Review: Negativity (Deer Tick)

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Americana, sadly, seems to be less popular these days. Even the legendary Wilco has strayed from their folk heritage, as of late. With the fate of modern Americana heading toward extinction, there are five words that can bring us a little hope:

Thank God for Deer Tick.

On their fifth outing Negativity, Deer Tick reinvigorates the alt-country scene with twelve stellar pieces of Americana pop/rock.

The album moves quickly — Opener “The Rock,” building dramatically and then unleashing its racing percussion and fiery horns amidst leader John McCauley’s unbridled vocal bursts. It solidifies effortlessly — the melodic, mid-tempo ballad “Just Friends” somehow recalling both Jackson Browne and Elvis Costello simultaneously in places. Mid-album slow-burners like “Mr. Sticks” and “Trash” then allow the overcast mood of the album to set in appropriately.

After an odd-in-theory, pleasant-in-execution duet with Vanessa Carlton on “In Our Time,” the band finishes quietly with the stunningly gorgeous “Big House” — an understated, sparse little number (a-la “Dirty Dishes”) — and leaves the listener with a fitting spirit, in accordance with the album’s name and theme.

Granted — McCauley’s throaty voice can definitely grate in his higher range, and perhaps too much so for some listeners. Overall though, the songwriting is solid, the arrangements are balanced, and the album swells and simmers the way any good Americana album should. Good work, boys.

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Review: …Little Broken Hearts (Norah Jones)

28 total awards, 4 platinum albums, universal critical acclaim — If you are still unfamiliar with the work of Norah Jones, the bandwagon still has plenty of room.

…Little Broken Hearts, Jones’s fifth studio release, is a more confident, refined version of The Fall-era Norah Jones sound. While jazz still has a nice foothold near the core of Jones’s influences, …Little Broken Hearts ventures boldly into colourful and continually creative domains that even The Fall didn’t quite reach.

Producer Brian Burton (more commonly known as Danger Mouse, as well as 50% of both Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells) is a masterful guide in the overseer’s seat for ...Little Broken Hearts. Not only does he perfectly balance vintage sounds with modern arrangements (which creates a fully textured, yet still timeless sonic atmosphere), but his co-composing contributions are invaluable and turn Jones’s already strong pieces into fully-blossemed roses of the beautiful and blemished sides of a romantic relationship.

While each of the twelve incredible tunes deserves a large paragraph of detailed, commendatory attention, the best of the best tracks include the groovy, defiant “Say Goodbye;” the melodically-lush and instrumentally-mellifluous “After the Fall,” the aching, poignant “Travelin’ On;” and the mid-tempo, mellow, road anthem “On the Road.” Each boasts classy and classic lyrics, satiable melodies, and arrangements that cannot be denied on any level.

The crowning jewel (amongst the many prime gems) of the record, though, is the sinister “Miriam.” Jones’s passionate loathing for her ex-boyfriend’s mistress is furious and focused, and her convincing narration exacts a perfect revenge on a personal, yet understandable level. Simple-but-effective lyrical phrases (backed by slightly-flat piano, eerie percussion, and appropriately creepy vocal harmony) such as “Miriam / When you were having fun / In my big, pretty house / Did you think twice?” and “Miriam / That’s such a pretty name / I’m gonna say it when / I make you cry” are complimented perfectly and poetically by a twisted resolve at the song’s end. It’s easily Jones’s most ambitious and rewarding composition to date, and arguably one of the best tracks of the decade to boot.

Jones and Burton, along with the other stellar studio musicians who contributed to the record, have crafted something really special here. The album is available on 180-gram, white vinyl, and sounds beyond excellent in this audiophile-approved format — This is a record you must own, and production appreciation (by way of vinyl or lossless audio) is strongly advised, in this scenario. Norah Jones — The modern, female champion of the “Vocal” genre — will certainly be remembered for an outstanding album such as this.

A- / ☆

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Review: Out of the Game (Rufus Wainwright)

Out of the Game.” I see self-referencialism isn’t dead these days…

Rufus Wainwright, flamboyant son of legendary musicians Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle, really has been a bit out of the game lately. Before 2010’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, Wainwright’s last studio album was the unfocused Release the Stars in 2007, which garnered an average critical response (a resting 72/100 on Metacritic) and even less enthusiastic fan feedback. And while Songs for Lulu was quietly beautiful, it was a stark departure from the radiant baroque pop Wainwright has become known for.

2012’s Out of the Game sees a nearly-fully revived Wainwright returning to the studio with vibrant energy and unhindered creativity, by way of Poses-era orchestral sounds and trademark baroque-pop melodies. The title track single even recalls Wainright’s folk-pop influences from his early, self-titled days, with its chilled tempo and squawking guitar counterpart.

Bigger and better still are the orchestrally-escorted pieces that arrive early in the tracklist, including the Elton John-influenced “Jericho” and the lavish “Welcome to the Ball.” Where strings and trumpets (respectively) are absent, a newly-discovered love for synth sounds is largely present — Take for example, the Queen-esque “Bitter Tears.” The sunny synth initially launches the track, building a complex mid-ground layer, perfectly designed for Wainwright’s instantly-memorable melodies to arrive shortly thereafter. Later in the track — As the vocal harmony swirls begin to expand in size and volume, so does the synth rise in dynamic and drive, giving the arrangement strong texture and forceful melodic charge.

“Perfect Man,” another synth-driven masterpiece, is a characteristic display of Wainwright’s skillful melodic strengths — And while the synth is less prevalent on this track, this lessened emphasis allows more room for Wainwright’s scaling melodies to shine. Within the first 30 seconds, Wainwright’s unforgettable melodies will have the right side of your brain doing summersaults in pure, joyous ecstasy.

Not all of the tunes are as successful as the aforementioned highlights. “Barbara,” while groovy and still gratifying, is slightly weakened by substantial segments of melodic drone and a somewhat lengthy duration (“Respectable Dive” suffers from similar ailments, with the addition of a sleepy tempo). “Song of You” is somewhat lacking as well; stellar lyrics, but a fairly stale melody and a stifling tempo to counter.

Still, Wainwright’s work on Out of the Game is undeniably admirable. Enough of the tunes here shine in their creative skin that the album is worth owning in entirety (as opposed to a partial selection), and these successes should also restore any faith lost in the high-caliber songwriting of one Rufus Wainwright.

B

 

PRE-ORDER (US Release, May 1st):
CD + DVD Deluxe Set
iTunes

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NPR: First Listen

Review: A Wasteland Companion (M. Ward)

“And it’s joy, honey / Pure joy, uh-huh / Pure joy just to see you again…” — from “Pure Joy.”

And so it is with this pure joy that the gorgeous, aching, ageless music of M. Ward returns to our ears once more. The honey-voiced poet has spent the past few years touring and recording with two other projects: She & Him (he = M. Ward, she = Zooey Deschanel) and Monsters of Folk (a collaborative project, also featuring members of My Morning Jacket and Bright Eyes). Ward’s last solo release, Hold Time, was a seemingly-endless three years ago; and he finally returns this year with his seventh release, the trusty A Wasteland Companion.

The Companion begins with a tribute to the late, great Alex Chilton (leader of the critically-acclaimed, classic rock outfit Big Star), a tender tune with the title of “Clean Slate.” “‘Cause I only have to wait a little while before I … Get my… Clean slate.” — Ward’s classically-trained fingerpicking concurs softly thereafter. His voice sounds closer and clearer than ever, his guitar sounds more dynamic and colourful than before, and his lyrics exude classicality naturally and fluently in ways that perhaps even Post-War didn’t fully illustrate.

Mid-album track “The First Time I Ran Away” is also a mellifluous triumph for M. Ward and his Wasteland Companion. Dreamy guitar strums instantly translate to a hazy canvas background of warm mahoganies and brick reds — The bass surfaces from the depths with lush violet swirls and heavy blues. “The first time I ran away.. I saw faces in the trees.. I heard voices in the stars… They say, ‘Oooooohh, oooohhh…'” — A mist of radiant royal purples and midnight blues rain from the canvas’s northern-most borders. Little touches of electric yellow pierce the dark soundscape, carefully traced by mid-to-high register guitar notes. Distant timpani reverberations propel the masterpiece forward and forward until its winning end. It’s breathtaking, bittersweet, and absolute bliss on vinyl.

Other grand highlights include the mysterious fable “Me & My Shadow,” the palpably poignant lament “Crawl After You,” and the chilling narrative “Watch the Show.” The last of this list concerns a (presumedly fictional) television network employee who hijacks his network’s station in an attempt to seek retribution for his lost years “inserting laughter after every punch-line” — And it is a sonic delight and a lyrical masterpiece.

Accumulatively, A Wasteland Companion is another successful release from the master of timeless lo-fi. Vinyl is preferable, lossless audio is the next best thing.

★★★★☆ 4 stars (out of 5 stars)

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CD
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Review: Boys & Girls (Alabama Shakes)

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Being an Alabama resident.. Does that mean I can pretend that I knew about these folks before they were famous?

Alabama Shakes are newcomers on the indie scene, though the overwhelming hype preceding these folks makes it seem like they’ve been around for a good while now. Led by spunky, soulful Brittany Howard, Alabama Shakes forge the dirty, gritty fuzz of garage rock with the classic-era, melodic time travel of southern soul. Boys & Girls, their rowdy debut record, hits shelves today, with widespread interest and great anticipation.

Opener “Hold On,” a deceptively simple anthem filled to the brim with lively lyrical proclamations and summer-sweet guitar exclamations, is certainly a place to start. Not only is it the lead single from the record, but it has just enough energy, spirit, and originality to be hailed as one of the best tunes of the past few years (not to mention, one of this year’s best tracks).

The record follows in high-caliber pursuit — A satiable sprinkle of jazzy shuffle in “I Found You,” an instantly-memorable serving of piano-pounding vintage bluesy-pop in “Hang Loose;” and later, a bewitching bowlful of heart-wrenching, soulful howling in “Heartbreaker.”

And while the über-talented Howard carries most of these tunes with perfectly appropriate levels of sincerity and ferocity, Boys & Girls still has a few contrived moments. Howard oversells her vocal diction in parts of “Rise to the Sun,” and “You Ain’t Alone” feels slightly over-practiced in the strings department (guitar, piano and bass) yet considerably under-thought in the melody department — But neither one of the pieces are completely invalidated by their small flaws.

The record’s production is also a notable strength for the Alabama Shakes’ debut release. Ideal amounts of guitar and bass fuzz are implemented throughout the album, Howard’s voice is textured with an impeccable percent of vintage gain, and the comprehensive mix of the album cries commandingly for a vinyl purchase.

Overall, Boys & Girls is easily one of the year’s best releases. Get it.

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Vinyl
iTunes
CD
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Review: Port of Morrow (The Shins)

The Shins, fronted by musical mastermind James Mercer, have been a beacon of musical hope in the genre of “indie pop” since they released their first LP under the name Flake Music back in 1997. “When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return” — The title of their debut release beckons still to those with an eager heart and set of ears.

Since then, Flake Music has become The Shins, who have become far more than James Mercer probably ever intended. Oh, Inverted World stole our hearts with its lo-fi allure and unsuspecting melodic charm, Chutes Too Narrow filled our minds and hearts with lyrical brilliance and wise melodic philosophy, and Wincing the Night Away taught us to appreciate the uncanny whim and wit of an electronic-tinged soundscape. Five years since our last musical transmission from The Shins has seen members gained and lost, and sounds lost and found — All in preparation for 2012’s Port of Morrow, the band’s fourth full-length release.

And it is, simply put, exactly what Shins fans should expect — Unsuspecting sounds and surprising styles in every form and fashion.

First of all, there are trumpets in “Fall of ’82.” Trumpets. Soothing, sweeping trumpets with an instantly-vintage classicality thought to be unknown, even in Mercer’s naturally versatile playbook. There is a blues-tinted lead guitar melody in the musically gorgeous slow-jam known as “For a Fool.” And sure, “Turn a Square” from Chutes Too Narrow has a stompin’ blues attitude, but it’s in a completely different vein and is a whole other side of the “blues influence” coin from “Fool.”

And certainly, there are many tunes that conjure up more traditional “Shins” sounds — Uptempo tunes”Bait and Switch” and “Simple Song” circle around Wincing the Night Away territory with their surf-rock shuffle and their electronic-shaded synth shards (respectively), and mellow track “September” is nearly a rewrite of older melodies (or, more flatteringly: a stew made from “Red Rabbits,” “Pink Bullets” and perhaps even a bit of “Young Pilgrims).

Yet, many of the other sounds are a third brand of experimentation: Sonic evolution. The stimulating and contagious rhythm pillaring the mesmerizing “No Way Down” is nearly indescribable (though instantly memorable), the dynamic and anthemic pacing of opener “The Rifle’s Spiral” is alternatively alluring and haunting, and the wicked title track finale is scheming and satiable in one bite.

While the music takes many wonderful detours and side-roads, the lyrics actually seem to have taken a backseat altogether, in some cases. “For a Fool” and “It’s Only Life” are mere shells of what Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow -era Shins would have held high in pride. Unoffensive phrases like “Taken for a fool / Yes, I was / Because I was a fool” and “It’ll take awhile / But we can figure this thing out” are barely butter on a plate of unleavened bread. Surely, the tunes are still admirable, but the simplicity of the lyrics overall is something not easily digested in the grumbling bowls of a hungry Shins fan.

The production method used for the record is also unusual for the Shins — The atmospheres of the tunes are clean, crisp, and modern to a T (and this sterility actually fits the record’s vibe, generally speaking). It’s similar to that of Wincing the Night Away‘s vibe, but with even cleaner vocal compression and shinier soundscapes.

In all, Port of Morrow is a Shins album unlike any other — Just like each release before it. Scorn it, savor it, loathe it, inhale it. Expect nothing, receive wonder. Presume expectation, lose understanding. It’s one of those things that seems to be using potions to tie your head to the sky in wonder and unpredictability, if you will..