Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Very Best - "Warm Heart of Africa"

About a year ago, Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya released a mixtape of songs he made with DJs Johan Hugo and DJ Tron, which included samples of songs by Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., and Architecture in Helsinki. Recently, their first studio album, "Warm Heart of Africa", was released on Green Owl and Moshi Moshi.

Previously, the first single, "Warm Heart of Africa" was released. It is a collaboration with Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend and this track stood out as an immediate favorite from the first time I heard it. It's one of the best songs released by any artist so far in 2009, in my opinion. This is the second time Esau has collaborated with Vampire Weekend, the first being the Very Best remix of "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", a song from VW's debut LP.

Also on "Warm Heart" is another track with M.I.A. called "Rain Dance", which sounds exactly how you would expect from hearing the title. The Very Best sampled M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" on the mixtape with a song called "Tengazako". The song "Kamphopo" from the mixtape, originally a sample of Architecture in Helsinki's "Heart it Races", also makes a reppearance on "Warm Heart of Africa".

But the Very Best shine even on their own on this debut effort. Songs like "Angonde", "Julia", and "Ntdende Uli" blend the music you would expect to hear from Mwamwaya, a native of Lilongwe, Malawi, and the music you would expect to hear from Johan Hugo and DJ Tron, two American electronic stars. Had somebody told me, without me having ever heard anything by Mwamwaya before, that vocal music in Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, would mix well with American techno, I would've been hesitant to believe it. Esau Mwamwaya, Johan Hugo, and DJ Tron have changed my outlook on this, as well as a number of things. The Very Best may be a one-trick horse, but for now they've given us one of the most interesting and powerful albums of the year. "Warm Heart of Africa" is a good record...worth picking up.

Key Tracks: "Warm Heart of Africa", "Angonde", "Julia"

Friday, August 28, 2009

Jay Reatard - "Watch Me Fall"

When I heard Jay Reatard for the first time, I brushed his act off as another thoroughly average indie lo-fi rock thing that wouldn't last past an album or two, which there seems to be a dauntingly increasing amount of in modern music, however he slowly and progressively made me think a little bit more positively. First, there's his first single that really took off on college radio stations and various blogs, "Always Wanting More". I liked this single, but when I checked out his other music, it honestly all sounded the same. "Always Wanting More" is a good song in its own respect, but the artist still seemed average to me. Last Thursday, Reatard (?) released his long-awaited sophomore record, "Watch Me Fall".

The whole tedious "everything here sounds the same" feeling is still present, but this occured to me in times that were much fewer and farther apart for this particular record than with his last album and few EPs. Reatard seems to get a tad more adventurous with the instrumentals on a few of the tracks, without totally losing his style that drew in so many fans of bands like Wavves and No Age and other lo-fi punk bands such as the previously reviewed rock duo, Japandroids. That being said, some of the songs actually don't sound very lo-fi at all, especially compared to some of his earlier work. Reatard's sharp, treble-heavy vocals are, in ways, charming, and at other times can be a little overpowering. About 3/4 of your way through the LP, you start to get that feeling I talked about earlier, the "everything here sounds the same" one, but that's honestly my only qualm with this sophomore effort. I personally believe Jay Reatard has improved since the last LP, and "Watch Me Fall" is a much more listenable record than "Blood Visions", the fuzzy debut. Jay Reatard has taken the style he's used to and bended it to fit a wider audience, which is highly respectable.

Also, I apologize if Jay Reatard is a band rather than a solo artist, I don't really know what's up with that and I honestly don't feel like Wikipedia'ing it. Is there an apostrophe in the word "Wikipedia'ing"? Wikipedia'ing. Wikipediaing. Yeah, I think there is. Or is it just Wiki'ing? That looks weird. Nevermind.

Key Tracks: "It Ain't Gonna Save Me", "Faking It", "Wounded"

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Japandroids - "Post-Nothing"

The world has a gradually increasing amount of fuzzy, distorted lo-fi rock. With bands like the Raveonettes and Jay Reatard, fuzz is coming back. But there are some flaws with modern lo-fi...the first of which is that it's hardly ever listenable. There may be some nice melodies hidden behind the distortion, but it's never really comfortable and easy to just sit back and listen to. Secondly, it doesn't really change. Throughout an entire heavy lo-fi rock album, there's usually one theme that is masked by fuzz and played over and over ten or eleven times. Japandroids, a rock duo from Vancouver, BC, has managed to evade both of these curses with their debut LP, "Post-Nothing".
As I previously said, Japandroids is a duo. Brian King and David Prowse play guitar and drums. They both sing, because when they formed Japandroids in high school, they wanted to "avoid the trouble of having a lead singer", according to a short description of the band on Polyvinyl Recording Co.'s website. The band lives up to their subgenre, the music is fuzzy, but there's also a playfulness and a sense of direction. So many bands like them take themselves completely seriously, but it is made obvious that Japandroids are having fun with their shredding guitars and disjointedly crashing drums. Their music is more relatable, and more listenable, because you can tell they aren't just shredding in a dark room somewhere, fresh from sitting in some corner and crying or something. Japandroids make music that is fun but also stylistically pleasing. This is an extremely promising debut record, and I'd love to see where they go from here.
Key Tracks: "Young Hearts Spark Fire", "Wet Hair", "The Boys Are Leaving Town", "I Quit Girls"

Modest Mouse - "No One's First, And You're Next"

After two years of no new releases from Modest Mouse, they decided to take the same strategy that many popular musicians are taking now (including Jay-Z, the Black Eyed Peas and the Jonas Brothers), which is to release your first, third, and third singles before the album is released to pick up hype. I listened to these singles respectively and today I listened to the new record, "No One's First, And You're Next".

"No One's First..." is not a regular record. Modest Mouse recorded most of the songs included at various points throughout their career...the songs are mostly album outtakes or songs that they simply didn't release. This gives them some slack for the album being eight tracks long...making it shorter than every Modest Mouse album to date with the exception of 2001's "Everywhere & His Nasty Parlour Tricks", and making it shorter than your average general indie rock album.

The opening track is the first of the three singles released, "Satellite Skin". This is a good track for Isaac Brock's trademark shaky vocals, but otherwise, I find it to be a very average song. This is followed by one of my favorites, "Guilty Cocker Spaniels". This song starts out with the higher strings of an electric guitar being rapidly strummed, giving the song a light, almost tropical sound, but halfway through the song gets a bit more distorted, almost a little lo-fi. After this is the second single, "Autumn Beds", and one of my other favorite tracks. It's soft and slower, but doesn't contradict Brock's vocal style. The fifth track is "Perpetual Motion Machine" the third single, and another good one. The song is a stumbling, slow song that has a really honky-tonk kind of feel. The seventh track is "King Rat", the song indie rock fans know as "the song with the video that Heath Ledger directed but never released". The song itself has good instrumentals, and, in the Modest Mouse way, swiftly goes from a slow, clumsy song to a fast song and then back without ever losing construction. The last song, "I've Got It All (Most)", is my favorite track on the album. I really like the way the vocals and the bass line come together to form a harmony. This song has a feel similar to that of some of the songs on 2004's "Good News for People Who Love Bad News", making me believe it was recorded around that time. The song goes from the nearly minimal strum to a heavy rock tune for a little while during the chorus and then back, and then it goes to the rock chorus until the outro. Still, the song's structure stays intact the whole time.

All that positivity being said, I think that, as an album, "No One's First..." is a thoroughly average record. There are tracks that I liked above others, but those aren't even fantastic standalone tracks. Modest Mouse have had much more ambitious efforts in the past with albums like "Good News..." and 1997's "The Lonesome Crowded West". I think "No One's First..." is an album for Modest Mouse die-hards who have collected every album so far and are very familiar with the MM sound rather than casual listeners.

Key Tracks: "Guilty Cocker Spaniels", "Autumn Beds", "Perpetual Motion Machine", "King Rat" "I've Got it All (Most)"

Monday, August 3, 2009

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Dirty Projectors - "Bitte Orca"

Ever since I heard the first notes of "Knotty Pine", the Dirty Projectors' collaboration with David Byrne for the "Dark Was the Night" charity album, I knew that the Dirty Projectors were one of my new favorite bands. Why, though? I'm not entirely sure. Maybe it was the charming vocal harmonies created by Dave Longstreth, Amber Coffman, Haley Dekel and Angel Deradoorian. Maybe it's the plucky, highly rythym-influenced guitar work by Amber and Angel. Maybe it's the intricate, all-over-the-place beats concieved and played by Brian McOmber. I'm not entirely sure, I just know that the Dirty Projectors rock.

The band's lineup has greatly varied throuh the years of their existance...from 2002-2005, they had an epic lineup of 15 members, including two members of Vampire Weekend, Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij. In 2007, they toured with only Angel, Amber and Brian. But the Dirty Projectors have always had a quirky, melodic and complicated sound.

The album "Bitte Orca" opens with Cannibal Resource, a solid track in itself. The second track, is an equally impressive tune entitled "Temecula Sunrise". The fourth track is the first single, and one of my favorites. "Stillness in the Move" is wild, crazy and fun. It has a soulful chorus with some impressive vocals from Angel Deradoorian. After this is the soft, violin-spiked "Two Doves". Next, the Projectors go poppy, synthy, and even hip-hoppy, I would say, on the sixth track, "Useful Chamber". The seventh track is another good one, entitled "No Intention". Dave Longstreth takes the mic again for this one, and his falsetto is pretty flawless...he sort of reminds me of Antony from Antony & the Johnstons and the disco side project, Hercules & Love Affair. The last two tracks, "Remade Horizon" and "Flourescent Half Dome" are packed with instrumentals and provide an epic closer to the album. I would recommend this album to almost anyone...the whole gang really knows what they're doing. The instruments are played very well and all of the vocals are way more proficient than one would expect from a rock band. The Dirty Projectors are a very appealing band that I feel I will still like a year from now.

Key Tracks: "Cannibal Resource", "Temecula Sunrise", "Stillness is the Move", "Useful Chamber", "No Intention"

Below, hear "Cannibal Resource" and the charity track with David Byrne that introduced me to the Dirty Projectors, "Knotty Pine".

Discovery - "LP"

A few weeks ago, Discovery, the side project of Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles, released their debut album, "LP". On this record, Batmanglij and Miles explore a new sound that hasn't really been touched on by Vampire Weekend or Ra Ra Riot before...electro hip-hop.

The album opens to "Orange Shirt", one of the first of the four songs leaked by the band before the release of the album. Initially, this song was my favorite, with the pulsating synths and laid-back vocals from Miles. Then there's what was widely considered to be the first single, "Osaka Loop Line", which has pounded synth chords seperated by silence for the intro. This is another very solid track, but it becomes repetitive quick. There are a couple covers on this album..."Can You Discover?", a great-sounding cover of Ra Ra Riot's "Can You Tell", and an appropriate Jackson 5 cover, "I Want You Back (In Discovery)". Other songs include "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" featuring Angel Deradoorian of the Dirty Projectors and "Carby" featuring Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend vocalist, which is one of my favorite tracks. Two other good tracks are the other leaks, "So Insane" and "Swing Tree". "So Insane" has a chorus that is mind-bendingly catchy, almost kind of like a more poppy version of your average Ra Ra Riot or Vampire Weekend chorus. "Swing Tree" is bouncy and playful, and showcases one of many great hip-hop beats on this record. The Bonus Track Version of the LP (available on iTunes) comes with a rock remix of "Orange Shirt" that's just as good as the original. With this side project, Rostam Batmanglij and Wes Miles have conquered tons of new ground, and opened themselves up to a wide new audience.

Key Tracks: "Orange Shirt", "Can You Discover?", "So Insane", "Carby", "I Want You Back (In Discovery)"