Music Reviews- 2007 Second Quarter Wrapup

What a spring and summer it was for music. I can already say with certainty that the first half of this year has been better than all of last year from a musical standpoint. Here’s a (brief?) rundown on some of the albums that I consider essential for your 2007 collection.

The Twilight Sad/ Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, 8.7/10

The award for the best debut album of 2007 will almost certainly go to this borderline masterpiece from an innovative quartet from Glasgow, Scotland whose name seems to perfectly capture the essence of its music. I believed it enough to suggest playing the album at twilight after a day of drinking camping out at the Indy 500, although the two good friends of mine who were with me couldn’t even handle the intensity of the music and demanded “something more upbeat so we can stay awake.” Using a unique style by intertwining shoegazer guitar with a story-telling Scottish folk style, The Twilight Sad delivers a record with compelling lyrics and a sound all its own.

The album begins on a soft note with “Cold Days From the Birdhouse”, which starts sweetly and sadly before it picks up steam and builds into a startling crescendo. Lead singer James Graham is at his best on tracks like the amazing “That Summer, at Home I Had Become ” where his ability to oscillate between soft, deep vocals and angst-filled screams add powerful emotion to the songs. From the opening lyric, “Fourteen/ And you know/ I’m looking the wrong way” the song is immediately captivating, and it becomes even more so as it progresses to the nonchalantly delivered chorus lines of “The kids are on fire/ In the bedroom.” I can admit spending entire days unable to get this song out of my head.

Almost every song on this album uses a similar technique, starting slowly before building into a gut-wrenching climax that is usually accompanied by soaring shoegazer guitar work that mimics My Bloody Valentine. The rockier “Walking For Two Hours” begins immediately with atmospheric riffs before transforming into what might be the album’s most accessible track, while “Talking With Fireworks/ Here, It Never Snowed” rotates between a soft acoustic melody and distorted guitar lines that bring visions of Godspeed You Black Emperor.

Towards the end of the album, songs like “Mapped By What Surrounded Them” show the band at its darkest and most hopeless, as pounding drumbeats create the backdrop for Graham’s wailing vocals before the track surrenders into the abyss. A real highlight here is “And She Would Darken The Memory” which seems upbeat compared to its company, beginning with a bonga-drum beat and evolving into a pure masterpiece behind perhaps the prettiest music and vocal work on the album. After repeating the opening line several times softly early in the song, there is a moment where Graham absolutely shrieks the same line at a later point, and I can only imagine the hue of his face.

Make no mistake, this album is chalk-full of teen-angst. However, it’s conveyed so skillfully and tastefully that it is not only listenable, it’s almost addictive. Graham is truly a powerful vocalist, and my favorite parts of this album are the moments that seem to be the most emotional, which almost always occur when he is switching the tone of his vocals like the blink of an eye and often at surprising points. This isn’t music for the easy listener, but for those that enjoy music that conveys a lot of feeling and sounds incredibly good while doing so, I wouldn’t miss out on this one.

The Field/ From Here We Go Sublime, 8.6/10

I am not quite sure how to characterize the music of Axel Willner, the one man solo-artist responsible for The Field. At times, it seems like IDM. At others, simply settling for electronica or house could do. The term “trance” might even work better than either of those. In any event, all can agree that the music is based electronically and is entirely devoid of lyrics. And while I can’t completely come to grips with what exactly it is, the main point that can be taken away from it after even one listen is that it is surely one of the most dark, intense, ambient and sharply focused electronic records in recent memory.

Opener “Over the Ice” captures attention right off the bat with repetitive, syncopated techno percussion lines and subtle, computer-generated vowel chants of “E” and “I.” Indeed, this wouldn’t sound bad in a dance club, but it elevates well above that genre because of the somber, serious mood it creates. Later on the record, “Good Things End” further accentuates this tone, using even darker melodies above more repetitive rolling drum lines almost as if to say, “You’re going to stop doing whatever it is you are doing and pay attention to me right now.” Songs like these lead me, by definition, to lean towards “trance” as a descriptor.

Standout track “A Paw In My Face” builds slowly and evolves into one of the most melodic songs on the album, creating a downtempo, bittersweet tone perfect for background music at a gathering. Towards the end of the album, “Sun and Ice” creates a similar mood, and might have been more aptly placed as the closer. Faster songs like “The Little Heart Beats So Fast” and “Everday” work better as dance party tunes, although they aren’t without their own tones of seriousness. This is music that can be used to have fun, but that isn’t why it was created. From the atmospheric electronic melodies on epic “The Deal” to the eerie syncopations of “Mobilla”, From Here We Go Sublime stands true to its title, never wavering and never becoming the least bit disengaging.

Like all music of this style, the album has moments where its musical elements seem incredibly repetitive. What makes it ultimately succeed is the fact that we don’t really care and are sucked in to it by its uniquely addictive ambience. This is a credit to the tightly-wound arrangements of the songs, and if there was ever an electronic album to prove to naysayers that beats and melodies created by computers can be intensely musical, this could be the one. Meanwhile, turn off the lights, burn some candles, and be amazed.

Modest Mouse/ We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, 8.5/10

After 2004’s commercially successful Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Modest Mouse gets back to its roots and produces its best album since The Moon and Antarctica. The latest release from this long time indie-rock staple balances and combines intense emotion with the same fun, upbeat rockiness that made “Float On” instantly adored three summers ago. This time around, Modest Mouse takes it a step up, and what results is a consistent, if not incredibly complex album that works well as theme music for the summer of 2007.

Opener “March Into the Sea” starts with a bang as leadman Isaac Brock howls in his patented unintelligible dischord, and the song switches between this intensity and its softer, sweeter verses before building into an impressive crescendo. More fun but no less effective is the upbeat second track “Dashboard”, which speeds along above strings, quick guitar plucks and more Brock yelping and ultimately enters some innovative territory for the band. Only a couple of songs miss the mark for me, as the slower tracks “Parting of the Sensory” and “Little Motel” seem to drag on a bit with their gloom and kill the momentum that the rest of the album builds.

Overall, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank boats a number of great songs that simply can’t be dismissed. Some of my more passive favorites include the optimistic, folky guitar lines on “Missed the Boat”, the brilliant, upbeat simplicity of “We’ve Got Everything” and the driving, stomping guitars and percussion on the mischevious “Steam Engenious.”

However, what really separates this effort from their last album in my opinion is the concise delivery of the final three tracks, all of which are incredibly intense and among their best work to date. The eight-minute epic “Spitting Venom” begins with a simple acoustic guitar strum as Brock chants “Let it all drop” before building into heavier guitars and more of the yelping/ rapping vocal style that fans have come to adore and expect from Modest Mouse. Instead of stopping here though, the band launches into a beautifully subdued four-minute coda complete with horns, guitars and gentle percussion. These elements build and eventually combine perfectly to form what might be the most impressive musical arrangement on the album. Closer “Invisible” ends the album on a less certain but no less intense note behind catchy guitar riffs, heavy bass lines and Brock screaming helplessly. But as great as those two tracks are, if I’m forced to pick a favorite from this impressive collection of music, I’d have to go with the song in between the aforementioned two, which is the penultimate track “People As Places As People.” At its center is a rolling, grinding drum line which carries the track throughout along with catchy guitar riffs, but beneath are the insightfully circular lyrics “And the people you love/ But you didn’t quite know/ They’re the places that you wanted to go/ But we were the people that we wanted to know/ And we’re the places that we wanted to go.” I find this track in particular to be masterful.

The album seems long, but at only thirteen tracks we’ve certainly seen longer efforts from these guys. This time around, the tracks keep coming but for the most part, we welcome them with open ears. By continuing on the same path they’ve been following for over a decade now and by not trying too hard to change their uniquely identifiable sound, Modest Mouse has delivered another enjoyable collection of songs.

Panda Bear/ Person Pitch, 8.5/10

Noah Lennox, the man disguised as Panda Bear in the innovative post-rock duo Animal Collective, brings his own vision to his latest solo album, complete with harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys, but extending further than that. The beauty of this album is its ability to combine elements of those influences with Lennox’s unique tastes in dance music, pop and post-rock, eventually forming a record that is immensely layered and demonstrates amazing musical depth. For some, the inherent oddness of Lennox’s bedroom-mix feel musical vibe will make the record a difficult listen the first time through, but as the arrangements of the spot-on harmonies become evident, it is tough to deny that this is a huge musical accomplishment for a man who goes by the name of Panda Bear. In fact, I prefer this album to any of the Animal Collective’s work.

Opener “Comfy in Nautica” sounds like a campfire chant at first, but Lennox’s skillfully redundant melodies and Brian Wilson-esque vocals create a hypnotic element that sets a great tone right out of the gates. Second track “Take Pills” begins slowly with tambourine beats and feels almost as if was recorded underwater. The subdued beats and vocals take a quick turn halfway through the song, and gain an almost tropical vibe as the Panda Bear playfully pleads, “I don’t want for us to/ Take pills/Anymore/ Not that it’s bad/ Because we’re stronger and/ We don’t need them.” These first two tracks go quickly and demonstrate poppy elements that we aren’t used to from Animal Collective’s work.

This is not to say that the Person Pitch is not without its own share of drawn out songs that build for what seems like an eternity, but these are actually its greatest achievements. The devastating “Bros” combines incredibly refined melodies above synthesized drum loops initially, but builds into much more. The twelve-minute track evolves slowly but marvelously, intertwining elements from all across the musical spectrum, and concludes triumphantly with piano and horns crashing together with all of these to form a crescendo-based, melodic tune for the ages that certainly ranks among the best tracks of the year. “Bros” serves as a perfect centerpiece and is virtually untoppable, although the less accessible “Good Girl/ Carrots” certainly gives it a try. This track begins with dubby electronic notes beneath barely intelligible lyrics, but progresses into new territory with almost trip-hoppy beats before switching direction a third time into more melodic genius into its conclusion.

The album also gains complexity from softer, simpler tunes such as “I’m Not” and closer “Ponytail.” The latter lets the listener off easy in an almost lullaby-like fashion, while the former comes off with a more atmospheric, almost dream-like tone. An entire album of songs like these would be difficult to stay awake through, but placed between twelve-minute epics and beachy, campfire drum loops, they sound just right. On the whole, the album succeeds. The music isn’t intented to register on the surface level, which won’t make it an easy sale to the common ear. However, Person Pitch is a huge harmonic and electronic accomplishment and will be among the best albums of this year.

Battles/ Mirrored, 8.3/10

Mirrored probably won’t be my favorite debut album of the year, but it will certainly be in the running for the most original album I’ve heard in awhile, created by a band who may or may not possess one of the greatest names ever conceived. The music relies heavily on the increasing technological advances of lap-top software to amp-up its mechanical, almost robotic guitar rock, while still drawing noticable influence from the post-rock movement. For those expecting to hear anything else, Mirrored will come off sounding like only one thing: strange. For those ready to embrace a rapidly changing musical environment, there is a better word that might come to mind: fascinating.

Opener “Race: In” probably comes the closest to sounding like classic post-rock, drawing immediate similarities to Tortoise’s early work, while moving along in a repetitive manner above a whistling electronic melody before gradually breaking down into a series of chants. This leads into the epic second track “Atlas”, as tribal percussion initially draws us in beneath chants that sound like they could be coming from a machine of some sort before evolving into more chanting in an unintelligible baby-talk chorus. The music keeps rolling throughout the foot-stomping, somewhat eerie seven minute track.

If that wasn’t strange enough, “Ddiamond” waits next- but wow, have you ever heard music that sounds anything like this? Syncopated beats and feedback-heavy guitar lines provide cushioning for jumbled, nonsense vocals that come together with impressive tune, accompanied by some more whistling. After that, “Tonto” opens with a short, high-pitched guitar line that reminds me of the opening to Blur’s “Coffee and TV” before shifting to more post-rocky guitar over some of the best rolling bass on the album. This is one chill, groovy jam to be sure.

The diversity of the music is certainly a credit to the album, as the shorter track “Leyendecker” provides harder drumming, subtle piano keys and a more “in your face” sound, a complete contradiction to the previous track “Tonto”, but is no less brilliant. “Rainbow” follows as maybe the album’s most complex tune, albeit probably not the most musically satisfying. It starts slowly and curiously before abandoning reason and delving into a shocking cartoon-like quasi-breakdown, which actually sounds amazingly cool, for lack of a better word.

If the first six tracks are unshakable, which is a formidable argument, the album’s only downfall lies in its latter half, which fails to provide the same punch. It could be that our ears and brain are worn out trying to comprehend what we’ve already heard. “Bad Trails” moves along tediously, and this is amazingly one of the only tracks with lyrics that can be understood. “Race: Out” ends the album leaving a bit to be desired, but in between, the robotic “Snare Hanger” and the demented piano man guitar work on “Tij” pick up the slack. Battle your way through this album; you shall be rewarded!

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