Mister Sinister (alt-J, Relaxer review)

A short poem.

Lifeless he crept upon her,
Daytime was not his friend,

Melancholy was her only friend,
What if the taste lingered for a time,

It is eerie outside at this time,
Too many sounds, too many noises,
It’s all rather eccentric.

We all need to own our weirdness, and alt-J could go in a million different directions at any given time, and they’ve proven that on their previous two albums, but what do I think of their third release? Let’s find out!

 

alt-J – After Laughter

released Jun 2, 2017
****** 6/10

alt-J are an English indie rock group featuring the talents of vocalist and guitar player Joe Newman, Cameron Knight on lead guitar and bass, Gus Unger-Hamilton on keyboards and backing vocals, and Thom Sonny Green on drums. Formed a decade ago, back in 2007, alt-J have now released three studio-length albums, An Awesome Wave, This Is All Yours, and today’s special, Relaxer.

alt-J are the kind of music for Millenials like what pop punk and 90’s r&b were for Generation Y. The voice of a generation – oft confused by physical albums and the thought of saving for a rainy day, but still a voice. Wicked generalization timotheories. Dick.

The thing is, alt-J have been compared to Radiohead a lot, and that is such a tired comparison to make, especially given that while their albums don’t come out with as much regularity anymore, Radiohead are still relevant. This is interesting music, for sure, but it’s not as courageous as those first two albums that alt-J put out.

I could spend a lot of time dissecting this album and pointing out all the places to you where it sounds amazing (read: In Cold Blood, Dead Crush, and Last Year), like the band that created Breeze Blocks and Left Hand Free, but someway and somehow we’ve been treated to a snoozefest for the most part and so many people are singing it’s praising without any reservation. It doesn’t make much sense to me, with a spectacularly weird and awful track in Hit Me Like That Snare. What a flaming pile of garbage that song feels like every time I listen to it.

And as much as I hate that song. This is actually a good thing.

Because it means that alt-J aren’t settling into a pattern of record making. They are willing to explore, to try new things and take some risks when it comes to their sound. Building a unique identity is difficult after all, and all of the comparisons to greats like Arcade Fire, Bastille and Arctic Monkeys would start to get on my nerves too.

This isn’t your mom and dad’s album, and it’s not mine either. But damn it if it doesn’t have the makings of something wonderful for alt-J to grow into in their middle age. They are working on making the content more meaningful, where they already set the standard in pared down simplicity.

Pros: As far as audio engineering and labour goes, nobody has alt-J beat. These gentlemen are more than capable of making arrangements interesting, and using ambience to tell narratives.

Cons: When they add in nuanced lyrics or play with formats, they struggle. It doesn’t always sound good, and Hit Me Like That Snare feels completely out of place with the rest of this record. I wish the experimentation didn’t feature throughout the entire album.

Runtime: 39 minutes

Points of InterestIn case you didn’t already know this, the band’s symbol is the capital letter delta (∆), a triangle. This can be accessed on an Apple Mac computer with the shortcut of alt+J. The first single is 3WW, the second is In Cold Blood, which features lyrics that state 00110011 01110111 01110111, which in binary translates to 3WW.

Adding poetry to covers of songs like House of the Rising Sun is a little bit odd, and a bit too clever, but it’s that sinister sound behind that curtain that has us coming back for seconds. Or should I say 01110011 01100101 01100011 01101111 01101110 01100100 01110011?

theories Summarized

We need to give artists like alt-J the space and time to grow, because we got two really excellent debut and sophomore efforts from them. That doesn’t mean that this album automatically gets a pass, but it does have some high points, and some points you can relax to.

Tim!

Your Stoicism Entryway (The Shins, Heartworms review)

 

Start each day knowing that the world is full of indifference, ill-will, selfishness, and a ton of other vices. Next, accept that each of us is affected by our environment, and not effected by it.

How we perceive the thing is much more powerful then the thing itself. The world will always be this way, which is why a certain kind of music could be popular ten years ago, and yet feel less interesting now.

 

 

 

The Shins – Heartworms
released March 10, 2017
******* 7/10

 

The Shins are an American indie rock band that have been playing together for just over 20 years. I own the bands first two records Oh, Inverted World (2001) and Chutes Too Narrow (2003) which I promptly picked up after listening to New Slang during it’s brief moment of spotlight in the film Garden State.

A few years later the dudes put together their third album Wincing the Night Away, which was a huge commercial success, and even earned them a Grammy nod.

I missed them when their fourth album came out, but I didn’t think to call or write, so I don’t have any strong feelings about it either way, but I can say most assuredly that The Shins fifth offering, Heartworms, is just as good as I was hoping it would be. And maybe a bit too comfortable for convention.

Does anyone remember when indie rock was the next big thing?

Death Cab For Cutie, Stars, Feist, Arcade Fire, The Strokes, Modest Mouse, Vampire Weekend, The Killers, et. al.

These were our champions in the 2000s, and The Shins were right at the centre of it all. Belle and Sebastian, The Black Keys, and Weezer too. Actually, I could probably list another twenty bands pretty quickly, but my point is this, when we look back in another ten years, people will be emulating the looks of these bands, and karaoking hard to their sweet tunes.

Sure indie rock has been around since the 1980s, (read: The Smiths), but The Shins are a picture perfect example of the sound captured at the height of it’s popularity. And Heartworms is no exception.

Which is probably why James Mercer dumped all of his bandmates in favour of something new on the last album. And then owned it fully for this outing. Name for You starts things off right with a higher note then we’re used to, but he doesn’t discard that tempo and brings it back a short one song later in Painting a Hole. We get excited listening to the lyrics while the instrumentation keeps things on track.

Cherry Hearts feels like it could be a late addition to the Sixteen Candles soundtrack or inside a more current addition in the movie Sing Street.

Fantasy Island is just good fun. And frankly I could make little anecdotes about each song along the way, which is how I feel that Mercer tackled this album from the outset. And that’s where it’s not quite punchy enough, it feels like each song was both captured in a moment and painstakingly crafted to sound that way. But thematically it can be a challenge to accept this as another other than a solo project finally realized in full. The Shins are James Mercer, and James Mercer is The Shins, good or bad.

 

 

 

Indie rock changed the game. Not in the sense that it forced anything political or social to happen, but that we collectively agreed that it was good music for a time, and now we are experiencing a shift away from thoughtful and whispy lyrics, saturated by striped down instrumentation, and heading back towards the glitz and glamour of the pop music. And that’s okay.

While that doesn’t mean that The Shins are less interesting, only that the larger public feel differently, I do agree that Mercer has run the course on some of his ideas, exploring things more fully is good, but where is the broader message at the centre of it all? Where is the stoicism?

That’s the theory I want to hear.

Tim!

Good, Not Great (Bon Iver, 22 A Million)

I’m glad I went to art school. I was exposed to a lot of people looking to impress, but without anything real to offer up. The struggle of the artist isn’t one of employment, it’s whether they can commit to a purpose and authentically represent it.

Too many posers walk around pretending they suffer, when they should put their nose to the grindstone and be affected for once. Yeah I’m feeling salty on this one.

Bon Iver – 22 A Million
released September 30, 2016
****** 6/10

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Bon Iver is a multi-instrumentalist group headed by Justin Vernon, one that focuses on indie folk and which has been around since 2007. They’ve put out 3 full-length studio albums at this point, but it has been five years since their last album was released.

22 A Million is more of an experiment then anything. Lots of the songs go into unique directions, ascending and descending, depending on the song, but often cutting short before we see a real resolution. I think I may have been spoiled this year dear readers, there have been so many great album releases that Bon Iver didn’t really have a chance.

I should be more clear with my intent – it feels like the songs have lost all interest in established forms of songwriting, and they don’t really help us to whatever atmosphere the group had strived for; thanks Justin and friends. It’s a challenge against convention, a battlecry against form, but the other team didn’t want to show up.

Folk music is in a difficult place these days it seems. While pop music has continued to explore what’s possible and even make conceptual decisions that are exciting, especially this past year, folk artists that dabble in pop should be uniquely poised to come out ahead. And yet, this album feels a lot like the late oughts. I find it very confusing. We’ve explored these themes already.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed parts of this album and it sounds beautiful, but as a professor of mine once said, I’m grading you based on your own ability and not on a preset standard, because that’s the only way you’ll grow. After all, I think it can be exciting when we reject tradition in favour of exploration, but exploration for explorations sake? Come on Bon Iver, wake up.

This album is a complete mess in terms of it’s composition. I might as well be listening to a 35 minute solo track in long form.

Literally every song on this album features some sort of dichotomy, good vs evil, up vs down, I could go on, but the point being made is one of tension. Even the song titles are written with symbols and avant garde grammar, it’s pretentious and we’ve seen that trick before too – leet speak is dead. Maybe I’m completely off my rocker here folks, but 22 A Million is not groundbreaking, it’s evocative, haunting, and a great jazz session. We should look at this as more of a mixtape then anything, and hopefully when the rest of the world wakes up, Bon Iver will have put their pants back on.

 

 

 

Maybe that was a harsh criticism, but I really do believe these guys are capable of a lot more than we saw on this record. I want to believe that this was just a misstep, but the flourishes and fawning of the masses over this record are driving me nuts friends. Listen to this one at your own discretion, but don’t for a second fall into the hype. It’s good, not great.

Tim!

 

Shut Up, Kiss Me, Hold Me Tight (Angel Olsen, My Woman review)

Ever read Peter Pan dear readers? Or watch one of the many animated and live action movies that exist? Well, there is this idea out there that Peter Pan didn’t want to grow up and so he stayed in a state of perpetual childhood.

Now, in the media it’s become rather common to refer to those who engage in youthful behaviour without wanting to or feeling unable to grow up as having Peter Pan syndrome. It’s not considered as a psychological condition, but there is definitely a movement.

But what about people who oppose the normative behaviour and also experience that full range of emotions, are they still called adults?

 

 

 

Angel Olsen – My Woman
released September 2, 2016
********** 10/10

angel-olsen-my-woman-album

Angel Olsen is an American folk and indie rock singer and guitarist. She also manages to channel some punk, western country and psychadelic rock when needed – Olsen is incredibly sorrowful, uncut, raw, and mindful. And from what I’ve heard it only took her 3 full-length albums to get there. *cough* Anthony Fantano *cough*

This is what grunge should have sounded like if it had some ska in it. Eat your heart out Nirvana and No Doubt. Or to put it another way, and ironically it breaks my heart to say this, this is a much stronger version of anything that Leslie Feist has ever put out. And I love me some Feist. Like, I can’t even – you have no idea what Leslie Feist did to my dumb little punk rock heart in 2005. Go listen to Let It Die, Open Season, and The Reminder after listening to this and tell me I’m not right. I dare you. It’s not gonna kill you.

Which incidentally is my favourite track on this little piece of album gold. I mean she even has a song called Heart Shaped Face, that just has to be a send up to Nirvana. It just has to.

Olsen does something special on every single track. She uses the best instrument she has, her voice, and arranges the melody accordingly to carry the weight of each message. The first half of the record starts out as woefully naive and volatile with its themes of love, but the back half puts itself it the shoes of one who has loved and lost, dealing with regret and that bitter disenchantment that dulls the edge of each love ventured.

The thing about excellent country music is that it doesn’t have to be about dead dogs, broken trucks or marriages ruined. It has to be authentic to the artist it represents, paying homage to what came before, but also owning the moment of what is. If I had to pick a track to represent the back half it would probably be Sister an epic of growing up and growing apart and rather well put by Olsen herself – you fall together, fall apart. A close second would have to be slow burner Pops, which if you haven’t fallen in love with Angel Olsen after listening to nine songs, I don’t know what to tell you.

This is an album of many tones, and I know it might come off cliche but she is in rare form and easily becomes my woman.

 

 

 

I would never accuse Angel Olsen of being a victim of Peter Pan syndrome, especially because it’s almost exclusively associated with men. But nonetheless, the question of love, lust, and loss are intertwined throughout this musical endeavour. What starts out as a youthful and naive look at love slowly turns into something much darker and more intimate and My Woman is seriously my favourite album of the year as a result. We’ll have to see what’s in store for the rest of the year, but with less than four months to go, you’ll want to snag a copy of this, lest you get left all alone.

Tim!

 

Instructions Not Included (Glass Animals, How To Be A Human Being review)

Being a human being, is sometimes about being, and sometimes it’s more than being human.

I personally want for nothing when it comes to emotions, experiencing most of what life has to offer in my nerve-endings. Though there are some highs I’ll likely never witness, but that’s okay. Biologically I’m a special snowflake, and I know that I can’t compete with every other life model out there – limited edition baby.

Know what I’m sayin’?

 

 

 

Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being
released August 26, 2016
********** 10/10

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Glass Animals are an English indie rock band that make indie rock.

Just kidding, they are an indie rock band that combine psychedelic pop, trip hop, electronica, and R&B together to make their sweet sweet music. They have been active since 2012 and have made two studio length albums through their associations with Wolf Tone, Caroline International, and Harvest Records. Lead vocalist Dave Bayley had originally planned to go to medical school, but the band was picked up after Adele’s producer Paul Epworth saw the band performing.

These guys are eclectic as fuck. And I realize that’s not very poetic, but as you spend time with that sentence, you’ll start to dig back some layers, much like what I experienced as I listened to this album over quite a few listens. I found it very difficult to put down and even more difficult to not sing along as I learned the music and lyrics, letting my imagination run with the music.

Glass Animals are really good at jam packing a song full of weird noises and making it sound like there wasn’t any other option. The hooks are catchy and the beats are clean, not to mention that this is an album about people. Featuring anecdotes from people, though we’ll never know if those samples are staged or not. But I’m not sure it really matters, because the cornucopia assembled here just worked rather well. I’m gonna have a hard time putting this one down, and that’s saying a lot because I really liked the new Goo Goo Dolls, Weezer, Radiohead, The 1975 and Kendrick Lamar albums I’ve reviewed this year, but I seem to have pineapples in my head now courtesy of Pork Soda. And I want to play Nintendo mainly because of Season 2 Episode 3.

It’s an album of diversity and empathy. Mama’s Gun has an orchestral quality to it, but the lyrics reveal a disturbed portrait of a woman on a mission of remembrance, and it’s beautiful to listen to – It actually gave me goosebumps. And then they follow it up with the hip hop genius of Cane Shuga.

This is not your parent’s concept album folks, it’s full of human beings being human. There is no real start, middle or ending, because you can listen to anyone of these tracks separately or as the authors intended. That’s the rollercoaster of life. It’s lonely, but yet in that loneliness there is a comfort knowing we all collectively share that experience – full of happiness, sadness, anger, tears, sex, humour, and a host of other feelings.

 

 

 

An excellent survey into the human condition all in all. These guys might be glass animals, but they know a thing or two about being human. Join me here tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel for another pop culture sensation from the 1960s, reimagined.

Tim!