Tag Archives: Matador

Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit

Belle and Sebastian - The Life PursuitBelle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit (Matador)

For better or for worse, the Belle & Sebastian of your older sibling’s college days are long gone. The elegant lo-fi tweeisms have given way under an avalanche of sugary-sweet power pop. Take the blind test, and you could easily mistake The Life Pursuit for a New Pornographers album.

Not even the group’s previous release, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, can prepare listeners for what The Life Pursuit offers. Stuart Murdoch has proven his worth as a songwriter in the past, and on Waitress he began to adapt his skills into new terrain for the Scottish group.

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Cat Power – The Greatest

Cat Power - The GreatestCat PowerThe Greatest (Matador)

You don’t need to know anything about Chan Marshall’s antics—her breakdown on stage in New York seven years ago, her angry and defensive interview with Pitchfork, etc—to know what kind of stability she has. One needs only to listen to her catalog, a collection of melancholic and minimalist folk. In all of her works, specifically of late, albums took that base and incorporated other essences—lounge piano, jazz, sharp guitar patterns. The Greatest, her seventh record and fifth for Matador, finds Marshall returning home.

Featuring famed Hi Records studio musicians Teenie and Flick Hodges and a host of other acclaimed players from the Golden Memphis era, The Greatest seductively saunters through a smoky bar. Marshall’s songs retain their intimacy and discreetness, and are now textured with Memphis horns and inebriated string arrangements.

It’s untrue that music has to be “cinematic” to evoke imagery—The Greatest is all sepia-toned tumbleweed depression and whiskey sours. A slow piano arrangement opens the album on the title track before an ethereal wave of back-tracked guitar inconspicuously rolls in. Soon, Marshall begins her croon of lost dreams and regret. This subject matter is inherent in all of her works, but is encapsulated in the album’s first line: “Once I wanted to be / The greatest…” (mp3). A chorus of background vocals eerily overlap the last two words, but Marshall tempers the sadness of the entire album with a romantic sensibility. Depression without hope is just sad—Marshall remains wistful despite the austere surface, this adds the depth and quixotic fancy that prevents her music from falling into the same boring cry-a-thon territory of, say, Beck’s Sea Change.

Marshall’s voice is undeniably original—weak, fragile, and hazy with a brassy timbre and drawl to match her roots. The arrangements behind it are reminiscent of the idiosyncrasies of classic Al Green, pared down and slowed to match Marshall’s style. The album, as such, plays out like a singer performing lost Stax classics in a dim lounge. This makes sense—the album was recorded at Stax alternate studio Ardent, where Big Star and Dylan have also recorded.

The influx of creativity in modern music has caused artists to be nomadic in style and substance—career arcs bear more resemblance to sine waves than an actual arc. So it’s refreshing that some people remain constant and consistent. Like the rest of her material, The Greatest is sturdy and unfailing. Predictability isn’t necessarily a negative quality—there is comfort in knowing what to expect from a Cat Power album 11 years into her career, and yet the formula isn’t tired. Especially after 2005, which saw a lack of new material from familiar artists in favor of up-and-comers, it’s nice to open the new year with something equally new and old from one of our favorite songwriters.

Stephen Malkmus – Face the Truth

Stephen MalkmusFace the Truth (Matador)

What’s it like to face the truth with Stephen Malkmus? Unsurprisingly, it’s not a straightforward experience. There’s little heart-baring on his new cd, but there is a grab-bag of cryptic, prankish lyrics set to catchy melodies that, as usual, have more to offer than they seem to at first.

There’s a certain disappointment, though, in listening to a collection of songs called Face the Truth and finding them as nonchalantly disengaged as ever. As soon the elegant ellipse seems to momentarily reveal vulnerability, singing “Now I need some help to find out what I feel” (“It Kills”), he then immediately adds: “It kills the time.” Whew! How much commitment can one man take?

You might miss the emotional risk-taking, but you also can’t resist the beats and melodies on Face the Truth. I had it on my headphones on my way in to work this morning and was nodding, harmonizing and air-drumming along for most of the way. Malkmus seems endlessly inventive (though “Post Paint Boy” sounds like “Bring on the Major Leagues,” I did notice) in creating heart-stoppingly lovely melodies, like the hymn-like choral beauty of “Loud Cloud Crowd” and the gorgeous “Freeze the Saints.” The album is tender, pretty, catchy, even joyful – it just isn’t primal.

I want him to be more primal. When Malkmus bid good night to the rock and roll era on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, he did so in a song that escalated into absolutely killer passion. Where is that passion now?

That’s some of the problem of the aging rocker: what do you say about growing stability, contentment, a good relationship? Paul Westerberg stumbled with this subject matter, writing some honest but boring odes to domestic life. Malkmus hasn’t succumbed to that entirely (in fact he writes a snappy number celebrating home cooking called “Mama” that proves domesticity can yield a good pop song), but there’s some of it on Face the Truth. “Help me languish here” feels like a rephrasing of “all that we want is a shady lane.” He puts this stuff forward with more rock urgency than some of his peers have, but the subject matter seems to be resting, embracing contentment – languishing.

Some would say he’s been languishing his whole career – never quite putting it all on the line. But there have been times when he screamed (like that awesome wail of “torture!” on Slanted and Enchanted) and sounded like he was pleading to the gods for meaning, substance, belief. Maybe he was more fully engaged by the specter of rootless, drug-addled youth in the landscape he inhabited in his early days with Pavement. He’s still writing great songs, but he no longer sounds haunted, possessed, as he did when he yelled in escalating volume: “They don’t need you anymore, little girl, little boy, little girl, little boy, aaggghhhhhhh!” – a wild scream that merged with one of the greatest, most impassioned guitar solos in rock.

It was also one of the greatest screams in rock. God knows what he was screaming about – maybe he was just celebrating the crest of the song, but the emotion was there. And that willingness to be in the moment and go fucking nuts is part of what makes Malkmus great. Getting older doesn’t have to mean you stop screaming. His work has always had an air of tossed-off brilliance, but now it feels like polite brilliance. That just can’t go on forever. Happy he may be, but the laconic smartass-indie-rocker surely can’t just offer us politeness for the rest of his career.

Download “Baby C’mon” courtesy of Matador.

Guided By Voices – Half Smiles Of The Decomposed

Guided By VoicesHalf Smiles Of The Decomposed (Matador)

Well, so long and thanks for all the fish. Bob Pollard closes the books with this album on Guided By Voices, and this is either a bitter-sweet farewell or long overdue exit depending on which camp you fall into. If you’re an indie snob purist, you’ll write this album off like every other one since Under The Bushes Under The Stars (or if you’re kind, Mag Earwhig). Slavish fan-boys (like me) will shrilly impose this album on all their long-suffering friends. But to the point: has Uncle Bob and his boys over-stayed their welcome? Well, ahem – maybe.

Like most of GBV’s post-lo-fi days, Half Smiles Of The Decomposed has its ups and downs. Yes, there’s filler; yes, there’s goodness. However, unlike recent albums like Earthquake Glue or Isolation Drills, there doesn’t seem to be any fruitless search for a hit. Their own early critical success has hemmed them into an indie circle-jerk; the mainstream can’t hear them, the critics are still pissed at them for Do The Collapse. Pollard realizes this, I think. Thus the reason for the breakup.

So how’s the album? Like I always say about recent GBV albums (Earthquake Glue is the exception—excellent for anybody): pick it up if you’re a fan. If you’re not, this won’t sway you. And wait for Pollard’s solo ouput. I have a feelng he’s saved some of the best stuff for Act 2.

MP3s available from Matador and gbv.com.

Interpol – Antics

InterpolAntics (Matador)

Interpol’s 2002 debut, Turn On The Bright Lights, was one of the year’s best albums. The moody, propulsive guitars and cryptic lyrics of the down-and-out four-piece propelled them into the limelight and critical acclaim. The question is, does their new album, Antics, rest on its laurels?

Antics begins with the sweet sounds of a Sunday organ on “Next Exit,” a plodding, slow-dance hymn about returning to a home that’s become strange place. The entire album seems to be treading awkwardly over old ground, specifically in the land of star-crossed romances. Lyrics like “Feast your eyes I’m the only one / control me console me / cause that’s just how it should be done” (“Narc”) and “The anatomy of kisses and a teacher who tries / who knows I will disappear” (“Take You On A Cruise”) make this a perfect album to play while sorting through yellowed love letters.

The bluntly love-addled lyrics may border on tacky, but Paul Banks’ vocals give them a nervy and self-conscious quality. Sprinkled throughout the album are new wave strings and bittersweet choral harmonizing.

While the album maintains Interpol’s signature taut sound—the drumplay of Sam Fogarino providing a bouncy punch, with Dan Kessler’s guitar skipping around Carlos Dengler’s meaty and relentless bass lines—the overall feel is more subdued than on Bright Lights. Antics lends itself more to quiet introspection. Interpol, while not exactly boldly going where no band has gone before (“A Time To Be So Small” is off of an early EP), certainly can’t be accused of making a cookie-cutter album.

Slick as they sound, Interpol has actually moved away from the frantic, high-speed gloss of their debut, going as far as to toy with feedback on several tracks, notably the delicious finale to “Public Pervert.” The only sore spot is the cheese of “Not Even Jail.”

Flying in the face of a sophomore bomb, these pretentious New York kids have clearly established that they know how to rock. Will this satisfy their swelling fan-base? All the cool kids think so, but the only reason Interpol has reached so many ears in the first place is because everyone and their scenester brother has picked up on the fact that NYC bands are a hot ticket.

It can be tough to sort through all the ultimately forgettable acts out there. But it’s safe to say that Interpol is doing justice to NYC. And who really cares about New York when you’re experiencing great music?

A.C. Newman – The Slow Wonder

A.C. NewmanThe Slow Wonder (Matador)

A.C. (Carl) Newman follows his fellow New Pornographer Dan Bejar with an excellent solo release that is sure to make many a critic’s year end top ten. Whereas Bejar put out the art album of the year with Destroyer (review), Newman has put out a power pop album that sounds much like Mass Romantic outtakes. Keep in mind; this isn’t a bad thing, as The Slow Wonder contains eleven songs that highlight how tremendous of a songwriter Newman is.

“Miracle Drug” (mp3) is so damn catchy that you fear Newman set you up for disappointment the rest of the way. However, the bouncing “Drink to Me, Babe, Then” (mp3) tops it with perfectly timed symbol crashes and hand claps. Each song stands out as a pop gem and deserves a paragraph of praise. “On the Table,” “Most of Us Prizefighters,” and “Secretarial” are reason enough to play The Slow Wonder over and over again.

Yet, Newman slows the tempo with faultless precision on “Come Crash” and “The Cloud Prayer.” Singing, “Once again, you’re a Godsend” on the former you can’t help but think this translates to the timing of the release of the album. Saving his best for the end Newman incorporates a cello of all instruments to turn “The Town Halo” into a song of the year candidate. And brings the listener to their knees with the tremendous closer “35 in the Shade.”

In what might become the Year of the Pornographer, The Slow Wonder is a half hour of concise and catchy power pop songs. You’ll find it hard to get through the entire album because of hitting repeat after each one.

MP3s via Matador.

Guided By Voices – Earthquake Glue

Guided By Voices – Earthquake Glue (Matador)

If you’re a die-hard skeptic of Guided By Voices, and wish that they’d make another Bee Thousand and quit riding the ‘wish we were popular’ horse they’ve been on for years, quit reading. And skip Earthquake Glue. The old lo-fi, frustrated-math-teacher days of GBV are long behind them and aren’t coming back. For their past few albums Bob Pollard and his boys have tried to point themselves in the direction of a hit, and it looks like this time they might have one.

Earthquake Glue is good solid rock, coated with that faux-Dada patina that Pollard has refined over the years. And it features some of Pollard’s best songwriting. At times it sounds like GBV is channeling some lost Who rock opera, as written by Marcel DuChamp. And that’s good.

And gone is the filler – this one is tight. Standout tracks include “My Kind Of Soldier,” a buoyant rocker that sounds amazing live, “Useless Inventions,” a brilliant take on the technology of modern life (and a seriously rocking tune), “The Best Of Jill Hives,” very close in spirit to “I Am A Scientist,” and “I’ll Replace You With Machines,” a warp-drive anthem with a catchy guitar core. This is great stuff – “Useless Inventions” is one of the best recent GBV songs I’ve heard, and deserves to be heard by everyone.

The rest of Earthquake Glue is almost as good. That GBV album you’ve been meaning to pick up for the last few years but never got around to buying? Make it this one.

You can stream the entire album, watch the “My Kind Of Soldier” video, and download the “I’ll Replace You With Machines” mp3 and the “My Kind Of Soldier” mp3.

The New Pornographers – Electric Version

The New PornographersElectric Version (Matador)

The Vancouver conglomeration (with Virginian chanteuse Neko Case as an added bonus) The New Pornographers are back with their second album for Matador, Electric Version, the follow up to 2000’s out-of-left-field killer Mass Romantic. The sound here is distinctly similar to what is on their debut, yet certain aspects of their game are even sharper. Forget about a sophomore slump, the Pornographers come out swingin’, and most shots are headed for the fence.

The so-called “supergroup” sounds more like an actual band on this one instead of reeking of collaboration as they did before. The songs are sharper and the melodies tighter, the production is better and the mood a little looser. The root elements from Mass Romantic are intact—Carl Newman still knows not only how to write a hook, but to play it to its max and Case’s voice soars heavenward—but with the improvements in the band, everything that was good on Mass Romantic now sounds even better.

Newman fills as much space with sound as possible—there is always a buzzing guitar, well-placed vocal harmonies or keyboards between all the cracks—yet the atmosphere remains spacious and breezy. To take the road that has been traveled constantly with these Pornographers, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson are the obvious references, but there are also shades of Todd Rundgren, The Kinks and Cheap Trick.

Electric Version features a sound so bright and lush, intelligent yet fun, that I can’t imagine anyone not liking it. Throw away all of your preconceptions about what music you can and can’t like and you’ll find yourself loving every minute here.

From the raucous sing-a-long “From Blown Speakers” to the more sedated “Loose Translation” to “Testament to Youth in Verse,” there isn’t a mistake to be found. Simply put: album of the summer.

You can download mp3s of “The New Face of Zero and One” and “The Laws Have Changed” from Matador.

Interpol – Turn On the Bright Lights

InterpolTurn On the Bright Lights (Matador)

When Magnet, the most respectable major American music magazine [ahem, in the “paper” world – ed.] chose Interpol for their April/May cover, I scoffed at the newsstand. Someone nearby asked me if I was okay. I shook my head. However, with that surprising discovery I chose to take another look at their debut album, Turn On the Bright Lights. That’s despite the fact that I’d seen them perform four times already. And that I owned a (forgotten) promo. I was surprised, after a few more listens, to find musical merit—plenty of it.

Repress, for a moment, the prevalent notions that you have of the band Interpol. Those ideas that they are fashion-obsessed musicians that wear their egos on well-tailored sleeves are correct. The ideas that they are a talentless Joy Division Redux with little musicality and less originality are not. The size of their collective ego is duly correspondent with the quality of the music that they create. Put aside your lingering doubts and give a listen to their album’s simplest song, musically-speaking. “NYC” is the lowest point that the band manages to reach in terms of mood (and likely spawned the countless comparisons to Joy Division). This track, though musically constricted, is the most indicative of Interpol’s artistic potential, when contrasted with the rest of the album. It radiates the type of synergy that comes along only when the members of the band choose to step back appropriately and highlight what is most important to the song, rather than themselves. In this case, it is the lyrics, secondarily the delivery of the vocals.

This is lead-singer Paul Banks at his most somber, yet the track is anything but monotonous or lethargic. No hints of imminent suicide are to be found. His voice, even in a studio recording is downright emotive, making “NYC” an unmistakable anthem of what can only be a male depression. The song is necessarily simple. From the other tracks, one would know that the guitarist (Dan Kessler), bassist (Carlos Dengler), and drummer (Sam Fogarino) have much more to offer. What makes this track—and ultimately, the album—work is that they leave the preacher at the pulpit to do his thing, supportive of his monologue.

Ultimately, I have more listening to do, as do the others who scoffed with me at that cover. Most will find something to appreciate about this band if they listen, be it Carlos Dengler’s proof that the bass has a place in rock or whatever else. It’s not as hard to hear as I had originally made it.

See for yourself—you can download mp3s of NYC and PDA from Matador.