Monthly Archives: April 2011
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
There were a lot of indie folk outfits in the 2000s, but while many of them adopted an intimate, Nick Drake/Paul Simon-inspired sound, Fleet Foxes went the other way. Drawing from as many classic rockers like Crosby, Stills & Nash as pop tunesmiths like the Beach Boys, the group, led by Robin Pecknold, creates music that’s expansive as the wilderness, steeped in the grand American folk tradition. Their eponymous debut enjoyed enormous acclaim and popularity, and it would have been easy for the band to simply send off another batch of songs that repeated the same formula: shimmering, intricate guitars; gorgeous harmonies and the sort of reverb that sounds as if it were recorded on a mountain range.
Well, after a nearly three-year silence, Fleet Foxes return with Helplessness Blues, and to a certain extent, that’s exactly what they deliver. But while “Montezuma” and “Sim Sala Bim” offer just enough familiarity to remind you why the band is special, the album primarily shows the band growing in subtle, expressive ways. It also shows Pecknold’s recently been spending a lot more time with his British folk records than his American ones. Some piano and glockenspiel here, more pronounced violin and flute there, they even flirt more heavily with progressive song structures, especially on “The Shrine/An Argument.” It’s in these surprising moments that Helplessness Blues really comes into its own, such as the sudden fiddle line on the jaunty “Bedouin Dress” and the squealing, Colin Stetson-styled saxophone at the end of “An Argument.” Elsewhere, the beautiful rush of “Grown Ocean” is just about the sunniest thing they’ve recorded, and the galloping rhythms on “Lorelai” and “Battery Kinzie” lend the record an invigorating kick just when it seems content to remain mellow. Most importantly, though, Pecknold’s knack for crafting distinct melodies even when the music gives off an airy, ethereal vibe is more than evident throughout, no matter if the songs are brief or sprawl out for minutes on end. He’s stretched out lyrically too. Though he retains many of the universal images of nature, love and loss from before, here he’s more ambitious, writing with greater focus on introspection and even a sense of the profound, particularly on the title track. If Helplessness Blues feels a tad less satisfying than its predecessor, it is perhaps because the songwriting never truly matches the absolute peaks of Fleet Foxes or the Sun Giant EP. Still, by heightening their ambitions and delivering a healthy dose of the expected and unexpected, Fleet Foxes have crafted yet another rich and nuanced record, confirming the maturity they displayed on their debut was no fluke.
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
BiRd-BrAiNs, Merrill Garbus’ debut album under the tUnE-yArDs moniker, outlined her brand of home-brewed anything-goes pop, but it was in no way adequate preparation for its fantastic frenzy of a sequel, 2011’s w h o k i l l. For this record, she didn’t just go it alone: Garbus gathered together some backing musicians and recorded in an actual studio. The increased production quality is only relative, however. While the album has a more crisp, punchy sound than its predecessor, she still lets all the seams show, giving w h o k i l l a messy, exhilarating pulse. But it isn’t just the production that makes the album the success that it is; Garbus has grown considerably as a songwriter. Though it features many of the same elements of her debut—Garbus’ powerful, torchy voice; the sampled loops; the African polyrhythms—w h o k i l l ups the ante, piling on layer after layer, genre after genre, mashing them together and separating them just as quickly. “Riotriot” flows along on a gentle yet uneasy melody before abruptly exploding into a fit of Latin jazz-flavored saxophone. “Gangsta,” meanwhile, convulses with playful, glitchy starts and stops. Even the softer moments (“Powa,” “Wooly Wolly Gong”) are winners, showcasing the versatility of Garbus’ voice in the hushed surroundings. But the most impressive thing is that no matter how off-the-wall Garbus’ experiments get, her songs never feel insular. She always lands on an anthemic melody, making these songs sound exciting and universal.
Even if you look past the provocative music (something admittedly hard to do for the first few listens), w h o k i l l offers even more in its words. Starting with the excellent opener, “My Country,” where she examines first-world guilt (“When they have nothing, why do you have something?”), it’s clear that Garbus has more on her mind than just good times. “Es-So” addresses body image issues, and “Riotriot” hints at erupting violence while she imagines coming on to a police officer. But it isn’t all politics, and she often gets personal as on the revealing sex fantasy “Powa” and the intimate lullaby “Wooly Wolly Gong.” Throughout the album she presents herself as both strong and vulnerable—in a word, human—so it’s fitting that the record closes with “Killa” where she lays out her insecurities even as she declares herself to be “a new kind of woman, I’m a don’t-take-shit-from-you kind of woman.” The closest thing that comes to mind when listening to w h o k i l l is M.I.A.’s Kala, another frantic, intelligent record with globally minded influences. While that record was full of dancehall club bangers, here the songs are danceable but not meant for the dancefloor, per se. It may make her following a bit smaller than she—or this album—deserves, but so be it because it looks like Merrill Garbus just snuck up on everyone with one of the finest records of the year.
TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light
Following the release of 2008’s acclaimed Dear Science, many members of TV On The Radio got the opportunity to focus on some extracurricular activities—Kyp Malone’s Rain Machine, David Sitek’s Maximum Balloon, Tunde Adebimpe’s appearance in the film Rachel Getting Married—before following Sitek’s lead and relocating to Los Angeles to record a follow-up. Well, it looks like the time off and the sunny Pacific vibes did the band some good because Nine Types Of Light is easily the most relaxed and positive TVOTR outing yet. Though Dear Science had a few hopeful streaks running through it, there has always been great tension in the band’s lyrics and unpredictable, kinetic music. But here on Nine Types, nearly everything is smoother and slicker, emphasizing the band’s soul and R&B influences more than ever.
Opening with “Second Song” signals their intent: beginning with a spacy monologue, the track quickly moves into a falsetto-sung soul anthem. It’s gentler and more accessible than any of their previous first tracks, and, for the most part, the rest of the album follows suit. The late-night blues of “Keep Your Heart” and “Killer Crane” are moments of spacious beauty, while “New Cannonball Blues” and the delightful “You” work inviting grooves. Even if there are stretches that are undeniably melancholy, the songs usually find light at the end of tunnel such as in the fantastic “Will Do” and its tale of a rejected but stubbornly optimistic lover. But this isn’t simply an album of slow jams and TVOTR still remain loud and unpredictable on the INXS-esque “Caffeinated Consciousness” and the paranoid funk of “No Future Shock.” Some longtime fans may initially be ruffled by the more streamlined approach the band takes here, but they shouldn’t fear because after a few listens, the band’s greatest strengths—Adebimpe and Malone’s passionate vocals, the carefully considered lyrics, Sitek’s inventive production—are more than apparent. At the same time, though, since the group is less ambitious here than in the past, the album lacks the depth of their last few records and may come across as vaguely disappointing here and there, even if there are no glaring weak spots. Yet in any case, TV On The Radio have always been an intelligent band, and with Nine Types Of Light, that intelligence has been translated in such a way that the group should be able to gain a much larger audience.
Beady Eye – Different Gear, Still Speeding
Arrogance was always an integral part of Oasis. After years of bickering with his younger brother, Liam, Noel Gallagher left the band for good, and rather than dissolve the group, Liam decided to pick up the pieces, intent to prove he didn’t need Noel (who wrote most of Oasis’ catalog) to succeed. Keeping Gem Archer and Andy Bell on board, Liam decided to repurpose the band, complete with a new name, Beady Eye. The change wasn’t just cosmetic, though, because their first album, Different Gear, Still Speeding, finds all three members sharing songwriting credits, making it more democratic than any Oasis record, at least in name. Also, as the title implies, Liam truly insists that the band is just as great as ever—even comparing the album to Oasis’ classic debut, Definitely, Maybe in interviews—despite the slight personnel changes. So with all this buildup and the vintage Gallagher boasts, how did the whole project actually turn out?
As it turns out, better than you might have thought, though this isn’t the great triumph that diehard fans—or Liam—hoped for. Whereas other artists in the same position might have created some overblown, overambitious statement of purpose to distinguish themselves from their previous band, Liam is special in that he hates those kinds of overblown, overambitious records in the first place. As he says in the pompous but earnest “Beatles And Stones,” “I just wanna rock ‘n’ roll.” Without the contemporary-minded Noel in the way, Liam is free to indulge all his retro obsessions. And make no mistake, though Bell and Archer are equally credited for songwriting, this is Liam’s vision all the way. This means that Different Gear is full of the sort of swaggering Stones-y rock and Beatlesque pop that you’d expect from the man, but this time around, he seems even further disconnected from the present. This music isn’t hip or cool by any means, but the sincerity in which Liam sings and the zest in which the band plays actually makes this album sound fresher than much of Oasis’ post-(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? work. The bluesy boogie “Bring The Light” and the snarling opener “Four Letter Word” are expectedly tough rockers (though no less fine for it), but the surprisingly melodic “Millionaire” and “For Anyone” remind listeners that this is the man responsible for “Songbird,” one of Oasis’ best ballads. Yet, a few moments notwithstanding, Different Gear becomes a bit of a drag as it pushes on through its second half, especially when the songs begin to run out of ideas before they end. But in any case, fun is fun, and since Liam steadfastly believes in his rock ‘n’ roll clichés, Beady Eye is about nothing less than a good time, which is, most of the time, what this album delivers.
Panda Bear – Tomboy
Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox) released one record in 1998 and one in 2004, but it was his third record, 2007’s Person Pitch, that made him a solo star. Granted, his success as a member of Animal Collective, one of the most influential and popular indie bands of the 2000s, gave him the profile to help make that album a success, but in all fairness, Person Pitch would have gotten there on its own, simply on the grounds that it was an excellent record. Not only that but the sound of that album served as the blueprint for Animal Collective’s breakthrough, Merriweather Post Pavilion, which became an even bigger success. Because of all this, it was easy to forget about Panda Bear’s early solo career and think of Person Pitch as his de facto debut, something that Lennox himself must have thought when making his 2011 follow-up, Tomboy.
Now that one of his solo records developed enough attention, he has a certain reputation to uphold, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Tomboy isn’t drastically different from its predecessor. Lennox is still creating trance-inducing pop, so there is still the familiar wash of unidentifiable sounds, looped rhythms and Lennox’s gorgeous voice, all drenched with more reverb than a football stadium could possibly allow. At the same time, though, Tomboy‘s personality is very distinct from his last album. Whereas Person Pitch sounded like a glorious summer weekend, dripping with warmth and nostalgia, Tomboy feels like the time spent alone in your bedroom once that weekend is over. There’s still a positive glow from the days’ events, but a sense of introspection, regret and loneliness begins to creep in. While Lennox still uses loops as the basis for his songs, there is far less reliance on samples, instead using a variety of guitar effects and electronic manipulations he created himself. The music is also more rhythm-based, accentuating the dub influence from his last album.
Focusing on the more dreamy voice-as-instrument approach he used on “I’m Not,” Tomboy often deliberately downplays lyrics and distinct melodies in favor of feel and atmosphere, making the album a much more subtle and understated affair. He hasn’t abandoned singsong melody (check the affable album highlights “Last Night At The Jetty” and “You Can Count On Me”), but it’s no longer the center of attention. Songs like the title track and “Slow Motion” are perfect examples: both are pensive and moody but retain a gentle flow that helps them go down easy. Meanwhile, the subtly shifting “Drone” and the weary “Scheherazade” are two of Tomboy‘s most striking moments, depressive and spare, expanding Panda’s palette and giving the album some much-needed balance. It isn’t all gloomy, though, as “Surfer’s Hymn” and the seemingly hopeful closer “Benfica” make perfectly clear. Over half of the album was released as singles prior to the album drop, but Lennox handed the album over to producer Sonic Boom (formerly of Spaceman 3 and whose recent work includes MGMT’s Congratulations), who broadened the album’s sonic spectrum considerably, rewarding close listening, especially through a pair of headphones. This record isn’t as immediate or brilliant as Person Pitch, but Panda Bear isn’t really going for the same thing here, instead finding quiet nuance in his own brand of psychedelic sound collage. Lightning can’t strike twice, and Tomboy isn’t always a worthy sequel, but it’s still a mature statement in experimentalist pop.