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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Over the Weekend (Nov. 16 Edition)

The world is still reacting to the tragic events that took place in Paris on Friday night, including the horrific attack that occurred at the Eagles of Death Metal show at the Bataclan, where hundreds of music fans lost their lives.  Among those that were killed in the carnage that night was Nick Alexander, a crew member for EoDM, and Observer has a moving tribute to the man that balances the task of recognizing the loss of a young man while acknowledging how difficult it is to single out a particular victim.  There are certainly many similar stories out there, but be sure to read this one.

Catching Up On The Week (Nov. 6 Edition)

Some #longreads as you settle in for the weekend…

Spoon’s Gimme Fiction will be getting the deluxe edition/re-issue treatment for its tenth anniversary this December, but you can visit the site “Gimme Facts” right now to read the oral history of the album that comes with the package.  It was compiled by one of our favorite writers, Sean O’Neal (of the AV Club and others), so it should be well worth your time.

Last week, we shared a serious interview with Maynard James Keenan, and this week we have a fun one for you–read his hilarious responses to the AV Club’s “11 Questions“.

Esteemed critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine has to read a lot of rock star memoirs as a part of his job, but he makes it easy for the public by pulling out some of the best tidbits of six new autobiographies for this Vulture piece, filling you in on stories about John Fogerty, Carrie Brownstein, Elvis Costello, and others.

Finally, Esquire made Noel Gallagher their cover star for December, so of course they have an extensive interview with the man filled with his entertaining ramblings.

Feats of Strength: Tame Impala

Even after several repeated listens, I still have not been able to fully embrace Tame Impala’s latest album, Currents.  With their previous efforts (Lonerism and Innerspeaker), each spin created a new favorite track, which speaks to the depth of each record.  On the other hand, I think of Currents as one brilliant song followed by many decent-to-good tracks.  But goddamn, how great is that one song?

At 7 minutes and 47 seconds, “Let It Happen” is the longest song in the Tame Impala catalog, but not by much; the band regularly traffics in songs that clock in at around five minutes, with a few running a bit longer at six and seven minutes.  So, it is not just the fact that Tame Impala wrote a long song that is impressive, but that they wrote a long song that captivates the listener’s attention in such a way that they could make it the opening track and lead single for their new album.  That takes a special skill.

For about three minutes, “Let It Happen” meshes a smooth bass groove, a glitchy funk guitar lick, and an insistent kick drum to create a chill yet catchy dance number.  Kevin Parker then introduces a descending synth melody, and uses this new hook to seemingly signal that the song is about to fade out.  As one anticipates the fade out, the track appears to skip, with a beat stuck in a repetitive loop.  After a few seconds, the listener realizes this was done on purpose, as Parker throws in a rising string melody as a direct comment on the previous hook.  This new melody is then put into a repetitive loop on its concluding beat, and after processing that beat through a few extra effects, the song returns to the previous descending synth melody once again.  With the second repeating section, it almost as if the two melodies are locked in combat, with the original winning out in the end.  The song then rides this last melody to the end, with a few additional touches.

Perhaps the best part is that once the listener knows what happens at the end of the song, it is possible to pick up on clues that appear in earlier sections.  If one listens to the drums, one can notice that a few of the patterns have slight glitches or slight deviations, with other parts offering more overt clues as the song progresses.  Not only does the song’s catchiness inspire repeated spins, but it rewards careful listening as well.

EL VY, Live at the Doug Fir

The show on Tuesday night had the atmosphere of a homecoming, even though it was only EL VY’s second show.  Even the tickets reflected the casual nature of the evening, as it described the group as “a collaboration between The National’s Matt Berninger and Me.”  The “Me” of course refers to local musician Brent Knopf, who has previously delighted Portland music fans with his previous work in Menomena as well as his solo effort as Ramona Falls, and now makes up the other half of this indie rock “supergroup”.  While there were a couple of issues in making the transition from recording project to a functioning live act, they were only minor speed bumps during an otherwise entertaining show.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

One of the coolest concert posters ever.

The band’s debut album Return to the Moon had only been released on Friday, and I am sure there were many in the crowd that had not been able to listen to it in its entirety before the show (my copy only arrived the afternoon of the show, so I was only able to get through it once).  Nevertheless, the audience remained enthusiastic throughout the night, even if they had no idea what to expect.   The crowd did show their appreciation for the few songs that they did know, with a few even having learned enough of the lyrics to sing along for a bit.  Songs like “Return to the Moon” and “I’m the Man to Be” had an extra pop to them and were highlights of the set, and one could easily see why they were shared in advance of the album.

The tone of the evening was very light and informal, and one could see that Matt enjoyed the break from the usual seriousness associated with his main gig.  Matt had fun with Brent as he spent some time in-between songs trying to diagnose what exactly went wrong for a couple of measures, citing his own inability to remember his cue to sing for one and playfully arguing with Brent about how one of his chords caused him to overshoot on a vocal jump in another (and in the process showing the difference between recording alone to a track and singing with a live group).  But for the most part, everything went as seamless as one could expect from a brand new group playing one of their first shows.

EL VY also enjoyed the opportunity to play with some of their friends, as local musician Ural Thomas joined in to help fill in some of the background vocals he provided on the album, along with opening act Moorea Masa.  But perhaps the best moment of the night was when the group selected an out-of-leftfield cover, the massive Fine Young Cannibals hit “She Drives Me Crazy”.  Matt opted to bring Roland Gift’s falsetto down a couple of octaves, but otherwise the band captured the song perfectly, to the delight of many in the crowd.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

The lighting makes it seem so dramatic.

Opening act Hibou were quite impressive, veering from the quiet and languid music that recalled Deerhunter to more epic, bombastic rock that would fit in perfectly fine at an arena and not a basement club.  Moorea Masa has a beautiful voice, and the delicate harmonies that she produced with her fellow vocalists brought to mind a female version of Fleet Foxes.  I am looking forward to seeing both of these acts swing through town again.

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.

Over the Weekend (Nov. 2 Edition)

New music, new videos, and other fun stuff to help start off your week…

Halloween has come and gone, but that does not mean we have to stop sharing “scary” music videos.  The bands White Lung and Pink Mountaintops have joined forces to collaborate as the super-group “Pink Lung” for a special compilation EP, and have created a Halloween-inspired video for their contribution “Chinese Watermelon”.  It is quite bizarre, and shares a certain sensibility with the old Japanese horror film House with its penchant for odd, dark humor and cheesy effects.

EL VY also joined in on the Halloween fun, releasing a video for “Silent Ivy Hotel” that was inspired by the celebration of the holiday.  It is a perfect match of song and theme, since the tune has elements that are reminiscent of such spooky classics as “I Put A Spell on You” and “The Munsters Theme”, among others.

Halloween videos were not the only ones that were released last week, as Kendrick Lamar shared the short film for his track “These Walls”, which features a great mid-song dance break with both Kendrick Lamar and actor Terry Crews.  Everyone looks like they had a good time with this one, but the video does end on a cliffhanger.

If you were wondering what the hell was the point of Meow The Jewels, you are in luck, since Run The Jewels has released a short documentary explaining the creation of the charity album.

Finally, we have another Maynard James Keenan interview for your perusal, as he answers “11 Questions” for The AV Club.

Catching Up On The Week (Oct. 30 Edition)

A few non-spooky #longreads for your (one-hour longer) weekend…

Thankfully, we have not seen any Halloween-related “thinkpieces”, so we can go straight to some links worthy of your time.  First, Maynard James Keenan sat down for an extensive interview with the Phoenix New Times, and the article features Maynard talking at length about several topics with his typical humor.  Maynard is preparing for the release of Puscifer’s new album, Money Shot, though of course it was his talk about one of his other bands that drew most of the attention, as anything that mentions “Tool” is sure to garner clicks.

Pitchfork has a piece on the 25th anniversary of Ride’s Nowhere, one of the biggest and most important albums of the shoegaze era, and discusses how the genre has played a part in shaping the sound of a numbers.  This week also marks the twentieth anniversary of Pulp’s brilliant album Common People, and Stereogum pays tribute to the landmark record.

Finally, Consequence of Sound attempts to settle the age-old debate of “Which is the best Replacements album: Let It Be or Tim?”  They take their time in analyzing the merits of the two legendary albums, but in the end come up with the correct result.

A Few More SCARY Music Videos

Last year, we provided you with a non-exhaustive list of scary music videos to help you enjoy your Halloween.  This year, we have a few more additions to the canon, so your music video marathon goes on just a little bit longer.

First up, we have the video for Wolf Alice’s “You’re A Germ”, which finds the band in a slasher movie/Groundhog’s Day mashup, as the group constantly relives a terrifying night and attempts to figure out a way to evade the various killers that are out to get them.

Next, we have a selection that we unfortunately neglected to include with our previous list, Franz Ferdinand’s “Evil Eye”.  The video is equal parts gory, disturbing, and campy, which means it more than lives up to its title.

And finally, we have a video that we shared with you before: “Virgins” by Death From Above 1979.  Unfortunately, the band has yet to make a holiday-appropriate video for “Right On, Frankenstein!”, but this psychedelic freakout of Amish kids that evokes memories of Children of the Corn more than makes up for it.

There may be only three additions to our previous list, but it’s fair to say that the quality outweighs the quantity.