent music.

81%/B ☆

Review: Astro Coast (Surfer Blood)

Has summertime arrived yet? These guys are certainly convinced it has.

Surfer Blood’s Astro Coast is remotely what you might expect from such an band/album name. They crave a metallic, bluesy sound that so pleasantly and hospitably invites you to indulge in a vacation on their sunny shores of sound. They enjoy fashioning a wash of instrumental interludes and a striking set of lengthy laments. They also have this particular production fetish that leaves the final product resembling something from the stadium rock family, only more low-fi and more personal.

Take lead single “Swim,” for example. The tune and tone are pleasant enough, but the chorus arrangement packs a lifting, sonic punch that drives the song from a formulated standard into an energetic summer anthem, and the end result sounds like a Third Eye Blind-meets-Against Me! concoction. Not to mention, it’s really strong melodically, and very concise per its duration.

And then you’ve got some other notables, such as the appropriately-named “Harmonix” (as it boasts extensive use of electric guitar harmonic techniques). The track’s verses could easily be described as a soundtrack piece to a slow-motion underwater scene, ever so subtly rising above the surface for a quick breath of salty oxygen on refrain. There’s also a dark, almost Blade Runner-esque undertone to the piece, which is both intriguing and dramatic. The contrasting “Jabroni” compositions are equally memorable; the “Fast” movement being a gloomy, gritty stomper (“Someone broke into my heart / Or beat it into my head,” claims vocalist John Paul Pitts), while the “Slow” portion is increasingly solemn, with plenty of spooky and spellbinding to go around.

The band’s versatility is also to be noted, and it’s an impressive ascendency that these newcomers hold over many other recent acts. While related artists tend to lack confidence and creativity on their debut record, Surfer Blood already possess a keen sense of exploratory motivation and even leaves the listener wondering if they are still listening to the same group at some points. Glimpses of Pixies, Boston, and Shins influences additionally reveal themselves in both under and overstated manners throughout the record, donning the debut with a very engaging personality.

There’s no doubt that Surfer Blood will be back and that their creative thirsts will be even greater. In the meantime, Astro Coast is a “grower” collection that definitely is worth investigating.

77%/C+

Review: I Will Be (Dum Dum Girls)

Dee Dee, Jules, Bambi, and Frankie Rose. These are the band members’ (presumedly stage) names. Mmhmm.

So..”Low-fi.” It seems to be what all the kids are into these days. These girls seem to really dig it too, especially their dauntless leader, Dee Dee.

Basically, you’re looking at a congregation of four hipsters who turn simplicism into a weird science. How? By taking somewhat monotonous melodies and running them through what sounds like a computer from 1991. And sometimes it works, and then on others, it sometimes just hurts.

“It Only Takes One Night” puts you right out into the sleepless streets of L.A., and then summons some scratchy overtones for a panicky vibe that is unshakeable for all two minutes of its unstable existence. The “Jail La La” broadcast is another acceptable proffer, with its capering percussion and ear-blasting chorus vocal harmony. But then, there are the others..

And the others, they are a bit “faux;” forced, indulgent, assumptuous. Tracks such as “Lines Her Eyes” and “Yours Alone” are relatable to demos that Camera Obscura or Metric might have stored on their old dusty/trusty laptop from twelve years ago, but they lack the authenticity and true personality of the aforementioned artists.

I mean, turn down the “tin can” vocal effect for a song or two. Or focus on building a song that isn’t completely wrapped around the phrase “I will be your girl.” This tag is literally recited and re-recited for the last thirty seconds of the two-minute-long title track.

Sadly, the Dum Dum Girls have nothing original or even lasting to offer here— Only typical (and some less than such) and predictable “ideas” masked in testy distortion and oddball mixes to try to mass feed their intended low-fi loving, hipster audience.

A mere party trick, really.

68%/D

Review: Contra (Vampire Weekend)

It’s not often that one is presented with an album named after an obscure Super Nintendo game… Or any video game for that matter.

Contra is like a small portion of a very potent dessert. It has the delectable mixtures of tropical colouring and refreshing, attention-demanding bursts of flavor. It has the super-sweet (and sometimes fattening) layers of liquid sugar. And, when you’ve finished the provided portion, you indubitably want more.

“Sit on the park wall, ask all the right questions
While all the horses racin’ taxis in the winter
Look up at the buildings, imagine who might live there
Imagining your Wolford’s in a ball upon the sink there,”

Explains the Weekend’s leader, Ezra Koenig.

Oh, some of these phrases are puzzles; but the majority of them are sweeping bargains of poetic illustration, and that’s what verifies the legitimacy of such an “out-there” group of musicians. The youthful energy is present, and the overly-educated attitudes are in place— Only the lyrical wit of a charming, naive, and geeky frat boy could marry the other two elements with such organic cogency.

And somewhere between the wall-smooching reverb and the ribbeting of Koenig’s guitar, Contra is a meaningful, modern miracle that actually surpasses its self-titled predecessor with confident ease. The Vampire Weekend fellows have officially learned the important lessons of sticking to your guns (or perhaps here, “Giving Up the Gun,” pun intended), and of being concise.

This succinctness is exactly what fortifies these ten tunes. No waste, no filler— just four very odd individuals spinning short stories of trips to the Alps and of politically important offspring, while carefully and carefreely inserting very genuine reflections of themselves and of their musical influences.

So, don’t even hesitate to treat yourself to a little slice of Contra Cake.. It is absolutely delicious.

84%/B ☆

Review: Broken Bells (Broken Bells)

Lest I launch into an obsessive ramble concerning my unwavering love for The Shins, I will keep this introduction short. James Mercer and Danger Mouse are Broken Bells. Enough said.

Naturally, I’ll begin with the shining star of a single, “The High Road,” which also happens to open the record. The structure of this jangley little pop piece is similar to many of the tracks that follow it— A grab bag of enjoyable melody snippets strung together, often arranged into alternating movements for consistency’s sake. Although, cohesion is not always altogether guaranteed, and perhaps that uncertainty is the one bone I have to pick with this short set of electronically-based productions.

I will vouch for the creativity and like-ability of many of the tracks, though— “Vaporize” is an expressive and stirring modern groove, and “Sailing to Nowhere” is a thoroughly eerie battle, combating chilling verses and triumphant refrains, with sinister results.

And “The Mall & Misery” is quite easily the most involved offering on the record. Rising out of the dust left from the previous track’s trail (“Mongrel Heart”), “The Mall & Misery” evolves steadily from a melancholy murmur of throbbing acoustic guitar plucks and bittersweet string embellishments into an entrancing earthquake of ambient sonic atmospheres and billowing harmony attacks.

It’s really just the belly of the album that distracts from the much truer content. The record debuted almost six months ago now, and I still can’t quite rationalize the seemingly nonsensical “Your Head is on Fire,” or even fully and logically resolve the catchy-but-quirky “The Ghost Inside.”

Yet, the more I listen to these collaborative pieces, the more I begin to appreciate their separate successes, and astonishingly start to lethargically roll my eyes/ears at the spottiness of the collective set.. And coming from Mercer, this is a puzzling trait to obligatorily interpret.

But honestly, there isn’t too much to complain about. And in spite of being nowhere near the revolutionary beauty of The Shins’s catalogue, these tunes are still considerably higher quality than most of what is considered “pop” these days.

78%/C+