Posted in Music on March 31st, 2011 by Tom

I had been recommended The Rural Alberta Advantage in the past, but it wasn’t until I gave ‘North Star’, off of their most recent album, Departing, a few listens that my interest was adequately piqued.

This album really caught me by surprise, mostly by how quickly I took to it, and how many times I’ve been able to listen to it without getting bored. We could start with the tiresome/requisite comparison of TRAA to the by-now-almost-legendary Neutral Milk Hotel project of Jeff Mangum, and while such an exercise is not without merit it was not my first association of the album.

What I was most reminded of was last year’s Sigh No More by Marcus Mumford and co. The two have a handful of stylistic elements in common, but more fundamental than that, Departing has a raw energy to it that I hadn’t heard since about this time last year. An example is in order:

[ mp3 ♫ ]

Tornado‘ starts off softly, with Nils Edenloff’s crooning vocals gently accompanying the timid guitar. Suddenly, however, a rumbling wall of percussion rolls in, and the pace picks up, Edenloff’s strengthen. By the time we get to the chorus, the song is barreling along with the momentum of a freight train, the lyrics suddenly soaring, the understated backing vocals providing the perfect counterpoint. At the start of the final section, we pause for another quiet section, before immediately being accelerated back into that chorus. It’s a rollercoaster of a song, and the fun scales with the volume.

So that’s one example, and one of my favorite songs which bolsters a really strong second half of the album. Departing actually starts with the slower ‘Two Loves’ and builds via ‘The Breakup’ to ‘Under the Knife’. The lattermost of these is another of my favorites for the bouncing rhythm and well-placed bell sounds halfway in that give it a neat texture.

The aforementioned ‘North Star’ is actually a bit of a black sheep in that it is low key and subdued, opting to wait to show it’s full hand until the last minute of the song, but even then it never really cuts loose like so much of the other material on this record. That said, it strikes a really sentimental tone, and serves the album well by providing a break from the action while still being interesting.

‘Stamp’ is basic love-lost track, but again the energy and drive, along with clever application of a limited number of musical ideas, take something that could be forgettable and make it impossible to ignore.

The other song I want to share is ‘Barnes’ Yard‘, a song whose lyrics are wholly incomprehensible to me for the most part, but is a terrific piece of music.

‘Barnes’ Yard’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

The wordplay here is elementary, but really fun in a less-is-more kinda way, and

We’re broken down lovers at the side of the road
We’re broken down lovers in the city of oil
There’s nothing going wrong in your empty home
There’s nothing going wrong and we’ll leave it alone

along with

Your brother’s in the basement doing ‘hot knives’

are a weird mixture of fun and poignant that I really enjoyed. To round out the entire thing, ‘Coldest Days’ and ‘Good Night’ are more subdued tracks that wind down the energy while still having some power of their own, especially the refrain on ‘Good Night’, which has an almost tormented element of sadness in the way the lyrics are barked out.

Though I wasn’t expecting to feel so strongly about Departing, it ended up being a sleeper hit that I haven’t been able to put down for the last two weeks.

The Rural Alberta Advantage – Departing

Author’s Note: I try not to let other reviews color my own, but CoS’s take on Departing was so off-base that I had to give my short rebuttal. They basically spend their entire writeup whining about how the record harps on the same handful of themes, and that now that Jeff Mangum is back, we should be far more critical of NMH-derivative work; they essentially postulate that this group just doesn’t cut it any more when the ‘real thing’ is out there.

These are two terrible reasons to discount the album. They completely ignore the passion and nuance of the work, and give far too little credit to the fact that, by their own admission, “it’s got the music down pat…” If you want fancy lyrics, buy a Modest Mouse record. If you want to listen to NMH, go for it. Live and let live; Departing is a great effort, and stands among my favorite music of 2011 so far.


The Universal Sigh

Posted in Music on March 29th, 2011 by Tom

Today Radiohead’s eclectic album release tie-in, an honest-to-god newsprinted copy of a one-off periodical titled The Universal Sigh, along with the CD copy of The King of Limbs, was released. Being lucky enough to be just a 15 minute train ride from one of two spots in Boston where it was being distributed, I took a break from school to make an afternoon of it.

Low and behold, as I approached the record store, two requisitely-cute hipster girls were waiting, complete with newspaper bags from old times, to hand me my copy of this bizarre “periodical.” A really cool part of the whole thing was that they snap a picture of you with the paper, and they’re all posted to the official ‘Universal Sigh’ page. I’m on the second page of the Boston (Newbury Street) location; try to guess which one I am! Hint: I am the boringest white guy.

The paper in question is a curiosity which doesn’t disappoint. There’s a lot of free-verse, poetry type stuff, as well as a few essays and pieces of artwork, and even some lyrics from ‘Morning Mr Magpie‘ My favorite weird thing is the center page has a ton of weird phrases, arranged in typographically interesting ways. I like it because I can’t help but hear it as read by the ‘Fitter, Happier’-Mac-voice-guy.

‘Morning Mr Magpie’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

My favorite essay is the last one, a Twilight Zone-esque post-apocalyptic piece by Stanley Donwood, who has done a lot of album artwork for Radiohead in the past. And speaking of the guy, when I went inside to actually buy the album Newbury Comics was doing some type of promotion where I got a print of a painting titled ‘Divided Wood’ by Donwood, inspired by King of Limbs. You can see it in the grainy photo I took of all my Radiohead loot at the top of this post.

I’m still trying to digest the album at this point. With most stuff, I don’t have qualms about punching up a few thoughts after 10-15 listens, but every single Radiohead album I’ve heard has needed to be processed, and that takes time. Even then, when I put something together in April, I doubt that will be the final word. It never is, with these guys.

While I was at the record store, I also picked up the new Broken Bells EP, and the most recent full-lengths from the Strokes and the Sounds, so it’ll be nice to have some new material in rotation.

The Universal Sigh


Best of 2010 Errata: New Medium

Posted in Music on March 24th, 2011 by Tom

So not to have an attitude about it or anything, but I didn’t really come upon anything on the multitude of 2010 lists that struck me as a huge oversight. That’s not to say that everyone’s lists looked like my own, far from it, in fact, but only that I didn’t see any of the really popular stuff that I’d missed completely, or had heard of and ignored.

That said, there was one 2010 review that I just never got around to writing, and I figured an errata entry a decent way to make amends (they also snagged spot 13 on best albums of the year, which is nothing to sneeze at).

Faded Paper Figures’ New Medium was actually a really great listen. Their previous album, Dynamo, had been my jam for most of the summer. Their current effort, with its bright synth and smooth vocals, got me through my first cold winter in Boston.

The sound has matured a little; so much of Dynamo was a feel-good record, so it’s nice to here the tone get a little darker in places. ‘Limelight’ as well as ‘When the Book Ends’ are welcome departures in this sense. Even still, FPF still knows how to play to their strengths with immanently danceable tracks like ‘Small Talk

‘Small Talk’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

It is to this record’s credit that virtually every song is as listenable as the next; there are no especially dull spots, making for a rock-solid 40 minutes of listening. The price you pay here, however, is that there aren’t really any stand-out tracks that leave the others in the dust. ‘Small Talk’ and the opening track ‘Invent Them All Again’ have a little bounce to them, but the only real exception to this, and in my opinion the gem of the album, is ‘Kodachrome Earth’.

‘Kodachrome Earth’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Aside from the fact that it’s the only song I’ve ever heard to make an honest lyrical stab at including the phrase “tesla coil”, the tune has this fantastic refrain combining a great musical idea and really beautiful lyrics to match:

We thought the whole world would begin
to finally see that it’s round round round
a tiny blue gem in the darkness gliding
(round round round)
borders and refugees barely surviving
(round round round)
civilizations and temperatures rising
(round round round)
Are we like gods or confused by the lightning?

The imagery of planet Earth as both ‘tiny’ and ‘gliding’ was really pretty to me, and the other lines say a lot in just a few words. The final track, the namesake of the album (which is almost unheard of placement, to my knowledge), is also a really solid anchor, which was the principal fault of New Medium‘s predecessor.

I was really pleased with how this album turned out. It sheds the dead weight of FPF’s debut, branches out from the band’s standard MO, all the while remaining exquisitely pleasant to listen to. Due to the new sound, these tracks likely won’t get snapped up for episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (Dynamo had three, count them, three!), but that’s alright. The band is still producing quality music that’s as gentle and insightful as it is fun, which is a rare niche to have filled.

Faded Paper Figures – New Medium



Posted in Music on March 21st, 2011 by Tom

White Lies, the heir apparent to the Joy Division Throne of moody new wave music, had a fantastic debut. Just a little less than two years ago I myself wrote a glowing review of To Lose My Life.

You must understand my sadness then as I’m forced to report from the front lines that this January’s Ritual was a bit of a misstep…

In all fairness, it’s not a bad record. I listened to it 10+ times before I moved it out of regular rotation. Unfortunately, in comparison to its predecessor, it leaves something to be desired.

“What’s so bad about it?” you might ask. The best I can do by way of an analogy is that nearly every track is like its own little Frankenstein; all the right pieces are there, and it looks like a complete song, but the musical parts don’t match too well.

Let’s start with the radio single, ‘Bigger Than Us’. The opening versus are really cool, with a pumping bass line and matching gloomy lyrics, but the chorus is Too Big, not to mention a little whiny. This strange phenomena of one great component and one blah component within the same song, which I’ve seldom witnessed elsewhere, is basically my problem with Ritual.

That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots, though. ‘Holy Ghost‘ comes much closer to meeting my expectations for what White Lies is capable of achieving. It has an industrial texture to it (which is a flair that suits the style of the band), and correctly hits the mark in terms of the correct level of theatrics, with some interesting layers in the last minute.

‘Holy Ghost’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

It’s followed by ‘Turn The Bells’, which is the low point of the record, basically because it is a flat, boring rehash of To Lose My Life‘s, ‘Nothing To Give’. Fortunately, things immediately turn around with ‘The Power & The Glory‘, which is my favorite song:

‘The Power & The Glory’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

It’s a slow-builder with a real easy barebones synth backing that gradually increases in intensity, layering on sound in an iterative fashion that is anything but repetitive. If even half the songs measured up to this one, Ritual would be a solid success story.

‘Bad Love’ has a certain epic quality to it that I liked as well, but in this case it’s a little too little too late.

This blog is predicated on me reviewing stuff I like; I want to recommend good music to people. I decided to talk about Ritual because there are a handful of really strong tracks; I recommend the full album, however, with the caveat that it has some disappointing songs, and is perhaps only for die-hard White Lies fans.

The casual listener should snap up the aforementioned quality tunes in what ever ad hoc way they deem suitable (MP3 album is linked below, for this express purpose).

White Lies – Ritual


New Single From The Sounds; Album Forthcoming

Posted in Music on March 17th, 2011 by Tom

Through the magic of XM Radio I caught the tail end of the most recent pre-release track from Swedish New Wavers The Sounds, and a little research revealed that the corresponding album is coming in just a few weeks! (March 29 as per most sources, though the official site says it’ll ship March 22; weird…)

It’s worth mentioning that 2009’s Crossing the Rubicon snagged this group the No. 10 slot on 2009’s best albums, so the follow up should certainly be something worth looking into. Then again, I am a sucker for almost anything remotely New Wave, and few outfits do it better than The Sounds, so I should be upfront about my bias.

Choosing between the two pre-release tracks was damn-near impossible, so I just went with the one I heard in the car:

‘Something To Die For’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Something to Die For‘ is a driving track with no shortage of bombast and exhilarating riffs. There are a select few moments of complete silence, which is a cool technique that makes what breaks said silence pack that much more punch. It’s also worth hunting down the other single floating around, ‘Better Off Dead’, which is an equally exciting track.

Something to Die For is shaping up to be a lot of fun, in spite of the apparent death-fixation baggage it’s carrying around.