Monthly Archives: February 2012
The Shins – Wincing The Night Away
It’s hard to believe now, but up until 2004, the Shins were relative unknowns outside of music critics and indie rock circles. Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow might have garnered them a passionate following, but it wasn’t until the band featured in Zach Braff’s 2004 indie dramedy Garden State that their success really took off. See, the Shins’ music wasn’t just played as a transition between scenes or during the credits—it was the focal point of dialogue, with Natalie Portman declaring that “New Slang” will “change your life,” virtually ensuring anyone who saw the movie would give it a listen.
Between this and the over three-year wait between albums, the Shins faced unreasonably high expectations for the first time in their career. Lesser bands would crack under the pressure or, worse, release an overambitious mess in an attempt at justify the hype. Instead, James Mercer and co. simply moved on ahead as if nothing ever happened, and Wincing The Night Away feels like a natural progression from Chutes Too Narrow. It still uses the group’s same basic formula, matching dark, clever lyrics to sprightly, catchy melodies, but Mercer introduces a few new twists into the mix. Compared to the Shins’ past records, Wincing has a relatively slick production (courtesy of Joe Chiccarelli), and it both helps Mercer’s experiments to cohere and breathes new life into the band’s more well-worn territory. In fact, the quintessentially Shins-sounding numbers on here—namely “Phantom Limb” and the jangly “Australia”—not only don’t feel like retreads but actually stand up to some of the band’s best singles. By and large, though, the album is dedicated to the band expanding their palette. The liberating opener “Sleeping Lessons” begins with woozy keyboards before building to a rousing finish; the pensive, murky “Black Wave” and the bitter “Split Needles” succumb to the darkness of Mercer’s lyrics, while the fuzzy “Pam Berry” recalls past off-kilter interludes like “Your Algebra.” Elsewhere, “Sea Legs” grooves to a stuttering bassline, and “Red Rabbits” skips gently to what sounds like a steel drum merged with an electric piano. It’s not a classic like their debut nor is it as immediate as Chutes, but Wincing The Night Away proved the Shins were a band capable of evolving on their own terms, unconcerned with whose lives they were changing in the process.
Django Django – Django Django
Django Django’s eponymous debut album is first and foremost a dance record, but it bristles with so many stylistic fusions and ideas, it doesn’t play like one. In this sense, it’s very much a product of 2000s indie music, where breaking down the boundaries between genres isn’t just common—it’s expected. This isn’t to say that Django Django is predictable; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Swirling electronics, twitchy drum beats, art-damaged guitars and whimsical sound effects all typically make their appearances, but here they are assembled in strange, bracing ways. The Beta Band’s anything-goes art rock is an obvious touchstone (not to mention an easy comparison since that band’s keyboardist is brothers with Django Django’s David Maclean), but there’s also elements of Hot Chip’s synth-dance, the world fusion of early Yeasayer and bits of British psych-pop that run the gamut from Syd Barrett to XTC. What’s satisfying about the record, though, is how the group fuses these disparate influences into a distinctive style. And the album starts out great, connecting the dots from ideas to execution: “Hail Bop” saunters in with decaying guitar riffs and lovely vocal harmonies, while the infectious “Default” glitches and jerks around before clearing away for the bluesy stomp of “Firewater.” More or less, the record continues on like this, offering spins on this same formula with a fairly high success rate since they never let their genre-hopping overwhelm the songs. The thing is, by the time the last batch of tracks roll around, the formula begins to get a little old. It’s not for lack of trying (“Skies Over Cairo” has a fittingly Egyptian bent to it), and a couple tracks stand out (namely “Love’s Dart and the western-inspired “Wor”), but by and large, the record would have benefited greatly from changes in mood or tempo. Because the beginning of the album is filled with so many colorful ideas, it’s a shame that the group doesn’t leave their comfort zone more often, especially when the most gnarled songs here are frequently the most interesting. But even if it isn’t compelling throughout, Django Django has fits of creative brilliance, moments that suggest a bright future for the London-based band.
Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror
The success of Sleigh Bells’ debut album, Treats, didn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, it was something both fresh and familiar: Walls of overdriven guitars, synths and samples clash with unpredictable rhythms and sugar-sweet pop hooks. It’s a formula that’s not so far off from a truckload of other bands from the last decade, but Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss gave it a unique spin, constructing an album that felt powerfully alive. In many respects, their 2012 follow-up, Reign Of Terror, merely takes the same formula and refines it, taking out some elements, adding new ones and tightening up others. Gone are the sampled backing tracks and the noisy grind of songs like “Straight A’s” and “A/B Machines.” Gone, too, is the busy, chaotic feel that made Treats feel as if M.I.A. had her way with a No Age record. Instead, Sleigh Bells provide a more focused attack, concentrating on the actual songs rather than simply getting over on the overpowering loudness of the music. Part of this has to do with Miller’s choice to play hair-metal-styled riffs, which are naturally more precise, but even more of it has to do with the production. Miller is once again behind the boards, and he shows much more restraint, giving the music more breathing room while still cranking everything up to 11. On a few of the tracks, this focus pays off. “Comeback Kid” is a frenzied pop anthem; “Crash” is practically made for the sports arena with its “Make you or break you!” chant and crunching guitar; “End Of The Line” channels the laid back flow of “Rill Rill,” while the aggressive title track manages to turn helplessness into a sort of rallying cry. The flip side to Sleigh Bells’ more polished approach is that there isn’t much of a reason to return to the songs that aren’t up to snuff. There aren’t really missteps, per se (though “Leader Of The Pack” is easily the most disposable), yet the tracks take fewer left turns, so there’s less that sticks in the mind, especially in the gloomier, heavier back half of the record. Still, while Reign Of Terror may not have the shock or excitement of Treats, it’s certainly some measure of success that the band was able to play with their tone and approach without losing what made them so distinctive in the first place. It may just barely avoid sophomore slump status, but the best songs on here will hopefully both please longtime fans and bring in new ones as well.
The KLF – Chill Out
Since any discussion of the KLF invariably revolves around their art-terrorism stunts (burning 1 million pounds sterling, firing machine gun blanks into their audience, etc.), it’s easy to forget they crafted such a uniquely soothing album as 1990’s Chill Out. And never has an album been so aptly named. At the time, the album was lumped into the so-called ambient house movement, and while that moniker is mostly accurate, Chill Out is nearly entirely beatless, with only a few tenuous connections to house music. Essentially a soundtrack to an imaginary late-night Gulf Coast road trip, the record finds Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty incorporating found sounds (think chugging trains, wind chimes, bleating lambs), fragmented radio broadcasts, sparkling synths and shimmering steel guitar and samples of everything from Tuvan throat singers to Elvis Presley’s “In The Ghetto.” What’s consistently remarkable is how the KLF blend such seemingly incongruous parts into a hypnotic whole. Indeed, not a single element goes to waste—even the more dissonant sounds that find their way into the mix enrich the atmosphere rather than detract from it. Also, while nearly all ambient music is content to sink into the background, Chill Out takes a different approach. Sure, there’s still the use of repetition and texture, and the music rarely calls attention to itself, but the record often introduces new elements at random, rewarding close listening in ways other ambient music doesn’t and somehow becoming more relaxing the more attention is paid. Listening to Chill Out, it’s easy to imagine nodding off in the backseat of a car, looking out at the starlit Louisiana landscape as you ride off into the night. Essential.
Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
These days, pop/rock revivals seem to be two decades removed. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, bands like the Strokes, Interpol and the White Stripes channeled the post-punk and new wave groups of the late ’70s and ’80s, while Vampire Weekend became successful after studying up on their Talking Heads and Paul Simon. Noise pop, lo-fi and shoegaze made a comeback as the last decade closed out with fuzz and reverb galore, with everyone from Neon Indian to Best Coast to the Horrors owing at least some debt to late ’80s and early ’90s groups like My Bloody Valentine, Pavement and the Jesus and Mary Chain. And now that it’s 2012, we have Cloud Nothings’ third album, Attack On Memory, a full-on assault of 1990s nostalgia.
Before this recording, Cloud Nothings sounded just like what it was: Dylan Baldi’s charmingly low-budget recording project, broadcast from his bedroom studio. Given these origins, it’s easy to assume that Baldi would continue down the sweeter, poppy (if still loud and lo-fi) route when recording his sophomore record. Instead, Attack On Memory is a raw, angst-ridden album, conjuring memories of groups like Fugazi, early Sunny Day Real Estate and Nirvana. In fact, the first two tracks nearly sound like the work of a completely different band. Compared to the first exuberant chords of Baldi’s last album, “No Future/No Past” is like a death march. Beginning at a weary, slogging pace with Baldi droning “Give up,” the song clenches its fist tighter and tighter before releasing in its anthemic conclusion. “Wasted Days” is even more unexpected: At nearly 9 self-lacerating minutes, it’s much, much longer than any other Cloud Nothings song, starting out as a furious rant before launching into an extended post-punk jam that builds until it boils over. If the change of tone and razor-sharp clang of the guitars here sound alarmingly different, look no further than producer Steve Albini. For decades, artists have gone to Albini when they want an authentic, no-frills sound. And though Baldi’s previous output wouldn’t exactly be referred to as “lush” or “orchestral,” Albini invests Attack On Memory with bracing clarity, drawing the anger and ferocious fun from Baldi’s songs that would have been otherwise muted. But it’s not just Albini, Baldi’s songs are stronger and catchier than before, especially in the second half of the record, where the songs are more concise. The thing is, everything here is slathered with a thick layer of frustration and regret. Even on the relatively poppier songs, there’s a good amount of seething underneath.”Stay Useless”‘ almost carefree melody is undercut by the stress of growing up (“I need time to stop moving/I need time to stay useless”), while the hooky “Cut You” is a bit more menacing (“Does he hurt you like I do?/Does he even hit you too?”). Elsewhere, on the grungy “No Sentiment” and the bleak “Our Plans,” the tension and panic are even more palpable. Attack On Memory isn’t necessarily innovative nor is it a nihilistic landmark like In Utero. Instead, with the noise, echo and wishy-washy effects used in much of recent indie music, this album’s a bowl of chicken soup for anybody who’s missed hearing a band simply plugging in and letting loose. On “Our Plans,” Baldi sings “No one knows our plans for us/We won’t last long.” If Cloud Nothings keep putting out albums as good as this, he won’t have to worry.