Friday, September 28, 2007

VHS or Beta - Bring on the Comets

Writing scathing reviews isn't as easy as it would seem since you really need to loath the topic/album in question. It's probably easy for some to hate VHS or Beta, but they're an entertaining dance-punk band that have been flying under the radar for a while but have surged onto radio with their newest album Bring on the Comets. Instead of staying with what they do best on this album they decided to focus on songwriting and squeaky-clean production. This album is kind of like jumping into a time machine back to the 80's pop charts with different guitar sounds. The sweeping choruses, synthesizer arpeggios, catchy hooks all just end up sounding tired on repeated listens. The album isn't bad and it isn't great. It's actually decidedly mediocre. It seems like there is too much polish on each of the songs that leave the listener begging to see if there's anything rough around the edges. It's hard to get into the album when each of the songs sound similar. You know the synth is coming in here or there, you know the sweeping chorus will be executed with precision, you know all of these things after listening to 2-3 songs. Maybe they're trying to be like Daft Punk or channeling The Killers and missing the mark. The single below "Can't Believe a Single Word" sounds like another song but can't figure out what. They need to find a true identity before anyone should say, "Hey put on that VHS or Beta disc."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Band of Horses - Cease to Begin

Hailing from Seattle, Washington, Band of Horses saw a rapid rise to indie-rock stardom with their debut release Everything All The Time (2006, Sub Pop). Combining dreamy guitars, alt-country, and ethereal voice of Ben Bridwell they are most often compared to My Morning Jacket. Upon listening to their debut it was shocking how their voices sounded so similar. In a short amount of time in 2006, Ben Bridwell and his friend Matthew Brooke went from opening act (for labelmate Iron & Wine) to performing on The Late Show with David Letterman. With this much lauded debut also came unexpected changes to the band before recording the follow-up Cease to Begin (Oct. 9, 2007). Matthew Brooke left the band to pursue a solo venture and a couple other members moved away to be closer to their families.

Early reviews of Cease to Begin have been saying this effort is severely lacking. This is only partially true. There are also some differences that are a pleasant surprise. Cease to Begin is less "indie" and more accessible in its directness. Certain hushed or restrained elements on their debut are stripped away to bring Ben Bridwell front and center. It's hard to say this album isn't distinctly Band of Horses in its beauty of sound, but it's less circuitous and more on the straight and narrow. Some say this is a downfall; but that is all they've known. The band has mutated their stripes but hasn't lost them. There are fewer epic songs like "The Funeral," and Mr. Briwell's normal lyrical punch is dampened on a many tracks. His plaintive sighs aren't nearly as interesting as when he's belting out his feelings. Speculation could be that whenever a close band member is no longer around certain dynamics change. What these dynamics were for Band of Horses are a mystery, but from this album it's safe to say Mr. Brooke probably contributed some songwriting depth that leaves Cease to Begin enjoyable but feeling a tad bit thin.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Battles - Mirrored

Nerds making music; it can be a beautiful thing. In a high school setting it's usually in orchestra or marching band. But out here in the badlands of the real world, rock music stardom is typically reserved for the ├╝ber-cool. Too cool for school, per se. Thankfully, Battles (John Stanier, Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, Tyondai Braxton) have arrived to steal some of the thunder with their prog/math rock. Each of these guys have been members of other groups or currently have multiple musical endeavors. In addition, each is a skilled musician and is responsible for several instruments or samples. Good thing there are plenty of layers of sound to go around with keyboards, drums, guitars, bass, vocals, and synths eventually going all at once. For only having been together for less than 2 years, Battles have meshed extremely well to produce an awesome debut album out on Warp Records entitled Mirrored.

Mirrored is equal parts playful rock, angular guitars, driving drums, and synth loops all mixed with the complexity of the quadratic equation to create a surprisingly melodic concoction. Most tunes start off simply and spiral outward to a point where it seems like they're teetering on the brink of confusion and utter disaster, but Battles manages to steer clear of those pitfalls. While on previous EPs the band has been solely instrumental, Mirrored sees vocals (a lot of times distorted) and whistling added to the tapestry for melody and affect. The first single "Atlas" has been voted Single of the Week by NME in the UK and has a pretty awesome video to match. Another great tune is the very first track "Race:In" that catapults you head first into the album. The syncopated rim shots drive forward until a repeated guitar line comes in to hold place for the forthcoming whistling melody that appears front and center. The melodic whistling is eerily reminiscent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs going off to work. The nerdiness of Battles' music seems organic, effortless, and entirely unique rather than over-thought, pretentious, or uninteresting. There is such a wild mix and variety of sounds coming together on this album that each listen brings to light new thoughts and responses. To appreciate this explosion of instruments and technology try and listen to how many layers there are on each song. Each is crafted so precisely, the mind boggles at how great they must be to see live.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fly My Pretties - Live at Bats

Often times finding music from other parts of the world is difficult, but it is made much easier when you have friends who have traveled and lived in wonderful places. One such friend of mine has been nice enough to share with me a few favorites from New Zealand. The second of these acts (first being The Phoenix Foundation) is Fly My Pretties from Wellington, NZ. They are fronted by the Black Seeds' Barnaby Weir and he is backed by anywhere from 8-18 of his musical friends. Musicians from other NZ bands join in the merriment, while Mr. Weir takes song-writing credit for most of the tunes they perform. Fly My Pretties is not your typical band who practice, record an album, tour, write new songs then repeat. On the contrary, Fly My Pretties pretty much just tour and play live. With this great melting-pot of talent, it comes as no great surprise that the music is eclectic; from folk, funk, reggae, rock, to soul. Each song takes on a life of its own, yet sounds distinctly like it could only come from Fly My Pretties.
The debut live recording release Live at Bats was recorded over 5 sell-out shows at Bat Theatre in Wellington. It's somewhat surprising that with 5 shows recorded the album is only an hour long. There is probably some great material sitting on tapes in a basement somewhere in Mr. Weir's house. Luckily, what is included is a great selection showcasing the various styles and genre-hopping Fly My Pretties can accomplish on a nightly basis. While not a huge fan of reggae (because it mostly all sounds the same), their foray into the genre sounds fresh and relaxed and authentic. A couple of the tunes even sound a little bit like Pat McGee Band from way back when. The most endearing songs come as solos or intimate arrangements from Mr. Weir and are more in the folk variety. One such song "Champion" is below from the concert video...and today we're going AV with YouTube!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Aesop Rock - None Shall Pass

Ian Bavitz (aka Aesop Rock) comes from the school of underground hip-hop in NY that made its way to the forefront in the late 1990s/early 2000s. While he has been making music since his debut Music for Earthworms (1997), the spotlight has only been getting brighter since the release of Labor Days (2001) on Def Jux (El-P's Manhattan-based label). This particular release saw Aesop tackle the American labor society and how so many people are essentially slaves to a paycheck. In addition, the single "Daylight" was re-released as an EP all to itself. Aesop Rock's claim to fame is in large part due to his voice and lyrical content. Sometimes he is barely comprehensible, other times his lyrics only vaguely make sense. In some ways, his voice isn't just to spout personal opinions but rather to be part of the production as an instrument or sample unto itself. His production is usually dark, dirty, yet melodic in tone.

None Shall Pass is a great album compared to most of the rubbish hip-hop artists are producing currently. On the other hand, None Shall Pass is just a good album when comparing it to the upper echelons of other underground hip-hop. The main difficulty with the album is the uneven quality of the production. The standout tracks come from guest producers rather than the the ones produced by Aesop himself. Had he stayed away from the production a little more the album would be extremely tight and eclectic from track to track. Unfortunately, when there are a few tracks by Aesop back to back they meld together and become somewhat monotonous. The bulk of production comes from Blockhead, Aesop's long-time producing partner. It's possible that Aesop has learned mostly from his friend, and therefore his sound is too close to that of his buddy's. Aesop Rock's lyrical content on the album is sometimes hard to understand both aurally and technically. His message is usually pretty opaque, but that doesn't mean it's not highly enjoyable. It probably could have been much better had he brought in El-P to produce a couple more tracks or had a guest spot from Percee P. Any way you slice it, this album is incredibly more interesting and nuanced than 80% of the hip-hop currently circulating stereos and headphones today.