Submissions Report #2
Every so often, I’ll review submissions sent to me, usually albums but sometimes singles or EPs. So here we go!
Arthur Fowler – What’s Keeping Me Going
Possessing a voice like a cross between Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and Jack Johnson, but harboring a far greater fondness for virtuosic jamming than either of them, Arthur Fowler is a better player than poet, and What’s Keeping Me Going, his 2014 record, tends to be at its best when it strays from typical lighthearted singer/songwriter confessional pop and favors a looser, musical structure. The washes of chimes, the atmospheric bongo patter and the ribbons of flamenco flourishes ensure that Fowler’s tunes never quite leave the coffeehouse, but that would be okay if these songs exuded a real warmth or rawness. Unfortunately, songs like “Please Try” and the breezy, faux-tropical “Love The Music” feel perfunctory, the kind of good-natured tunes that are easy to shrug off before turning back to your crossword and cappuccino.
What’s Keeping Me Going‘s core, though, is Fowler’s formidable guitar playing and arranging. Is it any wonder that two instrumentals, the bossa-nova feint of “Twilight Breeze,” a kind of sunny come-down interlude, and the sighing epic-tinged folk of “On The Verge,” are some of the best things on the record, when on other pop albums they would just be lovely diversions? To be fair, a few of the vocal tracks stand out. “For The Turnstiles” moves against its slow-burning country strings to lend itself an unexpected richness lacking elsewhere, while “The New York Song” succeeds where his other songs fail by utilizing an assuming, low-key charm. It doesn’t do anything special, but What’s Keeping Me Going is decently pleasant listening, an instance of someone who’s better at soundtracking a sunset walk with a loved one than expressing the sentiment himself.
Return For Refund – Return For Refund EP
Return For Refund’s debut eponymous EP has one big problem with it: familiarity. Their music is firmly in the rote post-grunge camp, maybe with a little more quirky abandon, playing like a cross between Queen Of The Stone Age and Foo Fighters, a style the radio may have adopted in the late ’90s and early 2000s but seems depleted now. On a pure sonic level, Return For Refund aren’t as slick as, say, 3 Doors Down, or whoever, but they also lack a sense for melody and hook, and even when the songs get by on musicianship (as they often do), there’s very little here that doesn’t completely dissipate in the mind as soon as it’s over. Frontman Drew Clementino’s southern drawl may add a little flair but the music here is prone to stolid beats and power chords and pseudo-evocative cliches like the “Hey!” chant that permeates the martial stomp of “Between My Sheets.” It’s not that any these songs are glaringly bad per se—if the opening roar of “The Fields” appeared on local rock radio one day, few would bat an eye—but there’s just very little to mention in them at all (except that there’s one song called “Yolo,” which, even if the song makes fun of the term, doesn’t make it any less silly and disposable.)
On the brighter side, the last song, “Those Bombs,” demonstrates at least a little dynamic range, allowing the song to breath just a bit, easing up on the flat, overpowering heaviness that eats up the rest of the songs and letting Clementino’s words to reveal themselves. Meanwhile, the winding riffs on “Some Is Better Than None” display some post-punk tension that they would do well to exploit in the future. After all, it’s better that they learn what works about their sound now while they’re young, so they don’t end up in another pile of listless grunge acts.
Azealia Banks – 1991 [EP]
On the strength of her excellent, kinetic 2011 single, “212,” as well as handful of lesser-known songs, 21-year-old Harlem-based rapper Azealia Banks became one of the year’s most buzzed-about artists on hip-hop and underground music blogs. This blinding hype immediately earned her attention from major rappers and labels alike, virtually ensuring her mainstream recognition. So with one foot in the door to the big leagues, Banks hopes to make a big entrance with her much-delayed EP (and first official release), 1991. Wisely acting as both a sampler for the uninitiated and a teaser for her first album, half of this four-track teacher is made up of pre-released material, just professionally remixed and retooled. (“Liquorice” gets a cleaner, fuller production, for example; “212” retains its high-quality recording from its single release.) The first two songs, though, “1991” and “Van Vogue,” are brand new, and they suggest that Banks’ flirtation with dance music will only escalate. The title 1991 may refer to the year she was born, but with all the four-on-the-floor beats, retro synths and clipped R&B vocal samples, the production on these tracks directly recalls that bygone era, where house and new jack reigned supreme and 808 State slotted into a nightclub’s regular rotation. That being said, this is still a hip-hop record, not a DJ set, and Azealia’s exuberant, profane rapping (and the occasional soulful vocal) fill these songs with a liveliness and recklessness that many of her peers lack. While her monosyllabic and onomatopoeic rhymes are often chosen in service of the rhythm, there’s a fair share of clever boasts, put-downs and come-ons to warrant close listening, especially on “212” and the title track. Comparisons, contrasts and feuds (real or fabricated) with Nicki Minaj and Lil Kim aside, it’s also just refreshing to hear another talented female rapper take to the mic, when, even in 2012, there are remarkably few. This EP may have more style than substance, but oh! what style it is. Though nothing else is as instantly grabbing as “212”—and that spoken-word interlude goes on way too long—just about everything here hints at bigger and better things to come from Ms. Banks, and 1991 certainly whets the appetite for a full-length album.
Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind [EP]
Consisting of both live favorites and new material recorded during the Merriweather Post Pavilion sessions, Animal Collective’s second release of 2009, Fall Be Kind, finds the band at their best. Much like Merriweather, then, what is offered on this EP is still drenched in electronics, naturally, but this isn’t an assemblage of sub-album tracks. Instead, this is merely an opportunity for Animal Collective to explore a more atmospheric sound that wouldn’t exactly fit with the often kinetic and bracing Merriweather. In other words, these songs take their time, but the results are no less fruitful. “Graze”, what with its tension building atmosphere that finally breaks into a pan flute sample and a chorus of “Comfort! Comfort!”, is an absolute joyous track that is as warm and inviting as anything the band has ever done. Meanwhile, “What Would I Want? Sky” is a rhythm-based track that begins with crashing percussion and murky vocal harmonies and then abruptly gives way to (because you have to mention it) the first licensed Grateful Dead sample and a surprisingly upfront vocal by Avey. It is one of AC’s finest songs, finding perfect balance between innovative instrumentation and pop familiarity. “Bleed” is a decent, if ultimately forgettable, interlude that segues from the brighter, fuller first half to the more pensive second half which has songs in company with Merriweather‘s “Guys Eyes” and “Taste”. “On A Highway” pits a restless Avey Tare’s thoughts against equally restless clattering pulses and vocal chants. The final track, “I Think I Can”, calls for trance-inducing hypnosis through several vocal rounds and insistent percussion before breaking into an immediately catchy chant of its title. If the latter half of the album does not exactly live up to the promise of the first few tracks, they still hold strong, showing once again that Animal Collective’s EPs can also be artistic triumphs.
Soup Du Jour – Soup Du Jour [EP]
Lars Paulsen and Emma Hendry make up the Massachusetts-based twee pop duo Soup Du Jour. Their eponymous debut EP is a pleasant and interesting, if not completely compelling, affair that bears more than a passing resemblance to the short-lived duo Moldy Peaches, complete with rabbit references in the artwork and lyrics. Paulsen and Hendry had a personal as well as professional relationship while writing these songs, and the songs do reflect this with a childlike naïveté. However, this duo trades in the Peaches’ scatological humor for references to existentialists and odes to historical Russian figures. Paulsen’s gentle guitar work and Hendry’s haphazard keyboard create a carnival-esque atmosphere that alternates between menacing and inviting. With so many nice ideas presented so unpretentiously, it’s a shame that many of these songs do not appear fully-formed. While the standouts “Rasputin, Ode 2”, “Best Day Ever(y) Day”, and especially the beautiful “House Boat” show potential for the band, many of the other songs on here feel like a series of interludes offering a few nice ideas here and there but are never really elaborated upon. There is enough potential here, however, to anticipate a more complete sounding long-player in the future.