livingthingTo their credit, Sweden based band Peter Bjorn and John’s followup to their international commercial breakthrough, Writers Block, is definitely not Writers Block 2, though it may also not be the album to further widen their audience base. It’s a mix of the savvy, affable pop from their last effort with some electronica and experimental pop along with some world music influences, and the result is eclectic sounding, if maddeningly uneven. It’s not so much the presence of bad songs, but songs that are unfocused or just sort of fizzle out, i.e., “I’m Losing My Mind.” Fortunately, there are enough songs like “It Don’t Move Me,” “Just The Past,” the current single “Nothing To Worry About,” the cheerfully profane “Lay It Down” and others that, if not make up for the material that doesn’t work, work to smooth things over a bit. Cheers again to the band for not taking the obvious route with this album as even if it doesn’t always work out, it’s good to see a band like this willing to take some risks.

Metric – Fantasies

March 31, 2009

metricfantasiesFor a band whose lead singer, Emily Haines, was ready to stop writing when she sojourned to Argentina last year, Toronto based Metric (Haines, Jimmy Shaw, Joshua Winstead, and Joules Scott-Key) has never sounded better, and with Fantasies, they make yet another huge leap forward. Whereas previous albums had their highs and lows, Fantasies is one continuous, feverish high. The songs are anxious, troubled, troubling and possessed of a quiet (and sometimes not so quiet, as on tracks like “Sick Muse,” “Twilight Galaxy,” “Gold Guns Girls” and the closer “Stadium Love”) ferocity not seen in this measure or with this level of intensity previously in their work. Is this their masterwork? I certainly hope not, as I fully expect they’ll just continue to get better, but for now, Fantasies is a stunningly good, absolutely satisfying mix of electropop with some hard edged rock. The experience of listening to the album from end to end is fairly exhilarating, and when it’s all over, there’s a genuine feeling of having been transported somewhere unique and compelling. The very best material is weighted towards the first half, but this is a pretty great record all around, and without a doubt Metric’s finest album yet. Standout cuts: “Help I’m Alive,” “Sick Muse,” “Twilight Galaxy” and “Gimme Sympathy.”

shawnleesoulintheholeIt’s good to be a fan of Shawn Lee, London based American multi-instrumentalist, since he’s prolific enough that each year brings at least two, sometimes three, Lee releases, some albums fully instrumental, some vocal, some a combination of both. His latest LP, Shawn Lee Presents Soul In The Hole, is 11 tracks of “old school soul,” to borrow Lee’s phrase, and, wow, is it good stuff. The time period Lee is emulating falls somewhere around the late 60’s to the mid 70’s, and the production is designed to sound like music released during those years, complete with horn sections and washes of strings. This is an approach to music not unlike Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the Budos Band, with similarly excellent results. Lee provides the vocals on a handful of tracks, though he mostly leaves those up to a talented array of guest vocalists, including Nicole Willis, Fanny Franklin, Karime Kendra, Paul Butler, Darondo, even his wife, who is billed here as “Mrs. Lee.” For soul fans, I think this will be a true delight, for those new to Lee’s unique musical genius, this is a great place to jump on board, as this is his best vocal record yet. Standout cuts: “Jigsaw,” “Land Of Soul,” “Cruel Woman” and “The Stuff.”

1990s – Kicks

March 28, 2009

kicksIt’s hard to appreciate what a wild mix of stylesKicks, the second album from Scotland based band 1990s, contains until it’s all over 12 tracks and 40 minutes later. It’s part New Wave pop, part snotty punk, part 60’s inspired garage rock and pop, all served up with just the right amount of the profane and the decadent. On Kicks, 1990s often skirt the line between confidence and self-satisfaction, wit and smugness, but always stay on the right side of either. The result is smart, stylish music that’s great fun to listen to and probably even more fun to dance to. Standout cuts: “Vondelpark,” “I Don’t Even Know What That Is,” “59” and “The Box.”

lostchannelsThe fourth album from Toronto based band Great Lake Swimmers is almost evenly split between ethereal folk ballads and spirited folk rockers, though it’s the former set of songs that dominated my first impression of the album. For a few days, I thought of Lost Channels as an entire cycle of songs along the lines of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.” This isn’t actually the case, as one of the folk rockers, “Palmistry,” is the opener, and the other rockers are spread fairly evenly and effectively throughout the rest of the record. The strongest material on the album are the slower numbers, however, and they are for the most part gorgeously rendered, with echoes of Neil Young, Nick Drake as well as the aforementioned duo. I don’t know where I’d rank it amongst their previous work, but suffice to say that whereas Lost Channels was an album that took some getting into to fully appreciate, the effort was very much worth it. Standout cuts: “Palmistry,” “Pulling On A Line,” “Concrete Heart” and “Still.”

elvisperkinsindearlandThough this is the second release from Elvis Perkins, Elvis Perkins In Dearland is the first release with him billed as part of his band. Though I enjoyed Ash Wednesday, Perkins’ debut, this second album is even better, as the songwriting on Elvis Perkins In Dearland is even more assured this time around. If there’s a single influence that comes through the most, it’s maybe Tom Waits, whose mastery at combining sentiment and sly humor with the most experimental of music surely inspired Perkins and his band here, especially on tracks like “I’ll Be Arriving” and “Doomsday.” The music, a sometimes lush, sometimes raucous mix of folk, Americana, rock and jazz, is first rate, performed by a band with an impressive range. Definitely recommended. Standout cuts: “Shampoo,” “I Heard Your Voice In Dresden,” “Send My Fond Regards To Lonelyville” and “123 Goodbye.”

hazardsofloveThe term “concept album” has always given me more than a little pause, since it could anything from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Styx’s Kilroy Was Here. According to its press, The Hazards Of Love, the new album from Portland based band the Decemberists, “tells the tale of Margaret (voiced by Becky Stark), a woman from a city near the forest, and her lover William (voiced by Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter), a shape-shifting forest dweller. Margaret discovers she is pregnant, and sets off into the forest to find William. Their love is threatened by the jealous forest queen (voiced by Shara Worden), and a murdering knave.” I am happy to report that The Hazards Of Love is much closer to Sgt. Pepper’s than Kilroy. Though I found the story hard to follow at times, having listened to it the first couple of times without the benefit of a lyric sheet, and though I was somewhat exhausted by the album as a whole by the time it was finished, I found the album to be richly entertaining, and, thankfully, more fun than pretentious. What makes the album really work is the music, which is an often dazzling and headspinning mix of chamber pop, country, folk, and Americana, with some heavy metal guitars thrown in as well. The Hazards Of Love is by no means a perfect record, and at times it’s a bit goofy and silly, but I admire the band for taking on such an ambitious, risky and potentially disastrous project and turning it into something that’s generally a lot of fun to listen to. Standout cuts: “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone),” “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In the Taiga),” “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” and “The Rake’s Song.”

whiteliesTo Lose My Life…, the first album from London based band White Lies, debuted at number one in January on the UK charts, the first UK band to do so in 2009. The music is sweeping, anthemic and very much rooted in early 80’s New Wave influences, recalling current bands like Interpol and the Killers, and past bands like Ultravox. For the most part, White Lies gives their music an undeniably powerful kick, though sometimes this translates into over the top bombast, with lyrics that occasionally follow suit, all subtlety out the window. In general, missteps aside, To Lose My Life… is a pretty enjoyable debut, and recommended mostly to music fans that like their vocals, guitar and synthesizer riffs on a soaring, epic scale. Standout cuts: “Death,” “To Lose My Life,” “Fifty On Our Foreheads” and “From The Stars.”

Anni Rossi – Rockwell

March 21, 2009

annirossiThe music on Chicago based Minnesota native Anni Rossi’s LP debut, Rockwell, is of the sort that drives music writers to distraction trying to fully describe it. Let me say, in admittedly simplistic fashion, that the Steve Albini-produced album is a mixture of folk and chamber pop, with a lyrical point of view, here mostly concerned with environments of various sorts, akin to Jane Siberry and early Bjork. It successfully skirts the thin line between arty and cutesy, instead achieving a strange beauty, and having toured with both the Ting Tings and Electrelane, Rossi’s music exhibits both a flair for a catchy pop melody as well as a tendency towards the elegantly experimental. Rossi’s versatile voice and her expertise with the viola are also keys to her unique sound. The ten songs included are compacted little gems, only one of which breaks the three minute mark, the current single, “Wheelpusher.” And I should also mention it’s hugely entertaining to listen to. Call it what you will, “alt-folk,” “anti-folk,” it’s good stuff. Standout cuts: “Machine,” “Ecology,” “Wheel Pusher” and “Air Is Nothing.”

Say Hi – Oohs & Aahs

March 18, 2009

sayhiI have to admit I avoided Seattle based Say Hi, fronted by Eric Elbogen, for years mostly based on their former name, Say Hi To Your Mom. It suggested another cutesy, lo fi indie pop band, or worse, an emo band, both types of bands I had no desire to hear. I don’t know if their earlier work at in any way falls into either of those categories, but their latest album, Oohs & Aahs, certainly does not: Like David Cloyd’s recent debut, Oohs & Aahs is a smartly written and richly textured mixture of synth pop and guitar based rock. Both musically and lyrically, it dovetails with work done by Yo La Tengo, Death Cab For Cutie, the Postal Service, Phantom Planet and Aimee Mann, that is to say it’s top of the line pop music, and the kind of album where your favorite song will change dependent on when you hear it. Definitely an early contender for indie pop record of the year. Standout cuts: “Elouise,” “Hallie And Henry,” “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh” and “November Was White, December Was Grey,” and yeah, I know those are the first four tracks, but not to worry, the whole album is consistently good.