Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fleet Foxes

I haven't come across a new band that I've been genuinely excited about after listening to their debut album in what feels like a number of months. Thankfully, Fleet Foxes came to me after glancing at a review of their Sun Giant EP at Pitchfork (8.7!). I think I've sufficiently documented my rise and fall of emotions associated with Pitchfork through the years, that now I don't even read the content unless the reviewer has given something above a 8.5. Most of the drivel that is written is almost completely incoherent, asinine, and pretentious that it begs to be ignored. In any event, I checked out the Sun Giant EP through various means, and it really took me by surprise. Firstly, the band is comprised of five guys from the Seattle, WA area named Robin Pecknold (vox/guitar), Skye Skjelset (guitars), Nicholas Peterson (drums), Casey Wescott (keys), and Christian Wargo (bass). The immediate comparisons have to be made to Band of Horses and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. All the lead singers' voices sound similar but each have their own unique ways of phrasing and emphasizing their lyrics. The second thing that struck me was the feeling that I was back in my Music History I classroom (well, the tail end of that semester anyway). The class finally got up to the beginning of the Middle Ages and organized Church music and the very beginning of Madrigals. (If you have know idea what I'm talking about I'm sure wikipedia can answer some of your questions). Fleet Floxes start songs with simple melodies and build harmonies on top of them and keep building and adding nuances as the songs goes along, all while maintaining the original musical thought. In fact, Fleet Foxes describe their music as "baroque harmonic pop jams."

Fleet Foxes is an awesome self-titled debut album. It picks up where the Sun Giant EP left off; me begging to hear more. It's a debut from a band that already has the backing of Über-Indie label Sub-Pop. Their current summer tour is probably the last time you'll be able to see them at 100-200 person venues, because when this album finally comes out on June 3rd it is sure to get them a lot of press. I've honestly listened to the album all the way through at least 10 times in the last week. It hasn't gotten old, stale, or boring. In fact, it's one of those albums that if you listen close enough you may hear something new each time you listen. The music itself is a mix of lush harmonies, acoustic and reverb electric guitar, and folk themed lyrics. All of these elements come together to create tunes that have both a breath of fresh air and old-world charm. So, while they may bear a resemblance to Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, the Band or Neil Young, Fleet Foxes is something unique and I still can't wait to hear even more. Check out a couple songs:

Fleet Foxes - Quiet Houses
Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs

Maybe this brings me back to being on the precipice of new releases. Death Cab for Cutie return today with their follow-up to their Grammy-nominated major label debut Plans (2005) called Narrow Stairs. If you're not familiar with "Death Cab" by name you've probably heard of lead singer Ben Gibbard's side project The Postal Service. Either way, the band is back to prove indie bands can be just as credible on major labels. The other closest competition would seem to be The Decemberists, but they haven't put out a follow-up. So, this will be a lesson to see the lay of the land is shaking up. With the might (money) and prowess (advertising) of a major label they are expected to rake in the dollars for their parent company. It must be a hard juggling act for the band since they need to make money but they also need to appeal to their hardcore fans which care much more about the music than how many copies are sold. In addition, the major label would to attract casual listeners who may decide that they like what they hear.

Thankfully, Death Cab doesn't try too hard on this album to reinvent the wheel or grasp at the things that made Plans such a huge hit. While not the runaway great album, Narrow Stairs is a fine listen for a band that is now mature in itself. They know what they do well, and pretty much stick to those things. For example, this album is on the dark side but entirely self-assured. They are still trying to speak to listeners hearts and pull on those strings. Topics of interest are growth and change and how being content may never occur no matter what - not even if you're a rock star, quit your crappy job, or find true love. Some songs are poppier than others, but even those they tend to get right by going with their instincts. Overall, this new album is pretty solid, but less inspired than Plans. It's certainly worth a listen and is sure to keep fans satisfied, but it may not bring in many new ones or convince haters to jump on the bandwagon.

Death Cab for Cutie (Narrow Stairs) - "No Sunlight"

UPDATE: Death Cab on Letterman below

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Black Keys - Attack & Release

The new Black Keys album came out recently and I was excited. They were bringing Danger Mouse into the fold for the production on the album. It would seem to be an interesting choice that would surely bring some new ideas to the table for the Akron, Ohio blues duo. But, along the way there were also some potential red flags. The Black Keys have never recorded in an actual studio before and now they were. Danger Mouse has been known more for his hip-hop work than anything with old-school teeth like blues. Would these things play major factors in what the group produced or would they just be part of the musical story?

After a few listens this much is true of Attack & Release: this isn't the rough around the edges blues-rock the Black Keys have made previously. This album is slick. This album is clean. This album feels polished and buffed. Unfortunately, this album doesn't send chills up your back. To put it another way, Danger Mouse has rubbed off most of the patina to the Black Keys. The music is still recognizable as theirs, but it's lost the dirt and grunge that made it worth so much more. Some things shouldn't be cleaned up and the music of The Black Keys is one of them. The music needs to feel instantaneous like they wrote the song a couple days before recording it. Instead, this album feels deliberate as if they thought, "okay, put crunchy guitar riff here. put shuffle-beat drums here. on second thought let's put this here and maybe this over there." It sounds more premeditated. It sounds like they had too much money and too much time in an actual studio. Don't get me wrong, the album is still quite good, but it's not that vintage Rubber Factory feel. It also doesn't have the same drive as their previous efforts. I don't know if all this can be attributed to the producer and the surroundings, but I like to think it's part of how it happened.

The Black Keys (Attack & Release, 2008) - "I Got Mine"