2013 Mid-Year Album Roundup: Pop
Posted 06/28/2013 by cal
I work really well under deadlines, but when it comes to giving myself deadlines, maybe I'm not so good? So, the promo mp3s have been piling up, and I've been listening to them for months, and now I've finally got a whole assload of reviews ready to post. We'll kick things off with Pop Music, everyone's favorite genre. Read on for reviews of new albums by All Tiny Creatures, Body Language, Emma Louise, Isaac Delusion, Majical Cloudz, Moon King, Mozart's Sister, Royal Canoe and Tullycraft.
All Tiny Creatures, Dark Clock
I thought Animal Collective was going to be the huge influence on pop going forward from Merriweather Post Pavilion. Instead, it seems like Yeasayer is somehow more of a touchstone lately…which of course traces back to AC, but that’s another topic. There are some very Yeasayer-esque tunes on Dark Clock, and that's not a bad thing. "A Lone Sound" captures that bubbly, quirky, relentlessly catchy side, while "All Die Out" has the sonorous haunting/yearning harmonies and pulsing, synth-driven beats, and "The Book" is their sort of woozy robotic lurch. But there's a refreshing optimism that pervades this album, a pointed lack of irony that makes the effervescence more visceral. All Tiny Creatures are significantly more adventurous with their blending of sounds than on 2011’s Harbors, and the result isn’t just more diverse, it’s smoother, more memorable and more uplifting. The rough-hewn guitar bursts in "Impossible Season" are a nice surprise, as are the lush acoustic layers of "Reunion" (which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on All Hour Cymbals, incidentally). The only frustrating aspect is the vocals, which are generally distorted or washed out or buried in the mix, as if Thomas Wincek is ashamed of his own singing. While it certainly adds to the dreaminess of the album as a whole (and I realize it’s an intentional device; at least they’re significantly stronger than on Harbors), having the voice constantly veiled or pushed into the background becomes a kind of distraction in itself after a while. It sure seems like Wincek has something to say; it would be nice if he had the balls to belt it out every once in a while. Otherwise, this is a fantastic piece of work through and through.
Body Language, Grammar
It takes about one minute of listening to this album before the question arises: If this is feelgood dance music, why does Angelica Bess sound so bored? Her voice is completely devoid of inflection, belying the somewhat infectious melodies and upbeat groove. But it only takes another minute or two for the answer to start becoming apparent: despite their ebullience, these beats ARE boring. They sound professional and utilize all the hip sounds and effects of today, but they are painfully unoriginal. Matthew Young has a significantly more expressive voice than Bess’s, but even he gets mired in the dull proceedings on lazy tracks like "I'm A Mess", and his Sting impersonation certainly doesn't have nearly enough soul to make a song like "What's The Point" (good question!) sound convincing--when he sings "I can't wait to getcha home", he must be talking about Chinese takeout or a new X-Box game. There is one semi-worthwhile track called "Lose My Head"; it's still very formulaic neo-disco and in the hands of more vigorous performers it could be so much better, but as is it stands out as the lone burst of enthusiasm and craftsmanship in an otherwise dreary collection of poorly-fabricated pop songs. For a group called Body Language, these people have all the sex appeal of a Hasbro assembly line.
Emma Louise, Vs. Head Vs. Heart
Yep, it's another breathy, waifish singer/songwriter, just what the world needed. Emma Louise may not have a distinctive voice, but she did write some good, haunting pop tunes for this debut album, any one of which might spark some memory of a past or current hurt or longing when it pops up on a shuffle, but when taken as a whole, Vs. Head Vs. Heart comes off as relentlessly mopey. It's not that all the tunes are depressing; tracks like "Atlas Eyes" and "Mirrors" are sprightly enough, and the lyrical bent is pretty neutral overall, concrete in terms of imagery and not whiny. It's just that the music, whether driven by acoustic guitar or simple beats and synth, never really varies from a slightly insistent middling tempo swathed in a minor-key haze. Eventually the uneasy dreamlike aura that was haunting at first becomes a major downer that even the relatively giddy little guitar cascades of "Freedom" can't break you out of. The album is certainly worth hearing; it’s even somewhat danceable when spread out as a bunch of down-tempo interludes. Just don't subject yourself to the whole thing at once unless you wanna be sedated.
Isaac Delusion, Early Morning EP
Moody European synthpop. I can't get enough. Early Morning is peppier than most of the stuff I like, but it's got that wistful quality that makes me yearn for...something, probably late-night clubs in Galway circa 1997 when I first discovered I enjoyed dancing. The French duo known as Isaac Delusion brings a varied mixture of samples together but keeps the sound remarkably chill and uncomplicated; they’re particularly adept with bits of female voice and L.’s own pleasant but unpredictable harmonies (I gave up trying to find any actual names; L. & J. are all I could find, and if they wanna remain mysterious, fine by me.). The standout track on this EP is "Sand Castle"; the way it develops from a lonely picked acoustic guitar into a kinetic rush of beats and bleeps and then recedes back into a hush is a true masterpiece of musical arrangement. It may be a somewhat fluffy record overall but it's very promising.
Majical Cloudz, Impersonator
If you don’t have some real WOW moments listening to Impersonator, I don’t get you. The debut by Majical Cloudz is beautiful, desolate music and emotionally naked singing with no chance of subterfuge. Like, all it even takes is the title "I Do Sing About You"--imagine the person who this song is about!--but the lyrics are such a blatant expression of the joy and pain of love, leaving nothing to question but still either your memory or your imagination goes flush with the feelings he's describing. It's not even poetry, it's more like an EKG, with all the implications laid bare. (For poetry, see “Bugs Don’t Buzz”: "Bugs don't buzz when their time approaches/We'll be just like the roaches, my love") When Devon Welsh sings "If this is all that I have/If this song is the last thing I do/I feel so good/That I sang it", he doesn't scream it; it's barely more than a statement, but it's chilling, as is this entire meditation on the end of life, and you believe him to the core of your own being. Of course, when he sings "I don't think about dying alone" in "Silver Rings" you totally don’t believe him; it's a very moving unreliable-narrator moment. His enunciation of the word "illusion" in the song by that name is so bitter I feel my headphones seethe. To get a more barren wasteland of electronic music you'd basically have to hit up Burial. Welsh's way of emoting is a strange inflection here or a slight increase in volume there; he's putting on a clinic in how to bare your soul without melodrama, how to evoke extremes of emotions just with words and quiet intensity. I can't even put my finger on how he does it, but this record is stunning almost from start to finish.
Moon King, Obsession II EP
Very interesting little record here; dreampop punctuated by punchy guitar riffage and jangly rock interludes, has this been done before? I can't think of an example of this specific combination, which is reason enough to check out these 22 minutes of music at least once. Not sure the songs quite stack up, and the production is a little thin, but the sound is fantastic. The first track, "Violence", sets you off with a rush of energy that's never quite matched in the remaining tunes, but they're all pretty solid. Obsession II makes me hopeful for extreme coolness when this duo puts out a full-length, maybe.
Mozart's Sister, Hello EP
For one thing, there was already a band called Shakespeares Sister, so that ship basically sailed to we-get-it island already. For another thing, the song you wrote exhaustively explaining what you're getting at with the band name is fucking terrible; I so wish I could unhear those "goo goo ga goo"s, and like I mentioned, WE GET IT. Then comes the second track, and I realize you're actually going for like an R&B type thing, eh? I've been sent plenty of promo mp3s that featured worse singers, I admit, but are you seriously singing "Can I get on ya" in that whiny pretend-soul affectation? I basically say that 'cause you're back to (not-)cute white chick voice on the next track. You know, the one where you spend half your time just talking while the music does basically nothing musical either? And then came that nightmarish Grimes impersonation at the end, which I thought I heard basically continue in a slightly toned-down fashion on the next track but I could barely tell because I was dry-heaving over the waste basket. Luckily, that was the last track, phew. *wipes mouth*
*Epilogue* It turns out that Grimes is a fan of these people, sort of like if Eddie Vedder was a Creed fan. Admittedly, the music in that video is way better than anything on this EP, though it still pretty much sucks. My love/hate relationship with Grimes continues.
Royal Canoe, Today We’re Believers
Jeepers, I’m getting a lot of Canadian music in my inbox this year. Another album that works better as an occasional shuffle surprise, Today We're Believers is a virtually even split between Vampire Weekend before it got all adventurous and Yeasayer on its most recent album. It's so hectic you want to prescribe it some Xanax, but so bubbly you want to run over its dog. Yet in the right frame of mind, "Just Enough", "Button Fumbler", "Show Me Your Eyes" and "Birthday" go down nice and smooth and serve as real pickmeups. None of the songs are really bad; they're mostly ebullient fluff with a few slightly mellower but still buoyant drifters, engineered for short attention spans, always ambushing the brain with some new gimmick or additive. The problem is that the gimmicks aren't fresh, even if they're not quite played out yet, and the aforementioned artists have already done this sort of thing better, and even those albums weren't all that great. When there are so many special effects going, even if the melodies are good (as Royal Canoes' occasionally are), we can barely pay attention to them. There are two instances on this album when the power of the song rises above the distractions: "Nightcrawlin", a vocoded groove that builds to a sublime synth rush with impassioned vocals, and "If I Had A House", which closes the album with a gnarly gush of genuine angst. A little more of that early on could've pushed this record from decent to good or even great, but I'd still recommend giving this thing a few spins if eclectic pop is up your alley.
Tullycraft, Lost In Light Rotation
There's only enough room on this continent for one smartass fake-British ironically jaded pop artist that sounds like Destroyer, so even though Tullycraft has been doing this shit for two decades and obviously singer Sean Tollefson isn't actually mimicking Dan Bejar and can't be blamed for sounding like that, this Lost In Light Rotation record isn't going to be in rotation at my house any more once I finish this review. Seriously, these songs aren't "DIY"; they're fucking kids' stuff, like even if this were Tullycraft's first release I'd be like 'yeah, I doubt this band has much of a future.' If these hacks are the godfathers of twee, no wonder I fucking hate twee. I'd rather listen to a Belle And Sebastian album or get poked in the neck by a four-year-old for an hour than listen crap like this. It's the perfect example of the justification of bad singing and musicianship (Don't get me started on the pompously asinine lyrics--and I thought Bon Iver's were bad.) (Okay, fine, how does this strike you: "Standing still, toes on the line/Your codependency relationship affords you the time [mmm-bop, bop bop, mmm-bop, ba-dop]/The Tarrytown bell doesn't ring any more/A polished slogan reads a punk, love is finally lost/Mistakes and letters tossed/You're standing with your ankles crossed") because IT'S CATCHY and intentionally half-assed . Hey look, I INTENTIONALLY took a crap on your breakfast; DOESN'T IT SMELL DELICIOUS?