Apr 282010

The Shondes, My Dear One

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Artist: The Shondes
Album: My Dear One
Label: Fanatic Records
Release Date: Tueday, 2010.5.4
Score: 9.5/10

I’ve often harped on the importance of Sophomore albums. They’re easily important as first and last albums, and perhaps even more so if the band wants to have any sort of longevity. So it’s my pleasure to say that the second album from The Shondes is good. Really damned good.

Loyal readers (there have to be at least a few of you) will remember that The Shondes released one of my favorite albums of 2008. That debut (Red Sea) was one of the most original and important albums of the year. It was also awesomely fun and rocked pretty damned hard.

Well, The Shondes’ sophomore effort is about to hit the market and, thanks to the good folks at Fanatic Records, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten my hot little hands on a copy. And it’s flat-out awesome. It’s every bit as excellent as their first album.

The instrumentation and pacing of the new album are much as they were in the last one. Energetic, mid-tempo rock songs with a lyrical focus and plenty of tasty instrumental hooks. (For the record, the violin/guitar/bass/drums instrumentation works far better than I would ever have imagined.)

The Shondes themselves claim that it’s a break up album. But I genuinely think it’s more than that. I think it speaks to a deeper, more visceral human experience. While most of the songs are framed in terms of the end of a relationship, I think that it’s really more of a heartbreak album. Heartbreak is a more universal human experience, and I think it’s one that My Dear One speaks to well extremely well. Songs like “Nothing Glows” powerfully evoke the sick, sad greying effect of heartbreak. The notion that one’s “bruises don’t turn black and blue” is a particularly effective image for the fact that it shows just how dulling heartbreak can be.

The lyrical focus of the Shondes’ sound lends itself particularly well to this album. Songs like “You Ought to Be Ashamed” profit from my lyrical breaks and a melody that’s carried (or at least matched) in the vocals. This is largely to the credit of Louisa Rachel Solomon, who provides most of the album’s vocals and whose dusky, dextrous voice is powerful and expressive throughout the entire album. (Though for a particularly good example, give a listen to “Miami”.) Also notable are the vocals that Elijah Olberman contributes to the album (“The Coming Night” and “All the Good Things”). Olberman’s smooth, expressive voice has a wonderfully androgynous quality.

As in the first album, Temim Fruchter’s drumming is rock solid. Fruchter reminds me of some of the best jazz drummers I’ve heard, adding energy and style to a song while never stealing the show. (Cf. “Fire Again” and Fruchter’s rambling, snare-heavy lines.) Solomon’s bass work is similarly solid and unobtrusive.

The only lineup change since the first album is the replacement of Ian Brannigan with an artist named Fureigh. Fureigh’s style is remarkably similar to Brannigan’s, and meshes well with the rest of the band.

My only major complaints about the album are with regards to the production quality. The whole album seems to have a flat, muted sound to it. This saps it of some of the energy it would otherwise have. This is particularly noticeable (unfortunately) on the lead title track. While this sound grew on me somewhat, I feel like the album could have profited from a brighter, cleaner sound and less post-production sophistry.

My Dear One is great rock album. It’s raw, emotional, and gutsy as hell. Songs like “Let’s Make It Beautiful” show how well the Shondes can take classic Rock forms and give them a unique sound and form to create something new and interesting. This album is well worth the price, both for fans of the first Shondes album and for people who love rock and want to hear something that’s genuinely new.

Nov 162009

A. A. Bondy, When the Devil’s Loose

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Artist: A. A. Bondy

Album: When the Devil’s Loose

Label: Fat Possum

Release Date: Tuesday, 2009.9.1

Score: 10/10

I’ve often ranted on this blog about the importance of the sophomore album.  While debut albums are, undoubtedly, critical, the second release from an artist serves as a predictor of possible staying power and is a better indication of an artist’s potential than any other album.  A lot of bands have great debuts.  Very few have great follow ups.  Those than have a good second release usually have a bright musical career ahead of them.

My fetishism for second albums, then, means that I’m often nervous to hear those produced by artists whose debuts I fell in love with.  In the case of A. A. Bondy, I really needn’t have worried, though.  Bondy’s sophomore effort, When the Devil’s Loose is a beautiful, well-crafted folk album, which does a great job of showcasing Bondy’s deft compositional talent and evocative lyrics.  From start to finish, it is cohesive, well-written, and masterfully performed.

The album’s thematic elements are established well by the opening track, “The Mightiest of Guns”.  This is true both of the songs complex, guitar-centered musical qualities, as well as its lyrical focus on chance and the inescapable nature of fate.  These lyrical images, especially those of fate, occur throughout the album, deftly woven into many of the songs, without ever feeling forced.

As with his last album, Bondy’s guitar work forms the musical backbone of the album.  And while When the Devil’s Loose features a more lush, layered sound than his first album, the guitar-centered aesthetic is still very much there.  This is probably best heard on the stripped-down, solemn tune “Oh the Vampyre”.  The solo, finger-picked guitar provides a bitter-sweet melody to support Bondy’s sad, self-effacing lyrics.

The somber solo guitar work of “Oh the Vampyre” is, however, the exception rather than the rule.  Probably the major musical innovation that Bondy displays on When the Devil’s Loose is his embracing of a full four-piece backing band.  This lends some much-needed depth to songs like the rambling, swaying “I Can See the Pines Are Dancing”, which benefits greatly from the musical layers that a full band provides.

The album closes on “The Coal Hits the Fire”, which is the slowest, most somber song on the disc.  While I wasn’t initially a fan of the track, it’s definitely grown on me.  Its slow, melancholy plod seems a strange choice to end the album, but after a few listens through, it does make a strange sort of musical sense.  Its evocative descriptions of departure and its lackadaisical pacing make a nice, fitting closer.

When the Devil’s Loose is a fantastic album that, along with its predecessor American Hearts, establish A. A. Bondy as one of the most promising voices of contemporary American folk music.  I highly recommend it, with no reservations whatsoever.  It’s a must-have for anyone who likes modern folk music, and definitely an album that everyone should consider adding to their collection.

Apr 242008

Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Album: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!

Label: Mute Reviews

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.8

Score: 10/10

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the fourteenth studio album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is proof positive that the venerable group is as powerful and talented now as they’ve ever been. The album ties together the dark narrative style of Cave’s lyrics with mythic themes with dark, dirty melodies and complex, evocative arrangements to create a grimly beautiful package. It packs a surreal, visceral punch while still being exceptionally listenable and aesthetically engaging.

One interesting aspect of the album is that it covers the whole breadth of the band’s various styles. While songs like “More News From Nowhere” or “Moonland” walk a fine line between abstract impressionism and absurdity. Others, like the funky “Today’s Lesson” capitalize on Cave’s ability as a storyteller to deliver powerful narratives with strongly mythic overtones. Still others, like “We Call Upon the Author” display a glibly literate sensibility.

As always, however, Cave is at his strongest when he’s spinning apologues. Cave’s ability to create and relay fables is, at times, stunning. One excellent example of this is the title and lead track (and first single off the album), “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”. This groovy retelling of the Lazarus (called Larry) myth looks at it from Lazarus’ point of view. He shows a crazed Lazarus self-destructing and ending up back in the grave. As Cave astutely points out Lazarus “never asked to be raised up from the tomb.” As Lazarus is entreated in the chorus to “dig [himself] back in the hole”, the song portrays a man who doesn’t actually want to be saved and asks the question “what do we really know of the dead and who actually cares?”

The album also has several less narrative, more imagistic songs. The hollow-sounding, muted “Night of the Lotus Eaters”, for instance, is a psychedelic portrait of heroin use (a topic with which Nick Cave has some experience). The lyrics hint punningly at drug abuse (“Get ready to shoot yourself / Grab your sap and your heater”) while painting a fatalistic picture of the “night of the lotus eaters”. The dark bass hook which melodically underpins the entire song sets a dark, vaguely exotic mood, while harmonies and percussion parts flesh out the surreal, almost apocalyptic sound.

While the album is, like most Bad Seeds albums, extremely lyrically-driven, the instrumental work is also quite extraordinary. The compositions are intricate and engaging, without losing anything in the way of casual listening. Martyn Casey’s bass work is infectiously hooky where it’s prominent (“Jesus on the Moon” and “Today’s Lesson”) and solidly supportive where it’s not (“More News From Nowhere”). Mick Harvey’s guitar work is superb throughout the album. The percussion work is solid and groovy.

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a perfect display of what a group talented, passionate, experienced musicians can do. It’s at turns chilling, grin-inducing, and thought-provoking, and it’s a great listen throughout. For me, it was a welcome change from the decidedly hit-or-miss Grinderman album that Cave put out last year. It’s highly recommended both for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fans and those who might like dark, groovy, lyric-driven rock. Put simply, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is a smart, fun album that proves not only the Nick Cave and Co. can rock, but that they’re still capable of producing truly brilliant material.

Nov 052007

Various Artists, I’m Not There OST

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Artist: Various
Album: I’m Not There OST
Label: Columbia Records
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.10.30
Score: 9.5/10

Two varieties of albums which I often find to be, as a rule, less than impressive are cover albums and movie soundtracks. There are obviously exceptions to this prejudice (Shaw and Blades’ Influence album is a brilliant collection of covers and the Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack is one of the best albums in decades), but I generally find myself groaning my way through each of them. Which is why I was a little hesitant when I first grabbed the I’m Not There original soundtrack. It’s a movie soundtrack comprised entirely of Dylan covers (what with its being the soundtrack to a Dylan biopic and all), so my gut reaction was to consider that two strikes against it. On reflection this was not a terribly wise stance to take, since it’s covers of one of the finest American songwriters performed by some of the best talent in the business today.

The two-disc set is full of a huge variety of musicians, from old legends (Willie Nelson lends his voice to a stunning version of “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”) to new talent (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova with a bouncy, jangly version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”). With few exceptions, however, the whole diverse managerie of artists do great things with Dylan’s songs. This range of excellent interpretations is, in a sense, a great testament to the power of Dylan’s music and lyrics. That “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” works almost as well with Cat Power wailing their way through it as in the original or that Sufjan Stevens can salvage “Ring Them Bells” for someone who, like me, never particularly care for it and show me that it’s every bit as much Dylan-brilliant as anything off the original Blonde on Blonde says something both about the Dylan’s skill and the magnitude of talent that’s come together here.

On a sidenote, I’ve often felt that the phenomenon of Dylan is a peculiar exactly because so often his songs come alive at the fingers and on the lips of other artists. “All Along the Watchtower” was written by Dylan, the definitive version is Hendrix’s. And rightfully so, in my opinion. Eddie Vedder’s cover of the song (with the help of the Million Dollar Basher’s) which opens the soundtrack will sound vaguely familiar not for any resemblance it bears to the original, but by virtue of the fact that the howling guitars and pounding drums put one in mind of Hendrix’s iconic performance.

This “Dylan Syndrome”, as I’ve been known to refer to it when I get into a pontifacatory mood, makes the I’m Not There OST a rewarding listen on a whole other level. Several of the songs on the album are ones which have always fallen flat for me. Sufjan Stevens’ cover of “Ring Them Bells” wants me to go back and listen to Oh Mercy and see if I can’t figure out what it was I was missing the first time around. After listening to Jack Johnson play “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”, I finally understand why so many people love the song.

Alas, the album isn’t all brilliant reimaginings of Dylan’s best material. Antony & the Johnsons downright mutilate “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, turning a powerful, sincere ballad into a whiny, meandering pap. (This abuse of one of my favorite Dylan tunes is perhaps furthered, by the fact that Antony has, in my opinion, a voice better suited to mimery than to music.)

The I’m Not There OST brings together some of the finest minds in modern music and turns them loose in the Bob Dylan discography. It proves that Dylan’s oeuvre is one of the most fertile fields of material in American musical history. And while my bias (I’m a major Dylan fan) is readily apparent and confessed to, I’m confident that this collection will convey the power and genius in Dylan’s music to any listener. Furthermore, many of the songs on the album have a more modern feel and are probably far more accessible than the original recordings. As such, for anyone who’s never been a fan of Dylan or who hasn’t heard much of his music, this may be a great way to start getting acquainted with his work. Either way, the I’m Not There OST is a collection which is unlikely to disappoint.

Oct 042007

Iron & Wine, The Shepherd’s Dog

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Artist: Iron & Wine
Album: The Shepherd’s Dog
Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: Tuesday, 2007.9.25
Score: 10/10

Sam Beam, purveyor of American-Gothic Folk is at it again and his latest LP, The Shepherd’s Dog, definitely delivers on the promise made by his earlier work. Which isn’t to say his previous releases weren’t good, quite the contrary, in fact. But whereas The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days were both strong albums which set up a unique musical niche, The Shepherd’s Dog feels like it actually defines Sam Beam’s unique folk project. It is the best example to date of what Beam, under the Iron & Wine pseudonym, is bringing to modern folk music.

The Shepherd’s Dog is an album of impressing depth, subtlety, and stark beauty. “House by the Sea” is an excellent testament to this, with rich, complex and interesting rhythms, a haunting melody, and thick, melancholy harmonies. It also features one of the single most powerful moments on the album when, during a brief vocal break, Beam confesses “The jealous sisters will sing on my grave”. It’s a perfect climax to a sad song about jealousy, obsession, and hurting the ones we (ostensibly) love. The song is also testament to Sam Beam’s incredible talent for powerful lyrical images and potent turns of phrase (“I’ve been sparing my neck from their chain”).

The whole album is full of songs that, like “House by the Sea”, not only sound good, but pack amazing artistic and emotional power. Beam is not only an excellent musician, but a great songwriter, lyricist, and singer as well. His sometimes muddled-sounding lyrics and his smooth, unornamented vocal style belie a masterful command of both the folk genre and of the English language. The psuedo-title track “Wolves (Song of the Shepherd’s Dog)” is a moaning, mournful tune, which is thick with dark, bluesy guitar lines and pattering percussion. The song also features an excellently messy, reverb-laden instrumental ending with some quality guitar work. The biblically-themed “Innocent Bones” floats placidly along, belieing the shard-tongued religious commentary of its lyrics (“There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab / but they all want the scar”). “Resurrection Fern”, perhaps the most traditionally “folky” song on the whole album is a simple, acoustic-guitar-driven tune shot through with Beam’s image-driven, highly figurative lyrics (“In our days, we will live like our ghosts will live / pitching glass at the cornfield crows”

What’s perhaps more impressive than the simple, austere beauty of the album is how well Beam has managed to weave in new influences to his unique folk sound without sacrificing any of the melancholy power. “The Devil Never Sleeps” brings in upbeat American blues themes on the piano, which combines well with Beam’s smooth, lo-fi sound. The first album single, “Boy with a Coin” has some complex percussion which, while definitely not folk in origins, works well with the folk-y guitar hooks that it accompanies.

This is not folk in the Cat Steven or Joni Mitchell sense of the genre. It is more closely related, though only slightly, to the more contemporary Indie Folk acts like M. Ward, Elliot Smith, or Bright Eyes. It’s thematically rooted in American folk music, but has a decidedly “American Gothic” feel to it. Beam makes extensive and pointed use of religious imagery and of lyrics and stories set in rural America. He also uses instrumentation and musical themes which, while not traditionally “Folk”, are thoroughly American and are indigenous to such quintessentially American genres as Blues, Jazz, and Bluegrass. Even the religious tone of the album is particularly American, evoking notions of the Baptist revival culture of the South.

I don’t know how else to say this, really: buy this album. The Shepherd’s Dog is an interesting and enjoyable listening experience. It possesses incredible, dark beauty and tremendous emotional power. It is at turns rewardingly complex and deceptively simple. The album is musically and lyrically rich throughout. Sam Beam has not only far outdone his previous releases but has added finished, defined feel to his own subgenre of the American Folk project. It’s a subgenre rich in rural Americana and steeped in a quintessentially American musical heritage.