Archive for February, 2008
In 1991, John Darnielle began recording folk-rock songs, under the name The Mountain Goats, which sounded like they were recorded on a boom box (as some of them were). However, strikingly intelligent and poignant lyrics, coupled with Darnielle’s urgent, bleating vocals, have created a cult following around The Mountain Goats (in which Darnielle is the only consistent member). In each of the nineteen albums released by The Mountain Goats, Darnielle explores the intensity of emotion experienced by people in desperate situations, while describing the human condition with marked accuracy. The Mountain Goat’s newest album, Heretic Pride, is no exception.
The three Mountain Goat albums released before Heretic Pride were all heavily influenced by Darnielle’s life – the only autobiographical work in Darnielle’s extensive catalogue. Heretic Pride, however, returns to traditional Mountain Goats fare, focusing on overarching themes and expertly crafted characters. Despite the album’s fictional nature, the songs on Heretic Pride describe characters who very well might exist on Earth somewhere. In each track, Darnielle turns a three minute song into a story which would take a less talented writer ages to tell.
Heretic Pride begins with “Sax Rohmer #1″ – a song named after writer Arthur Ward, whose novels describe master criminal Dr. Fu Manchu. This is the first song of many in the album which reference monsters and evil characters from literature and movies – H.P. Lovecraft’s monster Cthulhu, the mythical Tianchi Monster, a swamp creature, and Michael Myers are all mentioned in songs. “Sax Rohmer #1,” along with all those songs with evil characters in them, creates a pressure-filled atmosphere, with pulsing drums and minor chords issuing from the guitar.
These songs are sharp contrasts to the second song on the album, “San Bernadino.” It is one of a number of songs contently describing a failing relationship. In the song, a violin and viola emit graceful, melodic notes which contrast a constant, pizzicato plucking of the guitar. This juxtaposition provides an excellent background to the lyrics of the song, which are those of a man recounting the good moments of a failed marriage. “Heretic Pride” and “So Desperate” are particularly good tracks on the album. The former, after which the album takes its name, is a reconciliation of the album’s two themes, which involve both monsters and the satisfaction which comes from ending a failing relationship. The song is told from the perspective of a heretic who is being burned for his sins. This narrative is told over relaxing, even uplifting instrumental music, and the words said by the heretic are even inspiring: “I felt so proud to be alive,” he says in the refrain. “So Desperate,” on the other hand, seems – rightly – out of place on the album. It is the only track which contains no instruments other than guitar – which plays very melodic arpeggios behind Darnielle’s warm, longing vocals. The song, though dissimilar to others on the album, provides an emotional climax to the album.
It’s been over five years since the last lo-fi Mountain Goats album – something which longtime fans occasionally deplore. Heretic Pride could very easily silence those complaints. Although the album was recorded in a modern studio and edited for audio quality, the emotional impact is just as significant as any earlier Mountain Goats albums and Heretic Pride is one of The Mountain Goat’s best.
Nada who? Casual music fans may not be familiar with Nada Surf, an alternative rock band from New York City, but they have been the unsung staple of college radio stations for over 10 years. Nada Surf’s 1996 semi-hit single “Popular” was the launching block for a new movement of rock music. Bands like Weezer and R.E.M. gained widespread notoriety and success during this time, while Nada Surf remained in the shadows, working on new material and slowly gaining a larger fan base. Their 2005 album The Weight Is A Gift, produced by Chris Walla, continued Nada Surf’s breakthrough to the mainstream. With their latest release Lucky, Nada Surf shows how far they’ve come and exhibits the sound they have developed over the last decade.
The record begins with “See Them Bones,” a moderately paced song with several layers. First, a simple guitar, bass, and drum ensemble fills the speakers, slowly complemented by strings and vocals (featuring a guest appearance from Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard.) Next is “Whose Authority,” an upbeat tune that hearkens back to the glory days of 90′s college radio. “Beautiful Beat” fits its name with both strong drum tracking and great harmonies on the chorus. Nada Surf’s now polished sound continues through the middle part of the album. Highlights of the middle include the guitar driven “Weightless,” the laid back “Are You Lightning?” and the catchy “From Now On.” The album ends on “The Film Did Not Go ‘Round,” a softer, acoustic piece. The lyrics, “Girl I hate to see you go, but the sunlight follows you on down the road,” impart a sense of closure as the disc comes to an end.
Although large portions of the album blend together into a seamless conglomeration of 90′s-esque college radio pop, there are still pockets of innovation and boldness. Lyrically, Nada Surf has words that are catchy and sometimes thoughtful, although never overly-emotional. Taken all together, Lucky is a decent listen and a testament to the roots of modern indie-pop music.
“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, “Upper West Side Soweto”, and “Oxford Comma Riddim” are just some of the adjectives that Vampire Weekend uses to describe their sound. If these “genres” sounds pompous, then the band has achieved its goal. Vampire Weekend is composed of four Columbia graduates from New York City, and they’re not afraid to make their preppy backgrounds known (ironically in some cases). Despite this, their self-titled debut album delivers a nice blend of African and Caribbean rhythms and harmonies with laid back indie-pop melodies and lyrics.
The band was relatively unknown until they started sending record companies and music blogs a blue CD-R, aptly titled Vampire Weekend: Blue CD-R. This contained un-mastered copies of songs which would eventually appear on their new album. Although major record companies ignored them at first, some well-known blogs were very impressed with the innovative style of the band, and gave them outstanding reviews.
Vampire Weekend begins with “Mansard Roof” – the album’s single – which makes obscure references to McDonalds (which have mansard roofs) as well as discussing the Falklands War. Although the lyrics are vague and needlessly obtuse, simple piano chords and arpeggios permeate the song, giving it a relaxed feel, while lead singer Ezra Koenig’s tenor voice conversationally sings about McDonalds the way only a Columbia graduate would.
In the track, “Oxford Comma,” smooth and light guitar riffs and African dance beats from the drums provide an ideal context for the song, in which the singer chastises someone for the same preppy attitude that pervades many of the other tracks. One of these tracks is “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” which talks about the very rich vacationing for the summer in Cape Cod. However, relaxed guitar riffs and informal singing still is the base of the sound, and the song ends up being extremely catchy.
Vampire Weekend combines the same laid back attitude toward songwriting displayed by the Strokes with rhythms common in South African pop music. Despite the odd combination, it makes for an addictive sound which, after the initial confusion caused by the style, will cause repetitive listening.
Now that January has come and gone, the music industry is willing to release new albums, and for fans of Death Cab For Cutie, Chris Walla’s Field Manual is a must have. Walla currently plays guitar for Death Cab For Cutie, and has recorded and produced records with The Decemberists, Nada Surf, and Hot Hot Heat. The story behind the release of this album actually started last year when the laptop that contained the mastered tracks was seized by Homeland Security as Walla was crossing through the Canadian border. Apparently this confiscation was a mistake and he got his computer back soon after. As for the music itself, don’t be surprised to hear the ghosts of old Death Cab For Cutie albums show up on this disc.
The album begins with “Two-Fifty,” a mix of reverb laden vocals and computer sampled beats. This stands as a contrast to the pop melodies that drive “The Score” and Field Manual’s first single “Sing Again.” Walla, a current Portland resident, asks “Colorado are you listening? Do you hear me? Do you even care?” on “A Bird Is A Song,” a softer, stripped down tune. “Geometry & C” begins with an intro that almost sounds like “Crooked Teeth” from Death Cab For Cutie’s 2005 album Plans, but is distinctly a Walla original. Through the middle of the album Walla sticks to his pop-indie sound until “It’s Unsustainable,” which once again sounds like a b-side to Plans. Finally, “Holes” closes the album simply yet beautifully.
As far as lyrics go, Chris Walla is definitely not standing in Ben Gibbard’s, or anyone else’s, shadow. “Sing Again” is just catchy, yet so simple, but still manages to speak to human resolve with these lyrics: “Here’s to poison, you will hear the noises, you will fear the breaking, it’s all yours for the taking.” Walla’s questions about Colorado listening and caring really hit home, especially for residents of the Centennial State, because he poses his question in a poetic way.
Taken all together, Field Manual is a breath of fresh air for a year that hasn’t heard much in the area of decent new music releases. Chris Walla is innovative, yet still true to the sounds he has developed through years of playing and producing.