Classic Album Review: Son Volt, ‘Honky Tonk’

son volt

[Originally published May 14, 2013]

Son Volt’s 1995 debut Trace is one of my all-time favorite albums. My mother played it for us in the car constantly during the summer before I began sixth grade. And I’ve found a new, more passionate appreciation for the record in recent weeks, listening to it essentially on repeat (which is rare for a music geek like me who is always searching for new things). So, when I heard earlier this year that Jay Farrar and co. were releasing a new record, it turned out it was only natural for me, as in numerous cases, to view that new record in light of their undisputed masterpiece.

So, here goes.

Right from the first bars of opener “Hearts and Minds,” Uncle Tupelo idolizers will instantly know Honky Tonk won’t be a standard Farrar effort. It’s in 6/8, as are several other tunes on the disc. The alternating time signatures are refreshing at first when observed in comparison to Trace’s full-4/4 itinerary (“Seawall” even features alternating signatures within the same song). However, the layout of tracks across the album in patterns of 6 and 4 becomes predictable and trite by album’s end. You find yourself knowing after each song what time the next track will be in before it starts.

Farrar, of course, is in top form as a songwriter. His world-weary, highway-evoking, quasi-pastoral lyrics have ripened, if only slightly, with age. Despite this perceived progress, Farrar’s gentle but substantial voice sounds less substantial. As if he’s holding back. This can be a good thing in some instances, but in this one, it’s not. That said, it’s pretty ironic hearing him sing, “Don’t let the barricades of life/Keep the wild spirit still” on the aptly-titled “Barricades.” This record makes it seem like Farrar is doing just the opposite: painting himself and his band into a corner with “barricades” of slick restraint that undermines the group’s own “free spirit.” There are signs of an attempt at past glory – the tranquil “Wild Side” and closer “Shine On” both bear more than a passing resemblance in structure and sound to the gorgeous Trace cut “Tear-Stained Eye” – but overall, it all falls flat.

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate Son Volt’s efforts to expand their musical horizons – efforts that have been in motion since 2005, when Farrar resuscitated the broken-up group with an all-new supporting cast and released Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Whereas Trace was fairly straightforward alt-country, Honky Tonk is all over the place. Hammond organ. A melancholy-bright dual-fiddle attack that gives much of the album a “Ashokan Farewell” feel (the lilting “Down the Highway” even sounds a bit like a Celtic blessing). There’s even a few auxiliary strings thrown in here and there. It’s a sonic smorgasbord that can be overwhelming and almost unstable at times. Overall, though, the band’s deepened palate not only makes for a gorgeous and exhilarating listen, but also shows how far they have come as a group.

And yet – and yet – I can’t help but feel they’ve gone the way of Counting Crows or even (as much as it pains me to admit it) Ben Folds Five. In other words, they’ve spent recent years abandoning their loose, unbridled sound in exchange for sleeker, almost syrupy arrangements. Arrangements that, in Son Volt’s case, appear to favor modern trends in country-pop as opposed to the lovely, carefree college-rock abounding on Trace. Like the aforementioned groups, they do a reasonable job pulling it off, but the result is still somewhat less gratifying than what they’re really capable of. Each track on Trace has always evoked, for me, traveling down a long, empty stretch of highway, cool breeze blowing, taking my troubles away (sorry, couldn’t resist). With Honky Tonk, I just don’t get that – or any kind of unique emotion.

But that doesn’t mean this album doesn’t deliver in its own way. Far from it. It’s a great record. One of the best I’ve heard so far this year. It’s just not as good as Trace, is all. Then, the standard Trace sets for other Son Volt work is pretty freaking high.

Will my opinion of this record change with further listens? I’m almost certain of it.

For now, I can say this with certainty: while Honky Tonk may not stack up to the brilliant recklessness of Trace, it can still stand on its own as a thoroughly enjoyable record and a fine addition to the Son Volt catalogue. (7.3/10)

Son Volt

Honky Tonk

Rounder // March 5, 2013

Produced by Jay Farrar

Classic Album Review: Pixies, ‘Surfer Rosa’

pixies

[Originally published May 14, 2013]

The Pixies’ first proper studio effort embodies perfectly their recklessly unconventional college rocker persona. Every track incorporates that raw, fuzzy, unbridled sound later utilized by everyone from My Bloody Valentine to Deerhunter to Girls. That sound without which no one would ever have embraced a certain trio of long-haired Seattle upstarts and their fledgling garage-punk outfit – a mere three years, mind you, after this album’s release. (Kurt Cobain later admitted that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his stab at writing a Pixies tune, and it’s easy to see the connection.) But just because the record is sloppy doesn’t mean it’s a total mess – true, it threatens to fall apart at any moment, but the band manages to keep it together, and then some. Kim Deal’s plodding bass lines; the frantic, scorching siren that is Joey Santiago’s guitar; and Dave Lovering’s able-handed drumming come together to create something truly memorable.

Like Buddy Holly and the Ramones before them, some of the band’s best moments come out in their shortest, punchiest tunes – songs like “Something Against You” and tremendously catchy closer “Brick is Red.” The four-and-a-half minute “Vamos,” one of the few tracks that surpasses the 2-minute mark, even seems to drag a bit in comparison to these. But this only serves to further justify the group’s massive appeal among the bored, angsty, disconnected youth of the late 80s-early 90s.

Adding to the record’s disjointed feel is the tension, just barely palpable here, between leader Black Francis and Deal – tension that would demolish the band by the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Deal’s raspy yet oddly angelic vocals (used to miraculously eerie effect on “Gigantic” and the gleeful confusion of the band’s hands-down masterpiece “Where Is My Mind?”) collide haphazardly with Black’s yelping, paranoiac shout-singing – especially during the nonsensical hook of “River Euphrates” and the disturbed chorus of “I’m Amazed.” This goes without mentioning the countless moments when Black’s yelps turn to demonic screams and guttural growls – all of which are intensified by the masterful production of Steve Albini. Perhaps the group’s angst was directed not only at the deteriorating world but also at each other.

Surfer Rosa may not be a perfect record – that’s obviously not what they were going for – but with all its flaws, it’s still a brilliantly-assembled hodgepodge of bold ideas and a stellar cultural landmark from some of music’s true innovators. And after 25 years, it still hasn’t lost its sting. (8.8/10)

Pixies

Surfer Rosa

4AD // March 21, 1988

Produced by Steve Albini

Album Review: Future Islands, ‘The Far Field’

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At the risk of exaggeration, Future Islands was probably the best thing that happened to me in 2014. I was one of many who had committed the egregious error of generally ignoring them prior to their now-legendary network TV debut on The Late Show with Dave Letterman in March of that year. I still remember how electrifying that first performance was – the driving opening chords of the group’s beautiful, anthemic “Seasons (Waiting on You)”; the synthpop sound that hearkened to another age yet felt totally modern; and frontman Sam T. Herring two-stepping across the stage, screeching, bellowing, punching the air, thumping his chest and staring into the audience’s very soul. It was a captivating spectacle, equal parts disorienting and really, really cool.

With “Seasons” and its superb mother album Singles (which I naturally declared the best of 2014 in my end-of-year list), the Baltimorean trio captured our attention. Its follow-up, The Far Field, then, represents their attempt to retain it. To put it lightly, they succeed in spectacular fashion. Those expecting a departure from their previous work will be sorely disappointed. However, those who’ve come to know and adore the power and beauty of their music will find the new record a veritable feast for the ears.

As was true for Singles, each track on The Far Field (the title a nod to the Theodore Roethke poetry collection of the same name, as was 2010’s In Evening Air) is a miniature drama, bursting with euphoric energy; even the saddest tunes shoot up towards the heavens. Herring, as always, sells the dear sweet screaming shit out of every syllable he utters – snarling, crooning, enunciating viciously, throwing in the occasional grindcore shriek. Sam could be likened easily to any number of expressive rock vocalists, but for me, the figure that comes most readily to mind is Meat Loaf. I think back to the first time I heard Bat Out of Hell and how awestruck I was by his voice. You could feel his raw magnetism shredding through your speakers; he made even cornball phrases like “You’ve been cold to me so long, I’m cryin’ icicles instead of tears” sound convincing. Herring works similar wonders with his vocal delivery and performance style. Not a word passes his lips that’s without meaning, that isn’t felt in every atom of his body.

But while Herring may steal the show at the band’s live performances, their studio efforts give his fellow Future Islanders a chance to shine. Garrit Welmers, channeling the best and most adventurous of 80s New Wave, crafts lovely, intoxicating synth universes on each track, while William Cashion’s driving bass propels everything forward and keeps Herring’s soaring vocals tethered to Earth’s atmosphere. They’re as much a delicate, meticulously crafted formula as they are a band; take one element out of the equation, and the whole thing crumbles.

The album begins by fading into “Aladdin,” our regularly scheduled Future Islands song, already in progress – a simple but effective synth hook enveloped by lush long tones, drum and bass keeping steady, thumping time. Herring then launches headfirst into a poetic diatribe, describing his relationship with a lost love in terms of nature while showcasing his unique talent for internal rhyme (“I’ve seen the beaches, breached the peak of ‘please’ and ‘thanks’/I’ve seen my features age, my fingers strange”). Like that titular treasure-seeker, Herring is trying to decide whether the riches he found were mere illusions. By the end of the song, he pointedly concludes, straining to hit the highest notes he can, that “love is real/Our love is real/It’s a hand, it’s a hold, it’s a shield.” It’s not as dynamic an opening as “Seasons,” but it’s still thoroughly stirring and enrapturing.

Even by Future Islands’ standards, these songs feel remarkably personal. Herring, bearer of a known predilection for breaking down in the midst of live performances and giving his audience quick emotional pep talks, provides us with several vivid, often painful windows into his soul. The autobiographical nature of his lyrics gives him more to feel, which makes the songs themselves exude more emotion in turn. He dedicates much of his energy here to meditating on his relationships with others and how life on the road can decay those relationships over time. The gorgeous, majestic “Time on Her Side” finds him accepting that his departed lover is free (“so free, it’s sublime”) to choose her own path in life, as angelic, soul-rocking synth tones and chiming percussion blast readily into action. On lead single “Ran” (which happens to sound eerily similar to “Seasons” in pretty much every way), he sounds a bit more mournful, howling, “What’s a song without you/When every song I write is about you?” He yearns to reconnect with nature – and by extension, with the loved ones he’s drifted away from – on “Ancient Water” and “Day Glow Fire.” In so many words and with so much chutzpah, he’s really just expressing his desire for what most humans want: connection.

Herring’s emotional nakedness reaches its apex during “Through the Roses.” As Welmers’ synths float breathily around him, he speaks at length about his struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts – “the temptation to look inside [his] wrist”. In other words, no matter how convincing Herring’s electric stage presence may be, when you take away “the lights and the smoke and the screen,” he’s just a normal guy – nervous, terrified, unsure of himself, trying to navigate this fucked-up, confusing world we’re stuck on.  He further ponders the inner workings of his troubled mind on the melancholy “Cave,” which explores the disillusion and loss of self he experiences in the wake of a breakup: “Is this a desperate wish for dying/Or a wish that dying cease?/The fear that keeps me going…is the same fear that brings me to my knees/I don’t believe anymore.” Herring obviously isn’t the first to unpack such emotions on record, but the sheer vulnerability and conviction with which he does so makes it truly unique.

And what self-respecting Meat-Loafian synthpop epic would dare to omit space for a rip-roaring, eleventh-hour boy-girl duet? That moment comes in the form of the driving “Shadows,” wherein Ms. Debbie Harry – herself at one time the queen-regent of New Wave – plays Ellen Foley to Herring’s Meat, urging him to “break free” from the darkness that holds him captive. Harry is perfect for the part, her ageless, ethereal voice an ideal counterpoint for Herring’s impassioned yowls. Together, they manage to make the song impressively sincere while reveling in its inherent goofiness.

But wait, I’m frequently tempted to tell myself. Didn’t they just use that exact same drumbeat/synth pattern/key three songs ago? And several more times on other albums? This is bullshit. I shouldn’t be enjoying this. This is base, vapid regurgitation. They’re just doing the same song over and over. Maybe so, but goddamn, is it a fucking great song. Sure, Field may essentially be twelve slight variations on a long-established signature sound (the possible exception being the tender, ultra-slowed-down reggae-cum-lounge ballad “Candles”), but the group infuses every moment on the record with enough charisma and genuine feeling to make it work – and then some.

Future Islands are a group that traffics in feeling – their success stems largely from the passionate appeal to the heartstrings and souls of their listeners they make in their music. More specifically, it’s their uncanny ability to mine pure joy, hope and goodness from the darkest depths of human experience – as they do plenty of times on the marvelous, sweeping Field – that makes them not just a good band, but a great one. As Herring puts it, bringing an auspicious end to the otherwise sorrowful “Through the Roses”: “We can pull through together, together, together, together.” Here’s hoping we do. (9.1/10)

Future Islands

The Far Field

4AD // April 7, 2017

Produced by John Congleton

Album Review: Drake, ‘More Life’

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Scoff all you like, O ye rap purists, but you have to hand it to the man: Aubrey Drake “Drake” Graham has, in his own way, revolutionized hip-hop. With albums like Take Care and Nothing Was the Same, he orchestrated a marriage of rap and R&B sensibilities that hitherto had never been heard before. He rapped. He sang. He was profoundly, often uncomfortably, open about his private life. And everyone loved/loathed/secretly liked him for it. More Life, the latest tell-all tome from our young up-and-coming hero, is a sprawling, colorful sonic panoply that constitutes some of the most varied and enticing work he’s created in his career. It highlights the Toronto native’s strengths as a rapper while providing an exciting new platform from which to flex them.

Ultimately, More Life turns out to be a refreshing return to form following last year’s interesting but mostly lackluster Views. That album, paired with the prior year’s subpar Future team-up What a Time to Be Alive, made some fear that Drizzy, following an unprecedented winning streak, was finally beginning to lose his touch. Fortunately, Mr. Graham is nothing if not resourceful, and he changes things up a bit with this release, turning it into a celebration of black culture and the various musical forms it has begotten.

Don’t get me wrong – the Drake we’ve come to know and love/loathe/secretly like is still very much present here. He’s still reveling in his outlandish success and telling off all the haters nipping at his OVO Jordan-clad heels (“I mean, I keep the fuckin’ lights on in the building/Man, my record deal should be $500 million”). He’s still stressing out over work, doubting himself, wondering who he can trust (“I cannot tell who is my friend/I need distance between me and them”). He continues his never-ending search for that sweet spot between his hedonistic lifestyle and being a more sensitive, caring companion to the women in his life, with Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, and Serena Williams being among the key culprits this time around (on one track, he even goes so far as to interpolate J.Lo’s “If You Had My Love”). At the same time, Drizzy has frequently proven that he’s at his best when he’s also at his most unpredictable, and More Life documents his evolution as a musician and as a person. If Views saw Drake fumbling for new ways to say what he wants to say, More Life confirms he hasn’t run out of juice just yet.

This reinvigoration is largely attributable to the project’s 31 (!) co-producers, who help instill it with its slapdash, globe-hopping motif (is it any wonder why it’s called a “playlist”?) Musical styles vary from track to track, keeping things interesting when the classic Drake formula threatens to slag. That’s in addition to the various high-profile guests (as well as a couple relative newcomers) Drake brings on board – and whom he wisely lets grab much of the spotlight. UK grime star Giggs makes two mind-obliterating features on the 808-heavy “No Long Talk” and “KMT,” brashly delivering such gems as: “I’m a black man, government earner/Could’ve just slapped man, but he wanted it further/Batman, da-na-na-da-na!” His fellow Britons Skepta and Sampha each get their own tracks, with the former unleashing the same ruthless, erudite flows found on his brilliant 2016 record Konnichiwa, and the latter using “4422” to croon about his relationship timidities as well as to shout out his Morden birthplace and his family’s roots in Freetown. South African DJ Black Coffee and British singer-songwriter Jorja Smith (another alleged love interest) endow “Get It Together” with a bouncy sex appeal, while lush, shimmering Afrobeat guitars and long synth tones bring a taste of Nigeria to the Wizkid-influenced “Madiba Riddim.” A few of Drake’s trap-slinging pals from the South – Quavo, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and Young Thug – offer some competently jocular assists for “Portland,” “Ice Melts” and the somber, introspective “Sacrifices.” Even Yeezy and Weezy come along for the ride.

And then there’s the dancehall influence. Drake flirted with island rhythms on Views with the hit singles “One Dance” and “Too Good,” but here, he takes it to another level. He peppers many of the tracks with Caribbean soundscapes and Jamaican patois. He talks of being so “Blem” that he “might just say how I feel,” calling his lover’s ex a “wasteman” and warning her to “move from me with the passa.” The lush, tropical “Passionfruit” finds our man at his most vulnerable and tender, with a sunny backdrop flowing throughout as he softly expresses his anxieties about keeping a relationship together (“Listen/Harder buildin’ trust from a distance/I think we should rule out commitment for now, ‘cause we’re fallin’ apart”). Later, we hear tinny steel-drum hits punctuate his angry rebukes towards two-faced well-wishers on lead single “Fake Love.” It’s important to note that Drizzy never copies his influences directly or resorts to pastiche, but rather lovingly incorporates these styles into his own signature sound to create something new and uniquely stunning.

Drake himself often takes a noticeable backseat to his cohorts on a number of these tracks but is by no means phoning things in. When he does appear, he sounds completely rejuvenated, uncorking some of his most exhilarating, self-assured flows to date. Right out of the gate, he goes in on his manifold foes (in particular, one Meek Mill), offering them the fatal challenge of a “Free Smoke”: “Lot of n****s goin’ bad on me/Please, one at a time/I wanna move to Dubai/So I don’t never have to kick it with none of you guys/I didn’t listen to Hov on that old song/When he told me pay it no mind/I get more satisfaction out of goin’ at your head/And seein’ all of you die.” In this context, the title, a well-wishing catchphrase popularized by Vybz Kartel, becomes a bit of a double-sided mantra, echoed by Drizzy as much to himself as to the rest of the world.

Still, amid all the taunts, he isn’t afraid to do some genuine soul-searching on several tracks, admitting that much of his anger may stem from his own insecurities about himself. He bemoans the loss of support from friends and family on “Lose You” – “Winning is problematic/People like you more when you workin’ towards something, not when you have it…How they go from not wantin’ me at all/To wantin’ to see me lose it all?” Mom Sandi appears in voicemail form at the end of “Can’t Have Everything,” admonishing him to remember that, “when others go low, we go high.” By playlist’s end, his wrath seems to have cooled down a bit – or, at least, he’s a little more at peace with his situation. “Scary whenever I close my eyes at night,” he muses on album closer “Do Not Disturb.” “Wakin’ up to public statements about my private life/I can never sleep ’til morning on all my quiet nights/But you can rest assured that my mind is right.”

More Life is definitely a lot to take in and may be best digested in a few sittings, but there’s certainly a heck of a lot to love here. Drake melds his many influences into an intoxicating, irresistible aural smorgasbord; sometimes the seams are quite visible, but that only adds to the project’s charm. All in all, Drizzy seems to be learning more about the person he is, and in spite of his serious tone, he hasn’t sounded like he’s having this much fun with a project in quite some time. Here’s hoping that when he returns from his retreat to his “regular life” in 2018 to “give us the summary,” his inventive spirit will continue to thrive. More Life, indeed. (8.5/10)

Drake

More Life

OVO Sound / Young Money / Cash Money / Republic // March 18, 2017

Produced by Drake, Oliver El-Khatib, Noah “40” Shebib, Kanye West, Murda Beatz, PARTYNEXTDOOR, et al.

Album Review: Homeshake, ‘Fresh Air’

Homeshake_-_Fresh_Air

Peter Sagar first made a name for himself as the nimble-fingered touring guitarist for indie slacker idol Mac DeMarco. As a solo singer-songwriter, he creates music that (spiritually, at least) follows a similar path to that of the scruffy, weed-loving, chill-as-hell DeMarco. But whereas DeMarco espouses goofy, psych-influenced slacker-rock, Sagar’s muse is a bit more subtle, as evidenced by the lazy, delectable, discreetly funky electronica (often erroneously classified as “bedroom R&B”) that has become his trademark.

Sagar proves himself a master of that craft on Fresh Air, his fourth opus under the nom-de-stage Homeshake. For each of the album’s 12 tracks (bookended by two short instrumentals), he crafts a gorgeous melody and plays it on a loop, letting it soak into your brain until it permeates your entire psyche. The album plays much like a series of vignettes, offering intimate glimpses into the life of a young person who keeps regularly stoned on both love and other substances – and all the complicated emotions and relationship snags that accompany that life. Sagar soundtracks it all with a winning combination of quiet-storm instrumentals, bargain-bin yacht-soul synthesizers, and his lethargic, slightly strained falsetto (which sounds like a cross between the Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman and a more reserved, balladeering Prince). As he has on past releases, he effortlessly strikes a perfect balance between deep soul and incredible restraint. He incorporates styles of the past into his own distinct sound without merely borrowing them or resorting to pastiche or cliché.

The album opens with smooth, chill guitar grooves over a light and wispy synthetic beat as automated voices (literally) welcome the listener to the forthcoming experience. Then the percussion of “Call Me Up” starts its clicking and clapping, and Sagar instantly unleashes an irresistibly ethereal atmosphere driven by a woozy synth hook. “I can feel the pain within you,” he softly observes. “It’s turning your insides out/And filling you up with doubt.” The track depicts an idyllic young romance, wherein the two lovers are so connected that a sort of telepathy develops between them, and they each know how the other feels even when they’re in separate rooms.

Would that all human relationships were so simple. Throughout Fresh Air, Sagar navigates the troubled seas of interpersonal hecticism as he alternates between party-hopping and hanging at home, indulging in God’s sweet leaf. He rejects the advances of an unrequited lover over loop-de-looping synths on “Not U” (“Staring daggers, like you think that it could change a thing…Hope that this will be the last time that I hear from you”). The uptempo R&B jam “Every Single Thing” portrays a severe strain in communication, with bleak airport-terminal tones and striking chord changes accentuating the drama (“Thought it’d be easier/For me to think of her/I was dreaming when you spoke and not listening to you”). As many of us (Sagar, it seems, very much included) know well, it’s not easy to be a lover in this modern age of distraction, confusion, and uncertainty – and yet, we keep trying our best anyway.

Fresh Air also finds Sagar routinely demonstrating that he can establish tone and mood with the very best of them. “Getting Down Pt. II (He’s Cooling Down),” with its gently buzzing bassline and whispery drums, sounds not far removed from a Voodoo-era D’Angelo jam. On “Timing,” he uses a chilly minor-key synthscape to evoke the supreme ennui of his loneliness while whiling away the hours until his s/o returns home. As the weirded-out, glitchy outro sets in, we as listeners come to the consensus that lazing around the house has never been – and may never again be – this gorgeously dramatic.

It’s the second half of the album, however, where we start to behold the true depths of Sagar’s mastery as a musician and arranger. He’d like us to think he’s not even trying – the breezy grace of his arrangements certainly make it seem so – but deep down, he’s a fussy sonic perfectionist, striving to find the exact right combinations of sounds to illustrate the moods he envisions.

Pretty much any song on Fresh Air could qualify as a standout track, but high among the ranks stands “TV Volume,” which finds Sagar’s guitar purring funkily over a razor-sharp groove, the drums repeatedly start-stopping in time. It’s a subtle, sensual kick in the ass that’s so understated, it’s almost devastating. Immediately succeeding this quiet beauty is yet another standout, the robotic, pure-sex-exuding “Khmlwugh.” Descending chromatic synths hover atop steadily tiptoeing bass and a clap-trap beat as Sagar unfurls his mantra of “kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high.”

And so the magnificent sonic journey continues to its serene end. The title track, a subdued, six-minute slow jam, is colored by sweet, silky guitar strums over the faint sound of a swirling wind. “So She” sounds more than a little like 50s/60s lounge-pop with a dash of bossa nova, like something Stevie Wonder, Caetano Veloso, Astrud Gilberto and Fagen & Becker might record after smoking a few together in the studio. Closer “This Way” is Sagar at his most unabashedly yacht-rock; he croons about chilling out at home with his main squeeze as shivery percussion and delicate, goofy “night-life” keys that rather deliberately recall Paul Davis’ “I Go Crazy” meander in the foreground. It’s a great summation of what Sagar does best – using snippets of the past as a soundtrack for snapshots of the present. “Come and sit and stay a while,” he breathes. “You can relax, it’s me/Feeling slippers on the frozen tile/So cold, living comfortably…”

The charm of Sagar’s scrappy yet immaculate concoctions is boundless – simple elements are expertly combined to form something truly grand. He weaves magical, intimate universes out of his guitars and synths, creating a listening experience that’s equal parts soothing and compelling. It’s certain to serve as the backdrop to a THC-haze-coated makeout sesh between young hipsters – and I mean that as the highest possible praise. Here’s to Homeshake’s most thrilling and intoxicating effort yet, and here’s to the further sonic triumphs certain to form in its wake. (8.6/10)

Homeshake

Fresh Air

Royal Mountain/Sinderlyn, February 3, 2017

Produced by Peter Sagar

Album Review: Jansport J, ‘p h a r a o h’

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On p h a r a o h, Jansport J (aka prolific DIY beatmaker Justin Williams) invites listeners to join him on a truly remarkable journey. Over the course of 42 minutes and 27 tracks, J weaves innumerable samples from throughout hip-hop and R&B history into a captivating sonic tapestry, bursting with color and emotion.

In an interview with Bandcamp, J reveals that origins of p h a r a o h lie in the Covina, CA-based producer’s entrapment in New York City in the midst of a blistering snowstorm early last year. Thus, experiencing the album is very much akin to a subway ride through the various neighborhoods of NYC. No track is longer than two-and-a-half minutes, meaning that beats stick around just long enough to hold your attention, then morph into new ones. Static abounds, and beats regularly fade in and out like radio glitches. These changes, though, are never jarring but, thanks to Williams’ seamless production, feel like natural progressions. Think of it as a hip-hopera in 27 short acts.

The trip begins with the opening invocation of “Peace, Pt. I.” Over a wonky, galloping backbeat, an unidentified voice calls upon “our ancestors…pyramid builders,” as a bustling congregation echoes his prayer. J’s unique and notable use of the human voice continues throughout the album as he sprinkles in among the tracks scattered snippets of conversation and recorded speeches. The variety of voices heard here contributes further to the metro motif, bringing to life the colorful and wildly varied personalities of the L-train.

This use of human speech reaches an unforgettable profundity with the track “RIP Harambe,” which opens with a sound byte of a news report on the Cincinnati Zoo’s highly controversial shooting of the titular ape last summer (“Some of the video you’re about to see may be disturbing”). The tribal drums, bongos, keyboard bleeps and screaming kids are succeeded by the clicks, whacks and thumps of the 6/8-time “12,” in which a 911 dispatch expresses concerns about a young black man “in a white t-shirt” – sentiments heard far too often in an age of rampant mass shootings and racial profiling. The implied commentary from Williams here packs an unsubtle, necessary punch: Why is the life of an animal valued over that of a black man? How is it that the media routinely broadcasts the violent deaths of people of color without a second thought, yet warns its viewers about “disturbing” footage of a gorilla’s demise? It serves as a brutally effective document of racism in the 21st century.

The music, of course, isn’t to be overlooked either. Old-school boom-bap, funk-saturated guitars, psychedelic keys, analog synth burps, quiet-storm strings and intricate harmonies all sit side-by-side comfortably as J unfurls lush, delectable instrumentals one after the other in dizzying succession. His samples run the gamut from Mos Def (on the mellow, soulful “IWasFeelinShortee”) to Luther Vandross (atop the overlapping, undulating synths and hi-hat of “Crenshaw,” an anthem to J’s native West Coast) to the King of Pop (a slowed-down loop of the “Rock With You” chorus prominently featured on the breezy “Crush”). Such brilliantly-employed pop touches give a slight touch of familiarity to the recording, brief interludes of calm amid the raucous turbulence.

J is quickly becoming a rising star in the vast galaxy of instrumental hip-hop, and p h a r a o h makes it easy to see why. His scrappy, expertly-constructed, classic soul-and-R&B-informed beats have garnered him inevitable comparisons to the mighty J. Dilla, whose groundbreaking Donuts J himself has referred to as the movement’s sacred manuscript – the work that made it possible for producers to craft worlds of unparalleled beauty using only 90-second nuggets of noise. In discussing his style, J also cites such varied influences as Timbaland, Madlib, Eric B. & Rakim, the Alchemist, even his own fiddlings with a See ‘n Say as a toddler. But derivative this ain’t – he synthesizes these many influences into his own distinct voice, breathing new life into the genre itself.

There’s never a dull moment in p h a r a o h, or an unnecessary one; J always keeps it rollicking, riveting, and thoroughly enjoyable as he fuses his gritty atmospherics with arrestingly gorgeous paintings of sound. It’s a sprawling celebration of a culture and its art, a masterwork as lively, eccentric, industrious and varied as the bustling metropolis that inspired it. Williams is clearly a master at his craft, and he’s just getting started; here’s hoping that this and subsequent releases garner wider attention and accolades for this ridiculously underrated talent. Peace. (8.9/10)

Jansport J

p h a r a o h

Released January 27, 2017 on blackwhitegoldville music

Produced by Justin Williams

Album Review: Foxygen, ‘Hang’


Foxygen is a band that thrives on defying expectations. After Agoura Hills youngsters Jonathan Rado and Sam France formed the duo in 2005, they putted along relatively quietly for the next six years – releasing a string of EPs as well as an hour-long space opera – before signing to Jagjaguwar. Their next two records, 2012’s Take the Kids Off Broadway and 2013’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, were both critically-lauded efforts informed equally by Motown and 60s garage-psych, crackling with eccentric energy and smartass charisma. The duo faithfully evoked the past while creating music that sounded singularly of the present. Shortly after Ambassadors threatened to bolster them into indie superstardom, they split up and put out solo records, only to regroup the next year for the ambitious but tragically uneven Rundgrenian-pop behemoth …And Star Power.

With LP #5, Hang, France and Rado display their unpredictability as musicians in an unprecedented way. Eschewing the scrappy psych-pop of their previous efforts, they employ the services of a 35-piece orchestra – and they’ll be goddamned if they aren’t going to milk every last molecule of sound out of that 35-piece orchestra. The resulting vaudeville-glam fever dream (which also happens to include such illustrious guest musicians as Flaming Lip Steven Drozd and Brian and Michael D’Addario of the Lemon Twigs) blusters by in just over half an hour, banishing any and all restraint to the sidelines in its wake.

In terms of production, Hang is easily Foxygen’s most polished work thus far – the production on the backing orchestra is darn near immaculate – but it’s also their most cluttered and uneven. Lyrically, it comes nowhere near the eccentric, electric wit of Ambassadors and Broadway. France continually spouts off strings of empty crypticisms masquerading as deep truths; it’s difficult to know what to make of them other than that they seem more like placeholders that the band never bothered to change.

Then, there’s the instrumentation. There’s certainly nothing wrong with elaborate orchestral arrangements in rock; in fact, just the opposite. Myriad musicians, from Barry White to Scott Walker, from the Rolling Stones to Curtis Mayfield – even contemporary indie songwriters like Sufjan Stevens and Jens Lekman – have used strings and horns to create works of enduring beauty and power. (And personally, I practically live for such musical grandiloquence. I’m all about that shit.) However, these artists had the foresight to balance their bombastic instrumentation with quiet beauty and lyrical witticism. Foxygen’s kitchen-sink approach to baroque-pop, on the other hand, just feels like – dare I say it – a bit much? Hang may leave a lot to be desired lyrically, but what it lacks in storytelling, it more than makes up for in stupid, over-the-top rock ‘n roll extravagance that teeters a bit too much towards chintzy self-parody. It’s like a shiny, jewel-encrusted box with nothing in it. One desperately wishes the band had spent more time refining their ideas into fully-realized songs instead of hanging back in hopes that the orchestra would carry the weight. But hey, at least they seem pretty satisfied with themselves, I guess.

The upbeat “Follow the Leader” opens the album with Supertramp-like keys, and it’s roughly another four seconds until the strings leap into action, then continue full-throttle for the remainder of the song. France does his best Mick Jagger-meets Hunky Dory-era David Bowie-meets-Thom Yorke on a coke bender over the lush, dreamy orchestration. Next, vaudevillian piano (complemented by horns and harp) leads us into “Avalon” (not to be confused with the Roxy Music song of the same name), a goofy pop-rock romp in the tradition of Elton John’s 70s heyday. Loop-de-looping clarinet solos, honking saxes, buoyant scatting, a double-time interlude, and a colossal sing-along chorus ensue as France yowls such sweet nothings as “Sunset Boulevard, nightmare dreams/Take this candle off the porcelain scene…Grab your favorite sweater, we’re in for nasty weather/In the gardens of Avalon.” Um, okay.

“America,” a schmaltzy, Todd Rundgren-worshipping suite-within-a-song, is perhaps the most ludicrous offender in the sensory overload department. France’s voice, now a wobbly, warbling snarl, rides flowing woodwinds and chintzy strings into a huge, drum-laden chorus as subtle organ and harp slip in and out of the frame. In the song’s maniacal bridge, the backing musicians make rapid, jerky switches between time signatures and tempos, shifting without warning from quiet piano-prog into big-band swing into John Zorn speed-jazz. Thankfully, this ecstatic delirium marks the halfway point of the record, so you can take a breather if you need to.

It’s clear that the band is still evoking the past; they’ve just shifted their focus to the more flamboyant side of rock history. At some junctures, they prove a bit too good at such emulation; “On Lankershim” straight-up hijacks the opening to “Tiny Dancer” before turning into what sounds like an ELO song and a Little River Band song being played at the same time, and the chorus of “Avalon” gallops with the exact same cadences as that of ABBA’s bouncy, sax-laden “Waterloo.”

The spectacle rages on: France adopts a Jim Morrison growl for “Upon a Hill,” fumbling blindly for rhymes in a manner not unlike Morrison himself (“I sit upon a hill/And through the windowsill she slowly sings a song for me/And in her eyes/She hands me my disguise, mmmmmmmm“); what starts as a relatively laid-back track transmogrifies halfway through into an madcap 2/4 runaway-carousel polka. The waltzy soul ballad “Trauma” continues piling on layers, threatening to collapse under its own cumbersome weight before it abruptly stops. The song, while ostensibly about trauma, has  disappointingly little to say on the subject (“Some are big, and some are much larger…They from our mothers and fathers, among others”).

Finally, we reach the end of this overwhelming sonic journey with the hyper-melodramatic “Rise Up,” which employs Meat Loaf-like choruses lousy with timpani, harp, strings, chimes, and some pretty kick-ass French horn. The track moves into yacht-soul territory on the verses as France fixates, apparently, on Wilson Rawls’ 1961 children’s novel Where the Red Fern Grows and stumbles upon the most profound lyrics on the entire record – words that, in these harrowing times, take on a particular poignancy (“It’s time to wake up early/Start taking care of your health/And start doing all the hard things, and believe in yourself/And follow your own heart, if nothing else/And listen to your own dreams, nobody else’s will do”). Really nice thought. Would that they could have applied this kind of thinking throughout the album instead of going all crypto-psychedelia on us.

Hang is a fucking weird record, even by Foxygen’s standards. Still, there’s more than a little charm to the whole affair, and it’s easy to get swept away by the maximalistic bedlam and truly awe-inspiring musicianship exhibited in these eight songs. At its best, it’s entertaining and enjoyable; it fails in a couple places, but does so in such a noble and uninhibited way that you find yourself falling in love with it all the same. If the guys continue on this new sonic path while further polishing their songcraft, they could easily have another pop masterpiece on their hands. This may not quite be it, but it sure is a hell of a ride. (7.8/10)

Foxygen

Hang

Released January 20, 2017 on Jagjaguwar Records

Produced by Foxygen

Album Review: The xx, ‘I See You’

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Following a five-year absence, the xx have returned with some of their strongest, loveliest and most sophisticated work yet in I See You. The record packs a remarkable level of emotional drama into its 38 minutes, with fearless producer Jamie xx (whose terrific 2015 coming-out party In Colour hinted at a uniquely eclectic shift in sound), guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim wearing their stadium aspirations proudly on their sleeves.

The Londonite four-piece-turned-trio cut a major swath in the alternative universe with their 2009 debut xx, a stark, skeletal, mesmerizing record that stripped indie dance-pop down to its most basic elements. The follow-up, 2012’s Coexist, saw the band take an even more minimalistic approach to songcraft, with some tracks reserved to only ringing, shoegazy guitar and quavering vocals. With I See You, they expand their creative palates to create a fascinating, dreamy meld of house, post-punk and shoegaze.

It’s clear the band is doing things differently this time around, and they make a point of telling you as much from the start of the opening track. “Dangerous” begins with grandiose horn noises before breaking into a dancefloor-ready drum-bass beat. The beat thumps on infectiously as Croft and Sim croon about entering and navigating a love affair with reckless abandon: “I’m going to pretend that I’m not scared/If this only ends in tears/Then I won’t say goodbye.”

Working with regular collaborator Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie makes ample use of his newly-refined prowess as an electronic producer on this record. He plays a pivotal role in the band’s new musical direction, his lush, intoxicating sonic textures form an ideal foundation for the aching sentiments of his bandmates. The arrangements are warmer and more complex, yet they retain the chilly shimmer of the group’s previous work. The ringing, U2-esque guitar is still very much present, but this time it’s buttressed by the sounds of organ, horns, strings (including avant-garde legend Laurie Anderson on viola), and – in a notable first for the group – the prominent use of vocal samples. The samples aren’t exactly obscure (soft-rockers Alessi Brothers on the vaguely dubstep “Say Something Loving,” Trio Mediæval on the divinely hypnotic two-become-one anthem “Lips”), but they’re expertly woven into the record’s motif and elevate the meanings of the songs themselves instead of functioning as mere ornaments.

As songwriters and as vocalists, Sim and Croft have never sounded stronger or more self-assured than on I See You; Croft, in particular, seems to drift out of her comfort zone, displaying a more dynamic side of her reserved, breathy voice. The duo have mastered the art of exuding passion in their vocals and words while still maintaining a sort of detached coolness. They often have admitted in interviews to singing “over” each other instead of “to” one another – a dynamic that serves the group and their music well as their lyrics keep a delicate balance between desire for human connection and observing connection from a distance with a cold exactness. “It’s so overwhelming/The thrill of affection feels so unfamiliar,” they sigh on “Say Something Loving”; “I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t feel wrong.”

This lyrical focus – love, intimacy and youth as a disjointed, alien experience  – continues throughout the album. “A Violent Noise” uses a distinctly club beat, albeit far darker and more subdued, to evoke the experience of young clubgoers and the abstract numbness and confusion youth and clubgoing constantly entail – the feeling of being alone on a crowded dancefloor. “With every kiss from a friend/with everything I pretend not to feel,” Sim sings. “Am I too high? Am I too proud?/Is the music too loud for me to hear?” On “Replica,” somber, airy guitar and church organ-like chords flutter over thumping bass as the two contemplate the struggle to avoid imitating the mistakes of the preceding generation: “Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat…Do I chase the night or does the night chase me?”

Emphatic lead single “On Hold” presents an interesting contradiction. It’s one of the brightest, most upbeat songs the xx have ever crafted, packed with soaring synth notes and crackling breakbeats, yet its lyrics overflow with isolation and a fruitless quest for understanding, complete with astronomical imagery (“The stars and the charts and the cards make sense/Only when we want them to/When I lie awake staring in to space/I see a different view…Now you’ve found a new star to orbit…When and where did we go cold?”) A chopped-up, garbled sample of Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” transforms into a Tower of Babel, enhancing the supreme bewilderment and disorientation. Altogether, the track is a gorgeously subdued statement that ranks among the group’s best.

The devastating “Performance,” which bears perhaps the closest resemblance to the band’s previous work of anything found on I See You, is another standout moment. Here, Croft’s voice levitates over a barebones guitar/bass backdrop and swelling, brutish orchestration courtesy of Paul Frith and the Iskra String Quartet as she all-too-appropriately connects the concealing of emotion to a stage act (“If I scream at the top of my lungs, will you hear what I don’t say…I do it all so you won’t see me hurting/When my heart it breaks/I’ll put on a performance/I’ll put on a brave face”). The song touches upon a crucial point; after all, what is love in our modern world – indeed, what is the very art of music – if not the adoption of personae, the projection of feeling – an elaborately staged performance? Croft’s words take on an even greater poignancy when, ultimately, the illusion becomes reality as she and her lover drift further apart (“The show is wasted on you/So I perform for me”).

It’s the closing track, “Test Me,” however, that drives the whole thing home. The song begins as a slow, unadorned dirge with minimal percussion but gathers energy in its final minutes, gradually adding layer upon layer of wailing synths, vocals and drums to form a hauntingly vivid soundscape. Add Croft’s and Sim’s entreats for their respective lovers to “take it out on me,” and it’s an incredibly heartbreaking note on which to end this record. But heartbreak is what the xx do best, and here they manage to find new and intriguing ways to express it.

I See You is a beautiful and magnificently realized work that highlights the xx’s individual and collective strengths while successfully challenging them to explore uncharted territory. If you’re still in need of proof of their relevance and vitality in an age when lackluster, play-it-safe “alternative” music chokes the airwaves, this is the record to do it. This group is a force of extraordinary gravitas and potency, and it’s sure to be thrilling to watch what they do next. (8.4/10)

The xx

I See You

Released January 13, 2017 by Young Turks

Produced by Jamie xx, Rodaidh McDonald and Romy Madley Croft

Classic Album Review: Deerhunter, ‘Monomania’

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[Originally published May 10, 2013]

As I write this, I have not yet finished listening to Deerhunter’s sixth studio effort; my Spotify is not reacting well to the poor Internet connection in my bedroom, and it’s turning into this whole big deal. But judging simply from the 8 of its 12 tracks I’ve heard at this point, I can confidently state that I am in love with this record. It’s just that incredible.

The recently reunited Bradford Cox and co. are in top form on Monomania. The classic elements are all here: Cox’s imitation-Lennon-via-George Harrison vocals, substantial but never overstated; Lockett Pundt’s jangly, endlessly echo-y guitar riffs; and the truly hip percussion work of Moses Archuleta, all wrapped in a swirling cocoon of feedback and garage-fuzz. And yet, the group’s playing has rarely ever sounded tighter than on this record—thanks in large part to the addition of able-handed newcomers Frankie Broyles and Josh McKay on guitar and bass, respectively. The band also happens to have expanded their musical palate, with the various players jamming on Indonesian gamelan, Wurlitzer, Baldwin organ, and steel guitar, among other nifty gadgets. (Okay, not quite as striking as the random sax solo on their 2010 record Halcyon Digest’s “Coronado,” but still pretty damn striking.)

The songwriting rocks, too, with Cox’s and a bit of Pundt’s (“The Missing”) beautiful, cryptic lyrics exploring previously virgin territories of paranoia, alienation, and confused love. Each track begins with a lovely and devastatingly infectious hook that lets you know instantly that it’s going to be fantastic. From the tinny fog-machine opening of “Neon Junkyard” to the drum-saturated whir that closes out “Leather Jacket II” to the laid-back sighs of “Dream Captain” and “The Missing,” each of these songs will ease its way into your brain and heart. (Expect to hear “Back to the Middle” played sporadically at a Hollister near you—and expect to love it to pieces.)

With all these powerful, radio-ready hooks—along with tasteful production from the band and veteran co-worker Nicolas Vernhes (Microcastle)—this could easily be considered Deerhunter’s “poppiest” record. Indeed, they’ve been easing away from the experimental tendencies of their early records in favor of a more pop-oriented sound (a listen to the stellar cut “Memory Boy” from Halcyon should give you an idea of what I’m talking about).

But Monomania, like most of the group’s work, is “poppy” in the sense that it mirrors one certain Kurt Cobain’s efforts to create the “perfect pop song” with just a smidgen of grungy grit. And when these guys lay on the grit, boy, do they ever lay it on thick. Listen to the quirky, rowdy noise-jam/freak-outs at the end of the title track and “Leather Jacket” (themselves a testament to the clear blast the reunited ensemble had in the studio this time around) and you’d swear this record was made in 1992, hand-produced by Albini himself. But this is by no means a grunge throwback, nor is it a sloppy throwaway effort; the band once again does a stellar job of combining their varied influences with their own unflinching avant-garde vision.

In the end, the best thing about Monomania is that it provides us with a peek at something truly magical: a band doing what they do best, to the best of their ability–and obviously loving every feedback-soaked minute of it. (8.7/10)

Deerhunter

Monomania

Released May 7, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Nicolas Vernhes

Classic Album Review: The National, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’

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[Originally published May 24, 2013]

When you think about it, the National bears striking similarity to Arcade Fire. Both are independently-born merchants of arty post-punk/folk anthems with impassioned lyrics. Each has spawned countless imitators who, despite their earnest efforts, have never been able to truly duplicate its sound. They have both created a genre all their own and revolutionized music forever within the first decade of this fledgling century.

That being said, who’s stopping the National from making an Arcade Fire album?

Does that frighten you? It shouldn’t. True, Trouble Will Find Me – the sixth studio effort from the Cincinnatian-turned-Brooklynite sextet, and their first since 2010’s High Violet  sounds a hell of a lot like the brilliant work of those darn Canadians. The soaring choruses and ooh-aahing choirs are there, as is the cryptic, passionate songwriting. Need I mention that Richard Reed Parry (yes, that Richard Reed Parry) plays bass, piano, and God-knows-what-else?!

But that’s not all. The album’s collaborators are a laundry list of art-indie’s cream of the crop, including (but not limited to): Sufjan Stevens and Thomas Bartlett (Doveman) on keyboards; backing vocals from St. Vincent and Sharon Van Etten; and bits and pieces provided by members of Beirut, Dark Dark Dark, Antony and the Johnsons, Bedroom Community, Atlantic Brass Quintet, and Clogs (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s instrumental side project).

Okay. Take a breath. Just soak all that collaboration in. Okay. On we go.

This potpourri of co-conspirators may seem overwhelming – a post-punk New Year’s Eve of sorts, where it seems impossible for each component to have an ample say. And yet the band manages to incorporate all these varied influences into one coherent whole and wrap them in its trademark blanket of chilly New Wave-influenced post-punk. Thus, on Trouble Will Find Me, the band creates something truly unique, yet strangely familiar.

The album opens with soft Dessner guitar over a shimmering post-punk landscape as frontman Matt Berninger’s weary baritone shivers, “You should know me better than that/I should live in salt for leaving you behind.”

Next comes the imposing, dark single “Demons.” It’s a repetitive, dreamy, ageless-sounding drone with eerie guitar humming and a thin wall of strings in the distance. Think Nick Cave fronting Disintegration-era Cure. Here Berninger even squeezes in a rare obscenity (it starts with an ‘F’) that can easily go unnoticed by casual listeners.

“Don’t Swallow the Cap” is one of the many standout tracks on the album. Synthetic drums and siren guitars envelop a somber yet somehow hopeful tale of death and loss. “When they ask what do I see,” croons Berninger, “I see a bright white beautiful heaven hangin’ over me.”

The mesmerizing instrumentation continues throughout the record. From the gorgeous muted guitar-piano conversation and fluttering strings of “Fireproof” to the slow, spaced-out 3/4 keyboard dirge of “Heavenfaced” to the jazzy piano and urgent fretwork of “Pink Rabbits,” there’s rarely a dull moment on any of the thirteen tracks–or rather, rarely a moment that feels commonplace. The whole thing gives the listener the feel of waking up at 4:30 AM – in New York City, perhaps – barely awake, just beginning to make sense of things.

In case you haven’t noticed, this album has a certain overriding theme as far as songwriting is concerned. It’s a darkly meditative opus, lyrics awash with regret over mistakes made on both sides of some nameless relationship. And as we’ve come to expect from these guys, the writing is top-notch. “I’m having trouble inside my skin/I try to keep my skeletons in,” coos Berninger over cool synthscapes and guitar rings on the serene “Slipped.” “I’ll be your friend and a fuckup and everything/But I’ll never be anything you want me to be.”

Berninger, of course, to continue the Arcade Fire compare-contrast, bears little resemblance to Win Butler with his Ian Curtis-meets-Steve Kilbey vocals. But though he sounds apathetic and distant to the layman, his voice has a certain peculiar passion to them; when he growls “I need my girl,” you’re thoroughly convinced that he does need his girl.  When that voice is put in context with its surroundings, it works spine-tingling miracles.

Trouble Will Find Me is full of lovelorn romanticism and aching regret – with just a hint of hope for redemption. This is an art of which the National can pride themselves on being masters. Coating their canvas with a shroud of darkness, they simultaneously touch it up with spots of light and beauty. What results is a grandly emotive and frightfully powerful record – one of the best of the year thus far – and further proof that these six young men figure big among the musicians that matter most today. (8.4/10)

The National

Trouble Will Find Me

Released May 21, 2013 on 4AD Records

Produced by Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner