The problem with Har Mar Superstar’s new album, The Handler, is that it fails horribly in its attempt to be sexy and is offensive in how limp the beats and lyrics are. “Body Request” is the most uninviting call to the dance floor I’ve ever heard. “DUI” (mp3) uses beats that sound like LFO’s “Summer Girls,” a song that can make people hate summer. Karen O shows up for “Cut Me Up,” but it only results in me longing for the days when I would kiss the television screen during the “Maps” video and increases my hate of Har Mar. Out of 12 songs on the album, this is the only shining moment. “Back the Camel Up” has the most appealing beats, yet gets ruined by the lyrics, “Jump, jump, spit. C’mon let me back my camel up.” I don’t want to hear about how this guy has written songs for J-Lo. Even the chart topping, booty shaking, multi-marrying honey would turn down drippy R&B trash like “Alone Again.”
Various – Old Enough To Know Better: 15 Years of Merge (Merge)
As if North Carolina based Merge Records hasn’t done enough for its fans over the last 15 years. It has released albums from Superchunk, Spoon, Destroyer and Neutral Milk Hotel. Now it drops a 3-disc compilation on us, Old Enough To Know Better! The first two come loaded with Merge classics. The third is filled with unreleased rarities. Listening to this compilation is like having a best friend hand you a mix tape. They know exactly what gets your foot tapping.
Gorgeous pop songs like East River Pipe’s “Shiny Shiny Pimpmobile” and Portastatic’s “Noisy Night” (mp3) are mixed throughout the first disc. Then, there are complete rockers from Buzzcocks, Breadwinner, and emo band of the moment …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. Disc 2 shows how diverse the label artists have been. Imperial Teen’s terrific “Ivanka” (mp3) and M. Ward’s “Outta My Head” are standout moments of the entire compilation. There is even the wonderful country tune “Isolda” from Paul Burch. The rarities disc features a cover of “Decora” by Spoon. It also shows how underappreciated bands like Ladybug Transistor and Rosebuds are. Of course people will insist that there were better Clientele songs or Destroyer songs than what Merge offered. But it’s hard to find a legitimate misstep.
You will probably find in your circle of friends someone that can relate a high school or college story to when one of these songs were playing in the background. And it’s funny how such a small label can provide such grand feelings of nostalgia. But then, that’s why we love music so much. Merge is donating all proceeds to the Future of Music Coalition, which leads us to ask what more can we request from this label? Maybe 15 more years isn’t too much.
Is it dance music? Is it indie rock? Is it grime (a label used mostly by rock critic geeks)? How about it’s just really an amazing listen. That’s the best way to sum up the new album Last Exit, from the Junior Boys, an album that defies any attempt to categorize it. There are ten songs that could be blasted from club speakers, but remain seductive enough to be background music on a date.
The balance between Jeremy Greenspan’s delicate voice and the infectious beats are what make Last Exit such an impressive album. “Bellona” and “High Come Down” are fit to be played at club level decibels, but at the same time tender enough to be a soundtrack to cruising past flickering high rise lights at one in the morning. The album drips with sexy rhythms, airy vocals, and serene grooves. “Three Words” and “Teach Me How To Fight” are a bit too chilled for my liking, but they don’t derail the album.
Your dance acumen does not matter to the Junior Boys. Last Exit is less about getting down, and more about burrowing into your heart. As a listener, you will feel this album.
You can stream some Junior Boys tracks from the KIN site.
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.
This summer when the temperature creeps up toward 95° and the air conditioner isn’t cutting it, go sit on your porch and put on Devendra Banhart’s new album Rejoicing in the Hands. Each song is a folk music gem, and the combination of his tremendous guitar plucking and trembling voice provides an emotional weight to this album that few previous lo-fi recordings have come close to achieving.
“This is the Way” is a gentle song that sets up a sequence of warm and spellbinding tunes such as “The Body Breaks” and “Poughkeepsie.” Banhart attains breathtaking heights with “Will is My Friend” as his plucking and a quiet piano combine for a summer night under the stars soundtrack. He even manages to create a rare danceable moment with “This Beard is for Siobhan.” He lets it all out at the end of the song singing “A real good time, good time, a good time.”
Whether it is the dramatic “Fall,” the gorgeous “Todo Los Dolores,” or what equates to anthemic for Banhart, “Insect Eyes,” there is something for everyone on this album. I can’t think of a better album to put on late at night this summer and zone out. You will forget all about the humidity and become all the more aware of why the simple things are what make life worth living.
MP3 of “The Body Breaks” via Young God Records.
When not part-timing with indie super group The New Pornographers, Dan Bejar is busy fronting his band Destroyer. And for the fourth time this decade Destroyer has released an outstanding album with Your Blues. Sounding at times like David Bowie and or Roger Waters, Bejar stacks this album with lush pop sounds and gorgeous orchestrations that challenge and sooth the listener at the same time.
“Notorious Lightning” starts with an extended a cappella that evokes an image of a dramatic Bejar performing on Broadway under a single spotlight. Soon enough tremendous synth sounds spring up in the background and the song becomes a powerful epic. The song ends with Bejar screaming “AND SOMEONE’S GOT TO FALL BEFORE SOMEONE GOES FREE!” This could very well be the musical moment of 2004.
Bejar continues with a flare for the dramatic on “An Actor’s Revenge” where in the hands of anyone else a line like “The kids twist and shout until the womb fucking wrecks it” might fail horribly. On Your Blues though, it fits perfectly with the fine guitar playing, hand claps, and booming drums, and everything falls into place. The album hits a lull for a few songs towards the end, while “The Fox And The Hound” could have been left off altogether.
“What Road” is another beautiful few minutes of pop music. More gentle guitar strumming and orchestrations so delicate you can barely hear them at times, Bejar even manages to drop a Smiths reference before the sound builds into a gigantic close with the lyric “Yes, that’s right, I wanted you too.” There are moments when you’ll be mesmerized at the layers each individual song contains, and you’ll hear something new on each listen. Bejar’s lyrics are clever but can be heartbreaking. While three songs short of a perfect album, Your Blues is a necessary statement from one of today’s most promising voices.
History buffs will recall that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand marked the beginning of World War I. However, listeners who have recently heard the debut album by the Scottish band taking the same name will tell you Franz Ferdinand is a band that has released eleven songs complete with huge choruses, infectious guitar hooks, and forty minutes of ass-shaking good times.
Things get started with “Jacqueline,” which has lead singer Alex Kapronos lightly singing over acoustic guitar just prior to a bass menacingly kicking in and the entire band launching into an anthemic assault. The notion of ripping off your pinstripe suit and hitting the clubs in decadent partying is the mood for the remainder of the album as the chorus of “It’s always better on holiday / So much better on holiday / That’s why we only work when we need the money” will keep your foot tapping during long hours in the cubicle.
“Take Me Out” is an instant classic that starts as a laid back proposition to keep someone company until a minute into the song it totally changes pace with guitars and drums that would fit in any dancehall in the land. Even the most reserved bar hoppers are sure to have their hands above their heads as the emotion builds to a point where you can’t tell if Kapronos is on his knees begging for a shot or has completely buckled under the pressure and has resorted to self-loathing.
The band keeps welcoming the listener into their world of celebration with the “The Dark of the Matinee” which goes from the calm strumming and singing of being too cool for the scene before breaking into a frenetic chorus with swirling guitars and drums. It segues into the dark and brooding “Auf Achse” that falls somewhere in between an obsessive stalker or one that is not taking kindly to the idea they have just been dumped.
“This Fire” is sure to be a concert favorite with the band shouting out “We’re gonna burn this city!” and “Darts of Pleasure” (mp3) is an example of how the combination of driving dance rhythms and clever world play are going to be the trademark of Franz Ferdinand. “Michael” is flush with erotic lyrics and drumming. The line “So sexy / I’m sexy / So come and dance with me Michael” has the protagonist licking his lips for a chance to get closer to some of the boys moving on the dance floor.
Franz Ferdinand has released as exciting and promising a debut as you’re likely to hear in 2004. These are songs that are going to be in your head when you wake up, when you’re at work, and when you’re going out on a Saturday night. They are going to have you tapping your foot and shaking your ass and hitting the Play button over and over again. It’s at times derivative, sure. But that’s beside the point. You’ve got eleven songs that are going to increase your heart rate and make you turn up the volume belting out the lyrics. And you can’t really ask for more than that.
The Walkmen are taking no prisoners. Family, friends, and loved ones aren’t safe from the waves of guitar and vicious vocals that resonate throughout Bows and Arrows. The band is following up 2002’s Everyone that Pretended to Like Me is Gone with an album showing they are ready to do battle, but didn’t bring enough artillery to win the war.
“What’s In It For Me” is a return to the shimmering guitar that marked the debut and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s gravelly voice complains, “You never come over anymore,” before giving way to an avalanche of guitar. The song is little more than an extended intro that plods just a bit too long. They would have been wise to either cut it in half or do without it all together—if for no other reason than to get to the blitzkrieg that is “The Rat.” This is a song that can only be described as being behind the wheel of a car going downhill with no breaks. You stand no chance of surviving. The guitar work is relentless, and the drum strikes each time you think you might get a chance to catch your breath. It’s not until Leithauser sings, “When I used to go out I knew everyone I saw. Now I go out alone if I go out at all,” that you feel just how close to putting his fist through a wall he is.
“No Christmas While I’m Talking” completely halts the momentum and is a retread of the opening track. Certainly it’s hard to follow a song as brilliant as “The Rat,” but there are really no excuses for placing such a slow tempo song next. It’s not until “My Old Man” that the momentum has built again, and the band has their weapons drawn once more. Playing like the soundtrack to a family argument, the guitar and drum bring to mind the members of the family storming off to their rooms and slamming the doors: “I refuse to talk this out. ‘Cause I don’t need this now.”
“Thinking of a Dream I Had” delivers a driving drum that fails to quit even as the guitar takes brief breaks from another high-speed chord. The song balances an aggressive guitar with a sweet organ. “Bows and Arrows” is a mid tempo song that perfectly captures the feel of the album with the lyric, “Your head is bent out of shape, but your feet are on the ground,” capturing that uneasy feeling of coming out of a relationship positive you are a better person, but not entirely sure of how to go about picking up the pieces. And throughout that shimmering guitar is kicked up one more level denying you the ability to hang your head.
Bows and Arrows has moments of undeniable brilliance with songs that take you to the edge, but talk you out of jumping at the final moment. It’s just unfortunate that the Walkmen allow your heartbeat to slow on such a consistent basis.
Sometimes we expect too much from our favorite musicians. Songs: Ohia holds a special place in my CD changer. However, Jason Molina has opted to drop the name Songs: Ohia and release a solo album. No big deal. Well, he also decided to drop the backing band that unleashed a 45-minute assault of blues guitar driven and lyrically brilliant rock on Magnolia Electric Co in 2003. No big deal. The formula of just Molina and a guitar or piano worked wonders in 2002 on Didn’t It Rain. Unfortunately, Pyramid Electric Co does not produce the same hair-rising, soul-searching moments of Didn’t It Rain. And you won’t find a “Farewell Transmission” or “Just Be Simple Again,” two of the more transcendent moments from Magnolia Electric Co.
Instead, Molina has released an underwhelming sleeper, that is bookended by two dark and undeniably haunting songs. “Pyramid Electric Co.” leads this off with a deep ringing guitar chord and Molina sternly pronouncing “A sickness sank into the little one’s heart / mama said son / that’s just the cold / that’s the emptiness / it’s being alone in the dark.” The song fades out with the same guitar chord being fiercely struck over and over again resonating through your chest. It’s reminding you someone is not coming back. Their bones are turning to ash. This song is one of the most powerful album openers your ears will have to reckon with. His voice can barely be heard in the background chanting “Dark repetition.”
Right when you’re convinced it’s the same old Molina you are dealt two songs that are promising, but ultimately failures. “Red Comet Dust” comes and goes without ever developing into the contemplative star gazer that lyrics such as “I want to be true / like the solid earth” would have you believe. Rather, a piano key is struck slowly sounding more like the tightening of a vice grip around your head than an actual song. Molina puts more heart into “Division St. Girl,” but is only going through the motions. He presents some of his best lyrics, and reading over them it’s clear Molina is a poet with few, if any peers. Not until he lets loose with “It’s like we’ve landed on the enemy site / the other guys all quit / they left us with nothing when they split” are you reminded of how phenomenal this guy can be. Had this much urgency been placed in the entire song the listener would be reaching for the tissue box.
Secretly Canadian released Pyramid on vinyl, and the second highlight came when I got to flip to side 2. Only because side 1 became a thing of the past and it wouldn’t be a lot of hard work to find track 1 again. Yet, Molina presents us with “Honey, Watch Your Ass.” A promising title with a decent enough chord that tires after the first couple of minutes and brings about the unfortunate trend of side 2: Molina whispering. He’s given up singing his lyrics at this point but forces you to press your ear to the speaker. None more so than on “Song of the Road” which dares ask “You think this is hard work? You’ve never seen hard work.” Well, shit, Jay-Dog, you’ve never seen me listening to this album.
I’m not even going to comment on “Spectral Alphabet.” Whispering, a silly little guitar chord, blah blah blah. But then there is “Long Desert Train.” Hold this song close to your heart. Because it’s one of two things here that will allow you to believe this album is just a miscalculation. The whispering stops and the singing that brings goose bumps returns. Sure, it’s just Molina and a guitar for the seventh time in a row, but it’s really him this time. “I guess your pain never weakened / your cool blood started burning / scorching most of us in the flame.” He’s dead serious on “Long Desert Train” and each time it comes on I know he’s singing to me. Which is what has always made Molina so fascinating to listen to. You play his songs and think he’s been peering in on your life and knows how to turn your tragedies into complete heartbreakers.
So I’ll continue to wait for the next release. Hell, the last line Molina delivers is “You almost made it again.” And of course he’s talking to himself. Because the sad truth is there is no one else there to listen.
The Twilight Singers – Blackberry Belle (One Little Indian Us)
The Twilight Singers are keeping the mood going that they hit with their 2000 debut, Twilight. Greg Dulli and Co. drop eleven more songs on Blackberry Belle that will hit home with the after-hours party people.
A few piano notes open the album on “Martin Eden” with a mischievous Dulli suggesting, “Black out the windows / it’s party time.” The music is being held back from bursting through, keeping in touch with that feeling of leaving your apartment at ten at night with no plans and only a vague idea of where things are going.
A contender for song of the year is “Teenage Wristband.” This baby should be pumping from every car on the way to the party. The guitars, drums, piano, and Dulli’s singing don’t blow you away until the end of the song. It’s a constant building of momentum right before you hit that front door and see everybody drinking, dancing, and flirting. And with lines like, “She said-she said / you wanna go for a ride? / I got no more money to burn / and I’m gonna stay up all night,” how could you not be primed for a drink?
“The Killer” keeps a head-bobbing tempo that helps you look cool leaning up against a wall trying to pick up. It’s a low-key vibe for surveying the room, and once your eyes meet whoever it is you’ve been looking for, the song explodes with “Where should we go? / I know you know that I’m gonna need it.” The answer to the question is “Decatur St.,” a rocker that sounds like Black Love-era Afghan Whigs, about a guy on the prowl for a one nighter. It’s one of the high points of the album focusing on the game you’re playing with someone across the room, asking, “Do ya? Do ya? / Do ya wanna roll with me?”
The night, or at this point morning, progresses to the song “Feathers.” The Singers keep that funky guitar on full blast for at this point you should be nose to nose in the center of the room, hands on hips wondering if you’re going end up with a phone number. The music is dizzying in its ability to capture the feeling of being drunk at two in the morning and taking one more shot. Because at this point, who gives a shit? “Waving in the wind like feathers / feel you near me, disappearing / if you take, you better kill me.” Your partner sees her ride leaving and suddenly you’re alone realizing after all that alcohol, she wasn’t just dancing with you, but keeping you on your feet.
The ride home sucks. Your friends are laughing about the party and your head is skyward in the backseat drunk, tired, and certain that tonight was the one that got away. Dulli tries to ease your pain by having Mark Lanegan guest on the final track, “Number Nine.” It’s a sweet and lazy song that brings everything to a close. Dulli and Lanegan trade verses until the very end where they are dueling to gain the upper hand pleading, “Come on boy, don’t be such a baby.” It all ends in a swirl of guitar, violin, and a woman soulfully belting away in your ears. Your eyes are rolling in the back of your head and you cannot tell if you’re still dancing, or in the backseat, or home in bed. And the greatest part is you don’t even care.