Girls – Album

September 27, 2009

girlsalbumAlbum, the new record from San Francisco based band Girls (Christopher Owens and Chet “JR” White), didn’t exactly set me on fire the first time I heard it. I didn’t hate it, but something about the way it mixed 50’s and 60’s rock and pop styles with distinctly modern, angst ridden and sometimes profane lyrics just rubbed me the wrong way. I did like “Hellhole Ratface,” however, which starts out as a gentle Wall Of Sound influenced ballad and gradually builds into a droning guitar shoegaze influenced workout. It’s such a good song that I had to go back and listen to the album again, and I finally started to get what was bugging me about the record. The songs that influence the material on Album are frequently about complex emotions and situations that are distilled into simple, sometimes deliberately evasive lyrics. Girls, however, bring those complexities to the surface with startling and often deeply unsettling honesty, as on “Lust For Life”: “I wish I had a father / Maybe then I would’ve turned out right / But now I’m just crazy, totally mad / Yeah, I’m just crazy, I’m fucked in the head…” Of course, bands like Belle and Sebastian have made sweet sounding music laced with lyrical acid in the past, but yet the work Girls have done on Album has a unique power all its own, accomplished without a surfeit of irony or campiness. If you can listen to the album on its own terms, I think it will make for a remarkable experience. Standout cuts: “Lust For Life,” “Laura,” “Hellhole Ratface” and “Summertime.”


boywhoknewtoomuchThe Boy Who Knew Too Much, the second album from UK singer/songwriter Mika, is a pretty obvious bid for pop star supremacy, and judged as such, I think it may end up working out pretty well for Mika. The opener, the class conscious first single, “We Are Golden,” sets the tone immediately: It’s big, bold music, polished to a high gloss, and the song by itself sounds like the theme song to the kind of high school musical you only wish had been made. Mika describes himself thusly:

“Think Beck via Queen and Elton John and a touch of Rufus W[ainwright]. Would love to blab about Harry Nilsson but I fear no one will know what I’m talking about… but if you do, you’ll know what I mean.”

It’s a pretty apt description, though I might add that one of Mika’s strong appeals, apart from his killer instinct for a pop hook, is his extravagantly powerful voice, often rightfully compared to Freddie Mercury. The best material on The Boy Who Knew Too Much appears on the first half of the album, and I say this because I enjoy his uptempo songs more than his downtempo, though this is purely a matter of taste, as he can handle a ballad like nobody’s business, too. So it’s clear I like this record, but will you like Mika’s brand of pop music? Try out the first single, “We Are Golden,” and if you are hooked, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Standout cuts: “We Are Golden,” “Blame It On The Girls,” “Rain” and “I See You.”

thebigpinkHad 90’s era the Chemical Brothers morphed into some shoegazers, they might’ve sounded like rock duo Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell, who comprise the London based band the Big Pink. Their debut record, A Brief History Of Love, is an epic sounding mix of shoegaze, electronica and a keen ear for a pop hook, reminiscent at times of the Church or the Dandy Warhols circa Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia, as well as their peers the Horrors. It’s an ambitious record that’s also great fun to listen to, as the band makes the most of their broad range of influences, changing things up enough from song to song to keep the record compelling from first note to last. Standout cuts: “Crystal Visions,” “Dominos,” “Velvet” and “A Brief History Of Love.”

higherthanthestarsListeners who were sold on Brooklyn band The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s combination of droning fuzzy guitar/Wall of Sound rock and jangle/twee pop will find this EP, which features four new songs along some remixes, to be pretty much required listening. The songs, most of which have been staples of their live show, are as good as anything on their debut record, released earlier this year. The title track may be my favorite song by them so far, in fact, and the EP’s got a stellar remix done by none other than Saint Etienne. That song and the other highlight here, “Falling Star,” in particular have a strong 80’s feeling to them, while “103” and “Twins” owe a debt to both 80’s Jesus and Mary Chain and 90’s bands like My Bloody Valentine. I think I actually enjoy this EP better than I did the LP; at any rate, this will be a band I will be paying special attention to from now on.

milwaukeeatlastIf you’re already a Rufus Wainwright fan, let me just save you some time and tell you this: Go out and get this now. It’s a sublime and essential live record with Wainwright in top form. The set list featured here showcases songs from his last two studio albums, Want Two and Release The Stars, for the most part, and the live versions frequently eclipse the studio ones. (There’s also a DVD version of this live set that features more songs.) If you happen not to be a Wainwright fan, then this is a good place to start if you are wondering what the hubbub about him is, as this is an excellent, exceptionally entertaining introduction to his unique brand of jazz, Big Band and Broadway influenced pop music, often experimental in nature, and featuring a heavy dose of old fashioned showmanship, the latter on full display on Milwaukee At Last!!! Wainwright also has a remarkable voice, known to some audiences owing to his superlative cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I’m not often a fan of live records, but this is Wainwright’s second great live recording in a row, following his recreation of Judy Garland’s famed 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, and it’s definitely recommended. Standout cuts: “Going To A Town,” “Rules And Regulations,” “Not Ready To Love/Slideshow” and “Gay Messiah.”

Pearl Jam – Backspacer

September 26, 2009

backspacerI never thought I’d ever describe a Pearl Jam record as being fun, as I’ve variously found their albums to be serious, earnest, weighty, political or sometimes downright gloomy, but that’s just what their latest record, Backspacer is, a lot of fun. They’re back working with Brendan O’Brien, who produced their now classic debut, Ten, and the result is a straight ahead album rock album with acknowledged pop and New Wave influences. That said, their version of pop influenced rock is as distant from Nickelback or the like as you can imagine. Most of the eleven tracks rock pretty hard, keeping it short and sweet, with most of the songs clocking in around the three minute mark. Notable exceptions to this can be found at the middle and end of the album, “Just Breathe” and “The End,” respectively. “Just Breathe” is a gorgeous track that already ranks among my favorite tracks of the year, and certainly amongst the Pearl Jam songbook, and “The End” is nearly as good, and a perfect closer. Pearl Jam in a good mood, rockin’ it hard? What’s not for a Pearl Jam fan to like? Definitely recommended. Standout cuts: “Gonna See My Friend,” “The Fixer,” “Just Breathe” and “The End.”


September 26, 2009

pandorumPandorum is a science fiction/horror hybrid that starts out promisingly enough, but then loses its grip and meanders into an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s too bad because the movie is initially fascinating to watch, as two men (Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid) wake up after a long sleep aboard a huge spaceship with little or no memory of where the ship is or why they are on it in the first place, or for how long. Foster eventually ventures out into the rest of the ship, and finds it’s infested with mutant cannibals. Pandorum‘s got atmosphere to burn, and some good ideas, but too much of the movie is given over to scenes of guys (and one woman, played by Antje Traue, who is quite good here) just walking and occasionally running around a dark and often noisy environment. The movie resembles a video game in this last respect, as the characters go from level to level seeking a specific goal. The movie also waits way too long to explain what the monsters are and how they got into the ship: Up until then, they are mostly just weird and unpleasant, with ill defined abilities, both of which render them not very scary. (They are rather like the Druids, as explained in This Is Spinal Tap: “Nobody knows who they were…or what they were doing.”) The movie is also lacking in real scares in general and only sometimes works up some suspense, though never enough. It’s certainly not a bad film, nor is it poorly made, but neither is it a must see.


(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

Volcano Choir – Unmap

September 23, 2009

volcanochoirVolcano Choir features a collaboration of two Wisconsin based bands: Collections Of Colonies of Bees and Bon Iver, or, respectively, Jon Mueller, Chris Rosenau, Jim Schoenecker, Daniel Spack, and Thomas Wincek, and Justin Vernon, who fronts the latter band. Some of the nine tracks included on Unmap, their debut record, were written in 2005, predating Bon Iver’s 2008 breakthrough album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Fans of that band’s eerie, ethereal vocals will find those present on Volcano Choir tracks, but some may be put off by the often heavily experimental feel of the music here. Unmap has its share of beautiful, richly meditative moments, but the band has a looser, more improvisational approach, akin perhaps to bands like Animal Collective, but having more in common musically with instrumental work by Brian Eno or Laurie Anderson. The only track I was put off by was “Still,” which employed the now dreaded Auto-Tune for some of its vocals, though it’s possible I’ll return to it later and appreciate it more. All in all, a very worthy effort, recommended for fans of the experimental, and anyone looking for some challenging, largely instrumental rock and pop. Standout cuts: “Husks and Shells,” “Island, IS,” “Mbira In The Morass” and “Youlagy.”

Monsters Of Folk

September 20, 2009

monstersoffolk Not every track on Monsters Of Folk, the self-titled album from the indie folk supergroup composed of Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis (both of Bright Eyes), M. Ward and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) is a winner, but standout material ranks among the best work these artists have yet done. While the majority of the album sticks to Americana, country, rock, pop and, of course, folk, it takes a surprising turn even now and then, too, as with the stellar opening track, “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” which has an old school soul vibe running through it, or “Losin Yo Head,” which melds power pop with a bit of psychedelic rock. The very best songs, “Temazcal” and “His Master’s Voice,” are startlingly good, lyrically provocative and strong, musically arresting and powerful, and are alone worth the price of admission here. Initial interest in Monsters Of Folk will probably be strongest among fans of its individual members, but the quality of its music deserves a broader audience as well. Standout cuts: “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.),” “Temazcal,” “Magic Marker” and “His Master’s Voice.”

lordnewbornI’m very much a fan of Shawn Lee’s work, so the idea of a collaboration between him, Money Mark and Tommy Guerrero sounded pretty great. And having now heard the results, I was not let down. The record features twelve tracks, largely instrumental, and is an eclectic, highly addictive and utterly entertaining mix of jazz, funk, soul, electronica and prog rock, with an array of world music influences added here and there, and there are some video game music and sounds to boot. The recording session for Lord Newborn and the Magic Skulls lasted just two weeks at Money Mark’s Los Angeles studio, amazing considering no aspect of the album seems tossed off or otherwise rushed. There is a sense of fun and playfulness about the whole proceedings, which adds to the enjoyment. If some of it sounds like elements of a soundtrack to a film you think you might have seen, it’s because all the composers have done film work. (Lee also scored the video game Bully.) Recommended for fans of the individual artist, and for those looking for moody, cool sounding theme music for their groovy lives. Standout cuts: “Astro Blue,” “Dime Bag Conspiracy,” “She’s My Melody” and “Crazy Apartment.”