Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Super Review – January

So, since it should be evident that posting weekly is now beyond my capacity, I'm now going to focus on delivering one post each month in the Super Review format I used in early October. Of course, I'll still reserve the right to float a one-off, weekly post on a specific band or artist if I'm particularly motivated. So, on to the reviews...

In general, this crop of profilees fall into one of two categories: 1) Solid, but not earth-shattering releases from North American acts, and 2) promising groups from the United Kingdom, but whom have yet to release a full-length record. Don't read too much (meaning: anything) into the order of these profiles.

New Release: METZ
Release Date: October 15, 2012
Record Label: Sub Pop Records
Sounds Like: The Strokes, John Spencer Blues Explosion
Location: Ottawa, Ont.

One of my chief obstacles to writing about new music lately has been the general tepidness of what I've heard, especially from North American groups. A review of one act that seemed initially promising used the phrase "ambient folk pop" as a compliment. Now, everyone's entitled to their own tastes, but if you've been following this space, you'll know that's not at all what I'm interested in hearing. The converse of this problem is what makes the relentless, thrashing self-titled debut of this Ottawa-based trio so compelling. It's loud, not particularly tidy and unashamed of that reality. Individually, most tracks are a tad noisier and more shouty than what usually hits my bull's eye, but there's hints of crunching choruses and solid song structures that suggests a more thorough sound, and are even more attractive when combined with the group's snotty and hard-nosed veneer.

Come for: "Get Off" (brisk, snarly)
Stay for: "Wet Blanket" (thundering)
You'll be surprised by: "Rats" (not exactly an outlier, but the crispest sound on the collection)
Solid efforts: "Knife in the Water" (big drums; dark and sludgy); "The Mule" (fierce); "Sad Pricks" (witty punk); "Headache" (brash)
Meh: "Wasted" (too slow); "Negative Space" (too long)
Skip to next track: "Nausea" (a minute-plus of instrumental leftovers on only a 10-track album isn't a very valuable contribution)

So Many Wizards
New Release: Warm Nothing
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Record Label: Frenchkiss Label Group
Sounds Like: Sufjan Stevens (NMT), Neutral Milk Hotel, Oh, No! Oh, My! (NMT)
Location:  Los Angeles, Calif.

I mentioned how I feel much new stuff is too dreamy and ethereal for my tastes. Half of Warm Nothing – the first full-length release from this Los Angeles indie-folk rock quartet – suffers from this condition. There's a few well-constructed, indie-pop offerings ("Yeah Right," "Into the Sun"), but others just hover around without achieving any real direction. I'd like to hear some greater refinement and less experimentation on future efforts, but for now, it's a good start.

Come for: "Yeah Right" (hooky, breezy)
Stay for: "Loose Your Mind" (measured, but purposeful)
You'll be surprised by: "Inner City" (vaguely eastern melody; slippery backbeat)
Solid efforts: "I Like It Here" (restrained, but brightens as it goes); "In the Sun" (peppy, simple); "Peru" (starts wimpy, but stiffens up); "Joshua (Kill Us Both)" (short and sweet); "Never Wake Up" (refreshing, sounds suited for a beach setting)
Meh: "Happy Birthday" (never really gets going); "Into a Daze" (a little trippy, but not too meandering)
Skip to next track: "Deep Down" (makes one contemplate offing oneself from the tedium; a horrible lead-off track); "Best Friends" (fragile and monotonous); "Sleepwalk" (aptly titled; unfocused and directionless)

Of Monsters and Men
New Release: My Head is an Animal
Release Date: April 3, 2012 (North America); September 20, 2011 (Europe)
Record Label: Universal Records
Sounds Like: Camera Obscura, The Arcade Fire (NMT), Los Campesinos! (NMT), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Location: Garour, Iceland

Normally, Of Monsters and Men is exactly the type of band I'd be promoting in a stand-alone post, and I probably should have. They're a five-piece, two-gender folk-pop ensemble from another country with several very catchy and complex tunes that demonstrate excitement and ambition. However, they're being reflexively punished here because the first song I heard from them – "From Finner" – came across my radar on a SXSW sampler and it's not among their best material, so I took a pass on them in the spring. The other day, my ears perked up when I heard their second single off My Head is an Animal, "Mountain Sound," on a restaurant playlist and rediscovered them. While not their fault, had that song or their breakout single, "Little Talks" had found their way onto that sampler, I'd have likely heralded them earlier.

Come for: "Little Talks" (chipper folk rock with horns; reminds me of Los Campesinos! "A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show-Me State")
Stay for: "Mountain Sound" (sheer ebullience in 3:32)
You'll be surprised by: "Six Weeks" (approaches epicness at times)
Solid efforts: "Dirty Paws" (slow at first, but builds); "King and Lionheart" (folksy foundation, grows to fulfill the narrative); "Slow and Steady" (as the name implies; becomes very Arcade Fire-flavored at its zenith); "Your Bones" (more horns re-emerge; kinda Mumford & Sons-y); "Sloom" (another ballad, but acoustic and brighter than "Love Love Love"); "Lakehouse" (fits nicely with "King and Lionheart" and "Six Weeks"); "Numb Bears" (horns again; fun-spirited)
Meh: "From Finner" (takes too long, but may be worth the wait depending on your patience); "Love Love Love" (a fine ballad showcasing co-lead singer Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir, but not much more); "Yellow Light" (not a lot of movement here, but some pleasant bells and whistles - literally – at the end)
Skip to next track: nothing not worth listening to at least once...

China Rats
New Release: To Be Like I (EP)
Release Date: April, 2012
Record Label: Once Upon a Time Records
Sounds Like: The Kinks, The Ramones, The Vaccines, The Gaslight Anthem (NMT)
Location: Leeds, U.K.

Straight-ahead rock with a punk sneer, destined for bigger things in the coming year. Also, how old are these kids?! As the old rock adage goes, the closer you are to 21 and broke, the better rock music is...

Come for: "To Be Like I" (arena-rock level sound)
Stay for: "N.O.M.O.N.E.Y." (punk-party anthem)
You'll be surprised by: "Les Transmusicales" (hey, an acoustic track!) 
Solid efforts: "(At Least Those) Kids Are Getting Fed" (really snarly, Kinks style); "Fly Solo" (unrefined, but promising); "Take No Prisoners" (befitting its name, but less punky than other numbers);
Meh: "Ghost Train" (their sludgiest offering; not sure it fits where they're heading, but not bad)

Eliza and the Bear
New Release: "Upon the North" (single)
Release Date: December, 2012
Record Label: self-promoted
Sounds Like: Of Monsters and Men, The Head & The Heart (NMT), Grouplove (NMT), Givers (NMT)
Location: London, U.K.

I am looking forward to hearing much more from this big-sounding London quintet. So far, all we've got to go with are "Upon the North," its preceding single, "Brother's Boat" and the video for "The Southern Wild," all of which are grandiose and sweeping pieces of power-folk rock, with plenty of horns, strings and other instruments of merriment.

Randolph's Leap
New Release: Hermit (EP)
Release Date: October 26, 2012
Record Label: Fence Records
Sounds Like: Camera Obscura, Belle and Sebastian, Los Campesinos! (NMT), Frightened Rabbit  
Location: Glasgow, Scotland

Yet another one of these big-profile sounds, with strings, horns, organs and other assorted toys layered atop a folk foundation. The group released a series of five EPs over the course of 2012, each adding more punch and complexity to the mix. Here, the trio of the title track, "Mutiny" and "Zombie" demonstrate the eight-piece's range and nimbleness. 

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