• Review: Sophie Hunger - Monday's Ghost (2009)

    24 apr 2009, 13:45

    I love debating the viability of international artists in the world marketplace, particularly in America. While some argue that the industry prevents international artists from our radio and markets, others see the internet started to erode that influence, allowing deserving musicians to crest those Atlantic waves and breach our shores. This year, Sophie Hunger could very well be one of the first Swiss artists to do so. I recently had the opportunity to sit in on her live show in Paris (review) and confirm her talent.

    Monday's Ghost, released already in Switzerland and France, is the sophomore release from the burgeoning Berne-born multi-instrumentalist, multilingual singer. Her powerful, emotional voice evokes Amy Winehouse and Adele, yet grounded by folk music rather than traditional pop. The young singer's gorgeous singing translates easily into other languages, as when she switches from English to Swiss German unexpectedly on Rise And Fall and Walzer Für Niemand. This capacity allows her to not only capture the attention, but to employ different languages to evoke differing emotions.

    While singer-songwriters can lull audiences with a lack of creativity, Sophie's versatility in both language and musicianship retains the listener's attention. Album opener Shape begins with a haunting muted trombone droning in the background, her voice the only light before breaking into restrained handclaps underneath a soaring vibrato. Round and Round builds upon this pace, teetering towards a jazzy pop number punctuated by piano. The rest of the album is a melange of styles, from pounding drumming on The Tourist towards the aforementioned Walzer Für Niemand, a gorgeous piano waltz.

    Continued here:
  • Review: Cursive - Mama, I'm Swollen (2009)

    17 mar 2009, 00:27

    Mama, I'm Swollen was 'released' a bit over a week ago and has proven to be the most difficult album to wrestle with. Previous albums held solid themes (the chef-d'oeuvre example being Domestica), though gradually this has dissipated with a discography resembling Picasso than anything. The newest Cursive album is dark, reflective of both the depth of the lyrics as well as the bleak album art of a red, bloody sun over a dark ocean... (continued below)

    Taken from Méandre, my music blog. For more reviews, music recommendations, click here:
  • Tops of 2008/La Fin de l'Année

    1 jan 2009, 22:51

    Top EPs/Mixtapes:

    8: 10 Deep x DJ Benzi "The New Deal"
    7: The Hood Internet - The Mixtape Volume Three
    6: Metermaids - NIGHTLIFE IN ILLINOISE
    5: Late of the Pier - The Bears are Coming EP
    4: Past Lives - Strange Symmetry EP
    3: Rhymefest & Mark Ronson Presents: Man In The Mirror
    2: Amplive Rainydayz Remixes
    1: Mumford & Sons - Chess Club/Self Titled EP

    Top 10 (Full Length) Albums of 2008:

    10: Sigur Rós - Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

    Brighter than an Icelandic winter, Með departed the group from the more atmospheric driftings of previous works to ground itself. It's light-hearted throughout, lacking many of the epic opuses save for two stunningly gorgeous 9 minute pinnacles.

    9: Lykke Li - Youth Novels

    Whenever I'm confused, genuinely confused, it's usually a good thing. Coming off of Peter, Bjorn, And John's dominance of 2007, this Swedish artist edged closer towards Bjork territory without coming across otherworldly and bizarre. Breaking It Up easily is in my top 5 songs of the year.

    8: Zaho - Dima

    The Algerian-born French urban pop singer never left the speakers this entire year, a feat in itself for French music. It's accessible, yet retains the brushstrokes of her past (the final track being an Arab version). Think Nelly Furtado's Whoa Nelly! (2000), today, but sung in French.

    7: Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster...

    Doubling up the year with two full-lengths, the first was an undeniable indie pop flawless gem. It
    was tighter than their second, and featured the most clever, sarcastic lyrics of the year. It lasted most of the year, but was easily topped by the indie pop/punk of another UK group.

    6: Doomtree - Doomtree

    I'll be honest. I grew up in Minnesota. But you cannot deny the collective creative conscious behind the official debut from these 5 MCs/4 producers. Spanning so many smaller splinters of hip hop, the Doomtree collective came out with something for everyone-even those who don't like rap.

    5: Q-Tip - The Renaissance

    "What good's an ear if a Q-Tip isn't in it?" Welcome back.

    4: Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak

    From the MTV Awards debut to its released, I was captivated that he was stretching away from the radio-friendly Stronger and Gold Digger to focus on himself. Thankfully, it's in a non-narcassistic way on 808s. Kanye takes the spotlight and shines it back at you, unveiling himself as well as what stardom has done to his life without sacrificing one or the other.

    3: Atmosphere - When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

    Ok, you're Slug & Ant. You just finished releasing 4 EPs, one for each season, in addition to a free party album, all within a year. That's over 30 songs. How do you top it? You release a studio album that blows all of them away, ditching the emo-rap that got you where you are today for twisted tale telling coupled with...a children's book? Oh, and you get Tunde from TV on the Radio for one track and Tom Waits beatboxing on another. Try topping that, hip hop/rap.

    2: Johnny Foreigner - Waited Up 'Til It Was Light

    Eyes Wide Terrified is my favorite song of the year, never wearing down. The rest of the album does indie pop/punk succinctly and perfectly. There's no wandering around, no questioning moments of "should we be serious or fun." The UK three-piece can take off and stop faster than any other band, coupled with unbelievably complex punk drumming and Kelly Southern's vocals swinging from sweet to screaming on a dime. They've managed to even become atmospheric at times, as on Absolute Balance, after stripping down to keys and a (near) drum machine beat on Salt, Pepa and Spinderella. Most exciting sounding band of the year.

    1: Why? - Alopecia

    I liked Why? a few years ago with Oaklandazulasylum (Anticon, 2003) but was turned off by how awkward it sounded, so naturally I put them aside into that "Take in small doses" drawer. 2008 came and Alopecia put them on the mantel, proudly on display. Jonathan Wolf's hip hop lyricism, near-spoken word delivery coupled with the best indie rock musicianship behind him made this my top album of the year. I can't get over the 1960s poppy feel of Fatalist Palmistry, starting off with "I sleep on my back because it's good for the spine...aaaand coffin rehearsal." Yes, I didn't listen to it as much as some of the others, but damn...this is genius.

    Taken from Méandre, my music blog. For more reviews, music recommendations, click here:
  • Review: Noah and the Whale - Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down (2008)

    10 dec 2008, 03:49

    Should you have only been exposed to Noah and the Whale's single, 5 Years Time, through the Saturn Outlook commercial or a few cursory listens, it may be too catchy to be taken seriously. The Twickenham, London four piece (including Laura Marling at times) has been stirring up excitement for well over a year when they first formed in 2006. Early demos and small festivals led to Radio 1 mentions before bursting through with their major debut, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down (Cherrytree Records, 2008).

    Simple, wistful and playful folk rock full of pop tendencies with rare, well-placed orchestral flourishes carry Peaceful.... Accompanied by fiddles, piano, and horns, it takes a step closer towards Broken Social Scene familiarity without losing the folk-centric aspect of a singer and his acoustic that caused them to get noticed in the first place. These are smart folk songs, building in intensity at key moments as in Give A Little Love while stripped back to basics to shine the spotlight back on Charlie Fink's vocals as on Jocasta before a driving snare and violin rise in.

    Although many of the songs were exposed previously through wonderful live performances (La Blogothèque), they retain the collective musicianship that made them so enjoyable the first time. Rocks And Daggers is one example as Charlie and Laura's chorused vocals give way to Tom Hobden's swinging fiddle that levitates the song at numerous points. The slow tempo, quivering build-up at the end doesn't lose traction with each knowing exactly the pace the other is going at before letting the angelic young voice of Laura Marling become the finishing touch.

    Many are love songs, poignant and at times sorrowful. "She said I love you and it suddenly clicked that she was only saying what she wanted me to hear. And I said, please don't lie to me Mary." Yet don't let these lyrics be taken in isolation, as sweet and simple can mean either good or bad (in a Kimya Dawson way)-and these are definitively in the former category. It is comforting, sweeping melodies and juxtaposed vocals supported by expertly placed dabs of horns and dashes of fiddles.

    Rating: 8.7/10

    Taken from Méandre, my music blog. For more reviews, music recommendations, click here:
    September 16, 2008
  • Review: Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak (2008)

    8 dec 2008, 02:15

    From the university and parties of 2007's Graduation, Kanye reigns in a distinct dark departure leaving heart and love in the spotlight. West will alienate many listeners much in the way Beck did with Sea Change in 2002 with this album, especially those seeking follow-ups to The Good Life and Stronger. But even those-in time-will warm up to his most challenging, downcast effort to date.

    The centerpiece resides in the isolation and loneliness expressed throughout the album. From the beginning, Say You Will gives the impression he's hooked up in the hospital as a Ping-Pong-esque sounds bounce left and right mimicking medical monitors. It's stark, stunningly foreboding with the only true organic sound coming from a chorus just behind the curtain. Obviously with this, Kanye's voice is running through the Auto-Tune which critics have deemed overused and annoying. However, it adds to the artistry, giving his voice this unnatural, frozen quality. Without it, he may have just come across as whining-with it, it helps draw listeners into that void of a broken heart.

    Leading up to 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye's mother tragically, unexpectedly passed away. Afterwards, his engagement ended. An introspective, soul-searching dominates especially upon Welcome To The Heartbreak. "My friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs. He said his daughter got a brand new report card, and all I got was a brand new sports car." Gone are the bragging, replaced by a longing for new meaning as others change around him. (The track features Kid Cudi, who recently released a notable mixtape.)

    The production leans away from hip hop towards minimalist electronic due to the Roland TR-808 he heavily utilized, like on Paranoid. But the contrast is balanced by pianos and strings, although even those don't dare distract from Kanye. They're caged, contained, and used sparingly in the best way (see Street Lights) save for Bad News where they're freed, only once Kanye is finished, and drift away to return to the stark, electronic heartbeat.

    As mentioned, Kanye could come across as complaining depending on the listener. At times, it does seem a bit much but the guests (including Lil Wayne, Mr. Hudson, and Young Jeezy) keep it in equilibrium as best as possible. To be honest one more guest would've made the album more diverse and better. Yet if Kanye was using this as a mode to release and express, given all the hardships of the past year, he's succeeded in creating a compelling, introspective that's as chilling as the coming Chicago winter.

    Rating: 9.2/10

    Taken from Méandre, my music blog. For more reviews, music recommendations, click here:
    November 25, 2008
  • Review: Johnny Foreigner - Waited Up 'Til It Was Light (2008)

    23 aug 2008, 21:33

    The wait was definitely longer than expected, but Johnny Foreigner's debut album Waited Up 'Til It Was Light (Best Before Records/Nettwerk, 2008) hit digital stores in the United States today. How's the 'wait' to 'well worth it' ratio? Shortly: !!! The trio's debut goes head to head against Los Campesinos! for debut of the year, in my opinion. However, unlike Los Campesinos! Johnny Foreigner hasn't been getting as much buzz over here. The Birmingham, U.K. group has been the soundtrack for night drives while waiting for the Dunkin' Donuts coffee to kick in. Having Johnny Foreigner accompanying you through either speakers or headphones is like conversing with a good friend; always interesting, spontaneous, and so multi-faceted it puts a diamond to shame.

    Alexei and Kelly form the dual vocal transistors while Jordan lends Casio/drums, creating a unconventionally crafted clash of indie pop and pop punk jabbed here and there with danceability tendencies. Waited... starts up with Lea Room, which sets the mood for the album; eclectic electric guitars allowed to experiment on their own while Jordan's excellent drumming punctuates perfectly (see Our Bipolar Friends). It's evident about 1:25 in when the trio drop the beat and tempo after the invariably catchy "Get off before the ship goes down, get off before the ship sinks!" Auditory ambivalence reigns at the point as they downshift into swaying singing and loosely restrained guitars, making you wonder if they truly know what they're doing-before they confirm any doubts with one of the most random bridges into the final chorus. Random because Kelly unexpectedly (and delightfully) screams those warning words to any unexpected ears. (Of which, her screaming rests unparalleled in recent memory.)

    Eyes Wide Terrified, their first single off the album, isn't as frenetic or frantic as most of the tracks but the most pop-orientated. "But he falls asleep on her shoulder, every shift they spend together-which is most nights." Snapping fingers and backed vocal choruses sweep up the end of the track, which attaches addictively before speeding back up into Cranes and Cranes and Cranes and Cranes.

    DJ's Get Doubts serves as the rest stop of the album, an acoustic track accompanied with a warm violin. Although the wordplay between the members can be chaotically balanced throughout, this gorgeous song displays Alexei and Kelly's abilities to manipulate the melodies of their voices from whispers to interchanging supporting leads.

    Time shifts and stops continue through most of the album, leaving the straight single tempo tradition behind. It's as if everyone decided to turn off at the right exit while Johnny Foreigner decided to wait out and take the scenic route. Waited Up 'Til It Was Light is exactly that journey, drifting and perhaps a little lost at times (Hennings Favourite or Champagne Girls I Have Known), but each experience is worthwhile.

    Because of the multitude of time changes and tempo shifts, the album is longer lasting than others in their genre. Waited Up 'Til It Was Light's been in contention for top album of 2008 in my figurative books. The album was produced by Machine, who's worked with the likes of Lamb of God, Eighteen Visions, and Fall Out Boy (don't let the last one scare you away).

    Note: Of the 14 tracks, 5 are reworked tracks featured off their Arcs Across The City EP (Best Before Records, 2007) and Our Bipolar Friends single. Champagne Girls I Have Known previously showed up on Arcs... (2:53), and has a reworked version (3:22) for the North American release. It's not as strong as the others and doesn't seem to fit. I would have added Sofacore instead.

    Taken from Méandre, my music blog. For more reviews, music recommendations, click here:
    July 24, 2008
  • Review: Alkaline Trio - Agony & Irony (2008)

    21 aug 2008, 17:11

    Opening the sleeve of Agony & Irony (Epic Records, 2008), you pull out a rather simple, but elaborate disc with the retro font logo of Epic Records. Alkaline Trio's first release with this label isn't the pinnacle, nor the penultimate in their catalog, but is the strongest effort since From Here to Infirmary (Vagrant Records, 2001). It's as polished as Good Mourning (Vagrant, 2003) and Crimson (Vagrant, 2005), however their creative needles of songwriting rediscovered their grooves in this recording.

    It's easy to disregard the album, as the previous ones quickly faded from favor, since the similarities endure: clever wordplay on the title and common themes encapsulating darkness and death. Yet Help Me was the wedge prying open apathetic stereotypes (same ole songs) deeply rooted. Admittedly, one can only examine a theme so much before it withers away. Yet the essence of Agony & Irony is refreshing due to the changes in tone, which feel more akin to Maybe I'll Catch Fire (Asian Man Records, 2000) than the past two.

    Love Love, Kiss Kiss comes across as a confused "anti-love" anthem, bemoaning those who quietly decry. Confused in that the chorus sounds distractingly immature, coupled with similarly sarcastic musical support that takes away from the lyrics. Thankfully Dan Adriano's efforts are redeemed with his other efforts, particularly Do You Want To Know?. "My heart is ticking like a box sent to me by anonymous, and now I'm scared to open it."

    Agony heavily favors Matt Skiba, as he leads all but four songs. I Found Away is a distinctive "dance" tilted towards Say Anything's Baby Girl, I'm a Blur in styling than Blaqk Audio's new wave Stiff Kittens. Highlighting Derek Grant, the track holds tighter beats than a drum machine could ever replicate. While Over And Out, dedicated to the National Hopeline Network, uses the Trio symbology of knives, razor blades, and candles interspersed with contemplations of hopelessness from various characters. Yet two-thirds through, a bridge leads the listener to the brighter side as Skiba calls out, "Run for cover and you'll find us there, to take on the anger, make it disappear when razor blades were softly serenading you..." Over And Out is representative of the album.

    It's easy to spotlight the blood, wine, and flames and dismiss the album as repetitive, but a positive aura surrounds Agony & Irony. Although Alkaline Trio has been distinctively dark since leaving Asian Man, this effort holds a refreshing hidden hope. The album comes in standard and deluxe, with deluxe featuring a 28-page hard-bound booklet and a second disc with 6 extra tracks.

    Taken from Méandre, my music blog. For more reviews, music recommendations, click here:
    July 7, 2008
  • Review: The Faint - Fasciinatiion (2008)

    13 aug 2008, 03:22

    The Faint's self-constructed, self-produced, and self-designed Fasciinatiion (blank.wav, 2008) is that long-desired Tetris piece that fits snug between Blank Wave Arcade (Saddle Creek, 1999) and Danse Macabre (Saddle Creek, 2001). The Omaha five-piece returns after a four-year album drought with an album more cohesive than the last, wet from birth (Saddle Creek, 2004).

    Fasciinatiion telecasts the electro-rock group's transmissions through an essentially electronic and unreservedly unrestrained synthed sound. This album's subject takes a more cultural standpoint vis-à-vis society's absurdist fascination with the temporary tabloids, televised living, consciousness, and reality vs perception. While intellectually entrenched, the electro-punk dance origins are more fluid than the previous full-length.

    Get Seduced opens with digital pops, seeking and honing in on Joel Petersen's landing bass building up into a diatribe denouncing the celebrity altered reality presented through fickle magazines. Todd Fink questions this obsession while criticizing the consumers as well; "Sell us magazines about the stars, and watch us stare into the void. What not to wear to the awards..." Unlike similar Omaha acts, The Faint doesn't focus their zoom lenses on celebrity culture, but widens the aperture to include society as a whole on Machine In The Ghost before expanding even further. Machine...'s separated staccato synth beats seems influenced by Crystal Castles of all, evoking effects from video games to punctuate Fink's examination of TV's influence on modern thought. "We seem like skeletons with bone head beliefs..." due to relying on others, instead of ourselves, to question and to think.

    After the brief, biographical Fulcrum And Lever Fasciinatiion delves deeper under the surface. Reality vs. perception dominates in various domains, either as examining emotions or pure potential. Psycho provides a catchy pop rock platform driven by Dapose's electric guitar, which bleeds into the existence and reality-questioning Mirror Error. "Baby knows we all create the world from in our skulls, everything you think of is as real as you make it." The existentialist theme continues with the strongest track on the album, Forever Growing Centipedes. Playing with the thoughts of potential itself ("I could step outside in any direction, everything I choose erases ghosts of potential..."), plucked electric pops are interspersed among railed and heavy punk guitars (akin to Drop Kick The Punks).

    They don't forget the politics. A Geiger counter starts A Battle Hymn For Children, questioning God but more specifically military. "Preacher, am I gonna make it? Am I going up? Am I forgiven for the humans I dropped?" The electro-popped song hearkens as if a mix between Bloc Party's constant beats and Tunde Adebimpe's ethereal haunts. The final verse happens to be the strongest.

    Absent is a distinct song, the Southern Belles In London Sing in Wet From Birth. Without such standouts, Fasciinatiion's power lies within its lyrical observations more than its music. The tempo remains perpetual, which benefits the dance beats but could have been a bigger drawback had the album stepped past its 35-minute threshold. With complete creative control over every aspect, The Faint have rekindled the electro-rock buzz surrounding the five-piece from Omaha.

    Taken from Méandre, my music blog. For more reviews, music recommendations, click here:
  • Photography: Los Campesinos! in Chicago

    28 maj 2008, 23:13

    Los Campesinos! with Jeffrey Lewis & The Jitters
    The Empty Bottle in Chicago, Illinois
    May 28th, 2008
    John Brunner : SmugMug

    It's always a pleasant surprise when an opening act does something fresh. Jeffrey Lewis did that last night before the Los Campesinos! show. The lower east side of NY group recited a poem devoted to ramen and noodles, declaring their dream to open a noodle joint to avoid "artistic famine" before jumping into a history lesson/cover song marathon detailing punk music between 1950-1975, called <i>the History of the Development of Punk on the Lower East Side</i>. Oh, and he showed us one of his films...mainly just him flipping through a giant comic. It hearkened back to Troubled Hubble's crazy antics, like drawing/painting on stage during a concert.

    Regardless, for a fantastic review of Los Campesinos!'s set, check out Spin.com for their expert word-smithery.
    Spin.com: Los Campesinos! Break Hearts in Chicago
  • Review: Dr. Manhattan - Dr. Manhattan (2008)

    12 mar 2008, 00:01

    Dr. Manhattan heralds from Wauconda (déjà vu?-yep, see previous post on their record release show), or as most say "Northern Illinois." They've proved hard to describe in conversation: pop punk, but more punk and dance punk with a dash of rock. Think heavy hitting dance drums coupled with a supporting punk/dance bass (a lil' funky on Pepper), mixed with post-punk guitar work with a keyboard thrown in to support rhythmically. Yet holding a certain circus element.

    Now that I've wandered aimlessly down the arrondissements of mixed genres, let's delve deeper. If someone just picked the CD up, they'd find it rather unassuming with its simplistic album art (Dr. Man Hat Tan) and early 90s blank CD with simple black lettering-nothing very fancy. It serves more as a ruse to anyone just perusing the shelves, belying the gem within. The band's debut follows the excellent 2007 Are You Bald? EP, stealing two of its tracks to push the debut to 11 songs. Don't get me wrong, the EP is still worth buying particularly for the fantastic, but missing Breath Of an Epoch. The album's produced by Jonathan Alvin of Chicago, who's also worked with Wax On Radio.

    Big Chomper, Big Chomper starts the album off hard with drums and keyboard laying down a hard dance beat that stays lighter than a disco floor thanks to Matt Enger's alternating pop punk-influenced vocals. They swim through the middle of the track thanks to fantastic production on the mic, raising with emotion until pinnacling with a trailing scream in the background-all contrasted with keys and a choppy guitar riff chipping away before it flows back into the chorus. It's a prime example of Dr. Manhattan's uncanny ability to throw interludes and portions of a rhythm that shouldn't work, yet they consistently wrest it into place-perfectly each time. The second track, You Put The I In Team, displays Matt's lead guitar at the best, beckoning a near match with The Blood Brothers, according to my friend Ryan. But just like with the rest of the album, no single instrument takes over a song. Every musician builds off of one another, and you can see that cohesiveness in their live show. The keys take dominance when needed, drums as well, yet hold back to support the others.

    The weakest point on the album lies in Gunpowder: a Ballet, a clear straight, typical pop track running on simplistic drums and a basic formula that's ultimately radio friendly. It honestly could be stamped "Made for Radio." It's not saying it's a bad song, as it's a extremely strong pop punk track that would do rather well-it just doesn't have that left jab that every other track has that catches a listener by surprise. It's predictive, minus Nick's rhythmic kickback on the drums-which are expertly placed. Some may say that Tracey's Buns is the weak point, but I heartily disagree. It is what it is. It's a simplistic youthful love song, recorded in one take akin to a love struck guy recording an acoustic birthday song with a mic and a simple recording device. The lyrics are ridiculous, but inherently fun-particularly live, as with the recording-which stops abruptly to restart at the beginning. "Thank god-thank you for your nose and always keeping it in my bizness. Thanks for your concern about my sleep and my fitness, about my sleep and my fitness." It's awkward, it's sweet, and it's closer to anything any musician has put out to impress that girl in high school.

    Immediately following Tracey's is To Feel Cozy Surrounded By Cats, which starts with a subdued Nick on drums. He's a strength throughout the album, but shines here as well as on the closer, Pepper. The drums stagger near the end, hesitating when needed before unraveling into the chorus once again. Baton Rouge easily is my favorite track, catching my ear first at their record release show. Accompanied by Tricia Sully (trumpet) and an accordion (?!) adding French flair, the track holds a hook large enough to trap anyone's attention and pull them along. The trumpet adds a little light, jazzy feel before the chorus sneaks on in: "I want you standing on my shoes, with a peruse-like touch through Baton Rouge." Not exactly complicated lyrics, but the sounds of peruse and shoes just glides wonderfully with the accordion.

    Dr. Manhattan's debut excels when they're having fun and letting their unconscious musicality flow freely enough to make André Breton proud. When they hesitate, as with Gunpowder, the band stumbles but manages to remain standing. Should they generalize, it'll be regrettable. Should they continue to experiment and innovate, they'll be unstoppable...like the real Dr. Manhattan! (The reference had to come eventually)

    If I had to assign it a rating: 9.5/10

    (I still have a little trouble with Gunpowder, even after justifying it as track made to market)