Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ra Ra Riot

At the opening strains of violin and cello found in the opening and title track of Ra Ra Riot's The Orchard – released on August 24 – a listener might believe they have stumbled into a continuation of last week's review from Sufjan Stevens. With its tight orchestration by violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandria Lawn buoying the A.C. Newman-via-Sting vocals of Wes Miles, the number is reflective of Stevens' mellower work or perhaps the similar opening track of fun.'s Aim & Ignite, "Be Calm." Regardless, its a somber but haunting location to begin an album.

Still, anyone familiar with the Syracuse-based sextet's 2008 debut, The Rhumb Line will feel more comfortable with the record's second cut, "Boy." Borrowing heavily from the joint 80's influences of U2 – perhaps directing a nod to that group's debut release with the song's title – and Miles wailing pointing to the Sting-led Police, the number is bouncy and rubbery with the counterbalancing bass line of Mathieu Santos and guitarist Milo Bonacci's riffs recalling plenty of Andy Summers and The Edge. Meanwhile, the work of Zeller and Lawn offers a nice change of pace to the reggae undertones.

They keep up the brisk tempo with tracks like "Too Dramatic" – with just a hint of Metric-style rhythmicism – and "Massachusetts" flavored by Vampire Weekend's recent efforts with a little less of the hipster veneer. The latter's influence on the record is a bit more direct, as Vampire Weekend co-songwriter Rostam Batmanglij lends his hands at the mixing board on the track. At the same time, the resonating piano strains of "Foolish" prevents things from skipping off into the ether through its staccato ballad format.

As successfully as Miles' lead parts rest atop the group's instrumental talents, the true gem of the collection is Alexandra Lawn's turn at the helm of "You and I Know." Blending the earthy tones of a young Stevie Nicks with a more contemporary sound of a Eleanor Whitmore or Kathryn Caldwell, Lawn strikes the perfect balance on the midtempo number. Let's hope we'll hear more of her – perhaps in tandem with Miles – in future offerings, because a late 70's-sounding Sting/Stevie Nick collaboration would have been hard to resist.

Come for: "Boy"
Stay for: "Massachusetts"
You'll be surprised by "You and I Know"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sufjan Stevens

Most artists or groups generally work forward from smaller-scale compositions towards more grandiose productions, such as the Beatles' gradual transition from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Far fewer begin their career with complex concept recordings before moving to a more simplified format, as the new EP from Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People, released atypically on a Friday (August 20th). The unusual release date largely reflected the unexpected record, for which Stevens had offered very little indication anything new would be forthcoming.

While technically an EP – consisting of eight tracks, rather than the typical 10-12 that comprise an LP – in more customary Stevens fashion, it's not short. At just seconds shy of a full hour, several Weezer or Ramones albums could have fit inside. Moreover, the collection is unmistakably part of the Stevens milieu, with no shortage of choir voices, horns, strings and the general grandiosity that informed his state-inspired previous albums, 2003's Michigan and 2005's Illinois, which served as bookends for 2004's Seven Swans. However, a several tracks are as minimal as any he has produced to date, backed by acoustic guitar or piano, rather than a full orchestra.

The collection's center are dual versions of the title track, the opening version dubbed as "Original" with the latter appearing five tracks later as the "Classic Rock Version." Repeated references to Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" (in quotes such as "the people bowed and prayed" and "hello, darkness, my old friend") are mixed with a brief nod to the Lennon/McCartney melody in "A Day in the Life" (specifically, "four thousand holes in blackburn, lancashire...") across nearly 12 minutes of french horns, haunting choirs and chaotic string arrangements. It could be considered overwrought if so much of his previous material wasn't already so enormously epic. Meanwhile, its "classic rock" counterpart might not reflect influences like Zeppelin or The Who, but moreso the Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa varieties. A gentle drum part gives way to a Zappa-esque electric guitar figure that never sounds settled. At just over eight minutes, its by no means radio friendly (even for 70's-era AM radio) and still far shorter than its predecessor.

As a stark counterpoint to the title tracks, Stevens presents several more basic numbers, such as "Enchanting Ghost," "Heirloom" and "Arnika," that emphasize the artist's wounded Thom Yorke-style singing more than his well-noted skills at arrangement. While none are particularly ebullient (for instance, he spends several measures in the latter of these tracks lamenting that he's "tired of life"), they do offer a different take on Stevens' skills as a songwriter, conveying emotion via sincerity rather than spectacle. Of course, that intimacy doesn't apply to closing track "Djohariah," with levels of bombast, intricacy and chaos more commonly associated with his work across more than 17 minutes of All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison flavor.

Come for: "All Delighted People"
Stay for: "Enchanting Ghost"
You'll be surprised by: "Heirloom" (mostly because Stevens manages to round-off a song in under three minutes)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Farewell Drifters

Sometimes, the surge of distortion and monstrous drums are needed to get the blood flowing. In others, the force of a wall of horns or the finely-crafted interplay between a host of instruments expands the boundaries of a given piece of music. But there will always be something refreshing and honest about a group of musicians getting together without the aid of amplification or a kicking rhythm section. This latter sentiment envelops the work of Nashville-based quintet, The Farewell Drifters on their debut offering, Yellow Tag Mondays.

Supposedly formed after lead singer and guitarist Zach Bevill encountered mandolinist Joshua Britt on a Nashville street corner, their chance acquaintance turned into the group's ultimate formation with Britt's younger brother, Clayton, on lead guitar and standup bassist Dean Marold that was not only based on traditional bluegrass and roots folk, but also more melodic influences such as the Beach Boys and Beatles, incorporating their more pop-flavored vocal harmonies into the tight vocals that usually accompany bluegrass arrangements. It's an approach most similar to the sound of the Pure Prairie League's seminal "Amie." After the arrival of fiddler and former Wake Forest debater Christian Sedlemeyer in 2009, the five-piece rounded into an ensemble capable of thoroughly enjoyable original work that bore strong connections to its underlying musical foundations.

Their collective instrumental and vocal prowess is apparent from the outset through "Love We Left Behind," which opens the 14-track collection. Blending Bevill's and the younger Britt's finger-picking acoustic guitars with the elder Britt's mandolin work, the smooth harmonies lay-in early without becoming overwhelming. Sedlemeyer's violin gently underscores the more prominent vocals and pickers, while Marold knows the precise role of standup bass on recordings, namely to be solid and unobtrusive like a dependable stay-at-home defenseman. While Marold certainly seems to have the chops to demonstrate his talents in a live setting, on record the instrument looses its motion and can grow cumbersome, which the group wisely recognizes throughout the album. This is all the more important when there is no dedicated percussionist.

Following-up with the more countrified "Everyone is Talking," the Drifters hit their stride early. It's a beautiful piece, with Bevill's smooth and very listenable lead vocals – sounding much like Moxy Fruvous' Dave Matheson – prove the perfect pivot for the band's fuller harmonies. Sedlemeyer's fiddle parts are strung out with ease, while later guitar and banjo leads add just the right front porch charm. Its easily the best effort on the record and speaks to the sensibilities of McCartney and Brian Wilson to which Bevill and Britt aspire as chief songwriters.

While the album's first couple tracks present a gentler approach to their sound, it wouldn't be a proper bluegrass offering without a few of the foot-tapper variety. The best of these is the record's forth cut, "Sunnyside Drive." With a energetic banjo line leading things off, Bevill also presents his most developed narrative effort, describing "the nanny with the newspaper, and tobacco juice is running down her cheek" in the second verse. While relating the tales of the nanny, pilot, evangelist and the boy collecting baseball cards, he presents a well-meaning glance at Americana without stooping to the preachy and worn cliches of contemporary country music. Likewise, "Virginia Bell" is fit for a jamboree, with more fine banjo, mandolin and fiddle work.

And, of course, no roots music collection is complete without the requisite instrumental, which appears here in the form of "I've Got Your Heart in My Hand, and I'm Gonna Squeeze," with an early dose of Celtic background supplied by Seddlemeyer's fiddle and barn floor sawdust via banjos, mandolins and guitars later on in a tidy two minutes and fifteen seconds.

Come for: "Love We Left Behind"
Stay for: "Everyone is Talking"
You'll be surprised by: "Sunnyside Drive"

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Arcade Fire

The concept album is a rather loosely-defined proposition. Some may rely on a complex narrative, involving named characters, precise settings and an evolving storyline. Others meld a looser combination of broad themes, similar musical styles or production techniques. Thus, whether a given record meets the definition of a concept album is ultimately up to the standards of the observer. Into this void enters The Suburbs by the anthemic Montreal troupe, Arcade Fire, released today.

By most measures, the 16-track offering would measure as a concept album, given the stage crafted by husband and wife co-leaders Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, spreading out the conflict between the safe, stifling banality of the suburbs and the wild threats of the city across the collection's array of styles and moods. In journeys across various locations and times, to and from neighborhood backyards and the "hot pavement" of downtown, the unnamed narrators in the forms of Butler and Chassagne explore their apprehensions and horrors as neither environ seems capable of maintaining its hold on stability. All this takes place in a space somewhere between David Bowie's Diamond Dogs, Springsteen's Nebraska and the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness. But those seeking the tightly-crafted arrangements of Sgt. Pepper or Tommy might want to look elsewhere.

Interestingly, the collection's title track leads off by staking-out unfamiliar ground for the band, with a peppy, Benny Anderson-style piano part accounting the pending downfall of the album's namesake subject. As bombs and walls are falling in subdivisions everywhere, Butler describes his character's desire to show his daughter through the land of his youth before the earth is scorched by some unspecified force. The father as a guide to a daughter in the face of imminent danger is a recurring theme for Butler, who introduced the archetype on the band's previous release, 2006's Neon Bible. The opening number sets the path for escape - at least initially – from the suburbs that if they offer no security, the offer nothing at all, according to Butler's narrator.

Following this atypical launching point is the more common Arcade Fire sound on "Ready to Start." Cued by a vocal approach and pogo stick-guitar work in the Josh Homme vein, Butler's protagonist prepares to confront the blood-sucking businessmen and late nights of the city. Its imbued with the same directional energy that informed the group's biggest track off Neon Bible, "Keep the Car Running." Conversely, the Cure-flavored "Modern Man" introduces a muted 80's sound that underscores the character's self-doubt and concerns of wasted time, the latter of which becomes a theme explored on later tracks such as Chassagne's frenetic "Empty Room," with its hyper strings and full-throated choruses; the dusty trail, country-and-western ballad "Wasted Hours;" and "We Used to Wait," with its paranoid, punchy keyboards and irregular beat that points to the Talking Heads. In these subset of cuts, the participants' efforts to find stability – let alone fulfillment – are increasingly futile.

Meanwhile, the album's characters negotiate the city's "modern kids," shouting their battle cry of "Rococo," as a menacing wind unites their travails in "Month of May" and Chassagne's "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," strongly patterned of the recent work of the Toronto quartet, Metric, with its techno-rock blend. The city again offers no relief in "City With No Children," with Butler's vocals eerily replicating the tenor of Sheila Divine/Dear Leader frontman Aaron Perrino. It's the album's most fully realized number as a stand-alone piece, although I could have used some added oomph from the rhythm section, as the tune doesn't advance much in pace or intensity as it builds.

At the same time, the suburbs offer no respite from the dangers of the city, as illustrated in "Suburban War," not as much as the latter's threats to physical survival, but rather a soul-crushing blockade to emotional growth and satisfaction where friendships don't endure past sad divisions. "Month of May" is likewise a violent account of the brink of the suburbs' collapse – akin to the fervor displayed in Neon Bible's "(Antichrist Television Blues)" – and the dual-part "Sprawl" describes the characters' growing fear, where the distinctions between suburbs and city are dissolved as "dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains / And there's no end in sight."

At its zenith, The Suburbs presents a fleeting nod to one of the most iconic concept albums of all in its epilogue, "The Suburbs (continued)." The Dark Side of the Moon flavor is unmistakable despite the track's brevity at just under a minute and a half. In all, the collection of focused imagery presented by seven-piece ensemble (their precise duties in the collective has never been well-defined due to their wide-ranging talents) is actually more accessible than much of the group's previous work, without the detours to pockets of the avant garde that defined parts of Neon Bible and its predecessor, 2004's Funeral. And much like The Decemberists' theatrical The Hazards of Love, this work is best understood in composite, rather than each track's individual functionality.

Come for: "Ready to Start"
Stay for: "City With No Children"
You'll be surprised by: "Wasted Hours"