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Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's June, Here Are Some Lists

With June we get sunshine, smiles, a beach if we're lucky (a shitty summer job if we're not)... but the best part of the month may have nothing to do with the season at all.  What then is the best part you may ask?  Half way mark best of lists!!!

Below are just a few (of the countless) lists from a few publications we tune in to pretty often.  Let's get some feedback on who at this point you think is underrated, overrated, or not rated at all, and look for our list in the following days (weeks, months, kidding!).

SPIN'S 25 Best Albums of 2011... So Far 

SPIN'S 24 Summer Albums That Matter Most 

Stereogum's Top 20 Albums of 2011 So Far

Top 12 Albums Overlooked By Stereogum's Best of '11 So Far

Gorilla vs. Bear's favorites of 2011.5

And The Indie Song of Summer 2011 is... 

CoS Presents... The Hottest Albums of Summer 2011 

Let us know what you think in the comment section. Hope you are enjoying the month just as much as we are.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Death Cab for Cutie - 'Codes and Keys'

Atlantic; 2011
Our Take - 7.1 

It feels strange to say that Death Cab is an underrated band, but I truly believe they are, at least in a "critical" sense. On one hand, their talents have certainly been acknowledged-- they are one of the few "indie" acts that have signed and been successful on a major label, not to mention their very existence has spawned an entire sub-genre of music (i.e. Freelance Whales and Owl City, to name just a few), but on the other hand, their albums have never reviewed particularly well on websites or in magazines.

I feel like this is a serious problem, but I doubt the band has ever considered it as such. They will be known as one of the pioneering indie acts of our lifetime and are one of the few bands that I can say with confidence will have music passed down generation to generation So why would they care? They probably don't, but I do, and I'm left wondering why their records don't seem to cut it with critics.

Before this turns into an essay on the nature of music criticism and how Death Cab seems to always get slighted (I'll come back to that), I'd like to refocus-- Death Cab has released a new record, Codes and Keys, and it is sort of different than anything they've done to this point.  This is sometimes a good move for a band-- make a new record, add more to the palette, expand creatively, and see how many new tricks can be thrown in while maintaining the same auteur signature.  Codes and Keys follows this pattern exactly, but to mixed results.

My biggest problem is that before the release of this record the band talked and talked about how experimental the record was for them, how they've never done anything like it, and how they were going to, for the most part, set down their guitars in favor of other instrumentation (vintage keyboards!).  They even touted their major inspiration for the album, Brian Eno's epic, Another Green World.  What a surprise it was turning this record for the first time-- from everything they said I was expecting something much different and with all the hype they put around experimentation, the album needed to be different.  Sound wise it isn't that different or that experimental, and certainly, after listening to Codes and Keys, my thoughts don't drift towards Brian Eno.  I can't say I was disappointed with what I was hearing, but rather I was disappointed with what I wasn't hearing.  Codes and Keys isn't a huge jump for the band, rather it just sounds like the next logical step in the bands maturation.

Fans of previous albums might revel in the familiarity of the tracks.  "Underneath the Sycamore" has a remarkably similar structure to Plans opening number, "Marching Bands of Manhattan", "Some Boys" (which probably could have been left off the record) and "Portable Television" share the same kind of boyish earnestness that Death Cab has captured before in tracks like "Talking Bird" and "You Can Do Better Than Me", and "You Are a Tourist" is almost as catchy as "Soul Meets Body".  While familiarity can be comforting, it can also make an album feel overly recycled as Codes and Keys often does.

It has it's moments though, "Doors Unlocked and Open" is as good as anything they've recorded and shows glimpses of a record that could have been.  Unobstructed Views" is probably the most "experimental" track and shows a side of the band that hasn't really been tapped before and "Monday Morning" could be song of the summer.  Best of all, "Stay Young, Go Dancing" captures Death Cab at their most intimate on the record, and echoes a sentiment that only a band of their caliber and experience could make.

So Codes and Keys isn't quite as good as most of the band's previous albums, but it is coherent, has a nice theme (a positive one, thanks Zooey!), flows remarkably well,  and is really pretty good on a track to track basis.  The real difference is Codes and Keys just isn't as close or as intimate as almost all of their other discs are.  Death Cab has always put a huge emphasis on lyrics and intimacy and their latest, simply put, doesn't reach the high bar set by their past records.  The record as a whole seems distant, even a little bit cold.  Gibbard seems to overlook poetics this time around substituting them for simple rhymes ("Some boys are filling the hole/ They're making a killing at the top of the billings") and overarching generalizations as in title track "Codes and Keys", ("We are one/ We are alive").  His voice is often also hidden in reverb or echo and for a lyricist that has always seemed within reach it puts him oddly out of touch.
Wait, aren't you being just like the critics that continually slight Death Cab's records??????? Well, yes and no.  Death Cab, because of how close they are to the hearts of many of their fans are a hard band to critique.  Do I think it is as good as Transatlanticism? No way.  But someone might.  Bottom line, this is a solid record from a band that will continue to make solid records.  I just wish they'd keep their influences to themselves.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fleet Foxes - 'Helplessness Blues'

Sub Pop; 2011
Our Take - 9.1

Robin Pecknold and his infamous gang of harmonizing gentlemen have returned to follow up their largely successful self-titled debut album released in 2008. A lot of noteworthy things have happened in the three years separating these two records. For one the band, especially Robin, has certainly felt the spotlighted pressure fueled by an enormous cult-like following that accompanied the release of their first album. Robin has also undergone one of the most intense creative/self-critical periods in his songwriting career thus far. He has gone from scrapping songs half-way through to monotonously restructuring complete albums. Helplessness Blues has been a long time coming and has undergone an extremely rigorous reformation. Mr. Pecknold has also been going through a tumultuous break-up/make-up relationship for several years, which no doubt weighs heavy on any given susceptible songwriting mind and heavily influences lyrics as well as musical style. 

Perhaps most noticeably the changes can be seen in the poetics of the record. The lyrics seem largely more intuitive and pensive with an almost overwhelming stress on aging and validation at times nearly unthinkable in such a youthful singer/songwriter as the twenty-something Robin Pecknold ("So guess I got old / I was like trash on the sidewalk," "In that dream I'm as old as the mountains" etc.). "Montezuma" begins with Pecknold searching for meaning in the simple fact that he is now older than his parents were when they had their first child. Likewise, the title track reflects upon what Pecknold dreams of doing with his life as he looks for a spirituality or philosophy to determine his place in the universe. He is faced with the difficulty of choosing between creating a persona wholly original and unique or accepting a more simple life and retreating to work on an orchard with a loved one. Properly placed, "The Cascades," being the only instrumental track on the record, gives the listener a much needed moment to decipher the weight of Pecknold's last declaration, "Someday I'll be like the man on the screen," and decide whether his motives remain purely his own or have been too influenced by movies and media.

The Fleet Foxes have also harnessed a strong ability to create and fuse multiple mini-tracks within one another often transitioning superbly from one musical idea to the next. The effect is that of unpredictability throughout and keeps us on our toes not knowing which direction the music is headed. Even "Helplessness Blues" being a single track in itself (w/o slash indications that is) has a noticeable transition where the song can be neatly divided in half. Their longest effort on the album, "The Shrine / An Argument," begins with a soft sung narrative and quickly explodes into Pecknold really pushing the limits of his voice and nearly shouting lyrics through our speakers, and the song's still not even half over. It closes with some of the strangest musical sounds to come out of a saxophone, let alone the Fleet Foxes, making us wonder once again how we got here, but also simultaneously realizing the reasons as to why the track might be titled "An Argument."

Some tracks on Helplessness Blues also seem to have more of a kick to them. The rhythmically driven "Battery Kinzie" or album closer "Grown Ocean" emphasize a bigger sound than their previous album did and appear to be more percussively oriented, a direction that should be respected and cherished within such a group of harmonizing folksy fellows. That being said, Robin can still appropriately take things back a step and demarcate a track solely for his voice and an unaccompanied guitar reminiscent of "Meadowlarks" to show off his versatility as an all-around songwriter ("Blue Spotted Tail"). The harmonies are less abundant on this record than on their self-titled debut, but still in considerable high demand. They appear to come in at just the right moments, when Pecknold needs that added volume to emphasize or decorate lasting choruses and lingering melodies to make a lasting impression upon any listener, both passive and active.