RECORD REVIEW NO. 37: PHOENIX AND GUY WHO USED TO TITLE THESE ON ARTSY, MISUNDERSTOOD KICK
I read once somewhere that Phoenix’s Thomas Mars sings in English because he feels that it is the language for which rock n’ roll is meant, a sentiment that checks out with his obsession of all things American. Although Bankrupt! is hardly a shocking turn, it certainly feels less American in directness than Phoenix’s last few outings. Bankrupt! is the cerebral afterthought to 2009’s breakout Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
If we’re to understand all of the radio-ready blow-outs on a Phoenix album from the instrumental interlude at its center—the band’s growth on Wolfgang apparent on the airy, synth-led set piece “Love Like a Sunset”, the guitar-driven albeit sentimental “North” signifying the whole approach of It’s Never Been Like That—Bankrupt!’s instrumental title track extrapolates Wolfgang’s leveling automations and preference for mood over flare. And then extrapolates some more.
“Chloroform” borrows the bowel-rupturing synths from last go-around’s hit “1901” but instead of exhausting strobelights and confetti pods with major-scale sheen, the down-tempo cut saunters arena back-alleys, packed with cold air for fresh sweat. Here and on the record’s single, “Entertainment,” the keys have a lilt that the ignorant white listener will only know as the stuff of Asiatic film scores. At times this effect screams contrivance, Phoenix trying to sell us the same sound, only different (and worldly to boot!). But for the most part, change is good.
Lyrically, Mars can be trusted even with a subject as platitudinous as a rock star bitching about celebrity, which is what the album is unequivocally concerned with. Cleverly too, Laurent Brancowitz and Deck D’arcy’s synths render this obsession sonically. If Wolfgang is big in the sense that it fills space with the in-your-face pop of a band needing to be heard after years of obscurity, Bankrupt! feels big as far as its inference of space avoided, a plangent, kumadori-colored gulf of sound. On standouts like “Bourgeois” and “The Real Thing”, rather than overload the scene, Brancowitz and Christian Malazzai save the guitar work until the electronic pulse is insufficient for punching up Mars’ vocal melodramas. I’m not sure Bankrupt! is the experimental record the band’s success promised—I suspect there’ll be fewer car commercials and more dancing ahead. Yet while Phoenix is a band done “Trying to be Cool,” instead of losing its new fan base, I think Bankrupt! might help reset Coachella clowns’ attention span for a pop music less hook-dependent, less American—synths that would rather pontificate than party.
Score: Scores are bourgeois. Listen to “The Real Thing”, “Trying to Be Cool”, and “Bourgeois”. While not as obviously likable as Wolfgang, Phoenix doesn’t disappoint here.
Matt’s Picks: Best Albums of 2011
1. Bon Iver by Bon Iver
Bon Iver may be the most welcoming album on my list, but it’s most certainly not the easiest to get into. The first time I was introduced to Justin Vernon’s sophomore effort, the entire piece floated by me like a lofty reverie, inoffensive and majestic, but lacking any punctuated moments or themes worth retaining. The more I listened however, bits began to stick out, little piles of dirt and gusts of wind to create the world implied by the geographical titling. There was the crashing, syncopated release halfway through “Perth” to build itself back up into a procellous triumph of snare drum and horn salutes. There was the hushed plea of magnificence (or lack thereof) Vernon proclaimed on “Holocene”, and his vocals shimmering and bouncing around the trickling piano on “Wash.” like sunlight on a tranquil stream. Before I knew it, Bon Iver had turned from a worn out map of Justin Vernon’s failures and regrets through a rose tinted lens to a veritable terrain of hope and beauty, the greatest of all of his made up locations, and one you’ll never want to leave.
2. James Blake by James Blake
“Unluck”, James Blake’s first track, begins with him emitting a single beam of thin sound through a heap of negative space until it gets vacuumed up into a supernova of static and collapses inward. In Blake’s world, the snuffing out is even more explosive than the combustion. The next step in the song is the addition of his voice, a gentle whispering falsetto, layered over a minimalist dubstep beat. The beams of sound grow thicker into a discomforting crescendo and Blake’s voice falls down the scale in autotune like each note is a new stair he’s tumbling down on the descent from grace. From then on, the album follows a similar pattern of simplicity with a mastery of tension and release at its core. Like Ian Curtis did for punk, Blake has taken dubstep, a genre based entirely on outward aggression and unbridled impulse, and flipped it inside out, focusing instead on internal calamity and anxiety. While his lyrics may mostly revolve around resignation (“The Wilhelm Scream”), rejection (“Why Won’t You Call Me?”) and general isolation, both imposed and self-designed (“I Never Learnt to Share”), there isn’t a grain of irony or whining present, proving that he is not only a talented songwriter, but a mature and honest one as well, reminding us that computers don’t need to distance us from passion and emotion in music, but can be used to bring us even closer.
3. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83
Nostalgia is tricky. While the obvious goal seems simple (just make sure it’s similar enough to something done a thousand times before within a span of whatever years the target audience experienced their childhood/teenage years in), the real challenge is in making an album that not only evokes said nostalgia but also manages to remain relevant in whatever year it’s released. On Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, Anthony Gonzalez has gone above and beyond that, even, by creating an album so timeless, so fraught with melancholic atmosphere, bubbling energy, and songs massive enough to fill a night sky emptied by the light of the city that it not only brings the listener back to their youth, but emphasizes the current experience of any younger generation enjoying it now, ensuring that it’ll be equally as nostalgic for the youth of today thirty years for now as it is for any other generation.
4. whokill by tUnE-yArDs
“I’m a new kinda woman, I’m a new kinda woman, I’m a don’t take shit from you kinda woman.” Merrill Garbus may wait until whokill’s last track “Killa” to make that claim, but it’s evident to the listener from the first second she bursts into the picture on opening track “My Country”. With a voice loud and commanding enough to speak for victims of police brutality (“Doorstep”), emotional abuse (“Powa”) or the oppressed anywhere (“Bizness”), she tramples through whokill’s ten tracks with bassist Nate Brenner and her armory of saxophone, percussion, loops and ukelele with such utter confidence it’s hard to imagine anyone even wanting to try and stand in her way. At times it may seem like Merrill is ready to break out into a panic stricken breakdown of her own, turning the tables on everyone who ever walked over the disadvantaged or abused their power, but rest assured, she‘s as wise as she is passionate, singing “"All my violence is here in the sound," at one point in “Killa”. And with a voice like hers, that’s all she really needs to make a difference.
5. Strange Mercy by St. Vincent
If Marry Me was a teaser, and Actor a 50/50 split between Annie Clark’s girl-next-door image and her truly twisted underbelly, then Strange Mercy is the full-fledged realization of her ultimate maturity. While on Actor, Clark was more often than not the one in control, sinisterly manipulating her surroundings to her own advantage or merely causal whims, Strange Mercy leaves her the victim. The dental dam album artwork shows us a desperate gasp for freedom under sterile suffocation, hinting at a struggle for independence from one’s surroundings, left kneeling at the unpredictable mercy of something beyond us. Clark’s plucky melody and fervent guitar work slow down to a near drawl by just a little over halfway in for “Champagne Year” in which she laments “I make a living telling people what they want to hear. It’s not a killing, but it’s enough to keep the cobwebs clear.” With Strange Mercy, she’s given us exactly what we want to hear, but judging by it’s immensely warm welcome she’ll be the one to come out on top this time.
Pierce’s Picks: Best Albums Of 2011
1. Cults by Cults
With their debut album, Cults kicked down the door to the house of Pop, put their muddy boots on the coffee table and declared the estate belonged to them. The entire album is like a tour through music history. “I Never Saw the Point in Trying” sounds like something Brian Wilson could have written during his Beach Boys heyday, “Bad Things” screams Madonna if Madonna had been an indie band. Lead singer Madeline Follin’s vocals dominate the album, but her duet with Cults’ only other member Brian Oblivion on “Bumper” is a 21st century reimaging of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.”
Despite this tour through time, Cults manages to shape all of these distinct sounds into something unique and cohesive. Strap on those headphones, chew your bubblegum, bob your head and remember why music is fun.
2. Whokill by tUnE-yArDs
Whokill is easily the most impressive individual album effort of the year. And that’s thanks Connecticut’s Merrill Garbus, the composer behind this beautiful dance-heavy lo-fi album. She starts with drum tracks and then layers in a number of other instruments, creating something that’s more worldly and unique than her peers’ music. Garbus put on significantly more polish than her first album, Bird-Brains, and it shows: songs like “Bizness” and “Gangsta” sound more stadium-ready than boombox-recorded. The more refined sound calls for a crowd of thousands ebbing and flowing to Garbus’ waning and waxing beats. Her voice does the rest of the work, howling at the highest of heights and then careening down a mountainside with more power than a MAC truck.
3. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes’ ascension to the top of the folk mountain seemed inevitable. Their second album completes the journey to the summit by building on the beautiful harmonies and delicate instrumentals that made the band famous. Even though it’s in the same vein, Helplessness is more welcoming than the Foxes debut by injecting more approachable elements. The title track is the closest the band has gotten to a sing-a-long song while tracks like “Montezuma” and “Bedouin Dress” could easily find play on your city radio station and college station alike.
It would be cliché and completely wrong to say the band sold out. Fleet Foxes are still very much Fleet Foxes. But Helplessness brought certain maturation and refinement the group’s first album forgot. If you’re not on the Foxes’ hype train yet, now is a good time to get aboard.
4. David Comes to Life by Fucked Up
David Comes to Life might be best described as a maximalist punk opera, whatever that might mean to you. Forget about those one and a half minute blitzkriegs you know as punk. This 18-song, 77+ minute album is worth every minute of brutal howling and lighthearted power chords. The beauty of a band like Fucked Up is that they managed to communicate angst in a way that doesn’t seem pubescent. Perhaps that’s because they truly break a lot of the notions we know as punk. These songs are uplifting and weave a heartfelt tale of love and lost. Forget about pissing off the establishment for once. Sprinkle in a little vocal harmony and you’ve got Fucked Up: probably the most interesting punk band since Johnny Ramone died.
5. James Blake by James Blake
I’ll admit it: I was a James Blake hater. That all changed when I heard “Lindisfarne I” and “Lindisfarne II,” a dreamy, heartbroken trip through the auto-tuned mind of Blake.
Critics say his music is a unique take on dubstep. I never really understood that perspective, but what I can say is his soulful songs are moody and desolate. Blake took what Bon Iver started, turned off all of the lights and started telling ghost stories through your headphones. Listen to this album in the rain and tell me I’m wrong.
Best of 2011, according to us
We’re more than a month late but a few of the people who’ve written for Chant (that’s three of us) have compiled some best-of lists.
We hope you enjoyed the great year in music that was 2011 as much as we did!
Record Review No.36: Shout Out To Palomo’s Finnish Hobo-Stalker
Artist: Neon Indian
Album: Era Extraña
Label: Static Tongues/Mom + Pop
Written by Matthew Later
Despite its recent growth in popularity, chillwave still remains the butt of an ever increasing number of jokes in the indiesphere, and to no one’s surprise. After all, it was indie/hipster parodist Carles that is credited for inventing the term. A relative nongenre, categorized by computerized synths, breezy vocal melodies, and 80s pop fetishism, it’s been used to apply to only a quantum of current artists and a plethora of bands jumping on the bandwagon with only a song or two to their name. Just as it’s reaching its peak however, chillwave progenitor Neon Indian, the alias of musician Alan Palomo, appears to be running away from every notion that the term has come to suggest—and that’s a good thing.
Palomo is in no way abandoning his portfolio of catchy pop hooks stamped over laptop concoctions of swirling synths on his latest, Era Extraña, but rather giving these simple melodic riffs the layering and depth that they deserve. Even the fifty-nine second instrumental opener “Heart: Attack” (the first of three “Heart” titled songs on the album) manages to successfully probe into the album’s core and pull out a quick spacey rise and fall crushed between a single pulsing beat and shrill effects seemingly pulled straight from an 8-bit videogame. Era’s first true, full song (“Polish Girl”) also goes to show that he hasn’t sacrificed melody for mood, and cranks out his catchiest, bounciest tune to date.
Beyond those first two songs, Palomo expresses a willingness to continue shifting through various stylistic influences, be it the shoegazy gauze “Blindside Kiss” or the accentuated new wave feel of “Halogen: I Could Be a Shadow”. The album’s eponymous track goes to show that even one of the founders of a genre has no problem adhering too strictly to its traditional sound, especially when that sound is as specific as chillwave. The viscous “Era Extrana” is just as exciting as any of his more uptempo tracks on the album, and is a credit to Palomo’s excellent sense of pacing.
The three “Heart”-titled tracks can more or less be used as demarcation points to illustrate exactly how true that statement holds: The aforementioned “Heart: Attack” has a certain edge and tension with its central synthline growing in strength amidst a barrage of far out sounds. “Heart: Decay” shows off a smaller side to Neon Indian, one more demure and clustered, as one might expect from such a title, but not necessarily for a song placed dead center in the tracklist. “Heart: Release” is no stranger to Palomo’s pop tendencies, and recalls the simplicity of his earlier work while still seeming to merge the earlier two songs with which it shares a common name.
Neon Indian has not made any drastic departures from its initial release, nor does it seem like they will anytime in the future. What they have done is added a much needed level of atmospheric variegation and layered complexity to what had previously been a primarily one tone project. Of course, the album closer “Arcade Blues” recalls a simpler time in the Neon Indian catalogue and while I find it easier to appreciate the band’s newer work as a whole, it just goes to show that even the most basic chillwave has its own merit.