On The Water

Posted in Music on November 24th, 2011 by Tom

My love affair with Future Islands has been love-at-first-sound(listen?) ordeal. 2010’s In Evening Air was nothing short of a masterpiece, and it bordered on instant gratification that their newest album On The Water was being released only two months after I discovered the band.

It brings me great joy to report that the album does not disappoint in the slightest. Samuel T. Herring once again reprises his role as the most tortured, broken soul you’ve ever encountered, and the Baltimore trio is truly firing on all cylinders in many places on the record.

Whereas ‘In Evening Air’ was a thoughtfully placed instrumental segue, ‘On The Water’ is a fully-fledged, bold trudge of an introduction to the thesis of the album: Love, Loss, and Longing, served with a side of pelagic imagery.

Following immediately after is the pulsating ‘Before The Bridge‘, whose driving bass and soaring vocals, try though they might, can’t really mask the tragedy of the narrative:

‘Before The Bridge’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

And if things had changed
I would have buried you deep in my heart
And if things had stayed the same
I would have carried you as far as the sky

Whatever has us now
I can’t forget somehow
For to forget a love is to regret

And what is love is regret
And what isn’t love is a test

Following that, we hit a bit of a lull. ‘The Great Fire’ idles along, albeit with some pretty stellar vocal assistance from fellow Baltimorean and Wye Oak vocalist,Jenn Wasner, but the instrumental ‘Open’ is forgettable at best.

As evidence that I’m not biased against the slow tracks, gunning for my favorite on the album is ‘Where I Found You‘. Its melody, played by something of a digital marimba, is offset by a consistent thump of bass, eventually joined by mirroring percussion. I could go on and on about the themes and finer points of the lyrical choices, but it’s really better to just let the song speak for itself:

‘Where I Found You’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Up next is what I’d describe as the emotional center of the album. ‘Give Us The Wind’ is a warm, gutsy piece, where Herring’s normal despair takes on a bit of an edge; the mordancy of his ‘Don’t bless me / No, don’t bless me’ really giving the song the crucial bite it needs. It’s perhaps one of the more perfect songs I have heard in a very long time.

‘Close To None’ makes better use of ambling synth, and really kicks in at roughly the halfway mark to become easily the fastest song on the album yet. It is a solid song that makes ample use of the maritime images, and serves as a good setup for the gentler but similarly-paced ‘Balance’, which follows in similar suit.

Unfortunately then, we’ve got the really weird ending bundle of ‘Tybee Island’, ‘Grease’, and an untitled bit of ocean noise. I don’t mind the ocean noise, but I hardly ever get to it because the tracks preceding are… not bad, just really uninteresting. In comparison to their peers they seem to really drag, but you might enjoy them more than I.

Really though, it’s hard to complain. The 7 full tracks at the top of the album are evidence that Future Islands are the absolute best at what they do. This is one of the few albums to come along in 2011 that I can almost universally recommend, quite simply because it has been one of the year’s very best.

Future Islands – On The Water


Bon Iver

Posted in Music on November 22nd, 2011 by Tom

For a while, I was worried that I didn’t like this record. I had really high expectations for it, and it was pleasant enough to listen to, but trying to think about it, I couldn’t really recall any distinct impressions it had made on me.

Having recognized this, my next few listens I tried to be more present. Listening more actively, I finally began to understand that the music seems amorphous at first listen because it’s so damn seamless. And I don’t mean in the concept-album-y kindof way, where there’s a narrative and the songs are linked. Many songs do bleed across track markers in how they begin or end, but that in and of itself isn’t enough to achieve what I’m trying to describe.

Nowhere on the record can you find a discontinuous jump from one song to the next. The transitions are perfect gradients from one style to the next, with each being distinct from the other, but in a way you really need to look for. If you aren’t paying attention, the whole record plays like 3 or 4 giant songs. Credit where credit is due, such an effect is difficult to achieve, with Vernon and his wide array of collaborators pulling it off flawlessly.

A favorite moment of mine occurs early on the record, during ‘Minnesota, WI‘. Often times I have a favorite part of a song: maybe that’s a hook, or a chorus, or just four or five notes of a bass line. I certainly have a favorite spot on this song:

‘Minnesota, WI’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

The song is subdued and quiet, its fingerpicked melody drifts across the ethereal backing vocals, like fog over a frozen lake, until the 2:10 mark. Here, heavy distortion drops, and the song takes on an entirely different tone. It’s stronger, more defined, more sure. And after about a minute of that, it slides back into the style of the first half of the song. So desperately did I want a second round of that heavier sound, but you don’t get it. And that’s OK; in fact I’d go so far as to say the track is better for it.

Following that is ‘Holocene’, which is a fine enough song, but one which got a lot of buzz and excitement that I didn’t really understand.

The pairing of ‘Towers’ with ‘Michicant’ is also quite deft. The first is one of the more up-tempo songs on the record, and the latter is one of the slowest burners, but both have some of the records best lyrical moments, and seem to me different sides of the same coin.

I’m still a total sucker for the pre-release track ‘Calgary‘.

[ mp3 ♫ ]

At first I was pretty bummed that more of the album didn’t have the same epic quality to it, slowly coming into focus as the seconds elapse. As it turns out, I was incredibly pleased with Bon Iver as a record, but there is a little part of me that wants to hear what a Justin Vernon record focused more on this kind of idea would sound like.

The instrumental segue track ‘Lisbon, OH’ perfectly sets big 80’s-keyboard number ‘Best/Rest’. Most of the lyrics are lost on me (even after looking up a transcription) except for the line, “I ainʼt living in the dark no more / It’s not a promise, Iʼm just gonna call it.” I made that one out, and even though I still don’t really know what it means, the delivery is so tortured and emphatic that it really resonated with me nonetheless. It’s a really great finishing track, slowly fading to an oscillating halt.

Bon Iver has a great deal more texture to it than For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s predecessor, whose now famous circumstances of production lent it a straightforward, bare-bones authenticity is a different animal entirely. With access to an arsenal of instrumentation and a slew of artists to collaborate with, Vernon has produced a work with this self-titled effort that’s full of little nooks and almost secret sounds that demand multiple listens for the full experience.

Even now, starting the album again as I finish writing this, listening to the punchy snares on ‘Perth’, I am sure I’ll find something new.

Bon Iver – Bon Iver


Codes and Keys

Posted in Music on November 16th, 2011 by Tom

I am a pretty big DCFC fan. I got hooked by 2005’s Plans, and worked my way back to 2003’s seminal Transatlanticism. Following that, I think I liked Narrow Stairs a lot more than most other people. Was it an unrestrained crystallization of pure self-pity? Undoubtedly. Did I love it for exactly that reason? Basically.

So how then to approach Codes And Keys, released earlier this summer? In interviews, Gibbard and co. mentioned that they wanted to get away from the super-sap that had defined (perhaps to a fault) their previous album. That’s a perfectly legitimate goal, and I have mad respect for it. Love these dudes though I do, the result must be judged on its own merits.

Codes And Keys is, in that sense, an experimental album for the group. It’s 11 tracks are marked by frustrating degree of mediocrity. As I sit and listen to it now, I can’t really lodge any complaint of much gravity, but in the months I’ve had it in rotation, I only managed to listen to it 8 or 9 times. It’s a decent record, there just isn’t much to keep you coming back.

‘Home Is A Fire’ is a respectable enough start, with it’s building intensity and hushed chorus. The problem with this song, which is pretty endemic to many of the tracks, is that all this time is spent building and building, but there’s no release. Ben never belts out some gut-wrenching despair-fueled line (‘I need you so much closer,’ ‘I will possess your heart’, ‘You can’t find nothin’ at all / If there was nothin’ there all along’, etc.) that serves to focus all the energy of the song. It just never happens.

I did like the title track, ‘Codes And Keys‘. Below is a cut of the track they did for VH1’s Storytellers series.

‘Codes And Keys (VH1 Storytellers)’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

It’s got a nice little ‘pop’ to it, and I think what I like most about it is that it’s chorus gets closer than most other tracks to what I wanted/expected. It’s also got a nice bit of wordplay, which is cute, if nothing else.

‘Some Boys’ has some energy to it, but it feels misdirected, and works better if you don’t listen to the words. ‘Doors Unlocked And Open’ is musically one of my favorite tracks. I sometimes wonder if songs like this wouldn’t benefit from a second non-Gibbard set of vocals on the track. A lady, perhaps? It just needs a little bit more to shift it from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

The single, ‘You Are A Tourist’, grew on me over time. It’s probably the most like what we’ve come to expect from the group. My only complaint is that it isn’t sad enough. “‘Cause when find yourself the villain \ in the story you have written” is a fantastic lyric, one of my favorites, but it’s set to such an upbeat song! The mis-match is ultimately what holds this track from being awesome.

‘Unobstructed Views’ would be way, way better if their were no lyrics. The dark, spacy instrumental is marred by the needlessly syrup-sweet lyrics at the tail end, and would have been perfect in their absence.

‘Monday Morning’ is what I’d say is the most successful foray by DCFC into the ‘write a song that isn’t that sad’ project. It’s light, smooth, and has some fun guitar hooks along with a pretty tried-and-true song structure that’s been put through its paces since the mid-2000’s.

‘Portable Television’ is a post-apocolyptic tale that is essentially rendered wholly uesless by 2002’s Postal Service effort ‘We Will Become Silhouettes’. It’s not bad in its own right, but if the purpose was to tell a peppy story about post-nuclear survival, the job can be done no better than ‘Silhouettes,’ and it was silly to try again.

Towards the end, ‘Underneath The Sycamore‘ is one of the few spots for the band is truly firing on all cylinders. This song would have been right at home on Plans (and a bright spot even there):

‘Underneath The Sycamore’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

The tone and lyrical content are well matched, and the instrumentation and pacing are spot on. I would have happily listened to a whole album of songs that reached this caliber.

‘St. Peter’s Cathedral’ is the lone callback to Transatlanticsm-style writing: Melancholy and swaying, its glib observations are penetrating and insightful. This is slow DCFC at their best, and it makes a fantastic closing track- oh, what’s that? You’re saying there’s a song after ‘St. Peter’s’?

That would be ‘Stay Young, Go Dancing’. It’s cheer and heart-warming sentiments have no place on this record. The feel-good-ness of it is audacious, and I really can’t stand it at all. This is the song you play when the bride dances with her dad at the wedding, and everyone thinks it’s really sweet and special and somewhere in the audience Tom is rolling his eyes because it is basically the Most Trite Thing Ever.

No more ranting, I just had to get that out. At the end of the day, Codes And Keys is a patchwork of good and less-than-good. At roughly equal parts of each, it’s hard to emphatically say “buy this record,” but even modest DCFC fans will find enough to like to justify picking it up. I’m glad I did, and I’m also glad that Death Cab is making a conscious effort to not be complacent. It’s a really respectable thing, even if you don’t get it right on your first try. Also props to the cover design, which I found quite striking.

Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys

(A Really Morbid Confession That I Am Truthfully Ashamed Of: Since the breakup of Zooey Deschanel and Ben Gibbard, I wonder if we won’t see a return to the more downer-pop-driven style we know the group is capable of? I feel like a gross human being for even thinking in such terms…)


The King of Limbs

Posted in Music on November 4th, 2011 by Tom

I’ve been listening to this record for quite a few months now (since practically the hour of its release) and I gotta say I’m still not totally sold on it. A lot of the usual nomenclature of reviews becomes useless when we talk about a fairly non-traditional group like Radiohead, but I’ll do my best.

To begin with, saying something along the lines of ‘it’s a departure from their previous work’ is kindof a pointless comment. Radiohead albums are nearly always marked by a distinct (and often radical) evolution in sound from album to album, so no surprise there. I guess in the past though, I always eventually warmed up to the new thing, and despite my best efforts, that’s not happening here.

In my defense, I’m not trying to like the record because I think I should. This tenacity is based on my personal experience with Yorke and co., wherein I have almost without fail disliked every one of their records upon my initial listen, but slowly grew to love each of them quite a lot. Still waiting on that for TKOL.

Why? Geez, man. I think I just don’t really like dub-step? Maybe? Who knows. Let’s start with what I did like. In a nutshell, it’s this:

‘Little By Little’
[ mp3 ♫ ]

Little By Little‘ is the track where I feel that this ever-present rattle of fast-paced percussion that pervades the album works best. It makes the most interesting use of Yorke’s voice, and seems to have a more intricate layering of instrumentation than the other songs. I like that it’s a dark track, with intentions tending towards ill rather than good. Having something sound malevolent without being outright evil takes some subtlety, and the craftsmanship it praiseworthy.

But then you get dumped from that right into a track like ‘Feral’ which sounds like random tones bouncing around in some echo chamber where a drum machine was left on. It was tracks like this that I found difficult to access and almost impossible to process or comprehend. Radiohead has always taken out typical song elements and replaced them with unorthodox sounds to achieve something new, but it seems as if they finally took out one two many things, and that stands in their place is often not enough.

‘Lotus Flower’ is our only other real anchor on the record, it has the bizarre tonality of the rest of the album, but it also has some substance, giving it weight and dimension, and therein making it a really enjoyable track to listen to.

A song I’d characterize as ‘wraith-like’, haunting in it’s emptiness, is the cinematic ‘Codex‘:

[ mp3 ♫ ]

And for a closer, ‘Separator’ isn’t bad, but it’s also a little underwhelming, and a little stupid. “If you think this is over / then you’re wrong.” Really? By my count, ‘Separator’ is track 8 of 8, and the album is a short 8 at that.

Anything not mentioned here isn’t bad, but just didn’t seem noteworthy to me. But I don’t wanna harp on Radiohead. Far from it.

Every record of theirs I view as an experiment to push the boundaries of music, laughing at the very notion of genre. This one did exactly what its predecessors did in that regard, and I’ve no doubt that the group will take what they learned from The King of Limbs and create something even weirder and more amazing on their next outing.

I’ve just got my fingers crossed that it’s more fun to listen to than this was (and a few minutes longer, too!).

Radiohead – The King of Limbs


It’s About Time

Posted in Music, Technology on November 3rd, 2011 by Tom

So this is just a quick little blip about the recent updates to the iOS software on Apple devices that was pushed a few weeks ago.

I don’t know that I ever cut loose about it on this site, but to anybody who’s ever let me “get into it” about smartphones or iPhones or digital media players or anything like that, this is probably something they’ve heard before.

In March of 2010 I got an iPhone to replace the aging messaging phone I’d had previously. At first, I was hesitant to the entire idea. The notion of a single device absorbing all the functions of my menagerie of gadgets seemed nonsensical. Why would you want one device to perform many functions at an average level when you could have a handful of specialized ones that performed exceptionally? As a lover of gadgets, I was hesitant to consolidate.

But, needless to say, I took the plunge. My skepticism was validated by the lack of functionality afforded by the old ‘iPod’ app native to iOS. One of the main reasons I like iTunes (in spite of the fact that in the old days it was a tremendous resource hog, and more recently due to the shameless plugging of services like ‘Genius’ and ‘Ping’) is that you can utilize a wealth of metadata to customize the way your music collection was organized.

Me? I like my records alphabetized by artist, and subsorted by year of release. As I type this I realize there’s a whole can of worms to be opened on the merits of various schema, but we should save that for another day. The takeaway here is that I’m very particular about how my music is organized. In particular, I like collections of songs from various artists (mix tapes, etc.) and other media (soundtracks) to be sorted separately from ‘regular’ albums.

iTunes will happily oblige such a configuration (Sort: Albums By Artist/Year, ‘Compilations’ set to ‘On’), and as of the introduction of video functionality, the iPod could manage well enough too. I was irked, to say the least, when the iPod App supported next to none of these features.

Browsing on the iPhone via artists took you to a giant list of every artist in your collection, roughly half of which had only a single song to their name. This drove me mad!!! A huge selling point of the iPhone is that it plays music, but nobody every bothers to mention that it does a terrible job organizing a library.

I’m not naïve; I know that audiophile music junkies such as myself are not the target audience of this functionality. It’s for people who listen to the same 6-7 albums while they walk to school or work out at the gym. But still, in the three years this software has been developed, it’s weird to me this was never addressed.

With the iOS 5 update, the iPod App was replaced by the Music App, and with it, a tiny little additional setting to “Group By Album Artist.” And just like that, my artists list is clean and tidy, and all the other miscellany reside in the compilations list. So for the moment, I’m placated. Still can’t sort by year of release within a given artist, but whatever.

Cleaning up the artists list solved a big usability issue of mine, and I’m grateful for that much. I’m also happy the newer models finally upped the storage capacity to 64 GB, because I’m just now starting to hit the ceiling on 32 GB. That said, I’m done hoping that they’ll open this thing up to be fully customizable.

However, in the unlikely event that the Music App was given some real love, I’d be mad appreciative.