Sunday, July 25, 2010

Album Review: "Crazy For You" by Best Coast

I experienced my first earthquake not long after I moved to northern California a few years ago. It jolted me awake at 4:30 in the morning and I sat in bed, frozen, for a long while after the shaking stopped. Let me tell you, that shit was scary, despite it being labeled just a “mild tremblor” in the papers. The next day I threw some canned food, water bottles, a flashlight and other essentials into an old backpack and had myself my first “earthquake preparedness kit.” But it didn’t take long for me to forget about the quake—after all, it’s sunny nearly every day—and I returned to being, like many Californians, blissfully ignorant that these horrible things can happen at any time. I even joke with others about how the Big One is just around the corner. Above ground, Californians have a massive state budget deficit, an unstable tax structure, and rising unemployment to worry about. The Golden State has seen better days.

Crazy For You, the debut album from L.A. duo Best Coast, can’t fix any of that. Lead singer Bethany Cosentino seems, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of some rather large state-wide financial and seismological concerns, and also perfectly aware that California still inspires the kind of breathless adoration and promise of sunny days that makes the largest state the envy of the rest of the country. After giving New York City a shot, in 2009 Cosentino moved back to her hometown of L.A. and its miles of beaches and highway along the Pacific, big sunglasses and boardwalk candy. The thirteen tracks on Crazy For You are the lines Cosentino wishes she had scrawled in her crush’s yearbook if she had just had the courage. Track eight, “I Want To,” sums up her feelings nicely: “I want you so much / I miss you so much.” Fortunately for Cosentino, summer has just started in Los Angeles, and that should give her all the time she needs to dream about sharing a beach blanket with her crush. Or maybe just enough time to forget about him.

Crazy For You draws from a diverse set of musical influences in its breezy thirty minutes. The ‘60s girl-group and surf rock inspirations are the album’s main bookends, and merge beautifully on the album’s standout, “Our Deal.” Breathy harmonies and a doo-wop swing combine to sound like the Ronettes lending vocals to The Beach Boys. Here, Cosentino has a heavy heart, but not just over the loss of love: “When you leave me / You take away everything / You take away my money / You take away all my weed.” That bastard. On “Bratty B,” Cosentino’s appropriately bratty demeanor blends with chugging guitars to create the album’s most straight-ahead rocker, a slice of ‘90s alternative rock. Of course, one of the band’s best qualities is its fuzzed-out sound. We got plenty of it on early single, “Sun Was High (So Was I),” which appeared to channel Jesus and the Mary Chain through a lifeguard’s megaphone. Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist bandmate Bobb Bruno build a bed of distortion for tracks like “Honey” and “Each and Everyday,” but on Crazy For You the band scales back some of the shoegaze vibe from their pre-album releases.

Crazy For You will surely conjure images of crowded beaches with the sun high in the sky. But Cosentino’s summer isn’t all fun and games. While the summer days may seem endless, Cosentino knows that the sunlight still comes and goes. The more bittersweet tracks like “When The Sun Don’t Shine” and “Summer Mood” seem to encourage us to dig our toes into the sand at twilight: those two short moments each day with sunlight but no visible sun. Between dawn and sunrise, and sunset and dusk, these are the moments when love and heartbreak are equally possible. So it’s telling that the only track on the album to feature the word “summer” in its title is a glum affair. On “Summer Mood,” Cosentino stretches out the line “There’s something about the summer that makes me moooooooody” as if doing so will keep the California sun up just a bit longer. Or maybe summer's unfulfilled expectations are making Cosentino so
moooooooody? At other times, she doesn’t seem to mind the receding sunlight at all. Because what happens “when the sun don’t shine”? “You are mine,” obviously.

Best Coast tacks on “When I’m With You” as a bonus track to Crazy For You. The last thing you’ll hear before you hit repeat, it’s a reminder not only of how, but when many of us heard the band for the first time: last year in early winter, when summer felt a long ways away. The album goes by so quickly that you’ll likely appreciate it more after it’s ended. Cosentino knows that summers work the same way, so she’s given us these honest portraits of love and heartache, spread over miles of sand and surf, to hold us over until next summer. Like a flip book of memories you can thumb through at anytime, Crazy For You is a reminder that, when love hurts, summer’s there for you. And make no mistake: the best summers are in California, even if love sometimes teeters atop shifting sand.

[4 out of 5 stars]

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Album Review: "Reservoir" by Fanfarlo

When David Bowie gives you his stamp of approval well before your first album drops, you’re likely to draw a horde of willing listeners. And close on their heels will be a fair share of skeptics. On their debut album, Reservoir, the blunder made by London-based band Fanfarlo isn’t that they fall short of their lofty expectations, but that they sound like they were afraid all along that they’d fall short of them. Their strategy was to play it safe, and the result is an album that’s at times enchanting, but ultimately frustrating.

Lead singer Simon Balthazar pens stories about trying in vain to sidestep a world that’s collapsing in on itself. There’s nowhere to go but down—a sturdy message across Reservoir’s eleven tracks, though Balthazar is sometimes unable to spin interesting metaphors out of the simple fact that things are just plain falling everywhere he looks. Drowning men drag him down while the walls come down. Somewhere, bombshells are coming. The album title not only suggests that manmade lakes are being built for the purpose of stemming the wide urban decay, but that water is also responsible for the very same destruction. In “Ghosts,” Balthazar describes a dam breaking at a cursed reservoir: “It caused a drought / It caused a flood / It came to change us all for good.” Balthazar isn’t clear how exactly it changed us, but this much is certain: the flood is seismic.

The instrumentation on Reservoir is generally strong, if understated, with Balthazar’s bandmates using an array of instruments—including strings, glockenspiel, trumpets, and banjo—to create a pleasant folk sensibility. Fanfarlo’s most courageous gestures happen when the instrumentation is allowed to shine, like on the stately call-to-arms chorus in “The Walls Are Coming Down” and the brass-led, spellbinding beat in “Ghosts.” But there’s an odd feeling throughout the album that this is meant to be Balthazar’s one-man struggle, his destiny to take Captain Ahab’s path to certain destruction. In this respect, Fanfarlo differs from the Arcade Fire, to whom they’ve been compared. While the Arcade Fire does share with Fanfarlo a diverse instrumentation and a big worldview, what sets the Montreal-based band apart is that we never doubt that their members share equally in the struggle, loss, and redemption. The vocals and instrumentation on Reservoir, however, too often sound like independent parts.

If Balthazar is determined to go at this alone, then his vocal execution better match the magnitude of the apocalyptic events he depicts. Instead, he sounds tired, like he’s just returned home from moonlighting as an opera singer. Balthazar’s voice still holds appeal, especially on tracks like “Drowning Men” when he matches the urgency of the instrumentation at the start before linking arm-in-arm with his bandmates for a gentle close. But these moments are rare on the album’s eleven tracks. When first single “The Walls are Coming Down” came out in September 2009, bloggers were quick to compare Balthazar’s voice to that of Alec Ounsworth, the frontman for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! Another apt comparison is Zach Condon’s operatic tenor. But Balthazar’s voice lacks the whine that makes Ounsworth’s oddly appealing, and Condon’s expansive, go-for-broke attitude that befits his worldly influences. Balthazar too often sounds like he’s worried that his voice will crack if he stretches it too far. On the track with the Sufjan Stevens-inspired title, “Harold T. Wilkins, Or How to Wait for a Very Long Time,” Balthazar seems to pull back precisely when he’s supposed to scream (in the closing refrain of “just sail this thing straight!”). Here, Fanfarlo aims for the heights attained by the Arcade Fire on “No Cars Go.” The difference is, the Arcade Fire’s repeated screams of “hey!” sound like they have the power to topple buildings. I waited and waited for the Balthazar to just wail, and to give me that much-needed emotional kick that his band so obviously wants to produce. But it never came. Balthazar is a strong enough lyricist that I can imagine myself standing at the base of the dam just before it breaks. But what’s the point if the water only hits you like a lawn sprinkler?

There are some fine moments on Reservoir, but they don’t stretch on long enough for the album to matter to you when it should, like when, to take a cue from the title of the last track, you find yourself saying good morning to midnight all alone. There’s merit in having musical restraint, but on Reservoir, building meticulously without the proper moments of release keeps the collection of pleasant moments from ever developing into a compelling whole. That sort of achievement means that Balthazar will have to rely on—or trust?—his bandmates even more. Better to not go it alone with events this tragic. The potential for something great is certainly there, so I’ll give Fanfarlo the benefit of the doubt and choose the desirable interpretation of the album title (a rich source of a compound essential for survival) over the less desirable one (a large artificial construct). That source hints at what Fanfarlo could become. Balthazar should draw more from it next time.

[3 out of 5 stars]

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Album Review: "Declaration of Dependence" by Kings of Convenience

Despite the temperate climate in their hometown of Bergen, Norway, the Kings of Convenience always appeared to be seeking more warmth. On the cover of their debut LP, Quiet is the New Loud, the duo of Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe are huddled together; on the cover of their second album, Riot on an Empty Street, they’ve retreated indoors. On their new full-length, Declaration of Dependence, Øye and Bøe seem to get their much desired change of scenery, having shucked their sweaters and headed for the beach. They’re no longer standing guard and staring back at you—which Øye does on the cover of first album and Bøe on the second—as if to say that you’re peering into some intimate space where you’re not totally welcomed. And the brunettes, the only invited guests on the first two album covers, are gone. On Declaration, the Norwegian folk singers are finally left to themselves and they appear totally at ease. The climate’s just right.

It turns out that the album cover reflects the songs inside. On Declaration, all Øye and Bøe have left are each other, and much of the album’s success rides on the feeling that this is how it was always supposed to be. So Øye and Bøe take their already bare bones acoustic sound and strip it down further. Gone are the drums that provided extra thrust to the loveable “Toxic Girl” on the band’s first LP. While Declaration features a few sprinklings of upright bass and viola, missing are the string solos that made old tracks like “I Don’t Know What I Can You From” a standout. Absent are the dance beats that made “I’d Rather Dance With You” a refreshing change of pace on Riot (and made Øye in particular a fan favorite). Leslie Feist, who stole the show on more than one occasion on Riot, has left the building. Declaration has an air of sincerity because it’s the Kings of Convenience album that most closely resembles the duo’s popular live shows: just two friends and their acoustic guitars.

Like their first two albums, Declaration begins with Øye and Bøe singing in their familiar lock-step, a melody closely shadowed by a harmony. “24/25” offers not only the kind of wistful passages that fans have grown accustomed to, but a reminder that the duo has always appeared inextricably linked, like a single voice with subtle inflections. (In the liner notes, the band aptly acknowledges that “it can be difficult to separate the two voices.”) But the best moments on the album are when they divide the lead vocal responsibilities, with the other half carrying a strong supporting role. On “Mrs. Cold,” Øye wonders aloud about a love that might have been, while Bøe fills the space between verses with the duo’s most affecting guitar melodies to date. They trade places on the next track, “Me in You.” Above a steady bassline, Bøe, through whispers, traces the faultlines in a relationship, while Øye bypasses the duo’s typical harmonies and sings in falsetto in the final refrain.

Øye and Bøe probably won’t ever shake the comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel. But their music has new resonance when held up to another musical influence, someone who’s mostly unacknowledged but has been essential to the duo’s artistic development. At their 2005 concert at the World Café Live in Philadelphia, a fan asked Øye and Bøe to name their favorite artist. Their response came immediately: Mark Kozelek’s first band, Red House Painters. Similarities in playing style aren’t hard to find. The propulsive finger-picking on Declaration’s “Second to Numb” has unmistakable shades of Kozelek’s cover of AC/DC’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer.” The meditative shuffle of “Riot on an Empty Street” seems to draw its inspiration from Kozelek’s Little Drummer Boy. The Kings of Convenience are artists steady in temperament with a reputation for writing bittersweet tunes. They’re not mimicking Kozelek in that respect. On Declaration, the duo sounds proud of that fact that they’ve always shared Kozelek’s basic make-up.

As songwriters, Øye and Bøe continue to try to make every word count, often packing loaded words into tight spaces, like on “Freedom and its Owner” (“But freedom, freedom never greater than its owner / Freedom is the mastery of the known”). You can’t help but wonder sometimes if the band is test-driving phrases for future album titles. (For the duo, it’s always been the more audacious the title, the better. In particular, “Power of Not Knowing,” the album’s eighth track, sounds like a Kings of Convenience album title in-waiting.) Fortunately, more often than not these lyrics come across as emotional tributes rather than impersonal statements of fact, even when the duo flirts with political ideas. A decade into their career, Øye and Bøe’s honest declaration of self comes through loud and clear, no matter how quiet they are. Øye and Bøe no longer need those brunettes who appear on the cover of their first two albums. On their third and best LP, these two just have each other, and we’re all the better for it.

[4 out of 5 stars]

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Track Review: “Little Faith” by The National

Songs by The National uniformly have momentum: you get the sense you’re being carried somewhere, even if the destination is shrouded in Matt Berninger’s lyrics. But getting there often means taking a song and bending it in new directions. On the band’s fourth album, Boxer, these moments are striking: the steady piano march postscript to “Slow Show,” which shuts the door on whatever optimism the song had to that point generated; or near the mid-point of “Guest Room,” when Berninger bows out briefly and we’re left with a nervous guitar line that gives the song one final push towards its conclusion.

Little Faith,” the fourth track on the National’s latest full-length, High Violet, produces such a moment and gives it all the room it needs to grow. It’s a shame, then, that the track could be dismissed as an interlude: the two tracks that follow complement each other so perfectly that they easily steal most of the attention in the middle-third of the album. (The anxiety that builds throughout the fifth track, “Afraid of Everyone,” is finally swept away in the cathartic refrain in “Bloodbuzz Ohio.”) But “Little Faith” is the National is at its brooding best, with Berninger ruminating on the dangerous consequences of having nothing to do with nowhere to go. While Berninger’s rich baritone usually emerges as the centerpiece of the National’s songs, the instrumentation here gets the proper creative treatment. Two-thirds of the way into “Little Faith,” the percussion stops for a moment and strings turn figure 8s around a pitter-patter guitar melody, giving Berninger just the right context to admit that he’s in on your little secret: “Don’t be bitter, Anna / I know how you think / You’re waiting for Radio City to sink.” That gorgeous image of clouds parting? Yeah, I saw it too. This is no ordinary bridge. It’s a revelation.

[4.5 out of 5 stars]

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