Monthly Archives: May 2013

Sound ‘Round: The National / Atoms for Peace

Bummer, bro. 

The National – Trouble Will Find Me (4AD)

PrintAlways one to wear his heart on his facial hair, Matt Berninger is so damn sensitive musically, and so in sync with his inner brooding rock star, a mouse fart could propel him into orbit. The spokesman of a band that’s always dressed for a wake, he chose the profession of mood making over songwriting from day one. Mumbling in his rich baritone over the sprite, sparse tinkerings of the brothers Dessner and the plodding rhythmic section of the brothers Devendorf, the vibe is often atmospheric, glum and monotone. Yet, over time, their hushed bummers turn translucent, melodic, and even charming – see their 2010 benchmark High Violet. Regressing in the hook department and stripping away what was already a minimal palette, too much of the music is an outright bore. But if subtlety is your weak spot, and romantic emptiness your fetish, consider this your album of the year. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: Demons” / “Don’t Swallow the Cap” / “Heavenfaced

Atoms For Peace – Amok (XL)

atoms for peace - amokThe biggest flaw is the same found on Radiohead’s worst records; Thom Yorke’s fervent preoccupation with sterile, soulless electronica. Aside from those who still hold a grudge over Bush’s reelection, when was the last time someone listened to Hail to the Thief for fun? The one time Yorke got his chemistry right was Kid A, an album of ethereal digitization that’s warm, engrossing, and bolstered by a thick stew of beats, groove, brass and (a rare appearance of) structure which put parameters around his isolationist fantasies. The gimmick here is the notion of this being some kind of super group – Flea joins in on bass, Nigel Goodrich on keys, and Beck’s part-time drummer does his best 8-bit impression – but Yorke has his mopey fingerprints all over this. It should do wonders for those with an addiction to Novocain. GRADE: C+

Key Track: Judge Jury and Executioner

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Sound ‘Round: Chance the Rapper

Smonkin’ ain’t allowed in school. 

Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap (Self-Released)

chance the rapper - acid rapOut of high school and untethered from what he would call a trivial obligation of youth, he cuts back on the weed to swallow more pills and acid, and worries less about math and prom. Showy and bombastic, his second mixtape ups the witty, mutes the bratty and softens the horny of his debut. An ambitious youngster with nowhere in particular to be, and no one but his grandmother to hold him accountable, Chancelor Bennett wanders his Windy City home venting about, and wrestling with, his stoned ennui. His remedies include a buffet of drugs, women whose intentions are every bit as disingenuous as his, and a healthy dose of colorful R&B/jazz samples to match his sharp rhymes. Young and deft, his goals are simple; getting out alive, getting paid without losing his morals and getting rid of the stale smell of cigarettes before going home to Mama. All things considered, he sounds like a good kid. So good, in fact, he even takes a moment to wax introspective on one of the stronger tracks where he trips in the rain. “Damn that acid burn when it clean ya / I still miss being a senior / And performing at all those open mic events / High schools, eye closed seeing arenas.” Here’s hoping he becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. GRADE: A-

Key Track: Cocoa Butter Kiss” / “Pusha Man” / “Acid Rain

Chance the Rapper – 10Day (Self-Released, 2012)

chance the rapper- 10dayNamed after the school suspension during which he recorded this debut mixtape, his budding confidence and crafty wordplay tends to get overshadowed by his brashness, and his hyper-personal references to certain family members, various friends and loathsome teachers. He matures slightly in the back half, leaning into the beats, further developing his songs, and adding structure to his good will and nostalgia for those he holds dear.  For all of his bravado, he borders on becoming a caricature – or at least a character, but, when he man-ups, he reveals himself as the mama’s boy he’s always been. What a softy. GRADE: B+

Key Track: Hey Ma” / “Brain Cells” / “Prom Night

Sound ‘Round: Daft Punk / Charli XCX

You can find them in the disco. 

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (Columbia)

daft punk - random access memoriesThe most hyped album of their career doubles as the most anticipated EDM moment of 2013. That it averts many vogue electro trends – including the overblown theatrics of dubstep and the rarified dullness of indie – is calculated, and a welcome relief. Placing humanity second only to a good hook, they conceive this sprawling comeback as a diligent tribute to the primitive disco and club music which inspired them. Meshing their patented space-age Euro synths and vocoder melodies with the earthly allure of physical drums, funk guitars and lounge piano, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homen-Christo play it cool, never straining for the grandiose or asking too much of the deceptively simple beats. Not quite as tuneful a record as it should be and susceptible to bouts of colorlessness, their party runs too long and the guest list too meta – pioneering producer Giorgio Moroder may have a story to tell, but it shouldn’t take nine repetitive minutes of spoken word to slog through. Instead I’ll keep returning to lively cameos from Pharrell Williams, Panda Bear and Julian Casablancas. Why listen to lectures? Just shut up and dance. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Instant Crush” / “Doin’ It Right” / “Get Lucky

Charli XCX – True Romance (Atlantic)

charli xcx - true romanceIt’s puzzling to think her major label debut was postponed for a year when you realize almost half of its 13 songs are recycled from various prior EPs. That such a delay was caused by a relatively light face-lift doesn’t bode well for her long term prospects, but when you’re 20-years-old and a brooding hopeless romantic, long term ain’t what you’re after. Focusing primarily on breakups and burying her melancholy in a mist of synth wave, things get mushy at the midway point – see the rote, poorly titled “Black Roses.” But when she wipes away the mascara, puts her diary in the trash and takes to the dance floor, her melodic gifts begin to bud, and a real person emerges from the teenage despondency. Realness, now that’s long term. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Take My Hand” / “Nuclear Seasons” / “Set Me Free – Feel My Pain

Sound ‘Round: Vampire Weekend / Deerhunter

I guess this is growing up. 

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City (XL)

vampire weekend - modern vampires of the cityShaving away the delicate density of their previous work and relishing the discovery of less being more, they cut the cute, put those Columbia degrees in the attic and get on with living – you know, what real people on the precipice of 30 do. Not quite the watershed indie moment some have gushed about, I nonetheless suspect time will be very kind to this record’s directness. Though still prone to referencing communist readers, Angkor Wat and Dar Es Salaam, front man Ezra Koening has ditched the irony he once thrived on, and instead rattles off simple verses about universal themes; specifically life and death. “Girl you and I would die unbelievers / Bound to the tracks of the train.” “Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth.” “You know I love the past cuz I hate suspense.” “I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die.” Smart without being pedantic, more melodic than whimsical, and shimmering but less cluttered, this is the blueprint for how a band should age – no graduate degree required. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Obvious Bicycle” / “Unbelievers” / “Ya Hey

Deerhunter – Monomania (4AD)

deerhunter - monomaniaExpanding their sound in the most aggressive manner they can handle without letting the rails fall off, this is a transitional record more cathartic for Bradford Cox than it is anything else. Scrambling garage, punk, glam, psychedelic, lo-fi and art rock into a sprawling, tortuous heap too scattershot to ingest in its entirety, I’ve found myself smitten with the record’s first six songs, which chug along in a rather determined, if stunted, manner. Everything else is the sound of raw, nebulous ambition. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “The Missing” / “Neon Junkyard” / “Leather Jacket II”

Sound ‘Round: Pistol Annies / Jonny Fritz

Damn right they’re dysfunctional. 

Pistol Annies – Annie Up (RCA)

pistol annies - annie upThe hell-raising humor and wit which made their whiskey-soaked debut so irresistible is diminished on this follow-up, which is lengthier, less instantaneous and too reliant on ballads that turn monochrome. Softening their shotgun potency and playing up their feminine vulnerability, they go about dealing with familiar vices – drugs, depression, and deadbeat men, – in a more methodical manner. Not to take away from the bummer tunes – Angelina Presley’s “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” is the best vanity protest since Lady Gaga went on about her hair – but I prefer them vivacious, feisty and liquored and/or stoned, mostly because that’s where the jokes come from. See the lead single full of rehab, gospel tunes, vodka, propaganda, paranoia, weed, familial backstabbing and egg nog.  GRADE: A

Key Tracks: Hush Hush” / “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” / “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina

Jonny Fritz – Dad Country (ATO)

jonny fritz - dad countryA face made for radio coupled with a thin, unassuming voice far too ordinary to endure on its lonesome; this Brooklyn native undercuts his genetic shortcomings with humor, brevity and a cigarette carton’s worth of melody. A curmudgeon who hangs with blood sucking social climbers and finicky friends to boost his self-esteem, he wakes up hungover next to married women, contemplates suicide for scientific purposes and always forgets to leave the trash out. No wonder everyone is uneasy when he shows up for a family birthday party despite the hell he put up with to get there. Always on the short end of the stick, he’s also the master of his own destiny. As he says on “Holy Water” when he knocks up a lady I’m inclined to characterize as an unfortunate soul, “I dare you come and tell me that I’m really doing something wrong.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Ain’t It Your Birthday” / “Holy Water” / “Goodbye Summer

Sound ‘Round: Bombino / Rokia Traore

Songs about home, wherever home may be. 

Bombino – Nomad (Nonesuch)

bombino - nomadA native of war-torn Niger and a member of the nationless Tuareg people, Omara Noctar’s tale is one of a desert dwelling rebel. Dejected by his father for wanting to pursue a career in music, and exiled for taking up arms against a government he had no stake in, Noctar spent more than a decade wandering through Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya playing any gig offered to him. Self-taught, he studied old footage of Hendrix and Dire Straits, injecting splashes of Western rock into his own brand of arid blues. This third album, recorded and produced in Nashville by Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach, comes replete with guitar tricks and vigorous polyrhythms, but is concise and taut enough so as to not languish under the weight of its own virtuosity. My research tells me his message, sung in Arabic or his native Tamasheq, is a plea for peace and tolerance. My gut, which cares more for feelings and instincts than it does words, tells me all I need to know. Play it loud. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Amadinine” / “Azamane Tiliade” / “Imidiwan

Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch)

rokia traore - beautiful africaAlmost everything on this Malian’s fifth album is dished out in such tiny, understated, increments, from the adeptly supportive guitars, intricately subdued beats and her transformative voice, it becomes easy to miss out on the subtle charm of the whole thing. Greater than the sum of its parts, it opens with four winners before losing a bit of its potency – blame her propensity to jam. With only two of these songs featuring English, it’s more about the groove. But she makes clear just what she finds so beautiful about Africa in the delicate finale; the courage, beauty and resiliency of the continent’s women. To quote the auteur, “Anything I do / I want it to be a tribute to you.”  GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Sarama” / “Ka Moun Ke” / “Lalla”