Darrens Musical Radar (Part 2 - 2014)
I admit I haven’t been keeping up with writing full length reviews of everything that has come out these past few months, so here is the second quarterly installment of my musical radar, where I discuss essentially every album I have heard since April 1. Much like the first installment of this series, I’m focusing more on general commentary than assigning ratings. I’ll hopefully keep this up for the next quarter of the year (July – September) and might actually write some more full reviews! Also as a note, don’t be surprised if I include albums released during this quarter but not on this list in future features, since holy crap was June overwhelming in terms of album releases.
Small Black – Real People: I will fully admit that I downloaded this EP because Small Black are oftentimes described as ‘chillwave.’ I’ll admit that I’m still not sure what that term really means, aside from that it’s used for electronic musicians that love them some sampling and looping. This EP combines those qualifiers, and mixes them with a dash of dance beats and some 80s-sounding synth melodies to make it livelier than anything you’d expect from the nebulous genre. However, only the first track “Real People” grabbed and held my attention, with the others kind of blending together. It’s a good but not great EP, although I may be just saying that because I expected Small Black to sound like Toro Y Moi, Washed Out, or Neon Indian. Real People was released April 1, 2014.
The Antlers - Familiars: If you haven’t heard of this band before, just know that they’re known for making sad music. Like, really sad. Their renowned album Hospice tells the story of a nurse being in love with a terminally ill patient and their 2011 album Burst Apart starts with “I Don’t Want Love” and ends with “Putting The Dog To Sleep.” Fortunately, Familiars isn’t as bleak, and focuses more on themes of memory and confronting your past self instead of death and…death. The instrumentation seems to be a progression of their 2012 EP Undersea, where horns were sporadically added to give tracks a bit of a jazz sound and some flare. Unfortunately, an album of mopey beats and horns that play only a few different notes on each track can get a little monotonous, and the tracks are mainly carried by frontman Peter Silberman’s expressive and dramatic voice. Granted, there are some standout moments (“Doppelganger” and “Intruders” are personal favorites), but it’s not as dynamic or memorable as the other releases. It also is less likely to leave you weeping in a ball on a floor though, so maybe that’s a fair trade.Familiars was released June 17, 2014.
Band of Skulls – Himalayan: Band of Skulls occupy that awkward space between The Black Keys, The Kills, The White Stripes, and Queens of the Stone Age, and their brand of blues-tinged choppy garage rock has the unfortunate circumstance of being compared to at least one of these bands in every review. However, they don’t really push back too hard against it, since they can be fairly generic sounding and it’s hard to imagine them putting out anything too edgy. Essentially Himalayan shows the band wanting to rock hard on half the tracks but also wanting to show their mellower and more sincere side on the other half. The former contains some noteworthy tracks such as “Asleep at the Wheel” and “I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying,” but as a whole it’s an innocuous collection of songs that don’t really break any ground. Himalayan was released April 1, 2014.
The Black Keys – Turn Blue: The Black Keys are one of those indie bands that totally exploded. They exploded to the point that The Arctic Monkeys opened for them on a stadium tour. They mostly have the 2010 – 2011 albums Brothers and El Camino to thank for this fame, although they had been building a following for 12 years and have arguably changed quite a bit since then. When they started with The Big Come Up and Thickfreakness, they sounded so bluesy I was surprised some lanky white men made it. They introduced more garage rock into the mix later in the 2000s, and when Brothers came out in 2010 they had a much more ‘polished’ sound. While I enjoyed this album quite a bit, I never got into the fairly similar El Camino (I might be alone here), and hoped for an ultra-bluesy return. However, Turn Blue mostly recalls their 2008 psychedelic-influenced Attack & Release. They’ve added a synthesizer to a few tracks, the songs are more drawn out, and Dan Auerbach sounds altogether mellower. It really works on some songs like “Weight of Love,” “In Time,” and “Bullet in the Brain,” but I just can’t get into the organ-driven single “Fever” or the vaguely R&B sounding “10 Lovers.” There’s also a song that sounds like Kid Rock at the end, make of that what you will. I honestly like the album more than El Camino, but the few bursts of blues on it didn’t quite sate me and the revamped psychedlia turned out to be a real mixed bag. Turn Blue was released May 12, 2014.
Chromeo – White Women: As much as I enjoy Chromeo, I feel like I see them through rose-colored glasses at times. The band has a goofy yet cool image, their style of 80s electro-funk is honestly pretty unique these days, and they’ve made some songs that are absolutely amazing, particularly their singles. At the same time, they’re a bit of a one-trick pony and the non-single tracks are mostly forgettable. White Women continues this trend, as I fell in love with the single “Come Alive (Featuring Toro Y Moi)” at first listen. I then played the album a few times though and realized all my favorite tracks were singles. Now I’m having trouble remembering the non-single tracks that comprise the entire second half of the album, and the ones I do remember I never grew to enjoy. There’s even a brief song featuring Ezra Koeing in this half (“Ezra’s Interlude”), but it somehow manages to just be awkward instead of having the Midas touch you’d expect. All this criticism aside though, the singles really are fantastic and I think “Come Alive” is easily one of my top songs this year. White Women was released May 12, 2014.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Only Run: When Clap Your Hands Say Yeah started, they were a band with an unconventional name with an unconventional-sounding singer playing unconventional pop-infused indie rock. After Hysterical they became a band with an unconventional name with an unconventional-sounding singer playing fairly generic indie rock. Now with Only Run they are a band with an unconventional name with an unconventional-sounding singer playing electronic-tinged but still somewhat generic indie rock. I didn’t hate it, but then again I’m a sucker for the electronic direction seemingly every indie band has ventured into. Only Run was released June 3, 2014.
Coldplay – Ghost Stories: Yes, Coldplay are still making music and yes, I still listen to them. Shred my indie cred card now if you’d like, but I will never apologize for loving “Viva La Vida.” Now, I’ve seen Coldplay twice, and both times were in a large stadium, as you’d expect for a band this famous. I can’t really imagine the songs from Ghost Stories working in a stadium. The stereotype of Coldplay is that they’re boring and most of the songs on this album are, well, a lot less lively than anything they’ve done before. I get that it’s supposed to be somber and about heartbreak, but…it’s Gweyth Paltrow induced heartbreak. There are a few moments I enjoy, like the Bon Iver carbon copy “Midnight” and the Avicii produced dance-crossover “Sky Full of Stars,” but the rest of the album make me realize I’m too young to listen to adult contemporary.Ghost Stories was released May 16, 2014.
Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain: I’ll try not to be biased about this even though I refer to Conor as “St Oberst” and have more or less every Bright Eyes song recorded. Essentially, Oberst has used the albums released under his own name (along with the Mystic Valley Band) to show that he can make serious, grown-up, folk music free of angst. Upside Down Mountain really drives this in, with most of its content about contemplating life, wanting to get away, and thinking back to the good times. I’m sure I could go on and list all the famous singer-songwriters that influenced the album, but I’ll just sum them up as “musicians white people over 50 like.” That’s not to say that it’s boring, since songs with a bit of country swagger to them like “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” “Enola Gay,” and “Kick” grew to be favorites. I couldn’t get as into the ballads though. All in all, it’s a solid, peaceful album and my dedication to St. Oberst remains resolute. Upside Down Mountain was released May 19, 2014.
Hercules and Love Affair – The Feast of the Broken Heart: I’ve only listened to Hercules and Love Affairs’s first self-titled album prior to this new release, which was a mix of the heavy electronic beats of house music with 70s disco and funk. For their new album, they’ve seemingly ditched the strings of the disco beats and the funky horns in favor of going full house (so many Bob Saget jokes I could make here, but I won’t). The outcome, although slightly more uniform and reliant on repetitive beats and sampling, isn’t as bad as you’d expect. They also weren’t trying for subtlety, since the opening track is named “Hercules Theme 2014”and sounds nothing like their 2008 song “Hercules Theme.” The vocals range from cut-and-pasted snippets (“5.43 to Freedom”) to more traditional full verses and choruses (“Do You Feel The Same?,” my personal favorite). While a quick listen might make you dizzy with the repetitive and trance-like beats and wondering when one track stopped and another began, there are some great tracks on the album, and it will at least get you pumped up. The Feast of the Broken Heart was released May 26, 2014.
Kasabian – 48:13: First off, yes, the album is named after its runtime. Now, Kasabian are really good when you want to listen to vaguely aggressive psychedelic infused electronic rock. They’ve made a handful of songs I can listen to over and over (especially on West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum), but most go in one ear and out the other. 48:13 doesn’t break this mold. Sure there are highs – the synthesizer-powered end of “Explodes” is good and the extended outro of “Treat” is great – but I haven’t been able to get into the remaining 39:49 of the album as much. It’s a mish mash of their usual quiet, trippy tracks and jumpier in-your-face ones combined with a more ‘pop’ style and the occasional awful lyric that tries to be profound. Kasabian might consider this album their best yet, but it’s really a few brilliant moments surrounded a heap of at best mindless fun.48:13 was released June 9, 2014.
Kishi Bashi – Lighght: First off, this album wins the “Most Difficult To Pronunce” award for 2014. For those that don’t know, Kishi Bashi combines the violin loop-pedal playing of Owen Pallet with the psychedlia of of Montreal, of which he was once a touring member. I can also attest that he’s a ton of fun to see live, often improvising between songs and beat-boxing to create rhythms. If this doesn’t get his whimsical nature across, know that Lighght is one of the more dynamic albums I’ve heard all year, considering it goes between orchestral songs about creation and life to electronic-oriented songs about a dancing piece of steak. It leans a little more on the psychedelic side than his debut 151a and does taper off a little towards its latter half, but should please anyone that considers themselves a fan of indie pop. Lighght was released May 13, 2014.
Klaxons – Love Frequency: Klaxons seem to enjoy reinventing themselves slightly each album. Debut Myths of the Near Future was constantly labeled as “new-rave” due its shrieking synthesizer parts and frantic nature, yet the band ditched the neon and glowsticks in follow-up Surfing the Void for more ‘spacey’ sounding rock songs. Now Klaxons seem to have gone fully in favor of dance music with a dash of 90s electronica and some boy band influences. There are some hints of their past selves with the occasional high-pitched synthesizer and all of the band members singing at once, but as a whole it’s a lot more ‘polished’ sounding and there’s not the expected cacophony. This isn’t totally bad news, since a few songs are pretty darn catchy and I’m a sucker for anything with 90s style keyboards (see “There Is No Other Time” and “Invisible Forces”), but for the most part the songs don’t have the pull of earlier Klaxons and the album really falls flat whenever they tone things down (especially “The Dreamers”). Generally a band playing louder and more sloppily is seen as a drawback, but for Klaxons it turns out this is what I really liked about them. Love Frequency was released June 16, 2014.
Owen Pallett – In Conflict: Owen Pallett, the extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalist and composer that has arranged the string parts for basically ever indie band ever, has typically used his solo project (formerly under the name “Final Fantasy”) to create whimsical, storytelling songs. His first album under his own name Heartland told the story of a fantasy realm named “Spectrum” where he was a god. Now, In Conflict is a lot more personal, and its songs sound a lot less like showtunes. Most of the songs are fairly quiet and contemplative (“In Conflict,” “The Passions”), yet the album also contains some of his most intense music to date (mainly “The Riverbed”). It also forgoes a lot of the full orchestral backing in favor of synthesizers and drum machines, as is the general trend these days. I’ll admit that these songs took me longer to get into than his usual vignettes, but is definitely one to check out and listen to intently.In Conflict was released May 27, 2014.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon: Yes, there is a band named “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” and yes, they really do live up to the name by having an overly-sincere sounding singer that spouts lines like “even in dreams, I cannot betray you” and “while everyone was doing drugs, we were just doing love.” You can gag now if you’d like, but note that the saving grace of this band is mixing this saccharine attitude with heavily distorted guitars and The Cure-inspired synth parts. Does Days of Abandon have the sweetness? Oh yes, if you can’t tell from tracks named “Simple and Sure” and “Beautiful You.” Does it have the 80s sound? Yes, to the point that the song “Kelly” sounds like “This Charming Man” by The Smiths with different vocals. Does it have the heavy guitars for contrast? Unfortunately, it does not have this part of the formula that made their song “Belong” one of my most played. The livelier songs on the album like “Until The Sun Explodes” have tinges of this greatness, but otherwise be steeled for new-wave reminiscent gushing. Days of Abandon was released May 13, 2014.
Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal: When it comes to lo-fi rock bands, there’s a fine line between “creating music that sounds awesome using heavily distorted guitars and unconventional singing” and “creating music that sounds awful because the band didn’t give a shit.” Fortunately, Parquet Courts are on the former side of this balance, since this album is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. I’ll admit that I didn’t listen to its highly-rated predecessor Light Up Gold, but Sunbathing Animal shows the band can go between slower, shuffling tracks (“She’s Rollin”), catchy midtempo tracks (“Black & White”), and chaotic power-chords-everywhere tracks (“Sunbathing Animal”) without any sounding forced or any quality lost. While the band are usually described as sounding like “slackers” and Andrew Savage’s voice isn’t for everyone (I’ll admit there’s a few tracks where his pseudo-singing brings things down), don’t let that distinction turn you away from what is actually a really well-made and great-sounding album. Sunbathing Animal was released June 3, 2014.