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Review: EL VY – Return to the Moon

Side-projects are best experienced with an open mind, with little-to-no expectations based on the previous work of its members.  They are often useful for musicians, in that they provide an outlet for previously unused musical ideas or allow them to express different aspects of their personalities, but they can prove disappointing to the audience when the work does not match the quality of previous results.  So while it may be initially tempting to have high hopes for a collaboration between members of The National and Menomena, two of the best bands in indie rock from the past decade, it is probably in the listener’s best interests to approach their work with caution.

Then again, EL VY’s Return to the Moon is a thoroughly enjoyable lark, and fans of the other bands of Brent Knopf and Matt Berninger should find plenty to love with this project.

In many ways, Return to the Moon is a side-project that lives up to the expectations of a supergroup, since in many ways it does sound like a more experimental Menomena record with guest vocals from The National.  Knopf brings the cut-and-paste approach of his former group, offering up hundreds of quick musical ideas over the album’s eleven tracks; careful listeners may be able to pick out variations of the piano riff and acoustic guitar chords from “Wet and Rusting” sprinkled into a couple of tracks.  The music generally sticks to that intimate indie rock style, but there are quick forays into funk and other left-field genres that keeps the listener guessing.

Berninger seems to relish the chance to step outside the seriousness of his regular gig, and reveals a more playful part of his personality.  This is most apparent in the playful and profane “I’m the Man to Be”, which includes a line in the chorus about his “person”.  For the most part, Berninger is content to deliver his vocals with that trademark soothing baritone, which fits in nicely with Knopf’s compositions.

The album tends to lose momentum as it progresses, though the blend of the harder-hitting “Sad Case” and “Happiness, Missouri” is a highlight of the second half.  However, the opening title track is one of the catchiest singles of the year, and had me humming along for the past few weeks, and there are several other pleasant songs that are nearly its equal.

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Review: Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect

With The Agent Intellect, Protomartyr have crafted one of the most alluring and captivating albums of the year, one that provokes visceral and thoughtful reactions in equal measure.  Joe Casey’s straight-forward vocal delivery and the gloomy atmosphere produced by the rest of the band are an unusual combination that nevertheless leads to songs that are undeniably catchy, if unorthodox in nature.  The propulsive drive of the songs as well as the air of mystery in the lyrics help make The Agent Intellect one of the most gripping and entertaining albums of the year.

That is not to say that you should expect to see Protomartyr battling for a spot atop the Billboard charts.  Casey’s vocals are closer to the spoken-word screeds of Mark E. Smith of The Fall than traditional singing, and will probably turn off some of their potential audience.  Casey is more concerned with delivering his lyrics with just the right touch of dramatic flair, and he easily succeeds on that count.

The other members of the band provide an intriguing contrast to the vocals, often locking into melodies and patterns that do not necessarily line up with the vocals.  Instead, the focus is on creating a suitable ambiance, and it is here where their take on post-punk matches up with Casey’s work.  Greg Ahee’s guitars often bear the same trebly and reverb-soaked quality of The Walkmen, while Scott Davidson on bass and Alex Leonard on drums help drive the songs while also creating intriguing countermelodies and rhythms.  Together, they create a furious yet wonderful racket.

Protomartyr has solidified the promise that was present on last year’s Under Color of Official Right, and crystallizing many of that record’s ideas.  Each listen of The Agent Intellect reveals new standout tracks, but the album really works best as a cohesive whole, with one song leading into the next, with natural rises and falls.  Its best quality may be the fact that the record works great as both the subject of devoted listening as well as mere background music, which means you can enjoy repeated spins of the album without ever getting in danger of tiring of it.

Review: Ought – Sun Coming Down

We were a little late on the bandwagon, but Ought’s debut album eventually became one of our favorite releases from last year.  More Than Any Other Day ended up securing a spot on our Best Albums of 2014 list on the strength of the band’s fresh and energetic approach to post-punk, with Ought showing a deft touch in their ability to combine several disparate influences into a coherent and unique style.  Their follow-up finds the group settling into their sound, resulting in what initially seems like a more subdued effort.  Though Sun Coming Down does not immediately grab the listener like its predecessor, there are enough intriguing elements to compel repeated spins to discover the album’s charms and nuances.

While More Than Any Other Day was characterized by its barely-restrained chaos and the ability to shift gears at a moment’s notice, Sun Coming Down finds that restless energy pushed to just below the surface.  There are not as many sudden left-turns and fewer freakouts (and the ones that occur are pushed to the margins), as the band locks into grooves for extended stretches of time.  The two tracks that form the centerpiece of the album, “Sun’s Coming Down” and “Beautiful Blue Sky”, are perfect examples of this new approach.  The former is content to ride a slow burn and never fully release the tension created by its deliberate but incessant drive, while the latter floats over a more melodic version of the bassline of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel”.

However, for many listeners, these are only subtle points of distinction–the band still features trebly guitars belting out dissonant chords and angular melodies that float over the top of the intricate interplay of the rhythm section.  Oh, and of course there is still Tim Beeler’s unique voice and his dramatic approach to singing, though he is now credited as Tim Darcy.  He still drops several brilliant non sequiturs that drip with irony and wit, such as the efforts to ape the banality of small talk in “Beautiful Blue Sky” with the repeated mentions of “Beautiful weather today”, “fancy seeing you here”, “how’s the family”, etc.  When juxtaposed against the chorus of “I’m no longer afraid to die, because that is all I have left”, the emptiness of the platitudes are even more evident, and Darcy’s ebullient reaction of drawing out the word “yes” in response enhances the effect even more.

But that may be just because “I’m talking out of my ass, because my heart is not open.”

Review: Wavves – V

Belying his slacker persona, Nathan Williams has been remarkably busy since the release of the last Wavves album two years ago.  Afraid of Heights was one of our favorite records of 2013, and reached the third spot in our inaugural Best Albums list; since then, Williams has formed an electronic side project with his brother (Sweet Valley) and released a collaborative album with Cloud Nothing’s Dylan Baldi (No Life For Me), and after the release of several extra Wavves tracks for various projects, was able to find some time to record a proper follow-up.  It seems that by dividing up his attention into pursuing all these different projects has allowed Williams to focus on a singular approach for Wavves, as V is the most streamlined album the band has released in years.

V is a giddy rush, blasting through eleven tracks in half an hour, but by relying on a particular formula leads to some diminishing returns as the album progresses.  Each song is amped up to eleven and played at a breakneck speed, and while individually each song is great and could be selected for a single, it can result in a numbing effect when listened to as a whole.  The album is missing some of those excellent mid-tempo numbers like “Demon to Lean On” or “Afraid of Heights” from their previous album, or those crazy studio experiments like “Baseball Cards” and “Convertible Balloon” from King of the Beach, both of which helped make for more cohesive records.

However, Williams shows once again that he can write a great hook, as V is absolutely stuffed with earworms that will immediately grab your attention.  As fans should expect at this point, all those sunny melodies and cheerful musical background serve as an excellent foil to lyrics that revel in self-loathing, though even in the wake of an apparent breakup the mood is a tad merrier than on Afraid.  The group also displays a remarkable capability to create the most artificial sounds possible with traditional rock instruments, and careful listening reveals a wealth of material lurking in the background of each track.

For a band that has a long history with the letter “v”, it is a fitting gesture to name the group’s fifth album with the Roman Numeral, and the record recaptures the energy of the band’s early years, but with a much better recording budget.  V may not reach the heights of its predecessors, but it can serve as a welcome shot of adrenaline or as a palette cleanser after some other more dour and serious records.

Review: Deafheaven – New Bermuda

Now this is how you follow up a masterpiece.  With New Bermuda, Deafheaven have matched the brilliance of their universally-beloved album Sunbather, and have created another record filled with thrilling, triumphant climaxes and breathtakingly gorgeous moments that show the power and diversity of metal as a genre.  New Bermuda works both as a cohesive whole as well as five fantastic individual tracks, as each listen prompts me to proclaim a new track as my definitive favorite.

To answer the first question that is on every non-metalhead’s mind when it comes to Deafheaven: yes, George Clarke still employs that banshee-yelling technique on every song.  In fact, the vocals are a bit more prominent in the mix than they were on Sunbather, but they might be an even better fit with the accompanying music on New Bermuda.  At the same time, while Clarke’s delivery is as harsh as ever, his “diction” has become clearer, with individual phrases easier to parse than before–to this day, the only phrase I can pick out from Sunbather is the line “I want to dream” from “Dream House”, and that was only after several listens and a careful look at the lyric sheet.  In other words, those turned off by this facet of Deafheaven’s sound are unlikely to be converted with New Bermuda, but those who appreciate/have made peace with it will have no problem.

While there are still several moments where Deafheaven incorporates elements of shoegaze into their black metal style, New Bermuda finds the band adding more concepts from traditional metal into their songs.  Whereas Sunbather was characterized by brick walls of guitars creating dense chords with shifting, underlying melodies, New Bermuda often focuses more on riff-based songwriting and single-note solos.  In terms of the tone and complexity of these riffs, the band finds a spot where early-Metallica and late-System of a Down meet, evoking Leviathan-era Mastodon as well with their furious churning nature.  In addition to the fantastic work from guitarist Kerry McCoy, who adds a wah-inflected solo and subtle slidework to his repertoire, drummer Dan Tracy shines once again with his furious but precise work behind the kit, alternating between blastbeats and more subtle grooves.

The post-rock interludes that distinguished Sunbather from other metal records are now integrated into the songs themselves, as they often dissolve into beautiful instrumental passages marked by guitars drenched in reverb and delay (among other effects) atop subtle, rolling drums.  These moments go beyond the usual Explosions in the Sky comparisons and recall some of the more lyrical moments of Slowdive, an intersection of post-rock and shoegaze that is especially evident in the outro to “Come Back”.  There is only one noticeable Godspeed-like field recording this time, a brief and cryptic snippet of a traffic announcement warning about the closure of the George Washington Bridge.

There is no single moment that approaches transcendence, as they were able to accomplish with “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree” on Sunbather, but New Bermuda as an album is every bit as equal.  It is crazy that this is as close to criticism as I can get for this record, but New Bermuda is that much of an accomplishment.  Deafheaven have now firmly established themselves as one of the most important groups of the current era, and have laid the groundwork for a long and fruitful career.

Reviews: Quick Hits (Part 2)

Though we here at Rust Is Just Right try as hard as we can, it simply is not possible for us to review all the great new albums that come across our way.  However, since our goal is to highlight great music that you may have not discovered yet, we feel obligated to at least give a brief mention to some of the records that we have accumulated over the past few months that are worthy of your consideration.  With that in mind, we present another slate of albums.

Frog Eyes – Pickpocket’s Locket With their previous albums Tears of the Valedictorian and Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph, Frog Eyes showed a certain flair for the dramatic, delivering cracked indie rock epics that can overwhelm listeners with their passion and intensity while challenging their preconceived musical sensibilities.  For this album, Casey Mercer has pulled back a bit and offered a more stripped-down version of his group’s bombastic sound, but delivered with a similar fervor.  You still get Mercer’s unique voice, but this time it is often accompanied by strings.

HEALTH – Death Magic For their long-awaited follow-up to Get Color, noise-rockers HEALTH have decided to throw on the most depressing dance party ever.  Industrial affectations adorn slow, slinky beats, creating a menacing if alluring album.  The only downside is a tendency early in the album to borrow a melody from Vampire Weekend’s “Giving Up The Gun”, but that might be a problem that does not afflict everyone equally.

Lou Barlow – Brace the Wave It is really strange that two of the members of probably the loudest fucking band on the planet, Dinosaur Jr., enjoy making gorgeous acoustic music in their spare time, but such is the case for J Mascis and Lou Barlow.  To be fair, Barlow has shown this side for years, even on a handful of Dino songs, but Brace the Wave is an especially gorgeous collection of songs.  Recorded after the dissolution of a long marriage, there is the expected melancholic element, but it is balanced with several moments of fragile beauty.

Wire – Wire The old punks are still kicking, and they are as restless as ever.  Not content to rehash their early work that has inspired countless modern bands, Wire instead dives into a dour post-punk take on shoegaze.  That is probably a poor characterization of their sound, but goes to show how the band has always managed to defy description.

Wolf Alice – My Love Is Cool The band got some airplay with the aggro-indie track “Moaning Lisa Smile”, but the album as a whole exhibits far greater diversity than one might expect.  Wolf Alice shows a bit of love to multiple 90’s subgenres and trends, but avoids sounding like a rehash of that decade.  My Love Is Cool does not quite work as a cohesive album, but there should be plenty of stray tracks that fans will love.

Reviews: Quick Hits (Part 1)

Though we here at Rust Is Just Right try as hard as we can, it simply is not possible for us to review all the great new albums that come across our way.  However, since our goal is to highlight great music that you may have not discovered yet, we feel obligated to at least give a brief mention to some of the records that we have accumulated over the past few months that are worthy of your consideration.

Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man This album sounds like a lost collection of Joy Division/early New Order B-Sides, and I mean that with absolutely no snark at all.  That should come as no surprise, considering the band is named after the song that served as a bridge between the two bands, but this actually represents a shift in sound for a group that previously trafficked in a style closer to hardcore.  In other words, take every smartass remark made about Interpol and apply it to these guys, but we suggest that you refrain from over-intellectualizing and instead embrace the gloomy grooves.

Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet Fans of the Dirty Projectors are well-acquainted with the beautiful, ethereal voice of former member Angel Deradoorian, and they should be delighted with her solo debut.  It is easy to get lost in the trippy, psychedelic journey that Deradoorian takes on this record, though at times it can make for a frustrating listen, despite the abundance of talent on display.

Ducktails – St. Catherine The side project of Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile shares many of the qualities that led fans to appreciate his main gig, namely easy-going vibes and slick, pretty leads.  However, Mondanile does get to indulge a bit and explore other sounds, venturing towards the synthpop side of the music spectrum.

Ratatat – Magnifique There is nothing quite like this distinctive instrumental duo, who blend electronic beats and catchy inventive guitar riffs.  For this go around, Ratatat shows off their sunnier side, incorporating elements of surf music into their trademark sound.  The album seems to drag on a bit longer than it should, but it would be hard to cut out any specific track, because that would mean missing out on some excellent hooks.

The Sonics – The Is The Sonics The garage-rock pioneers have returned with a vengeance, proving that the old guys still have the energy to blow the young folks out of the water, so to speak.  In other words, this is not your typical embarrassing reunion of fogies who are long past their sell-by date–there is some serious verve and passion to this record.

Review: Low – Ones and Sixes

What Low has accomplished over the course of their two-decade-plus career is truly astonishing.  Not only have they never come close to releasing a mediocre album, but they still sound as vibrant as ever, with their creative spark still burning bright.  Though as pioneers of the “slowcore” genre they are known for their minimalist tendencies, Low still is finding new sounds to explore and ideas to develop, which makes Ones and Sixes an excellent addition to their brilliant discography.

Ones and Sixes is an excellent summation of the different paths the band has pursued since the release of Things We Lost In The Fire.  The band alternates between the warmer milieu of their recent work (C’mon and The Invisible Way) with a dip back into the icier moods of albums like Drums and Guns. The influence of that often-overlooked album really shines through with the incorporation of electronic drums on tracks like “Congregation” and “Gentle”, the latter of which evokes a more downbeat version of With Teeth-era Nine Inch Nails.

These dark, mysterious tracks fit perfectly alongside soaring guitar-based ballads, like the dazzling “Lies”, which may have one of the most gorgeous climaxes that the band has ever recorded.  This sublime moment is immediately followed by the epic “Landslide”, which is possibly Low’s heaviest work to date.  With its heavy distortion and extended dissonant outro, it is sure to be a highlight of the group’s upcoming live show.

There are other intriguing subtle production touches on Ones and Sixes, most notably the use of some natural distortion in the recording and mixing process that gives a rawer feel to certain moments, providing a nice contrast to the otherwise pristine tone found throughout the record.  In addition to their inspired instrumental experimentation, Low once again makes great use of the harmonies of the husband-and-wife team of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, with each also given their own time to shine.  Their hauntingly alluring vocals are perfect complements to the exquisitely constructed melodies, and that combination together should be more than enough to draw in new listeners.  Of course, this should come as no surprise to old fans, since Low has been consistently excellent for a number of years, but they will certainly be pleased to hear that the band has created an excellent capstone for their fine work of the past decade.

Random note: I have not seen an explanation of the title, but my guess is that “Ones and Sixes” is a reference to dice, and the minimum/maximum that one can get; therefore, the record might be seen as an exploration of highs and lows.  Just a theory.

Review: Foals – What Went Down

Few bands are as underappreciated stateside as Foals.  Since the release of Total Life Forever, the band has cultivated an intriguing niche that blends an innovative take on groovy math-rock with aggressive conventional rock elements, all with plenty of hooks to spare (see: “This Orient”; “My Number”).  Though the group has developed into a touring force, that success has not translated into record sales or buzz for their latest release.  In all likelihood, What Went Down will not mark the band’s breakthrough into the mainstream, which is a damn shame because it is an excellent record.

What Went Down serves as a crystallization of many of the musical ideas of their previous album, Holy Fire, with the band hitting harder with their attacks and crafting bigger choruses.  The energetic opening title track and the epic closer “A Knife In The Ocean” are two of the best songs that Foals have written in their career, and serve as the perfect bookends to the album.  In between, the band finds some fascinating detours to explore, most notably “Snake Oil”, which does a fantastic job of alternating between motorik and half-time rhythms.

Frontman Yannis Philippakis sounds especially great, and he seems more comfortable than ever with his unique voice.  In addition to crafting excellent melodies, Philippakis also effectively shifts between different timbres to evoke a wide variety of emotions, making What Went Down a truly affecting work.  The rest of the band does not slack off either, and each member engages in interesting textural experimentation with the group’s signature sound.

It is amazing that Foals are still able to find new avenues to explore within their unique style, and that the band can continue to top themselves with each successive release.  Maybe What Went Down will provide the spark for the rest of the American music scene to begin to pay attention to the guys from Oxford.