indie rock

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.

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Review: Tame Impala – Currents

It has become increasingly rare for indie rock bands to break through into mainstream success, and a psychedelic record about the comforts of isolation is probably the unlikeliest candidate to accomplish the feat.  Nevertheless, Lonerism became a hit and catapulted Tame Impala into the rarefied air of festival-headliners, and the pressure was on for Kevin Parker to see what he could accomplish next with his project.  For Currents, Parker has seemingly ditched synth-like-guitars for actual synths, giving his explorations into 70’s-era psychedelia a slick 80’s sheen, an initially jarring juxtaposition that reveals itself over multiple listens to be a smart approach to evolving the band’s signature sound.  The album does not provide the same gratifying pleasure of Lonerism, but Currents still provides an intriguing next step forward for Tame Impala.

The album kicks off with the absolutely stellar “Let It Happen”, a track that is a restless, pulsing, seven-and-a-half minute monster that is sure to be the highlight of any future Tame Impala live show.  It not only is a perfect example of Parker’s studio wizardry, but it is a compositional masterpiece–“Let It Happen” effortlessly shifts from one idea to the next, but never comes across as meandering, even as it effectively stops, restarts, and reverses itself mid-song.  While the song does an excellent job of not only setting the tone for the rest of the album, but preparing the listener for Tame Impala’s shift in style, it unfortunately overshadows everything else that follows.

Currents is a sonic marvel, and fans will deservedly pore over every note on the album.  The incorporation of dance elements and Prince-inspired R&B was an inspired choice, and the production on the album makes it the most modern-sounding retro album possible.  However, the album suffers from a saggy middle section, where compelling musical ideas are compromised by weak vocal melodies that fail to leave much of an impression.  Despite these flaws, the album picks up in its second half when it finds the groove again in songs like “Disciples” and “Reality In Motion”.

It is clear that Currents is a deeply personal record, and Parker’s passion really shines through the entire work.  Like other Tame Impala albums, it takes several listens to pick up on the nuances of Currents, but the music is fascinating enough on the surface that it never feels like a chore.  At the moment, it may not be the equal of Lonerism or Innerspeaker, but as it stands Currents is a welcome addition to the band’s catalog.

Over the Weekend (Aug. 3 Edition)

News, new music, and other fun stuff to help you through the unbearable heat…

The biggest news of the weekend is the announcement that Dr. Dre will be releasing a new album in the very near future, though it is not quite the album many fans expected.  Instead of releasing the much-delayed Detox, which for years was teased as the expected followup to 2001, Dre is releasing Compton, inspired by his work on the upcoming N.W.A biopic.

Speaking of long-awaited followups, it has been nearly a decade since the release of Tool’s last album, and while for years fans have been teased with tidbits detailing the slow process of following up 10,000 Days, that does not mean the band members have been remaining idle.  Maynard James Keenan announced that his other, other group Puscifer will be releasing a new album on October 30, and has shared “Grand Canyon” from Money Shot this week.

Puscifer first https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dM3yqRp5Yy0, but that is not the only time the show skewered the music industry.  Pitchfork talked to co-creator David Cross about some of the classic sketches that revolved around music, including a fun story about a meeting with The Strokes.

With the upcoming release of the rarities collection The Secret History, Vol. 1 (which is now available for streaming via NPR), Pavement is back in the news.  Vulture asked guitarist Scott Kannberg (aka “Spiral Stairs”) about his favorite tracks that the band recorded, and Scott responded with quite the diverse set of songs.  However, we have to admit that we are disappointed by the lack of inclusion of “Unfair” from his personal list.

Remember what we said about Foo Fighters and viral content last week?  Here is another example, as a thousand Italians cover “Learn to Fly” to try to convince the Foos to visit their town.

Alternative Nation linked to a bunch of previously unreleased Nirvana tracks this weekend, but since they have probably already been taken down by the time you read this, you should probably use the site as a guide to try to track down the individual tracks on your own.

Finally, SPIN decided that this was the appropriate moment to rank every single Metallica song that was ever released, and that is probably as good a way as any to waste your time this week.

Review: Bully – Feels Like

We are seemingly living in a boom period for garage rock.  Perhaps this is merely a result of musicians branching off from the general 90’s indie rock revival,* as part of the general tendency of artists to look to the recent past for inspiration.  At the same time, bands are opting for a more stripped-down take on the “punk” music that dominated rock radio at the time, while at the same time .  Questions of origin aside, one finds that the bills at local shows are being filled out more and more by garage rock bands, and now with this wave we are seeing their records getting wider release.  The recent debut album from Bully is one of the most promising examples of this trend, as Feels Like is an exhilarating burst of adrenaline that stands out as one of the most exciting records of the summer.

Feels Like comes fast and furious at ten tracks in half an hour, with most songs hitting you in the gut immediately and then not making sure to overstay their welcome.  The drums pop and the guitars cut through with an almost-too-perfect amount of distortion, though the most distinctive element is easily Alicia Bognanno’s infectious yell, a perfect mixture of anger and vulnerability.  Listen to the pain and anguish of her vocals as Bognanno tears into opener “I Remember” as the band chugs along with barely-contained fury, setting the stage perfectly for the rest of the album.

Some critics and listeners may feel that the music on Feels Like is too derivative of their alternative idols, and it cannot be argued that Bully is trying to reinvent the wheel here.  However, there are enough hooks that are plowed through with the right amount of energy that should downplay the concerns of everyone but only the most steadfast detractors.  Even on post-grunge-by-numbers tracks like “Trying” the band displays a knack for hooks that is hard to resist.

Bully may not be a revolutionary act, but with Feels Like they have created one of the most infectious albums of the summer, proving sometimes it is best to listen to your gut instead of your mind.  There is no need to overanalyze the music–just strap yourself in and enjoy this blast of invigorating punk rock.

*See: Parquet Courts, Waxahatchee, Yuck, Speedy Ortiz, etc.

Review: Built to Spill – Untethered Moon

For a number of years, Built to Spill has been afflicted with the same curse as Spoon: consistent quality.  Like Spoon, who have released a string of exceptional albums since 2001’s Girls Can Tell, over the last decade-and-a-half Built to Spill have steadily produced a series of very good records since the one-two punch of the classics Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret made them heroes of the indie rock scene.  Both groups have a dedicated fanbase that has passionately welcomed each new release, but to some extent critics have begun to take the quality of the work they produce for granted.  At this point, excellence is to be expected.

Considering the circumstances, it is remarkable not only how comfortable and laid-back Untethered Moon is, but how neatly it fits within the band’s catalog.  In the six years since the release of There Is No Enemy, not only did Doug Martsch scrap an entire album, but longtime members Brett Nelson (bass) and Scott Plouf (drums) left the band.  Though it took some time for replacements Jason Albertini and Steve Gere to get acclimated to the group in their live performances, the transition is seamless on the album.  It is still true that the most important components of a Built to Spill song are Doug Martsch’s guitar parts followed by his trademark vocals, but the new rhythm section has seemingly injected some verve into the songs and rejuvenated Martsch to an extent, even if relatively few of their individual contributions stand out (the drum fills on opener “All Our Songs” and the bass melodies on “Never Be the Same” serving as notable exceptions).

What is most surprising about Untethered Moon is how restrained the guitar-playing is for the majority of the album.  Doug Martsch established himself as one of the Guitar Gods of the alternative scene because of his mastery of each fundamental part of the instrument; not only could Martsch rip out a brilliant and searing lead or create a catchy and memorable riff, but he also was able to precisely construct multiple-part epics that not only perfectly integrated those leads and riffs but managed to surprise listeners with their originality.  Consider how easily classics like “Carry the Zero” or “Kicked It In the Sun” shift between seemingly disparate sections that are nonetheless tied together by Martsch’s inventive songwriting, and how seamlessly Martsch blended multiple interweaving guitar parts.  There are only a few scattered moments that recall Martsch’s previous guitar heroics; instead it is a few select riffs or the occasional quick melody that leaves an impression on the listener.  With its tight, concise songwriting and the relative rawness of its fidelity, the closest analogue in the band’s discography is There’s Nothing Wrong With Love from just over two decades ago.  It is not as if the band has come full-circle though; they are just digging deeper into their repertoire for inspiration.

Untethered Moon lacks a memorable single like the ferocious live staple “Goin’ Against Your Mind” or a cathartic hidden gem like “Things Fall Apart” that are definite standouts, but instead has several strong tracks that will compete to be designated as the listener’s favorite.  When the band hits the road in support of the album, fans should look forward to hearing the band incorporate the new material into their live sets without a hitch, though the particular songs chosen may be a surprise.  Untethered Moon proves that Built to Spill is a well-oiled machine that keeps chugging along, replacing and assimilating new components without any problems whatsoever, and able to continue to produce quality albums well into their career.

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.

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).

Review: Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves

It may be tough for some fans to accept, but Modest Mouse in 2015 is not the same band that it was in 1996 when it released its debut album.  This is not a criticism at all, but a statement of fact–a band that began as a bare-bones, ramshackle trio playing dive bars has now evolved into an amorphous collective that headlines festivals.  Strangers to Ourselves is light years from the type of album that the band made in their K Records days, but underneath the polished sheen and layers of instrumentation the listener can still find the idiosyncratic character that undeniably defines this as a Modest Mouse record.  Not only are the oddball sensibility and humorous cynicism that are prevalent in their old releases still run rampant, but Isaac Brock and company continue to poke at the boundaries of what one expects musically from an indie rock record.

The album begins with the gorgeous title track, an ode to the ability to forget that is marked by a lovely string melody and dotted with countless instrumental ornamentations from the menagerie of supporting players, a moment of tranquility that recalls previous triumphs like “Gravity Rides Everything” and “The World at Large”.    Lead single “Lampshades on Fire” follows, and musically it sounds like modern-day Modest Mouse in a nutshell–there are the bent harmonics, the ba-ba-ba backing vocals, the splashes of color from quirky instruments, but performed in a compact and cohesive manner.  The lyrical theme covers classic Modest Mouse territory, with an overall narrative of escalating disasters that culminates in a plea of this-planet-is-fucked-so-let’s-move–“Pack up again head to the next place, where we’ll make the same mistakes.  Burn it up or just chop it down this one’s done, so where to now” share space with non sequiturs like “our ass looks great inside these jeans,” with both sentiments inspiring the same deep contemplation from the listener.

Songs like the menacing “Shit In Your Cut” and the backwater circus-evoking “Sugar Boats” already have fit seamlessly into the band’s setlist, and the bouncy “The Ground Walks, with Time in a Box”, which features a groovy bassline that brings to mind “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, is destined to be a future live favorite, especially with an outro that begs to be extended and embellished.  The delicate ballad “Coyotes” is another highlight that shows the band’s deft touch, especially as it swells into its final sing-along chorus with a lovely flourish of guitars.  The Jeremiah Green-penned “God is an Indian and You’re an Asshole” should also delight fans of the band’s more peculiar tendencies that works as a great palate-cleanser and sets up the album’s final trio of the songs that concludes the album with a strong flourish.

Though the band hits on several aspects of their sound that should delight multiple segments of their fanbase, Modest Mouse does not provide a mere rehash of their previous work and continues to experiment, with the results having varying degrees of success.  The bright, steel-drum-inflected “Ansel” and the skittering “Wicked Campaign” fit in comfortably with the rest of the album, whereas the spit-up and chewed-out “Pistol (A. Cunanan Miami FL. 1996)” threatens to stop Strangers dead in its tracks early on.  The latter grows on the listener with repeated listens once the initial shock wears down and is an example of the band’s bravery in confronting the listener’s expectations, but it is also the obvious candidate for most-skipped track on the album.

Strangers to Ourselves is overstuffed at fifteen tracks, but this has long been a trademark of Modest Mouse albums, including classics like The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica; fans look back fondly on those albums as a whole, but even on those records there are some rather weak tracks, though over time they help contribute to the group’s “anything goes” feel.  Ever since “Float On” broke through into the mainstream, Modest Mouse has faced the charge from some fans that they “sold out”, though that is an unfair complaint–the band is as delightfully weird as ever and clearly follows their own muse, and their resultant popularity is not the product of a calculated shift to accommodate for more pedestrian tastes.  Though the group as currently constructed cannot write a loose and rambling classic like “Trailer Trash”, sacrificing some freedom for some semblance of structure, but they can still venture into some pretty wild places.

It may not reach the heights of their landmark albums, but there is a consistency to Strangers to Ourselves that makes it a marked improvement over We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which could be a slog to get through at times.  It may not completely make up for the amount of time we’ve been waiting for a new Modest Mouse album, but we can at least take comfort in the fact that the next one should be coming very soon.

Review: Moon Duo – Shadow of the Sun

With their latest album Shadow of the Sun, Moon Duo takes the listener on a psychedelic journey whose thrills are often laced with a subtle menace.  Underneath the hazy guitars and bright keyboards, the band traffics in Krautrock-inspired motifs, with the recurring figures alternately grounding the songs and pushing them forward with an ever-insistent beat.  Though the constant repetition can have an overpowering effect of grinding down the listener if their attention is focused too much on the details, Shadow of the Sun is perfect background music for getting lost and zoning out.

Most of the songs revolve around a simple bouncy riff built atop the sparest of chord progressions; a catchy introductory melody ensnares the listener, but the lack of deviation creates an almost unbearable tension that can only be pierced by the addition of a new chord or a solo of some sort.  Moon Duo does a fantastic job of crafting specific melodies like the keyboard line in “Zero” that are seemingly self-contained but in fact keep the listener anticipating a true resolution.  However, the lack of a true conclusion to most of the songs works against the album as it often leaves the listener feeling unsatisfied.

Shadow of the Sun consistently evokes the work of Suicide, as each song is anchored by straightforward and persistent drumbeats that help give the impression of a dark undercurrent lurking beneath the surface.  The consistent repetition of simple patterns mirrors the mechanistic nature of the drum machines that help characterize Suicide, but Moon Duo distinguishes itself with the addition of live drummer John Jeffrey*, who helps add a touch of vitality to the music.  Other influences pop up as well, some more obvious than others.  One can easily hear the impact of the neo-psychedelic forays of The Dandy Warhols circa-Come Down, and a song like “Slow Down Low” is dominated by a vamp on a single chord that brings to mind the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” so much that one could easily sing “I said I couldn’t hit it sideways” as it bounces merrily along.  The delicate “In a Cloud” helps break the potential for monotony on the album and is a welcome change of pace, but is also the source of the most unexpected connection of the album, as its simple two chord progression bears a striking resemblance to Grizzly Bear’s “Knife”; Moon Duo add enough of a personal touch of their own, but I did spend a large amount of time racking my brain trying to pin down where I had previously heard the melody.

Moon Duo does a great job of blending the elements of psychedelic drone and Krautrock repetition to create an overall heady experience.  However, Shadow of the Sun does not exactly stand up to strict scrutiny, as the repetition of only a handful of ideas and motifs can potentially bore the listener; the album works best when the band keeps the mood as light as possible, as in the lively opener “Wilding” or the energetic finale “Animal”.  Nevertheless, Moon Duo has crafted an album that is one of the more pleasant surprises of the year so far.

*His presence increases the number of members of the group to three, making their band name a complete lie; if they wanted to be more accurate, the band should be called Earth Trio.

Feats of Strength: British Sea Power

The profile of British Sea Power has diminished considerably in recent years, which makes the title of their debut unfortunately prescient.  While there are several things that I love about Open Season and Do You Like Rock Music?, there is still a certain quality about The Decline of British Sea Power that puts it a cut above and helps establish it as one of the great indie rock records of the last decade.  The band found the perfect mixture of idiosyncratic rockers, catchy anthems, and gorgeous ballads, and twelve years later I still find the record as fresh as it was the first time I listened to it.

There are several extraordinary moments worthy of discussion on Decline, from the bizarre “Apologies to Insect Life” to the epic guitar freak-out of “Lately” to the dazzling instrumental “Heavenly Waters” that closes the album.  But there is one particular aspect from the middle section of the album that we want to single out for closer inspection, when the band runs through a string of songs packed with hooks.  Even amid all those great tracks, the propulsive and energetic “Remember Me” stands out and gets stuck in your head for days, and the key is a subtle strategy employed by the drummer Wood.

The immediate element that grabs your attention is the jagged and raucous twin guitar attack from Yan and Noble, a trebly, noisy blast packed with bends that doesn’t bother to stop to catch its breath as it jumps from riff to riff.  Of course, even after multiple deep listens you aren’t going to shake off those prominent leads, but you can pick up on some of the other parts hidden underneath the surface, such as the brilliant drumwork.  Wood does an excellent job from start-to-finish on this song, expertly deploying fills and keeping a rock-solid beat amid all the surrounding chaos.  I can point to his ridiculous snare-rolls or deft cymbal-work, but the element that I love the most is a very simple trick he does to keep up the energy and provide some variety to keep the song from getting stale.  Listen carefully to the verse (around the :47 mark), and pay attention to how Wood shifts his pattern with each lyrical phrase.  The first line is a standard beat, but then it shifts to a double-time beat on the hi-hat for the next phrase; this alternating structure is repeated throughout the song.

It’s a very small detail, but it’s an excellent example of a drummer providing some extra creativity by deviating from the standard approach, yet not doing too much to overshadow the work of the rest of the band.  By switching between the two patterns, Wood provides an extra push-and-pull to the song and establishes an additional forward momentum, driving the song through the verse into the chorus.  There are several other excellent moments in the song, but this is something that I listen for every time I hear the song.

However, if that’s not satisfying enough for you, then take a few minutes to enjoy the tranquil beauty of “Heavenly Waters”.