Photograph by Will Govus

Two years ago, Atlanta, Georgia-based multi-instrumentalist Ernest Greene, going by the name Washed Out, released Life of Leisure. The EP was an admirable laptop-created debut for Greene, and he was widely acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the chillwave genre alongside like-minded Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick, Small Black’s Ryan Heyner and Josh Kolenik, and Teen Daze’s Teen Daze (who prefers to not go by his name). Now, signed to a major indie label and enjoying the true in-studio process it entails (including working with Ben Allen of Merriweather Post Pavilion and Halycon Digest fame), Washed Out has returned with Within and Without, one of the most infectious albums of the summer, and possibly 2011.

Aside from the advances in recording, which resulted in a more polished sophomore effort, it is the duality of Within and Without that makes it outshine other electronic acts that have the tendency to fall into a static motif. The upbeat tracks slowly flood your ears, while the more somber tracks leave you in a melancholy, yet appreciative state. Whether under the shine of the sun or the glow of streetlights, Within and Without’s rich electronic dreamscapes provide the perfect music for a drive this time of year. ‘Amor Fati’ is the epitome of a summer song. With its pulsating synth, a steady beat, and some of the most uplifting lyrics ever, the track encourages its listeners to understand that the world is theirs and that they can decide their own fate.

The attention paid to balance in the album is noteworthy. The opening of ‘Far Away’ sounds similar to a Chromatics song, but then morphs into the unfamiliar sound of cellos over a minimalistic bass that leaves your ears vulnerably and cautiously awaiting what’s next to come. Fortunately, lifting you out of that trance is the sunny disposition of ‘Before’, but before long you are placed right back into the darker corners of Washed Out’s repertoire with ‘You and I’.

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— , August 10, 2011    1 Comment

Photograph by Paul Phung

After receiving critical acclaim on their previous two albums, Kendal’s lusty pop crooners are back with their latest LP Smother. Although recognizable in style, it is still a departure from 2009’s Two Dancers as it is a slower, more sensual venture into erotic ballads for the four English blokes.

Aside from the first few moments of overbearingly disturbing vocals on opening track ‘Lion’s Share’ (did he just say “I take you in my mouth”?), Smother has a beautiful, haunting undertone that showcases the striking falsettos of vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, as well as the precision in the instrumentation of drummer Chris Talbot and guitarist/keyboardist Ben Little.  With lyrics that can vary between fitting and inappropriate eroticism, the album is clearly one of love, but whether it is optimistic or pessimistic is up for debate.  There is a continuous theme of guilt in Thorpe’s overtly sexual lyrics.  He sounds like a strikingly similar, though less creepy Antony Hegarty, and although the songs can be at times vaudevillian, it is a delight to listen to start to finish.

Never shying away from eccentricity, Wild Beasts have cited some new influences on Smother. A direct reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is made on the dreamy, heavily-synthed ‘Bed of Nails’ as Thorpe screams “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s aliiiiiiiiiiive” over alarming keyboards and warm propulsive guitars.  In recent interviews Thorpe even compared the band to the infamous monster, having “always felt like this odd creature that’s sort of hard to love”.

Adding to the ambiguous nature of the album, the daunting alarmclock-like keyboards and heavy drums on ‘Plaything’ blur the distinction between love and lust, as Thorpe’s breathy lyrics play on both emotions as he asks his new plaything to take off her clothes so he can do as he pleases.

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— , June 2, 2011    2 Comments

After a two-year hiatus – and a number of enjoyable side projects – Brooklyn art-rockers TV on the Radio are back with their newest collaborative effort: Nine Types of Light. Despite the break, the band members of TV on the Radio have kept busy. Aside from being tied to numerous other artists’ creative endeavours (Scarlett Johansson, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Red Hot’s Dark Was the Night among them), producer Dave Sitek released a solo album under the moniker Maximum Balloon, guitarist Kyp Malone focused on his Rain Machine solo project, and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe displayed his acting chops with Anne Hathaway in the sleeper hit Rachel Getting Married. Hiatus yes, but time-off? Definitely no.

The album is still clearly a Dave Sitek production, but it is noticeably different than previous efforts. Nine Types of Light sounds less distorted than Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, less aggressive than Return to Cookie Mountain, and slightly more refined than Dear Science. The songs are patient and lucid, showing definite growth in the band. With the addition of acoustic instruments – a first for TV on the Radio – and an emphasis on ballads, the band has once again trumped critics expectations and delivered an album that departs from their previous efforts, though maintains their consistency of creating new music without losing their core sound.

Album opener Second Song’ rotates between a speakers voice and a harmonized playful falsetto while Adebimpe’s lyrics add impassioned meaning to a song rich with brass instruments. Interestingly, ‘Second Song’ is a seamless continuation of ‘Lover’s Day’, the last song on Dear Science. Where one album ends, the other begins. It is seldom that we hear a band pay such homage to their earlier work. On ‘Keep Your Heart’, over funk guitars, synthesizers, and a steady drum line from drummer Jaleel Bunton, Kyp Malone’s drunk-like voice croons “If the world falls apart, I’m gonna keep your heart”. The opening pianos on ‘Killer Crane’ are somewhat similar to those on Dear Science’s ‘Family Tree’, but Adebimpe’s voice is far more uplifting as he sings, “And the moonlight steals the sound, I could leave suddenly unafraid.” Slowly but surely, the sound of an acoustic guitar sneaks in, followed by deep strings, piano, and a twang of banjo to complete the set. With its dark, sexy melody, ‘Will Do’ acts as a buffer zone between the two halves of the album: one heavily focused on ballads, the other showing off TV on the Radio’s angrier side.

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— , May 7, 2011    Comments Off on TV on the Radio: Nine Types of Light

Photograph by Sean Pecknold

After an outstanding EP, a near-perfect debut album, and ventures into solo territory, Seattle folk troubadours Fleet Foxes have returned with yet another laudable contribution to folk music. The sextet’s sophomore release Helplessness Blues is a beautifully made parade of songs that have successfully avoided the sophomore slump with an album that has its roots in folk and baroque pop.

After their debut album, the boys in Fleet Foxes kept themselves busy. Drummer J. Tillman released a substantial amount of solo albums, while frontman Robin Pecknold focused on solo efforts with White Antelope and Rainbow Fang, a project with his manger/sister Aja. It has been almost three years since the group released new material, but it was well worth the wait. Helplessness Blues – although similar in sound to their previous release – is another perfectly executed effort. With the addition of multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson, the multi-faceted Helplessness Blues has moments of serenity, which are paired nicely with the excitement of their louder songs.

Opening the album is ‘Montezuma’, which is a beautiful song, but the presence of pessimism and oppression is evident as Pecknold sings, “Oh man what I used to be, Montezuma to Tripoli.” Montezuma was the Aztec Emperor captured by the Spanish Conquistadors and Tripoli, Libya is a city that has throughout history been subjected to foreign invading customs forced upon their existing culture.

The title track ‘Helplessness Blues’ starts soft and quiet as Pecknold’s truly introspective and heartfelt lyrics lead the Foxes into a mandolin-heavy love song, that shifts again into a well-orchestrated resolution that includes a delectable sound omitting from Skylar Skjelset’s guitar.

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— , April 12, 2011    Comments Off on Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues