Review from .

As rock & roll gets older – really as any medium of art gets older – the questions start amassing about where there is left to explore once more and more corners of a once dimly lit room are illuminated. What once seemed unlimited is now boxed neatly with walls – sturdy, supportive and finite.  What’s a good decorator to do? One option is to create the illusion of more space, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to place broad mirrors at the end of a room. They provide the illusion of depth and space, making the room feel larger than it really is. These mirrors reflect back on the space of the room, showing everything the room contains, framing within the mirror’s confines a view of the world that ties everything together.

Enter Chapel Hill, NC’s Lake Inferior.  One of the first bands signed to the University of North Carolina’s student-run record label, Vinyl Records, the five piece pull from the many disparate areas of rock & roll’s lineage.  While the question of “where is left to go” must seem daunting to artists, Lake Inferior refutes the question, concentrating on how to incorporate all that has already been found.

The band’s debut, self-titled, EP embraces modern anthemic indie like Arcade Fire, touches of time signature and mood shifts, blaring horns and frenetic, racing rock. These particular influences aren’t confined just to particular songs – nor are they the only notes struck. Throw in a seeming penchant for the world-embracing folk-rock of North Carolina contemporaries like Bombadil, flourishes of the dancey rhythms of Talking Heads and, seriously, a bit of the odd pairings and shifts of prog-rock.

On the surface this sounds like a studio experiment just waiting to fall flat on its face, but Lake Inferior excel in composition and the EP strolls through its six songs with a fierce confidence in its work. “How the Wars Are Won” opens the EP with a deft appreciation for the aforementioned Arcade Fire, here sounding like fellow populist songsmiths. “Landlocked Surf Rock” takes nearly two and a half minutes to reach its vocals, but the style-hopping turns it takes to get there leads to a dynamic song within the song.

But it’s the note-perfect “Spiders” that is the crown jewel of this EP and that will undoubtedly have people dancing, figuratively or literally. It’s the song that immediately calls to mind the influence of Talking Heads, touching also on the infectious electronic punctuations of Animal Collective. It’s a swinging, pulsing, living song that is impossible to ignore. It sounds, underneath, like the cartoony music that should underline some mammoth creature’s stroll through the underbrush, like a lost bit of Bjork’s Post heyday.

I’m not one to usually invite so many comparisons to existing artists, but this is where the metaphor of the mirror becomes most apt. In making the room seem larger, Lake Inferior is using a reflection of so much of rock & roll’s history that it all becomes fragmented, edges blurred. The result is the image of rock cast back upon itself, seeing itself through multiple lenses at once, and realizing that the undiscovered country may lay within parts already known.

Review from .

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Bradford Cox is such a controversial, divisive figure in the indie world. Easy to forget, that is, if you stay away from blogs, and just listen to the music. He’s opinionated, to be sure, isn’t afraid of scorn and posts TONS of free music on his own personal weblog. But, listening to things like Logos, that all falls away pretty easily, revealing an interesting (understatement), talented (ditto) musician with a deep love of Animal Collective (admitted often with adoration) and shoe gaze.

But, even Logos came with its own set of controversy. All the way back in the faraway dark ages of 2008, Cox unwittingly left an extremely version of the album in an open-to-the-public downloadable folder on an upload site. According to posts on his blog and in interviews all over the place, he considered just letting that be the end of Logos, letting the half-formed version die. Thankfully, though, he brought the album back, injected it with more expansive sounds than ever before and involved other great musicians to fulfill his full vision.

From the opening saccharine shudders of “The Light That Failed”, those influences I mentioned above aren’t going anywhere. The looped, jingling guitar and bells glide by smoothly, spacy enough, yet sufficiently airy and lilting. The dual vocals, one heavily wah’ed (reminiscent of Animal Collective’s “Visiting Friends”), the other a charming falsetto, play off of each other masterfully. The oddly familiar “An Orchid” follows, lolling on acoustic guitar and Cox’s insistently moaning vocals.

And then, friends, comes the much-discussed, Internet-loved duo between Cox and Noah Lennox. That’s right, that Noah Lennox. Panda Bear, one fourth (or is it officially third, yet?) of the Cox-loved Animal Collective. Honestly, the track sounds like it fell off of Person Pitch or Merriweather Post Pavillion and fell into Cox’s lap, but really, that’s just a testament to both a)how deep and palpable his admiration and knowledge of AC is and b)the amount of talent Cox has, to be able to so perfectly reproduce the sound and feeling. The track, which goes by “Walkabout” (the title of which initially had me jumping to the AC track “Bearhug”, which bootlegs often titled “Walk Around”) is nothing short of sublime. The chorus of “What did you want to see? What did you want to be when you grew up?” has that perfect blend of anxiety about being an adult and embracing child-like enthusiasm that marks so much of Panda Bear’s material. The looped, chirping synth line and drum beat lope about warmly as Cox and Lennox harmonize and swoon in a manner the (get ready for the cliché/annoying AC/Panda Bear sound comparison) Beach Boys would be proud of.

A large chunk of songs follow that are slower, mellower and less engaging. They’re not bad, to say the least, but following an act like “Walkabout” is tough. “Shelia” is the closest the album comes, a confounding mixture of alarmingly normal instrumentation and music, a very pop-friendly hook and some possibly-depressing-possibly-uplifting lyrics. “We’ll die alone, together” Cox repeats after first insisting that no one wants to die alone. Is he saying that their togetherness overcomes the aloneness, or is he saying that no matter if they’re together or not, they’ll die alone. Probably the latter, knowing the track record, but I won’t assume so. After all, this is a new, “bored with introspection” Bradford Cox.

“Quick Canal”, featuring Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab, is a seven minute, chugging, psychedelic piece that sounds fit for Cox’s other band, Deerhunter, as much as it does for Atlas Sound. “Kid Klimax” is intriguing, a strangely pop drum ‘n synth beat that Cox’s distorted moans of “Oh my god” can’t keep from sounding decidedly un-Cox. The rest of the album passes by with a sugar-rush of distortion, synth, and a continuously expanding personality. The closing title track could be described as bouncy, even fun. In the end, Logos is an interesting look at Bradford Cox’s personality this week, but with the way he releases music and keeps talking, who knows where he’ll be next week. Here’s to hoping it’ll be something as good as “Walkabout”.

Review from .

This version of Small Black’s debut EP is a remastered update of the original that popped up online last year, now outfitted with two additional tracks. Originally a bedroom duo consisting of Ryan Heyner and Josh Kolenik, Small Black added two new members (including contributors Juan Pieczanski and Jeff Curtin) to bring the insular, demo-like tracks included here to a live setting. And if Small Black are shaping up to be a proper band (their upcoming full-length will feature the expanded line-up), this EP serves as an intriguing portrait of the group in its pollywog stage, making music that is simply stated and occasionally arresting.

Much of the EP sounds almost half-formed, as heavy reverb and over-processed synthesizers often overwhelm the subtle melodies and bright patches that anchor the dazed, mercurial songs. Most often, you have to work a little harder for the small rewards; beneath the tangled synth chatter and seasick sway of “Weird Machines” is a joviality that could be blown up to fill a large space (confirmed by a live version that appeared on a recent split EP with the like-minded Washed Out). Such revelry can spill out of a track at any given moment, and major highlight “Despicable Dogs” is by far the best demonstration of it here. But Heyner and Kolenik seem more interested in establishing a mood than pursuing full-on pop pleasures; they often sabotage their more accessible moments with noisy sample cycles and calamitous, disorienting percussion.

But Small Black should be approached as a document of a band in its embryonic form, a wash of ideas that work just often enough to be satisfying. The only real mistake is the addition of the two additional tunes– the too-straightforward “Kings of Animals” and the ambling, harmonica-centered “Baby Bird Pt. 2”. Both are true to the sound of the original EP, but they fail to conjure the same buzzing, sentimental vibe. Certainly the larger, fully formed version of Small Black is the one to look out for, but Small Black— shaky, yet often gratifying– is more than just a stop-gap.


Review from .

Luke Temple’s first foray into pseudonymical songwriting territory feels as current as did Snowbeast and Hold a Match for a Gasoline World , his prior two records released under his given name. But where those albums– banjo-centric and cast with Temple’s delicately high-pitched voice– situated him firmly in the realm of borderline-precious indie folkies like Sufjan Stevens and Danielson, Here We Go Magic works with a different form of alchemy. Four-tracked and supposedly cut in “a two-month period of stream-of-consciousness recording,” the album filters Temple’s psychedelic muse through a much more muted palette: hazy electronic textures, endlessly-spiraling lyrical loops, occasional forays into extended sections of ambience and noise. The title itself indicates that Here We Go Magic might just be a spur-of-the-moment lark between more polished works, but its best points suggest we should only encourage Temple to mess around more in his off-time.

The old-timey waltz “Everything’s Big” closes Magic as both a reminder of the first two records and a neat index of the prevailing themes of the current effort: winsome, romantic philosophizing distilled to its very essence, with Temple agape, staring down the immensity of his existence. Opener “Only Pieces” has Temple singing a mantra about mortality awareness (“What’s the use in dyin’, dyin’, if I don’t know when?”) in a lo-fi wash of xylophone, clip-clopping percussion, and acoustic guitar. If it sounds like a field recording of a ca. 1971 Paul Simon acid trip, it’s as much kismet as intent: Temple’s vocals throughout the album are cast with a sense of boyish wonder that suggests Simon, but that’s only because it’s how a lot of young guys sound when they’re confronting the enormity of the Big Questions.

The gentle abruptness of “Only Pieces”‘ conclusion– it just quietly fades away– is indicative of Magic on the whole: we don’t get proper endings, but brief interruptions in what seem like transmissions straight from Temple’s unconscious. The best bits of Magic are, like “Pieces”, wispy and repetitive, emerging fully formed, drifting about for a bit, then disappearing. On “I Just Want to See You Underwater”, Temple blanches his voice to Perry Farrell territory, and cycles through that phrase alone, mantra-like, as if it matters not to him that anyone actually hears it. All of “Tunnelvision”s woozy vigor is also contained in Temple’s undulating vocals, which glide effortlessly between notes over a backing of hiccupping guitars and the comforting sound of drumsticks on a guitar case. The result is a bedroom-folk “Knives Out”, which is a good thing. “Fangela”, the best and most fully realized track, is where clip-clopping percussion and handclaps share space with glimmering synth flecks, over which Temple’s voice offers sympathetic counsel. Only swatches of the lyrics are intelligible (“Look at me,” “Feast your eyes,” “All is yours”) but that’s part of the enchantment of magic: A fleeting glimpse of something that might have been transcendent, leaving our minds to fill in what we didn’t quite see.

By definition, interior monologues are self-indulgent, and entrancing as it can be at its peaks, 11 minutes of Magic’s brief 38 are taken with that trendiest of current indie tropes, the ambient/noise interstitial. Deerhunter, No Age, and Women have all found different ways to let the hiss take over, but Temple doesn’t seem to have the same innate knack for this stuff (maybe I’m being too idealistic, but Temple seems too good-natured to simply broadcast white noise), and those moments combine to drag the album down a bit. More specifically, those bits suffer in comparison to those other 27 minutes of Magic: a sculpted version of that same disarming din, with a compassionate interpreter telling us what we’re seeing.

Review from .

Texas-born Jana Hunter, the talented freak-folk guitarist and singer, was the first artist to release an album on Devendra Banhart and Vetiver frontman Andy Cabic’s label Gnomonsong. In all she’s put out two full-length albums, one EP, and a split with Banhart, alongside contributions to other bands, including Phosphorescent and CocoRosie. Her last release was in 2007, and fans wondered where Hunter had gone until she recently started turning up at venues with a new band. The new group, a foursome based in Baltimore, immerses her elastic alto tone in a colorful mix of electric guitar, bass, and drums, yielding unhinged, dreamy rock with just the right mix of flourish and understatement. This is very much Hunter’s band; anyone familiar with her work will hear the parallels between the two acts. The biggest difference between Twin-Hand Movement and Hunter’s solo albums is the instrumentation: This album is more about her guitar than her voice, which is absent from a few of the songs. Both projects let their guitars go off and wander, but the lilting country twang seems to have been left behind.

Instead, Lower Dens experiment with a broad range of tones, all in the service of atmosphere. They also frequently stick to lower registers and slower tempos, which at times comes off as too introspective, especially on the instrumental tracks. The same could be said of the xx’s debut– when Lower Dens are at their most spare (“Rosie” and “Plastic & Powder”), the two bands sound similar– but in place of the xx’s foggy sexual tension, Hunter and company share a wider array of emotion. When Hunter’s voice appears– often deep into tracks– it can sound spent, alluring, hopeful, and exasperated, and the guitars are just as versatile: screeching, whining, twinkling– they’re the show-offs in the band. That said, there is a placid, warm quality to nearly every track, no matter what the guitars are up to. (For this, credit is due to producer Chris Coady, who also mixed Beach House’s Teen Dream; Coady turns busy bunches of layers into an elegant bouquet.)

Hunter’s deep, smooth voice– comparable to PJ Harvey’s, especially on grittier tracks like “Completely Golden”– is woven in with the least trebly of the instruments, whispery yet tensile. When it’s time for the guitars to show off with elaborate arpeggios, gurgling shreds, and distant, glittery calls-and-responses, she stands back from the mic entirely, or at least gives the instruments, including her own, a long intro. Even when her lyrics are a key component of a song, she can sound (like Beach House’s Victoria Legrand) a little lost in the mix, as if the force of the instruments were threatening to blow her away. The rare tracks where she’s loudest are just as strong as the others: there’s the slight “Truss Me”, whose title is a good indication of how slow and loose the song is, and “Two Cocks”, a joyous, robust potential single.

Lower Dens appreciate the grimy atmospherics of new wave as much as the dizzy elements of shoegaze, which can make Twin-Hand Movement confusing on first listen. But when variety sounds this good, it’s hard to fault a band for sharing so many ideas in one place. The album is primarily about atmosphere: about translating feeling into music, rather than the music serving as a companion to lyrics. When Hunter ruminates about “just a-standing in your pretty presence” on “I Get Nervous”, the instruments, playing a long, cozy intro of noodling and heartbeat percussion, are that “pretty presence”– or the closest thing to it.

Review from .

Ava Luna’s music collection could be worse. The Brooklyn five-piece excel at taste-splicing in an era when nothing is new and combining old sounds and styles to create something fleetingly unique is the go-to modus operandi. The New York post-punk and no wave of ESG, James Chance and the Contortions and Talking Heads are easy to spot influences, as are more current inspirations such as Aaliyah and Dirty Projectors. It’s fitting, then, that Ava Luna’s second full-length, Electric Balloon, was mixed by Jimmy Douglass, who has worked on releases for both Television and Missy Elliott. Electric Balloon is nowhere near as consistent as Marquee Moonor Miss E…So Addictive, but when it’s on, Ava Luna do their influences proud.

Carlos Hernandez is the technical lead singer of Ava Luna, but occasionally he will step aside to let the stunning vocals of Felicia Douglass or the punkier strains of Becca Kauffman take center stage. Hernandez’s voice is an acquired taste. If you like Beck’s soul histrionics on Midnite Vultures or any vocal performance by Jamie Lidell, you’re going to love it. If you’re bored of the white boy soul thing, then just don’t bother. Either way, Hernandez’s songs always bring to mind a sweaty,desperate twentysomething in an oversized suit, although any Ava Luna live footage on the Internet shows a nerdy young guy in a polo shirt playing guitar and singing with an incongruous, Al Green-steeped, falsetto.

Hernandez heads two of the clearest winners on Electric Balloon, one being the opener, “Daydream”, whose screeching sax sees the band at their most Contortions-esque. The frankly excellent “Plain Speak” is Ava Luna firing on all cylinders, with Hernandez barking the title like he’s auditioning to sing the “James Brown” line in a Brooklyn indie stars cover of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”. The song soon abandons nervy funk for straight up soul, with a bridge that sounds slightly reminiscent of Green’s “L-O-V-E Love”. When Douglass and Kauffman join in on the chorus, they sound so unabashedly blissful and warm that the listener can’t help but raise her arms to praise this moment of sincere power.

The album’s title track, which follows “Plain Speak”, upholds Electric Balloon’s middle section and sees Kauffman taking center stage for a vocal performance far better than the Kathleen Hanna homage she adopted on Ava Luna’s recent cover of Icona Pop’s “I Love It”.  With just this one song, Kauffman upholds valuable female post punk vocal tics while the rest of the Ava Luna personnel inject some New Wavey flavor into the proceedings. In the same manner, Kauffman does her best Renee Scroggins impression on “Sears Roebuck M&M’s” and comes out with a song that would sweep a diet ESG taste test.

The purest R&B track on Electric Balloon is “PRPL”, and it features another—even more effective—winning solo from Douglass. Although “Judy”, with its “you know a nerd is singing this soul song” refrain of “I don’t have the stomach for it” comes close, other songs with urban leanings, such as “Hold U”, “Crown”, and “Aquarium” feel lacking. Electric Balloon’s closing tracks, “Genesee” and “Ab Ovo” show promise insofar as Ava Luna creating a more unique sound for themselves, but these songs also have an air of too little, too late.

Ava Luna are surely a band to watch, and when Kauffman and Douglass sing back-up, their takes serve as a nice antidote to Dirty Projectors’ more artsy fartsy rendering of doo-wop singing. Still, Electric Balloon lacks the consistency needed to catapult Ava Luna beyond the indie blogosphere. Nothing here really surpasses predecessor Ice Level’s standout “Wrenning Day”. Apart from decent work by Jimmy Douglass and a few moments of genuine emotion and promise, Ava Luna will hopefully have better luck the third time around.

Album Review: Braids – Native Speaker

My first introduction to the Montreal-based quartet Braids went something like this: “Have you heard Braids? They sound like Animal Collective fronted by a woman.” Love or hate them, Animal Collective has been one of the quintessential bands to emerge over the past decade, with eight albums and various solo projects, so it’s only natural that their influence is becoming increasingly apparent in recent works from other artists. Unfortunately for Braids, comparisons to an artist with such a distinctive style are going to result in some people immediately writing them off as derivative. The question for Braids, then, is whether Native Speaker is just a bandwagon-jumping offshoot, or if it’s using an influence to create something that is their own.

Stellar Native Speaker opener “Lemonade” appears to solve this quandary right away.  An arpeggiated synth loop rises and falls and vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston sings like Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne, beginning with a delicate whisper before letting loose with a forceful wail. Yes, the specter of Feels looms throughout, but the result is gorgeous, eerie, and compelling in its own right. “Plath Heart” is more reminiscent of Gang Gang Dance, with Standell-Preston sounding especially playful in her high register, synth melodies and tribal rhythms interweaving into something that is simultaneously experimental and danceable.
“Glass Deers” begins with dreamy textures and soothing harmonies, building up to such urgency that unrestrained yelping is the only natural response, going back and forth for over eight minutes. The Avey Tare influence is especially apparent here. In a sequencing that is as inspired as it is effective, the frantic “Glass Deers” is followed by Native Speaker’s title track, which is the album’s eye of the storm, or that cigarette before a second round. Its rich layering of noise, synth, and harmonies is calming and as hypnotic as anything from Person Pitch.

Braids go for more pulsating synths on “Lammicken”, with Standell-Preston’s vocals switching from breathy and seductive to potent howls, while a soothing, looping “aaaah” holds everything together. Native Speaker closes with the instrumental “Little Hand”, a spacey jazz piece that proves not every album needs to go out with a bang in order to end on a strong note.  Yes, the influence of bands such as Animal Collective and Gang Gang Dance is present more often than not, but like all noteworthy artists, Braids are guided by the approaches their avant-pop inspirations take, rather than merely the sounds with their own distinct twist to them.