23 February 2007

Elvis Perkins / Ash Wednesday / XL Recordings [2007]

4.5 Stars
Choice cuts: While You Were Sleeping, Sleep Sandwich, Ash Wednesday

Elvis Perkins plays traditional folk music with supplemental flourishes, lyrically and musically, that will not allow his heartbreaking ballads to be buried in the singer-songwriter stockpile. Premature comparisons to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen supply lofty expectations for a debut album but Ash Wednesday's unfaltering authenticity allows Perkins to hold a candle the greats of yesterday.

Perkins' backing band, Dearland, provides expertly restrained additions in the form of sublime strings, delicate background vocals, and thick double-bass. However, it is Perkins' versatile voice through which homage is paid to folk-influences, and his keen ear for catchy melody around which the album revolves, anchored by heartbreaking and instinctive lyrics. Like a Jeff Buckley reincarnate, Perkins floods Ash Wednesday with sorrowful laments without sacrificing composure.

At its most cheery, gang vocals in "May Day!" or the Highway 61-shuffle of "All the Night Without Love" provide bouncy backdrops to melancholy lyrics. The remaining songs pair instrumental and thematic sorrow to create an album-long catharsis. Inspired by unimaginable tragedy (Perkins lost his father to AIDS and mother in the attacks of 9/11), Wednesday is candid in its words: "No one will survive Ash Wednesday alive/No soldier, no lover, no father, no mother."

Moments of abstract lyricism and vocal delivery recall Neutral Milk Hotel but it is moments of directness, like the flawless simplicity of The O.C.-approved "While You Were Sleeping", that make Ash Wednesday timeless as Perkins sings of family, tragedy and loss . Sticking to what he knows, Perkins shapes everything familiar about folk, from Dylan to Buckley and Mangum, into a fresh composite, so that when he promises, "Everyone will know who I am," you're inclined to believe him.

- Joseph Coscarelli

Here it is online at WSN.

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21 February 2007

Bound Stems [now online]

Glorious Noise: Bound Stems: Link: Here

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Lucinda Williams / West / Lost Highway [2007]

3.5 Stars

Choice Cuts: "West", "Are You Alright?", "Fancy Funeral"

In the vein of Patty Griffin or Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams crafts an acceptable addition to her impressive catalog, but fails to master the greatness with which she flirts. Williams' raspy but ever-graceful voice leads West with hauntingly beautiful melody and roots-rock standards of reverb and twanging guitar.

Weathered but poignant, "Fancy Funeral" has the biting wit of a seasoned veteran, but despair remains as Williams asserts the uselessness of an elaborate funeral in a stark musing on death. "No amount of riches will bring back what you've lost so just satisfy your wishes," Williams sings.

Williams' song-writing is modest and practical, never feigning immortality or melodrama. The understated despair and compassion of "West" shuffles with hints of hopefulness through optimistic lyrics, urging a lover "If you don't come out West and see, you'll never know at all."

A knack for thematic and musical simplicity is both a gift and curse on West; Williams paints with broad strokes as crass sexual attacks ("Come On") or empty fantasy ("What If") remain lyrically vague with similarly safe instrumentation. Discernible in its aim, the album often achieves the relatable simplicity Williams is revered for. However, West fails in pushing boundaries or challenging listeners, a redeeming quality even in Williams' minor works like the painfully raw Essence. It's only begrudgingly that the music community will accept an undemanding effort from a songwriter of Williams' caliber, but the fact remains, West has its share of gems and though underwhelming in relative terms, Williams outshines most.

-Joseph Coscarelli

Link to WSN

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15 February 2007

Jeremy Enigk (again, but on Glorious Noise)

Glorious Noise

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11 February 2007

Apostle of Hustle / The National Anthem of Nowhere / Arts & Crafts [2007]

Four Stars

Choice cuts: National Anthem of Nowhere, Justine Beckoning, Jimmy Scott is the Answer

Andrew Whiteman, guitarist for Toronto indie-superpower Broken Social Scene, moonlights as the heart and soul behind a more intimate affair.

Whiteman creates a world of movement through foot-tapping anthems while he aggressively sells his fascination with Latin music through tinges of influence in words and rhythm. National Anthem of Nowhere's thick atmosphere forges toward innovation with an exemplary indie-rock/Latin music hybrid.

Stylish and elegant, Whiteman guides the album with smooth, accessible vocals and intricate guitar stylings. Refinement and intelligence come through in enlightened references to jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott, folk-singer Víctor Jara, and Socrates, avoiding pretension and remaining topical as in the wry condemnation "Socrates is poisoning our youth". Eclectic percussion shepherds the album with a grooving flow, and forays into Spanish language vocals captivate instead of alienate due to Whiteman's subtle swagger, allowing listeners to feel the words without fluent proficiency. Spanish poet Federico García Lorca's prose is transformed into lyrics in "¡Ráfaga!", as complex guitar and mesmerizing drums result in enchanting originality.

Dense layering allows for slick hooks, and ideal pacing provides ethereal qualities realized in walking bass-lines, rich keyboards, and cerebral lyrics. The bouncing drum machine in "Jimmy Scott is the Answer" and feel-good brass of the title track exemplify experimentation through fluent incorporation, never appearing contrived. National Anthem of Nowhere's remarkable idiosyncrasies in instrumentation, wordplay and tone refuse adherence to any rules of belonging. Instead, as expressed through its epithet, Apostle of Hustle favors the in-between and undefinable.

Here's a link to the published version

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Fall Out Boy / Infinity on High / Island Records [2007]

Fall Out Boy just do it bigger. A composite of direct influences are glaring, even co-opting sentiments from similarly self-referential bands. Plagarising UK sensation Arctic Monkey on one-liners, the band even takes pages from their proteges Panic! at the Disco when the movie Closer provides the horrid chorus to "Thnks Fr Th Mmrs". Where Panic! had a wedding, FOB co-opt a courtroom on "You're Crashing, but You're No Wave", their first foray into narrative storytelling.

Singer Patrick Stump sounds pitch-perfect and almost diva-like, recalling the reign of boy bands. What the album lacks in originality it makes up for in super-slick production and overblown anthems ála the album's first single "This Ain't A Scene..." in which a weak metaphor rides a processed drum machine to the "Goddamn!" chorus.

To follow is nauseatingly hyper mall-punk with the occasional unoriginal flourish seen in borrowing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" chant in the band's own "Hum Hallelujah". Fall Out Boy take their Ridalin only for one song and the result is the cliché-ridden "Golden", where lyricist/bassist Wentz's ego cannot be contained by swelling strings and weepy harmonies. Stump sings, "And all the mothers raise their babies to stay away from me," but the vapid self-importance is textbook Wentz. The song's greatest strength is that it is under three minutes long.

Bigger budgets and studio processing don't cover trite repetition but create a golden goose, ready to lay egg after egg of radio-ready bombast. Song titles are reminiscent of an unrefined Morrissey and are perfect for this week's MySpace name or to be scribbled on a teenage notebook. On the tacky "I'm Like A Lawyer With the Way I'm Always Trying to Get You Off" verses of melodrama and a repetitive chorus scream second single.

Although far beyond the status of guilty pleasure for any self respecting music fan, it's hard to argue the band hasn't hit a gold mine. Anthemic hooks and keen self-awareness set Fall Out Boy up for not only the biggest album of their young career, but the widest reaching, most marketable record of the year. The forecast calls for overexposure and platinum records.

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02 February 2007

Joan Didion: The White Album essay (abridged)

In Joan Didion, there is a yearning for the elemental. In her nonfiction collection The White Album, Didion chronicles the Sixties and Seventies in such a way that casts Didion as her own tour guide: pummeling through the thick brush of endless pretension and arriving, not unscathed, on the other side. Never would Didion presume completion of her journey, but she needn’t convince anyone of the wisdom she has collected along the way, leaving both herself and her reader in the vicinity of the fundamental aspects of self, society and the line between mass and fringe cultures. The idea of the elemental has Didion breaking down her subject to its most basic properties in order to find a stark representation of both motivation and impending cultural relevance. The “other side” is a frequent destination of a Didion essay, leaving the reader one hundred-eighty degrees from where he began, and having no conclusions thrust upon them. Didion never succumbs to preaching, but instead subtly articulates her own brand of cultural gospel: plodding through thick deception and posturing in a search for an elusive morality and sincerity. Instead of providing callow and superficial conclusions for the reader, Didion employs directness and precision in which every move is calculated and consequential, but never evocative in a manipulating sense. Joan Didion refuses to be the reader’s guide to a prefabricated deduction, but make no mistake; she is her own pilot through minds and thought processes, of strangers and of self, never shy or reserved about what she may stumble upon. This leaves the role of the reader as voyeur, sorting sordid details of a scandalous decade with Didion as a time machine, freezing this era from which she sees distinctiveness. And through this era, Didion hopes to impart wisdom, if not from the decade’s accomplishments, than through its moral, political and cultural shortcomings.

As an author, she is eager to underscore socio-economic, cultural and political differences that not only exist within the Los Angeles area, but also on a much larger scale, span the country. The notion that those in charge may secure these gaps with empty rhetoric and vague nationalism are sentiments that do not sit well with Didion’s large-scale introspection. If these divides do indeed exist, Didion sees more sincere and significant methods of approaching them, perhaps those methods many, Joan Didion included, would have hoped outlived their rise in the landscape of 1960s America and would become central to the idea of a developing nation. Didion assumes the role of a chameleon; she works among the Hollywood elite, among the working class, and among the newest incarnation of “middle America.” As an author, she will never appear conspicuous due to this ability to blend into the background, yet would never surrender ample footing by which to strike at a particularly glaring example of injustice or phoniness. In her writing, Didion refuses the background without adopting an ostentatious posture giving merit to her commentary by avoiding characterization as a resentful author.

In this brand of introspection, Didion raises some glaring parallels to modern times. With an air of political uncertainty as a dark cloud above the heads of Americans everywhere, Didion’s description of class discrepancy becomes just as relevant now as it may have been half a century ago. The idea of seeing through petty differences and essentially, hypocrisy, in search of sincerity and authenticity remains something we, as a society may strive for. Subtly, Didion is quick to highlight divergence, but perhaps this is in the name of holding on to what it is we do have, in order to forge a societal bond that transcends the criticism Didion never appears short on. In its purest, elemental form Didion’s criticisms and claims are indeed centered on, geared toward and pointed at morality. Never assuming superiority, it is the journalistic stance taken by Didion that assures an air of empathy, but the song remains the same. Didion views the 1960s as a representation of American potential, never fully realized. Glimmers of progress and cracks on the surface suggested moral development, yet the process remained grounded. It is in her writing on that time that Didion highlights this prospective development as a lesson of sorts, aimed at anyone who will listen and make the mission their own. However, Joan Didion never forges grandeur; she is wholly aware that America’s moral burden is an impossibly heavy cross to bear, relying instead on her secular gospel which refuses to pass the proverbial buck in a patronizing manner, but instead alleges that the responsibility is to be extended culturally, economically, politically and through generations. In this, Didion transcends the cultural and historical era in which her ideas were fashioned in hopes that they be honed for application in decades and generations to come.

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Jeremy Enigk / World Waits / Lewis Hollow Records [2006]

In the days before Jon Stewart provided the country’s youth with (fake) news, he provided some edgy rock and roll. When Sunny Day Real Estate took the stage on The Jon Stewart Show to perform their song “Seven”, the world got its first glimpse of Jeremy Enigk in all of his Billy Corgan-bald-headed glory as he effortlessly pumped out the alt-rock anthem that would spawn innumerable emo copycats. Even then, Enigk possessed a smooth swagger that exuded poise and self-control, but a certain moment in which Enigk’s eyes, which had remained closed with a deadly focus, darted toward the sky, gave the impression of restlessness and striking ambition. Unable to be repressed, the singer followed his longing for more ornate projects, veering away from the unrefined crunch of his previous band in favor of textured rock symphonies.

Too often new music takes the back seat to prior accomplishments, and in this case former Sunny Day Real Estate front man Jeremy Enigk lives in the shadow of his seminal group. Here, he creates a swirling dreamland of sugary harmonies and grand soundscapes that soar and surround you, and which despite their anthemic, arena-ready qualities remain one of independent music’s best-kept secrets. Released on Enigk's own label, no one batted at an eye at this late-year release, but the optimism conveyed in the singer's howl is too gripping to be ignored. The orchestral flourishes that pepper the ten tracks create a sweeping flow of hope and build a rich ambiance that carries through the duration of the record.

While the depth of World Waits may at times falter due to the singular tone maintained throughout, it is the earnest croon of Enigk that not only baits the listener, but ultimately reels you in as the contrast between grand, booming instrumentation and the affected emoting that Enigk has mastered as a veteran of independent music. While Sunny Day Real Estate was venerated for its raw and unassuming presence, World Waits takes a different route, favoring slick production, occasionally bordering on extravagant. However, whenever the guitars too closely resemble something out of the Edge’s playbook, or the drums collect too much reverb, things collapse in elegant chaos amid Enigk’s promise of a better tomorrow. This constant tip-toe on the sincere side of the proverbial line speaks to Enigk’s knack for balance and temperance.

There comes a monumental point in a musician’s career in which ardent followers place their trust completely in the hands of their revered. One gets the feeling that Enigk has become aware of this responsibility and on the album’s title track, you’d be hard pressed to find a fan who didn’t feel as if Enigk was singing directly to them. An elaborate affair, nothing about World Waits, from its layered vocal harmonies to the assorted array of instruments, gives the impression of an intimate solo effort, but the directness of Enigk’s message retains the empathy that has cemented his place as an emotional purveyor for over a decade. Whether it comes from his journey as a born-again or just familiarity and experience, there is something both alluring and compelling in Jeremy Enigk, sustaining his relevance indefinitely.

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Cold War Kids / Robbers and Cowards / Downtown Records [2006]

Cold War Kids' set at last summer's Lollapalooza displayed their raw magnetism. As the only band on the expansive bill without a full length album, their pre-set draw paled in comparison to the legions assembled to throw a heckle toward Jordan Catalano, grown up and in the flesh. Then the electric piano started pulsing, glass bottles became percussion and by the end of their set, a collection of rubbernecking passerby's had become converts to the new sect of indie rock.

The first full-length after a collection of three independently released EPs, Robbers and Cowards, may not match the live show's energy step for step, yet in twelve songs Cold War Kids cement themselves as a band to keep an eye on; climbing above blog buzz to ascend to the top of a Modest Mouse/Talking Heads inspired crop of indie rookies. With only two unreleased songs, both frequent in the live show, the record remains merely a greatest hits collection to those following the band for any amount of time, but to those unfamiliar with the gospel of this Long Beach quartet, the full length does its job and then some. Even the old faithfuls of the EPs sounds crisp and full as a result of updated production and from the first shake of a maraca in the disc's opening track, Cold War Kids fight for your attention.

Whether in the first person, gin soaked confessional of "We Used to Vacation" or the bed-ridden ballad "Hospital Beds", lead singer Nathan Willet embodies his characters and personalities in an alarming Isaac Brock/Bob Dylan hybrid. Too often written off as derivative, the band holds no reservations in its references to the music that has inspired them, even paying deliberate homage to Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man" as Willet breaks meter to shout about giving a check to "tax deductible charity organizations."

The single "Hang Me Up to Dry" shows the band's penchant for a steady buildup, as fuzz bass, out of tune keys and jangly guitars culminate in Willet's accappella howl: Hang me out to dry/I'm pearl like the white-wh-whites of your eyes. Backing his enunciated, outlaw-like delivery is a tight and deliberate rhythm section who carry the southern hymnal-tinged "Saint John" and force a foot-stomp/hand-clap vibe throughout the album's 52 minutes.

In all, Cold War Kids, save the kitschy name, shake all preconceptions about an LA band's leather pants and sequin jacket laced egos. Instead, Cold War Kids embody a working class band complete with thrift store garb and sounding just how they appear: hip, with a subtle swagger. As a welcome introduction, Robbers and Cowards is a debut with the confidence of a veteran act that has paid its dues. As an archetype or poster child for a new era of music, where the internet negates the need for a tour van and gradually building a fan-base in favor of readymade "It" bands, Cold War Kids bring the best of both worlds. With three EPs under their belt and having proven themselves in the live arena, Robbers and Cowards is a clear example in the lesson of "Shut up and listen."

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Bound Stems / Appreciation Night / Flameshovel Records [2006]

The ambitious debut LP from indie-rockers the Bound Stems makes no secret of their hometown pride. With Chicago as their muse, the band has crafted a busy and densely layered epic wearing influences on their sleeve. It would be too easy to write the Bound Stems off as second-rate math rock but repeated listens reveal Appreciate Night as a sonic masterpiece, tugging the listener in three directions at once without a second to catch your breath.

A kitschy jingle layered with the scripted dialogue of a flight attendant begins the record without pretense, giving the clear declaration, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to welcome you to Chicago.” With this formality out of the way, a second voice, above an echo of children’s laughter, thanks “everyone for joining us today,” something one might expect in lieu of an impending theatrical production. What may come as a shock to complacent listeners is that Appreciation Night is exactly that: an intricate production with all the trappings of a jumbled mess. There is no doubt the record calls for a proactive experience as the band leaves the listener to sift through the crowded landscape. What becomes abundantly clear with numerous listens is that the Bound Stems have created their own bountiful world casting the listener as a sort of auditory miner in a position rich with rewards. However, much of the responsibility to unearth these rewards is placed on the listener, but make no mistake; around every corner is a clever riff or peculiar musing on life, love or geography.

The elaborate confusion may serve to put off the casual listener, but an able and expecting approach allows for the hearer to be transported into the cerebral battlefield of whirling atmosphere created by both forceful production and impressive musicianship. The angular guitar in the first proper track “Andover” quickly gives way to a buzzing keyboard and plodding drums. The rest of the album carries on accordingly with varied textures and intricacies that make subsequent listens a rewarding opportunity to grasp hidden layers of the work. Standout tracks "Wake Up, Ma and Pa are Gone" (left over from the band's The Logic of Building the Body Plan EP) and "Excellent News, Colonel" showcase the band's penchant for equilibrium, with the harmonies as infectious as their surroundings are chaotic. The most important thing to remain cognizant of when attempting to dig through the perceived mess of Appreciation Night is that just because the hooks are buried doesn't mean they aren't there.

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Busdriver / RoadKillOvercoat / Epitaph [2007]

Two-and-a-half stars

Choice cut: "Go Slow"

A veteran of the L.A. underground hip-hop scene, Busdriver ignores boundaries of modern day hip-hop culture by melding genres and never relenting his lyrical attack to make room for a radio-ready hook. He favors a freewheeling experimentalism, most notably in his motley subject matter including cowgirls, dinosaurs and the Green Party. Ambition allows the rapper to corner a niche market in the abstract hip-hop movement, using his six albums as stepping stones to this pinnacle of the bizarre.

RoadKillOvercoat finds the rapper toeing the novelty line, too often losing his balance and falling to the side of inanity. Preferring unconventional, scattered wordplay to the linear materialism and drug culture saturating commercial rap, his lyrics vary from political to cheeky, and are soaked in a quaint, self-referential cynicism. But Busdriver shoots indictments from the hip such as his likening of a Scientologist to a clansmen. Due to an unrelentingly fast flow, and peppered with staccato fury, Busdriver's voice borders on grating and may leave listeners exhausted, constantly playing catch-up through each verse and digging through silly pop-culture references for any sign of a message.

RoadKillOvercoat's finest moments find Busdriver more subdued, allowing a groove to build between his off-the-wall delivery and the genre-bending production of DJ Nobody and Boom-Bip. The fresh beats combine elements of rock, hip-hop, and electronic music to create a blend all its own.

The experimental "Go Slow,” is complete with a dreamy hook courtesy of CocoRosie's Bianca Casady and displays the album's most successful moment of understated ambition. On the overblown "Kill Your Employer" and "The Troglodyte Wins" sloppy rhymes and exaggerated enunciation exemplify the album's lack of cohesion. To slight an artist striving for uniqueness seems counterintuitive, but even fans of abstract, backpacker hip hop may grow weary of Busdriver's unneeded vocal shifts and an overabundance of vacant references. Busdriver takes the traditionally laid back style of backpack rap and throws in unbridled excitement and forward-thinking production. The album bubbles with potential and laughs in the face of tradition, but ultimately comes up short as a package, and serves to teach the lesson that while risk taking is often rewarded, restraint remains a virtue.

It's online HERE

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