Music Reviews- 2007 First Quarter Wrapup

Twenty-five percent of the year 2007 is in the books, and did it ever provide some promising music. Jam- packed with solid releases, the first three months of this year’s music scene was often hard to keep up with. As I finally begin to bring myself up to date, I will attempt to do the same for you. Here are my brief (haha) thoughts on some of the most memorable releases of the first quarter of 2007. (See past post for reviews of Bloc Party/A Weekend in the City-8.4, The Shins/Wincing The Night Away– 8.2, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah/ Some Loud Thunder– 7.8, also released in this year’s first three months)

Deerhunter/ Cryptograms, 9.2/10

The fantastic sophomore album from this Atlanta band makes an astounding argument to be crowned the greatest shoegazer-noise rock album since My Bloody Valentine’s epic Loveless. As the title would suggest, Cryptograms is a haunting, immaculately arranged work containing soaring melodies, rolling basslines and space-rock guitar punches. In the early stages of the album, Deerhunter seems content to progress at a snail’s pace, placing purely instrumental tracks intermittently throughout. In fact, out of the twelve tracks on the album, only seven are actual songs with lyrics (which are not always discernible). What makes Cryptograms such an accomplishment is the fact that those seven songs are all this album needs to attain status as a classic, and the instrumental tracks in between add positive elements to both its complexity and its continuity.

On the title track, leadman Bradford Cox opens by speaking over transitive feedback, “My greatest fear/ I fantisized/ the days were long/ the weeks flew by/ before I knew I was awake/ my days were through/ it was too late.” Immediately after, the catchiest bass line in recent memory combines with a simple repetitive guitar riff and eventually evolves into absolute musical chaos behind soaring electric guitar and heavy drum beats with that same, glorious bassline ever present. The foreboding climax manifests with Cox moaning “There was no sound” without relent. It is hard to recall a better album opener in recent years.

Between instrumental tracks is the dancy yet terrifying “Lake Somerset”, which uses strong basslines once again to carry itself home along with a guitar element reminiscent of the early work of the Liars. “Octet” rounds out the decidedly inaccessible first half of the album with eight minutes of slowly building bass and atmospheric vocals. This track is probably the closest that Deerhunter comes to sounding like My Bloody Valentine, and is a great segway (before another nice instrumental piece) to the album’s more song-oriented second half.

Eerie guitar rings out over the devastating “Spring Hall Convert”, which is probably the best song on the album besides the title track. The initially dark guitar line transforms into an intense, almost triumphant crescendo dominated by pounding drums and vocals that are seemingly being sung somewhere between another planet and heaven. The mood changes a bit on the next track “Strange Lights”, which provides a perfectly placed bittersweet element as the album nears its conclusion. This is arguably the first song on the album with intelligible lyrics, yet still retains its own characteristics of dreaminess that blend well with the album. Similarly,”Hazel St.” brings the listener back into the light and out of the darkness with steady drumming and another heavenly crescendo.

The album couldn’t conclude any better, as “Heatherwood” is subtle and soft while rolling along like a steam engine all the while, letting the listener down easy and inducing a giant sigh of satisfaction. On the whole, Cryptograms combines elements of shoegazer, dream pop and noise rock almost perfectly into an album of pure beauty that isn’t likely to be topped this year.

Arcade Fire/ Neon Bible, 8.8/10

Expectations couldn’t have been higher after the release of Funeral at the end of 2004 led many critics to crown the Arcade Fire as the second coming. On their sophomore effort, the band seems distraught in a more outward manner than on their first album, musically advanced but at times overly self-righteous and pretentious. Nevertheless, the introduction of new musical elements and the increased vocal prescence of Regine Chassagne help Neon Bible rise over all of its negativity.

I’m still not sure that anything on this album adds up to the likes of “Rebellion”, “Tunnels”, “Wake Up” or “Power Out” from the last album, but Neon Bible still demonstrates an incredible musical depth and has several amazing tracks to its credit supported by a collection of above-average if sometimes off-putting songs. Aspects of the music seem darker, and opener “Black Mirror” conveys the tone of the album well. It’s not the best song here, but pessimistic, somewhat contrived lines such as “Mirror on the wall/ tell me when those bombs may fall” give us an idea of the bleak view that Arcade Fire has taken toward the world around them. Much more engaging early on are tracks like “Keep The Car Running”, an old-fashioned, foot-stomping rock song with folky elements that we recognize from last time around.

Probably my favorite thing about this album is the introduction of church-style organs to the music. One of the better tracks here is “Intervention”, the opening organ chords of which are reminiscent of orthodox style church hymns. The tone is no less negative as Win Butler sings “And no matter what you say/ There’s some debts you’ll never pay/ Working for the church while your family dies/ You take what they give you and you keep it inside/ Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home/ Here souls are grown that go at it alone.” Heavy drumming picks up and the tension builds into the finish, with Chassagne providing background vocals from the church choir. This a thematic, stunning track. The conclusion of the album uses heavy organ yet again. “My Body Is A Cage” ends the album on a somber note, as underlying ancient-style organ music proceeds into a full-blown, somewhat shocking “Phantom of the Opera” crescendo as Butler pleads, “Set my spirit free” over a complete shift in chords. Butler and Chassagne combine their vocals on the Jekyll and Hyde style double track “Black Wave/ Bad Vibrations” and it becomes clear that the band has grown in its musical complexity as well as its eagerness to experiment.

The more I listen to it, I can’t help but thinking that what really holds this album together is the brilliance of “Ocean of Noise” in the dead middle. The band is happy to build slowly with light piano and vocals with elements of hopelessness before exploding into the best finish to a song Arcade Fire has ever produced, complete with wailing vocals and classical violin. What makes this album great is the tension its songs create before building into heart-stopping emotional crescendos, and never is this theme better illustrated than in this song.

Although at times dreary and mad at the world, the fact that the Arcade Fire are musical geniuses carries every single song to a status of at least “good” and often “great.” “The Well and the Lighthouse” turns notes of ringing guitar into a slow grind to the finish as Butler wails. “(Antichrist Television Blues)” is immediately likable for its paranoid yet folky, foot-stomping style while “Windowstill” may be the most underrated track here. Its slow, complaining verses switch to a powerful, commanding chorus complete with more violin elements.

More accessible tracks like the penultimate “No Cars Go” showcase the highlights of the album perhaps better than all others, as the brilliance of the music carries itself far beyond the substance of the lyrics. This one might have been a better choice to conclude the album, so I speak of it last. Nevertheless, at times, Neon Bible seems incredibly over-serious, and for any other band this might have been a disaster. But the Arcade Fire has an ability to exude its energy over even its own mood and its often over-the-top lyrics. The fact is that the music itself is so good here that it essentially diminishes the unlikable attitude that resonates from these songs. And if the Arcade Fire can get their point across and make listening to said point so enjoyable, then more power to them.

Menomena/ Friend and Foe, 8.7/10

On their third release, experimental indie rock band Menomema really knock the ball out of the park with Friend and Foe. The band uses custom software which they refer to as “deeler” to loop simple musical segments throughout entire songs. Leadman Brent Knopf writes the software and sings the songs, and the end result is an impressive album full of ideas and diverse tracks, with notes reminiscent of everything from Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev to Death Cab For Cutie, Tapes N’ Tapes and even Radiohead.

As stated perviously, what makes this album as complex as it is results from its ability to let each song stand alone on its own two feet. The tracks don’t flow together exactly, but are all so engaging and interesting that they don’t have to. Opener “Muscle N Flo” sounds almost like punky garage rock initially as Knopf sings “In the morning/ I stumble may way toward/ Another daily struggle” before building into experimental background piano loops along with horns. “Pelican” is a stomping, rolling track with all kinds of diverse musical elements, and really benefits from Knopf being at his most intense vocally as he professes “I guess some birds never learn/ One day these tides will turn/ And leave you NOTHING.”

The best song on the album is “Wet and Rusting”, which sounds nothing like the first two in any way, enough to make one ponder if this even the same band. This mesmerizing track combines early piano elements into strumming acoustic guitar and then looped drum beats and eventually combines all of these together to form perfectly executed layered rhythms. I even love the simple lyric of the intro to the song’s chorus “It’s hard to take risks/ When you’re a pessimist.” “Air Raid” follows gloriously with a more futuristic progression and sounds almost like the Secret Machines on downers. Menomena uses more horns on another stomping rock track, “Weird”, which makes the most of the looping software to be sure.

The second half of the album begins with the softest track on Friend And Foe, “Rotten Hell”, which is terrifically out of place here and works incredibly well because of it. This song provides the album’s prettiest melody behind soft piano keys before building into its most impressive and dramatic finish. Another huge highlight near the end of the album is “Evil Bee”, where piano and keyboard keys meet hard drums, horns and electronic syncopation as Knopf sings probably the album’s most classic line, “Oh to be a machine/ Oh to be wanted/ To be useful.” “Runnin'” and “Boyscouting” are less accesible and the most experimental tracks on the album, while “My My” brings the album towards its conclusion in style, combining this work’s familiar musical elements with atmospheric harmony reminiscent of the Flaming Lips.

The aforementioned track would actually have worked wonderfully as the album’s closer, but Menomena decided to use “West”, a darker, moderately haunting track that echoes on through the conclusion and thereafter. Without a single weak track, Friend and Foe is, in the end, a massive accomplishment thanks to its innovative musical arrangements, catchy melodies and strong lyrical quality throughout.

Air/ Pocket Symphony, 7.9/10.0

Three years removed from Talkie Walkie, my favorite album of 2004, downtempo electronica masterminds Air return with a brand new album. This time around, Air seems content to focus on the album’s sound over its inherent quality. The result is an album that blends together and sounds incredibly pleasing to the ear on the whole, but does so without very many memorable tracks.

I should bail myself out there immediately, as Pocket Symphony does contain one track that surely stacks up to anything they have ever done, but we unfortunately have to wait eight tracks to hear it. “Mer de Japon” sounds incredibly out of place on this album but might have made Moon Safari the best album of the 1990s. This is simply a classic Air track, atmospheric with hard beats and submerged vocals, and this song alone makes the album worthy of purchase, if not praise.

The opening two tracks show promise as well. “Space Maker” begins the album as a purely instrumental track not without its own merits. Every song on this album can be categorically described as “pretty”, and the opener sets the tone, while not exactly matching the mood set by the openers of previous Air albums. The second “Once Upon A Time” is probably the best song on the album besides the obvious aforementioned track, rolling steadily along with a dreamy keyboard melody which eventually combines with electronic drums and evolves nicely.

The problem lies thereafter. “One Hell of A Party” is lyrically complex but fails to fully deliver on its emotional potential. “Napalm Love” is catchy but kind of a downer, with repetitive lyrics adding to its mediocrity. “Mayfair Song”, “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping” and “Lost Message” sound beautiful but are certain to bring any party to a screeching halt, and don’t add much to the album besides a desire to either move along to the next track or take a nap. A couple of tracks step out of the box to remain memorable. “Left Bank” demonstrates emotional power as acoustic guitar plucks through the longing chorus of “Without You/ I’m getting lost/ Without You/ There’s no release.” And the purely beautiful guitar and piano notes on “Photograph” take pretty to a whole new level that makes the track immediately memorable.

These songs sound good but lack the punch of their better work and seem to aim at lulling their listeners to sleep. Pocket Symphony would succeed if it could be purely described as “mood music”, but some of these songs are so soft that I wouldn’t dream of having them on in the background of a gathering for fear that all of the guests would fall promptly to sleep. And that is not to say that these songs are depressing, because they aren’t, they just take relaxing to a dangerous level. This certainly isn’t a bad album and I can in fact perceive situations in which it might be the perfect album. But after the brilliant Talkie Walkie, I was certainly expecting some different, if not to say better, music than this.

LCD Soundsystem/ Sound of Silver, 9.4/10

Could this be the best dance rock album since–well, ever? The Rapture’s Echoes may still hold that honor, but with Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem has created its masterpiece. With this album, James Murphy has put together a relentless, high-octane dance record which at the same time feels decidedly musical- in and of itself, quite a combination.

The self-titled debut from 2005 certainly showed promise, but it is evident from the opening beats of the show-stopping opener “Get Innocuous” that Murphy has sharpened his art considerably. This opening track immediately tops the best of the last album (which is no small feat), combining catchy synth and heavy percussion beneath subdued, chanting vocals reminiscent of the Talking Heads. Playful songs like “Time to Get Away” and “Watch the Tapes” hold the album together nicely as strong dance tracks that sound more similar to the last album, while others like “North American Scum” take it a step further and provide shockingly intense beats and crescendo choruses all behind Murphy’s trademark spoken vocals. If you aren’t bouncing off the walls while listening to this one, there’s something wrong with you.

However, what really will end up separating Sound of Silver from other albums released this year is the complexity it gains from softer, melodic and poignant tracks such as “Someone Great”, “All My Friends” and “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down.” “Someone Great” enters new ground for LCD Soundsystem, sombering the mood a bit with brilliantly produced musical elements that add a bit of a bittersweet, regretful tone with an early 1980’s feel as Murphy laments about loss. “All My Friends” begins with an inviting, repetitive piano riff that combines with percussion and Murphy’s vocals and evolves into perhaps the best piece of music he has ever created. These two tracks really stick out and provide such a great deal of complexity, meaning and human feeling to an album that could have settled for simply providing great background party music. The closer “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” seems strangely different that the rest of the album, but its soft piano and foreboding lyrics conclude the album on an easy but dramatic note.

Sound of Silver isn’t short on epic tracks either, and the effort here tops songs like “Beat Connection” and “Losing My Edge” from the last album. “Us V Them” is at eight and a half minutes the longest track on the album, and is an exhausting, dancey number that evolves constantly above a catchy melody that again brings visions of David Byrne to mind. The title track adds several musical elements together, combining trippy synth with bongo drumming and monotone, almost Gregorian vocals as Murphy speaks somewhat silly lyrics “Makes you want to feel like a teenager/ Until you remember the feelings of/ A real life emotional teenager/ Then you think again” through the chorus. In all seriousness, Murphy could be singing about Big Bird and the song would still be fascinating simply due to its impressive combination of musical elements.

As a whole, Sound of Silver is a massive musical accomplishment. If Echoes defined perfection of the ill-fated dance-punk genre, then so this album defines the perfect dance-pop album. Without a single weak track, this record seems likely for a long shelf-life, and its innovation merits it deserving of a special place in music history.

Of Montreal/ Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, 8.9/10

What a delightfully diverse and well-made album this is. I haven’t heard any of Of Montreal’s previous work, but the combination of so many influences here allow each track to stand alone due to its own intrigue. The album is lyrically dark, but benefits from its unique style and comes off on the whole as rocky and incredibly interesting musically, complete with probably the most eye-catching album title in recent memory.

“Suffer For Fashion” gets the album off to an upbeat, well-disguised cheery start behind circus-like Atari keyboards and a catchy melody. The poppy, tons-of-fun “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethan Curse” follows in the same style complete with seventh-inning-stretch organ and synthesized percussion. Slow grooves like “Gronlandic Edit” and “Faberge Falls For Shuggie” keep the album moving along smoothly, the latter adding eerie violin notes and playful, high-octave vocals, and should provide great background party music for years to come. Beatles influence seems present throughout, and one has to wonder what John Lennon would think of “A Sentence of Sorts In Kongsvinger”, which sounds like what I imagine the Fab Four might have evolved into had they survived together into the disco era.

The relative fun stops with the devastating album centerpiece and masterpiece “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal”, a twelve minute epic filled with pain in its universal and incredibly real lyrics. Leadman Kevin Barnes moans perfectly simple lines such as “How can I explain/ I need you here/ But not here too” and “It’s like we weren’t made for this world/ Although I really wouldn’t want to meet someone/ Who was.” This is the type of song that you hear in the morning and can’t get out of your head until you fall asleep many hours later, and it haunts you beautifully all the while. This is easily my favorite song of 2007 so far, and the moment when the background harmony comes in after Barnes shreiks “The mousy girl screams ‘violence, violence!/ She gets hysterical!” is as emotionally powerful as anything I’ve ever heard.

Tracks like “Labyrinthian Pomp” add additional complexity by combining stop and go elements of synthy-pop with an atmospheric, Pink-Floyd-esque coda. We witness more Beatles influence on “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider”, while Barnes confidently asserts his desire for a woman with “soul power.” Meanwhile, highlight track “She’s A Rejector” sounds like a combination of a Franz Ferdinand guitar riff and vocals from The Rapture, and although shockingly different from the rest of the album is perfectly placed near the album’s conclusion. This track really rocks, yet carries a tone of sadness all the while.

Closer “We Were Born The Mutants Again With Leafling” lets us down pleasantly as a bittersweet but dancey piece (love these long, meaningless but creative titles right? Take that, Sufjan!) Overall, this is an incredibly interesting album that while sounding upbeat for the most part is actually upon repeated listens a dark album channeling deep inner pain. I suppose the combination of those two things make it all the more of an interesting listen.

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