Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Strokes, The Oh Hello's

The Strokes
New Release: Comedown Machine
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Record Label: RCA Records
Sounds Like: Metric (NMT), Passion Pit (NMT)
Location: New York, N.Y.

The Strokes are commonly perceived as the leading edge of the garage band revival of the early-to-mid 2000s, their 2001 breakout single "Last Night" serving much the same role to the sub-genre as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" did for grunge a decade earlier. Other acts with short names preceded by The – The Hives, The Vines, The Shins, and to a lesser extent, The White Stripes – are often lumped together, although the genre's overall impact didn't last much longer than a few years in the pop music realm. Adding to the lower profile was The Strokes' own lackluster followups after This Is It – which spawned "Last Night" – and an extensive hiatus from 2007 thru 2011, creating a vacuum for mainstream, accessible rock that was ultimately filled by groups like The Kings of Leon and The Black Keys (NMT). Today, The Strokes return with their fifth full-length effort – Comedown Machine – whose very title seems to suggest the band's freedom borne by lesser anticipation. As a result, the collection offers a much looser vibe and greater playfullness than found on much of the quintet's previous catalog. (Check out all the tracks streaming here; individual links added after release)

Come for: "All The Time" (arena rock spectacular; beefy hooks from guitarists Albert Hammond, Jr. and Nick Valensi and hearty chorus refrain from frontman Julian Casablancas)
Stay for: "Tap Out" (opener is bouncy and fun, with fantastic bass lines from Nikolai Fraiture and disco-ish beats from Fabrizio Moretti)
You'll be surprised by: "One Way Trigger" (synth-heavy, but sufficiently lighthearted; Casablancas' falsetto is spot-on and a nod to synth rock vocalists like Passion Pit's Michalel Angelakos; keyboard highlights from Hammond are well-executed; might be a tad long at 4:03, though)
Solid efforts: "Welcome to Japan" (although I don't typically associate funky numbers with Japanese culture, this one seems to hit the right note of international intrigue); "50/50" (briskly paced and Casablancas' distorted vocals that defined the band's early career are a welcome return); "Partners in Crime" (cracking percussion from Moretti defines this number, one that's fairly close to the heart of the group's signature sound; warbling keyboards in the chorus background are enjoyable); "Happy Ending" (there's a bunch of studio gimmicks here, but they're orchestrated nicely on the bones of an already solid song structure); "Call It Fate, Call It Kharma" (don't read much into this description, but the combination of the hazy organ and Casablancas' surreal vocals yields cursory glances of The Doors) 
Meh: "Slow Animals" (I'm mixed on this one: the chorus is bright and has a nice kick of power, and there's some very nimble guitar work from Hammond and Valensi in the verses, but the verses themselves don't hold your interest very well); "Chances" (its alright, but the drum samples are distracting for a band that doesn't do ballads all that well to begin with)
Skip to next track: "80s Comedown Machine" (too slow, moody and repetitive for this band; Casablancas is fairly monotone much of nearly six-minute track)

The Oh Hellos
New Release: Through The Deep, Dark Valley
Release Date: October 30, 2012
Record Label: self-produced
Sounds Like: The Last Bison (NMT), Hey Marseilles (NMT), The Head and The Heart (NMT), Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT)
Location: San Marcos, Texas

Add another entry to the indie-folk parade that shows no signs of slowing down. Readers need look no further than the cascade of reviews in this space over the last year or so of the proliferation of the genre. Here, brother and sister tandem of Tyler and Maggie Heath present a conceptually liberal concept record containing connective themes and tempo, but not a liner plot line or recurring characters. Like most other indie folk troupes, the siblings are joined by a crew of guest musicians contributing instruments such as banjos, accordions, violas and cellos. The result – like that of The Last Bison in our previous profile – that stresses consistency over spectacle across 11 well-composed tracks.

Come for: "The Valley" (thundering drums and gang vocals are no shy introduction)
Stay for: "Second Child, Restless Child" (fieverishly paced and fantastically urgent; Maggie Heath sets the standard for the record here; recalls the raucous energy of the Great Big Sea (NMT)/Russell Crowe collaboration "Hit the Ground and Run")
You'll be surprised by: "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb" (while the intro starts off incredibly drab, after the :50 mark, it gradually builds speed to a full-on Celtic reel)
Solid efforts: "Like the Dawn" (Maggie Heath displays a wholesome mix of blues and country vocals in taking the lead here, similar to the style of The Head and The Heart's secondary vocalist Charity Rose Thielen; nice alt-country flavor between the gentle acoustic guitars and fiddle from Matthew Hagerman); "Eat You Alive" (this Tyler Heath-fronted number resides somewhere between the hardscrabble tales of Southeast Engine's Adam Remnant and the full-throated, foot-stompers of agesandages (NMT) and The Head and The Heart); "Wishing Well" (Maggie returns to the restlessness theme that leads to a deal with the devil; the slower-paced ballad is a welcome change of gears, although it does pick up intensity over its closing third); "In Memoriam" (a love-amongst-poverty ode bereft of odiousness); "I Was Wrong" (the closest thing to a rock number here; find a spot for it on a playlist between Oh, No! Oh, My!'s (NMT) "You Were Right" and Onward, Soldiers' (NMT) "Cinder Blocks"); "The Truth Is a Cave" (another stomp-and-sing-along with some punchy percussion and jangly guitars); "Valley (Reprise)" (wraps up the collection back where it began)
Meh: "I Have Made Mistakes" (this one from Tyler doesn't quite have the same punch as the rest of the record, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it, and its quite lovely at points)      

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Super Review – March

They Might Be Giants
New Release: Nanobots
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Record Label: Idlewild Recordings
Sounds Like: Fountains of Wayne (NMT), Jonathan Coulton (NMT)
Location: Brooklyn, N.Y.

After posting an extensive exegesis of the Johns' Join Us in July 2011 (NMT), this assessment will focus more directly on the new material at hand, namely the fully 25 tracks of varying lengths that comprise the duo's fourth full-length release. Most notably, Nanobots points most directly to their fourth record, the brilliant Apollo 18 from 1992. The similarities not only reside in the new collection's smattering of 11 song snippets under 1:30 in length – much like Apollo 18's "Fingertips" suite – but the same slightly obtuse oddity and recurring paranoia that defined the now more than two-decade old predecessor. "Call Your Mom" aligns nicely with "I Palindrome I" while "Insect Hospital" and "Tick" recall the group's earlier "Mammal" and "Spider."

Come for: "Nanobots" (quintessential nerd rock from the grand masters of the genre)
Stay for: "Stone Cold Coup d'Etat" (I love John Linnell's rockers ["Ana Ng," "Don't Let's Start," "Can't Keep Johnny Down"] and this is another great one; lyrics like "it has a certain gene se qua" just sounds tailor-made for Linnell's range)
You'll be surprised by: "Lost My Mind" (as straight-forward a power rock ballad as the Johns can create)
Solid efforts: "You're on Fire" (spritely; nothing says TMBG like a chorus of John Flansbaugh singing simply "combustible head!"); "Circular Karate Chop" (create a playlist including this, The Decemberists' "Perfect Crime #2" and Barenaked Ladies "Bank Job" for a killer caper soundtrack) "Call Your Mom" (surf rock vibe, nice saxophone track from John Linnell); "Telsa" (another fact-filled biography in the spirit of "Meet James Ensor" and "James K. Polk"); "9 Secret Steps" (the paranoia referenced above, see "No One Knows My Plan" and "Working Undercover for the Man" from the TMBG catalog); "The Darlings of Lumberland" (I dare another band to create something as odd as this; maybe The Flaming Lips could come close?); "Icky" (fun; more saxophone from Linnell); "Too Tall Girl" (the title alone should make you chuckle; Flansbaugh revives one of his distorted voice characters here; comically strange; "knows more etiquette than Connecticut")
Meh: "Black Ops" (the lyrics are intriguing, but I've never been a big fan of Flansbaugh's attempts at getting funky, ie. ); "Replicant" (its a bit slow, but too strange and intriguing to dismiss completely, with xylophones and jazzy percussion from longtime drummer Marty Beller) 
Skip to next track: "Sometimes a Lonely Way" (same reason I didn't like "Black Ops," but less interesting)
Exceptions: I have a hard time evaluating the short, quirky tracks like the rest, but I particularly enjoyed "Destroy the Past," "Nouns," "There" and "Great

The Last Bison
New Release: Inheritance 
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Record Label: Universal Republic Records
Sounds Like: Of Monsters & Men (NMT), The Head and The Heart (NMT), Agesandages (NMT), Seryn (NMT), Rural Alberta Advantage (NMT, NMT)

The multi-member, multi-gender folk collective concept is on the rise these days, with large-format, folk-based outfits seeking to follow the trail blazed by the hardly edgy Mumford & Sons and the more interesting Of Monsters & Men. Unlike those overseas acts, though, The Last Bison actually emerges from the American mid-Atlantic region where folk music finds its origins. The Chesapeake, Virginia's 11-track debut incorporates far more fiddles and mandolins than their pop-folk contemporaries and frontman Ben Hardesty benefits from that sour, nasally vocal timbre that imbues credibility in folks like The Rural Alberta Advantage's Nils Edenloff and Mathew Milia of Frontier Ruckus (NMT). I'll once again invoke my recurring complaint that if a group has multi-gender members, at least one of them should get some time out front to vary the tone and sonic canvas for the listener, although Hardesty's sister Annah gets some good backing vocals in on numerous occasions. Aside from that, it's pretty good.

Come for: "Quill" (brisk, full-throated)
Stay for: "Switzerland" (the type of large-scale folk song that gets airplay these days)
You'll be surprised by: "Watches and Chains" (by far the most complex and interesting material on the record, nearly theatrical in a Queen kind of way)
"Inheritance" (inviting instrumental appropriate sets the stage, but not quite as foreboding as The Decemberists' "Prelude" from Hazards of Love); "Dark Am I" (as the title suggests, its fairly moody); "Tired Hands" (Hardesty at his most passionate); "Autumn Snow" (not quite "January Hymn," but in the same vein); "Distance" (upbeat and driving; worth sticking around for)
Meh: "River Rhine" (not much to the chorus, and could take better advantage of the large band's talents); "Take All the Time" (I'm really not interested in Bon Iver knockoffs, let alone the real thing)
Skip to next track: "Sandstone" (not digging Hardesty in falsetto)

Assembly of Dust
New Release: Sun Shot
Release Date: February 26, 2013
Record Label: Stone Choir Music
Sounds Like: The Sheepdogs (NMT, NMT), The Overmountain Men (NMT, NMT), Frontier Ruckus (NMT), Band of Horses (NMT)
Location: New York, N.Y.

A band titled Assembly of Dust sounds like it should be either a death metal outfit or a Christian worship group. Instead, its straight-forward, uncomplicated alt-country and roots rock. With frontman Reid Genauer's easygoing vocals, Jackson Browne-style piano and organ lines and solid but unspectacular accompaniment by guitarist Adam Terrell, bassist John Leccesse and drummer Andy Herrick, the quartet's fourth full-length studio effort hardly stuns with grandeur, but more than compensates with consistency and accessibility – a perfect lure for the warmer days ahead in coming months.

Come for: "Vaulted Sky" (a bit of swagger in the rhythm; vintage veneer recalls the Steve Miller Band or, more recently, The Sheepdogs
Stay for: "Cluttered" (a nice little melody backed by the band's well-rounded sound)
You'll be surprised by: "Lost & Amazed" (fantastic classic rock groove)
Solid efforts: "Gray Believer" (warm, gentle, pleasant); "Sun Shot" (a little thin at first, but a good lazy day number); "Unvarnished" (appropriately titled, earnest); "Avenue of the Giants" (measured; the most countrified stuff here); "Arkansas Down" (a little more pep than your typical backroads ballad); "Myth of Mine" (touches of roots revival style, nice pedal steel part); "Weehawken Ferry" (a rockabilly number about a ferry between Jersey and Manhattan? It works surprisingly well); "Silver and Worn" (tremendously unburdened by urgency); "Mrs. What You Are" (well-constructed and lively; hardly the typical closing track)   
Meh/Skip to next track: As I said, its consistently enjoyable...