November 21, 2008

Helios: "Caesura".

Keith Kenniff returns as Helios with 2008's Caesura, and luckily enough for us, he's simply extended all the warm, resounding goodness of 2006's Eingya. In other words, the album is not, by virtue, an experimental progression off of Helios' body of work, but more a continuation of Kenniff's bright and ringy saturation of sound and soul; the album strays not a step from the path that is Helios' experimental/post-ambient sound.

Much like '06's Eingya, Caesura opens up soft and somewhat subliminally; like blood pumping through capillaries, the minimalist beat and ambient drones, otherwise incapable of any movement, are guided through a network of carefully chosen chord structures in "Hope Valley Hill".

"Come With Nothings" finds an interesting balance between synthetic, electronic rhythms and earthy tones, prominent in the sustained guitars and often-times chimey ambience that fills each tune like the wind through an open field on a cool summer evening, and "Glimpse" sees a beat similar to that of "Dragonfly Across an Ancient Sky", seemingly looped from a field recording rich with room noise, creaks and snaps.

Weaving atop the subtle percussion lies a combination of electric and acoustic guitar, providing two-thirds of the melody, the other third belonging to the soft bass accompaniment. Kenniff layers in, masterfully, a magnificent blend of sustained keys and synth swells to fill out and accentuate the heartbreaking melody.

"Backlight" is a chunky, guitar-driven tune featuring perhaps the most straightforward beat of any of Helios' recordings, and a much more emotional experience exudes from within "The Red Truth", featuring reverse swells in almost over-abundance contrasted by a lovely coalescence of electric and acoustic picking and a single octave bass line.

The album hardly winds down from here; the last four tracks are by far the best, which cannot so easily be said of Caesura's predecessor. "A Mountain of Ice" begins with a seemingly arbitrary arrangement of wind chime keys, and shortly after introduces a hard-hitting beat that sounds very much like shattering stalactites of ice.

"Mima" is arguably the prettiest track off the record, truly befitting the undiscovered brilliance of winter's splendor, and "Shoulder to Hand", my favorite track, is a stunning about-face from the sparkling grandeur of "Mima", the apotheosis of none other than winter's harsh and unforgiving nature.

So the question everybody seems to be asking: does it out-play Eingya? If pressed for an answer, I would have to reply with a determined "yes". Hard to fathom. Good work, Keith.


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November 13, 2008

Frances: "All The While".

Every so often, a debut effort comes along that rivals some of the more solid and established records of the respective genre or sub genre, and All The While is very much one of these, from start to finish.

Orchestral rock along the lines of Garland of Hours' The Soundest Serum and Silverchair's masterpiece Diorama, All The While gathers up and mixes in the chamber pop of Sufjan Stevens' acclaimed Illinois and the power/twee pop of Tilly and the Wall, which sounds even better musically than it does in writing. Of much of 2008's best releases, I venture to say this is most definitely among the best of them.

All The While shines in many different ways, and most notably in key tracks such as "All The While" and "Locket", which find the balance between strong orchestral arrangements and frilly, feel-good melodies, in just the right dosage. From the pounding intro to "All The While", to the airy opening of "The New Decoy", Frances' debut release covers all the bases of emotionally-impacting pop, however many comparisons can be drawn in effort to discredit their deserved acclaim.

Much more than simply a Sufjan Stevens rip-off, All The While sees breezy classical orchestration intertwined with the best elements of any decent indie rock offering, most notably in tracks such as "The Brain", which comprises Of Montreal's classic rock energy and Lambchop's synergetic instrumental backbone, and "Tightrope", featuring a slow-building climax which suddenly explodes into an epic krautrocker, instantly becoming a standout among standouts.

Some of the record's softer side is portrayed through tracks like "Steady", in which Donnie Darko seemingly revisits the closet in his parents' bedroom, lulled eerily by a brilliant theremin accompaniment, and "Tomorrow Gold", smacking blatantly of Wilson's visionary Pet Sounds.

While All The While falls very short of Pet Sounds, a valiant effort is made by all in this up-and-coming Brooklyn quintet to craft a balanced, undeniably irresistable modern pop gem, and its freshness and remarkable maturity will undoubtedly boost it to the top of many of the most respected "best of 2008" lists. Highly recommended, indeed.

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November 9, 2008

Lambchop: "OH (Ohio)"

In a better, happier world, Kurt Wagner's butter-knife baritone that effectively euthanizes each note he sings would sound almost humane, almost genuinely insincere; however, that happens not to be the case, which is a large part of what makes Wagner's vocal delivery so compellingly original and arcanely necessary. It's as if he's saying, in a language unknown to anyone, "we've all got a voice, but only I know how to say what we all ultimately were born to say." Feel that strange resonance with every word he's saying, despite the near impossibility to decipher any rhyme or reason to their particular grouping? That's a glimpse at the intuitive nature of Lambchop's leader and musical accompaniment, and fortunately, it's a talent that spans the group's entire discography, front to back.

Comprising 2008's OH (Ohio) are eleven tracks that find inspiration in bossa beats, easy listening lounge melodies and slowcore americana (which is the most verbose description I could think of in attempts to shatter the group's less-than-magnanimous labeling as an "alt-country" act) that even kinda' rocks, occasionally. Proof of this? Read on...

OH (Ohio) opens up with its title track, in which Kurt Wagner's often-conflicted lounge croon cuts through a finely-crafted country-western samba, reminding us of the truth in that, um, age-old saying "green doesn't matter when you're blue". "Slipped Dissolved and Loosed" sees the Nashville ensemble opting for a folk-tinged acoustic number, delivering Wagner's preeminent melancholy in a slightly different shade of blue, and one much more frail and opaque; it's as if the curtains normally reserving the privacy behind the window of Kurt's heart have been drawn open ever so slightly, revealing just how true and meaningful each word rings.

Other tracks such as "I'm Thinking of a Number" and "National Talk Like a Pirate Day" are solemn reminders that Lambchop's virtuous instrumentation has not all but vanished with '08's OH, combining some lovely, atmospheric guitar swells and near-whisper vocals, as well as sustain-drenched pianos and a very Neil Young-esque rocker in "National Talk Like a Pirate Day". In similar Lambchop fashion, tunes like "A Hold of You" and "Please Rise" remind one of any of the great tracks off 2000's seminal masterpiece Nixon, featuring dynamically-impacting instrumental backings over top of which Wagner's cutting delicacy disseminates brilliantly.

"Close Up and Personal" lassos Randy Newman, Ray Charles and the ghostly presence of Stan Getz into what should sound so much more inspiring than a Norah Jones tune, though sadly does not. "I Believe In You" works to round out the amalgom of influences by offering a slow, bluesy country anthem you somehow just can't imagine your grandparents dancing to, no matter how jukebox-friendly it sounds, which I personally find absolutely charming. What better way to end a creepy, artsy country-ish album featuring a painting of two naked homo sapiens in mid-fondle on the cover?

Lambchop just might be the new masters of unconventionally ambiguous subtlety in modern pop - and/or the very act responsible for the indubitably bloody death of the country western ballad.

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