May 172010

Clearsignals, Stars Lost Your Name

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Artist: Clearsignals
Album: Stars Lost Your Name
Label: N/A
Release Date: Wednesday, 2010.3.24
Score: 9/10

So you really need to go check out this album. It’s called Stars Lost Your Name and the artist, John C. Worsley, bills himself for this album as Clearsignals. The album is full of spacey electronica that drifts seamlessly between the atmospheric and the tribal, without ever losing any interest or energy.

The album as a whole is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is its pacing and arrangement, which take the listener from warped atmospherics (“cygnus ob2-12”), through rambling electronica (“bellatrix”) and a single melancholy vocal track (“beta lyrae”) and back again. The final track, “Eta Centauri” feels like the soundtrack to an infinitely long walk through a desert wasteland on an aggressively alien planet. And I mean that in the best way possible.

It’s a beautiful, haunting, cohesive work. It feels like music meant to accompany something, though I don’t really know what that something might be. I can say that it serves admirably as music to write to, as long as what you’re writing is strange and introspective. It also works great for coding to as long as the code you’re writing is arcane enough that you won’t find it in any patterns book.

However you feel about electronic music, the album is worth a listen. If you’re already a fan of electronic music and need music to chill to, or just something to soundtrack the work at hand, then this will definitely fit the bill. It’s at turns wistful, melancholy, plodding, and spacey, and the overall album flows naturally while still being rich and well-crafted enough that it never gets boring.

In short, it’s definitely worth a listen.

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.

Aug 292009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Outer South

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So I have a whole mess of reviews that I’ve been meaning to get written.  Sad as it is to say, I’m about 6 months and a dozen albums behind on releases that I want to either review or at the very least say something about.  I’ll probably end up declaring album review bankruptcy at some point, but in the meantime, here’s the first of (hopefully) several reviews.

Album: Outer South

Artist: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

Label: Merge Records

Release Date: Tuesday, 2009.5.5

Score: 9/10

In many ways, Outer South feels like the natural progression in a long process of maturation for singer/songwriter Conor Oberst.  It marks the first album in which his bandmates make significant and visible contributions to lyrical style and content, with many of the songs written and/or sung by people other than Oberst.  In many ways, this makes the album feel like a truly collaborative effort, whereas Oberst’s previous releases (many under the Bright Eyes moniker) were often presented as the stylistically monolithic creation of one man.

That being said, there’s little doubt that this album is, at its core, shaped and informed by Oberst’s previous body of work.  Musically, the album develops the Alt-Country themes and feel that Oberst has been developing for the past few years (since, roughly, the release of Cassadaga).  Songs like “Big Black Nothing” would feel right at home on any of these recent albums, with its jaunty, jangly guitar lines, effortlessly sliding chord changes, and twangy lyrical work by Nik Freitas.

Outer South is also an excellent demonstration of the fact that, while Oberst’s lyrical genius and compositional talent are in no way diluted or damaged by sharing the studio with strong musicians, he is definitely receptive to letting others take the reins and add their own contributions to the record.  The Mystic Valley Band, after all, is full of talented musicians who have earned a great deal of respect and notoriety in their own right.  Keyboardist Nate Walcott has played with Bright Eyes, Cursive, and Rilo Kiley.  Nik Freitas is a talented multi-instrumentalist with several of his own albums under his belt.  Jason Boesel has drummed with Rilo Kiley and The Elected.  The rest of the personnel on the album all have similarly impressive musical resumes and all are incredibly talented.

One example of this is the bouncy, poppy love song “Air Mattress”, written and sung by Taylor Hollingsworth.  While still vocally-centered like most of Oberst’s work, the sweet, energetic lyrics and Hollingsworth’s nasally, syncopated vocals are a clear departure from the classic Bright Eyes sound.  The prominent, active synth lines, and poppy guitar riffs combined with the short, verse-and-chorus structure clearly mark it as departure for Conor Oberst and more the product of Hollingsworth’s writing than Oberst’s name on the record.

Other songs, like “Roosevelt Room” indicate that, while Oberst is sharing, it’s still his show.  The song drips with socially conscious Alt-Country/Rock feel that Oberst has developed over the past few years.  The complex and bluesy guitar lines, and the irregular lyrical structure would fit in perfectly on Cassadaga or Conor Oberst.  Similarly, the referential, evocative lyrics are vintage Conor Oberst, displaying his excellent command not only of lyrical sound, but of sense and image as well.

As far as criticisms I have for the album, they’re few and far between.  The sheer number of different voices and styles on the album makes it feel, at times, a bit disjointed.  And while the songs are all brilliantly conceived, crafted, and executed, the shift in gears between, say, the light, straightfoward, pop-laden “Air Mattress” and the more somber and imagistic “Cabbage Town” can be a bit jarring.

Outer South feels, in many ways, like a grand experiment.  What happens when one takes one of the strongest lyrical voices in modern music, who is known for being strongly in command of his projects and throw him in a studio with other brilliant writers, lyricists and musicians?  Fortunately, the experiment turned out a damned fine album.  A stylistic chimaera which displays a huge range of musical excellence.  And while it is incohesive and erratic, every musical style it touches is invariably used for the creation of some truly awesome music.

Jun 122008

Portishead, Third

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Artist: Portishead

Album: Third

Label:

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.4.29

Score: 9/10

After a hiatus of more than a decade, British trip-hop combo Portishead have finally realeased their third studio album.  The appropriately-named Third picks up where their eponymous sophomore album left off.  And while the band won’t be winning any points for titular originality, they certainly make up for their lake of creative nomenclature with an excellent disc which turns out to be worth the wait.

Right from the off, Portishead get right back to craft the same dark, groovy tunes with the album opener “Silence.”  To say that “Silence” is recorded or performed feels off the mark.  Rather, the song is constructed.  Its meticulously layered drums and strings combined with the relentless, repetitive guitar lines give interweave meticulously and the end result is positively infectious.  By the time they drop away to reveal Beth Gibbons’ trilling vocals, the trip-hop tapestry that the band has created has entirely sucked in the listener.

Portishead also take some detours into near-ambience to show that they are still perfectly capable of creating lush, dark soundscapes.  The last track on the album, “Threads”, is a sorrowful, meditative tune which grows from a simple bass-heavy intro into a polyphony overlapping voices, instrumentation, and effects.  It then fades away into a series mournful, rumbling, scooping noises which remind me of an alpenhorn played through an overdriven amp.

One track that was a complete surprise for me was “Deep Waters”.  I was so taken aback when I first heard it that I had to double check my playlist to make sure that I hadn’t accidently added some strange M. Ward cover.  The brief, twangy folk tune is so unlike Portishead that it’s almost jarring.  And yet it’s simple, sincere and utterly gorgeous.

Which makes the immediate transition from jangly strings and vocal harmonies to the glowering industrial beats of “Machine Gun” just that much more jarring.  It’s a little like M. Ward opening for Nine Inch Nails; they’re both great bands, but the switch from one to the other takes one hell of a musical clutch.

As a whole, the album is Portishead through and through.  So little has changed that it sounds as if the span between Portishead and Third might as well have been 10 months as 10 years.  The melodies are simple and brooding.  The percussion and beats are at turns extremely groovy and tastefully understated.  The samples and effects, while occasionally a bit cumbersome, are usually put to good effect.

In short, if Portishead fans don’t already have this album, then they absolutely need to get it.  Anyone who appreciates the so-called “Bristol Sound” or dark, brooding music which wears its electronica influences on its sleeve, then Third is a must-have.  For everyone else, it’s definitely worth a try.  If you’re the shop-by-song sort of person (which increasingly many people are these days, though that’s a rant/essay for another day), then start with “Silence” and “Hunter”.  These two opening tracks give a pretty good introduction to both the up-tempo, danceable and the more introspective, shoe-gazing portions of the album, respectively.   Whatever your inclination towards Portishead, one thing is for sure: despite their decade-long absence from their musical scene, they are still very much on top of their game.

Apr 162008

The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely

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Artist: The Raconteurs

Album: Consolers of the Lonely

Label: Warner Bros. / Third Man Records

Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.3.25

Score: 9/10

For some reason, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the Raconteurs.  Why?  I’m not exactly sure.  But when Broken Boy Soldiers came out a couple years ago, I passed it up.  I distinctly remember thinking “Jack White, a couple of the guys from the Greenhornes, and that Brendan Benson fellow?  That’s what passes for a ‘supergroup’ these days?”  Which isn’t necessarily a knock against any of those artists, but I couldn’t imagine how they could band together to create music that I’d care to listen to.

Let me just say that I was wrong, and I will be grabbing Broken Boy Soldiers at the earliest opportunity.  If Consolers of the Lonely is any indication of the Raconteurs’ talent for songcraft, Broken Boy Soldiers should be a smart musical investment.  Consolers has dispelled every doubt I have that White & Co. are not only  all fantastic musicians, but also work well together to create groovy, fun alt rock.

This is most evident in tunes like the energetic alt-rock anthem “Salute Your Solution”, which features tight guitar hooks and growling bass lines.  White’s aggressive vocals and the noisy solo guitar work complete the feel of a repeat-friendly rock tune.   The song undoubtedly shows that the gamble of the diverse talents and styles of the Raconteurs’ members can definitely pay off.

True to their name, however, the Raconteurs really seem to be at their best when they’re telling a story.  Two excellent examples of this are “The Switch and the Spurs” and “Carolina Drama”.  “The Switch and the Spurs” is a surreal vignette about a fugitive in the desert.  Bright, blaring trumpets and pounding piano lines create a mysterious, slightly sinister atmosphere for Jack White’s lyrics.  The overall effect is nothing short of chilling as White relates the criminal’s descent into delirium, complete with a demented musical bridge and repeated chorus.

The final track on the album, “Carolina Drama”, trades the surreal for the earthy without losing any of the sense myth.  White moans his way through the story of a poor Carolina boy killing his mother’s boyfriend to save an old priest.  White relates anger and compassion in equally skillful fashion and spins a compelling enough yarn that, even where his lyrics may be a bit stilted, the listener is probably caught up enough in the story not to notice.  Supporting White’s lyric are alternating sections of manic, busy alt country sections and simpler vocal and keyboard sections.  The overall effect is an extremely powerful story told through an interesting musical medium.

I’m a big believer in the importance of sophomore albums.  I’ve always believed that, when it comes to musical careers, the three most important releases in a band’s lifecycle are the first, the second, and the last.  I can’t say for sure how good the Raconteurs’ first album (Broken Boy Soldiers, 2006) is, but Consolers of the Lonely is good enough that I sure as hell hope it isn’t their last.  I would love to hear some more from White, Benson, Lawrence, and Keeler.

Apr 032008

Yael Naim, Yael Naim

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Artist: Yael Naim

Album: Yael Naim

Label: Atlantic Records

Release Date: 2008.3.18

Score: 9/10

Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim’s self-titled major label debut is a refreshingly original and well-crafted album, which, I have to confess, I wasn’t really expecting.  As the saying goes (or ought to): “never just a disc by its single.”  Whereas the history-making (the first song by an Israeli artist to make it into the American charts) single “New Soul” is a well-crafted, bouncy, piano-driven pop tune, the album is fairly wide-ranging.  Aside from the three languages in which Ms. Naim sings with apparent fluency, the album draws obvious musical influences from folk, jazz, and modern pop (just to name a few) and blends them into something truly original.

The album evokes something of the earnest jazziness of the Antifolk movement.  Songs like the bluesy, exotic “Shelcha” remind me a bit of Regina Spektor’s more recent efforts.  Its dark, mournful sound (to which Naim’s lilting vocals are unexpectedly well-suited) is served well by understated melodies carried in the piano and guitar and relaxed, brush-heavy drums.  Combine this with the foreign (to me) cadence of the Hebrew in which half the song is sung, and it makes for a listening experience that is as interesting as it is enchanting.

Another song that grabbed me is the waltz-time album opener “Paris”.  Once again, part of my interest is probably do the radically unfamiliar cadences of the Hebrew lyrics.  But even beyond that, Naim’s husky voice and the simple, waltzing guitar backing creates a beautiful, almost wistful sound.

As a sidenote, why do so many people cover bad songs?  Some songs just plain suck.  Hackneyed lyrics, lame melodies, weak harmonies, etc.  There’s only so much you can do with such a song without turning it into, essentially, a whole different song.  Britney Spears’ song “Toxic” is one such.  The lyrics are melodramatic and stilted (they’re good compared to some of Spears’ other work, but that’s not saying much), the melody is uninteresting, and the harmonies and backing parts on the original are almost painfully bad at times.

So why did Yael Naim, an artist with some obvious vocal and songwriting talent, cover it on her album?  There’s only so much even the most skilled artist can do with such a carp tune and, to her credit, Naim dresses it up in her dark, husky voice as best she can.  Slowing the tune down and adding slow, snare-laden drums behind it was a nice touch, but it’s still not that great a tune.  It’s a damn site better than the original, but the lyrics are still eye-roll-inducing and the melody’s still boring.  (That being said, I have to admit, I kind of like the static combined with the random flute parts.  That was kind of a cool touch.)  I don’t know, perhaps I’m unduly prejudiced against songs like “Toxic” (I have a particular dislike for that tune, so it galls me whenever it gets covered, yet again), but it seems like there’s a lot better tunes out there with which an artist as talented as Yael Naim could do something truly amazing.

Yael Naim’s self-titled album is really a testament to the artist.  It does a great job of showing off Naim’s vocal ability and her talent for writing beautiful, simple melodies.  Her use of multiple languages (English, Hebrew, and French are all represented) and her blending of several different genre influences make for a sound which is just different enough to be intriguing without, I imagine, losing too many listeners by totally leaving behind Western pop sensibility.  Simply put, the album is a well-crafted, diverse album that shows off a great new artist on the pop scene.  It’s definitely worth a listen and is highly recommended.

Mar 202008

Artist: Flogging Molly
Album: Float
Label: Side One Dummy
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.3.4
Score: 8.5/10

Flogging Molly’s fourth studio album, Float, is a return to form for the band, after 2004’s more slightly more experimental album, Within a Mile of Home. Float features the same sort of solid, energetic Celt rock that fans will be well familiar with, minus some of the genre-blurring goofiness of their last album. This gives it an overall feel much closer to Drunken Lullabies than their more recent Within a Mile of Home.

“Lightning Storm”, for example wouldn’t sound out of place on Swagger or Drunken Lullabies, with its fast-paced, snare-driven drums and sweeping, brogued vocal lines. It effortlessly combines Gaelic-sounding violins with thick guitar power chords and shows off the band’s ability to seamlessly combine the two disparate styles. “On The Back of a Broken Dream” makes good use of rattling, energetic drums and smooth vocal lines to create a similarly effective combination.

As with previous albums, two the band’s biggest strengths are Dave King’s powerful, expressive voice and his distinctive lyrical style. As with previous releases, the lyrics often have a political theme, and usually a fairly straight-forward one at that (“there’s a government whip cracked across your back”). Where the lyrics aren’t political, they cover themes familiar to Flogging Molly fans: love, loss, alienation and the ex patriot experience.

Musically, while sounding closer to their earlier work than their last album, Float seems to make heavier use of Flogging Molly’s Celtic folk roots than previous albums. On most tunes, the electric guitars are relegated to harmonic support and musical texture. Melodies are primarily carried in the vocal and violin lines and the drums are syncopated and snare-heavy. The net effect is that Float is decidedly more of a folk album than it is a rock album, and much more so than its aesthetic predecessors, Drunken Lullabies and Swagger.

Overall, Float, feels like a much mature album than Flogging Molly’s previous works. All of the elements which seemed to be at times at odds with one another come together remarkably well in this latest effort. Swagger‘s blustery rock enthusiasm, Drunken Lullabies‘ political bend and lyrical emphasis, and Within a Mile of Home‘s decided folk slant have all been woven together in a much better crafted manner. Whereas Drunken Lullabies often feels didactic and Within a Mile of Home strikes many as just flat goofy, Float is a well-crafted, well-executed album that brings together a lot of different elements and makes out of them a whole musical cloth.

That being said, Float will not break new ground for fans, but it will give them exactly what they love about Flogging Molly: energetic, well-crafted Celt Rock. Those not familiar with Flogging Molly may want to start with their (in my opinion) superior debut, Swagger before grabbing Float. That being said, Float is a fantastic album which any fan of the genre is likely to enjoy.

Feb 052008

Artist: The Magnetic Fields
Album: Distortion
Label: Nonesuch
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.1.15
Score: 9/10

The Magnetic Fields originally got their start as a studio project for musician and songwriter Stephin Merritt. As a result, the first few Magnetic Fields albums were often a mixed bag of brilliant, often experimental ideas mixed in with stuff that was just plain goofy. Interestingly, some of the best Magnetic fields tunes turned out to be those where those two forces, the silly and the inspired, collided. (“Acoustic Guitar” and “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” are my two personal favorite examples of this synergy.) Over the years, these collisions happened with greater and greater frequency, culminating with the recent release of the band’s seventh studio LP, Distortion.

Distortion shows that, if nothing else, “silly” doesn’t have to mean “childish” or “poorly done”. It’s full of tunes which, while certainly absurd, are also brilliant. The downright bizarre “Zombie Boy” is a prime example: it’s a groovy tune, with dark, slinky melodies and thunking bass lines. The kind of song that makes one dance around the room, despite any intentions to the contrary. It is also, quite literally, a song written about and to a zombie. (“You look pretty pure, for so long in the ground. / You smell like a sewer, but you don’t make a sound.”)

Similarly bizarre, but equally well-executed, is the distorted, fuzzy-sounding “California Girls”. Again, it’s a catchy pop song with a pleasantly dirty rock edge, all about how much the narrator hates California girls. To the point of, it is implied, violent murder. (“I will stand their backs, with my brand new battle axe. / And they will then taste my wrath.”)

Any number of other songs play in this fun territory where the absurd meets the sublime. “The Nun’s Litany” is a ribald take on the millennium-old theme of the secretly-dirty clergy. “Three-Way” is a mostly-instrumental tune which is interspersed with random shouts of “Three-Way!” “Courtesans” is a beautiful, sad, even insightful commentary on the life of a paramour, which includes such odd lyrics as “Courtesans don’t believe in anyone but themselves. And Santa Claus.”

Songs like “Courtesans” also show that Stephin Merritt and his band are capable of more than just goofy fun. They’re perfectly capable of crafting songs with beauty and meaning as well. “I’ll Dream Alone” is a touching expression of what’s left when a relationship ends, a sentiment made all the more powerful by Merritt’s rough, droning bass vocals. Similarly is the jaunty, clever, bittersweet track “Too Drunk to Dream”, about the desire to drink one’s cares (in this case romantic) away.

Musically speaking the album is not really a break from previous Magnetic fields albums. Merritt’s unconventional voice and songwriting are accompanied by noisy, often lightly-distorted guitars and very rhythmic harmonies. The percussion work is usually largely unsyncopated and heavy, giving many of the tracks a ponderous sound which is a good fit for Merritt’s deep voice on the tracks on which he’s the vocalist. Claudia Gonson also uses the heavier sound of the band to good effect, lilting over the top of it on tunes like the haunting “Till the Bitter End.”

Just because a song has something of the absurd in it, doesn’t mean it can’t also be well-crafted, meaningful, or musically inspired. Distortion is not only proof of that fact, but a fantastically engaging exploration of exactly that musical territory where the whimsical and the deep overlap. It’s full of catchy melodies, bouncy rhythmic lines, and clever lyrics. It’s musically satisfying and grin-inducing to boot.

Jan 222008

Artist: The Shondes
Album: The Red Sea
Label: N/A (Self-Released)
Release Date: Tuesday, 2008.1.8
Score: 8.5/10

The Red Sea, the debut album from The Shondes was pretty obviously cooked up for the express purpose of making me dance around my room in my boxers at four in the morning. Between its driving, punk-influenced beats; its lilting, exotic violin melodies; and its crying, Dolores O’Riordan-esque lyrics, it’s basically a designer musical drug. And I’ve been doing big, fat lines of it for a week now, and loving every minute of it.

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m so addicted is because it hits a lot of my musical buttons. Punk influences? Check. Slick melodic hooks? Check. Complete disregard for genre boundaries? Check. Wrap all that and more up in a tight, well-presented package and it’s a fair guarantee that I’ll be mainlining it for quite awhile. Unfortunately for the Shondes, not everyone shares my same set of musical cravings, but even without sharing my musical aesthetic, there’s a lot in The Red Sea for any listener.

Songs like “Winter”, for example, with its brooding, jangly guitar lines, soaring vocal lines, and interesting lyrical images is not only a good listen, but warrants coming back for several listens. Similarly, the energetic “At The Water” is a song that begs to be put on repeat, not only for its rollicking energy, but also for the fact that it’s melodically and lyrically rich enough to reward repeat listening. This depth is not limited to a few tunes, but rather is endemic to the album, which features excellent songwriting, catchy melodies, and (with a few exceptions, such as the heavy-handed “What Love Is”) engaging lyrics.

Probably the most interest aspects of the album, however, are not strictly compositional, but rather stylistic. The Shondes have managed to take a diverse set of influences and weave them together into something truly new and unique. On “Don’t Whisper”, for example, exotic, folky violin lines support growling guitars and wailing lyrics to create a song which obviously borrows widely from the musical spectrum, including punk, classic rock, and folk to create something which is intriguing and new. The whole album draws musically from wide enough sources that many individual aspects feel familiar, while the whole is something altogether new and different.
This blending of so many different genres is used to great effect most of the time, though there are times when drawing together so many stylistic threads seems to have gotten in the way. The result is that, while The Red Sea really is a great album, it tends to get a bit confused and muddy at times. “Let’s Go” is a prime example of this. It tries too hard to be too many things at once and winds up sounding a bit like a bar brawl between the Ramones and the Cranberries as reinterpreted by a modern-day Rogers and Hammerstein. That is to say that it’s odd, and quirky, and if it ran with any one of its musical themes, it could be really cool. As it is, it’s random to the point of incoherence.

The Red Sea is a great album from a promising new band, with a unique sound and a hell of a lot of talent. And while it is undoubtedly rough or muddled at times, it’s an impressive first release from a group of great musicians. It’s well worth price ($10 from the band’s MySpace via MySpace’s SnoCap download service) and a sure sign that The Shondes are a band to listen for in the future.

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.