Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bad Lieutenant (or what Bernard Sumner has been up to lately)

We all know that NEW ORDER are perhaps one of the best bands to come out of the collective Manchester area and are certainly to be credited with the fusion of dance and rock music. About a year ago I chronicled the various off shoots and one off projects that band has been engaged in when they are not recording as a groups (to date: they include ELECTRONIC, REVENGE, MONACO, THE OTHER TWO, Peter Hook's upcoming FREEBASS as well as stints with A CERTAIN RATIO, THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS and 808 STATE). However, when Peter Hook announced he was opting out of the band, lead singer and guitarist Bernard Sumner had a choice to make. He could continue to use the name and record new music with the remainder of the band (which now consisted of Sumner and a bunch of random guys since Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert had already left years ago) or he could pick up a new moniker for his music.

This is often a difficult choice for a band. Their is a certain built in ease with staying with the original name (that and a fan recognition that is usually good for some airplay) but if the music is not up to the standard set by the band's earlier work it will be a disaster. Starting up a new band has a sense of renewal to it, but it carries with it the burden of comparison to the singer's original incarnation. There is no doubt that Sumner's work would be recognizable regardless of what it was called so moving forward with the new name of BAD LIEUTENANT was probably best. But this ain't New Order that's for sure.

One can see that if this was the direction the recordings were going why Hook left. The bass lines are pedestrian and the songs are blatant attempts at pop rather than the electronic fused dance hall music of past albums. While some of the songs, most notably "Sink or Swim", "Twist of Fate" and "Dynamo" have a New Order circa "Regret" vibe, the rest of the record plays as a straight forward alternative rock record. When the bass takes the lead, such as "This Is Home" my ear wanted so badly to hear Hook's signature sound instead of the safe and boring sound presented here. One wonders what the songs would have morphed into even in the ELECTRONIC collaboration Sumner had with Johnny Marr which was at least sonically interesting. Sumner clearly has a gift for popcraft and hits on a few nice guitar lines but it could have been so much more. Maybe given time, Sumner will find a sound that is distinct from his work with New Order or Electronic. Although the record is a fine album and is very listenable, I have come to expect more.

Monday, January 25, 2010

When James Met Danger (DMCA Compliant version)

**I posted this about two weeks ago. The same day I posted it I got a cease and desist from WEB SHERIFF about the songs I chose to post. The same day I took the links down but felt strongly enough about the record to keep the review. Then today I got a DMCA notice that my post was removed to DRAFT status due to publishing song issues, which is confusing since there were no links to any songs at the time. This wouldn't normally bother me except for the hypocrisy for getting this sort of notice about a record produced by DANGERMOUSE who owed most of his fame to an illegal mashup of THE BEATLES and JAY-Z. My how people change when they get famous...
Sometimes a record is more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes something that seems so odd at first, seems so natural after repeated listens. Such is the case with BROKEN BELLS. This is a collaboration between James Mercer, Lead singer of THE SHINS, and uber-producer DANGERMOUSE. On the surface this seems a bit of an odd pairing, but dig deeper and it makes sense. Dangermouse has made a career our of odd musical co habitations (Beck's last record, His recent work with Sparklehorse and David Lynch, his successful pairing with Cee-Lo that was Gnarls Barkley, His work producing The Gorillaz) and Mercer had been slowly reshaping The Shins sound into a more experimental territory. Dismissing for a moment the claims they make that this is in fact a real band, the sound is a surprisingly organic mix of the two styles.

Some of the songs seem like Shins outtakes. "Vaporize" and "Trap Doors" sound like vintage Shins slightly mopey pop music. But elsewhere the combination of Mercer's popcraft and Dangermouse's electronic touches led to some truly interesting results. The lead single, "The High Road", has a funky beat and a clap your hands rhythm to it that makes the song shuffle along like a winding country road. "The Ghost Inside" finds Mercer in full falsetto aping Prince to a psuedo RnB swing. "The Mall and Misery" is a beeps and blasts electronic mash of a finale that I swear sounds like The Arcade Fire as filtered through a processor. It's truly an outlandish sound to hear.

I'm not sure how much shelf life the record will have. I was enamored with Beck and Sparklehorse's work with Dangermouse before only to abandon them over time. But I hope this keeps my attention as much as it grabbed me in the first place.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Critics will go Nuts for The Album Leaf

This one has critical darling written all over it. THE ALBUM LEAF are set to release their 5th formal album later this year entitled "A Chorus of Storytellers" and it is a thing of sonic beauty. There are the obvious comparisons to be made to the equally sonically adventurous acts like SIGUR ROS, EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY, and MOGWAI; all of whom fly in the space where songs have no real choruses or often are devoid of vocals entirely. The Album Leaf's album is not as abstract as some of those others. The songs are warmer and have an intimacy that comes with a single minded vision. James LaValle, principal architect of the band, has flirted with this type of sonic majesty before but not until now has he finally stepped into his own. The best comparison I can make is when WILCO released "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel". There was just no way to anticipate this sort of artistic leap.

"A Chorus of Storytellers" is a collection that builds slowly. On first listen it is not unexpected to be a bit underwhelmed. The slight sonic hum of "Perro" folds into the cascading instrumentation of "Blank Pages". The centerpiece of the record, and the de facto single since it is the rare vocal track, is the sublime "Falling From The Sun". When LaValle does add vocals, whether here or the equally mesmerizing "There Is A Wind" the band reminds me of vintage THE BETA BAND. Whether it is the distant pops and beeps (a la Radiohead) on "Within Dreams" or drum and piano driven "Stand Still, LaValle has tapped into a whole new musical palette with which to express his ideas.

It's easy to get lost in hyperbole when first listening to a record. Time tends to dull our senses to a sound and we move onto something else. That would be folly when concerning this record. It's a record that needs your time and attention to truly appreciate. I am not sure I have absorbed it enough to give it it's full due. On my fourth full listen through I still find new ways to enjoy it and new moods hidden within the subtle chord changes and synth lines. It's rare that a record can sound both big and small at the same time. This is that sort of record. Quite simply, it is a gorgeous piece of music worth your ears.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Introducing...Christopher Bell Covers America

I am late to the Christopher Bell party in large part due to my own laziness. His label sent me a copy of the "Covers EP" back in October and I am just now getting around to it. For someone who thinks of himself as a music snob this is frankly unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated. After a couple of spins, I can honestly say that he has real potential.

Bell's sound is in line with ELLIOT SMITH, BON IVER, and SUFJAN STEVENS. Like those other artists, Bell uses very little instrumentation and often sings in a hushed tone that belies the power of his ability. Given that these songs are covers he is essentially interpreting another's words and music but it doesn't feel that way. These songs sound like his own (this may be due to the relative obscurity of the source material). There's a streak of Americana Folk that runs throughout the set that binds it together, whether it is the plaintive "Robert L. Sinclaire" or the Odd Frank Black cover "All My Ghosts" redone as an ole timey porch sing along.

Bell's music has the same feel of a Norah Jones in many ways; of this time and yet very much influenced by another. His sound is carefully crafted to recall a long lost age of simple singing and songs that had room to breath and improvisation to occur. One gets the idea that played live, his music never is the same twice. Which is why I think he is someone worth keeping an eye on.

(mp3) Christopher Bell -- All My Ghosts

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Introducing...Paper The Operator

This is the kind of record I would have played a lot when I had a college radio show. Poppy enough to be memorable; odd enough to be interesting after a couple of listens. In a weird way it reminds me of a band I used to enjoy quite a bit called TRIPMASTER MONKEY, which I played the hell out of in college then forgot about. PAPER THE OPERATOR has released a new album entitled "Goodbye God" which is basically singer/guitarist Jon Sebastian's thoughts about religion, divorce and relationships told over pop hooks and catchy guitar licks. The single, entitled "The Pendulum" is a groove heavy minute plus track that really isn't indicative of the rest of the album but still has a nice bite to it. In fact, with most of the songs clocking in at under three minutes, the entire exercise flies by you before you can really digest it. Personally, I found "Laundrolux" simple guitar line the catchiest thing on the record. Somehow I think this record will stick in my play lists for a bit. It's certainly worth spending time with to decide for yourself.

(mp3) Paper The Operator -- The Pendulum (official release from Vapor Bite Records)

Monday, January 04, 2010

New Vampire Weekend

These guys constantly seem to surprise me. I was shocked at how much I ended up liking their self titled debut album which got it's quirky sound from infusing African rhythms with pop song structure. "A-Punk" is an irresistible slice of fun and I dare anyone to get "Oxford Comma" out of your head once it's there. Then I fell in love with "Ottoman" off the highly enjoyable "Nick and Norah's Infinate Playlist" Soundtrack. So I was intrigued by their newest effort and jumped at the chance to listen to it when given the opportunity.

"Contra" is a variation on those same musical themes and yet has a new depth and refinement all it's own. The songs want to be playful and in many ways lead singer Ezra Koenig sounds an awful lot like Paul Simon. "Horchata", the lead leaked song could have been taken straight off the last record. "Cousins", the official first single, is a rapid fire guitar attack worthy of Dick Dale and retells the tale of what appears to be a gang war on the verge of breaking out. The whole record whips by at a swinging pace and never really changes the beat until the end with the reggae style "Diplomat's Son" and the string anchored "I Think UR a Contra". The addition of atmospheric keyboards assists the record in giving it enough new flavor for it to be different from the last record. But the best song on the record (and my pick for the one that will be the "hit" off the record) is "Giving Up The Gun" which could have been made THE POLICE in their heyday. It's a sharp piece of pop music and a great driving in the car song. This is a very good record with potential to be something that sets the band up for a real breakthrough as a band to watch very closely.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Introducing...Benjamin Shaw

This is the first in a collection of posts responding to material sent to me via publicists, record labels, etc. The reason I give these space (whether I like them or not) is because I used to be one of these guys and I understand how frustrating the process of promoting bands can be. Having said that, don't expect me to slurp all of these records just to stay in their good graces but it is my intention to post the material that I like or find interesting (which keeps with the intent of this little blog here.)

Anyway, Benjamin Shaw is a singer songwriter from England who specializes in bedroom folk similar to SPARKLEHORSE and VIC CHESTNUTT. There are enough atmospheric touches here and there on his debut ep"I Got The Pox, The Pox Is What I Got" to make it more interesting than the run of the mill street musician. "When I Fall Over In The City" has a nice country shuffle to it and he sings "There's a fine line between talented and me..."; thereby showing he has something of a sense of humor. The songs feel very small and isolated, as if produced in a small bedroom of a small apartment somewhere in Northern England. My only quibble is that the ep lacks for any real variation. But it certainly shows someone with potential.

(mp3) Benjamin Shaw -- When I Fall Over In The City