Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Album Review: The Dodos - Visiter

The Dodos' debut LP begins with one of the most instantly hooky and likable opening tracks of the year. "Walking" struts along to a steady beat, guided by light banjo-plucking and effectively harmless vocals, perfectly easing the listener into an album that will soon lead them into very unfamiliar and often salient territory. Avoiding a fade of any sort, "Walking" rolls right into "Red and Purple", the first track to actually begin to reveal the band's full M.O.

Dodos is an experimental pop duo that hails from San Francisco, sparked in 2006 by the uniting of musical forces between two innovative, out-of-the-box talents. While singer/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Meric Long lends his boyish vocals and country-blues fingerpicking and rhythmic acoustic strumming, drummer Logan Kroeber equally contributes to the sound with an endless library of experimental, syncopated rhythms. Culminating these two very unique musicians' play styles generates a formula that is wildly creative. Although it may be foreign to some, it's ultimately grounded on great pop hooks that lend to its accessibility.

Visiter catapults the listener into the unknown, delivering a sound that shifts between familiar and unfamiliar, native and exotic, creating a constantly invigorating bipolar approach. As we delve further into the heart of a given song, we soon realize that things aren't quite as we anticipated them to play out. The basic song structure (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc.) is often discarded. The timbre of the instruments and vocals jump back and forth from clean to canny, gentle to harsh. The overall tone of a song can unexpectedly switch from subdued to threatening (e.g. "Joe's Waltz"). This idea of "expect the unexpected" is what makes The Dodos such a thrilling listen. One of the triumphs of the album is how, despite its wild and chaotic nature, it is still very approachable for the average listener. At face value the album is immediately welcoming, with its innocent child-drawn cover artwork and cutely misspelled album title.

The Dodos are an incredibly promising new band who, despite a few missteps, successfully pull off the much sought after feat nowadays of creating something completely original, exciting, and stunning. The band manifests a fully fleshed out sound despite only having two members. Visiter is an album that certainly takes time to adjust to and accept. It took me about five or six complete listens to fully become accustomed to the sound. However, I've actually found that my favorite albums of all time are those that I hated at first just because they were so foreign. In my opinion, this is what being a good music listener is all about, forcing yourself to give new material a chance despite how different it might sound from everything else you've ever heard. This is certainly the case for The Dodos, a band that doesn't look like it's going to be extinct anytime soon.

Key Tracks:

Final Verdict: 8.7

The Dodos - Walking

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Album Review: Sun Kil Moon - April

Mark Kozelek is the sole heart and mind behind Sun Kil Moon, which is essentially a continuation of the formula from his last band, the critically acclaimed Red House Painters of the 90s. Throughout Kozelek's career, he has been known to use his songs to paint lush portraits of sorrow and yearning onto a canvas with intimate acoustic ballads that feature his tender, sheltered vocals. While his songs are often mournful, Kozelek usually sheds just enough light onto the darkness to keep us mesmerized rather than distanced. His guitar playing can be simply stunning, as is the case when he delicately plucks and strums with a level of beauty that often stops us in our tracks. The most intriguing aspect of his music is its ability to unravel and reveal itself more and more with each successive listen. While at first many listeners may just hear his songs as being settled and repetitive affairs, more listens reveal how the songs will shift to and fro to expose the innate complexity of the human heart as expressed through music.

I was first exposed to Sun Kil Moon after a spontaneous purchase of Ghosts of the Great Highway at my college’s radio station CD sale. This 50 cent purchase turned out to be one of the best steals I’ve ever been able to pull off. Ghost of the Great Highway is Kozelek's first release under the moniker Sun Kil Moon and marked an undeniable (and sadly overlooked) achievement in 21st century songwriting. While his songwriting was often somber, it never seemed to push the listener away. Rather it drew the curious listener in even further by integrating occasional glimpses of hope and enlightenment. At times on the album, Kozelek also effectively plugged in his guitar to achieve a heightened sense of inner revelation and invigoration through thunderous solos (as heard in the brilliant, Yo La Tengo-esque “Salvador Sanchez”). The album presented Kozelek as a cryptic figure, but one that we could learn more about with repeated listens, as well as one that we actually wanted to make an effort to learn more about.

This marks the main difference between Ghosts and his follow-up April, which arrives five years after his last. While songs on Ghosts often drifted lazily along to a fairly repetitive song structure, they were much more efficient and had just enough subtle deviation to keep us intrigued. April never achieves the lofty heights of his first release, and simply settles into a dreary space that rarely escapes its own dark tone. While the songwriting can be similarly beautiful to Ghosts, the songs themselves are far too repetitive to maintain interest. When listening to a song on the album, there are many instances when we think that Kozelek has gotten as much as he can out of a melody, only to find that he will continue playing it for another three, four, or five minutes. Listening to April reminds me of looking at something beautiful and cyclic in nature. While at first you can’t pull yourself away from studying it and taking in its splendor, after several minutes have passed and you’re still just watching the same thing it can actually take away from the beauty and becomes incredibly boring.

However, there are definitely some tracks that deserve recognition. The opening track “Lost Verses” ranks among one of the more amazing pieces that Kozelek has ever composed. Despite exceeding the 9 minute mark, it maintains its intrigue through a deviating song structure and a stunningly beautiful chorus, featuring backing vocals from Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard. “Unlit Hallway” is also a highlight, which also recruits the help of backing vocals, this time from Bonnie Price Billy's Will Oldman. However, on the whole April is a long-winded affair that favors floating, repetitious songs over the more concise and directional approach that Kozelek took on his previous release. To listen to it from beginning to end requires a huge amount of patience, which makes it much better in small doses or as relaxing background music. I feel like this is the type of album that I will pick up and listen to 10 years from now and completely fall in love with. But for the time being it just doesn’t strike a chord with me like his masterful 2003 release was able to. Take my advice and hold off on this one until you’ve gotten your hands on Ghosts of the Great Highway. If you’re still itching for more Sun Kil Moon, maybe this one will satisfy your thirst more than it did for me.

Key Tracks:
Lost Verses
Unlit Hallway

Harper Road

Final Verdict: 6.5

Sun Kil Moon - Lost Verses

Monday, November 17, 2008

Album Review: Randy Newman - Harps and Angels

Most people my age probably know Randy Newman best for his unforgettable songs from the film Toy Story (or maybe during the brutal representation of him in the Y2K episode of Family Guy). I was once in the same boat as well, that is until I gave a listen to his albums Sail Away and 12 Songs from the beginning of his career in the early '70s, now both commonly considered to be classics in modern singer songwriting history. At surface level, these albums are simply collections of New Orleans-based rhythm and blues delivered through Newman’s trademark, sloppy vocals and lighthearted piano playing. The songs on these albums were often light-hearted affairs, including a range of fantastic characters including the Yellow Man and Simon Smith, who was accompanied by his amazing dancing bear.

However, what Newman is most admired for is his ability to subtly mix in bitingly satirical commentary into much of his seemingly innocent material. For example, while the happy-go-lucky “Political Science” at first glance seems like a bouncy, jovial tune, we soon realize that he uses the song to essentially petition the dropping of atomic bombs on various areas of the world (but don’t worry, he doesn't want to hurt the kangaroos in Australia). It is this undercurrent of cynicism and comical attacks on society that set Newman apart from many of his contemporaries.

Now, over 35 years have passed since Sail Away and Newman has released an album just as bewildering and fantastic as anything he’s ever put out. Harps and Angels brings back all of the elements that made his past classics so cherished and more. First of all I have to mention how stunningly similar voice sounds at 64 compared to when he was 28. While he has always had a distinctive, more elderly sounding voice than appropriate for his age, it has never seemed more appropriate than now. The sincerity of his voice and the frailty that older age brings gives even more weight to ballads like “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home”.

There's also a whole grab-bag of wild, lively songs that are just, plain fun to sit back and enjoy. While “Laugh and Be Happy” sounds like it came straight out of a classic Disney movie (think bluebirds chirping, singing sunflowers, and rolling green hills), there are also fascinating stream-of-consciousness tracks that sound like a rambling Abe Simpson that we actually want to keep listening to. “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country” is a hilarious rebuttal towards people all over the world that constantly accuse America’s horrific leadership under Bush by citing even worse terrors invoked by other political leaders of the past (Hitler, Stalin, etc.).

While Newman is adhering closely to his past success formula, Harps and Angels is even richer than past efforts in terms of instrumentation and backing vocals. Songs like “A Piece of the Pie” and “Korean Parents” exemplify this best, with a whole range of fascinating sonic flourishes popping up and decorating the space around Randy's piano. Instrumentation varying from blaring horns to light woodwinds to accompanying strings, creating a lush and often intriguing atmosphere of sound.

With Harps and Angels, Newman has not just added a cherry to the top of a legendary and influential career, but rather added substantially to the base of his portfolio, creating an even more firmly standing body of work. There truly is not a single bad song on this album, however this isn’t necessarily saying that it’s a perfect album either (as some songs could have been a bit less long-winded). Nonetheless it's an album that, once you've adapted to his style, can become a wonder to listen to from beginning to end. Now at age 64 (with his 65th birthday arriving at the end of the month), we cannot help but predict that this may be one of the final efforts of Newman's lengthy career, and what better way to end a long, wonderful musical journey than with a group of compositions that is both touching and hilarious, both cynical and hopeful, and alternates from wildly eclectic and beautifully bare with startling results.

Key Tracks:
Harps and Angels
Laugh And Be Happy
Feels Like Home

Final Verdict: 9.1

Randy Newman - Laugh and Be Happy

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Album Review: The Black Keys - Attack & Release

In a time when there are only really a couple of well-known blues-rock duos around, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between The Black Keys to The White Stripes. Both bands emerged at the beginning of the decade with minimalist mentalities, understanding that the blues was based on the bare essentials of a guitar and the weeping of a man’s heart conveyed through his vocals. In recent efforts, both bands have begun to evolve their sound as their careers have progressed, although in slightly different ways. While Jack White has steered his ship towards edgier, more frenetic rock innovation, the two boys from Akron, Ohio have tried to elevate their down-to-earth, back-to-basics blues approach to loftier, more atmospheric heights.

With Attack & Release, the Black Keys have enlisted Danger Mouse to produce, picking what would seem to be the perfect man to bring their sound to a daring, new place. Danger Mouse has been popping up all over 2008, including his second LP collaboration with Cee-Lo on their band Gnarls Barkley’s The Odd Couple, as well as producing Beck’s stripped down, crunchy and sometimes brilliant Modern Guilt. Listening through the album, we certainly hear his crafty presence as he struts his stuff with sonic manipulation and instrumentation flourishes. The haunting backing “oohs” on songs like “Psychotic Girl” and “Strange Times” remind us of the desolate soundscapes that he helped create on Gorillaz’ 2005 hit Demon Days. However, his presence is only really noticeable on a handful of tracks, as he seems to be keeping his hands away from the mixing board more often than not.

The album unfolds with the lazy, rolling blues of “All You Ever Wanted” which immediately showcases Dan Auerbach’s strong and soulful voice. The song carries along in a dreary fashion until the last 45 seconds when a tidal wave of organs, electric guitar, and drums come crashing in. The band chugs away throughout the album, alternating between hard-hitting songs led by heavy, fairly straight-forward riffs to slower, soul-soaked blues (see album title for a more concise articulation of this pattern). Auerbach and Patrick Carney (on drums) both sound very tight. However, at times the production seems almost too polished, which actually becomes one of the major faults of the album for me. One of the most treasured parts of The Black Keys’ sound (as also credited to The White Stripes) was their low-fi, raw sound that fittingly matched the stripped down blues they were so respectfully honoring. However, Danger Mouse seems to have cut out the fuzz, revealing the band in stark clarity.

One of the more interesting choices on the album is the pair of tracks in the middle respectively called “Remember When (Side A)” and “Remember When (Side B)”. The first is an atypically trippy blues song that almost floats through a mystic, desolate, percussion-less setting. “Remember When (Side B) is actually just another take on the same song, this time decorated by Auerbach’s most violent wails on the guitar and Carney’s most relentless percussion to appear on the entire album. One can easily see this pairing of songs as a microcosm for the general, two-sided nature of the album, which essentially takes the form of a balancing act between their typical blues rock tendencies and the more otherworldly direction Danger Mouse has taken them in.

There are certainly times when the collaboration with Danger Mouse works wonders. The best pick of the litter is “Same Old Thing”, where Auerbach once again leads with his crooning vocals, while Carney backs with a steady beat, and Danger Mouse crafts his production around a piping flute loop and intermittent, weighty chants that drop with the beat. I also have to mention the most dazzling exhibition of Auerbach’s vocals, which appears on “Oceans & Streams”, with precisely wavering vocals that are simply stunning and which remind us of one of the strongest elements of the band’s success.

The direction that the band has taken on this album can best be summed up by the title of the closing track, “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be”. It’s obvious that The Black Keys have deviated from their past, minimalist blues rock roots with much more refined production values. Since their 2004 release Rubber Factory, the band has noticeably tried to elevate their sound into a more atmospheric realm, which Danger Mouse seems like the most obvious producer pick for. But in doing so they’ve begun to lose some of their identity as one of the best primitive blues rock bands around today. The album is certainly not a failure, exhibiting some of the strongest songwriting of the band’s career. However it all seems a bit lackluster and misguided in the end, often pushing the listener around a bit but never really grabbing and taking hold of them.

Key Tracks:
Remember When (Side B)
Same Old Thing
Oceans & Streams

Final Verdict: 7.1

The Black Keys - Same Old Thing

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sauw's Corner: America Celebrates A Change Of Tune

The results of the U.S. election are in, and simply to say that America has a "new" Commander in Chief moving into the Oval Office would be an unbelievable understatement. Last night marked a significant turning point in U.S. history, and most certainly a turning point for world history as well. With Obama's arrival to the White House, we are ushering in a new era of change and hope that our depleted country so desperately needs. So in celebration of this momentous event, and in accordance with Obama's near universal support among the music community, I've compiled what I call "Obamarama: A Soundtrack for Change" that I feel best captures the spirit, energy, and tone of this turning point in history. Feel free to comment on whether you agree/disagree with my picks, and of course let me know about other tracks that you feel deserve a spot in the compilation. So get out those dancing shoes, clap those hands, move those hips, and feel the Obamarama!

U2 - One
Arcade Fire - Wake Up
Radiohead - Everything In Its Right Place
The Beatles - Getting Better
Brian Eno & David Byrne - America Is Waiting
The Roots - The Next Movement
The Flaming Lips - Suddenly Everything Has Changed
David Bowie - Young Americans

TV on the Radio - Golden Age
Simon & Garfunkel - America
Bob Marley - One Love/People Get Ready
John Lennon - Working Class Hero
Beastie Boys - Right Right Now Now
The Go! Team - My World
Bruce Springsteen - Born In The U.S.A.
Bob Dylan - I Shall Be Released