Quick Hit Wednesday: Condo – Best of Luck

1 10 2008

No time for a real review, but I am currently majorly digging on Condo’s third album Best of Luck, which is due to be released on October 14th on Rock Park Records. I found their press release a bit funny, as it describes them as “channeling the cool glare of Bauhaus and the Fall with the playfulness of Siouxsie and the Banshees.” The front cover compares them to Jarvis Cocker/Pulp.

Uh, no. Try again.

Condo aren’t innovative or new, and despite their current residency in New York City they are squarely, squarely in the “Britrock” genre of music (their lead singer is British). Think The Editors mixed with a smidge of James, nothing so edgy as Siouxsie. “Judge of That” is the epitome of this 90s throwback sound:

Download Judge of That

Still, the guitars get pretty hard at points on the album, something else I appreciate. The twee-pop standard of a boy-girl duet (ergh; come on? seriously? are we not past that?) turns dark and un-twee on “Left at the Lights,” which starts off sort of boring but picks up around the middle.

In short, Best of Luck isn’t an album that will change your life, but I always like to give a shoutout – however brief – to those doing rock music and doing it well, and the points Condo lose for trying to be trendy (and succeeding – 10 years ago), they gain by being great musicians. Check it out.


Tuesday Teaser: Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

27 05 2008

Oh Death Cab. How I loved you in your pensive, strange We Have the Facts… days, before Transatlanticism was shouted out all over “The O.C.” and before the Postal Service made Ben Gibbard the indie rock phenom and cash cow that he has become. And oh, how I disliked Plans and its lack of real depth, lack of the lyrics that made Ben Gibbard what he always was – an incredible storyteller, and how it seemed that Chris Walla suddenly became perfectionist and overpolished on that record (perhaps because his producer side coming out?).

But lo! What is this? Narrow Stairs feels like old school Death Cab, all backbeat drums and antimelodic pianos and strange melodies becoming a tapestry on which Gibbard weaves his heartbroken storybook.

Oh, I like it. I like it a lot.

I did not like the first single, which has now charted on VH1 (!!!) “I Will Possess Your Heart” until I heard the non-edited version, which begins with almost five minutes of instrumental buzzing, and a weird, paranoid build which creates a mood and context for the lyrics. The music swells, and then when Gibbard’s voice starts, it crawls back to a lull of simple tones while Gibbard goes stalker-creepy with lyrics like:

There are days when outside your window, I see my reflection as I slowly pass
And I long for this mirrored perspective, when we’ll be lovers, lovers at last
You gotta spend some time–love, you gotta spend some time with me
And I know that you’ll find–love, I will possess your heart

You reject my advances and desperate pleas
I won’t let you, let me down so easily, so easily

It’s just perfect, completely perfect, and its too bad the radio edit ruins it and turns it into something far too catchy and poppy. Full version:

Download the better version of I Will Possess Your Heart

“You Can Do Better Than Me” is catchy and poppy in a 50s Beach Boys sort of way, a sound I can’t remember the band ever experimenting with:

It works, though because the mood of the whole album is dark and claustrophobic (you get that album title now?), it works in its modern way, and the sweet refrain “You can do better than me / But I can’t do better than you” ends the song with just pianos. It’s funny that I’ve mentioned the Beach Boys because California (well, okay, Kerouac) is all over this album. And though Death Cab have spoken of California before (the LA hipster haven neighborhood of Silverlake got name-checked on Transatlanticism while Los Angeles itself got an entire song devoted to how crap it was which I mentioned in my post on Los Angeles). But on Narrow Stairs, not only are they channeling the Beach Boys, Death Cab are singing about Bixby Bridge (in Big Sur, which is, I guess, an homage to Kerouac’s Big Sur) and describing wildfires tearing through vineyards in “Grapevine Fires,” hands down one of the most beautiful Death Cab songs ever, about a woman and a man and a child, running twhile a fire closes in:

“Closing in” is a big theme of this album, and the idea that as things close in on you, sometimes you get further away from what you want.

The only place where the album goes a little awry for me is on “Long Division,” which has a fantastic melody but features, um, math puns. Lots of math puns. But is still lovely and catchy as hell and even with the stupid math puns had me bouncing around my living room yelling “Without a remain, remain, remain, remainder!”

“Your New Twin-Sized Bed” is also a little weak, but frankly I don’t care. The portraits of heartbreak on this album are achingly and lovingly painted, and while the portrait may not be comfortable to look at, it sure is spot on. Each song features (seemingly) a different narrator who all share a similar sense of lovelorn hopelessness. The songs connect like a novel (for example, coming directly after the “remainder” refrain of “Long Division” is this couplet from “Pity and Fear,” “If you can’t stand in place you can’t tell who’s walking away / From who remains, who stays, who stays, who stays,” which made the LitGeek in me go “Ooooh! Parallelism!” I’ll leave the rest of the interpretation of this very literary album to you, dear readers, if you so wish, but if you prefer to just let this lovely album wash over you, I think you can do that as well. It ends with a sort of non-ending. “The Ice is Getting Thinner” just stops, as if the narrator has silently slipped under, and it is heartbreaking, but somehow completely fitting, a finalized slam-shut of a book.

Oh, band. My band. You are back! I am no longer embarrassed to have a silk screen of one of your concerts up on my wall! I hope that with Postal Service and Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla’s solo work that you aren’t slamming your book together shut, because when you’re good, you’re very very good.

Belated Tuesday Teaser – Dizzee Rascal Maths + English

7 05 2008

Sorry this is late, guys. I have been burning the midnight oil at my other two jobs and have found little time to write.

I had wanted to promote this album a little because 1) I think it’s fantastic and 2) How many British hip hop artists (REAL hip hop artists) can you think of? I can name…Dizzee. And, um, Ms. Dynamite. So Solid Crew? The Streets if you’re really stretching the definition of hip hop. And that’s it. Sure, there are more, but those are really the only ones to have made it Stateside, and even their success has been at best, a modest fawning of indie rock critics and play on alty radio stations. Brits aren’t really known for the drugs-and-guns culture that produces hip hop, though I can tell you for a fact that it exists. In fact, knowing what I know about the grittier sides of London and Scotland’s cities, I’m surprised there isn’t more hip hop from Britain. Scotland: The most murderous place in Europe! True story!

Oh, and don’t mistake me. I’m not saying the correlation between hip hop and violence is hip hop music causes violence. I’m saying the correlation is more like violent neighborhoods will spark outcries for justice by any means necessary, and because hip hop is a pervasive outlet for America’s urban ghettos, it wouldn’t be too illogical to say that Britain’s urban ghettos might follow suit with the music that gets created. Not so, of course, and there are a lot more socio-economic factors at work here than I care to discuss. Dizzee Rascal is one of the exceptions, and his life story reads similarly to that of most American hip hop artists, having grown up in a gritty East London neighborhood on council estates (the equivalent of the projects in America); he was involved with petty violence as a teenager before being “saved” by music and having his frustrations about the poverty and violence he faced as a young person explode in fascinating hip hop tracks.

Maths + English, which was released last year in the UK and finally got its US release a week ago, represents a departure for Dizzee. Every single track on the album could be played on American hip hop radio and fit right in, aside from Dizzee’s thick London accent. Previously, he experimented with blip hop, hip hop over computer-generated noises that sounded a lot like what comes out of a Playstation (there were erroneous rumors he recorded Boy in Da Corner, his first major release, on a Playstation) and his first efforts could be lumped in quite nicely with The Streets and other UK Garage and grime outfits (I have to call it UK Garage, meaning the hip hop-influenced genre of music that sprung from Britain’s late 90s house music explosion, rather than just garage, which for me, refers to early 1980s rock from New York City).

Maths + English still has Dizzee’s signature awesome blip hop beats, as in “Flex,” which, if I may influence any Seattle-area DJs, would sound bangin’ on the dancefloor with the bass turned up:

But he’s evolved to incorporated some really rockin’ guitars, straight synth beats and some old school drum machines and breakbeats (along with the requisite sirens) as in “Sirens”:

There’s no denying that track has finesse and flair in its production, has something to say both lyrically and musically, and is pretty confident and comfortable with itself.

“G.H.E.T.T.O” follows the format of other hip hop artists bragging how hardened they are and how hardened you are not, and how close to the streets they still are:

I’m G.H.E.T.T.O
Please don’t act like you don’t know
I stay called up when I roll,
I’m a lot of things but I’m not slow
I’m G.H.E.T.T.O
Hot and still my heart is cold,
I’ve been known to lose control
Cause problems everywhere I go.

So, alright, no new and innovative themes here; but my point is that Dizzee is making hip hop that isn’t distinctly in a category of British music anymore (i.e. UK Garage or grime), and he is doing it with an agility as an MC and producer that isn’t seen much anymore.

The album isn’t merely brilliant for what I think is an ability to “fit in” to some Americanized radio-friendly hip hop while still retaining its individuality. No, there are new and exciting things happening in many of the tracks. “Temptation” features Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys, and his vocals surprisingly lend a sense of gravity and seriousness over Dizzee’s furiously speedy spitting of the lyrics. Perhaps what is most surprising about this album is Dizzee’s lyrical agility. Personally, I’d like to see him and Twista get into a battle. I’m not sure who’d come out on top. “Excuse Me Please” is political and lyrically astute, about life in the London ghetto. It’s not a very cohesive album, but there is some amazing, innovative stuff here.

Finally, I want to give a wee mention to “Wanna Be,” the track that features Lily Allen. I can’t honestly decide if this track is brilliant or annoying. Allen’s voice kind of grates on my nerves anyway, but she is kind of cute here, except I’m not sure “cute” is what Dizzee should be going for. Except it’s fun. But annoying! Oh, I don’t know. Critics were similarly split with about half the reviews I read picking it as their favorite track and one reviewer describing it as “the worst assault on my ears in 2007.” I’ve listened to it like 6 times since I bought the album, so there must be something there, but I have to admit I sort of listen to it the way I listen to a track from Fergie Ferg, because it’s kind of a tranwreck. Here it is, decided for yourself:

Download Wanna Be

Read the Pitchfork review of the album.

Tuesday Teaser – This Is Ivy League

29 04 2008

I am privileged to work with someone whose love of music almost outweighs mine, and today she came into my office with “This will make your day.” And it did, so today I bring you This is Ivy League.

I had planned today to write about Dizzee Rascal, but he can wait until the weekend. Instead, allow me to introduce you to Ivy League, some very adorable Brooklyn twee pop scenesters. I know, I know. It sounds overly arch, and it probably is. They wear sweater vests on the album cover and sing about Japan. Normally I would say, “Eh. Decent indiepop, if you want to listen to some faux Belle & Sebastian” but there’s just something about Ivy League that break the mould of happy, clappy indiepop. Not to say they aren’t happy and also clappy. Consider “The Richest Kids In Town”:

Goodness. That is some well-produced, funny, slick indiepop. That lovely, punchy rhythm section added to the Belle & Sebastian-eque horns make for some great music for this time of year, with the promise of summer looming just over the horizon.

This is Ivy League is their first full-length album. Both of the boys in the band – Alex Suarez and Ryland Blackinton – are from a band called Cobra Starship. Hrm, you are thinking. Cobra Starship. Vaguely familiar…

…Remember Snakes on a Plane? Remember the theme song, “Bring It (Snakes On A Plane)”? No? Well, you are a better person for it. That song – admittedly the only Cobra Starship I’ve ever heard – is patently awful. So imagine my surprise when the people behind brilliant lyrics like “Times are strange / We got a free upgrade for snakes on a plane / Fuck ’em, I don’t care. / Bought the cheap champagne, we’re going down in flames, hey” were also behind these fantastic ditties called “A Summer Chill” and “Visions of Tokyo” respectively.

I tend to think most indiepop sounds relatively alike, and it usually does. Maybe if I had heard Ivy League three months ago, when the album came out, I would have been underwhelmed. But at the moment I think that “The Richest Kids in Town” will be Spring’s new anthem and I expect I’ll be listening to them all season, or until I drench myself in summer hip-hop.

Tuesday Teaser – Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid

22 04 2008

Someone whose musical chops I admire very much told me to give this album by Manchester-area rockers Elbow a listen just last week and lo and behold today is its US release date, thus its inclusion on this blog. I will admit to not knowing a lot about Elbow. I have Leaders of the Free World, their album of 2006, and I like it, mostly because of the strange, compelling voice of lead singer Guy Garvey, but I haven’t really sat down and thought about it. The person who recommended this to me did it on the basis of my love of Arab Strap, and I can see how the two bands have a certain sense of the miserable in common, but Elbow have such a lovely, dreamy-but-rocktastic, melodic sound to them, it would be hard for me to draw much comparison to the Strap. Like Arab Strap, though, they write beautiful lyrics, and I am glad they were rec’d to me.

The Seldom Seen Kid is kind of all over the place as an album, musically. Flamenco, country, blues-rock, you name it, its on here. I’m not entirely sure it holds up as a cohesive album, but there sure are some lovely moments.

The Spanish-influenced “The Bones Of You” is one of my favorites (“I love the bones of you / That I will never escape”). Lyrics of longing with that distinct musical flair. What is not to like? The song starts almost in medias res with a nonchalant “So I’m there” and then crams in this loaded, lovely little simile “Cramming commitments like cats in a sack / Telephone burn and a purposeful gait.”

The chorus soars above those Flamenco guitars and rich vocal harmonies:

And it’s you, and it’s May
And we’re sleeping through the day
And I’m five years ago
And three thousand miles away

Download The Bones of You

Amen to that. Fantastic, right? And it doesn’t sound like anything else out there as far as I know, which makes Elbow – even in their more miserable moments – somehow sunny and refreshing.

One of the other reviews of the album I read ends with the following assessment:

Those who find Elbow drab will still probably be unmoved by this Talk Talk-inspired band’s latest. But for everyone else who likes to be moved, relaxed, and cheered by superior, soulful Mancunian lullabies, The Seldom Seen Kid is essential.

That is probably a pretty fair statement. And yet there is something more than “soulful Mancunian lullabies” to be had on this album. That review gives the impression that it’s all slow, contemplative, and a lot of it is, and yet the solidly blues influence of “Grounds for Divorce” hints at a much more upbeat enthusiastic Elbow:

(sorry for the poor sound quality; not sure what happened when I ripped it)

I would say that based on my surface knowledge of Elbow, this album is probably their biggest chance to get really noticed here in the States. It’s smart, it’s catchy, it’s beautiful and it’s accessible. It is also their first self-produced album, and there’s a level of perfectionism here that’s been absent in previous efforts. To many bands (like, say, Arab Strap) that kind of over-production would make songs feel too rehearsed and static (like say on Arab Strap’s The Last Romance), but for Elbow peeling away their musical layers only adds to their dreamy charm.

Tuesday Teaser – M83: Saturdays=Youth

15 04 2008

Alright guys, so I’ll upfront and say there are no samples here because I am broke and I bought this album on iTunes and need some CDs to strip the protection to post as mp3’s.


My recommendation, if you’re going to buy 1 new album this week, is to purchase French shoegaze band M83’s new one Saturdays=Youth, which is out today, and then go to your nearest hipster bar and pick up a member of your preferred gender and take him or her home to have a listen. He or she will be putty in your hands!

Saturdays=Youth is a lovely dreampop effort with a lot of 80s influence, gorgeous harmonies, and is just generally one of those albums that makes you feel like you’re in some sort of lovely, sun-saturated movie taking place on the French Riviera. Supercool, super laid back, and absolutely gorgeous. Exactly what you want someone to think of you, right?

The current single is “Graveyard Girl,” which features this very strange goth-poem interlude, but that can be ignored since the rest of the song is just perfection. “Dark Moves of Love” is retro-synth at its best, and, like their countrymen Air, M83 don’t skimp on the reverb or on the harmonies, which all combine for an album I’d highly recommend the next time you want to smooch with a dreamy indie boy or girl. It’s an album made for kissing. The second half dissolves a bit into noise and ambient music, and “Midnight Souls Still Remain” is 11 and a half minutes of sound with little actual songwriting going on, but by then you’ll be having hot hot makeouts, so it won’t matter.

So I don’t have any samples, but I just told you how to smooch with dreamy indie boys or girls; I think I’ve done my duty this Tuesday.

Tuesday Teaser – Tapes N’ Tapes, Walk it Off

8 04 2008

So there are some notable brand new releases today. The Breeders, for example, have a new album out call Mountain Battles which is probably amazing (cos Kim is hot) and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have one called Dig, Lazarus, Dig!! which sounded, at first listen, more like Nick’s other band Grinderman and less like the Bad Seeds, which, personally, I am OK with (not that I have anything against the Bad Seeds; I could listen to Nick Cave read the friggin’ phone book). But I’m going with a less well-known group of musicians this Tuesday, in the hopes (and assumption) that dear ol’ Kim and Nick will get their due somewhere else.

So Tapes N’ Tapes it is, then.

The Minneapolis band’s 2005 debut The Loon was widely regarded as a brilliant album, with many reviewers lauding the band for taking the best of Pavement, Modest Mouse, and Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah! and making something new and innovative out of it.

I agreed at the time. The Loon never became a favorite album of mine, but I liked it a great deal and heard something extremely promising in Tapes N’ Tapes’ sound. Sure, it was a little derivative, but the obvious talent made up for the slight lack of originality. It seemed that Tapes N’ Tapes were a soon-to-be-great band still finding their voice.

Cut to 3 years after their debut. I’d forgotten they existed until I looked at the albums out on April 8th in the US. “Oh hey!” I thought. “I remember them!” So I picked up Walk It Off and gave it a listen.

Still derivative. “Headshock” proves it:

Damn if that’s not Modest Mouse. The vocals? The guitars? Everything.

Which is a shame because when Tapes N’ Tapes get it right, they get it really right, and on Walk It Off they get it really, really right with “Conquest.”

Ok, they still sound a little bit like about a zillion other bands here, but listen to those vocals, man. Josh Grier’s voice is absolutely flooring. Better than Isaac Brock. Better than Win Butler (from Arcade Fire). Maybe not as good as Malkmus, whom Grier is clearly channeling on “The Dirty Dirty” (and on much of the rest of the album):

Still, there’s something here, right? And those pounding guitars on “Conquest,” full of such nervous sexual energy? Tasty. And did I mention those vocals? Because, um, I say yes, please to Josh Grier. Also, they have a song on this album called “George Michael” which is very dark and moody, but which I like to think is somehow about Arrested Development.

“Say Back Something” is also a song on which I think they showcase their own sound, trading the electric guitars for an acoustic one, still with a symbol-heavy percussion backbeat. It is lovely, haunting (but, um, sounds a little like Band of Horses…NEVERMIND INNOVATIVE ENOUGH) and very beautiful in a sort of make-your-heart-ache way. That, along with “Conquest” really seem to be the only two examples of their own sound on the album.

It’s maddening to me because I still believe they are a great band; this CD was produced by Dave Fridman of the Flaming Lips and with that much rockin’, badass talent in the studio, it should have showcased the clear virtuosity of the band; it should have been great. And it’s not. It’s boring. It’s so boring I don’t have a lot else to say about it.

They just played SXSW and I have no doubt they put on one hell of a good time live (or at least it sounds like they should) and maybe I am being too hard on them because, let’s face it, Modest Mouse are a great band, the Arcade Fire are a great band. Being Modest Mouse The Sequel or Arcade Fire 2 isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you can keep up with those guys, good on you, I guess. I’m just pretty sure this band is meant to be more.

Tapes N’ Tapes? Hi! I’m watching you for that fantastic CD I know is in you. I hope to see it soon.

Download Conquest.