Category Archives: Album Reviews

Chairlift – Something

I was made aware of Chairlift’s existence listening to what we thought was an 80’s new wave internet radio station at work. I heard “I Belong in Your Arms”, thought it was a great song, and went about investigating the band. I was surprised to find out that the album was released this year, although the recording did sound a little too slick to be from the 80’s. Turns out the station was based on that time period but included songs from any era that fit in with the sound.

According to Wikipedia, the original intention of the project was to make music for haunted houses. Apparently sometime after they had decided to make pop music instead, their song Bruises was used in a commercial to launch some new iPod model. I have not heard that album at all, but here are my thoughts on Something, filtered through Chairlift-virgin ears.

OVERVIEW
Something has a very heavily 80’s influenced feel, with lots of atmospheric and bleepy synths, and super airy vocals with sweet melodies, although there are moments of rock intensity and darker moods. Maybe that’s some of the spookiness held over from the haunted house phase. It’s almost like The Eurythmics meet Imogen Heap. The vocalist doesn’t necessarily draw directly from Annie Lennox or Ms. Heap, but I feel there are healthy doses of both in there, with maybe just a little early 90’s r & b slowjam, minus the over the top vocal acrobatics. What really defines this album are the atmospherics and the melodies, the first getting the feeling just right, so when that amazing melody jumps out, sometimes unexpectedly, you are primed for it, and its like someone just put a blood pressure cuff around your heart and inflated fast.

HIGHLIGHTS

Sidewalk Safari – Starts off sounding a little wacky, but once you listen to it a few times you get used to that bendy melody, and it does relate well to the keyboard line chorus hook (it’s kinda interesting that it is the keyboard line that sticks in your head and not the vocal in this chorus). The beat sounds a little like an audio heart arrhythmia. Party heart. The bridge takes us on a twilight adventure in an electric jungle. That sounds like an MGMT video.

I Belong in Your Arms – Pulse pulse pulse. This song is audio butterflies. I dare you to not like it. Unless you don’t like airy female singers, or the 80’s. Then it wouldn’t be much of a dare.

Met Before – The start of this song could have easily come from the Stone Roses side of the Madchester Music scene. Guitar bang wiggle. The chorus would go well with a fast forwarded montage section of a Brat-Pack movie.

MUSIC NERDERY
Many electronic keyboards are equipped with a pitch-bend wheel. It’s kinda like a big knob turned on its side and spring loaded so it always returns to center, and when you roll it forward or backward it moves the pitch of the notes you are playing up or down a preset amount. It’s a keyboard trying to be like a guitar player bending strings, but much more accurately. Not that there is anything wrong with that. What? You will find liberal use of a pitch-bend wheel in the intro to sidewalk safari.

RECOMMENDATIONS
If you smile when 80’s pop or new-wave comes on the radio, either because you are joyful or just amused, give this album a listen. Also if you have liked any of the more recent wave of electro-pop like the Sounds, Imogen Heap, or less Rock-y Metric, give it a go. If you are generally just kinda uptight and serious, this might not be your bag. Not to say that if you don’t like it you have a stick up your ass, but you do and I can’t hear you protesting because the stick is coming out of your mouth.

Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires

After their introduction in the late 70’s and popularity in the 80’s, synthesizer parts started sneaking back into rock in the early aughts with The Sounds and Metric, and subsequently The Killers who pulled it right to the front of the mainstream. That brought a bevy of followers, some putting their own spin on this synth-rock sound (like the band in this review), some following the same formula (the bravery), and some just inserting bleepy keyboard lines because it was cool (even grossly pop-punk stalwarts simple plan). I don’t know if or where Radiohead really sits in that whole trend, and I am not even going to try and tackle their use of electronic instruments or the influence that may or may not have had on other musicians, because well…they’re Radiohead.

This resurgence of the synth in rock started nearly ten years ago, and now spans everything from a programmed beat or keyboard part here and there to fully electronic rock, and pops up in songs from small indie rock bands right through to mainstream indie rock bands. Haha, I joke I joke, I kid I kid. Anyway, it’s everywhere. Some bands have found a mix that works well for them, such as Ratatat (distinctive instrumental sound, harmonized guitar that sounds like a synth leads), Pheonix on their most recent album (laser precise indie telecaster guitar, with some electronic energy and catchy but not tiring melodies), and the ever-present Metric, who retain a raw feel, boasting a catalogue ranging from songs entirely driven by electronic parts to others devoid of synthesizers or drum machines that somehow still maintain the dancey rock energy they are known for.

OVERVIEW
Friendly fires have a fairly equal mix of live and synthesized instruments, with the two types meshing so well with each other that it is often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Latin, disco and rock beats are combined with funky and/or indie guitars/bass, and Brit-Pop/R&B/disco vocals on this album to create a mix that sounds wholly original, despite all seperate parts being noticeably borrowed from specific genres. Just enough of an edge is kept on each song to keep the roots in rock.

HIGHLIGHTS
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Jump in the Pool – Synthesized vocal choir opening implies something much more like an electronic Sigur Ros song is slowly developing, but latin and or afro-funk percussion and British Idie-pop vocals quickly jump into the mix and dispel any such notion. The verses are energetic, and the reverb drenched chorus vocals return us somewhat to the feel of the intro but it’s like we have skipped over the buildup of the previously imagined sigur ros style right to the crescendo. That’s why I like pop, sometimes it’s best to just deliver the goods up front. Immediate gratification, audio drugs. There is a keyboard solo near the end of the song that sits just right in the mix, allowing the percussion and atmospherics to do most of the talking, and just adds some light frosting (have you ever had one of those cakes that has like an inch of frosting on the outside, gross right? Ruins a perfectly good cake).

White Diamonds – Disco flavoured beats. Theatrical verse vocals. Driving, Dance-tastic, Octave-bounce chorus, sparse atmospheric break makes you wonder for a second if there has been a transition to another song, but familiar elements begin to return and pull you right back to the chorus. While the singer advises “don’t hold your breath too long, for white diamonds in the snow” the backing music of slowly swelling guitar notes and reverby pianos sounds just like falling snow might, if it weren’t silent.

Lovesick – Latiney percussion accents, Chromeo pre-chorus, full-on pheonix meets bloc party dance pop chorus, lo-fi synth bridge.

MUSIC NERDERY
Just to try something different for this section, I am going to try and explain what I mean by some of my music nerd/guitar player babble instead of continue to babble away in said fashion.
I refer to different instruments and musical parts as sounding “indie” multiple times in this post, and I know some people might not know what I mean, or might not agree with me. When I think of indie guitars, I think of the guitar sound (the amp, guitar, effects, and knobs on each), and how that guitar is played (input from the musician).

For sound, I think of fairly clean (as opposed to distorted) sounds. Thats kind of like you can hear every string in a chord (instead of being mashed together in a fuzzy but fun mess), and the notes decay (get quieter) reasonably quickly (instead of sustaining, or retaining volume for longer). It sounds closer to an acoustic guitar than a distorted guitar would. Also, an indie guitar sound tends to be fairly “round”, not twangy like in a country song, or sharp sounding like a rock song. This is mainly a function of what type of pickups (kind of like a guitar’s built in microphone) are in that guitar, and the position under the strings of the pickup or pickups selected.

What I would classify as indie guitar playing would be fast, repeated, almost robotic sounding chords or single notes. These are often produced by picking the strings only on the downstroke, but doing it fast. Very similar to a lot of punk guitar, but a little more precise, and when combined with the cleaner guitar sound, a different feel is produced. But then again, there is a lot of overlap between punk and indie. I hope I just took something confusing and made it more confusing.

RECOMMENDATIONS
Listen to it. With some volume. Dance and/or smile. Naked and/or with friends.

Brandon Boyd – The Wild Trapeze

Brandon Boyd is the lead singer from Incubus. I had no idea that he was making a solo album until the day it came out. I was interested to hear it, but unsure about how good it was going to be. I am a big Incubus fan (well, at least since they made “A Crow Left of the Murder”), but I felt they were excellent because every band member was excellent at what they did. Mike Einziger is one of my favorite guitarists, but he, like the other members knows exactly where to sit in a song, never sticking out unnecessarily or showing off. I also love Brandon Boyd’s voice, but from hearing their older albums and seeing live videos, I was aware of his tendency to ramble on in an oversymbolistic fashion, and play hand drums (damn hippies and their hand drums). I felt that the more recent albums found a balance between his style and the music the rest of the band produces. Like Jack White in the Raconteurs, his over-the-top tendencies are tempered by the other members, and his talents are allowed to shine through. My doubts stemmed from the fact that Brandon Boyd had played pretty much every instrument on The Wild Trapeze, and that it would lack the magic Incubus has as a band.

OVERVIEW
I was pleasantly surprised by this album. Maybe I’m just turning into more of a hippy in my old age, but I was not bothered by Mr. Boyd’s wordy, wacky-tobaccy fueled writing (he was actually on a prescription for medical marijuana because a severe injury during the time he wrote the album). It certainly is hard to seperate this album completely from Incubus – Brandon’s voice is too distinctive – but this album does not suffer for the comparison. Any one of the songs could be plucked out of this album and dropped right into an Incubus album without it sounding misplaced, but as a whole album it is obvious the other members of Incubus are not present. This album found Brandon exploring more acoustic sounds, with each instrument’s part being fairly simple, while the arrangements and layering are quite dense at times. Most songs are anchored with acoustic guitar (on which they were written), and then adds doses of electric, sometimes fuzzed out bass, enourmous sounding drums and percussion in sparse beats, and smatters of piano, organ,other keys and ambient and backward sounds here and there. I commend Mr. Boyd on holding his own without his talented bandmates, and producing an interesting and enjoyable batch of songs. I also cannot wait to hear his voice on top of his band again sometime soon.

HIGHLIGHTS
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The Wild Trapeze – Almost sounds like a strange acoustic cover of an Incubus song. The most energy I have heard from a nearly entirely acoustic song in awhile. Brandon sings in a much lower voice than usual for some of the backup vocals, but belts it out in his usual rock frontman style for the chorus.

Courage and Control – Probably the most sparsely arranged songs on the album. Just acoustic guitar and an added piano in the chorus serve as a background for the vocal, which is certainly the centrepiece of this song. Sounds like a tip of the hat to John Lennon at times.

Last Night a Passenger – I like fuzzy backgrounds with clear vocals. I love piano echoes. I like this song.

MUSIC NERDERY
I feel that much of this album was inspired by the writing of Earth to Bella Part 1 off of Light Grenades, Incubus’ most recent full studio album. Written by Brandon Boyd on acoustic guitar, and imagined to become a Massive Attack-ish song, it morphed into something that was very much Incubus with huge, distorted bass on the chorus. For The Wild Trapeze, Brandon seemed to mix the feelings of E.T.B.’s verses and choruses together to create an honest, natural, but bombastic sound.
It is also important to note that the use of hand drums was not over the top on this album. High Five.

RECOMMENDATIONS
I think many people will enjoy this album. Incubus fans for sure, possibly also people who enjoy solo-ish acoustic-ish acts such as Jack Johnson or City and Color. Also, if you think Brandon Boyd is a dreamboat, this collection songs will not be likely to discourage that opinion. Sigh.

The Gandharvas – Kicking in the Water

This album is from 1995, but I was just introduced to this band, and this – the middle album – was my favourite of the three. The Gandharvas rode the 90’s alternative wave for a little while, but not out of the 90’s. I’d be surprised if you didn’t recognize their 1997 single, Downtime.  That was off their final album, which seemed to employ more distorted guitars, and less whimsy, putting the sound a little closer to other bands of the time. I liked Kicking in the Water because it sounded like a more varied and drew from a unique mix of influences.

OVERVIEW
When I first heard this album, I was immediately reminded of the lighter and more whimsical side of Faith No More, and Beautiful Freak era Eels, with the almost talking, hooky vocal style; and jazzy instrumentation. The vocals are similar to those of other singers who take a nod from Axl Rose, but tone it down and chill the eff out. Guitars and pianos are the most prominent instruments on most songs, but the emphasis seems to be more on the groove and atmosphere created by the mix of instruments as a backdrop for the vocals as opposed to focusing on any specific instrument.

HIGHLIGHTS
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I am going to let the music speak for itself this week, I kept trying to write things for the songs, but I seemed to be only referencing music styles I don’t really have a handle on, so that would be pretty useless innit?

MUSIC NERDERY
I don’t know what to put in here this week, so I’ll put this link. That song is awesome, and the Gandharvas feels like a much better, more  thought out, more musical, less ridiculous version of Wheatus. But I’ve only really heard that one song, so I am probably being unfair to Wheatus. I’m sorry Wheatus, keep the rock alive.

RECOMMENDATIONS
If you liked the 90’s, this album is up your alley for sure. If you only liked the grungy, screamy, aspects of the 90’s then maybe not so much. I’m talking more the Blind Melons, Faith No Mores, No Doubts, Janes Addictions, Soul Asylums, Presidents of the United States of Americas, Eels, Gin Blossoms, Marvelous 3s (and all those other sugary but scuzzy pop bands that were around). Even if that makes no sense to you, listen to this album, it’s good.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really enjoying going back and listening to all these 90’s bands that were not quite so angsty as those that tended to carry the flag for the decade of my youth. All the less angry sounding bands were probably just covering up the depression with sugar instead of venting their anger, but it makes me happy now, so I shall give them a cheer-up high five through time.

Sage Francis – LI(F)E

“I heard god is coming and she’s a screamer”- I Was Zero. I wasn’t lying about doing a rap album this week . This is going to be a little new for me, so forgive my ignorance of the genre. I don’t even know if I should call this stuff hip-hop, indie rap, or what. I generally don’t like rap (which is different than not respecting it), and I think it has something to do with the lack of a live band. I feel that live instruments are able to convey a sense of dynamics and energy or emotion to a track that just doesn’t happen as easily when backing tracks are programmed and/or sampled. Though I am a fan of earlier hip-hop like Run DMC, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys etc. and some of those beats are as robotic as you get, so who knows why I don’t like it. There are groups such as the Roots who are a live band, but I find that hip-hop that makes use of a live band tends to lean towards reggae, another genre that I am not so fond of for some reason. Anyway, this week’s mixtape is going to be all rap/hip-hop/grime/post-rap/whatever/post-whatever, so I can highlight some of that stuff I like. Now onto what I like about this album!

OVERVIEW
On LI(F)E, Sage Francis mixes Josh Martinez/Everlast/Kazzer vocals with rock, folk and indie backing tracks. The whole album seems to be without programmed beats or samples, relying mainly on live drums, keys, bass, guitars, and other stringed instruments of the acoustic and electric varieties. From time to time, some synthesized keys appear, but sound like they are played by a live person as opposed to a midi track. This all makes for an interesting mix, which I like so far, although I am unsure of its staying power in my playlists. I have a short attention span, and I generally listen to pop music with catchy melodies, so for me it is very hard to absorb everything a rapper says without listening intently a number of times. Sometimes it just seems like random figures of speech that sound interesting strung together. Mr. Francis does seem to be at his best when he is storytelling, like in “Little Houdini” or “The Best of Times”. It makes the words easier to follow, and you quickly get a sense for the context of the lyrics so the metaphors don’t come across as so random. I was a little torn on picking favourite songs, between fun rockin’ backing tracks, and more vocal focused tracks. Anyway, I did my best, here they are, if you like any of them, please check out more.

HIGHLIGHTS
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Three Sheets to the Wind – This is the song that introduced me to Sage Francis. A chugging, charging guitar line starts this rockin’ track. It’s pretty cool how the vocal manages to join in the rhythm, instead of being part of the melody first and foremost.

The Baby Stays – The vocal reminds me of an aggressive Josh Martinez. The backing track comes courtesy of a very folkly ensemble of acoustic guitars, banjo, fiddle, and maybe some ukelele or mandolin. Almost zeppelin-ish at times.

London Bridge – Messy fuzz rock that sounds like it was recorded inside a bouncy castle with a bunch of kids that have been fed too much cotton candy. Awesome.

The Best of Times – A cool storytelling track. Sage Francis’s childhood and beyond in five and a half minutes. Xylophones, skinny white boy indie backups, and warbly synths maintain the anti-beat feel of this album.

MUSIC NERDERY
In order to achieve the eclectic sound of this album, Mr. Francis got many indie artists on board for recording, including Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, and Richard Terfry (better known as Buck 65). Wiki it up to see the full list, It’s pretty extensive.

RECOMMENDATIONS
If you are a fan of Josh Martinez, Buck 65, Everlast, The Streets, or other slightly off-center hip-hop/rap with clever lyrics, you should check this album out for sure. I think most everyone should give this album a listen though, the variety of odd combos of musical styles could mean lots of surprise favorite songs for each person. I don’t think anything groundbreaking came out of this album, but I commend Sage Francis and his friends for trying something just a little different than what we’ve heard before.