Friday, February 02, 2007

Arcade Fire, Neon Bible

Highly acclaimed debut records can be a double-edged sword. These days, the “sophomore-slump” seems almost as inevitable as a confluence of woebegone emo teenage girls from New Jersey at a My Chemical Romance gig. Over the past few months, many bands that enjoyed massive initial success have offered less than stellar follow up projects, much to the disappointment of their avid fans (nice going, Brandon Flowers).

When a band goes into the studio after touring the hell out of a well-received first album, several questions must be addressed. Change the sound up dramatically or stick to the proven, original formula? Concept record or not? Hire a new, hotshot producer or stay loyal to that dude who worked for peanuts the first time ‘round? Coming to mutual agreements on these issues and others can often be a challenge.

Unlike the Killers (I’d like to re-emphasize what complete and utter rubbish the new Killers record is: man, it is so horrible I think I’d rather listen to a 90-year-old female professor lecture on feminism than listen it. Anyway.) and Bloc Party, Canada’s Arcade Fire didn’t let the immense success of their first LP, Funeral scare them. Retaining their core sound, the band explores new territory on Neon Bible, but still sound like the Arcade Fire. Mixing and producing every song on their own, Win Butler and co. not only live up to the excellence of Funeral, they surpass it. Listening to Neon Bible sends literal chills down my spine: if that’s not powerful art, I’m not sure what is. It’s been at least 5 years (or perhaps since Funeral’s release) since a contemporary group of musicians last instilled such emotions within me.

Arcade Fire is known for their eclectic range of instruments, but Neon Bible takes it to another level, incorporating pipe organs, the “Hurdy Gurdy”, and a full Hungarian orchestra. What results is a sound the band describes as, “standing by the ocean at night” – gorgeous imagery in itself. Many people I talk to short change the band’s music because of Butler’s unique voice. However, it is important to note that these people are idiots. Win’s voice is both extremely powerful and exceptionally malleable. On Neon Bible, his vocals are incredibly clear and poignant. On record-opener (and first single), “Black Mirror”, he sings, “I walked down to the ocean/After walking from a nightmare/No moon no pale reflection” in a deep, sullen tone, shifting between low and high notes throughout. The same holds true on album-closer (and impossibly beautiful), “My Body Is A Cage”. Adversely, tracks like “No Cars Go” (which appeared on the band’s self-titled EP and was re-recorded for Neon Bible), Butler sings at a high tempo without sacrificing his distinct sound.

Musically, Neon Bible is a solid step up from the band’s first record. Pervasive use of violins is again a staple of Arcade Fire’s music, setting them apart from most every “rock band” today in that regard. Rumored single, “Intervention” is backed by a potent pipe organ and prodigious percussion, while “Ocean of Noise” includes beautiful piano throughout.

“Keep the Car Running” is Neon Bible’s “Neighborhood #3”: fast-paced, powerful lyrics, and uncanny symmetry between every instrument involved. Similar in tone is “Antichrist Television Blues”, which continues to evoke Springsteen the more and more I listen to it. The following track (and surely one of the record’s finest), “Windowsill” is another platform for Butler’s incredible vocals, as he croons, “I don’t wanna live in America no more/’Cause the tide is high/and it’s rising still”.

At this point, having listened to Neon Bible roughly ten times through (fine, twenty), I remain in such awe that writing a decent, mildly coherent review is pretty much impossible. Bottom line is, buy this record when it comes out (and especially if you download it before it does). Arcade Fire blew me away with Funeral, but the way Neon Bible makes me feel is pretty much ineffable. If you’re not familiar with this band, you must acquaint yourself immediately. Bob Dylan must have forgotten about Arcade Fire when he recently told a reporter that all music today sucks.

Rating: 9.9/10

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Vincent Gallo, When

Often seen as nothing more than a strange, acrimonious thespian, Vincent Gallo is a figure wrongly pegged by the incompetent plebeian. Those who have been critical of his two films simply fail to recognize and grasp their artistic beauty and brilliance. Outside of making (and acting in) motion pictures, “Prince Vince” has explored numerous artistic realms throughout the years, including painting, writing, and break-dancing. An avid fan of music from an early age (Gallo states than by age 16, he owned roughly 4,500 records, all of which he paid for himself), Vincent has always immersed himself in the world of music, fostering close friendships with Rick Rubin, Johnny Ramone, John Frusciante, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, among others. In 2001 he released his debut LP, When. Much like his two films, Gallo’s album is defined by extreme eeriness, but remains brilliant from start to finish.

Recorded on rather archaic equipment (Gallo is very particular about the setup of his studio), every track on When sounds as though it’s being crooned by a ghost. Tracks like “My Beautiful White Dog” are dominated by haunting feedback and effects that set a murky, yet enormously powerful tone. On “Honey Bunny” (the track used in Gallo’s short film of the same name, which features a young, under-clothed Paris Hilton spinning around on a chair like object), Vince displays his gorgeous vocal ability, maintaining a soft tone throughout the entire song. “Yes I’m Loney” is perhaps the album’s most poignant song, as Gallo plays wonderful electric blues riffs. Other highlights include title-track “When”, which again puts Gallo’s incredibly powerful voice on display.

Despite his rift with Roger Ebert and desire to impregnate a Jewish woman because, “this connection to the Jewish faith would guarantee his offspring a better chance at good reviews and maybe even a prize at the Sundance Film Festival or an Oscar", Vincent Gallo is one of the most brilliant, powerful artists of our time. Let yourself into seclusion, dim the lights and listen to this record: you’ll see a whole new Gallo.

Rating: 8.9/10

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Medium Cool, Self-Titled EP

A lot of people are starting bands today and a lot of them suck. Medium Cool does not suck.

Spawned during the aftermath of The Sexy Magazines’ recent demise, former members and close childhood friends Mark Sanger and Marc Philippe Eskenazi formed Medium Cool last summer along with the help of Casey Smith (also of Sexy Magazines fame) and Cullen Gallagher. Having played only one show since their inception (Eskenazi is currently on tour with Albert Hammond, Jr.), the band is set to release their first EP.

With a sound that draws influence from bands of old (The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Beatles, etc), listening to Medium Cool’s tunes instills a Slanted and Enchanted vibe within me. Songs like “Woman” are built on high tempo guitar riffs and whimsical lyrics, much like those found on any Pavement record. “Honest” features Eskenazi on vocals backed by a collection of simple, yet engaging chords, in what feels like a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end. Sanger handles vocals on “Home”, another incredibly catchy tune. Medium Cool has a clear knack for songwriting, which shows on “400 People”, a tune backed by a terrific bass line and aggressive guitars.

Medium Cool is still very much in its infancy, but keep on eye out for these guys. The band is made up of talented, serious musicians – a formula that is always tantamount to success. Expect the band to book a fury of shows when Eskenazi returns from touring with The Strokes’ Hammond, Jr. For now, buy their E.P. at your local New York City record shop and log onto their MySpace page.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bob Marley and The Wailers, Original Cuts

Clearly the most talented and influential reggae artist of our time, Bob Marley’s impact reached far outside of the musical realm. His social (and religious) impact was felt by millions: Marley’s music spoke to generations of people around the world and will continue to do so for years to come. Although the posthumous record Legend remains his most popular and widely received (selling over 12 million copies), 2004’s Original Cuts affords listeners a plentiful sampling of many of Marley’s greatest songs in pure demo form.

I often site Uprising and Catch A Fire as my favorite Marley albums, however, Original Cuts is the one I listen to most. The record is comprised solely of studio demos and raw cuts of Marley classics such as “Trench Town Rock”, “Lively Up Yourself”, and “Stir It Up”. Studio versions of these songs are incredibly poignant, but the demos on Original Cuts delve even deeper into the beautiful harmonies that Marley so brilliantly produced.

On “Sun is Shining”, the listener is able to completely hone in on Marley’s vocals: the same is true on the stunning “Small Axe”. Other highlights include an early version of “Bend Down Low” and a previously unreleased version of “Pass It On”.

Avid Marley fans and new listeners alike can appreciate Original Cuts. People pay large sums of money for Beatles and Stones studio demos, so why not give this record some attention? Bob Marley is one of the most important musicians to ever live and Original Cuts is a true testament to his greatness.

Rating: 9.4/10

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Mew, And the Glass Handed Kites

Contemporary American music is pretty decent, but the bands overseas certainly have us beat at the moment. This said, many of these foreign bands are often limited to success within their own borders, selling out large-venue tours throughout Asia, the U.K. and Europe. They have a solid fan base in the U.S., but seem to achieve only laconic success: Americans want something newer and bigger all the time. For better or worse, Mew is one of these bands. Hailing from the beautiful land of Denmark, the four-piece has been active since 1995, but broke through in America (and worldwide) with their latest release, And the Glass Handed Kites.

I was initially exposed to the band while interning at Nasty Little Man, a New York City based P.R. firm that had Mew on their client list. Their sound is difficult to describe, but the most fitting adjectives that come to mind are “mystical” and “enchanting”. Not to suggest that Mew’s songs would cater well to a fairytale’s soundtrack, but listening to And the Glass Handed Kites evokes thoughts of a darker Sigur Rós.

Beginning with the record’s opening track, “Circuitry of the Wolf” – a haunting instrumental piece – Mew quickly sets the tone for their body of work. Part Radiohead, part Tool, the album flows beautifully from track to track, as the band places a clear premium on making smooth transitions. Songs like “Chinaberry Tree” and “White Lips Kissed” fit the “mystical”, while lead single “The Zookeeper’s Boy” covers the “enchanting”.

While I enjoy the entire album immensely, the distinct highlight for me comes at the transition between “Fox Cub” and emotional rollercoaster “Apocalypso” (a song the band claims is about fear of death). Like all of Mew’s songs, the track is defined by incredibly prodigious sound. The guitar riffs justify the Tool reference, while the vocals blend in so well, they almost sound like another instrument. The following track, “Special” carries a brilliant bass line and offers listeners a more upbeat sound. “Why Are You Looking Grave” is yet another wonderful song with an equally awesome title.

Perhaps American music fans are poorly informed (hence the impetus behind this blog), or they’re just ignorant. The thought that a band as talented as Mew struggles to sell records in this country is rather sad. Go buy this album right now and free yourself from the grasp of The Fray.

Rating: 9.1/10
The Zombies, Odessey and Oracle

Quite possibly the most overlooked band of the 1960s (and beyond), The Zombies spent the duration of 1967 recording one of the most beautiful albums ever made by a group of musicians. Listening to
Odessey and Oracle (the former, an intentional misspelling) is much like finding yourself trapped in a magical daydream: the melodies are among the most gorgeous and captivating I have ever heard. Although Rolling Stone ranks it at number 80 on their (retarded) list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”, I place it in my top 5, if not higher.

The record opens with “Care of Cell 44”, a song that relies heavily on the beautifully simple keyboard playing of Rod Argent and Paul Atkinson’s soft, yet forceful vocals. The track is staple Zombies: advanced harmonies, steady rhythm section, and backing vocals akin to the Beach Boys. Although the Zombies oft produce an upbeat feeling, tracks like “Beechwood Park” expose the band’s pleasantly sullen side. Many of the record’s songs are rife with nostalgia and reflection on past beauty and happiness; this is what makes their songs so incredibly potent. Tracks like “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” – which is backed by a haunting organ – see the band fully expressing their darker side without sacrificing the beauty that defines their sound.

Although “Time of the Season” garnered the most mainstream success, the best track on the album (in my opinion) is clearly “This Will Be Our Year”. I’ve listened to a lot of love songs and this is bar none the most beautiful one I’ve ever heard. Beyond that narrow category, I’d go so far and say that it is easily one of the most gorgeous songs ever written. Regardless of one’s emotional state, “This Will Be Our Year” is one of those songs that will inevitably evoke pure feeling within the soul. When I recently got shut down by one of the only girls I have ever loved, I listened to this song and wept for a good twenty minutes: that’s good song writing.

If you have never listened to The Zombies, you need to put down Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and turn on Odessey and Oracle right away. Five years ago it opened up a whole new world for me – I trust it will serve you well, too.

Rating: 10/10
Girl Talk, Night Ripper

It’s hard to say which is more incredible: Girl Talk’s latest collection of tracks, or the fact that the Pittsburg native hasn’t yet been sued. Drawing from a very eclectic collection of samples ranging from James Taylor to Dem Franchize Boyz, Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) shines on his best record to date,
Night Ripper.
Girl Talk has truly mastered the art of the mash-up, a genre typically known for its highly contrived, hip-hop based nature. Every track on Night Ripper is assiduously organized and mixed, as the record is essentially one long song, by virtue of its incredibly smooth transitions from track to track. Many people slight Girl Talk for his “lack of originality”: the entire album is comprised solely of samples of other artists’ songs. This said, drawing from a base as diverse as Gillis does, creating something that flows so beautiful as Night Ripper does is no easy task.
The record blasts into full swing with the third track, “Hold Up”, a song that mixes Pixies, 50 Cent, Weezer, Nas, M83, and others. A brief sample of “Say It Ain’t So” gives way to the album’s next track, “Too Deep”, which features clicking guns, “Dipset” chants and Aerosmith’s cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together”. Once you’ve had time to catch your breath, Gillis transitions (silky smooth, per usual) into Night Ripper’s most stunning track, “Smash Your Head”. Opening with Fall Out Boy riffs backed by Trina’s vocals, the song peaks with a brilliant mash-up of “Tiny Dancer” and B.I.G.’s “Juicy” (complete with “blow up like the World Trade” lyrics).
Other highlights include “Summer Stroke”, which is carried by M.I.A.’s “Galang” and various Kanye West tracks. Subsequent track, “Friday Night” features more B.I.G. with a terrific contrast mash-up of The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” and Chris Brown’s “Run It!”. Alas, the album falls off a bit after this, but remains very commendable from start to finish.
Girl Talk is a “band” everyone can appreciate; unlike traditional hip-hop mash-ups, Gillis always adds a new element to his songs, creating a melting pot of musical bliss. I had the chance to catch him live down in Chapel Hill last month and it was the most pleasantly tumultuous show I have ever attended. Also, Gillis was manning his own merchandise booth before and after his set: I’d love to see The Stones put on a show that good and sell some $50 t’s whilst drenched in sweat.

Rating: 7.9/10
The Go! Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike

Ever since the post-White Stripes/Strokes "indie-band picks up guitar, learns chords, records album, gets signed" influx that fully commenced in early 2002, it has become increasingly overwhelming for the average music fan to sift through the shit and find the good stuff. Every week, the pundits at NME, SPIN and various online blogs praise another band as the second coming of Jesus Christ. The majority of band spawning takes place in the U.K., a place with more musically adept people than most anywhere in the world. This said, the Brits do have a known tendency for deeming bands "ace" without really evaluating their impact relative to other acts that pervade the scene at the moment. However, one band that is ridiculously fucking ace is Brighton's own, The Go! Team.

The first time I listened to Thunder, Lightning, Strike, I was very taken aback, if not rather overwhelmed. As their name would suggest, each member of the band (which boasts two drummers) plays an equally important role in forming a "team" of musicians who create a sound capable of galvanizing the most depressed, lazy human being on earth. Fusing a combination of funky 70's jams, old-school hip-hop, garage-rock guitar riffs, and cheerleader chants, The Go! Team produce a sound that is unique and incredibly refreshing.

"Ladyflash", the record's second track, opens with a space-rock melody that leads into a Maxine Nightingale style chorus, mixes in some hip-hop beats, then repeats. On popular single, “Huddle Formation”, the bands uses simple electronic rhythm and a subtly powerful bass line as the foundation for an amazing song rife with handclaps, chanting and hip-hop interjections. This lack of homogony from track to track is what makes The Go! Team so sensational: the final song on the album is carried by tradition bluegrass guitar picking and a whining harmonica. You won’t find this kind of brilliance and variety from a band like Razorlight.

We need more bands like The Go! Team and we need them now: musicians that are fully willing to go against the grain, explore new sound, and, in the case of the Brighton six-piece, mash it all together. Look for their sophomore effort to hit shelves soon.

Rating: 8.5/10