Death Cab for Cutie: Kintsugi

30 Dec

kintsugiWith KintsugiDeath Cab For Cutie continue down the electronically-embellished path they raced down with Codes and Keys (2011), although the twee and platitudinous attempt at making happy music the band presented with their previous release is gone, replaced with a reflective ennui and resignation that forms an accessible emotional progression from the angst and aching sadness of earlier albums.

The songs on Kintsugi are more instrumentally stripped-down and vocally raw and soulful, many of their melodies abandoning Death Cab for Cutie’s characteristic mechanical structure for more indulgent and open-ended tunes: hear “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”; “Hold No Guns”; “Binary Sea”.

The electronica used on this album, compared with that of Codes and Keys, is also much pleasanter to listen to: less clicky noise and more minimalistic intensification of the music’s emotional objectives: hear the static backing underlining the bridge in “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”.

Another pleasing change is the stirring driving bass beat flowing under much of the music, which lends a freshly folky sound to much of it: hear “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”, itself a creative use of upbeat disco backing to float such a coolly grim message.

While Kintsugi doesn’t treat us to the Gold Standard Death Cab for Cutie that emerged in Transatlanticism (2003) and reappeared in Narrow Stairs (2008), hardened fans may well find new all-time favorite tracks in this collection.

“Black Sun” is a masterpiece strongly reminiscent of “Grapevine Fires” (Narrow Stairs),

and “Binary Sea” offers a poignant homage to the digital age, as opposed to patronisingly denouncing its many miracles, as too many lyrics and Facebook posts do today:

Oh come, my love, and swim with me
out in this vast Binary Sea
Zeros and ones, patterns appear
They’ll prove to all that we were here
For if there is no document,
we cannot build our monument
So look into the lens and
I’ll make sure this moment never dies

The Front Bottoms: Back on Top

29 Dec

BackontopBy Travis Carlyle

In their latest release, The Front Bottoms have continued to develop toward more studio precise and audio-engineered sounds – leaving behind some of the noisier, folkier sounds key to their earlier albums.

Back on Top is catchier than any of the band’s prior releases. The story-telling nuances that characterize their sound are still strongly in play, but with the almost total absence (bar a few horns) of their earlier folk influences, the narrative The Front Bottoms composes here comes closer to emo than all of their prior work combined. “Cough It Out” is as close to their old sound as the band gets, but the song also stands out as a highlighter of the emo-esque indie-pop-rock direction their latest release has tended towards.

As with Foals’ latest release, variation seems to be The Front Bottoms’ 2015 casualty. However, where Foals seem to have gotten complacent in a sound they are comfortable making, The Front Bottoms sound more refined, more together and more complete as a band for it.

Variation is definitely still here (just not as much so as previously), as is brilliantly illustrated by the rap verse in “Historic Cemetery” (one of my favourite songs of 2015). “HELP” also has one of the best hooks I’ve heard for a good while and is undoubtedly the best song on the release.

Hardcore fans of the band may be upset by more radio-tuned frequency Back on Top taps into, but I genuinely feel this band has reaffirmed itself as one of my favourites to listen to. If you enjoyed Talon of the Hawk (2014), this addition to their discography will sit well with you for all the same reasons and more.

David Gilmour: Rattle That Lock

28 Dec

Note: This review is a “media blackout” first look at Gilmour’s solo work, hence it may well be an incomplete collection of obvious statements.

rattle that lock_smallA lot of guitarists are all about flair and flames and showing off their hottest tricks. Not David Gilmour. Despite being a guitarist of mythic proportions, Gilmour’s leadwork is all about sentiment and storytelling, which he rouses and relays through the emotive and intriguing melodies carried across in his signature tone.

While the cinematic, orchestral instrumentation and tender, mournful guitar solos permeating Rattle That Lock could well have been plucked from a Pink Floyd album (circa Dark Side of the Moon, however much I hate to make the typical reference), this is a much purer taste of what Gilmour brought to the band.

The long, plaintive, and beautifully-backdropped leadwork of opening track “5 A.M.” perfectly encapsulates this, as do the lone elegy that is “A Boat Lies Waiting”, the varied instrumental wilderness “Beauty”, and “And Then…”, an echo of “5 A.M.” which picks up pieces of its melody to symmetrically close the album.

Yet title track “Rattle That Lock” and other tracks such as “Faces of Stone” and “Dancing Right In Front of Me” present a jarringly different, squarely structured format that feels blunt when contrasted with the delicate instrumental progressions beginning, ending, and recurring throughout this album – however rallying and relevant the rattle that lock / loose those chains refrain is, much like The Wall (Pink Floyd, 1979) was (and continues to be).

While this variation in sound is impressive, to me it feels discordant rather than diverse.

Rattle That Lock makes for stirring and captivating music when tracks are hand-picked to my liking, and I am interested to see if other Gilmour fans feel the same.

Foals: What Went Down (…my expectations)

27 Dec

What_went_down_coverBy Travis Carlyle

Don’t expect anything ground-breaking or awe-inspiring from Foals’ latest release: you’ve heard it all before.

The band has charted a path down a road that they have carved out as their sound: a mixture of leather-jacket rock and roll with tracks filled with stadium-like energy (such as the album’s opening title track), and others that are toned down a tad to emanate smoke-filled bar mystique (such as closing track “A Knife In The Ocean”).

The huge, hell-bent tornado-esque songs that appear on debut album Antidotes (2008), are a fractured glimmer of a band Foals seem to not want to be anymore. It doesn’t feel like they’ve grown up, or grown out of this sound – just decided it’s not for them.

Another element of their past that they’ve seemingly tossed aside is their devotion to the ballad. “Spanish Sahara” (Total Life Forever [2010]) will remain one of the best songs humanity has ever had the pleasure of hearing, but Foals now seem unwilling to craft a song of its nature. Gone are the pain-staking buildups and intricate instrumentations of Total Life Forever, replaced now with the more anthemmy, radio-rock focused sound of their second-most recent release, Holy Fire (2013).

While the product you get in What Went Down is definitely more unified, it feels half-arsed in its capacity. Fans of the band know what Foals can craft and create, and it’s a lot more than this.

This is in no way helped by the fact that the two best tracks on the album, which are also the first two tracks on the disc, were the two tracks released as singles by the band… see the problem? Once “Mountain at My Gates” is done playing, I just don’t feel the urge to relisten to any other track on this release, and that’s a real shame for a band that once created such varied and complex work.

There are essentially four or five solid tracks on this album, and the rest just sound like clones of them. On their own, each track is decent, but as a collective, the album feels monotonous. Foals would have done well stripping down this selection to five songs and releasing these as an EP, rather than watering down strong new material with boring filler tracks.

If you want to dig into Foals the cynic in me would recommend listening to Holy Fire instead, as “Give It All” and “Albatross” are as good as this album will get beyond the singles you have undoubtedly already heard.

~

Michelle‘s comments: Trav hits the nail on the head here: Foals are refining their sound and carving out their niche to delicious effect, but this niche is getting frustratingly small. I still think there is some beautiful music on this album, but it’ll take quite a few listens through to differentiate between the tracks, as they all sound dully similar to the casual ear. We know from Foals’ earlier, much more varied albums that they definitely have more hidden up their hip leather sleeves than this.

Belle and Sebastian: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

19 Dec

With Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Belle and Sebastian take a pointed step towards having noticeable bass and drum layers, although sadly it is not a big one: the pair of black platform shoes this wispy, pastel-coloured band has put on is not quite enough to quell the sense that the music is floating away.

Opening track “Nobody’s Empire” exemplifies this perfectly: its driving bass drum beat is emotive, but simultaneously disappointing for how rousing it could be with just a slight shift in mixing (I’ve tried boosting the bass on my end, to little avail).

It’s a particular pity, because “Nobody’s Empire” is one of B&S’s rawest, realest songs to date. The lyrics relate Murdoch’s battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, couched in poignantly optimistic melody with rallying choral backing.

The album at large (not for the first time in B&S’s discography) makes some poetic and important statements about mental illness, for example in “Play for Today”:

She’s got a friend
An ugly monster that will eat your face
She hides a crime
A hefty catalog of wasted time
She’s got a friend
A lonely monster that will prey on you

Yet it is “Allie” that more potently encapsulates undercurrents in Belle and Sebastian that make me uneasy with this album as a whole:

When there’s bombs in the middle east, you want to hurt yourself
When there’s knives in the city streets, you want to end yourself
When there’s fun in your mother’s house, you want to cry yourself to sleep

This channeling of vague (or at least vaguely-communicated) awareness of others’ unknown hardships back into one’s own, more privileged, pain, is similarly reflected in the decision to feature visual references to armed conflict in the album’s cover art.

girls in peacetime want to dance

Frankly, I’m getting tired of white indie bands (from white-led countries, no less) appropriating experiences that are not their own to add edge to their self-expression or flair to a love song.

For these reasons I won’t stand behind Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance as one of this year’s great indie albums, even if it does have some captivating tracks.

Death Grips: The Powers That B

17 Dec

The Powers That BBy Travis Carlyle 

Following Death Grips often feels like coming across parody news articles without realising what you are reading. One week it’s “new album coming soon”, next it’s “all live shows cancelled”; the following week it’s “hitting the road with Nine Inch Nails”, then it’s “we’ve disbanded”… you’re basically just confused as to what is real and what is them fucking with you on a level you’re not entirely aware of yet.

So it seemed most of the way through 2014 – a year in which I had convinced myself that Death Grips had faded into the abyss of lost cool bands… and then disc one off of their latest release, The Powers That B (2015) happened. The release forms part of a double-disc album and features Icelandic singer-songwriter, Björk, on all the first disc’s eight tracks.

While I am not overly familiar with Björk’s discography, I have dabbled in three of her nine releases and can safely say you would likely not even know that she was featured on the album’s first disc had you not read the Wikipedia article for Death Grips’ release.

Her voice forms part of a mashed quagmire of typical Death Grips sampling and over-production – as to how much of a hand she played in producing the album itself, I can only speculate. My initial feelings would be quite heavily, though, as experimentation across the eight tracks is high – even for Death Grips (which is saying something as these fellas are practically the Radiohead of Hipster Hop).

That said, it’s a step too far and I don’t feel myself slipping into disc one and the hazy atmosphere its electronic bed and primitive, raw drum line is built on. This is definitely a new direction for Death Grips, one the refinement time brings can easily cure.

Disc two of The Powers That B is stylistically more in tune with the rest of Death Grips’ discography. Experimentation is toned back to The Money Store (2012) levels and feels a lot more rounded as a project. The first songs on the disc feel like a Punk-Rock release, with meta-sampling from as far back as their own debut release (Exmilitary [2011]) and a much stronger emphasis on not over-producing their work. Samples flow from one to the next and are not manically conjoined into a rambunctious mess of overlapping and discordant sounds – which is incidentally all that disc one can truly be remembered as.

“Inanimate Sensations” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years and “Turned Off” is just… beautiful – if anything, this is the type of song I would have expected Death Grips to create with Björk.

As a product, disc two just fits together in a manner the album’s opening disc seems incapable of attaining. There’s a flow and return to earlier sound structures that is both interesting and calming (in the same way as eating ice-cream you haven’t had since you were eight, and it tasting the same, is reassuring).

It’s hard to treat The Powers That B as a single release as it is clearly just two separate discs thrown together – a disjuncture that isn’t helped by the fact that one half is so much better than the other. While disc one is an experimental phase you don’t need to pay much attention to, disc two is Exmilitary amounts of brilliance (a level I thought the band would never get close to attaining again).

Beirut: No No No

15 Dec

“Despite their name, Beirut had never performed in Lebanon until they appeared at the Byblos International Festival in August 2014.”

No No NoTo the unaccustomed reader, US band Beirut can be stunningly encapsulated in this quote from its Wikipedia page. Essentially the Indie Kings of Cultural Appropriation, the band has devoted nearly a decade of its collective instrumental and compositional talent to the pursuit of othering and objectifying marginalised cultures in the name of Western wanderlust.

Beirut’s “unique” sound is derived from “world” (mostly Eastern European) influences, which it repurposes in the construction of nostalgic ballads about love, longing, and the bored void left by white Western privilege and entitlement that only archaic and dehumanising caricatures of other people’s lives and cultures can fill.

To Beirut, names of places they have (often) never visited are merely catchy titles for songs (viz Track 1, “Gibraltar”), and nothing adds edge to an album title like a romanticised reference to distant conflict and suffering (viz 2006 debut album, Gulag Orkestar).

“One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it’s seen a lot of conflict. It’s not a political position. I worried about that from the beginning. But it was such a catchy name,” said frontman Zach Condon in a 2006 interview with New York magazine. “I mean, if things go down that are truly horrible, I’ll change it. But not now. It’s still a good analogy for my music. I haven’t been to Beirut, but I imagine it as this chic urban city surrounded by the ancient Muslim world. The place where things collide.”

All signs indicate that nearly ten years later, the band continues to be as ill-informed about the city whose “chic”-sounding name they appropriated as most of its fan base, who probably think it’s just a droll word the group made up, like Coldplay did with Mylo Xyloto.

Moving on to the guise of a music review I used to lure you onto this web page, No No No seems to be the band’s first vague attempt at presenting a distinctive sound rather than an insensitive Halloween costume. Upbeat “Perth” offers a fun synth riff (no cartoonish othering for Australia, obvs), and “So Allowed” also offers a pleasing peek into what Condon and Co sound like underneath their layers of appropriation (their band name being one).

My favorite track is “As Needed”, but this is mainly because this charming combination of acoustic guitar, strings and piano disguises itself as a lost Beatles track (although come to think of it, the Beatles did their fair share of cultural appropriation).

TL;DR, I try to become a little more woke every day, and it’s been 1 466 days since I reviewed Beirut’s last release. Is their discography still the soundtrack to my heartache? Sadly, yes – but this is now something I am critically interrogating, rather than boasting about on overpriced dance floors.

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