Monthly Archives: January 2013

Album Reviews – BELIEVE ACOUSTIC by Justin Bieber and ALMANAC by Widowspeak

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Listen to “Boyfriend (Acoustic)” by Justin Bieber on YouTube

There is a teenie bopper and an indie rocker and who knows what else lurking inside my music appreciating mind.  For some reason I think it’s funny to combine two very different reviews into one post.  One is for the new Justin Bieber album.  The other is for the latest from a great indie rock band called Widowspeak.  Here you go:

Dear Music Appreciators,

The extent of my Justin Bieber experience until now = listening to the song “Baby” over and over with my five year old, watching the Glee episode where they sing “Baby,” hearing somebody on THE X FACTOR or AMERICAN IDOL doing a Justin Bieber song (I think it’s usually “As Long As You Love Me”), and hearing or reading countless references to him in the media.

This is the first Justin Bieber album I have listened to from start to finish. It’s decent – why is everyone so hard on him? The biggest fault I find with this album is Bieber’s tendency to overuse vocal runs, which can make him sound whiny and annoying at times.

But there is a lot to like here. Most of the acoustic playing sounds good, his voice is pleasant enough when he’s not overdoing it on the runs, and songs like “Boyfriend,” “As Long As You Love Me, and “She Don’t Like the Lights” have a teenage drama that is kind of magnetic. The unplugged approach should help at least some of the naysayers realize he is an actual human being and a real musician who can sing and play pretty well – yes some of his lyrics are kind of dopey but he’s a kid and kids can be kind of dopey.

I won’t be craving Biebs and his music and I may never listen to this album again on purpose, but I can see why his fans like him and if he makes their lives a little more fun and interesting then good for them. And good for him.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

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Listen to “Ballad of the Golden Hour” by Widowspeak on YouTube

Dear Music Appreciators,

Kind of a hipster hippie vibe on this one – very cool band name, leaves, rocks, waterfall, clothing, hair, shoes, body language, – based on the album art, I felt like I had to know what the music would sound like.

And at first I wasn’t that into the music. But as is often the case, I probably wasn’t paying very close attention at first and probably wasn’t in the most appealing first listen environment. Most albums sound best on headphones for the first listen. Best to get up close and personal with the music, and then open it up to wider and noisier environments like an old used car, where, since you’re already a little familiar, you can still recognize the music’s qualities even if you can’t hear them as well.

The music started to grow on me. I started to find much of the guitar work to be catchy and memorable, having sort of a dark and weighty quality to it, and sometimes almost a kind of spacey, cinematic, western feeling. The lyrics took a little longer, and I’m still trying to figure them out, but Molly Hamilton’s singing style is reminiscent of other high and dreamy stylists like Isobel Campbell. In fact, listeners who are fond of Isobel Campbell’s collaborations with Mark Lanegan may find a lot to like here, with the dark, moody Lanegan vocals replaced by Robert Earl Thomas’s dark, moody guitar presence.

I especially admired the song “Ballad of the Golden Hour” for its urgency, its lovely and varied guitar work, and its clarity – Hamilton comes out from behind her shy, dreamy style more than anywhere else on the album and it’s clear that as a vocalist, when she works more directly with the distinctive and attractive music of Widowspeak, rather than floating dreamily around it, this band easily shifts gears from good to great.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – HEAVY FLOWERS – Blaudzun

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Watch a live in studio performance of “Flame on My Head” by Blaudzun

Dear Music Appreciators,

His real name is Johannes Sigmond. His stage name is Blaudzun. Who is this guy and where did he come from? Well, he’s Dutch so I guess he came from the Netherlands, but where did he really come from? For all those (like me) who don’t keep tabs on the Dutch music scene, it might seem that the musical stork simply dropped him out of the sky one day – a black-haired, black-bearded, hipster Dutch baby with giant glasses.

He looks interesting. He sounds interesting. This is his U.S. debut but it’s also his third album. He has kind of a dark, folk rock sound and a voice that quivers, cracks, and slides from a low power to a fragile falsetto. I’ve heard he sounds like Arcade Fire. I wouldn’t know because believe it or not I haven’t gotten to them yet. To me he sounds like Ryan Adams, Mumford and Sons, maybe even The Decemberists.

“Flame on My Head” is a memorable opener with it’s moaning vocal and strings introduction, urgent guitar strumming, and lyrical catalogue of desires. Up next, “Elephant” kicks the door down the rest of the way with it’s searing, almost siren-like guitar riff. “We Both Know” is the album’s rocker, “Monday” its gentlest moment. The sequencing of the album’s tracks ebbs and flows nicely, and with a third of the twelve songs on HEAVY FLOWERS clocking in at under three minutes, this is an album that is not too long and not too short, but just right on running length.

Sometimes Blaudzun’s accent shows through in his vocals, giving his songs a slight twist of the weird or exotic, which is refreshing considering how easily his sound and style will fit right in with so many other American artists right now. I’ve heard that often times underappreciated American musicians find greater success overseas. Reportedly Blaudzun already has something of a hit with this record overseas, so time will tell if this justly appreciated Dutch musician finds even greater success in the U.S.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – HEARTTHROB – Tegan and Sara

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Watch the video for “Closer” by Tegan and Sara on YouTube

Dear Music Appreciators,

One of the pleasures of reviewing music for the past year and a half has been discovering new bands – but in my case it has been less a case of discovering NEW bands, as discovering bands that are new to me.  Apparently Tegan and Sara have been around since the 90’s.  Didn’t know that.  I’d heard OF them but I’d never really HEARD them.

But let’s dispense with the usual summary/description/analysis stuff and simply say a few words in favor of this record in the hope that you’ll decide to experience it for yourself.

I was working on another review of a more serious sounding and self-important indie rock release, and although the record was pretty good, I was having trouble focusing.  I decided to take a break and try Tegan and Sara’s new dancey pop record HEARTTHROB instead.  Bingo.  Suddenly listening to music was fun again and I didn’t have to work so hard to like what I was hearing.  If some albums are like eating your vegetables and some albums are like eating your fruit, then I would say HEARTTHROB is a nice juicy peach.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

P.S. As of 01/28/13 Rolling Stone is streaming the entire album here

Album Review – SET YOU FREE – Gary Allan

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(Posted on Amazon.com on 01/26/13)

Dear Music Appreciators,

Based on what I’ve read in some other reviews I think it’s worth noting here that the Amazon customer review star rating system is not intended to be an objective critical analysis tool. The star rating system is intended to help communicate how much a reviewer personally enjoyed a product (which is completely subjective) and not to communicate an objective critical judgement as to whether or not a product is a “good” product or a “bad” product.

1 star = “I hate it”
2 stars = “I don’t like it”
3 stars = “It’s ok”
4 stars = “I like it”
5 stars = “I love it”

To me this means that it doesn’t really make sense for one reviewer to dispute another reviewer’s star rating, because really, who is that reviewer to try and say how much another reviewer “liked” or “didn’t like” a product?

That being said, I “liked” Gary Allan’s new album but I didn’t really “love it”, though I almost loved it. This means it’s a good album and it’s worth buying.

This is my first Gary Allan experience actually. First track, right away I thought “Steve Earle.” That comparison faded over the course of the album, but the two singers do share some qualities. They both seem to have a certain rebellious/outsider quality and a certain kind of a gritty badassness that can be refreshing. Some Steve Earle fans might balk at the comparison but I believe the similarities are there.

One of my biggest obstacles to loving this album completely is the relative forgettableness (and corniness really) of the last four tracks compared to the first eight tracks. “Tough Goodbye” is sad and poignant, “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” is poetic and hopeful, “Bones” is memorably sassy (I love that it’s multiple bones and not just one bone…um, that’s what she said…), “It Ain’t the Whiskey” is beautifully introspective, and, well, you get the picture – the first eight are great. The last four ain’t. But oh well.

For music appreciators who have never heard of Gary Allan, this is a fine introduction (at least it was for me), enough to peak your interest to explore his catalog, and for Gary Allan fans I would think this would be a welcome addition to his discography. Eight out of twelve are really quality tunes. If this was baseball, a .750 batting average would make him the greatest hitter who ever lived. That’s kind of funny when you think about it – is it harder to get a base hit than it is to write a great song?

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – WOLF’S LAW – The Joy Formidable

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Watch the video for “Cholla” by The Joy Formidable on YouTube

Dear Music Appreciators,

I reached for this album because of the cover art – a wolf with flowers growing out of its side lying in front of a glowing orange sunset.  Then I noticed that the wolf appeared to be dead.  Then I looked up the meaning of the album title, from which I learned something that I didn’t know before.  I didn’t notice the hummingbird feeding on the dead wolf’s flowers until later.

I found myself thinking about dynamics and about contrast as I listened to this album.  The music, the lyrics, the album title, the cover art – everything, even the band name, seems to in some way reinforce a theme of opposing forces.  But much of that can be set aside for the listener to discover or not, to care or not – the most important question remains – is this music worth purchasing?  The answer to that question is yes.

“This Ladder Is Ours” begins with a misleading Neil Diamondesque string arrangement that morphs into a racing, rock opener that is alternately reeled in and cast free by lead singer Ritzy Bryan’s steady verses and liberating chorus.  “Cholla” turns up the rock another notch, but right in the middle of slamming drums and a floor-vibrating guitar riff, a funny, bouncy little note skips rope for a minute.  At the two minute mark the song nearly falls asleep, then bursts to life again.  “I can’t decide / one needs building / one needs digging / one needs filling in” Bryan sings memorably on “Tendons,” a song that contains both a growling, sludgy bass line and a moment of gentle, plink-plink reflection.  “Little Blimp” only stokes the intensity with a high speed rubbery bass line and a few well placed needling guitar flourishes, while “Bats” finds Bryan speak-singing with attitude, which eventually evolves into a driving repetition of the phrases “We keep hanging on” and “I had a reason but the reason went away.”

But any time I listen to a record by a band that rocks I’m anxious for a slow song.  The rocking band that delivers on the ballads is a little like the comedian who turns in an acclaimed dramatic performance (aren’t those always the best?).  So I was glad to hear “Silent Treatment” – a sadly beautiful and reflective ballad wrapped in warm acoustic guitar – exactly halfway through the album.  The song provides an effective transition from the in-your-face style of the first half, to the more introspective, experimental, and equally memorable second half of the record – which is where I’ll leave you to discover the rest for yourself…

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – THE LONE BELLOW – The Lone Bellow

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Dear Music Appreciators,

Just when I was starting to wonder if I would ever find another band to get excited about, I found The Lone Bellow.

This is simply a great record from a passionate, up-and-coming group that many, many music fans will feel lucky to discover this year.

Even with more than eleven months to go, I feel lucky to have discovered what I believe will continue to be one of my favorite musical moments of the year – the intense dynamic shift at the 3:39 mark on the gorgeous track “Tree to Grow.”  Listen loud on your best headphones please.

You’ll find this harmony and acoustic-infused full length debut album is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, but it’s also a little bit folk, pop, and singer-songwriter, with both an independent streak and just the right amount of popular appeal – for fans of earnest American music, this porridge should taste not too hot and not too cold, but just right.

The Lone Bellow do sound a little like a lot of bands that are popular now, but there’s a reason for that.  It’s because they are approaching their listeners from a place of authenticity, where systems of genre and classification matter less, a place where country meets city, old meets new, and independent artistic effort meets widespread popular appeal.  There is a certain portion of pop culture that continues to embrace that whole old timey as new timey approach, and if it means that bands like The Lone Bellow find success, then yay for pop culture.

The internet is a wonderful place for discovering great music.  I found these guys on NPR, and then followed a trail from Amazon to the band’s website to YouTube, where a trio of videos convinced me to buy their album.  As of this writing you can type TheLoneBellowVevo into Google or YouTube and find three beautifully shot black and white videos to enjoy.

But notice the sweat on front man Zach Williams’s forehead just past the three minute mark in the video for “You Never Need Nobody.”  It’s an all too human moment that is maybe not so common in artsy black and white photography.  Perhaps it’s just that he is sitting right in front of a crackling fireplace, but I’d like to think it’s honest sweat for an honest record, delivered with the kind of care and feeling that will keep honest music fans listening for years to come.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener

Album Review – LEAD WITH YOUR HEART – The Tenors

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Dear Music Appreciators,

I flip-flopped on these guys. Maybe this means I should (or shouldn’t?) go into politics. At first I was skeptical – just another group of poperabots, carefully manufactured for maximum revenue potential and marketed to the mindless masses who will shell out the cash for anything as long as it sounds pretty and makes the masses feel better for a minute. But then, the more I listened, the more I liked, and the more I realized that when it comes to The Tenors it’s really very simple – these guys can sing! They have amazing voices, and they’re willing to lend their amazing voices to whatever strikes their fancy.

There’s Elton, there’s Bee Gees, there’s Dylan, there’s classical, there’s something original, and even that old spiritual-goosebump-gang chestnut “Amazing Grace” makes an appearance. And it’s all sung beautifully. Sometimes overdone and sometimes cheesy, but maybe that’s okay if it’s beautifully overdone and beautifully cheesy.

For me the strongest section of the album comes right in the middle, where exactly four tracks in a row (5-8) seem neither overdone nor cheesy. The French and the Spanish helps I’m sure, (Journees D’Innocence and Manana) as does the powerfully economical structure and delivery of the English-sung pop nuggets “World Stand Still” and “Anchor.”

Anyone who is too cool for school will probably not be into this stuff, and although I probably won’t ever be totally down with four dudes singing an early 80’s Streisand hit about being a “Woman in Love” (in Spanish), I must admit that these guys have great talent, and they deserve the support of lovers of beautiful singing everywhere.

Sincerely,

Constant Listener