Month: April 2015

Review: Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

April has been an extremely busy month for new releases, with highly-anticipated albums by several noteworthy artists hitting the stores each week.  Several of these records have lived up to the hype, but the latest album from Alabama Shakes surpassed my wildest expectations to top them all.  Sound & Color sees the band expanding beyond their well-worn retro style, as they explore a wide variety of genres and captivate the listener with their passion and precision.

There is a reason why Alabama Shakes experienced massive success with the release of “Hold On”: the brilliant single was the perfect showcase for Brittany Howard’s powerhouse voice, and it was effectively supported by the band’s ability to reproduce old audience-pleasing blues-rock staples perfectly.  There is also a reason why despite the fact Boys & Girls was certified Gold off the strength of “Hold On”, the rest of the album failed to leave much of a mark.  While it was a perfectly pleasant record, Boys & Girls ended up being a somewhat forgettable album; each song failed to distinguish itself from one another and without a hook as memorable found on “Hold On”, everything eventually bled together.

The same cannot be said for Sound & Color, as Alabama Shakes digs deep into their record collection and delivers songs that filter in 70’s soul, funk, and even garage-rock influences into their blues-based style.*  The album never comes off as a series of dalliances with experimentalism though, and Alabama Shakes never sound like mere tourists,  since the band is able to find a common thread through each of these genres and infuses each song with their own distinct personality.  Each song allows the band to demonstrate their considerable musical chops, but the tracks are so well-composed that none of them sound like a technical exercise; Every guitar riff, organ flourish, and drum fill fit the song perfectly.  To top it off, not only is Howard’s dynamic voice as commanding as ever, she also displays a deft sense of control in fitting it within the style of each song.

Sound & Color fades a bit down the stretch, but the impact of the first three-quarters of the album more than makes up for it.  It is heartening to see Alabama Shakes improve upon the success of their debut by exploring different creative urges, and in the process they created a record that easily outshines their previous work.

*The easiest comparison I can make is to the new musical directions that the Black Keys took once they started collaborating with Danger Mouse, especially on Brothers and Turn Blue.  Though since this is only the second album from Alabama Shakes, the shift will probably be less jarring to the band’s fans.

Advertisements

Review: Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer

After breaking through with their impressive debut, expectations were high for Speedy Ortiz’s follow-up to Major Arcana.  Fans of the group’s version of knotty, guitar-based mid-90’s indie rock will be glad to hear that Foil Deer fits perfectly alongside their previous work.  Though at times it is difficult to determine how it distinguishes itself from its predecessors, Foil Deer is still a showcase for the band’s greatest strengths: intricate guitar noodles delivered with a satisfying crunch, punctuated by powerful percussive outbursts.

The easiest musical comparison that critics rely on to describe Speedy Ortiz’s style is Pavement, but that is somewhat misleading, since Pavement’s catalog was more diverse than what most people remember; there is nothing on Foil Deer that recalls “Conduit For Sale” or “Range Life”, for example.  Instead, Speedy Ortiz for the most part is content to explore only one part of Pavement’s aesthetic (though not the same aspect in which Parquet Courts makes their living, for the record), namely the seemingly-aimless guitar melodies, prevalence of dissonant chords, and off-kilter rhythm section.  Vocally, Pavement and Speedy Ortiz share a similar approach, but with one key difference: though the two groups will never be heralded for the technical skills of their singers, Sadie Dupuis offers a more direct approach with her singing, unlike Stephen Malkmus, who more often than not hints at a song’s melody with his vocals.  In both cases the vocals are only a secondary concern.

Songs like the quotable “Raising the Skate” (numerous publications have cited the line “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss” as the exemplar of the album’s lyrical themes) shows the band adding the punch that the band displayed with the Real Hair EP released last year to their trademark sound, and “Swell Content” shows that the band can pack their sound into a tight, catchy, and concise package. However, the highlights of the album though are when Speedy Ortiz shifts away from their comfort zone, like when the band experiments with electronics on the groovy “Puffer” or dials the attack back a bit with the almost-ballad “Mister Difficult”, whose chorus may have the best hook on the album.  These tracks help stave off the potential for monotony and help elevate the second half of the album.

Foil Deer takes some time for the listener to unpack, as it takes multiple spins for particular details to emerge.  The good news is that with repeated listens, songs that initially seem like merely pleasant background music eventually reveal their depth, as it becomes easier to spot countermelodies and other sonic embellishments.  Speedy Ortiz may not have experimented much with the formula they developed for Major Arcana, but if the band keeps delivering solid results like Foil Deer their fans are unlikely to complain.

Covered: “Some Things Last a Long Time”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Beach House first came across my radar back in 2010, when their album Teen Dream was released amid heavy buzz and to great acclaim.  I instantly became a fan of their gorgeous melodies and lush music; the band chose a perfect album title, as “dream” truly encapsulated their style.  Beach House’s delicate guitar lines and luscious synths, topped off by Victoria Legrand’s dusky vocals, provided the ideal soundtrack for a beautiful, carefree day on the coast.  I soon worked my way back through their discography, and grew to love those albums as well, including the splendid Devotion, which included all the elements essential to the success Teen Dream but with the added charm of more intimate production.

Devotion has some of my favorite Beach House tunes, including “Wedding Bell” and “Gila”, but there was a track near the end of the album that often stuck with me.  There was something about this song that got stuck in my head, but it was not just the catchy melody; I had the feeling that I had heard the song before, but I could not place it anywhere.  It was not until months later that I realized what spurred that reaction.

While I have long been a fan of Built to Spill, I usually skip over their early work when it comes up on shuffle, preferring to stick in the post-Perfect From Now On sweet spot.  Therefore it makes sense that it took me a few months to realize that I heard the Beach House song in question first as a Built to Spill track; it also did not help that Beach House had shortened the title to “Some Things Last” from the original “Some Things Last A Long Time”, making the process of connecting the two versions in my mind more difficult.  Built to Spill’s version pops up in a few places, though I think it is more likely that I was listening to the “Car” single than the compilation The Normal Years when I pieced the mystery together.  I thought it was pretty remarkable that Beach House would cover a Built to Spill song, considering the vast differences in their styles.  This spurred me to do some research, and it turns out that I had missed a crucial step in the process.

It turns out that both Beach House and Built to Spill were performing covers, and that the original “Some Things Last a Long Time” was a Daniel Johnston song.  I had only a passing familiarity with Johnston, mainly due to reading reviews about the documentary that was made that covered his struggle with mental illness, The Devil and Daniel Johnston; I knew that several of my favorite musicians had held him in high esteem and respected his work, but had never heard his music for myself.

Both Beach House and Built to Spill put their own personal stamp on their versions, so it is easy for the listener to assume that they are the original versions. Beach House emphasizes the deceptively simple melody and gives the song a dreamlike atmosphere, though unfortunately they decided to shorten the song by cutting off a few verses, while Built to Spill’s take adds a buzzsaw-edged guitar that doubles the basic melody and throws in a few intriguing sound effects to the proceedings that makes the song sound like a product of its times, namely the early-90’s.  Each version has its merits, but Beach House in their prime wins out over early-period Built to Spill in my mind.

However, neither cover is able to capture the heartbreak of the original.  Johnston’s high-pitched voice recalls that of a child, which gives the vocals a tinge of naivete.  The verses are built on a straightforward four chord progression that the melody echoes, swooping up before resolving down in pitch; this pattern adds a sense of longing to each line.  Not much else happens for the most part, allowing the listener to focus on the lyrics; the simplicity of each statement is what first attracts the attention of the listener, but it obscures the sense of regret behind each verse.  Once you realize how Johnston is able to convey a sense of deep sadness in so few words, it becomes easy to see why he had such an impact on so many musicians.

Over the Weekend (Apr. 27 Edition)

New music, new videos, and news to help kickstart your week…

Even though they recently announced a string of tour dates this summer, we have to believe that no one was prepared for the news from this morning: Refused are coming out with a new album.  In addition to announcing that Freedom will be released on June 30, the band released their first new song in nearly two decades, the furious “Elektra”.  REFUSED ARE NOT FUCKING DEAD!

More good news this morning, as the Deftones gave more details about their follow-up to Koi No Yokan.  While the new album is not yet complete, the good news is that it should be released by the end of September.

Last week, Speedy Ortiz released their new album Foil Deer and on Friday we linked to an extensive interview with the band.  Today, we are sharing their video for “The Graduates”, featuring the band ingesting an interesting item, resulting in a bizarre karaoke session with a giant rabbit, among other escapades.

Speedy Ortiz is not the only band exploring psychedelic substances, as Death From Above 1979’s new video for “Virgins” features a group of Amish teens experimenting with mushrooms.  The results are rather unsettling.

And speaking of unsettling, electronic noise-rock band HEALTH are finally releasing a follow-up to Get Color in August, and they shared the video for lead single “New Coke” over the weekend.  Be warned, that is real vomit in the video; that is probably that is all that needs to be said in order to prepare you.

Killer Mike had a very busy weekend–on Friday, he gave a lecture at MIT on race and politics, and on Saturday he represented the Huffington Post at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which explains this fantastic selfie with Arianna Huffington completing the Run The Jewels logo.

Proving that we here at Rust Is Just Right are trendsetters, the AV Club released a Best Of list from 2014 in April 2015.  This time it is their Band Names of the Year list, which runs down all the terrible band names they came across in the past year, which is always a good time.

And finally, for those looking for a quick time-waster at work, NME has a slideshow explaining the stories behind 50 iconic album covers of indie rock (though the term “indie” is stretched beyond its limits for this piece).

Catching Up On The Week (Apr. 24 Edition)

Some #longreads while you contemplate how a newspaper can bungle a headline so badly

It has been a busy week for new releases, and one of the albums we here at Rust Is Just Right have been enjoying this week has been Speedy Ortiz’s latest record.  Before you check out our review of Foil Deer next week, it probably would be a good idea to read up on the extensive profile that Pitchfork published yesterday.

This has been a busy spring for new music, and it is not going to let up any time soon.  One of the big upcoming releases that we have mentioned before is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall, which will be hitting stores in less than two weeks.  Rolling Stone talks to the band about the recording of the new album.

Deadspin has a short piece introducing readers to the site that takes a satirical look at the punk scene, The Hard Times.

The AV Club has a piece that dissects how the Wu-Tang Clan defied conventional thinking in the way the group was able to release several successful solo albums from its members.

Finally, The New Yorker has a detailed and fascinating look at the mechanics of the early days of music piracy, which serves as an excellent complement to this Pitchfork examination of how the economics of music have evolved over the years.

Review: Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful

It will be difficult to find a rap album released this year as fun as Action Bronson’s major label debut, Mr. Wonderful–how can you not love a guy who looks like this and has the bravado to claim that he “took up a meeting at Paramount/typecast as a romantic lead”?  Bronson drops plenty of one-liners that are alternately hilarious and clever, and in contrast to the prevailing atmosphere in hip-hop today, he keeps the mood light.  His particular style may bring to mind Ghostface Killah, but Bronson’s focus is less on elaborate crime-based storylines and more on finding satisfaction in the simple pleasures, like a “plate [of] some melon and prosciutt’.”

He may have gained a certain level of notoriety from a series of mixtapes and various EPs that were underground hits, but Bronson realizes that Mr. Wonderful is an opportunity to introduce himself to a whole new audience.  This explains why most of the album is focused on establishing the basic mythos of “Action Bronson”, as best exemplified by the comparing his origins to the creation of the genetically-engineered dinosaurs of Jurassic Park in “Falconry”.  The album is not just tossed-off quips though, as there are several callbacks throughout–Bronson kicks off the album boasting that he’s got a brand new guitar/got a jazz guitar over a Billy Joel sample, and then said guitar provides the melody for “Terry”.  Sometimes the clues are more difficult to spot, but reveal themselves after a bit of digging–in the line before the Jurassic Park comparison on “Falconry”, Bronson tells us he’s “listenin’ to German guitar riffs, what a life” and then a few songs later, this obscure track provides the main sample for “Only In America”.

Bronson takes a risk with a conceptual trilogy that makes up the middle third of the album.  “City Boy Blues” is the most musically adventurous track on Mr. Wonderful, providing a refreshing change of pace, and “A Light In the Addict” provides a bridge between the trilogy and the rest of the album.  The highlight though is the conclusion, the spurned lover’s lament “Baby Blue”.  Mark Ronson does a great job emulating the style of usual Bronson collaborator Party Supplies with the easy jazz, bouncy piano, and soulful hooks, but it’s Chance the Rapper that steals the show with his guest verse.  Chance wishes for a series of hilariously precise misfortunes to befall his former ladyfriend that range in malevolence from relatively harmless to rather painful (“I hope the zipper on your jacket get stuck” to “I hope you get a paper cut on your tongue from a razor in a paper cup”), though he ends on a rather mature note in wishing her happiness.

Mr. Wonderful is not a great artistic triumph, but not all albums need to be.  Sometimes you need to kick back and have a little fun, but in a way that does not insult your intelligence, and Action Bronson fulfills that role perfectly.  The man even offers some great advice: “Opportunity be knockin’–gotta let a motherfucker in.”

Review: Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp

Every week, I grow more and more convinced that the 90’s will never die.  Even if the music of the era will never dominate the airwaves like it did in its heyday, personally I feel it’s a good thing that there will forever be an undercurrent that will think getting a couple of friends together to bang out something with a few simple guitar chords with a few clever lyrics over the top is a great idea.  Though this gives the listener a basic idea of the DIY aesthetic of the album, it is but an oversimplification of what makes Waxahatchee’s new album Ivy Tripp such an engaging listen.

Waxahatchee first captured the attention of critics and listeners with Cerulean Salt, a charming lo-fi take on folk with a bit of a punk attitude that functioned more or less as a Katie Crutchfield solo album.  With Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield keeps the lo-fi spirit alive, but for the first time Waxahatchee feels more like the effort of a full-fledged group.  The band maintains a loose, low-stakes feel with much of the music, with the slightly off-time bass and off-kilter drums on “<“ providing a perfect example, or the breezy, easygoing ballad “Summer of Love”, a simple acoustic ode to a companion whose identity is revealed with a barking cameo at the end.

There are other moments where the group snaps into focus, like the mid-90’s indie rock throwback “Under a Rock”, with its bass countermelodies and drum fills lining up perfectly with the song’s big hooks.  Waxahatchee also shines when it steps out of their comfort zone and explores unfamiliar territory, as in the slow groove of “Air” or the spare “Breathless”, with its simple, distorted synth melody accented by the occasional feedback-tinged guitar divebomb.  Ivy Tripp effectively switches between these styles, keeping the listener’s attention throughout without ever sounding the least bit disjointed.

 

Ivy Tripp is an excellent step forward for Waxahatchee, as it reminds listeners of the highlights of Cerulean Salt while pushing forward into new musical directions.  This time around, Waxahatchee maintains their DIY spirit, but wraps that feeling up in a package filled with big hooks that encourages repeated listens.  Ivy Tripp may evoke nostalgic sentiments from a couple of decades ago, but Waxahatchee puts their own unique stamp on it that the album never sounds like a 90’s jukebox of indie rock’s greatest hits.

Review: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

After the experimentalism and bombast of The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has returned with the stripped-down, heartbreakingly beautiful Carrie & Lowell, a nakedly intimate album that is possibly his greatest work yet.  Stevens attempts to come to terms with the myriad emotions resulting from the death of his birth mother (the “Carrie” in the title), with whom he had an unusual relationship; present-day stabs at attempting to comprehend their relationship are intertwined with memories of childhood summer visits to Oregon, often accompanied by only a delicately finger-picked guitar and Stevens’s soft cooing voice.  It is easy to get wrapped up in the emotional turmoil of the lyrical content, but despite the often dark subject matter, the record never succumbs to the potential to overwhelm the listener, because Stevens preserves a delicate balance through his carefully constructed arrangements and beautiful melodies.

For the most part, the easiest reference points to Carrie & Lowell are to early-Elliott Smith/late-Nick Drake records, a fair comparison because of the shared connection of hushed vocals and acoustic guitars.  However, the high points of the album are when Stevens channels other influences.  One can hear shades of The Antlers in the album’s finale “Blue Bucket of Gold” and especially in “Fourth of July”, with its soundscapes providing an elegiac ambiance and its simple keyboard chords delivered in a brisk eighth-note rhythm; the shift in musical style also complements the shift in the narrative, as “Fourth of July” details the events of his mother’s death in painstaking detail.  The song builds to an agonizing climax, with the dramatic haunting line “we’re all gonna die” lingering in the air as the music drops out.

“The Only Thing” follows, switching back to the soft treble tones of a finger-picked guitar but maintaining the same devastating narrative; if it was backed by heavily distorted lead guitar, it would be a perfect siren song for a Victory Records band, especially with lyrics like “Should I tear my eyes out now before I see too much?  Should I tear my arms out now?  I want to feel your touch.”  The difference is that Stevens delivers these nakedly personal lines with such a deft touch that it only invokes empathy in the listener, and avoids the possibility of falling into self-caricature.  This adroitness extends to other brilliant sonic details, such as the end of “John My Beloved”–as Stevens ends the song with the line “in a manner of speaking, I’m dead”, the tape keeps rolling for a few moments, and one can hear a short breath before the tape is cut, creating an extremely powerful moment.

While Stevens abandoned the “Fifty States” project, the subtitle for Carrie & Lowell could easily be “Oregon”, as references to state landmarks and historical events are peppered throughout the album.  Hearing mentions of The Dalles, Spencer’s Butte, and the Tillamook burn, among others, helps ground the album to a specific time and place, as well as provide a personal touch to the universal emotions explored throughout the record (and as an Oregonian, it definitely keeps my attention as a listener as I keep trying to spot the different references with each listen).  The album is an often harrowing listen, but Carrie & Lowell is never a slog; with the aid of his gorgeous and elegant musical arrangements, Stevens is able to probe difficult questions about love and relationships without leaving the listener in a depressed and miserable state.  It may be Sufjan’s best work to date, and possibly the most beautiful album you will hear this year.

Over the Weekend (Apr. 20 Edition)

News, new music, and other fun stuff as you celebrate today’s “holiday”

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had its induction ceremony this past weekend, and while we won’t be able to see the concert for a couple of months, bits of news have been floating around and low-quality video of some of the performances have surfaced.  The various performances for Lou Reed’s induction are probably the most intriguing, with Beck performing “Satellite of Love” and Karen O with bandmate Nick Zinner taking a stab at “Vicious”.  Of course, no story that mentions the Hall would be complete without mentioning the countless times the committee has failed, so after reading about the specifics of the induction process enjoy a slideshow that argues for the inclusion of 40 other artists.

We are excited for the release of Built to Spill’s latest album, Untethered Moon, tomorrow, and to help our readers get in the mood, we are sharing Consequence of Sound’s 10 song summation of the band as well as the group’s latest video for “Never Be The Same”, a sequel of sorts to the previous “Living Zoo”.

The sight of goofy old people dancing is always fun, which is why it was also the basis for another recent video, “Lonesome Street” from Blur.

Fucked Up has released the B-Side to their yearly EP release based on the Chinese Zodiac, with Pitchfork providing the stream.  Year of the Hare will be released on June 16, but you can listen to “California Cold” now.

We usually do not discuss press releases from the Norway Ministry of Culture, but their announcement over the weekend that the country will shut down FM radio stations in the next two years caught our attention.  Some of my fondest memories are from my time working at a small FM alternative station, so in spite of the fact that in the specific case of Norway this seems to be a smart way to move forward (the fact that they only have five stations as a nation as well as the prevalence of Digital Audio Broadcasting channels seems like it will not be a particularly disruptive shift), it is still jarring to read.  Let us hope that they come up with a way to update all those car stereos before the change is fully implemented.

Catching Up On The Week (Apr. 17 Edition)

Some #longreads as you prepare yourself for Record Store Day…

It should be obvious that we here at Rust Is Just Right love record stores, and so it would seem to follow that we would appreciate the “Record Store Day” celebration.  However, as the “holiday” has grown in recent years, we have begun to realize that the success of the promotion can be a double-edged sword for the very businesses it was meant to protect: a sudden influx of sales can be good, but it means little to these stores if these sales do not create regular customers, and the emphasis on special releases has the problem of crowding out vinyl production, with limited edition records for established artists taking up space initially earmarked for truly independent bands.  Pitchfork has a piece that breaks down in more detail the ambivalent feelings that Record Store Day has generated.

It may sound counterintuitive at first, but the thesis of this Stereogum essay makes more sense the more you think about it–Brian Wilson certainly had an impact on the creation of punk rock.  Elsewhere on the site, the Anniversary Machine takes a look at the tenth anniversary of Alligator from The National, which marked a significant turning point for the band.  The best point made in the article is that despite what some detractors may say, there is a real evolution from Alligator to the present day in The National’s sound.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is awarding Kanye West with an honorary degree, and FADER has an interview with the president and dean of the school explaining their decision.  Though it has generated a mild amount of heat among a minority of students and some alumni, it is an easily defensible choice, as explained in the piece.

An ugly spat has been brewing between Black Sabbath and drummer Bill Ward, and it has spilled over into the public sphere this week.  Rolling Stone has an interview with Ward explaining the origins of the dispute and the band’s current situation.

The highly-anticipated second album from Alabama Shakes will be released on Tuesday, and Consequence of Sound talked to frontwoman Brittany Howard about Sound & Color as well as the band’s rise to fame.

Finally, Cuepoint has a fantastic piece courtesy of Bethlehem Shoals on the legacy of Percy Sledge, who should be remembered for more than his mammoth hit “When A Man Loves A Woman.”