Monday, December 31, 2007

The Shins - Wincing The Night Away (Sub Pop, 2007)

The Shins
Wincing The Night Away
Sub Pop


Rating:  7 slobbering goats out of 10

The new Shins album is mostly more of the same, but would you really want anything different?  After they got picked up by the mainstream due to their inclusion in the film “Garden State”, it seems only natural that longtime fans would be a bit concerned that the band might try to cater their style to fit better into the mainstream.  Luckily, they’ve decided just to do what they do best – write simple, catchy pop songs with a hint of 1960’s nostalgia, all wrapped up in a pretty package that is James Mercer’s signature voice.   The record starts off very strong with “Sleeping Lessons” and “Australia,” my two favorite tracks on the album and some of the most upbeat material they’ve released in a while.  Another fine song is “Red Rabbits,” which sounds as if it was recorded during the “Oh, Inverted World” sessions, got lost, and was recently rediscovered.  One track stands out like a sore thumb on the album though – “Sea Legs” - comes off like the band got drunk one night and tried to write a Beta Band song.  It isn’t really good or bad, just a strange inclusion into this otherwise smooth sailing of pop goodness.

Shout Out Louds - Our Ill Wills (Merge, 2007)

Shout Out Louds
Our Ill Wills

Rating: 7 diablo drinks out of 10
The debut album by the Shout Out Louds, “Howl Howl Gaff Gaff,” was a pop record through and through, but it has nothing on the shimmer and hooks contained in their sophomore follow-up “Our Ill Wills”.  Gone is any inkling of a rock edge, and in its place they’ve polished up all the rough bits and made a product so shiny you’ll need sunglasses to look at it.  I suppose that could be good or bad depending on the listener - were I forced to pick between their two releases, I prefer their first album; but this second record is so crammed full of catchy songs it would be really hard not to enjoy this newest outing by the band.  If you can imagine a combination of Swedish twee outfit Acid House Kings and British make-up aficionados The Cure, you’ll get a general idea of what the Shout Out Louds have to offer (the second comparison being especially apt, since the singer of the Shout Out Louds has an eerily similar voice to that of Robert Smith of the Cure).  A band certainly worth checking out for any fan of pop music, be it their first record or this newest one; you’ll most likely not be disappointed either way.

Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam (Domino, 2007)

Animal Collective
Strawberry Jam

8 jars of jelly out of 10

I never quite understood all the buzz behind Animal Collective...sure, they were making some interesting sounds, but the songs weren't terribly listenable in my opinion. This new record “Strawberry Jam” is a beast of a different color though – it would appear they took their layered psychedelic folk and infused a heavy dose of pop hooks into the new songs. There are any number of reasons how this might have happened – the band maturing, a shift in my own tastes as to what a pop song is, or any other number of reasons. Either way, the bottom line is I find myself playing this album over and over, trying to sing along even if I don't always know what the hell they are saying but I do have the melody memorized. I wouldn't be surprised if the band's new found catchiness turns off some of their older fans, because it is a departure from their origins...but it will undoubtedly attract a new group of listeners as well, probably even more than they might possibly lose.

Sunset Rubdown - Random Spirit Lover (Jagjaguwar, 2007)

Sunset Rubdown
Random Spirit Lover

7.5 out of 10

It's pretty obvious that Spencer Krug doesn't like idle time...watching TV, goofing off with friends, hanging out in coffee shop, whatever. It's just not possible, because if he ain't writing/playing/recording/touring with Wolf Parade, or helping out with Frog Eyes, he's making even more new awesome music with his solo gig Sunset Rubdown. This is his third release under this moniker in the past three years; and while Sunset Rubdown was meant as an outlet for his more “adventurous” songs, I honestly couldn't tell you what the difference is between a Sunset Rubdown track and a Wolf Parade one most of the time. If anything, the songs might be a little mellower on average, but not profoundly so. All of his music continues to mine a strange world where folk psych has been married to glam rock...lots of instruments and layers to the music, often a sea of chaotic noise with islands of pop brilliance. “Random Spirit Lover” might actually be my favorite of all of his solo works, and nearly as good as the Wolf Parade modern masterpiece “Apologies to the Queen Mary”, and that is no short praise in my book.

Thee More Shallows - Book of Bad Breaks (Anticon, 2007)

Thee More Shallows
Book of Bad Breaks

Rating:  7.5 sideways visors out of 10
Anticon, though primarily known as a hip hop label, are clearly not afraid to branch off into new territories - such as this album “Book of Bad Breaks” by Thee More Shallows.  A staple of the San Francisco rock scene for years, this third album may not be as great as their sophomore effort “More Deep Cuts” (one of the best records of the decade for my money), but it shows a willingness to explore new directions, and does so successfully.  Apparently head songwriter for the band Dee Shallows befriended fellow Anticon label mates Odd Nosdam and Why? over the past few years, working with them in various capacities  - contributions on each others records, collaborative remixes, you name it.  The influence of these partnerships are obvious on this album, combining the classic Grandaddy-esque sound of Thee More Shallows with all manner of electronic beats and clicks and pops and feedback and whatever else you think of when you think of production on most Anticon albums.  It really works much better than I would have ever though on paper, like deep frying a twinkie – it sounds like a bad idea until you taste the results. 

Boris with Michio Kurihara - Rainbow (Inoxia, 2007)

Boris with Michio Kurihara

7.5 double rainbows out of 10

Japanese rockers Boris are best known for their drone-laden stoner metal output, but when teamed with legendary guitarist Michio Kurihara (probably best known as a member of the band Ghost) the output is worlds apart. Not that I really expect anything else from Boris, they have proven over the years to be more than willing to collaborate with others (Merzbow, Keiji Hainoi, Sunn O)))) and come up with fresh new music, but this release might be my favorite of theirs, be it solo or with others. It’s a droney, noisy psyche-freakout masterpiece, that if you listened to it in bits and pieces it might sound chaotic and nonsensical, but as an album it works beautifully. There’s really nothing metal here at all, and this is easily as melodic as Boris have ever sounded; in fact, there are a number of moments where the record almost sounds like some of the mellower output of Mogwai. This is really top-notch music, and different enough to bring new fans to Boris without alienating their older ones.

The Most Serene Republic - Population (Arts & Crafts, 2007)

The Most Serene Republic
Arts & Crafts

7 Canadian tuxedos out of 10

Canada rock – so hot right now. It's like the whole damn country can do no wrong musically. “Population” is The Most Serene Republic's second full-length, but the sound is so fleshed out and mature you'd think they have been around for ages. As unbelievable as it seems, they have somehow made their songs sound even fuller, packing instruments and harmonized vocals one on top of the other to the point where at times it sounds as if it might collapse in on top of itself. Song-wise, the EP they released just before this album (“Phages”) was a hair stronger, but “Population” more than holds its own. If you've never come across this band and want to know what they sound like, try to imagine if someone took Broken Social Scene, Aloha and The Polyphonic Spree, stuffed them in a sack, then shook'em around and dumped them in a studio with about a million different instruments at their disposal. The results may not be for everyone but they really paint my wagon.

The Makes Nice - This Time Tomorrow (Frenetic, 2007)

The Makes Nice
This Time Tomorrow

8 vintage suits out of 10

There is no shortage of great bands in the Bay Area right now, and you could easily make an argument that The Makes Nice are the best of the new breed. This trio is a “supergroup” of sorts, at least in my mind, as all three members were once or still are members of other San Francisco or Oakland bands that I've been a big fan of for years (The Fuckin' Champs, Harold Ray: Live in Concert, and The Mothballs). “This Time Tomorrow” is their sophomore effort and second album of the year, and word on the street is they write songs like Robert Pollard on speed so hopefully the pace that they are putting out new music will continue, especially if the quality is this high. If you're looking for a description of their sound, try to imagine the best possible combination of late seventies/early eighties power pop bands like The Nerves, 20/20, and Shoes crossed with fuzzy late sixties rock groups like The Small Faces and early Kinks. The Makes Nice may sound like some group of stuck-in-the-past music snobs, but trust me – this is now music and some of the best pure pop coming out these days.

Why? - The Hollows EP (Anticon/Tomlab, 2007)

The Hollows EP

8 question marks out of 10

Why? have always been an extremely hard band to pigeon hole – they release their albums on the well respected hip hop label Anticon, but their music is a strange hip hop/indie rock hybrid that sounds like nothing else in the world (ie sounds nothing like the "Judgment Night" soundtrack). The main man behind Why?, Yoni Wolf, has his spoon in many pots, from his other group cLOUDEAD to collaborations with Thee More Shallows, Xiu Xiu, Subtle, Themselves, and god knows who else. I don't even know when the dude finds time to sleep.

Why? has just released not one but two EPs around their new song “The Hollows” (some might say these are just singles with bonus tracks, but I'm not sure where you draw the line with this sort of thing so I'm calling them EPs) – one EP to be released in the U.S.A. On Anticon, and another to be released in England on Tomlab with an entirely different set of songs outside of the title track. Consider this a review of both EPs. If you heard the band's previous record “Elephant Eyelash”, the title track of both EPs is very much a continuation of that sound, overflowing with catchy, quirky lyrics delivered in Yoni's unique speak/sing/rap style. But the real prize for both releases is the second track on the US release, a Dntel remix of a previously unreleased track that is one of my favorite songs I've heard all of those tracks that you keep playing over and over and putting on mixes for your friends until they get sick of you talking about it. The British release also contains a remix, this time by Boards of Canada, a fine track in and of itself but when compared against the other, it just can't measure up. After that, each record has a couple of covers – not Why? covering other artists as is usually the case in these situations, but rather other artists (Half Handed Cloud, Dump, Nick T, Xiu Xiu) playing Why? songs.

My only complaint is that these tracks were thrown on split releases instead of put out as one long player, but the music is so damn enjoyable it is hard too get too upset over such a minor inconvenience.

Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond (Fat Possum, 2007)

Dinosaur Jr.
Fat Possum

8.5 baby brontosaurus teeth out of 10

I’m sure like most music fans, you’ve sat around bored and daydreamed about “what if” one of your favorite bands got back together. For me, this mostly revolved around The Misfits, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, The Smiths, The Clash (before Joe Strummer died), and Dinosaur Jr. The sad truth is that when these reunions actually do happen, it rarely sounds as good as it did “back in the day”, and you’re left a little disappointed. Even worse is when a reunion is claimed but half of the original band fails to show and you get a bunch of random fillers playing the part of your childhood heroes. There are the odd exceptions like Wire and Mission of Burma who have had successful reunions, but I’d guess the batting average is pretty low. But you still keep hoping and hoping that former band mates put away the differences that tore them apart and rejoin forces like Voltron. A non-shitty Voltron that is, cause that was a pretty shitty cartoon and toy in actuality.

Well, Dinosaur Jr. are back, and I'm stoked. And we’re not talking the later era of Dino here – this is the real deal original line-up with Murph on drums and Lou Barlow (who has also recently reformed Sebadoh) on bass and additional vocals. The songs they’ve written for this album sound like they were pulled straight from a time capsule labeled “1990”, and I mean that in the best possible way – fans of the band’s glory days will not be in the least bit disappointed in the new material. Songs like “Crumble” and “Been There All The Time” I would already include in any greatest hits package for the band, and “Back To Your Heart”, sung by Lou, would probably find a place on there as well. I can’t imagine anyone who grew up on Bug and You’re Living All Over Me not professing this record as one of the best releases of 2007.

Clinic - Funf (Domino, 2007)


6.5 outpatients out of 10

After four full-length records and a number of EPs, Clinic decided it was time to release an odds-n-sods b-side know, for the fans. Not that someone totally new to this quirky “The Fall meets The Pixies” quartet from Liverpool, England couldn't enjoy this record, but it's probably not the best place for those folks to start (I'd personally point such a soul towards their sophomore release “Walking With Thee”, though any of the full lengths would be more than acceptable). The very nature of these sort of compilation albums lead to a very fractured track-listing, and mostly serve as a “thank you” to fans of the band that may not have the wherewithal or funds to track down all of their singles. People like me, to put it more succinctly. No doubt, anyone who enjoys their albums will be well pleased with this release, and should certainly search it out; I've long held that Clinic are dreadfully underrated, and while this album probably won't change that any it never stops me from crowing on about them.

Form & Fate - The Form and Fate of Lakes (Three Ring, 2007)

Form & Fate
The Form and Fate of Lakes
Three Ring

6.5 glacial movements out of 10

At this point you could probably say that everything that is gonna be done within the realm of “post-rock” has been done, or at least that is how it feels to this simpleton. So it becomes more important than ever to look at quality over substance, and Form and Fate have quality bursting out all over. I’ll drop the easy comparisons here: Explosions in the Sky, From Monument to Masses, Mogwai, the usual suspects. Now they don’t really sound like any of those bands exactly – not quite as cinematic as EITS, not full of political vitriol like FMTM, not as “sounds like a depressing rainy day in Glasgow” as Mogwai – but fans of those heavyweights should certainly give these new kids a listen. They may not have the name recognition of these godfathers of the sound but they aren’t lacking a thing musically – a high-quality debut from start to finish.

The Felice Brothers - Adventures of the Felice Brothers Vol. 1 (Team Love, 2007)

The Felice Brothers
Adventures of the Felice Brothers Vol. 1
Team Love

6.5 washboards out of 10

This album was recorded in a chicken coop, or so every review says. I'm sure that is pertinent information for the trivia set, but you can't hear any chickens on the recordings so I'm not sure it ultimately matters. What does matter is this album comes the closest to replicating their live show, a ramshackle conflagration of bluegrass, zydeco, country rock and Bob Dylan impersonations. This isn't my favorite set of their songs (that would be their 2009 record "Yonder Is the Clock"), but it is the best sounding of all their releases. So Maybe that chicken coop is pertinent after all, maybe it was the fumes of old, dried up chicken shit that led to a quality sound.

Oh, and if you're looking for their most popular song, "Frankie's Gun", this is the album it's on. Just an FYI.

The National - Boxer Beggars (Banquet, 2007)

The National
Beggars Banquet

Rating: 8 walking weirdos out of 10

Maybe you've heard of The National...they blew up the scene a couple of years back in 2005 with their release “Alligator”, finishing on tons of best-of lists and fluttering up the ruffled dresses of music bloggers around the world. Personally speaking, I thought the album was weaker than the “Cherry Tree” EP they released a year earlier, but they were a good band who deserved a little hype, even if it wasn't over the best music they had produced (but still a damn good album in the grand scheme of things).

So now they have a new record out called “Boxer”, and the question everyone wants the answer to comes to mind – how does it measure up to their previous output? Bands so often fall off after they receive a little critical acclaim, thinking too much about what to do next, how the critics would react, would they be able to grow their sound without alienating their older fans...well, in this case, you'll find no slump. The National are as sharp as ever, producing their best work to date as far as I'm concerned. It sounds like their older albums, maybe a touch peppier if anything, and there isn't a weak song in the entire batch.

For those not familiar with the group, their sound is a tad difficult to describe – the best I've ever been able to come up with is Interpol with David Berman of the Silver Jews singing. Honestly, it feels a bit disingenuous to use Interpol as a touchstone since The National have actually been on the scene longer, but hey, it's a reference the kids will get so I'm not going to make a fuss over it. If it gets you in the stores buying their record, then it is a comparison worth making. And let it be known, in the event you are keeping score, I'd rather listen to The National any day of the week over Interpol.

Deerhoof - Friend Opportunity (Kill Rock Stars, 2007)

Friend Opportunity
Kill Rock Stars

7.5 facebook requests out of 10

I’m looking at the Deerhoof discography, and I can’t believe that “Friend Opportunity” is their 9th album…this not only means that this San Francisco band has been producing quirky pop music for 10 years, but it also means that I’m getting really old (which I suppose is a subject best left for another time). The fantastic thing about the ‘Hoof is they feel just as strange and fresh on their 9th album as they did on their first – you never know what you are going to get, not just album to album, but song to song. The record has about anything you can think of, from straight-forward pop songs to Bjork-like musical numbers to repetitive kraut-rockish moments to songs that I have no idea how to describe, like the track “Kidz Are So Small” which is sung from the perspective of a dog talking to its owner. Truly, there is no one quite like Deerhoof, and they just seem to keep getting better and better with each passing album.