Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Kings of Leon - Only by the Night

Pretty much the only good thing that I took out of SNL last weekend (9/20) was a couple performances by the band Kings of Leon. I had kinda heard of them but never really made any effort to check them out for one reason or another. This was probably the case because I never had any friends that said, "Ethan you HAVE to listen to the new Kings of Leon album." Maybe they didn't have reason to promote them. Or maybe you think I have bad friends. I dunno. Either way, the two songs they performed in between some awful sketches (with the surprisingly disappointing James Franco) got me interested in them. Kudos to their booking agent! The quick bio/background on the band is they're 3 brothers and a first cousin from Tennessee, and they've released four albums since 2003. Their road to success was somewhat backwards since they became more popular in Europe and the UK when they toured in support of U2 and The Strokes. Their 2007 release Because of the Times reached #1 on the UK charts upon its debut and made them stars in the process. Having not heard much of their back catalog it's hard to know how much their sound has evolved over the course of the last number of years. However, I've basically inferred that they've gone from the "garage to the arena," meaning their last album had a bit of U2-style epic rock songs and melodies. The newest release certainly hammers home that style and feeling.

Only by the Night is actually a pretty good album on the whole. I say this because many rock albums have such a low percentage of interesting (GOOD) songs. Having ditched some experimentation and garage techniques to broaden their audience may have alienated their base, but it will most likely bring in more fans than they'll lose. The tracks on the album are actually set up much like a lineup in baseball: the first track is pretty solid and starts off well, the second is a bit better and gets you more into the album, and then the Kings of Leon give their rendition of Murder's Row. The 3, 4, 5 tracks are really the meat of the album. It's hit after hit after hit. In fact, on SNL they played "Sex on Fire" (track 3) then "Use Somebody" (track 4). After those three hits the album has normal ups and downs with a couple hits sprinkled in, but nothing like the first half of the album. Usually, if the song/melody is lacking Caleb Followill's voice keeps your interest. He definitely has one of those great lead singing voices that is even better when performing live as evidenced by the gig on SNL. It's so emotionally evocative that he could be singing nonsense and give it meaning. Not to take anything away from his brothers and cousin, on the contrary their playing is solid. The lead guitar is echo-y and ringing, the bass is very active and solid, and the drumming holds everything down the way it should. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised when I checked out this newest effort from Kings of Leon. They will be more present on my radar for shows and new releases here on out. Enjoy the lead single below.

"Sex on Fire"

Cold War Kids - Loyalty to Loyalty

I’ve been writing about the Cold War Kids for 2+ years now. I’m not obsessed, but I definitely like their swagger and brand of music. Their debut Robbers and Cowards was an exceptional debut that was highly regarded among the blogosphere (what a stupid word) and print media. The influences and similarities between them and Spoon, The White Stripes and the Walkmen are readily apparent. The low-fi sound is one that suits them quite nicely. It gives their sound a grittiness that is all too often faked to cover up other inadequacies. On the contrary, I enjoy Cold War Kids for having a sound that is unique while sounding familiar. Aside: I have to address this blogging tendency that has annoyed me for a while. I’ve mentioned how there is so much pressure on a band for a stellar sophomore release and much of the pressure comes the imediacy of the blogs. This point was made perfectly by Paste Magazine: “Music blogs are like bad boyfriends. They take a heretofore unknown band, make them feel special with much frothing keyboard clickity-clack, turn them into rock stars, then suddenly lose their number when the next well-coiffed strumpet in skinny jeans strolls by. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes ’n Tapes are probably still, right now, sitting in their living rooms decked out in mascara-smeared prom dresses waiting for Pitchfork to pick them up, wondering why their respective follow-up albums were greeted with such a resounding chorus of crickets.” With all this said, Cold War Kids are back (as if they ever left) with their follow-up album.

Loyalty to Loyalty is a respectable follow-up that is more nuanced and interesting than its predecessor except it lacks the high percentage of potent 180-proof shots/songs such as “Hang Me Up To Dry.” In other words, Loyalty to Loyalty may be better as a whole, but Robbers and Cowards proved to have more singles. This usually means there are more high and low points, but on the newest album it’s just more even throughout. The high points are still really great, but the misses don’t fall as flat. With this being said, I still need a few more listens to see how the album really holds together. The debut was full of so much energy and raw energy that was infectious. Now that I know what to expect, and what they’re capable of are my standards too high? Would it have been possible for my expectations to have been exceeded? I don’t know. It’s just great to have more new tunes from the Cold War Kids.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue

Jenny Lewis is probably one of my favorite lead female singers. But, her prodigious talent goes far beyond just her dynamic voice. She has shown a propensity for writing excellent songs with infectious melodies. I would group her in the upper tiers of her group/brand with the likes of Feist, Emily Haines, Eleni Mandell, and Cat Power. Lewis' background is actually pretty interesting. She's a former child actress having appeared in commercials, tv shows, and a dozen or so movies after being born in Las Vegas and raised in Southern California. After she finished acting in 2001 she started a band named Rilo Kiley with Blake Sennett, Pierre de Reeder, and Jason Boesel. The sound of the band has really taken cues from Lewis' interests in country acts like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Kline, and Lucinda Williams. Starting out with a country twang, the group is now more associated with more of an "downbeat indie rock" sound. Rilo Kiley put out three albums between 2001 and 2004, but it wasn't until 2006 that Lewis ventured out with solo material on Rabbit Fur Coat which was aided by the Watson Twins. Rabbit Fur Coat was a departure from Rilo Kiley and was a coming out party of sorts for Lewis. It demonstrated a musical range and that really put her on musical radars (as if Rilo Kiley opening for Coldplay during their 2005 U.S. tour wasn't enough). Personally, I really enjoyed Rabbit Fur Coat even if some of the songs were knockouts and others seemed a bit rushed.

Going into Acid Tongue I was a bit skeptical since she would be without her stellar backing vocalists the Watson twins. I didn't know how she would do having to support an entire album (ostensibly) by herself. Well, after numerous listens I was horribly mistaken. This album is excellent from front to back. There are collaborations and assistance from the likes of Elvis Costello, M. Ward, Zooey Deschanel, and Chris Robinson. They chip in with backing vocals, a duet (Costello on "Carpetbaggers"), and accompaniment. The resulting album is full of energy, excitement, verve, and genuine emotion. There are ballads. There are country rockers. There is even an epic three song interlude described by Lewis as an "ode to Barbara Streisand and the devil." What more could you ask for in a 9 minute song? Another factor in making this album such a success is that much of it was recorded live. Not live in front of an audience, but live in studio with everyone playing at the same time versus having each part tracked and pieced together digitally. There's a lot of pressure to play well when you're doing that type of recording, but it adds to the excitement and emotion that can't be faked. Believe it or not, the whole album was recorded over a 3 week period and spans 11 tracks clocking in around 47.5 minutes. This album will surely be talked of on Best of 2008 lists in a matter of months. Not only is it a departure from Rilo Kiley, but it's leeps and bounds more mature than her previous solo effort. Jenny Lewis may eventually decide to ditch Rilo Kiley and focus on solo material because she has clearly proved that she can stand out on her own.

"Cartpetbaggers (w/Elvis Costello)"

Monday, September 22, 2008

Horton The Irrelevant & August The Creep - Strange Passengers

One of the difficulties with reviewing an album of an artist that is considered "underground" is the lack of background information available. So, when I tell you that I know very little about Horton the Irrelevant and August the Creep it means I spent a good chunk of time trying to find details about their biography only to come up with scraps. I was tipped off to the duo by my Midwest Hip Hop Guru...yes, I have a hip hop guru. As their label describes them, "They are a decidedly underground group, yet refuse to ignore the influence of a wide-range of Hip Hop perspectives and musical genres." Andy Kaufman a.k.a. August The Creep (the producer) is originally from Connecticut, but met his MC counterpart while in college in Arizona. Horton (G.M. Karter) is from the hip hop wasteland of Madison, Wisconsin and moved to Arizona from college (maybe) where he met Kaufman. Again from their label: "August's travels led him to his native Connecticut, Boston and finally New Orleans. While continuing to make music, mostly focusing on the production aspect, August was displaced from his adopted home by Hurricane Katrina. Disenchanted and disheartened, August was among the minority that returned to New Orleans after the disaster. Known for his dark and layered production, a return to the ravaged city added to his perspective as an individual and musician." Now you know just about as much as I do, on to the music.

Strange Passengers has been out for a number of months (I think since January 2008) and probably will continue to fly under the radar just because that is the nature of this type of release and artist. Overall, the album has it's ups and downs with Horton coursing through 19 tracks in 49ish minutes with various degrees of wit and lyrical dexterity. The production of August is pretty solid overall, considering this was most likely produced in a bedroom or makeshift studio. The tracks I enjoyed most are the ones that are more soul and funk inspired with samples and interesting beats. This is not your commercial hip hop which tends to be kind of cookie cutter with recycled beats and predictable rhythms. This is quite the opposite. The album has both "concept" songs as well as more commercially viable material (read: could be danced to/played on the radio). I would only recommend this album to folks really looking to explore underground hip hop in a form that isn't so far "out there" such as myself. Many times, there is underground hip hop that tries to have too much of a message, or the production is just so spotty that it's hard to appreciate the ideas. Under-funded and under-produced hip hop takes a lot of patience. It takes a disciplined set of ears to hear what could be a great track from an artist or producer that really has no money for studio bells and whistles. In this same vein, I would go into this album with a very open mind. It probably won't blow you away, but if you take the time you'll definitely find at least a few tracks that your head will bob to back and forth.

"The Why"