Category Archives: Reviews

Animal Collective – Centipede Hz

Artist: Animal Collective
Album: Centipede Hz
Label: Domino
Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Being an Animal Collective fan is frustrating sometimes. They’re the rare kind of group that gains popularity by defying audience expectations, but this failure to do so feels less like a creative independence sometimes and more like an intentional sabotage. Until their breakthrough 2009 release, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective were an extremely polarizing act – either you “got it” or you didn’t.  The straight forward, easily accessible melodies of Merriweather put a lot of that to rest, though, and this approach to songwriting surged the band in popularity. Despite this, Animal Collective aren’t an experimental group that turned into a psychedelic pop one, they’re an experimental group that happened to make a psychedelic pop record. Centipede Hz then is a return to form to the kind of music they made before, a blaring assault of sonic and electronic exploration that hides melodies underneath its layers and will definitely polarize people to the group again like their older records did before.

The problem with Centipede Hz isn’t the obvious shift in aesthetics, though, it’s the furious explosion of sound that makes the songs feel claustrophobic and packed. “Moonjock,” the album’s intro, has so much going on that it feels a typhoon of noise. This problem is alleviated somewhat by listening to the album on speakers where the tracks have more space to breathe, but on headphones this might initiate mild levels of panic attacks. Groupmember Deakin, who returns after taking a hiatus from the group, contributes the track “Wide Eyed” which is a nice respite from the chaos when it hits near the halfway point, but his parts are so prominent on the rest of the album that it’s frequently distracting.

Regardless, this album still has its fair share of great moments. “Today’s Supernatural,” the album’s first single, is classic Animal Collective, and “Rosie Oh” (one of two tracks written by Panda Bear) slinks through with an infectious groove.  “Father Time” is another highlight that recalls the best moments of Avey Tare’s excellent 2009 solo release, Down There, but “New Town Burnout” (the other track written by Panda Bear), sounds too much like a track from his 2011 solo album, Tomboy (understandable as it was written right after that album was recorded). It’s still good, but a solo version that stripped away the excess of the group and kept things minimal would have worked better for it. “Pulleys” is a nice palate cleanser before the closer “Amanita” that uses the hectic atmosphere established by the rest of the album to good effect. “Honeycomb” and “Gotham,” two excellent tracks the group put out as a single a few months back, are completely absent from the album, and their replacement of other songs on this album like “Monkey Riches” or “Mercury Man” would have been better choices.

Despite everything though, Centipede Hz, like so many other Animal Collective albums, is not an album that can be easily digested on the first few listens. These songs take time to sink in, and maybe a lot of the criticisms leveled at it will change when the initial hype dies down. Regardless, Merriweather Post Pavilion wasn’t the best thing the group has ever done because they sacrificed their sound for the sake of accessibility, it was the best thing they’ve done because, for once, it didn’t sound like they were intentionally trying to subvert the power of their craft. No matter what they do, though, Animal Collective are still an incredibly unique band that exist purely in their own realm. They just don’t always have to work so hard to prove it to us.

Blur – 21 Box Set

Artist: Blur
Album: 21 Box Set
Label: Parlophone
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

To celebrate their 21st birthday, the 21 Box Set collects the (almost) complete history of Blur in a 21 disc set that features every studio album, every B-Side, and a huge mess of studio and live rarities. It’s a massive collection that may be daunting to digest for new or casual fans, but it’s an excellent collection of a band that’s never had a bad moment.

First forming in 1988 and originally calling themselves Seymour, the group didn’t take long to sign with Food Records (EMI eventually bought the label and turned into Parlophone) who put out their first album, Leisure, in 1991. Like a lot of the best bands that would eventually grow into something else, Blur’s first album with its new wave feel is good, but not great. The band’s first five albums in this box set have been remastered for the first time, and the new sheen the songs have make Leisure sound stronger than it ever was before. In comparison to the rest of the band’s catalog, though, it’s still their weakest release.

Blur unfortunately came out at a time when grunge was first exploding into the world, and a series of terrible management decisions that put the group into debt and Leisure’s lack of success almost destroyed the band completely. Reinventing themselves with their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, though – Blur broke free of their slump and heralded in a new European movement, Britpop. Britpop, popularized because of its intentional contrast to the dreary pulse of grunge, is a style of music defined by its uptempo beats, use of horns, and catchy hooks. Modern Life is Rubbish then is the first album that made Blur important and insanely popular, and with tracks like “Miss America” that looked at American culture sarcastically – the group established itself as a very pro-national act.

Park Life, the band’s third album, is considered their best release by many critics for its cultural relevance and commercial success alone. With Parklife, Blur established that they didn’t just start the Britpop movement, they controlled it too. (Oasis? Meh.) It’s the tightest thing they ever put out thematically and sonically, and there’s not a wasted song on it. It’s the seminal album of the Britpop movement, and the one that Blur will most likely be defined by for future generations. Classic tracks include “Girls and Boys,” “End of a Century,” “Magic America,” and “Parklife.”

The Great Escape, the band’s next album, is anything but what the title suggests, as the band returned to the same formula they established so well already on the two albums previous. This album has some of the best songs Blur has ever written and a lot of my personal favorites (I can’t sing “Country House” without excitedly shouting the lyrics), but the public was losing interest in Britpop at the time of its release, and the album has largely been written off by critics and fans alike over the years because of it. It is because of this, though, that makes their next album so exciting to hear even now.

Simply titled Blur, the band’s fifth album is a complete reinvention of their sound. Looking beyond their draining European influences, Blur adapted the sounds of American indie rock and brought in electronic distortions, raw instrumentation, and lo-fi psychedelia to their music (this was mainly due to guitarist Graham Coxon, who had a huge interest in the scene). Maybe it was because of this that “Song 2” became such a huge hit in America and in other international places who had largely ignored the band until then. Regardless, the songs were darker, but the anthemic pop hooks were still there, and sound would be their first shift to art rock territory that would define their sixth album, 13.

13 is the most experimental album the band has ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding. I tried to avoid making a lazy Beatles comparison in this review, but 13 is like a “Day in the Life” multiplied 13 times. Guitarist Graham Coxon, with his heavy art rock influences, and Damon Albarn, with his pop ones, feel totally in unison here. Each song hits its own heavy hook before drifting into weird sonic territory mixed into dense layers of production, but the songs are experimental enough without ever being pretentious (cough cough, “Revolution 9”). Musically, this is the best work the group has ever done, and an album that gets better and better with each listen.

It is because 13 was such a largely collaborative effort that their seventh album, Think Tank, is so jarring in comparison. Graham Coxon left the band after recording only one song (“Battery in Your Leg”) after months of fighting with Damon finally broke the group apart. Gorillaz, Damon’s other band that saw its first release in 2001, combined a large pool of international influences into its music, and its this influence that carries over into Think Tank. Coming from a once very national band that was now playing without a very influential member, Think Tank feels less like a Blur release, and more like a Damon one. That’s not a bad thing, though, as this album is one of my personal favorites (minus “Crazy Beat” which I always skip), but I’m often in conflict with myself over whether or not I should actually consider this a proper release by the group. (I have lame debates like this in my head. Be cool about it, dude.)

The rarities and other B-Sides that fill out the extras in this box set are hit or miss on their quality, and a large number of them will probably only be appreciated by hardcore fans (which is a shame because Blur has some of the best b-sides ever put out by a band). This set also includes the excellent 2009 single, “Fool’s Day,” and their most recent 2012 single, “Under the Westway,” which feature all members of the group including Graham Coxon. While more skeptical or casual fans might want to check out some of the individual special editions of each album like Parklife or their self-titled release instead of buying the whole set, the 21 Box Set is still an absolutely essential purchase for regular or hardcore fans of the group.

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Artist: Japandroids
Album: Celebration Rock
Label: Polyvinyl
Rating: 9 out of 10

After the release of their 2009 debut album, Post Nothing, Japandroids duo Brian King and David Prowse almost called it quits on several occasions. With the reality of touring and the grueling cycle of promoting sinking in, the band realized that their dream of being in a band was a lot different than they imagined. “The battle between it being a dream and how hard it is to sustain the dream continuously and indefinitely,” Brian described in a recent interview with Pitchfork, “…it’s hard on the body.” Deciding to forge ahead rather than end it all, though, the band recorded their new album, Celebration Rock, at the end of 2011. It’s a fast, energetic album that is the best thing the band has ever done, and may even go on to being one of the best records released this year.

Japandroids’ songs have always been an energetic embrace of living in the moment mixed with the threat of experiencing a total existential crisis. While the latter half of that equation never threatens to derail the power and overall fun that each track has, it keeps them grounded. The album is only eight songs long and lasts little over half an hour, but there’s not a second wasted on it. Just like the feelings of youth the band emulates, the music is gone before you realize it’s over. Highlights include “Younger Us,” an insanely catchy tune that doubles as the most gloriously emo they’ve ever been, and “The House That Heaven Built,” which is by far the most epic thing they’ve ever done. All in all, though, the highlights aren’t distinguishable in their quality from the rest of the album because the rest of the album is just that good.

Most of the songwriting on Celebration Rock is pretty straightforward with each song sticking to only a few chords. Like a lot of two man duos in rock, simplicity is their strength. While there are a lot of artists out there now whose processes are appealing because they’re a mystery, Japandroids’ processes for writing music are appealing because they’re not. Japandroids are two averagely skilled friends who grinded away until they were great enough to make something happen only to talk about how fleeting moments where something happens are.

“There’s a difference between people who are born with that special thing and people who love the people who are born with that special thing so much that they want to try their best to get as close as they can to it,” Brian told Pitchfork, describing himself as the second type. This is why Celebration Rock is an incredibly human record, and one of the best releases this year. It’s from a group of averagely skilled guys that faced the grind over and over until they made something amazing only to realize they may never make something amazing again. And it’s that kind of uncertainty in the future with a glorious celebration of the present that defines the only things we can have in life.

The Flaming Lips – Heady Fwends

Artist: The Flaming Lips
Album: Heady Fwends
Label: Warner Brothers
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

2011 was a cornerstone year for The Flaming Lips for a lot of reasons. Without a label to dictate or control their releases (the band’s contract with Warner Brothers ended at the end of 2010, but the band didn’t renew for another year), The Lips had a sudden control and freedom over their music that they hadn’t had since their days as a punk band in the 80’s. Their audience was much, much smaller in the 80’s, though, and the band with their massive fanbase of now seemed prepped to carve into a new territory of old school DIY ethics like major acts Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails had done memorably in the decade before. This led to the band self-releasing a string of bizarre gimmicks like a 9 pound gummy skull with a USB of music embedded in the skull and a song that lasts a straight 24 hours. Regardless, their more traditional releases were a series of collaborative EP’s with the likes of Neon Indian, Prefuse 73, Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band, and Lightning Bolt. Although only a handful of tracks from those initial EP’s appears on this release, Heady Fwends is still a culmination of everything the Lips have accomplished in the past year.

Probably the most surprising thing about this record is how cohesive it sounds. While collaborations between artists (especially when it involves two or more) typically dilute into multiple egos drifting past each other only making very surface level music, the Lips have managed to keep things relatively tight. Whether this is because the band chose their collaborators wisely or it’s because the collaborators were given nothing more than a (mostly) fleshed out track to add their own personal dressing to, Heady Fwends never sounds like it’s moving illogically from track to track. This doesn’t mean that the tracks don’t sound as polished or as well constructed as they should be, though, and it’s hard to think how many collaborators literally phoned in their part (the final track with Ghostland Observatory is just a rant about punching cops in the penis that Lips frontman Wayne Coyne recorded on his iphone). In fact, some tracks from the band themselves like the aforementioned Ghostland Observatory track and their track with New Fumes feel phoned in and rushed, as well. The band was only given a short amount of time to complete a lot of these tracks, and unfortunately it shows.

This record still has its fair share of psychedelic freak outs, though, and tracks like “Is David Bowie Dying???” with Neon Indian and “I’m Working on Nasa on Acid” with Lightning Bolt are highlights. The track featuring Ke$ha is probably way better than a lot of people apprehensive towards her thought it would be, but tracks with rock-history legend Yoko Ono seem almost throwaway (especially in comparison to the other great songs that came out on their four song EP with the Plastic Ono Band). Regardless, their track with Bon Iver, “Ashes in the Air,” and their collab with Edward Sharpe, “Helping the Retarded to Know God,” are classic Lips tracks. Heady Fwends is a lot better than it was expected to be, but as a worthy follow-up to their LP release, it is not. This is no worry, though, as the band is prepped to put out a new record in the fall. And as always, The Flaming Lips have been way more interesting and enjoyable than any other band out there when they’re experimenting and braving into territories few do, even if they don’t succeed.

Note: the final track on the CD release, “Tasered and Mased,” was replaced by the track “I Don’t Want You To Die” with Chris Martin originally on the vinyl release due to licensing issues. This track is way better than the Ghostland Observatory one, and you should definitely check it out here, if you haven’t heard it already.

Dead Man’s Bones – self titled

Artist: Dead Man’s Bones
Album: self-titled
Label: Anti-
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Ryan Gosling, the actor known for his lead in last year’s “Drive” and the popular movie “The Notebook” (that was responsible for establishing 99.9% of his largely female fanbase of fourteen year olds and middle aged ladies), has hit the music scene with Dead Man’s Bones, formed with friend Zach Shields. Meeting each other through Gosling’s girlfriend at the time, Rachael McAdams, Gosling and Shields eventually discovered they had a shared fear of ghosts and paranormal activity. Rather than shirking away from their supernatural fears, though, the duo decided to use their fixation on the dead to start a band and craft a modern monster musical (aliteration!).

Like Russel Crowe, the vanity projects of Scarlett Johansson, and whatever crappy band Billy Bob Thornton is in – the music releases of notable Hollywood Actors are generally marked with an air of delusion, ingenuity, pretension, and a noticeable lack in quality. This doesn’t seem to be the case here, though, as the band (maintaining a largely low profile) has decided to forfeit slick production sounds in favor of a lo-fi quality that gives the record a homely, intimate feel. Releasing a record focused on zombies and ghosts right before Halloween is a clearly calculated move, but the holiday never bleeds into the music beyond general thematic ideas of what Halloween is about on a surface level (spooky stuff).  And so, what could have been a gimmick of Monster Mash style music never comes close as a reality. In fact, darker tracks like “Buried and Water” and “Lose Your Soul” would probably scare the crap out of Count Chocula.

The children’s choir, really used in full, works to great benefit for the group. Having a bunch of kids sing “my body’s a zombie for you” and other dark, suggestive lyrics might seem a little weird at first, but in a post-MacKenzie Phillips world-it’s not really that shocking. The only weak track, “Pa Pa Power,” is a fine song but it doesn’t really fit in lyrically or musically with the rest of the album. In all, Dead Man’s Bones is a great album that demonstrates a real knack for song writing and performance that is sure to rock out the vans of middle aged ladies (fully decked out with the “coexist” sticker) and the iPods of their trendy fourteen year old daughters long after Halloween has passed.