Friday, June 17, 2011

New Music!

Since the Record Club #2 is coming up in a couple weeks, I wanted to get warmed up by reviewing some new music (and by new I mean albums released so far this year). Don't forget about June 27; you should make sure you've listened to Brand New's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and then come back here for what I hope will be a spirited discussion. Anyone can join, all you have to do is click the little banner on the right and email Ed that you want to be included in the email list for reminders about future Record Clubs. Anywho, onto the new music...

The Get Up Kids - There Are Rules
Grade: B
Standout Track: Regent's Court

One of the most anticipated albums of 2011, I was anxious about There Are Rules - the seminal emo band the Get Up Kids' first album since 2003. I was content with the band calling it quits and leaving their legacy in tact; any kind of reunion album had the potential to be like that aging athlete who doesn't realize they're past their prime and just need to hang it up. There Are Rules, the bands fifth full-length album, is a pleasant surprise, though; it's a nostalgia-fused album that seems like the bandmembers intentionally tried to make it sound like vintage Get Up Kids. It is in this quality that makes There Are Rules an easy listen for fans. But therein lies the larger issue with the album: this is truly for fans only. The album starts off on a great note as the low-fi Get Up Kids sound of old is in full effect; however, the nostalgia ride lasts for about nine tracks before you realize the band's efforts to sound like they used is just an attempt to mask the fact that they have nothing new to sing about or add to the subgenre. It's not great, but, for fans, it's a worthy addition to your Get Up Kids collection.

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Rating: B-
Standout Track: Helplessness Blues

One of the most unenviable tasks in any art form is to follow up a debut that was a smash hit. What I like Fleet Foxes sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, is successful in that it doesn't change what works for the Foxes: folky guitars and great harmonies. However, if it's antiquated Appalachian rock we're going for, I still prefer the criminally undiscovered Cotton Teeth by The Snake The Cross The Crown (think an indie version of The Band). But, that's not the Foxes' fault; I just like to take any opportunity I can to pimp Cotton Teeth (an album everyone should listen to). So, back to Helplessness Blues: one thing it has going against it is that it all just kind of blurs together in an unmemorable way. In some ways I can't blame the band for playing it so safe, but I really wish they wouldn't have gone the Death Cab for Cutie route and kept it so banal. It's an album without teeth; idealistic and optimistic and, in its own folksy way, upbeat. And that's okay. It's a good for a play or two on a summer road trip, but it's not something I would want to sit with for awhile.

I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business - The Gold Rush
Rating: B+
Standout Track: Gold Rush

"After the gold rush, I thought I'd be someone...It's tough being copper when all your friends are gold" is one of the first lines uttered by Ace Enders, the brainchild behind I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody's Business, on his latest album. It's an album that has no intention of being anything more than really well-produced pop. What I love about all of Enders' music (he's been the frontman and head writer of two other bands) is his ability to write catchy pop tunes unapologetically. With The Gold Rush, Enders sprinkles in the demons of the pop punk era that still haunt him. During the late 90s and early 2000s when Blink 182 and New Found Glory were all the rage in the pop punk scene, Drive-Thru Records was snatching up sound-alike bands everywhere and hastily releasing albums to make a quick buck. Some of those bands (and New Found Glory was one of them) went on to sell millions of records and make a lot of money for the very small Drive-Thru Records. It was indeed a gold rush of sorts. Enders' band The Early November seemed prime to be one of those bands. However, they never really took off like their label mates Something Corporate, The Starting Line, Senses Fail, Dashboard Confessional, or the aforementioned New Found Glory, and it is this mentality that is the catalyst for the album. It still gets under the skin of Enders who couldn't understand why his band, who sold just as many records as some of others mentioned, were not given a chance to be "gold" (I will say that part of that is the band's refusal to keep releasing sugary-sweet, depthless emo albums, instead opting to make what would be their death knell, a three-disc concept album that teenage girls and fanboys didn't want to hear). The album is, wisely, only nine songs, and some tracks like "Misery" and the closer "Train Tracks" take one back to those early 2000s when it was still cool to listen to music like this. I am unabashed in my love of Enders' pop stylings, and the title track is one I find myself whistling throughout the day. It's a perfect summer record.

Bright Eyes - The People's Key
Rating: B
Standout Track: Triple Spiral

The seventh album from one of the kings of indie folk rock is, in the context of other Bright Eyes albums, pretty 'meh.' Rumors were swirling that leadman and the creative driving force behind the band, Conor Oberst, was getting tired of the Bright Eyes moniker, saying that, essentially, he had nothing more to accomplish under that name. Well, if this was indeed the swan song, he went out with a whimper instead of a bang. Much like their Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, The People's Key is a mixed bag of songs that at their best reach second-tier level of greatness when placing them in the context of Bright Eyes' impressive oeuvre. I love the opener, "Firewall," despite the silly ramblings of a so-called shaman Oberst met on the road that act as the lead-in to the album (and some of the other songs). I especially love the second track "Shell Game" and the group singalong portion ("Everyone on the count of three!") that is near the end of the song. It's songs like "Shell Game" and catchy "Triple Spiral" that keep the album from veering into the pretentious. "Ladder Song" seems like an attempt at a Bright Eyes song off of Fevers and Mirrors or Lifted....and it doesn't come off as well as their recent attempts like "Lime Tree." Some of the usual cast of characters are her to add support, but it doesn't have a positive effect on the album like the additions of M. Ward and Jim James did to their previous two albums. But those are minor things...what it boils down to is that it's still an album from Bright Eyes and that's never a bad thing.

Manchester Orchestra - Simple Math
Rating: A-
Standout Track: Virgin and Simple Math (tie)

Andy Hull is one of the best songwriters working today, and Manchester Orchestra may be one of the smartest and most interesting bands working within the fringes of the mainstream rock scene; they're ready burst out from under their 'undiscovered' label. Simple Math is a huge advancement of their previous effort, Mean Everything to Nothing. A concept album of sorts, Simple Math benefits from a cohesive sound and seamless segues between songs. The album starts with "Deer" and Hull's trademark voice which always sounds like it's on the verge of a breakdown. It's an unassuming start to an album that is anything but that. From there, each and every song is a standout track; however, I always come back to the one-two punch of "Virgin" and "Simple Math." I love the use of the children's choir in "Virgin", which just might be the best track Manchester Orchestra has written, that makes it sound more epic; I equally love the way that the follow-up track, "Simple Math," has just a tremendously powerful slow build to it. Both songs are perhaps the strongest one-two punch I've heard in a long, long time. Manchester Orchestra is one of the very best at taking a huge sound and not making it sound like goofy, cliche stadium rock. Their a big band that tries to do big things, and it's about time they deserve a big audience. This is one of my favorite albums of the year.

Thursday - No Devolución
Rating: A
Standout Track: Past and Future Ruins

It's hard to believe that it's been 11 years since Thursday released their seminal post-hardcore album Full Collapse; and album that, along with At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command, was integral in influencing tons of future of post-hardcore bands. The sound for the subgenre was never really as raw and pure as it was in the early 2000s, and Full Collapse -- a massive hit both among fans and critics -- was a ghost that the band just couldn't ever shake, no matter how good their subsequent releases were. One of the problems the band constantly had was with the record labels they ended up on; they never really felt comfortable after Full Collapse as albums like War All the Time and A City by the Light Divided -- which some great moments on them -- always felt like half-hearted efforts by the band and their producers to get Thursday to recreate the sound from Full Collapse. The fans of Thursday weren't any better as they qualified every review of every post-Full Collapse album with, "It's no Full Collapse, but it's pretty good..." There was this massive onus for the band to be something they no longer felt like they wanted to be, and after a few subpar records (read: failed attempts to cash in, but like the example above with Ace Enders, Thursday was never one of those bands that caught on with the mainstream), the band made Common Existence in 2009, perhaps the closest thing Thursday has come to completely shedding the Full Collapse curse. That album was a great indicator of things to come, and this year's No Devolución is not just Thursday's best album in 11 years, it rivals Full Collapse as the band's best work. The band only sprinkle in elements of their post-hardcore days as No Devolución is more of a dark, industrial sounding record with its lo-fi production values with ;lead singer Geoff Rickly's voice just kind of being drowned out at times or just floating through the songs effortlessly. Rickly always had a distinct voice because he couldn't really sing (he can scream, though), but his voice was always so genuine when belting his very personal lyrics that you forgave him for his lack of a singing voice. What made some of Thursday's past albums feel flat was the emphasis on Rickly's voice as the main instrument. It's not that it's a bad strategy to employ, it's just that Rickley is better when he is meshing with his band, not standing out from them. So, with No Devolución Rickly, for the first time, handed off the music duties to the people who play the instruments, and the result is an album that sounds dark (great uses of post-production as well as synth and others keys) but is incredibly optimistic (Rickly's lyrics are as sharp as always, especially in the album closer "Stay True" where he is pleading with bands to avoid doing what they did). It's one of Thursday's strongest efforts both lyrically and musically as Thursday ventures out of their comfort zones to release an album that never feels tired or old despite its 50 minute playtime. I can't really think of anything to compare it to because it sounds so distinctly Thursday while simultaneously tacking a sound that is foreign to them. If you're expecting loud, treble-y screamo, Thursday is no longer the band for you. No Devolución is a great album.

The Dear Hunter - The Color Spectrum 
Rating: IC (Although, if I had to go with a grade now it would be A+)
Standout Track: the four songs from the Indigo collection

Casey Crescenzo needs to be discovered by a wider audience. The main creative driving force behind The Dear Hunter never does anything half-assed. His first three records were just the beginning of a much larger concept album (each record is simply titled, Act I, Act II, and Act III with a more specific subtitle describing the next stage of the story) which even included full color comic books to further to story of the album. Taking a break from his concept album, Crescenzo decided to tackle another concept, that of writing four songs to match each color found on the color spectrum. The Color Spectrum is then a 36 song behemoth of an album that is actually nine different four song EP's. It's as ambitious as anything he's done, and the reason I can't give it a proper grade is that it just came out last week, and there's no possible way that I could have even the slightest grasp of what's going on here in order to critique it. So, what I'll do is praise The Dear Hunter and hope that more people will check them out. His influences are obviously bands that dabbled in rock operas and concept albums (The Who and Pink Floyd spring to mind), but he puts his unique, verbose spin on things. Crescenzo has a loud voice that is a perfect fit for the epic type of music he writes. He litters his songs with current, post-hardcore trappings, but he's also not adverse to throwing things in that make one think of a band like Goblin, say. On The Color Spectrum, the two EP's that I keep coming back to are Black and Indigo. Black starts the spectrum (album) if you listen to them all as one. It's a departure from the prog-rock sound associated with The Dear Hunter, but the band fits into their new clothes nicely. What's most impressive about it is that it doesn't just sound like a band that thought something was cool, so they try it; instead, The Dear Hunter seamlessly transition from style to style. This doesn't just sound like a band straining to do something different and "edgy." And the first two track off of Black prove this point as I never thought I would think of The Dear Hunter in the same vein as Nine Inch Nails. Further down the spectrum (album) is Indigo, an EP that sounds like a mix between Thrice and The Notwist. It's heavily electronic (like The Postal Service type electronic, not techno) and suits the band well as they make some great atmospheric music with this EP. Thrice is a good band to compare this record to because they did something like this a few years ago with their The Alchemy Index. On that album, Thrice created four EP's each representing an element (Earth, Air, Sky, and Water), and did a similar thing to what The Dear Hunter is doing here where each EP has a sound that represents the thing it's based on. So, the Black EP is darker while, as you can probably guess, the White EP, for example, is heavy on piano and acoustic guitar and softer melodies. This is an incomplete review because I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of this massive project. So far so good, though, as is par for the course for The Dear Hunter.


  1. Great reviews, Kevin, glad you're doing some music writing! I'm really looking forward to the record club.

    I wish I had something more substantial to say, but the only one of these I've heard is the new Fleet Foxes, which was, well, as boring as their last one. I kept trying to put it on, saying this time I'm really gonna listen closely and see why everyone likes these guys so much, and the next thing I know it's halfway over and I feel like I've barely heard a note. It's so forgettable I forget it while it's still playing.

    I like the cover of that Get Up Kids album, it reminds me of Maya Deren.

  2. Thanks, Ed. Yeah, I'm going to try and do this more and even try to incorporate one day a week where I cover one of my favorite albums. I admit I'm not the most detailed writer when it comes to music, but I enjoy getting the word out on the type of music that makes me happy.

    Now, the Fleet Foxes album is precisely how you describe it. I was being pretty generous with my grade, but I've learned to just add a few tracks off the new album to a playlist with their other stuff on it to make it more digestible. It is pretty forgettable, although I think I like their first record more than you do. But yeah, your feeling towards them is how I feel about Bon Iver; I've never understood the love because I just find it so damn boring.

    Thanks for checking this out!

  3. Oh, Kevin and Ed, I completely disagree. I don't really hear any justification behind why you guys think Fleet Foxes are "boring", "unmemorable", or "forgettable". Their chord structures and vocal arrangements are truly unique in modern indie rock, even if often times they prefer to temper their more classical sensibilities for simpler, poppier progressions. This is gorgeous, moody pastoral folk, and Helplessness Blues, though perhaps falling a bit short of its existential and introspective aspirations a few times, is just as good as its predecessor. I think you're giving it short shrift. How many bands can you name where every member is such an adept singer?

  4. Yeah, I don't really have any "justification," their music just doesn't move me. I know that you have a great deal more technical musical knowledge than I do, Carson, but their undoubted technical skill doesn't mean a lot to me if the music fails to make an impression on me. I've given both of their albums a fair shot now because of how highly acclaimed they are, and it doesn't hit me very hard or strike me as very original. Maybe they're unique in modern indie rock terms, which isn't saying much, but they fit neatly into the folk-rock tradition of bands like the Byrds, etc. It's pleasant music but never raises above that level for me; obviously lots of people disagree.

    How many bands can you name where every member is such an adept singer?

    The Beach Boys!

  5. Ok, cool, I can live with that no problem. I was afraid you guys were reacting to the hype surrounding them and not to the music itself. It's fair if they don't move you, and I wasn't trying to suggest that its technical skill alone that I enjoy. I think Robin Pecknold is a sincere, oft-poetic lyricist with a real beautiful voice. But I'll agree with your contention that they're certainly nothing completely new in the context of folk-rock.

  6. Carson:

    I'll admit that it's hard not to react to the hype considering I live in the Northwest. However, I really liked their debut album. This one just left me feeling numb to it all. Like Ed, I wasn't moved by the music. I've already mentioned Bon Iver, so I'll use a better example: Band of Horses. This album reminds me so much of the last two Band of Horses albums. It's technically sharp with a clean sound and beautiful harmonies, but it just doesn't leave an indelible mark on me.

    Now, all music doesn't have to be that, and that's why I think my B- grade (I would give their first album an B+) makes sense to me because I like a few tracks here and there but the album as a whole is just kind of 'meh.'

  7. Musically speaking, Band of Horses (who I do like, with the exception of their latest) is in a different realm of folk rock altogether than Fleet Foxes. They're far more simplistic (almost juvenile) in their pursuit of rock and roll, while Fleet Foxes are clearly striving for something sonically and musically more complex. Something like "The Shrine (An Argument)" off their new album is like nothing Band of Horses would ever attempt. But once again, I can't argue with subjective reactions.

  8. Well, Carson, I definitely can see where you're coming from considering you know a helluva a lot more about music -- especially regarding these two bands -- than I do. True it's subjective, but that doesn't mean your reasoning or arguing is falling on deaf ears. I have a lot of friends that feel the same way you do (and I admit, maybe I'm holding Band of Horses new album against them when talking about their other work), and I'm constantly hearing from them that I need to continue to re-evaluate these bands.

    Also, the comparison to Band of Horses comes solely out of the fact that when I hear those two bands, I hear great harmonies in both bands, and they both kind of fall into that indie/folk movement.

    I admit that I'm a bit of a neophyte when it comes to music, so I appreciate your input here, Carson. Which brings me to this: are you going to participate in this month's Record Club? I'd love to have you around here.

  9. Kevin, so flattering! I know a little about music, but I'm certainly no expert. And I value emotional response over any kind of impressive technical skill a band can offer, so I don't mean to suggest that there's something about these bands that only someone who knows music can grasp. In fact, they're pretty straightforward bands in general, but I just wanted to clarify that I think Fleet Foxes are more gifted and more ambitious than run-of-the-mill folk bands. (Bon Iver would fall into that category too for me, but that's another story.)

    I'll try to be around for the Record Club this month, but I happen to be on tour with my own band right now, so my contribution might be less substantial than last month. But I do have the album and I'm looking forward to hearing what people have to say about it.