Archive by Author

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

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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.

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.

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.

Beach House: Thank Your Lucky Stars

4 Dec

Thank Your Lucky StarsIn their second album of the year – an impressive feat in itself – Beach House takes a pointed step in the electronically stripped-down direction it dithered in earlier this year with Depression Cherry.

Thank Your Lucky Stars is stippled with grungy lead guitar, raw vocals and tracks featuring comparatively minimal instrumental use for a band so known for its echoes and layers.

In songs like “She’s So Lovely”, “All Your Yeahs”, and “Common Girl”, Beach House coyly reveals a previously-obscured talent for simple, captivating and thought-provoking songs, their bare presentation rendering Victoria Legrand’s high, whispery voice more striking than before.

While the single finder on Beach House’s website (you feed it three of your favourite Beach House songs; it recommends a track for you off Thank Your Lucky Stars) is a charming slice of computer magic, it reads me wrong with its suggestion of “She’s So Lovely”, no matter how captivating this song’s contagious melancholy.

My favourite track off this album, hands down, is “One Thing”. This 90s-nostalgic, sentimental grunge track is eerily and astoundingly reminiscent of early Radiohead in its chord progression and vocal melody, complete with distorted power chords.

With this release, combined with Depression Cherry, Beach House has rapidly climbed from a band I liked but didn’t think about very often, to a band I will probably pepper my “it’s okay, not many people have heard of them” conversations with whenever I make poor attempts at socializing.

Thank you, Beach House – with these nine tracks, at least one sad person feels slightly more understood.

Beach House: Depression Cherry

3 Dec

Beach HouseDepression Cherry‘s first studio album since Bloom feels rawer and more edgy than the 2012 release.

Depression Cherry features some remarkable instrumental scenes: the swelling buildup that is “Levitation”, the starting track gently and poignantly tugging you by the heart-strings into the album’s understated poignance; the gritty lead guitar singing bittersweetly over the echoey vocal layers in “Sparks”.

The vocals – particularly Victoria Legrand’s – seem to have been brought forward from their instrumental environs: as a result, Depression Cherry feels more intimate than the musicbox of echoes that was Bloom.

Apparently moving into darker emotional territory, the US duo’s fifth studio album presents a plaintive collection of melodies which make Bloom‘s seem almost glib and repetitive by comparison.

In places – “10:37”; “PPP” – the album feels like a collection of old-school love ballads clothed in new-age synth work.

All in all, Beach House’s Depression Cherry is a subtle but sharp tug out of dream pop’s hazy torpor, and has piqued my interest in a band I had until now relegated to background music.

It’s December again.

1 Dec

Oh cute: did you, precious fictional reader who actually pays attention to this blog, think I’d outgrown it by now?

Hah. Nope. #Sorrynotsorry, I’m still pretentious enough to think acknowledging my own pretentiousness somehow mitigates this characteristic.

For those of you just joining me: every year since 2011 I’ve written one music review of an indie(ish) album that has come out that year for (just about) each day in December.

As a creature of laziness rather than habit, who enjoys overanalyzing the known rather than acknowledging the unknown, this has become my only trusted way of discovering new music, and a reassuringly joyful ritual.

And so I’m continuing the tradition this year, this time in collaboration with my other half, himself briefly a music review podcaster at some point, and essentially a more heterosexual and less misanthropic version of myself.

Shell+Trav

[90s house party, Grahamstown, 2013]

I’ll post a review on odd-numbered days, and Travis Carlyle over here will take the even-numbers.

Enjoy, losers.