2013 End-Of-Year Album Review Dump
Posted 11/28/2013 by cal
Representatives from record labels and PR firms (and Swatty) are constantly giving me new music. It's not as though I'm legally obligated to review any of it, but there's this nagging voice in my head that says 'You're listening to music you didn't pay for. You really should write about it.' I'm resolved to be more timely and judicious about this process in 2014, but for now, here are mini-reviews of a crap-ton of albums from 2013 that I didn't buy (not yet, anyway), complete with mp3s. Read, give a listen, and maybe you'll find something you want to explore further.
The 4onthefloor, Spirit Of Minneapolis ... On "Enough", the second track on Spirit Of Minneapolis, Gabriel Douglas sings, "There's too much music in this world/Nothing we haven't already heard". He's obviously trying to preempt my accusation that The 4onthefloor is the most unoriginal band I've heard in ages, but he has failed. "There's too much guns in the world", he goes on; I agree with the sentiment, but my English degree cringes. "Half of them cocked to defend my girl", he then stammers. Even if he's drunk, this line...it makes no sense at all. Perhaps he was drunk, trying to make his Jim Morrison impersonation all the more authentic? He actually has a pretty powerful voice, but as evidenced most plainly on tracks like "Engine No. 4" and "Toast To The Land Of 10,000 Lakes", he has no control over it whatsoever. His guitar player and drummer are similarly incompetent; rhythmic mistakes abound, and that's to say nothing of the painfully generic blues-rock riffs. These guys were clearly signed by a Minnesotan out of sheer state pride, and although they've got a lot a heart and surely some potential, this album sounds like middle-schoolers in a basement.
Bad Cop, Light On EP ... Straight indie rock, no chaser. Bits of garage and punk attitude, fairly catchy and yet essentially forgettable.
Batillus, Concrete Sustain ... Classic death/doom with musculature in all the right places. Screechy, tortured vocals rather than beefy growls, but downright beastly riffage and thick, plodding beats augmented tastefully by the occasional psychedelic flourish. Put together so well it's too engaging to be oppressive.
Bell X1, Chop Chop ... I think these guys are going for an Elbow-type thing, but the simplicity of the piano hooks never reaches universal beauty, the vocal melodies lilt without ever soaring, and lyrics like "These bulbs are the fluorescent kind/And no one looks good in this light" ("Careful What You Wish For") substitute awkward metaphors for insight. Even with the admittedly well-conceived horn parts and some lovely harmonies, the album is very pedestrian, which would be okay if it weren't so obviously stretching out for majesty. The final track, "The End Is Nigh", is actually very moving, but I still feel like these guys are too young to be sounding like old, out-of-touch nostalgia-mongers, and they've been doing this for too long to still be trying to work out a definitive sound.
Born Cages, The Sidelines EP ... Kind of reminiscent of The Go! Team, super happy anthemic shiny pulsing workout music. And that's a perfectly fine thing; these are somewhat more strict pop rock tunes, very ebullient with Edward Sharpeian singalong-baiting in "Don't Look Back" and "Metaphor" and sharp, well-designed guitar solos aplenty. Punchy little EP, nothing Earth-shattering but fun fun fun.
City Light, Memory Guide ... "We're all drawn to the dark", goes the opening track of this bubbly indie-pop record; singer Matt Shaw must be referring strictly to hue or time of day, because there's not a hint of darkness in the music. Both vocalists are strong contenders in the listlessness competition amongst the strong field of nondescript indie singers. Sure, there's some sad-sack imagery in "Wrecking Ball" and "Sweet Death" but the music is so resoundingly dull that it would take some Meat Loaf-caliber melodramatic singing to evoke any emotion. One of the least memorable albums of the year.
Crocodiles, Crimes Of Passion ... The expected trebly gauzy barrage of peppy, distorted garage pop. Kind of a sonic throwback to the druggy latter-heyday of Factory Records, Americanized and maybe quasi-shitgazed. There are some choice standalone gems ("Teardrop Guitar", "Virgin") and it surely translates great in a sweaty club, but the relentless midtempo dancey pace makes for a slightly undynamic listening experience, too monotonous as a whole to achieve its psychedelic goals.
Crystal Antlers, Nothing Is Real ... Pretty straightforward indie rock, speedy and reverby with a lot of post-punk touchstones in the drumming and howling guitars, and singer Jonny Bell has a very David Lowery-esque yelp going for him, except maybe even less hinged. It's not very scintillating stylistically, but there are some cool creepy guitar solos ("Pray") and when they really get chugging along like on "Paper Thin" it's pretty riveting stuff. Plus there's a song called "Licorice Pizza" so that's bonus points right there.
Disappears, Era ... This is what I'm talking about when I say Joy Division was a prototype that has since been made obsolete. The post-punk progenitors made music like Era possible, and if they'd had the means and ability, perhaps would've made music just like this. Disappears are weirder and more musically competent than Joy Division at its best, certainly not as haunting or downright disturbing but definitely creepy and dark. Like Liars with a stark Sonic Youth atmosphere and some mean industrial tendencies, but not without its humor, Era was almost instantly memorable and I can't seem to get tired of listening to it.
Ensemble Economique, Fever Logic ... Just when you thought goth was dead, right? Goth can't die you silly conformist! This album has it all: the icy keyboard textures, the stark minimalism, the whispery vocals, the synthesized thunder and ocean waves...and by golly, it works pretty well. You can't call it "darkwave", because if darkwave exists, then chillwave would have to exist and I can't live in that world. This would be a really good musical backdrop for eliciting spooky dreams as you drift off to sleep or a séance or some fairly nonthreatening vampire sex; it never gets truly disturbing but uneasy? Sure. The beats are unobtrusive, rarely danceable but the whole thing certainly captures the mood I assume it's going for--i.e., even when there's singing, you can imagine the goth kids from South Park reading poetry to it.
The Eye, Supremacy ... Straightforward, old-school lo-fi black metal. There's not a lot more to say. The new-agey synths in "The Land" and "The Purest Domination In Wisdom" spoil the mood a little (seriously, the last track, named after the band itself, is straight up Enya), but then again, I think I'm too desensitized to this particular black metal formula to be moved by it. Maybe if I deciphered the lyrics, but judging by the song titles, I highly doubt it. There's nothing really bad on the album, but also nothing that hasn't been done to death, and I realize that's half the point with this style, but, um, yeah.
The Intelligence, Everybody's Got It Easy But Me ... Okay, this opening track...counting to 44 over what sounds like a heat-damaged cassette of a Fisher-Price digital drumbeat, not overly impressive. But after a couple tracks you realize oh, they're going for kind of a novelty punk thing. It's certainly half-assed enough to be punk, but there's not really any attitude. "Evil Is Easy" is an enjoyable track, as is the half-acoustic goof "Dim Limelight", and there are others, but...look, I like this style, but you gotta either make me actually laugh or do something kind of surprising at some point or at least be really clever or the tunes just basically float in one ear and out the other, which is what this record keeps doing no matter how many times I listen to it. The only track that sticks with me in the long run is the fierce little barnburner "(They Found Me In The Back Of) The Galaxy", not really enough to make me want to tell anyone to listen to the record but hey.
La Machine, La Machine ... These people don't get the concept behind lo-fi. There needs to be some substance in either the songs themselves or the intent behind them for this formula to work. In order to be charmed by a labored lack of production values, I need to like SOMETHING about the music and/or lyrics. Hey, early Ween and Animal Collective were virtually unlistenable; maybe La Machine is onto something, but there's not even a minute of worthwhile music on this record. The musicianship of everyone but the bass player could best be described as incompetent. But that's what they knew I would say.
LX Sweat, City Of Sweat ... "It's...the afterparty", says a vocoded voice on the opening track of City Of Sweat, perhaps so as to excuse the perplexing undanceability of the proceedings despite the word "sweat" appearing in the album title and artist name. It's an intriguing collection of retroish electronic ambient tracks, with halting beats and low-complexity synths designed for chilling. But the Jan Hammer-aping formula with vocoder intrusion on every track gets extremely tiresome in the long run; even the afterparty DJ wants to be remembered, right? Or is this supposed to be sexytime music--hence "sweat"? I guess, if you just want something unobtrusive in the background so you won't have anything distracting you from the task at hand.
The Mallard, Finding Meaning In Deference ... Pure Joy Division worship, right down to the barely-competent drumming. Mild tunefulness and vocal harmonies improve somewhat on post-punk's Model A, and there's the occasional goth/horrorpunk/psychobilly flavor crystal, but the overall poor production quality makes the actual songs difficult to pay attention to. Also, the fact that they're mostly rambling and unsubstantial doesn't help, though there are certainly some decent little nuggets strewn throughout. Highest points awarded for the jangle-rocker "Decade", but seriously there's no discernible reason for the record to be so tinny and muffled. If they're trying to cop to some DIY aesthetic then they shouldn't be hiring PR people to send me their album. Then again, they broke up months ago, so maybe they had nothing to do with it.
Mean Lady, Love Now ... This actually reminds me a lot of Dirty Projectors now that they've stopped being weird and complex. The vocals aren't as distinctive--in fact, they're pretty lackadaisical--but the tunes are pretty and catchy and lilting and the harmonies are sweet. Musically, Mean Lady is trying to be quirky, and there are plenty of sounds that I can't put my finger on, weird percussion treatments and rambling melodic elements in the background that don't sound like any specific terrestrial instrument, but it all sounds a little forced. The songs don't stack up, the lyrics don't offer any excitement and even when they're clearly tackling emotional subjects Katie Dill's singing is devoid of emotion. "My love astounds me", she sings in "Mother Earth" as if love were a TV show and "astounds" meant "bores". Also, "Pony Ony O" is as bad as its title, i.e. makes me want to strangle people just thinking about it and it's nine fucking minutes long.
Midnight Juggernauts, Uncanny Valley ... Well, it's right up my alley...moody synthpop...I really like the evocative, deep vocal harmonies; they're kind of soothing and exciting at once...tracks like "Sugar And Bullets" and "Systematic" really cook; they give me that bittersweet yearning for the loneliness of the dancefloor...and the happy tunes like "Deep Blue Lines" are this close to pure bliss...but something's missing. I chalk it up mainly to the production. Everything's a little too sparse when it should be lush. I want to be overwhelmed by sound and this doesn't quite do it. There are some good beats, but some of the effects are a little chintzy. Send these tracks off to Nigel Godrich or Pharrell for remixing and you could have a real winner on your hands.
Mixhell, Spaces ... I'll be honest: When the press release touted this as the electronic music project of Igor Cavalera and his wife Laima Leyton, I was a bit...skeptical. Can you blame me for suspecting it was going to be some lame vanity project for a metal god past his prime, indulging his wife and getting a record deal based solely on his name? But I kind forgot about that connection when I started listening to it, actually. After the first track I was like 'okay, pretty straightforward EDM'. Then it's "Exit Wound" and I was like 'whoa, this is getting kind of industrial what with all the screaming and f-bombs'. And it continues in this fashion, adding various different dance elements and doing a pretty bangup job, actually. "The Way" is sensual synthpop. "Internal" is spacey neo-disco. "Once Again" is pure LCD Soundsystem worship. And so on. Nothing here will probably bowl you over but it's a very enjoyable listen and the dancefloor possibilities are endless. Never saw something like this coming from a Sepultura side project (not to mention Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato??), but in the end my hat's off.
Mood Rings, VPI Harmony ... Oh shit, moody synthpop with the WORD "Mood" in the band name? Wait, I guess this is more dreampop; those are guitars eh? I wouldn't call it gothic but there's a major Cure influence throughout. It's also got plenty of shimmery shoegaze elements; "Come Lay Down In Lined Arrangements" in particular smacks of Besnard Lakes. The ghostly vocals work most of the time, but at times the music is too wispy to make up the difference ("Promise Me Eternity"), and some of the more upbeat tracks ("Minor Slaloms", "Exorcised Painting") seem a bit contrived. But it's all worth it for the haunting, sexy "The Line" and the muted post-punk stomper "Hollow Dye" and the hazy fantasy "Get Lost"--hey, is that chillwave? DON'T TELL ANYBODY.
Mouth Of The Architect, Dawning ... It's kind of amazing the impact that Baroness has had on the whole sludge/post-metal world. You can certainly hear it in the gruff melodies and wickedly gratifying riffs of Dawning, but that's not a rip on MotA by any means. They maintain a perfect balance between their increasingly accessible sensibilities and their abrasive metal roots. The guttural harmonies of "Lullabye" (which is also how I think that word should be spelled) are kind of a revelation, and from there right through to the end it's a string of solid tunes, bordering on classic, actually, particularly the maniacal stop/start brutality of "Sharpen Your Axes" and the grand tribal meditation of "Patterns". It's as if MotA waited just long enough so that most of the generic bands could evaporate out of the oversaturated post-rock soup and remind us why we loved this shit in the first place.
Octo Octa, Between Two Selves ... This is an album that I really enjoy, and it also just makes me extremely thankful that Burial came along and made music like this feasible for others. It's not exactly Burial worship; it's not as desolate, the beats are more eclectic, and it's more synth-driven and vocal-oriented. But it is mostly quite dark, and mostly good, although some of the vocal samples are pretty generic ("Come Closer") and a few of the tracks ("Work Me", "Uneasy") are ultimately boring. It's a pretty cool afterparty chill record and I usually like it when a tune from it pops up on a shuffle.
The Octopus Project, Fever Forms ... I want to like this band more than I do. A few years back at Lollapalooza they played a freakish, fantastic noonish set of music that was probably the best first set of a festival day I've ever caught. But when you take that crazy, off-the-cuff weirdness and polish it up for an album, it never seems to move me. These compositions are great, upbeat, danceable post-rock, sort of like Dosh but without that indelible Dosh-ness that I still haven't put my finger on exactly--the quality that makes his stuff so unmistakable...but I digress. There's no danger audible on Fever Forms. It's not risky. It's joyous and expertly arranged and overtly powerful at times, but you never feel like it might fall apart at any minute, which is what made their live show so exciting. So as usual, this new album is great and has no effect on me at all.
Part Time, PDA ... I'd like to interview the person primarily responsible for this album. It would be a pretty quick interview, I'm guessing. My first question would be, "Are you a fan of Ariel Pink?" Then, if he said "Yes", I'd ask, "Then why would you shamelessly rip off his style for an entire album?" and see what happens. If he said "No", I'd just get up and walk out of the room.
Porcelain Raft, Permanent Signal ... I get the feeling this band wants to be Coldplay, but Mauro Remiddi's voice isn't palatable enough for prime time, so they're resigned to being forcibly indie. I mean, did they think no one would notice that "Only The Young" riff hiding in the background of "Night Birds"? To be fair, Remiddi definitely sings with emotion, and he's got some decent lyrics, too. This isn't a bad album by any means, but overall it's too slight to stand out.
Russian Tsarlag, Gagged In Boonesville ... Ummmmm......is it a goth band making fun of itself for an entire album? I say that because of the awesomely bad cover and because if these guys are for real then give me a break. I guess Alex Hungtai has made ultra-lo-fi music hip again with that excellent new Dirty Beaches album, but there's so much more substance to those songs than there is to anything on Gagged In Boonesville. Kids messing around with a tape recorder, basically.
Sapphire Slows, Allegoria ... At first you might think "shameless Grimes ripoff", but hold on. First of all, this chick (Kinuko Hiramatsu) actually is Asian, instead of just pretending to be. Secondly, she's been making music like this, along with a small community of likeminded bedroom artistes in Tokyo, for years. Not like I'm some expert on Japanese fringe electronic scenes, but there's this thing called the internet…Anyway, you do get a very isolated feeling from this music; it's populated by traces of blippy video-game grooves and spectral vocals amidst minimalist pops and thuds and dull ambience. It's kind of solitary and populist at once, Hiramatsu's voice often more of an abstract instrument than a conveyor of words, the beats shifting from infectious to desolate, but it's a very cohesive collection of tracks. That makes it a bit homogenous at times (particularly tracks 3-5) but also easy to get lost in, which is a good thing. Maybe Grimes is the Canadian Sapphire Slows?
Selebrities, Lovely Things ... More gloomy synthpop? It's almost as if some PR people are actually reading my blog and sending me every scrap of this stuff they can find just because I may have mentioned at some point that I find moody synthpop irresistible. But it has to be good, okay guys? Lovely Things isn't terrible; I dig the slightly-sexy banger "Lovers" and the almost-happy jangler "I Could Change", but the xx-worship of "You're Gone" and "Forged To Be Broken" is pretty lame, and the persistently maudlin lyrics get tedious after a while, especially given the unremarkable singing. On the whole the album isn't very interesting.
The Silent Comedy, Friends Divide EP ... What adjectives come to mind with this band's name? Quaint? Affable? Outmoded? I think they're going for a Ryan Adams-style of earthy, posh Americana, but it comes off like Wallflowers worship under suspicion of stalking Tom Petty. Catchy and vigorous for sure, but the chant/howl motif of "Light Of Day" (inspired by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club I'll wager) comes off as phony despite a great riff and vocal melody, and the lyrics overall are pretty hokey. It's not a bad little EP (highlighted by terrific vocal harmonies throughout and the inspired final track, "Ghosts"), but the average Charlie Chaplin short has a lot more depth.
Static Jacks, In Blue ... Very early-90s alt-rock, the boisterous kind rather than the angsty or depressed kind. Does it not sound dated because that kind of straightforward fuzzy guitar pop never quite went dormant, or because so little of early 90s non-Weezer alt-rock wasn't angsty or depressed? Still, it's not exactly refreshing; In Blue has some solid riffs, decent lyrics and a pleasant, inoffensive demeanor. It's utterly competent. But I don't know who's going to be moved by it.
Stripmall Architecture, Suburban Reverb ... Singer Rebecca Coseboom has a bit of a Shirley Manson thing going on, the main but not only reason you might be reminded of Garbage listening to Suburban Reverb, particularly the thick clubby groove of "We Are Not Cool" (which I love). Unfortunately, after a couple of alluring tunes to start off, the album floats off into space, getting duller as it goes. There are some cool ambient, vaguely psychedelic moments but they only get your hopes up for some kind of excitement further on that never arrives.
Upstairs Downstairs, Upstairs Downstairs ... This is basically Cowboy Junkies to my ears, except so sophisticated it comes off as ironic, so there's none of that sweet warmth; Tory Ford's voice is chilly and curt and honestly not pretty. It's not even very musical; it sounds like a recitation at best, a lecture at worst. And there's some powerful music going on around her, too--the achy, wistful twang of "Stolen Pen", the dynamic folk-post-rock of "Rotation" and "Ghost House"--yet Ford sounds so nonchalant it's as if she recorded her vocals alone in a vacuum and then said, "Make music that turns these into good songs." This could've been a pretty great album with someone else fronting the band.
Vhöl, Vhöl ... If I liked Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, I'd say that Vhöl is the metal equivalent. I'm just waiting with baited breath for someone to come along and tell me that some other band combined hardcore and black metal first, but I can't imagine anyone synthesizing the two styles more perfectly than this. Every time it comes through my headphones I want to start running around in a circle bashing into people with a toothy grin protruding from my face. Who saw this coming from a supergroup featuring members of Hammers Of Misfortune and Agalloch and YOB? It makes you feel like your blood is on fire.
Victory, Victory Is Music ... "I want to be a bad, bad man," sings Robert Fleming on the opening track of this album, essentially declaring defeat with each track from then on. I think he's going for a hip update of Elvis Costello basically; nerdy but soulful, kind of folky but with toes in the electronic and garage trends of the day…but also a bad, bad man; right. I can say he largely succeeds (apart from the bad, bad part), but unfortunately I kind of hate Elvis Costello and even he had more soul than this guy (not that Elvis Costello is dead, just that he used to sing with some soul but not any more), and occasionally a way with words that is not apparent on Victory Is Music. The songs all went from mildly catchy to sick-of-this in a very short time, and there's no poetry or palpable emotion in the lyrics. It's an extremely average collection of songs.
Violent Soho, Hungry Ghost ... Your basic textbook old-school emo, straight outta the 90s, bratty and catchy and heartfelt, no eye makeup required. You could accuse Hungry Ghost of being a retro exercise, which would be fair, but damn, these are some solid, memorable songs, the kind that should capture the imaginations of frustrated and lonely punk rock kids, if those kids are at all like kids were in the 90s. "Dope Calypso", "Lowbrow" and "OK Cathedral" are the kind of hopeless-dreamer nuggets that would've been irresistible to me even in my emo-is-killing-punk phase (though I wouldn't have let on of course), and when Violent Soho needs to get a little violent ("In The Aisle", "Gold Coast"), it's natural and effective. I don't know, are modern bands making music like this again? Even if this record's only good for a nostalgia kick, I'm in.
Voyeur, Little Death EP ... One of the most intriguing bundles of mp3s I received this year. Robert Seawell has a very distinctive voice, and even when he's feeding it through various effects it is haunting. Sure, a little reminiscent of a low-register Antony, but whether extravagant ("Little Death") or super minimalist ("String"), whether dark electronic ("Until The Day I Die") or just an acoustic guitar and piano ("Just Saying Goodbye"), the music is also extremely potent, and Seawell is simply captivating and obviously capable of multiple styles that you'd normally never find on one record. It's a little unfocused at times, but definitely a promising first effort. I know I'll be listening to this one for a while yet.
Western Medication, Painted World EP ... A super solid blast of clanging garage rock, highlighted by the instantly memorable title track, which is a standout song for the year. When it finishes up with the blistering "Problems In D.C." you're like 'Aw crap, that's it? But I want more!'
White Dove, The Hoss, The Candle ... WTF, this sounds just like that Upstairs Downstairs album, except the vocals are a lot better (kind of a Sharon Van Etten thing going on) and the music is much more boring. The lyrics make for some interesting if puzzling moments; "Come On In To Hell" is particularly odd, and "I'm The Air" is a pretty solid but almost nonsensical little tune. But the music on this album is so unsubstantial and unoriginal it's a stretch to call any of it "good".
Wild Party, All Nighter EP ... Tolerable exuberant tween rock? (In this case I'm extending the definition of "tween" to twentysomethings who act like children, blissfully unconcerned with the world around them.) So this is not as awful as fun. or shit like that, maybe like Imagine Dragons with more guitar? Ear candy for people who only like ear candy? They almost had me with the line from "Take My Advice" where he goes "Can't you tell I'm trying hard not to seem entranced by..." but then he says "relationships and girls" and I'm like, really? You're entranced not by anyone in particular but just relationships and girls in general? Did an algorithm write these lyrics?
YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, YT//ST ... Fine, call me a slacker; there are thirty-nine fucking little reviews here, and the fortieth I just don't quite have a handle on yet. It's not that I haven't listened to it; it's just that there's so much weird shit going on that I haven't decided yet if I like it. My first impression is always the weirder, the better, and on that count YT//ST is a visceral thrill for sure, plus of course I'm a sucker for anyone with ties to Bill Laswell and John Zorn, and you can certainly hear that madness creeping into this album. All I can say is 'Yes, for God's sake, listen to it if you like super crazy electronic/rock proggy weirdness', but it's gonna take a while longer before I can say whether I dig it and I gotta get this ridiculous list posted. Sue me.