Jack White: Blunderbuss Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three Takes on Blunderbuss by Jack White.
Steve Skavnak (@steveskavnak)
I’ve always enjoyed Jack White’s work in his other projects, but I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been a devout follower of his career. With that, I went into Blunderbuss with absolutely zero expectations. I had heard “Sixteen Saltines” and “Love Interruption,” thinking favorably of both, but not blown away by either. I came away pleasantly surprised, fond of the large majority of the record and more appreciative of the man who has become a musical icon of our generation.
Anyone that saw Jack White’s recent SNL performance witnessed the adorably campy way White switched from an all-female backing back to an all-male one of the second song of the evening. While this seemed to be all for show, when listening to Blunderbuss’ 13 punchy tracks, you can actually envision this change and understand that it’s for sound. The album alternates between White’s signature crunchy guitar hooks and a newfound (or at least more prominent) love of piano, which works the best near the middle of the record on the emotive “Hypocritical Kiss” and the urgent bellowing on “Weep Themselves to Sleep” (which also boasts one of White’s killer screeching guitar solos). Then there’s the beginning of “I’m Shakin,’” which could easily be mistaken for a tune by The Black Keys (the irony has seemingly come full circle). The standout for me, though, may very well be the most timid track on Blunderbuss. Take away the intermediate drumming and “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” sounds like a White Stripes outtake done right, with White utilizing some of the same production mastery he used on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.
Now if Mr. White would just visit Minneapolis for a night or two, it’d be nice to hear some of this new material live before he moves on to his next endeavor.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Numerous side projects, managing the day-to-day at Third Man, and a daunting task to show what’s so different about Jack White aside from the band known as The White Stripes, how does one overcome all that to create Blunderbuss? There’s really not a question as to Jack White’s virtuosity, and Blunderbuss showcases that in a lot of ways. What comes in this debut solo record from Jack White is not so much drastically different from his work with his various side projects and his work with the White Stripes, if anything it sheds another layer as to what Jack White can do with all that influence, and its evident in “Freedom At 21″ where a nice groove settles in and Jack blurts out lyrics similar to bounce type hip-hop, riding the rhythm perfectly. “Sixteen Saltines” is an outright rock jam, whereas “Love Interruption” is a nicely tinged acoustic song with some well-done keyboard work. Which brings us back to the initial question: what’s so different about Blunderbuss? Really, if you’re looking at the album from an aesthetic point of view, not much has changed. Sure there may be more mid-tempo jams around and a fair share of nicely done acoustic ones, but one thing is for sure, Jack White continues to be a man who can wear many hats and still treat every project like its something new.
I didn’t jump into the Beach House review we did last week, but despite the fact that I like Beach House much more than Jack White, I couldn’t help but having the same thoughts about both albums. How many times can you go back to the same well before people get tired? With his first solo LP Blunderbuss, Jack White goes back to the sounds that have made him so famous with the White Stripes, Dead Weather, The Raconteurs and his other various projects. White takes the listener on a tour of his previous greatest hits, ranging from the hard charging garage blues of “Sixteen Saltines” to the melody rich piano jaunt “Hypocritical Kiss” to the folk-y “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” and back to the sultry, organ groove of “Missing Pieces.” Like always, there is clear talent present on the album, with White able to wring a slightly new sound or different take on a sound that is many lifetimes older than him, but how long can you walk down the same path before it starts seeming a bit redundant? Like Beach House, most fans with previous experience with his work would be able to pinpoint that this a Jack White effort within the first minute of any of these songs. This speaks to a distinctive and meticulous sound that has been perfected over the years, but I couldn’t help but thinking what could have been if he had taken his talent in different directions. His work with Loretta Lynn was cool—why not a rustic, old school country album? He put out a White Denim LP on his Third Man Records—why not a pysched out blues meltdown? Blunderbuss will appease current fans of White, bring in a few new listeners and leave causal fans like myself feeling wildly indifferent.
Death Grips: The Money Store Review (3 Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three Takes on The Money Store by Death Grips.
Matt Helgeson (Game Informer, Unknown Prophets, Maps of Norway)
My first exposure to the Cali noisenik hip-hop destructionists Death Grips was the video for “Guillotine” off the trio’s Ex-Military mixtape. Riding shotgun in a mid-sized sedan against a backdrop of digital static, vocalist Stefan Burnett lost his mind over an abrasive minimalist beat (though, oddly, he remembered to fasten his seatbelt). The striking, low-budget video was an effective statement of purpose for Ex-Military, a rap record that was punk in philosophy and, at times, practice (the Black Flag sample seemed to place it explicitly in the tradition of American underground rock – if the participation of Hella drummer Zach Hill in the proceedings wasn’t enough). The mixtape itself was bracingly urgent, all sheet metal electronics, distorted rock samples, and vocal rage.
Amazingly, this uncompromising album somehow got Death Grips signed to Epic. For its first commercial release, the trio has abandoned the sample-heavy format of the first (or was forced to, I suspect, by the realities of sample clearance) for subtler electronics – the disjointed rave of your nightmares, emceed by the absurdly apoplectic Burnett.
In comparison to the visceral Ex-Military, The Money Store is the proverbial “grower.” From the opener “Get Got” on, the album feels more refined, if less bracing. Burnett’s vocals are pulled back in the mix, blending into the off-kilter digital assemblages instead of dominating. It’s not always easy to discern individual lyrics, but memorable non-sequiturs like “teaching midgets how to swim” or “hustle bones comin’ out my mouth” stick in your head long after you’re done listening. I found I enjoyed the album more once I accepted that Burnett was just another part of the music, much in the same way The Fall’s Mark E. Smith functioned in Von Sudenfed, his electronic collaboration with Mouse on Mars.
Still, it’s becoming apparent that, for all his outsized personality, Burnett isn’t much better than average as an MC. And let’s be honest: a rapper yelling over ominous electronics isn’t as novel as most of the people writing about this album would have you believe. It’s also deceptively poppy. Strip away the distorted sonics from “I’ve Seen Footage,” and the song is a foursquare rock/rap song reminiscent of classic Run-DMC.
Musically, it’s more diverse and, in many ways, a better album than Ex-Military. If it’s not as thrilling, it will probably age better. I’ve liked it more every time I’ve listened to it.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Death Grips, the three-man group from Sacramento, CA made up of Stefan Burnett, Zach Hill and Andy Morin have put out a debut album in The Money Store that at first glance will have you jarred. Dirty percussive elements mix with the industrial sound gives the album The Money Store a feel that is almost nihilistic and fascinating. Stefan Burnett’s vocals have this haunting baritone that sounds like its on the verge of a chaotic downslide, which definitely adds character to such crazy mayhem as “Get Got”, and the dark and eerie panic that sets in on “Lost Boys.” Elsewhere on the album, you have such tunes as the laser-guided pulsating synths of “Blackjack,” whereas “Hustle Bones” sounds like the Mr. Hyde to A$AP Rocky & Schoolboy Q’s “Brand New Guy,” every line has no energy wasted, and its just as sporadic and chaotic elsewhere on this album. Given that this project is only one of two projects that are set to arrive this year, The Money Store is probably one of the most troublesome and intriguing listens this year.
It took me a long while to really come around to the Death Grips’ first record Ex-Military. My impression of the band upon first hearing them was that it sounded like a group of drunk, white boys trying to act hard while also rapping as loud as possible (to make up for a lack of rhyming ability). And yeah, I know (vocalist) Stefan Burnett isn’t white – but to me the sound immediately reminded me of the over-the-top-ness you often hear from white rappers to try and overcompensate for the fact that they are, well, white (think Vinnie Paz).
But I came around and I came around hard. There is still something about the aesthetic that turns me off, but the attitude and sheer audacity of the trio’s style is undeniably infectious. They aren’t really very good at rapping from a technical standpoint, but they have turned sloppy, hardcore rhyming into their own unique form of art. That being said, though it seems to be getting more praise, I think that the new record The Money Store isn’t quite as good. There is just something about the first album, from the Manson snippets onward, that makes it pretty much cohesively perfect. And when I say cohesive I mean from a chaotically non-cohering standpoint that in itself, forms a sort of cohesion. A cohesion of thrilling manic energy. The Money Store has great moments as well but I don’t find it quite as exciting. Maybe like Ex-Military it will just take me a while to warm up to it. I mean it is great, but from a comparative standpoint I think just a tad disappointing. Or perhaps it is just because the sound isn’t “new” anymore.
Beach House: Bloom Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on Bloom by Beach House.
Beach House seem to have settled on their sound. Their latest LP, Bloom, feels like a continuation of the same mournful dream pop explored on their previous full-length, Teen Dream, with Victoria Legrand’s husky alto grounding the organ / guitar interplay, all of it backed by a hollowed-out drum machine. They’re not shaking things up much here or breaking a lot of new ground, but it’s hard to see that as a bad thing. They have such a unique sound and such a gift for melody, that I’d be content with them making albums in this vein indefinitely. Bloom may lack some of the magic of Teen Dream, but it doesn’t contain a bad track, and fans of that album will find a lot to love here.
I have enjoyed every Beach House release since the duo started recording in 2006. It’s with some disappointment though that I have not been able to greet Bloom with the same enthusiasm that I did Teen Dream, which I loved. Maybe Bloom isn’t as good. Or maybe I am just getting tired of Beach House. Their sound has changed so little over the course of four records that I think it’s probably normal for a bit of fatigue to set in. The dreamy hooks, the soul-grabbing apexes, the plodding drum machine beats: the band does it here as well as they ever did, and from a completely objective standpoint, Bloom is probably awesome. If it was the first BH album I ever heard, I probably would have loved it. In fact, listening to the record I can pinpoint exactly the moment’s in it that the Jon of 2010 or earlier would have eaten right up. And sure, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scallymake some effort to mix the sound up a little –a few sound samples here, a beefed up guitar sound there. Overall it still doesn’t do much to mask the fact that these feel like slightly different variations on dozens of earlier Beach House tunes.
I don’t really know if it is me or if its them. I can still feel the band’s magic, but for whatever reason with Bloom it just isn’t as strong.
Steve Skavnak (@steveskavnak)
Sweeping Declaration: Beach House is the best band in the world.
Never did I think that the band that released the near perfect Teen Dream two years ago could give us a follow-up that not only lives up to its predecessor, but in fact surpasses it in many regards. There is not a single bad song on Bloom. Hell, there’s not even an average song. The gamut runs from great to excellent to untouchable. It’s almost unfair how good Beach House has become.
The lead single and album opener, “Myth,” encapsulates Beach House’s sound, descending chord structures mixed behind breezy vocals that are somehow chill and funky at the same time. This would be the best track on any album by any other band. But on “Bloom,” it’s simply one of the many standouts. “Lazuli” may be the best song they’ve ever written. “New Year” makes me pine to play music again. “Irene” is disgustingly simple in its creation and meticulously abstract in its delivery…I listened to it 6 times in a row and got pissed when the phone rang and interrupted my 7th straight spin.
I will be so disappointed in myself if I ever get tired of this record.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Following the success of Teen Dream, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally didn’t just rest on their laurels. They got right back to work, and that work expands upon the dreamy, melancholic sounds that Teen Dream provided. What came out was Bloom, their fourth record as a duo, and if anything, the work on this record continues to cement why Beach House is such a hot commodity, such as the beginning soundscape “Myth,” but then its quickly followed up by the head-nodding percussive elements in “Wild,” whereas afterwards you get “Lazuli” which hits hard at about 47 seconds inward, and then you come to the realization that Beach House has come quite a long way to get to Bloom, because as a whole it sticks with the dreamy pop aesthetics, yet keeps the arrangements lively and progressive, Victoria’s vocals continue to become the glue that cements these aesthetics together to create an atmospheric feel without getting drawn down to boredom, and the arrangements make for some of the most wonderfully produced music yet from the duo.
Shins: Port of Morrow Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on Port of Morrow by The Shins.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Since Wincing The Night Away, we didn’t think we’d ever see a Shins reunion per se – but we certainly didn’t expect a whole new group appearing alongside lead singer James Mercer. Since his bout with experimentation along with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells, most folks expected a Shins reunion to be just that, but one must ask how Port of Morrow sounds in that context. In that question, it’s technically like the Shins have never left, and if anything, it shows that in some reunions or comebacks so to speak, one person bringing back that certain nostalgia is just as powerful, take a listen to such tunes as “Simple Song,” or “Fall of ’82” and while Port of Morrow is certainly a more subdued affair, its material hasn’t affected the potency that Mercer has as a force to be reckoned with in the indie singer/songwriter realm.
If you had asked me two months ago, I would have told you that The Shins have probably hung it up for good. And well, actually all of them have, except James Mercer. He has assembled four new musicians, called them “The Shins” and recorded this album. (Apparently, “The Shins” is just a stage name for Mercer and whomever he happens to be playing with at the time). It’s been five years and a very successful “side project,” Broken Bells, since the Shins’ last LP – Wincing the Night Away. It’s been eight years since Zach Braff asked Natalie Portman what she was listening to, and she replied, “The Shins. . . .You gotta hear this song. It will change your life. I swear,” as the opening bars of “New Slang” rose to a slow-motion close-up of Portman’s smiling face, introducing most of America to this band. That moment lead to the Grammy – not for The Shins; they’ve never won one – for Zach Braff. (Did you know that you can get a Grammy for what is essentially producing a mix-tape? They call it “Best Compilation Soundtrack”). But I digress.
Mercer may be a bit of a self-regarding solipsist, but no one denies that he has some serious songwriting chops, at least when it comes to the melodies (the lyrics are another matter). He has the ability to craft beautiful tunes that meld folk and jangle-pop, and when delivered by his paper-thin voice with ethereal backing harmonies, it can add up to something quite singular. Some of that old beauty comes through on Port of Morrow. “September” and “Simple Song” stand out. Even the weaker moments on this album are mildly pleasant, if a bit bland. Yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is an album from a band whose moment has come and gone. If you’re looking for a few nice songs to listen to, or if you’re looking to rekindle some mid-90’s nostalgia, this might be your album. If you’re looking for today’s “Best New Music,” you should look elsewhere.
I actually liked the Shins at one point. Somewhere along the way something changed, and listening to their latest release Port of Morrow, I really feel like it wasn’t me. Yes, I like weirder crap now than I used to, but especially for a band I had a genuine affinity for at one point, I have not gone so far that I wouldn’t be able to acknowledge if the album was decent. After the solid opener “Simple Song,” I had a hard to giving the rest of the record a chance after the awful dud that is “It’s Only Life.” Sounding like a terrible mix of Our Lady Peace (are they still a band?) and a christian rock group, the song is as trite and lifeless as a song can be. James Mercer doesn’t bother with creative melodies, lyrics or arrangements. There are moments of equally poor judgements sprinkled throughout (like the weird falsetto of the title track) and scant few times where Mercer seems capable of the soft rock ditties he once spun out effortlessly. It isn’t the lack of energy on the LP that makes the album so weak as the band never won over listeners with volume or intensity, but simply the lack of discernible songs. If you aren’t creating atmosphere or getting the listener moving with a groove, you damn well better write good songs. The Shins (basically James Mercer and mercenaries) did that in spades on their first two albums, lost some of the sparkle on their last LP Wincing the Night Away, and competently dropped the ball on Port of Morrow.
Three Takes on the spring 2012 Triangle Records EP’s
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on the Triangle Records released EP’s by Howse and oOoOO.
oOoOO 74/100 | Howse 52/100
Between Tri Angle Records’ two co-released EP’s, oOoOO’s is by far my preferred title. I found the Howse release to be something of a formless ambient snooze. It’s not an unpleasant listen, but it is fairly innocuous to the point of being boring. I can see it having a time and a place (perhaps the soundtrack to an IMAX aquatic feature or perhaps an evening on Quaaludes) but outside of that potential scenario I have a difficult time engaging with it. There’s barely anything to engage with – I mean sure, ambient electronica isn’t made with choruses and pop hooks, but at least take some chances within your own genre. Throughout most of Howse’s EP the mood’s smooth surface is never really broken by so much of a ripple.
oOoOO has some similar qualities to its sister EP, but also fleshes it out a bit with sonics that are a bit less uniform. The distorted vocals and moody synth tones give it a sinister dark edge, even if it too generally plays it on the safe side of the spectrum for the most part (it’s almost as if both these guys are creating music that is carefully calibrated not to disturb anybody’s chill trip by experimenting or trying anything new). Still, for the most part I enjoy the druggy, soporific vibe the Ep holds to.
oOoOO 60/100 | Howse 55/100
Whenever one of the standard bearers of a genre releases a pair of EPs in tandem, it’s hard not to look at it as a of a “state of the art” moment. Fairly or unfairly, this is the case for Tri Angle Records, which is one of the more reputable names in witch house (or drag electronica, as some call it). Their spring release schedule includes Our Loving is Hurting Us by oOoOO, something of a scene veteran, and Lay Hallow by Howse, a relative upstart. Both EPs showcase the stereotypical, stagnant drag sound, and a peek at how artists in the genre might sail out of their artistic doldrums.
oOoOO doesn’t stray too far from his tried-and-true sound: big fuzzy beats with a West Coast hip hop flourish, orchestral overlays, chirpy female crooning. Much of the EP is exactly what you might expect from the producer. A new element to his music, though, is pervasive, obnoxious use of cheesy synth melodies. Actually, cheesy is the wrong word. They’re campy. Like if Jar Jar Binks made a wandering cameo through a bleak Tarkovsky film. The hooks—which would sound more at home on a Nicki Minaj joint—always seem to worm their way out of a song’s lush layering right when you thought you’d make it through without any funny business. “Starr” is the clear exception. Both arrhythmic and lurchy, the song features a fun star-guitar solo and throwback ’80s vocals—and unprecedented and fairly surprising track that also seems like a long-lost friend of the genre.
Howse’s Lay Hollow is quite different from oOoOO’s EP. In general, it’s more informed by ambient and drone, and doesn’t stray from abrasiveness. If you just listened to the first minute or so, each song on the album would fit perfectly on a Pop Ambient compilation. “Old Tea,” the EP’s standout track, starts with a Tim Hecker-esque cathedral rafters drone scape, and then adds a tinny, skittering beat. The two elements complement each other’s more aggressive sides. Unfortunately, most of the songs lack the balance or the purpose of “Old Tea.” The vocal samples sound arbitrary and arbitrarily placed, like Howse just needed something—anything—to fill in the gaps. Although many of the producer’s builds are satisfying, when songs reach their climax, he typically can’t resolve their tension except by unplugging. They end when he runs out of things to do.
Signature sounds, be damned! Both producers need to exercise their muscles and cast off the crutches. oOoOO’s catchy hook pandering belittles his cerebral, tobacco-haze dance music, and arbitrary pacing and sample use on the Howse EP is confusing, if not infuriating. The most memorable songs on the Tri Angle EPs are those that find the artists experimenting outside of their usual mode.
oOoOO 76/100 Howse 57/100
Triangle Records had a pretty stellar year in 2011, which only leads to increased notoriety (and scrutiny) for their 2012 releases. The label has decided to release a pair of EP’s to kick off the year, one from newcomer Howse and the other from oOoOO, who has been an intrgal part of the label from its inception. Both continue the labels “witchhouse” sound, using slightly different approaches.
oOoOO’s half of the equation, the five song Our Love is Hurting Us, is a dark, hypnotic journey through the underbelly of jittery synth based R&B. There are movements where the slickness gets applied a little too heavy, like on “Springs” when the female vocals and synth flourishes are a little to prickly. The sound is most developed on the boom bat of “Starr,” where the melody and vocals are murky and cut by a skittish, haphazard beat. Like the bands previous, self titled EP, Our Love is Hurting Us sounds like a R&B/Hip Hop instrumental album run through a old tape machine in a haunted house, and is going to annoy as many people as it intrigues.
The Howse EP, Lay Hollow, is a little less gloomy, but still is a convoluted and sonically rich album. Despite the sonic clarity that Lay Hollow has over Our Love is Hurting Us, the record feels even less focused and is much more prone to drift. This isn’t your standard “ambient” drift, either. The songs neither seem thought out (think Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds) nor have any of the intrinsic curiosity that comes from a record that is more free form (think Food Pyramid or Mark McGuire). Tracks like “VBS” fail to either build to a logical conclusion nor have that free form exploratory sound. It isn’t ambient synth and it isn’t the typical Triangle sound of warped R&B (like oOoOO, Clams Casino or How to Dress Well). Lay Hollow feels like the worst case scenario to where the Triangle Records sound could end up if it is watered down and left in the hands of those who aren’t as talented or creative as has been the case so far with the label.
Plants and Animals: The End of That Review (Two Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Two reactions, Two impressions, Two Takes on The End of That by Plants and Animals.
The End of That is not as bad as some critics would have you believe, but compared to the brilliance of their first two albums, it’s certainly a disappointment. Contrast this album’s slow, characterless opener “Before” to the explosive anthem “By Bye Bye” that opened their debut Parc Avenue or the restrained-yet-intense cool of “Tom Cruz” that opened their sophomore La La Land, and you have the difference. This album wanders from song to song without ever cohering, and while it has a few strong tracks—“Song for Love” stands out—it doesn’t pack the punch of the previous albums. It feels disjointed, rushed, and directionless.
It gives me no pleasure to tell you any of this because Parc Avenue and La La Land are two of my favorite albums of the last five years. In addition, they seem to be chronically underrated. It’s a shame that more people haven’t caught on to this band. However, I don’t imagine that this album will do anything to help with that. They’ll be playing the 7th Street Entry next week, while much lesser bands headline the Mainroom. And while I’ll certainly be there to see them, here’s hoping they go heavy on the back catalog.
When I heard “Lightshow,” the first song released from the new Plants and Animals LP The End of That, I had a brief moment of hope that the band might possibly reach the heights they achieved on their amazing debut LP Parc Avenue. Unfortunately, after digesting the 11 song LP multiple times and enjoying it to a certain extent, the record simply doesn’t hold a candle to their earlier work. The band clearly are talented songwriters, shown by the excellent “Lightshow,” but The End of That seems to continue the trend of distilling their sound to a more easily digestible version. Songs like album opener “Before” lack the creativity that made Parc Avenue so great, while songs like the piano driven track “No Idea” and the twangy (and cheesy) title track could attract a wider audience, but simply feel hollow compared with song like “Bye Bye Bye”and “New Kind of Love.” Where their work took unsuspecting turns and they had long, meandering songs that had room to grow on their debut, there are only two tracks on The End of That that stretch beyond five minutes. I will admit if The End of That was credited to a band I had never heard of, I would have given it a higher score. Is it fair that I am basing my score on how this album compares to their debut record? Maybe not, but when a band makes such a strong initial impression, it is hard to ever really not take that into consideration. The End of That is another very solid record, which feels like a let down when it comes from a band that I desperately want to create another amazing record.
Julia Holter: Ekstasis Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on Ekstasis by Julia Holter.
Erica K (Oaks)
Julia Holter is a force of experimental, hippie scholar rock. The tracks on Ekstasis bring out the light in her exposed self-consciousness. Apparent sadness rests just below the surface on track after track of acid jazz sound-clouds and panting mantras. “Goddess Eyes 2,” the most simplistic and beautiful track, beats you up with a chorus of swelling voices that floods into stripped-down drum machine beats. At times this record feels overindulgent, but it’s apparent that the artist made a record to heal herself. It’s worth delving deeper into Ekstasis. Like swimming farther into waters, if only to find out what kind of weird shit goes on in the deep end.
On her second full-length album, Ekstasis, Julia Holter crafted another collection of expansive and ambitious atmospheric pop songs that showcases both her vocal ability and meticulous song craft. Breaking the 6-minute mark on many songs, she never holds back on her far-reaching ideas and instead lets them fade in and out. They blossom into crackling, floating soundscapes. It’s easy to compare Holter’s ethereal music to that of Julianna Barwick, but where Barwick uses only her vocal loops to create a booming, unfamiliar atmosphere, Holter delivers something more insular and direct. While many acts are emerging in the same space-y, toiling pop vein—Grimes, Frankie Rose, Nite Jewel, to name a few—Holter feels like the most overtly obsessive with her overall delivery.
Above all else, this album is patient. When the songs often come to a virtual stand-still, every new blip or vocal whip feels exactly in place. From the twinkling “Goddess Eyes II” to the more straightforward pop of “In The Same Room,” she is able to cram many, many ideas into the space of only nine songs. In the end, Ekstasis feels like the work of true love and long labor, meticulous in design and thoroughly thought-out in delivery. Holter has stated that her main objective is to create and release music that is not forced, rushed, or shallow, and this record certainly isn’t any of those.
It’s pretty rare for me to go rush out and buy a vinyl copy of a record after only hearing it a few times. However, when NPR cruelly shut down its live stream of Julia Holter’s Ekstasis after I was only able to get in a handful of listens, I ordered the LP without hesitation. First of all, ethereal female-fronted experimental music is square in the center of my alley, and to me just about everything about Ekstasis sounded right. I love the span of Holter’s thematic palette—from Eastern exotica to tinny electronica, through the baroque and elegantly melancholy world of Kate Bush and up to the divinely inspired heights of classical choral music. And it’s all arranged into such exquisitely complex structures that manage to make even canned drum machine beats seem like a graceful accompaniment. While I occasionally find vocal effects tedious, Holter uses enough restraint so that the vocal warping seems as natural as the unadorned voice. I pretty much love this album, and over the past few weeks I have been saying so to anyone who will listen. My only wish now is for Holter to tour and perform here in the Twin Cities ASAP. Her national tour schedule should be posted this week, so I will be waiting for it expectantly (though a little bird has told me a local show is already likely in the cards…)
Jon Jon Scott (Sound Verite)
Los Angeles’ Julia Holter makes ambient rock with shades of electronica and singer-songwriter fare: part arty dissonance, part ethereal minimalism, and hidden charm in a few spaces. Holter makes, at first glance experimental bedroom music, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Like her mates Nite Jewel, Grimes, and Julianna Barwick, this new woman-centric sound finds itself wrapped in various colors and sonics and unafraid to add some flavor to indie rocks sameness, perhaps in a different way than the boys before them. They’re not confined to indie rock rules, although they employ them. It’s art for art’s-sake, like “yo watch me do this trick” . . . with an actual song behind it.
Ekstasis opens with the baroque “Marienbad” a mournful ballad laced in esoteric vocal arrangements. The record’s rewarding, emotional centerpiece, “In The Same Room,” holds actual hints of rhythm and surprising hooks. At one point she sings, “I can’t recall his face, but I want to remember.” “Boy In The Moon” is an 8-minute droning exercise before she states, “This plane is taking off.” It surely is: to Deep Space Nine. She goes soft-goth on “Goddess Eyes II” and Kate Bush on “Four Gardens,” a track with a fantastic flourish of medieval chants and melodies as Holter asks, “will you come home, will you come home with me?” Ekstasis closes appropriately with a pretentious 9-minute gallop of free-jazz and a bit of self-importance on “This Is Ekstasis.”
Ekstasis is full of dreamy Cocteau Twins mystique. There’s potential all over the place. Holter strikes me as an artist’s artist; this record won’t threaten Bon Iver, but will place her in a new lane. Holter does have a few accessible moments here, like on “In The Same Room” and “Four Gardens” where she clearly shows great ideas. To put it another way: Laurie Anderson will be impressed. Holter is clearly a new voice, and takes on welcomed exploratory roads that will have us wondering what’s next for the young, talented heroine.
Lambchop: Mr. M Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on Mr. M by Lambchop.
Mr. M is subtly mischievous. And very patient. Gone are Lambchop’s familiar alt-country arrangements, replaced instead by droning vamps and orchestral strings. Frontman Kurt Wagner has dedicated this album to the passing of Vic Chestnutt, and its funereal pace is fitting for such. However, Wagner accompanies these graceful tracks with remarkable irony and imagery. On “Nice Without Mercy,” people snapping pictures with mobile phones are juxtaposed against others carrying buckets of water over mountains and the “pastoral splendor” of catching fish. In “The Good Life,” Wagner contemplates “the good life is wasted on me” while advising, “it’s not what you make, it’s what you earn”.
The two-song, 14-minute sprawl of “Gone Tomorrow” into “Mr. Met” is some of the best music to come out this year—upbeat, sparse, and a little drunk. It’s a lounge-singing grandfather waxing prolific about “the last night on the continent” where “the wine tasted like sunshine in the basement” before transitioning into a sobering choral finish. This is not an album to throw on at a party; it’s too delicate. It’s a lonely afternoon.
Mr. M takes more than one listen to really appreciate. I admit to laughing out loud at the piano accents on “Gar” upon first listen. But there’s an honesty that few other bands have here, a vividly real experience like sipping fresh lemonade or sitting on a dock, and the listen is remarkably rewarding.
Mr. M is Kurt Wagner’s first full-length under the Lambchop moniker since 2008’s Oh (Ohio) and the first since the death of his friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt, to whom the album is dedicated. In several recent interviews, Wagner has attributed the unusually long wait for the LP (Lambchop previously had released an album almost every year since their1994 debut I Hope You’re Sitting Down) to the unexpected passing of Chesnutt on Christmas Day 2009. Chesnutt had been one of Wagner’s earliest supporters, inviting him and his band to collaborate on 1998’s The Salesman and the Bernadette, back in the days when Wagner was doing carpentry to pay for his music habit and long before Lambchop had gained any kind of mainstream recognition.
Yet if the album is inspired by Chesnutt, you’d be hard-pressed to find where it is about him, or even about friendship or loss or human mortality. It seems that his memory is more the occasion than the topic of Mr. M, (in roughly the way that 2008 swing-state politics was the occasion for Oh (Ohio) or the 37th president the occasion for Nixon). In fact, most of the songs on Mr. M would be at home on any Lambchop record of the last decade. The evocative ambiguity of the lyrics, the hushed country-lounge piano, the classical string backing, the languid tempo, and the playful beauty of Wagner’s cigarette-damaged baritone are all hallmarks of the band’s unique sound. Mr. M feels less like a tribute album than like the natural expansion of the gorgeous body of work that Wagner has been crafting steadily since the late ’90s. Mr. M doesn’t break any new ground, but with a sound so perfectly developed, that’s probably a good thing. And in the end, if the references to Chesnutt are oblique at best, the dark beauty of this album serves as a fitting tribute to his life and work.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
On Lambchop’s 11th album, the band delivers one of their finest releases by using some quite unconventional methods. There’s orchestral virtuosity matched with Americana-esque backdrops, especially on such tracks as “Gar.” Violins sweep magically through the beginning of “Mr. Met.” However, there are occasions where Kurt Wagner’s vocals don’t exactly mesh with the arrangements, rather they stumble-the-fuck-in and initially sound jarring. Then the vocals, along with the arrangements, manage to swirl into Mr. M’s aesthetic genius. And maybe that’s the takeaway of Mr. M: That a throat-grabber of an album can suck you in with light, airy, and wonderfully arranged compositions. Wagner’s vocals are the fragile yet interesting bond that glues it all together and brings it home.
Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen.
There is something absurd about evaluating a Leonard Cohen album. The work is too singular. There are so few points of comparison with other artists in popular music. Is it good? Compared to what? Compared to the other septuagenarian Jewish-Canadian Buddhist monks who publish in the New Yorker while selling out world tours doing “folk” music? He’s definitely in that Top Ten.
Thematically and lyrically, Old Ideas is right line with the albums that built his legend in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Sonically, much less so. The beauty of those early albums was in the simplicity of Cohen’s weathered sing-speaking against spare acoustic guitar. That voice, now deeper and more roughened by age, would be even better served by the old formula. Instead, he opts for a full band with horns, electric bass, synth, archilaud, and wispy female backing vocals (which sometimes come off as a bit cheesy). The result is very close to his recent live shows.
If you were lucky enough to see his mesmerizing, three-hour performance at the Orpheum in 2009 or the filmed London show from the same tour, you know that the full band works well on stage. However, on a recording it works less well. The smooth jazz-style horns and the electric bass sound retrograde, and one can’t help but wish he would have had the guiding hand of a Rick Rubin to strip it all down à la Johnny Cash’s American Recordings.
That said, the album is a stunner. Cohen may be 77, but he’s at the top of his game. Lyrically, he has no peers. Once again, all of the big biblical themes are explored—love, hate, lust, sin, forgiveness, redemption, and, most of all, death. Each is examined from different angles and in different moods, sounding at times hopeful (“Going Home”) and others despairing (“Darkness”). Like his earlier albums, it bears many listens and will only get better with age. So if you only buy one album from someone your grandpa’s age this year, make it this one.
Despite his legendary status, I am not very familiar with Leonard Cohen’s work. I am completely clueless as to what he has been up to basically since 1998’s I’m Your Man. Staying active, it appears.
His newest record, Old Ideas, will be his third released in the 21st century. And speaking of active—despite getting old, Cohen still sounds like he’s getting around. Even if he’s now touched by the wisdom of age, to hear him sing about love, sex, and poetry . . . well, he still has the passion of a young man. Despite some instrumental changes over the years, Cohen is still singing in the same rhyme patterns and gravelly baritone croon. I don’t like that he’s often accompanied on Old Ideas by a chipper female accompaniment, but that hardly distracts from Cohen’s gravitas. For the most part I can ignore the cheesy window dressing and concentrate solely on Cohen and his carefully chosen words. I would have preferred that he just recorded the record unaccompanied by anything save the wear and tear of years gone by. But he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon, so he’s still got plenty of time for an album like that.
Tim (Vernon Wayne)
Leonard Cohen comes at you with the softest lyrical hammer on Old Ideas. Tracks like “Amen” display a careful and gentle arrangement that are at times reminiscent of the somberness of “Nobody Home” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. This album feels more personal than that, though. “Crazy to Love You” has the mystique of a French noir film, but wouldn’t feel out of place soundtracking shots of an aged, sad-looking Bill Murray dressed in strange clothes in a Wes Anderson film. Despite this, these songs don’t feel like characterizations, but a window into Cohen’s own somber, reverent life. What we see here is a musician showing his age, but wearing it as a badge of honor.
There are points in the album, which is full of down-tempo gospel and blues-inspired folk, in which the instrumentation becomes less important that Leonard’s hypnotizing voice. It has as much character as a gnarled oak tree, but is delivered with the tenderness of a lover. Tracks like “Lullaby” float the listener down a river on a makeshift raft with a harmonica: the music pushing the album forward, Leonard stepping in only to steer you along.
Fans of Toms Waits’ quirkiness (sans circus side-show, plus cathedral gospel choir) will have a lot to look for in this record. Some songs are more up than others, others more down. But front to back, Leonard Cohen offers a deep experience to the listener. Put this record on when you want to relax, zone out, be sad, contemplate, or just sit down and listen to a story from grandpa.