Phantom Band – Freedom Of Speech (album review)

buy Freedom of Speech from amazon.comIt probably says that I’m not a very good fan when I didn’t realize that most of the members of one of my favorite groups (Can) went on to form another band directly afterwards, and I hadn’t been aware of it until recently. I knew that Holger Czukay had gone on to release some great solo work (especially the amazing Canaxis) and Damo Suzuki has been roaming the world and jamming with kindred spirits for nearly the past 30 years or so, but for some reason or another the Phantom Band escaped me.

This year, Bureau B has released the first two (of three) albums from the group, and while they’re quite different than one would expect from Can (even the more pop-oriented Flow Motion), there’s some stuff here that’s interesting.

Okay, actually their self-titled debut is incredibly cheesy and I can barely get into it, but their second album Freedom Of Speech has some amazing work. I’m not sure if it’s a related data point, but bassist (and singer) Rosko Gee (who also played with Can on early iterations) is much more of a factor on the self-titled debut album from the group, and it seems like it wants to play it safe whenever possible, treading around some noodling, rather nondescript guitar-jam style 70s music sound with just enough weirdness around the edges to make you wonder what’s going on.

On Freedom Of Speech, though, Gee is gone again, and the group instead teams up with spoken-word performer Sheldon Ancel. Normally, such an arrangement would cause me to roll my eyes, but the music takes a severe left turn into much darker territory, with loads of dub reggae influences and general experimentation that actually works. The end result is a much more interesting release that has held up incredibly well over the past nearly 30 years.

Opening with creepy track that blends pounding, almost military drums with warbling synth drones and spoken word phrases that seem drawn straight from 1984, it certainly sets a different stage. From there, the group drops off into “E.F. 1,” a cut that definitely takes hints from dub reggae, but keeps things so sparse and sterile that it certainly doesn’t manage to sound like an imitator.

“E.F. 1” – Phantom Band

From there, it’s onto another clattering, spoken-word driven number in “Brain Police” before the group slides into a piece that jumps back and forth from straightforward rocker to queasy droner in “No Question.” From there out, the group dips into several more styles, but one of the most effective songs on the entire release is the bizarre “Gravity,” one of many pieces where the group locks into an incredibly catchy meld of guitar, synth and rhythm section while Ancel has license to free-form over the top, with both the music and words getting more agitated as it moves forward through just under six minutes running length.

“Gravity” – Phantom Band

With 10 songs running just over 35 minutes, it’s an album that never gets hung up on one particular sound for too long. It’s a wild ride, too, with songs that touch on everything to the aforementioned dub to minimal avant garde pieces that sound closer to Suicide. As one might be able to gather from the description, it has also aged a lot better than some of its contemporaries, filing in nicely behind the output from Can themselves.

(buy Freedom Of Speech from amazon.com)

Caribou – Swim (album review)

buy Swim from amazon.comOver the years I’ve come to the realization that I should never underestimate or try to pigeonhole Dan Snaith. With every album he has explored different sounds, and while some of his releases haven’t done quite as much for me (Andorra, in particular), others didn’t wow me on first listen but have grown on me so much that I consider them near-classics (The Milk Of Human Kindness).

And of course, there are others, like Up In Flames that lodged with me immediately and have never really lost any of their luster. After spending a great deal of time with Swim, I actually have to say that I think it will probably end up in the same category.

Yet another drastic direction change from Snaith, this 9 song album is heavily influenced by techno music (in interviews, Snaith mentioned James Holden by name), and also by the fact that he said he wanted to create music that sounded like it was made out of water. If one were to only listen to the first cut (and first single) “Odessa,” the impression might be that it’s a dramatic departure, but as the release plays out, it doesn’t seem quite so drastic.

Yes, it’s certainly a darker release than Andorra, but that one was nearly all sunshine and bubblegum. Instead, Swim, takes that darker, heady dance music influence as a base, then layers some of his past elements on top of it. “Sun” is an almost straight-up 6 minutes of panning, filtered synth layers and vocal swirls, but “Kaili” plays out somewhat similarly at first, with dense synths and some dreamy vocal lines from Snaith, but as it reaches the midway point, a poppy flourish buoys the cut into a different place, with ascending flute, trumpet, and sax melodies.

“Kali” – Caribou

Although the album closer of “Jamelia,” with Born Ruffians singer Luke Lalonde taking lead (which makes me even more excited about their upcoming album) is also a stunner, it’s the dark, minimal cut of “Leave House” that leaves one of the more solid statements on the album. With a snaking flute line, the track creeps forward with just a touch of menace, adding layers (like a groaning bass) before peeling them back again while Snaiths vocals take on just a slightly less sunny intonation.

“Leave House” – Caribou

And really, other than the bright aforementioned “Sun,” the lyrics on Swim are just a bit more on the melancholy side of things. The music itself follows suit slightly, but still has a real power and energy in the production, along with a sheer woozy factor that’s hard to deny. Techno music might be an inspiration, but there’s certainly those usual threads of psych, kraut, and other styles weaving their way through the release as well. I’d be surprised if it isn’t among my favorite albums of the year.

(buy Swim at amazon.com)

Clogs – The Creatures In The Garden Of Lady Walton (album review)

buy The Creatures In The Garden at amazon.comA funny thing happened this spring between a couple album releases that inhabited somewhat similar genres. On one hand, I was very much expecting and incredibly excited about Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me, and on the other hand nearly didn’t even give The Creatures In The Garden Of Lady Walton by Clogs a listen. It wasn’t that I hadn’t liked work by the latter group, but for some reason I guess I hadn’t expected a great deal out of their latest release, while the follow-up from Newsom was one of my most anticipated albums of 2010, based on her previous release topping out my favorite albums of 2006 list.

This isn’t a review to diss Newsom, though, it’s a review to glow about Clogs, as this little 10 song album has been replayed so many times I feel like I know it by heart. It’s chamber pop with an operatic sensibility, and it moves away from their slightly more staid work of the past. Sure, it’s still a bit on the academic side, but it’s incredibly varied and features some great guest work from different vocalists, as well as some of the most interesting (and downright catchy) compositions from the group to date.

Considering past work from the group, the opener of “Cocodrillo” couldn’t come as more of a surprise as Clogs member Padma Newsome and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden sing an a capella track that sounds downright renaissance, twisting in wonderful ways for almost two minutes before an end coda line absolutely sends shivers down the spine.

In other places, the group is closer to their past work as quiet, post rock-esque cuts (“I Used To Do” and “To Hugo”) weave together delicate instrumentation in delightful ways. Woodwinds, strings, glockenspiel, and even some urgent guitar (on the former track) ebb and flow.

It’s hard to pick out favorite songs from the album, but if I had to, I’d wager that both “On The Edge” and “Last Song” would arrive near the top of the list. The former again finds Worden absolutely bursting forth, this time over mandola, oboe, and vibraphone. Towards the end of the song, some warm guitar chords layer in and give the soaring piece just a bit more of a grounding, but it’s still one of the more breathtaking songs I’ve heard this year.

“On The Edge” – Clogs

On the other side of things is “Last Song,” featuring the National’s Matt Berninger on vocals. It’s much more downcast that most songs on the album, but the rich baritone vocals offset the quieter, delicate instrumentation almost perfectly.

“Last Song” – Clogs

It’s certainly not the sort of release that will appeal to everyone, as many will feel that either the instrumentation and/or vocals and lyrics are just a bit too much on the extravagant side. It’s that very reason that I have found a lot to love with the release, though. It’s passionate, sure, but certainly not cloying.

(buy The Creatures In The Garden Of Lady Walton at amazon.com)

Elephant9 – Walk The Nile (album review)

buy Walk The Nile from amazon.comTwo years ago, all I was aware of was that Elephant9 was yet another in a long line of collaborative groups on the Rune Grammofon label. Of course, then I heard their debut Dodovoodoo and was totally floored. Here was a trio of artists who took some of their influences and blew them up into something smoking, a fiery cocktail of jazz and rock and prog that had a much bigger sense of humor than a lot of the other work on the label.

More than just about any other scene I can think of, the Norwegian jazz (in all of its forms) scene is so incredibly flush with collaborative projects that it’s not out-of-line to see names with five or more projects behind them. Such is the case with the members of Elephant9, as Ståle Storløkken plays with Supersilent, Humcrush (and others), while Nikolai Eilertsen has done rock (Big Bang) and pop (The National Bank). Drummer Torstein Lofthus’ main gig is with Shining (who released their own head-crunching album earlier this year), but floats around with others as well.

After the release of that earlier album, I wondered if Elephant9 would be a one-off project, but fortunately it’s two years later and the trio have graced us with another great album of work. There isn’t a huge difference between the two albums in terms of style, but if anything Walk The Nile finds them tightening up their sound a bit, with a little less wandering in the woods and a much greater sense of build and payoff.

The only real slow-churner is the album-titled “Walk The Nile,” which grinds along for over 10 minutes with a repetitive rhythm section and some squalling organs that haunt more than anything. Elsewhere, the group spends most of the time either ripping things up or setting the blood to a slow boil as they get things ready to romp. The wonderful, 14-minute “Habanera Rocket” skitters along for nearly half of its running length with another insistent rhythm rumble while some melodic organ bursts set the stage. About halfway through, though, it builds to something seriously funky before dropping off for a long section of sheer psychedelia at the end. It’s a stunner.

If you want to really rockit, though, look no further than the opener of “Fugl Fonix.” At just under 4 minutes, it’s one of the most poppy things that the trio has ever done, with a crazy ascending bass, smashing drums, and some organ playing that dances over the top of it all in delightful ways.

“Fugl Fonix” – Elephant9

The album closer of “John Tinnick” is even more raucous, and is one of those cuts that’s so rocking an fun that it inspires air-instrumentation (although people might wonder what in the heck you’re doing). Clocking in at just over 4 minutes, it’s a burner that literally never lets off the gas pedal and sounds like the Jimmy Smith just shredding the hell out of it.

“John Tinnick” – Elephant9

Even more solid than their last release, this is a must-have if you liked what you heard from the group a couple years ago, or if you just like the Rune Grammofon sound (albeit one that lets its hair down a little bit more than most).

(buy Walk The Nile from amazon.com)

Ewan Pearson – We Are Proud Of Our Choices (album review)

buy We Are Proud Of Our Choices at amazon.comTechnically, this is a mix CD of various artists, done up Kompakt style by one Ewan Pearson, but you know the routine. There’s nothing here that Pearson created himself but the order and the mix, and a fine one it is, nicely sliding in alongside some of the better smooth-flowing mixes I’ve heard in the past couple years.

We Are Proud Of Our Choices doesn’t have the alternate slamming energy or the sheer weirdness of some of the recent Boogy-bytes mixes, nor does it have the force of something like Michael Mayer would lay down. It’s not as aesthetically pure as Villalobos and honestly it’s not really something that really puts a person in overdrive.

It is, however, super smooth. For some people it will probably be a little on the “too nice” side, which is a criticism that I’ve heard of it, but one that I don’t quite understand. While it’s certainly on the floaty, textural side, it’s not as repetitive or monotonous as something like a Global Underground mix, and jogs off into a few sections that are sheer bliss.

That said, I have a bit of a throwback sensibility, and I think there’s something about this mix that appeals to that side. Yosa’s “Margaret” sprints along with some pretty piano and almost cheesy vocal samples, while “Open Your Eyes” by Yukihiro Fukotomi / Foog sounds straight out of the mid 90s or so with super spacey female spoken-word vocals and some repetitive melodies that bounce along on 808 high hats and soft kicks.

That said, it thumps a little when it needs to, and the World Balloon Dub Mix of “City & Industry” by B.D.I. hums with a solid beat and some rips of noisy sound that follow perfectly from the sawed-out synths of “Sunday Is A Travel Day” by Chris Fortier.

That said, my two favorite cuts are some of the least dance-oriented on the entire release. “Cirrus” by Lusine (from last years A Certain Distance) is a clippy IDM-tinged gem with wordless sampled vocals and a gentled, beautiful build that just works in combination with the cuts around it.

“Cirrus” – Lusine

The other cut arrives at the end, and it’s by the up until now vocal-less Bo’Tox, one of the groups that I’m most anticipating a full-length release out of. Whereas past cuts have worked a weird realm between post rock and a sort of murky kraut, here they add some quiet female vocals for a super pop track that works quite well to close things out.

“Blue Steel” – Bot’ox

So yeah, it’s mellower than most mixes I really find myself replaying a lot, but like Pearson’s “And So To Bed” mix that came out a couple years back, this one has just found itself in rotation a lot as we head into spring. Perhaps it’s anticipation of warmer temps, but whatever. It’s good stuff.

(buy We Are Proud Of Our Choices at amazon.com)

Yellow Swans – Going Places (album review)

buy Going Places from amazon.comIf you include cassettes, records, compilations, CDRs, and CDs, and other random releases, Yellow Swans have been involved in something like 50 different releases over the past 6 years or so. Last year, the group announced that they were calling it quits as a duo, and now Going Places is their swan (so to speak) song.

In all honestly, calling myself even a casual fan of the group would be an exaggeration. I don’t have any of their weird, limited self-pressed material, and have only really heard their albums released on the Load Records label (which were massive and often quite beautiful) plus a couple other nuggets of their output.

Because of that, I’m probably not the best judge of their work, but based on their previous work that I’ve heard and now this final album, I’d have to say that they ended with what was probably their most solid run.

Several years ago, while writing for my other site, I used the term ‘power ambient’ to describe the album Harmony In Ultraviolet by Tim Hecker, and while lots of other albums have come and gone that one could probably group in that category, it seems particularly fitting to describe this 6 song, 45-minute album from the Yellow Swans in the same terms. It’s one of those albums that hugely textural, with grit and drone and dense washes, but at the same time it doesn’t simply use feedback or piercing tones to make a point. If you play it at a low volume, it would be sort of a gray noise with hints of melody, but loud volumes is where it really shines.

“Foiled” opens the album and basically includes all of the aforementioned elements as a three-note sheet of warmer melody slowly gets overtaken by a swarming, mechanical haze that moves forward with a murky kick drum that gets engulfed by everything else more than once.

“Foiled” – Yellow Swans

While a good portion of the album moves in the same sort of pulsing, heaving manner, for my money the best cut on the album (and one of my favorite ambient/noise pieces in probably the past six months or more) is the 7-minute “Limited Space.” A repetitive bell noise keeps a foothold as it moves through the first section, all the while a barely-contained swath of noise builds. By the end of the track, some crushing bass tones mix in and the whole thing melts down into burnt-out squelches of spine-tingling goodness. I’ve put it on repeat for half-hour intervals and not tired of it.

“Limited Space” – Yellow Swans

And so, the era of Yellow Swans as a group has drawn to a close, but they’ve certainly signed off with a solid statement. Fans of massive ambient or noise fans who like a little melodic in the mix should seek this out pronto.

(buy Going Places from amazon.com)
(buy Going Places from Type Records)

Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit (album review)

buy One-Armed Bandit from amazon.comI knew it had been awhile, but until I went back and looked, I didn’t realize it had been almost five full years since Jaga Jazzist released their last full length album, What We Must. In the intervening years, the only peep that has been heard out of the band is last years 37-minute epic Kaleidoscope from band ringleader Lars Horntveth.

If there’s one thing that I learned in the past five years, it’s that the aforementioned album from the group has held up just as well as I originally gave it credit for, and possibly better. The flowing epics like “All I Know Is Tonight” and “Swedenborgske Rom” still sound huge and ambitious and pay off in spades, and the album as a whole doesn’t sound nearly as dated as some of the same things that came out during the same time.

After spending quite a bit time now with One-Armed Bandit, I have little doubt that it will do the same. Again, there are a vast amount of ideas and influences packed into the longer (but certainly not unwieldy) tracks, and the group manages to swirl together rock, jazz, fusion, prog, orchestral pop, and glints of lots of other styles into pieces that are ultimately catchy and re playable.

The album-titled “One Armed Bandit” kicks off the album in earnest and mingles harpsichord, synth washes, horns, and alternately baroque and kraut-inspired sections for seven minutes of widescreen sound that conjures up all kinds of imagery. By the end, lap steel is mingling with juicy bass, flutes, guitar, and electronics in a way that sounds like 5 different soundtracks all piled on top of one another and still coming out the better for it.

I could dive in just about anywhere on the album and find something that really tickles my ears, but two tracks that really show the albums diversity (and really, really keep me coming back) are “Toccata” and “Touch Of Evil.” The former clocks in at just over 9 minutes and opens with overlapping phrases of organ and piano that sound influenced by minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. As the track builds, woodwinds, drums, electronics and loads of horns all enter the mix and create some shiver-inducing phase effects and small crescendos that stand out without being overbearing and obvious.

“Toccata” – Jaga Jazzist

“Touch Of Evil” closes out the release and goes in a completely different direction, rumbling with some electronic programming and synths before crashing down into pools of orchestration and finally some juicy riffs. As it builds to a final conclusion, the last couple minutes of the song (and album) are some of the most giddy and joy-inducing that I’ve heard this year.

“Touch Of Evil” – Jaga Jazzist

And so, while I’ve already gone back to this release many times since first getting it, based on past experience with the group it will hold up just as well over the next couple years. There aren’t too many bands creating music with such expansive ideas, and it’s a joy to Jaga Jazzist do it, even if it takes them so long to release music.

(buy One-Armed Bandit from amazon.com)

Pantha Du Prince – Black Noise (album review)

buy Black Noise at amazon.comAlthough I never reviewed it on my old site, I was a big fan of This Bliss by Pantha Du Prince when it came out back in 2006 on Dial Records. It was one of those albums that had a couple tracks that completely shot white heat through your brain (namely, “Asha,” “Saturn Strobe,” and “Steiner In Flug”), but was fairly solid as a minimal churner throughout.

In terms of some of his contemporaries (like Gui Boratto and The Field), Hendrick Weber took his time in releasing this, his third album. Toward the end of last year, though, he started hinting at things to come with 12″ singles of “Behind The Stars” and “The Splendour.” Those two singles by themselves showed a clear step forward and a real progression in terms of craft, and they’re really just the tip of the iceberg on the 11 songs and nearly 70 minutes that is Black Noise.

Sonically, Weber is still one of the better guys working in terms of his abilities to manipulate sound. Although the album kicks off with what sounds like a field recording, it soon slides over into his immaculate world of sound, where sparkling crystalline pads refract off delicious rhythm programming that’s sharp without ever being too busy. The aforementioned “The Splendour” arrives early in the release, and it’s certainly a highlight. If anything, it takes more than a usual amount of time to really lock in, and that’s part of the charm, as multiple layers of overlapping chimes cascade over one another as the beat programming layers in slowly. Eventually, it all coalesces into something beautiful and propulsive, though, and takes it all and runs through to completion.

“The Splendour” – Pantha Du Prince

If there’s one misstep on the release, it’s the collaboration with Panda Bear on “Stick To My Side.” While the track itself isn’t bad by any means, the vocals themselves feel completely out of place on the release, especially when there aren’t any other tracks that have them (other than the sparse phrases on “Behind The Stars,” which doesn’t really break the flow as much). That said, the rest of the release is very solid, with a sort of extra-textural feel that wasn’t in place on the more austere This Bliss. There are huge ripples of shimmering sounds in places, and on some tracks, like the album closer of “Es Schneit,” the rhythm barely escapes the more textural elements.

“Es Schneit” – Pantha Du Prince

And really, it’s those little changes mixed in with Webers already incredible production skills that make this new album such a joy. It’s minimal techno, technically, but don’t worry; It has a heart.

(buy Black Noise at amazon.com)

Toro Y Moi – Causers Of This (album review)

buy Causers Of This at amazon.comToro Y Moi is the musical pseudonym of one 23 year old Chaz Bundick. Although Causers Of This is his debut album, 2010 will be a busy year for him, as this release is the first of two planned albums, both of which are supposed to be very different in scope (with each style introduced on two sides of a recent 7″).

His two styles aren’t entirely clashing, but while his album coming later in the year dabbles in of a lo-fi indie rock feel, Causers Of This is 11 tracks of blissed-out pop music that blends together everything from R&B to shoegazery textures and hip-hop programming. Musically, it falls somewhat in line with what fellow South Carolinian artist Washed Out has been creating, as gauzy textures and dreamy vocals float over muffled beats and deep bass. There’s a little bit of everything in here.

In terms of album openers, I’ll be hard-pressed to find a cut that’s much better than “Blessa” during the rest of 2010. Blurring out of the gate with massively pitch-bent guitars and vocals, the song lopes into a solid, but warbled groove as Bundick adds some crooning vocals. In less than three minutes it manages to pump out enough sunshine to make me think that spring is a littler closer than it actually is.

“Blessa” – Toro Y Moi

In other places, the album dabbles in sort of a pastiche funk (“Imprint After” and the title track “Causers of This”), and in others it thumps into shorter, near instrumental cuts that sound like Prefuse 73 remembering how to have a good time again (“Lissoms”). The release is at its best when it’s dropping the psych-tinged, blown-out cuts like, “Thanks Vision,” though. On this song, as in many other places during the 33 minute album running length, Bundick sounds like he’s pushing everything through a massive compressor, inflating and deflating swirls of sound as he morphs the cut from something that sounds natural at first into a huge, pumping beast. By the time it reaches its peak, there are about five different layers of vocals refracting off one another as a throbbing beat rides underneath guitar and orchestral washes.

“Thanks Vision” – Toro Y Moi

Even without a second album (which is supposedly coming in August), Toro Y Moi has created quite a solid name for himself with this great debut.

(buy Causers Of This from amazon.com)
(buy Causers Of This from Carpark Records)

Owen Pallett – Heartland (album review)

buy Heartland from amazon.comHeartland is one of those albums that has been in the making so long that it’s become a bit of a small legend in some circles. Owen Pallett has certainly kept himself busy over the past couple years, so I suppose that the three-plus year incubation time can be forgiven.

Since the release of his last album (He Poos Clouds, under the name Final Fantasy), he’s worked with everyone from Arcade Fire to Zach Congdon (Beirut), the Hidden Cameras, and Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, among many others. He’s also released a couple EPs, which only sort of hinted at the direction he was going in.

I have to say, the first time that I heard Heartland, I was a bit underwhelmed. Other than a couple songs which stood out, I figured it stick with me much the same as his previous full-length (which is to say, not much except for a couple songs).

A funny thing happened, though. Time passed and I found myself playing not just a couple songs over and over again, but the entire album. There are certainly songs that play in big ways on first listen, but it’s also an incredibly subtle album, with little flourishes that pop out and reveal themselves on the second or third listen then completely drill into your brain. The arrangements are clever, and more than anything the 12 songs and 46 minutes running length feel like a living, breathing thing that doesn’t always play out exactly like you’d expect.

In fact, that misdirection plays out early. The end of the mysterious, “Keep The Dog Quiet” continues right into “Mount Alpentine,” when quivering strings seem to signal the approach of something louder, or at least more intense. Instead, they fade, and along comes the rather reserved “Red Sun No. 5,” which then builds into “Lewis Takes Action,” which expands the musical palette with drums, chimes, and woodwinds.

The middle of the release offers a couple tracks which couldn’t be more different, but both succeed in their own ways. “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” is close to typical pop structure, with some quiet verses that then build into slightly less quiet (but still rather subdued) choruses with hilariously exasperated vocal delivery that plays off the song title (and exclamation).

“Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” – Owen Pallett

“Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” is a completely different beast, and it’s easily among my favorite songs of the year so far. Slicing along with brisk repeated synth lines, it moves at a dizzying pace with flourishes of strings and woodwinds as Pallett delivers some of his best melodies (both vocal and instrumental) to date. By the time the latter section of the song hits, you wish it would go on for 10 minutes or more.

“Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” – Owen Pallett

Those two songs are only a couple of the outstanding moments on what is really a solid and mature release. There are no gimmicks here, just solid songwriting throughout.

(buy Heartland at amazon.com)