Saturday, December 31, 2011

DEPARTING - The Rural Alberta Advantage (2011)

Whether as fiery and hard-charging as classic punk, or as sad and secluded as the bedroom pop of contemporaries like Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, the ten tracks on Toronto-based trio The Rural Alberta Advantage's second album Departing offer up a brand of indie folk as straightforward and non-fussed-over as one is likely to hear.

But in no way should this lack of complexity be perceived as a flaw.

Powered by band leader Nils Edenloff's battle ax of an acoustic guitar and piercing, Jeff Mangum-like howl, the songs on Departing are a highly consistent, appealing, and propulsive lot...perfect for long drives down desolate roads the album's Fargo referencing cover so clearly suggests.

And while in no way intended or implied as a substitute for In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, I feel many fans of Neutral Milk Hotel will eat this album will any listener who likes their indie served spare, passionate, and direct.

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Under The Knife, North Star, Stamp, Barnes Yard.

Here's the official video for Muscle Relaxants.

Component Breakdown:
1. Two Lovers - 7
2. The Breakup - 7
3. Under The Knife - 8
4. Muscle Relaxants - 8
5. North Star - 8
6. Stamp - 9
7. Tornado '87 - 8
8. Barnes' Yard - 8
9. Coldest Days - 8
10. Good Night - 8
Intangibles - Above Average
Listen On Spotify!

2011 Albums Presently In Rotation


None at present.


??. Space Is Only Noise - Nicolas Jaar: Combine the rampant textural eclecticism of career peak Moby with a slower paced, distinctly after-hours feel, and that gives you a very good sense of the surprises in store on this excellent full-length electronica debut.


??. All Eternals Deck - The Mountain Goats: Nothing new here, just another thoroughly engaging Mountain Goats release.
??. - White Denim: Classic psychedelic country-rock harmonies and jams galore in this uneven but very likable offering from one today's best contemporary garage acts.

??. Mirror Traffic - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: Malkmus veers away the heavy pyschedelia of 2008's Real Emotional Trash, instead producing a loose, snarky, ramshackle collection of widely eclectic pop and rock tunes.  Several fun moments on this one.


??. New Brigade - Iceage: Classic, assaultive punk by way of four angry Danish teens.  Fans of bands ranging from The Clash to The Futureheads will want to give this one a spin.


None at present.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BON IVER - Bon Iver (2011)

The majority of the song titles on Bon Iver's Bon Iver, his self-titled full-length follow-up to his wildly successful debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, refer to locations at once both recognizable and non-existent...Minnesota, WI...Michicant...Hinnom, TX...Lisbon, OH...and it's this merging of the familiar with the imaginary that lies at the heart of this elusive collection of soft-rock dreamscapes, one of the hardest records to pin down in quite some time.

Fans of the debut can take solace in the fact that like For Emma, Bon Iver is a gentle, introspective work, and that Justin Vernon's instinctive, dynamic falsetto remains as spectacular as ever.

But otherwise, everything has changed.

Where For Emma was raw and desolate and crisp and stripped-to-the-bone clear, Bon Iver is lush and welcoming but utterly shapeless, a dense, amorphous, constantly shifting world to get lost in rather a scarred, barren landscape to traverse.

Where For Emma seemed sprung straight from a agonized soul, Bon Iver feels the work of an becalmed, drifting, almost sub-conscious mind.

And it's the extremely intuitive nature of this album that is the source of both its highest highs and lowest lows, of which there are plenty of both.

Musically, Vernon seems to be playing with two recent sub-genres he's been exposed to through his many collaborations of the last few years.

The first stylistic foray, which makes up about two-thirds of the album's material, is to take songs somewhat similar in initial feel to those of For Emma, but then adorn them in rich, over-instrumented, multi-part arrangements ala art-rock/beard-folk contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, The Fleet Foxes, Okkervil River, Animal Collective and The National.  As big a stylistic leap as this is from For Emma's spare acoustics, all of this album's best material...Perth, Holocene, Towers, MichicantCalgary...fall into this category.

They second, much less satisfying foray is a continuation of Vernon's experimental R&B collaborations with Kanye West, James Blake, and most significantly, Gayngs.  At times the album effortlessly intermingles these two approaches as well, but trends more and more towards the experimental R&B as it progresses, until by album's end, with Lisbon, OH and Beth/Rest, we're into lame-oh 80s soft-soul territory so gooey and mushy and MTV it would have felt right at home on the Top Gun soundtrack.

But where things really break down on Bon Iver is with the mix.

It's undoubtedly been a very heady ride for Vernon over the last few years, with the success of For Emma and all the celebrated, high profile collaborations, but in also taking on the bulk of the production responsibilities here, he's bitten of more than he can chew and done the album a real disservice.

The drums play flat and tinny, the phased guitars sound shrill and break unintentionally into the red, and despite the obvious goal of conveying a dreamlike state, the overall mix still feels unnecessarily incoherent and muddy.  Nowhere are the mixing issues more obvious than on Calgary, which should easily be the album's best song, but because of its mix, feels just middle of the pack.

So in the end, an inconclusive review.  I've settled on a high ranking solid recommend, but in truth, my feelings towards the album have varied dramatically listen to listen, though I have always liked the first half better than the second.

But I do think it is an album most listeners should pick up, and here's why...

Through it's first eight songs, Bon Iver's Bon Iver may be the first rock and roll release that is genuinely of this century.

It's as if Vernon has taken the work of all the other contemporary artists I've mentioned above (most of whom have been clearly influenced by artists from 60s, 70s, and 80s), thrown all that work into a blender, and then strained all the older influences out, so that only the modern, post-2000 sensibilities remain.

Food for thought as you fall into this unusual and flawed but very significant work.

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Pickers Best Bets: Perth, Holocene, Towers, Calgary.

Here's the official video for Grammy nominee Holocene, which does a very nice job capturing the sense of expansive, dreamlike wonder the album conveys as a whole.

Component Breakdown:
1. Perth - 8
2. Minnesota, WI - 8
3. Holocene - 9
4. Towers - 9
5. Michicant - 8
6. Hinnon, TX - 7
7. Wash. - 7
8. Calgary - 8
9. Lisbon, OH - 5
10. Beth/rest - 5
Intangibles - Average.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

DYE IT BLONDE - Smith Westerns (2011)

Barely out of high school when they released their self-titled debut in 2009, Chicago's Smith Western's Dye It Blonde finds the band settling in on an appealing early 70s glam-pop vibe that recalls George Harrison's early solo recordings (especially All Things Must Pass) and/or prime Mott The Hoople in its strongest moments, and cheesier bubblegum punk acts like The Sweet or Bay City Rollers in its worst.

The instrumental craftsmanship and nuance, especially when one considers the band's age, is impressive, but after nifty opener Weekend, the rest of the material here, though consistently energetic and upbeat, struggles to take flight.

A couple of the other tracks come close...Imagine Pt. 3 and the jaunty Dance Away in particular...but otherwise, some spark just seems to be missing...the instrumental hooks don't quite grab, the vocals a bit too smooth and soft to bite, the overall choices a touch too safe to excite...leaving the listener with what I found to be an increasingly frustrating string of "almost" great tracks.

Still, if you're a fan of the classic 70s glam or the early solo Beatles releases, the sound and energy here are strong enough that you'll probably find Dye It Blonde worthwhile (Lord knows the album has received its share of stellar reviews). But for the rest of you, I'd grab a download of Weekend and give the album in full a pass.

Status: Mild Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Weekend, Imagine Pt. 3, End Of The Night, Dance Away.

Here's the official video for best track Weekend.

Component Breakdown:
1. Weekend - 8
2. Still New - 7
3. Imagine Pt. 3 - 8
4. All Die Young - 7
5. Fallen In Love - 7
6. End Of The Night - 7
7. Only One - 7
8. Smile - 6
9. Dance Away - 8
10. Dye The World - 6
Intangibles - Average.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

HELPLESSNESS BLUES - Fleet Foxes (2011)

Through the years, some artists just seem to intrinsically go together.

Whether the result of historical influences, stylistic similarities, personality, regional identity, or a matched timing of definitive releases, it's hard for listeners to think of one artist without immediately conjuring thoughts of the other.  Nirvana/Pearl Jam, Yes/Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Led Zeppelin/Black Sabbath, Joni Mitchell/Carole King, Graham Parker/Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

But in recent years, outside of possibly England's Wild Beasts and Ohio's The Antlers, no two acts have felt more unintentionally tethered than Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. 

Both broke through in 2008 with heralded debuts that now stand as signature albums of the late Aught's "beard folk" movement, and now, both have returned to equal, if not heightened, critical acclaim in 2011. 

As of this writing, with a good number of the year-end lists now out, it's clear both artists's sophomore efforts will land high in the consensus top tens compiled by and, with Bon Iver's Bon Iver looking like a lock to take the number two spot and the Fleet Foxes's Helplessness Blues landing just a few spots behind.

But for me, it's these albums's flaws, not their strengths, that ultimately link the bands this time around.

No two albums were harder to get a qualitative grip on in 2011, and yet ironically...given how the acts target the same's for exactly opposite reasons. 

Bon Iver's Bon Iver is an album of casually original, brilliantly intuitive material, diminished by an artist taking on technical duties he is in no way ready to handle.

Helplessness Blues is an album of aggressively ambitious, classically anchored but ultimately workmanlike material, elevated to near-greatness by one of the most astonishing production and arrangement efforts of recent memory.

"So now, I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me? / Oh how could I dream of / Such a selfless and true love / Could I wash my hands of / Just looking out for me?"

Right from the opening verses of first track Montezuma, it's clear we're in for a different type of album from the Fleet Foxes this time around. 

Where the Fleet Foxes self-titled debut was full of mystery, fantasy, and a rustic sense of place...Helplessness Blues is an intensely personal, confessional album, ready to plumb the deepest depths of band leader and principal songwriter Robin Pecknold's soul and tackle life's biggest questions head on.

And front and center seems to be a preternaturally insightful young man who realizes just how much a continued pursuit of his music will cost him. 

Playwright August Wilson put it best years ago with his simple, matter-of-fact declaration on 60 Minutes that "Art comes first," that for an artist of genuine intent to ever think they will be able to place the needs of family, friends, or community ahead of their craft is sheer folly.  Art demands total selfishness.  To give higher priority to anything or anyone else is to merely guarantee failure on both fronts, and the thought of continuing down this road that will deny him so many of life's simple, enriching pleasures has Pecknold...the product of a happy family, still in his early twenties, and still young enough to jump existential agony.

Needless to say, the lyrics are one of Helplessness Blues's most captivating aspects, though by the end, so much gut-wrenching, soul-searching vulnerability does grow wearying.  By the time Pecknold starts tweely fantasizing about "Apples in the summer / all gold and sweet" on tenth track The Shrine/An Argument, I find myself about ready to hurl.

But then there's Phil Ek's production.

If there's a better produced album this year, I haven't heard it. 

Put any of this album's tracks (except for Battery Kinzie) side by side in a mix with music from any other release this year and it is shocking how much more the songs here pop.  Other producers are going to leave the industry with their tail between their legs because of this recording.

And for the most part, the dense, dated Pet Sounds feel of the debut, also produced by Eks, is gone, replaced with an airier, instrumentally adventurous feel that recalls warmer 60s folk-rock classics like the first two Traffic releases, quieter numbers from Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers like Turn My Life Down, and the Pete Townsend produced self-titled debut for Thunderclap Newman. When the debut's Pet Sounds feel does return, as on weakest track Battery Kinzie, and too a lesser degree on closer Grown Ocean, it feels a touch out of place, getting in the way of the album's more direct, confessional feel.

So deeply heartfelt ambitious lyrics, striking production, inventive arrangements...sounds like a bona fide classic, right?

Well, not just yet.

Unfortunately, Helplessness Blues does have a serious weakness, and that's the core architecture of the songs themselves.  The effort, craft, and passion put into this album are amazing...but genuine musical inspiration (again the exact opposite of Bon Iver's Bon Iver) is in relatively short supply.

Pecknold is on record as having been devastated by the greatness of Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, and it's clear, given all the sudden tempo changes and surprising esoteric touches, that he views this album as an attempt to match Veckatimest. 

But whereas most of Veckatimest's oddball flourishes had an undeniable sense of rightness to them, many of those flourishes here feel forced, workmanlike, and that goes double for many of the melodies, whose flaws are for the most part masked by the band's unreal harmonizing, but when you get down to it, sometimes feel downright pedestrian. 

Worse, the biggest take away I sense from the Veckatimest template seems to be Grizzly Bear's tendency for momentum killing turns. 

Take the title track, easily one of the year's best songs, but just like Veckatimest's Northern Lights opened as the best folk-rock song of its year but then chose to abandon that definitive groove for a new, ambitious but far less compelling direction, Helplessness Blues does precisely the same here in its final minute.

Still, with a band this talented, this ambitious, and production this good, on those rare instances when the muse truly it does in the opening three minutes of the title track, Bedouin Dress, the choral intro to The Plains / Bitter Dancer, the surging charge of closer Grown Ocean, and the charming, blatant theivery of Dylan's 4th Time Around called Lorelai...the results are fantastic, and the craft and production generates such an elevating consistency that even though I consider The Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues a far less inspired effort than their debut, it stands nonetheless as a better overall record.

So it appears to me, whether Pecknold realizes it or not, that he's already made his choice. 

Status: Strong Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Bedouin Dress, The Plains / Bitter Dancer, Helplessness Blues, Lorelai

Here's the super ambitious official video for possibly the most ambitious track on an album full of ambitious tracks, The Shrine / An Argument.

Component Breakdown:
1. Montezuma - 8
2. Bedouin Dress - 9
3. Sim Sala Bim - 8
4. Battery Kinzie - 6
5. The Plains/Bitter Dancer - 9
6. Helplessness Blues - 10
7. The Cascades - 8
8. Lorelai - 9
9. Someone You'd Admire - 7
10. The Shrine / An Argument - 7
11. Blue Spotted Tail - 8
12. Grown Ocean - 8
Intangibles - Above Average.

What are your thoughts on Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues? Let readers know!

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Scottish quartet Veronica Falls's full length debut is yet another example of post 20th century musicians doing what they do best - taking a variety of sounds and influences from rock's first fifty years, and then amalgamating them into a remarkably cleared eyed, fully formed stylistic synthesis that feels instantly familiar but is nonetheless, in its own subtle way, something entirely new.

Here the emphasis is on a highly propulsive 60s garage sound, which is then muted with a dash of 90s atonality; goth-slanting lyrics on love and death; hook-ridden, contemporary feeling female dream-pop vocals (think A Sunny Day In Glasgow), rich folk rock-flavored male backing vocals, and indulgent levels of late-era Velvet Underground / Galaxy 500 Ostrich guitar.

Despite the number of influences being blended, it all comes together effortlessly...producing a clean, straightforward, simple sound that while feeling of a piece with much of the surf punk we've all heard recently, is graciously delivered with none of that no-fi nonsense that's been diminishing album after album over the last few years.

Otherwise, there's not much else to say. 

Though it contains no A+ track, Veronica Falls is a very solid evocation of one specifically constructed sound.

Give a song or two a listen.

I can guarantee if you like one, you'll probably end up liking them all. 

Status: Solid Recommend

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: Found Love In A Graveyard, Right Side Of The Brain ,Stephen, Beachy Head.

Here's the official video for the album's punkiest tune, Beachy Head.

Component Breakdown:
1. Found Love In A Graveyard - 8
2. Right Side Of My Brain - 8
3. The Fountain - 7
4. Misery - 6
5. Bad Feeling - 7
6. Stephen - 8
7. Beachy Head - 8
8. All Eyes On You - 7
9. The Box - 7
10. Wedding Day - 8
11. Veronica Falls - 7
12. Come On Over - 8
Intangibles - Average.

What are your thoughts on the full length debut for Veronica Falls. Let readers know.