Monday, May 28, 2007

#5: Mice Parade>Mice Parade>Short and sweet

Artist : Mice Parade
Album : Mice Parade (7th Domestic LP)
Release : 05.08.07
Year Founded : 1998
Label Name : Fatcat Records
Catalog # : 63
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Dylan Cristy, Jay Israelson, Brendan Knights, Josh Larue, Dan Lippel, Adam Pierce, Doug Scharin, Kristin Anna Valtysdottir
Runtime : 35:28
Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Spring, Autumn
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Sneaky Red, Tales of Las Negras, The Last Ten Homes, Satchelaise, The Nights After Fiction
Sounds Like : F.S. Blumm Sweite Meer
Rating : A-

Mice Parade's newest album is nothing new. But that's okay, because they do everything right.

Adam Pierce, the main mastermind of the group (he has a history in several groups including the Swirlies, Him and Múm; while Scharin has been in Him and June of 44; and Cristy spearheaded The Dylan Group), seems to realize that this is the case. Why else would he have decided to make this, his 7th release, the self-titled album? It's because there is something defining about a self-titled album. It is the litmus test by which by which future albums will be compared. He knows that he and his ensemble have now finally found their place in themselves, and have carved out a cozy niche that no one else can so masterfully occupy.

I would argue that this moment came two albums ago with Obrigado Saudade. In fact, the last three albums (the middle one being Bem-Vinda Vontade) play to me like a trilogy. There is growth and differences across the albums, but that is what should happen, and there is a strong common thread that clearly unites them.

Their formula (and I say that only in the most positive way) has been layers of strum-heavy vinyl-string acoustic guitar, interjections of fuzzy electric guitar, calm but affected vocals, and rhythmic-to-the-extreme drumming, all enveloped by rich, sun-drenched arrangements. With vibes and zither and other exotic instruments, this is as close to world music as post-rock could get. The lyrics, typically, are heart-felt and personal without giving too much away. Their imagery and language evoke enough sentiment to make you care, but not so much that it becomes a sappy confessional (a practice which has become a plague in popular music).

The second track, "Tales of Las Negras" (possibly the album's most worthy single), features drumming to make DJ Shadow envious and special guest vocals by Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier (incorrectly credited to track 3 in the liner notes). I have to say that I prefer her vocals over Kristin Anna Valtysdottir's (also from Múm). I am more comfortable with them. Valtysdottir, appearing prominently on this release only on "Double Dolphins on the Nickel," sounds like a whispering 6-year-old and though in most instances it doesn't detract from the feeling of the song, it also doesn't add anything that couldn't be gotten from someone else slightly more forceful.

Given the strength of the perfomances, I can hardly fault Pierce for making his self-titled album so short. Surely it wasn't for lack of material. But the caliber of Mice Parade releases being what they are, I won't mind waiting patiently for the next one to appear.

Monday, May 21, 2007

#4: Battles>Mirrored>There can be uniqueness in music

Artist : Battles
Album : Mirrored (1st Domestic LP)
Release : 05.22.07
Year Founded : 2004
Label Name : Warp Records
Catalog # : 156
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Double-Pocket Sleeve
Members : Tyondai Braxton, Dave Konopka, John Stanier, Ian Williams
Runtime : 51:52
Area Tour Dates : 07.18.07 Paradise, Boston
Sound Season : Summer, Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Atlas, Ddiamondd, Tonto, Leyendecker, Snare Hangar
Sounds Like : Crime in Choir Crime in Choir
Rating : A

Whenever one of my favorite instrumental bands tries to add vocals, I get worried. It often does not work out well. Nor should it. Any band that has as much going on as Battles do in their songs in terms of layering, virtuosity (without solos, mind you), and composition should refrain from even trying to throw vocals into the mix because the only way it can work out — the only way it can be good — is if you make damn sure the focus of the vocals is the sound that they make and not the words.

This is what Battles does. They have figured it out. Braxton's mostly unintelligible, chipmunkish vocals are the only way to take proggy, experimental math rock and make it catchy, not only for the veteran dorks, but for anyone.

It's so catchy, in fact, that I almost don't have to listen to Mirrored anymore. A good portion of it is playing on infinite loop in my brain. I believe that "Atlas" may be some kind of hypnotic mind melding catalyst, which is meant to incite the Battles minions. A call to arms in code (oddly enough, there's several elements in this song that you could very quickly pick out of any number of Primus songs. But don't try to take take that comparison too far, because it should and does end right there).

"Atlas" is quickly followed by "Ddiamondd." This is my favorite track for its maniacal pace and mechanical precision. Here you are afforded a chance to pick out some real words out of the vocals except that the first verse is over before you've figured out the first line. Brilliant. And the sexy, thumpy allure of "Leyendecker," which features what seems to be Braxton's take on Mariah Carey, pounds so consistently that I dare say it could even make indie hipster kids dance (as long as it doesn't mess their hair).

Battles excel at looping and layering and just building a song brick by brick until they've built a skyscraper around you and people come from all around to get a look at it because its an architectural anomaly and then the band busts out a wrecking ball and demolishes the monolith and you're left under the rubble all like, "holy crap, do it again!" And then they do.

The album falters just a bit on "Rainbow," languishing in an attempt to put too many disparate movements into one song, and "Bad Trails," which is just too sparse. I can see that maybe they wanted to throw in a palette cleanser, something to give you a break from the awesomeness, but it wasn't necessary. More insanity would have been perfectly acceptable.

Battles are exceptional players from exceptional backgrounds (Helmet, Lynx, Don Caballero) and they have created in Mirrored one of the most exceptional albums in recent memory. It has completely convinced me that they can accomplish just about anything that they put their minds to.

#3: The Bad Plus>Prog>Not so full of sound and fury

Artist : The Bad Plus
Album : Prog (4th Domestic LP)
Release : 05.08.07
Year Founded: 2003
Label Name : Heads Up International
Catalog # : 3125
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Jewel Case
Members : Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson, David King
Runtime : 1:04:46

Area Tour Dates : None at time of publication
Sound Season : Winter
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Tom Sawyer, 1980 World Champion
Sounds Like : Medeski Martin & Wood Friday Afternoon in the Universe
Rating : B-

I'm not at all sure what The Bad Plus were going for when they decided to call their new album Prog. "Prog" has a lot of connotation and means many things to many people, but the closest the band comes to that genre of music is their cover of Rush's "Tom Sawyer." The most accurate name they could have given the album is "Tame."

Known for their raucous original compositions and deconstructionist renditions of well-known tunes that other jazz trios would never touch like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Prog is really missing the impact that the band usually is able to infuse into a genre typically rife with soft, unchallenging elevator-ready schlock.

The really great thing about this band has always been that they were heavy. Their dynamic range was giant — that is to say, they would go from really soft passages to absolute eruptions of discordancy, rhythm, and power. But what the listener ends up with this time around is a very "normal" jazz record that contains elements that would be familiar to those acquainted with past records, such as Give, but little of the furor.

The band-penned songs are either slow to develop or spend too long on a particular phrasing. "Physical Cities," for instance, contains a minute and a half passage of syncopated stabbing in unison, which is as obnoxious as it is impressive (I can imagine this song being incredible live, but it stumbles as an album track).

The remaining covers on the album (Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," David Bowie's "Life on Mars," and Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's in Love with You") don't even come near to toeing the prog line in their original form and The Bad Plus' interpretations of the songs end up being very nearly straight-ahead covers, with some meandering solos or protracted introductions thrown in to shake things up slightly.

The Bad Plus are without doubt one of the best contemporary jazz outfits playing today, but Prog just didn't excite me the way I hoped it would.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

#2: Paul Duncan>Above the Trees>Gorgeousity isn't a word, right?

Artist : Paul Duncan
Album : Above the Trees (3rd Domestic LP)
Release : 05.01.07
Year Founded: 2001
Label Name : Hometapes
Catalog # : 017
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Chris Bear. Josh Berman, Ken Champion, Tim Daisy, David Daniell, Adam Heathcott, Fred Lonberg-Holm, NathanLepine, Doug McCombs, Joe Stickney, Jess Stover, Nate Swanson, Adam Wills
Runtime :41:30
Area Tour Dates : None
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Red Eagle, The Fire, The Lake Pt. 2, Country Witch, High In the Morning
Sounds Like : Andrew Bird Weather Systems
Rating : A

As the album art for this record indicates, there is a bucolic serenity to Above the Trees that immediaely captures and captivates. Which would make Paul Duncan a breath of fresh air so to speak.

His plaintive vocals are equally familiar and mysterious right at the outset. The pedal steel yawns. Snare drums flit across the landscape of the song like a butterfly through the tall grasses. Duncan's voice is a campfire smoldering in the morning light. And the lyrics, well — consider this from "The Lake Pt. 2:"

Down by the lake--the thunder booms and clouds cascade
Grass overflows--the water rises through your toes
You fit this place--the way you breathe--your hair--your face
You are a ghost--standing still in opaque clothes

Like all great art, the record and all of its elements are kept in a delicate balance between darkness and light. Spoiler warning: light wins out on this one. There's just too much love and warmth pulsing through Above the Trees' beautiful veins for it not to.

I have no idea who Paul Duncan is. I've never heard his other albums, I've never seen his name in anyone's liner notes. And yet, some may recognize the album's major players from other distinguished acts such as Jim O'Rourke (Champion, Lonberg-Holm) and Tortoise (McCombs). Frankly, with friends like these, who needs notoriety?

Although, if Paul Duncan isn't a next big thing in indie-folk, I'll eat a Devandra Banhart record (it'd be better than listening to one).

Again drawing conclusions from the album art, one gets the sense that in listening to Above the Trees he is witnessing something stunning and memorable because of (or in spite of) its fleeting nature. Like even a quick glimpse into the world which we have by our own accord distanced ourselves from is something to be cherished — and truly a bittersweet moment worthy of chasing again and again.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

#1: The Sea and Cake>Everybody>An upturn on the downslope?

Artist : The Sea and Cake
Album : Everybody (7th Domestic LP)
Release : 05.08.07
Year Founded: 1994
Label Name : Thrill Jockey
Catalog # : 186
Packaging Type : Single-Disc Digipak
Members : Eric Claridge, John McEntire, Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt
Runtime : 36:32
Area Tour Dates : 06.05.07 @ Paradise, Boston
Sound Season : Summer
iTunes Worthy Tracks : Crossing Line, Exact to Me, Left On
Sounds Like : Sam Prekop Who's Your New Professor
Rating : B

If ever The Sea and Cake put out an "it'll-grow-on-you" album, this is it.

As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t know that I ever won’t be disappointed by their future albums. My expectations are too high and they've grown too mature and sophisticated (but not too sophisticated). They have developed a knack for smooth and balmy indie soft rock, which — in its own right (if there is such a thing) — is enjoyable and well presented and crafted with all capability.

But, honestly, with every new release, I'm always hoping for a return to form à la Nassau, when everything was brash and raw and really propelled. For instance, I remember listening to Nassau for the first time and being like, "Geez, what the hell is this guy doing yelling like this," and now it has just become a signature style of the band — another part of their sound palette that just kind of gets placed into the song instead of casually tossed in when the energy of the song dictates. Additionally, except for a few choice moments, John McEntire's drumming on this record is really toned down despite not being behind the boards as he usually has been. Eric Claridge's bass isn't so heavily depended upon as it once was either, which is a real let down when you consider the genius of his performances on The Fawn.

Let's just say that albums pre The Fawn made me want to get up early, take a brisk walk and maybe not come back. Albums post The Fawn make me want to lay back in a hammock and watch the birds. You get the point.

All I really want is the true rock record that I know this band can deliver.

Don't get me wrong, there's some really great moments on this record, but they're easy to miss and quick to fade. Regardless, Everybody is the strongest of their last three albums, but only marginally more rocking than Oui and One Bedroom, contrary to what Thrill Jockey would have you think. And, yes, "Exact to Me" and "Crossing Line" are two of the coolest and groove-laden songs they’ve written over that same span, but they aren’t the triumphant return that I’ve been crossing my fingers for.

The Sea and Cake is a band that relies on nuance and subtlety and I wouldn't ever expect them to do anything too heavy-handed. And I'm completely aware it is unfair to fault a band for making a good record just because I long for a version of the band that I fell in love with more than 10 years ago. But until the time that they abandon some of their grown-up restraint, they're being too easy on themselves and their audience.