Review: A Very She & Him Christmas (She & Him)

She & Him — Actress Zooey Deschanel (She) and indie darling M. Ward (Him).

Our indie sweethearts She & Him have previously proffered two other full-length releases— The aptly-titled Volume One and Volume Two. While their latest release is a holiday-themed outing, A Very She & Him Christmas appears to fit in quite snugly with their previous volumes in both sound and sincerity.

As usual, Deschanel takes her vocal arrangement cues from Beach Boys-era Brian Wilson, whilst Mr. Ward plays the quietly charming classical guitar virtuoso who gives the songs’ soundscapes their classic flavor.

The duo recreate a solid list of traditional Christmas tunes; including “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and even Elvis’s “Blue Christmas.” Deschanel and Ward additionally cover a few of their own favorite lesser-known holiday tunes for the occasion, such as “Little Saint Nick” (originally by The Beach Boys).

The majority of the duo’s interpretations are fairly distinct and memorable (not to mention, simple) in the arrangement department— Especially the ukulele-led “Silver Bells,” the harmony-hosted “Little Saint Nick,” and the jazz-injected “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Now, some don’t quite hit the spot, as is the case with the shockingly awkward “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (yes, I KNOW), the wincingly twee “Sleigh Ride,”  and the humdrum “Christmas Wish.” All in all, though, She & Him present a thoughtful and original take on a great set of Christmas tunes.

Definitely notable, perhaps most-so in a holiday playlist with other “indie”-minded groups.

Review: Mylo Xyloto (Coldplay)

“Mylo Xyloto.” Which means.. Absolutely nothing! (according to Chris Martin)…

The members of British alternative pop/rock sensation Coldplay have been at the top of the world. They’ve toured the planet over, packing out stadiums and arenas; they’ve won Brit Awards and ASCAP Awards; and their four studio albums have collectively sold over 50 million copies worldwide.

So. From even the small amount of background information above, one would assume that Mylo Xyloto (the troupe’s fifth and latest release) should be an amazing album, right?

The public’s first taste of Mylo Xyloto arrived back in June, in the form of the synth-heavy and Ke$ha-esque “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.” Lyrics read like this (sample):

“I turn the music up, I got my records on

I shut the world outside until the lights come on

Maybe the streets alight, maybe the trees are gone

I feel my heart start beating to my favourite song.”

The brutally simple and numbingly repetitive bass drum pattern attempts to “carry” and “give variation” to the arrangement, whilst guitarist Jonny Buckland makes silly bagpipe noises with his guitar. Instead of actually even sounding like a Coldplay song, “Waterfall” sounds like a lackluster imitation (or a half-hearted parody) of such a band. Lastly, the melody hook is nearly nonexistent— Even the “Every teardrop is a waterfall” bit is a milksop attempt at a “hook” and is hardly memorable or interesting. All in all, the song is Coldplay’s most stale and predictable piece to date.

But the fun doesn’t stop there- Oh, no! The creators of Mylo Xyloto are bent on destroying Coldplay’s alternative rock influence, once and for all!

Reggae-pop diva Rihanna makes an apparence on late-album track “Princess of China,” and the collaboration is laughable at best. The track begins with an overtly-modern synth introduction, followed by a crashing wave of “Ohhhhhhh” vocalizations. Then, Chris Martin (the band’s vocalist) proceeds to fumble through a lyrical “narrative,” and is soon joined by the unmistakeable drone of his guest vocalist.

“[Chris]
Once upon a time somebody ran
Somebody ran away saying,
‘Fast as I can—
I’ve got to go
Got to go…’

Once upon a time, we fell apart
You’re holding in your hands the two halves of my heart
Ohhh, ohhh!

[Rihanna]
Once upon a time, we’re burnin’ bright
And all we ever seem to do is fight
On and on
And on and on and on…

Once upon a time, on the same side
Once upon a time, on the same side, in the same game
And why’d you have to go,
Have to go and throw it all on my fame?”

Where to begin? Chris Martin, having convinced himself that he is clearly versatile (and just plain “hip”) enough to pull off an R&B melody, charges through a confusingly vague story, spitting up some of the most confusing lyrics I’ve ever heard. The chorus is sung by Rihanna, and it sounds absolutely nothing like Coldplay. In fact, if one were to happen upon the track on their radio during Rihanna’s portion of the song, the logical conclusion would to assume that the track belongs fully to Rihanna, with absolutely no trace of sonic trails leading back to the same group who wrote “Yellow,” “Fix You,” or even “Viva la Vida.” The song itself is clearly an identity crisis for the band, if I’ve ever seen/heard one.

“But,” you say, “They can’t all be that bad!” But they can. Oh, but they can…

The majority of the Mylo Xyloto songs have the same problem that “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” does— They’re not memorable, or even (on a lower spectrum of memorability) “catchy.” I would name some of these unmemorable songs for you, but I DON’T REMEMBER THEM ENOUGH TO DESCRIBE THEM TO YOU.

Not only this, but Brian Eno’s excessive production results in a largely inflated sonic atmosphere and is a poor, poor attempt at masking the sad fact that none of these songs have any true substance.

For instance— “Major Minus” has an uninventive, insipid verse melody; but thanks to the magic of Eno’s production, it’s easy to be distracted by the chaotic and rapidly-altered vocal effects and to miss how dull the composition really is.

Even “Charlie Brown” (which had great potential in its live form) is sucked dry of any dynamic (by way of Eno’s heavy-on-the-low-end, overtly sterile compression and drummer Will Champion’s moronically simple drum pattern) and never seems to reach an apex or even really go anywhere. It barely has a chorus (if you can even call the “All the boys / All the girls” section a “chorus”), has not a single memorable or original lyric, and is drowned in over-saturated effects and production.

And that’s really the whole point here— While the wildly colourful album cover artwork will insist that the music inside simply must be as exciting as it thinks it is, spoiled milk with a flashy sticker on the bottle is still spoiled milk.

Pass.

D /  ☂

Review: Ashes & Fire (Ryan Adams)

Classy, classic, and appropriately accessible.

Ryan Adams has never played the “safe” card a single time throughout his endlessly interesting (and still somewhat budding) career. Even when his original record label (Lost Highway) forced him to swap in Gold for The Suicide Handbook or Rock N Roll for Love is Hell, the man sprang for “unpredictable,” “wild,” and “rebellious.” Even after he stopped doing (ridiculous amounts of) drugs, Adams launched his own record label and began releasing things as unexpected as Orion— His sci-fi, metal-influenced concept album.

Ashes & Fire, Adams’s latest opus, presents a completely different Ryan Adams. “I don’t remember, were we wild and young?,” Adams reflects back in Ashes & Fire‘s late-album track “Lucky Now.” “The lights will draw you in / And the dark will bring you down / And the night will break your heart / But only if you’re lucky now,”  he wisely cautions.

Mysteriously absent are the sometimes scarce, sometimes predominant lyrical expletives of Adams’s earlier years. He hardly even touches an electric guitar, for goodness’ sake! In fact, most of these tracks are very simple in arrangement— Usually no more than four or five tracks on each song, led by Adams on acoustic guitar. The great victory of this approach, however, is Glyn Jones’s thoughtful and masterful production (on analogue, I might add), and how comfortably it matches Adams’s writing style. The stunning “Chains of Love” melodically conjures memories of Easy Tiger-era Adams, while Jones’s sonic precision moves the timestamp back into an undetermined-yet-ageless sound.

Norah Jones again joins Adams, along with Heartbreakers (as in, “Tom Petty and the…”) keyboardist Benmont Tench— And the quiet beauty of the eleven Ashes & Fire tracks are effortlessly revealed through this strong collaboration of Adams and his team. In other words; Adams has made his leap into maturity, and this grown-up approach dresses his fine new tunes aptly.

Lyrically, Adams is again quite simple and straight-forward. While his poetic literary voice is still strong, prevalent, and colorful, Adams seems to have trimmed the fat to the point where general accessibility is fluent and natural, and where listener comprehension is a pleasant ease. All of this careful revision leads to a refreshingly classic-caliber lyrical form from the already very talented Adams.

Adams then sneaks in a wedding/honeymoon ballad at the album’s close. (Adams recently wed to famed actress Mandy Moore, who also features on Ashes & Fire.) After all of these years of Adams defying the unkindness of love and rebuking the injustice and cruelty of life, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say” is a breathtaking and joyous resolve— Almost as a period after a long series of question marks on the pages of a lovelorn songwriter. It is incredible.

Ashes & Fire is Ryan Adams at his calmest, strongest, and most mature. What more could one want?

R.I.P. Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

What an amazing innovator, speaker, and human being. We here at Headphone Transmissions owe nearly everything to Steve Jobs– Our reviews are constructed by way of MacBook, our listening experience is executed via iTunes (when not on vinyl), not to mention our own personal uses of Apple products (listening to our iPods, socializing with our iPhones, etc.).

Rest in peace, Steve. Thank you for all of the joy you brought to our lives. You will be sorely missed.

http://www.apple.com/stevejobs/

Review: People and Things (Jack’s Mannequin)

“I’m ready, ready to drop…”

In 2005, Andrew McMahon (then leader of underground pop-punk sensation Something Corporate) was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. As the tremendously painful and life-threatening disease began to take its toll on his frail frame, McMahon took songs he had been writing and continued to pour out into music for comfort and catharsis. McMahon finished mastering an album’s worth of material on the same day as his diagnosis and Everything in Transit, a loose concept album, was the gorgeous and highly noteworthy product —Based on the ups and downs of a life in the middle of dramatic change.

Gradually, McMahon’s health improved (his leukemia is currently in remission), which allowed him to more articulately explore a medical theme in Everything in Transit‘s 2008 follow-up, The Glass Passenger. These tracks specifically documented McMahon’s real-life trauma and medical hardships from many angles.

Three years later, McMahon and his band return to “make a stand” with their latest release, People and Things— An Americana-influenced finale to a trilogy of stirring and fairly memorable pop-punk releases.

While Everything in Transit revealed only a small fraction of McMahon and Co.’s major influences, People and Things is more of an open book in this category. Late-album rocker “Amelia Jean” channels a strong dosage of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and early-album anthem “Television” is nearly a rewrite of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” This progression is a welcome one, and there are several points at which this transition is successful— “Hey Hey Hey (We’re All Gonna Die)” is a somewhat simple expression of on-the-road musicianal life (not too unlike Jackson Browne’s opus Running on Empty), “Restless Dream” is a heartbreakingly beautiful and sincere tale of love found (and then lost), and lead-single “My Racing Thoughts” is a radio-friendly confessional with plenty of sheeny guitar sounds and vocal “woah-oh” declarations for another Petty comparison (though, the track’s synth arrangement is a bit too new-wave for too strict a correlation in sound).

The overall production is also a triumph in relation to the band’s work on People and Things. Everything is crisp and clear, and the arrangements are generally appropriate and full (especially on “People, Running” and “Amy, I”). McMahon, a very discerning studio musician, is a master with textures and sound combinations.

On the flip-side— A handful of these songs sound far too much alike for guilt-free enjoyment. Opener “My Racing Thoughts” and closing tune “Casting Lines” share a blatantly similar chorus chord progression and feel (and they’re even in the same key), putting a substantial dent in the ride of a bittersweet finale.

Lyrics can be hit-or-miss— But when they are a “hit,” they hit pretty hard. (“Keep your eyes on the road, I’m the glass passenger,” McMahon carefully recites in “Hey Hey Hey.”) One of the more indelible lyrics comes from “People, Running,” where McMahon cries, “This is all addition by subtraction!,” followed by several other great lines in the social commentary department. The misses are mainly exhibited in places where an overly-poppy methodology is at work (the redundant chorus of “Amy, I,” and the aimless verses in “Hostage”).

There is also the matter of borderline genericism. While around 40-50% of the People and Things material has recognizable originality in structure, composition, and/or production; the majority of the musical construction is based around elementary-level progressions (the chorus of “Hey Hey Hey” is literally I, IV, V, and the basic IV, I, V progression appears far too often throughout the record) and relies on awkward sectional transitions (see: the verse-to-prechorus changeover in “Amy, I,” and the verse-to-chorus switch in “People, Running”).

While the album is a generally pleasant listen, new listeners may not be able to permanently attach themselves to the band’s still-changing sound because of the musical redundancies and moderate predictability. McMahon and his crew have definitely found a solid sonic direction in which to explore— But have lost some of the compositional creativity along the way.

Still, the record as a whole is better than most of what’s out there currently, in this genre. Jack’s fans will either embrace the sound change, or fall back on Everything in Transit for comfort. The tracks you absolutely need here are “Restless Dream,” “Amelia Jean,” and “Television.”

★★★½ (out of 5 stars)