REVIEW: Beach House – Bloom


There’s nothing wrong with bands working inside of their comfort zone. Some artists’ best work comes from refining an already  well-established musical style, while not shifting far from what has already been proven to work. Other artists can move in radically different directions in order to create their “masterpieces”, but both methods have been established to work in one way or another.

It just so happens that Beach House fall firmly into the former party. The Baltimore dream-pop duo are back with their much sought-after fourth album, Bloom. Even the title alone gives you an indication of what you’re about to be exposed to – this is the sound of a band in their stride. Their 2010 album, Teen Dream, cemented them as ‘kind of a big deal’ throughout the indiesphere, and this record builds onto that momentum to create their most accomplished work to date.

Comprising of vocalist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Chris Scally, the band use complex guitar and synth arrangements, combined with Legrand’s deep, distinctive vocals to create some of the most hypnotic, alluring melodies that I can recall of recent memory.

Lead single, ‘Myth’, is the ideal introduction to the band’s sound, with swooping synths and free-falling arpeggios tumbling from guitars, creating the perfect backdrop for Legrand’s distinctive, poignant vocals. Graceful violins help underline the latter half of the song, with careful plucking of guitars strings tying together a warming solo. Everything about the song feels delicate yet deliberate, and they spice it all up with an unexpected up-tempo flow mid-way through.

Throughout the album, Legrand sings about themes that are not unfamiliar to the band; shattered romances, lost nostalgia, insecurities and fears are all themes that were apparent on the last record, but it feels like they’ve shed a new light on the matter. It’s all told with quite a linear tone that suits the band’s music well. Nothing is too cryptic or overblown on the album, and it fits in superbly with the flow of the album. The way Legrand projects these thoughts and ideas is what really sets Beach House apart.

The album continues forth with the same kind of style laid down by ‘Myth‘. ‘Wild‘ has a guitar riff reminiscent of countless classic alt-rock bands of the 80’s, in which this genre draws so much inspiration from. High pitched guitars reinforce Legrand’s tones, while lulling the listener into a deep sense of calm. The songs tend to alternate between more guitar-driven pieces and synth-filled tracks, with scattered drum samples which set forth a mesmerising rhythm to it all.

The album doesn’t veer too far away from this formula, but most of the tracks have a defining quality that set them apart; ‘New Year‘ has an oriental-influenced twinge to the central hook, while ‘Wishes‘ has a nostalgic, longing atmosphere to it. The interplay between the two individuals is really something to behold, and together, they creates such a surreal and mystical world; you can’t help but drift into it and want to live there for years. Beach House are a band that could soundtrack a dream if it were possible, and it would feel completely natural.

Chances are, if you found yourself ensnared by the noises the band made on Teen Dream two years ago, you’re going to adore Bloom. It’s the sound of a band who have grasped fully what it is they want to accomplish, and is absolutely one of the most gorgeously soothing records of the year.

9/10 

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REVIEW: Best Coast – The Only Place

Surf pop is a genre that had a very potent revival a couple of years back, with bands like Surfer BloodTennis and, coincidentally, Best Coast all putting out albums that embodied the spirit of the music first brought about primarily by The Beach Boys, bringing it into the 21st century. There seemed to be a very specific moment when this happened, and an outburst of similar styles polluted the airwaves and built up a very memorable playlist for the summer of twenty-ten.

Best Coast are now back, with sun-soaked second full-length LP ‘The Only Place‘. Comprising of cat-loving vocalist and guitarist, Beth Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno, the band’s follow-up to ‘Crazy For You‘ has been a highlight of this summer’s release calendar for quite a few people.

The thing that hits you instantly about their second LP is the change in sound quality and production. The hazy mist that cloaked the vocals and guitar has been lifted from this album to reveal a clearer, more confident sound. For fans of the older style, it might come as a surprise, but on the whole, it benefits the music and makes it feel more direct and personal than the previous effort. It’s obvious that Cosentino wants to distance herself somewhat from the debut, with her recently saying “We wanted to make this record a bit more serious, so we put a bear instead of a cat on the cover.” Fair reasoning, I guess, but it’s clear the duo’s transition into high fidelity has benefited the music greatly.

A major improvement of having the fuzzy production banished from the album is the fact that Cosentino has been given the opportunity to show off exactly how strong her vocal performances can be. She tackles all of the songs with very self-confident tone that was less apparent on the debut, and it pays off considerably overall.

The Only Place‘, much like the debut, is a short and sweet collection of simple songs with subtle charms and naivety. Best Coast‘s laidback approach is a somewhat love-it-or-hate-it scenario – one argument being that the songs lack any kind of depth or sophistication needed to stand out on their own, and the other being that it’s exactly that which draws people towards Cosentino‘s musings. The band’s more grown-up sound on this album has me siding with the latter viewpoint, for the most part.

Lyrically, the second LP treads similar ground to the first – relationships, homesickness, trials and tribulations – but this time there’s more moments of self-reflection. Title track ‘The Only Place‘ is a bona fide summer jam – an up-beat ode to the fair state they hail from. It’s tracks like these where Best Coast are in their element, but it’s when things stride towards the more sullen end of the spectrum that the chinks in the band’s armour appear. Moments on the album like ‘Who They Want Me To Be‘ take a slower approach, but these moments lack the punch or flippancy of the more immediately gratifying tracks.

One of the most disappointing things about ‘The Only Place’ is the distinct sense of repetition throughout that’s hard to avoid.  Select songs start with almost exactly the same chord progressions and it just comes across as lazy (eg. ‘The Only Place’ and ‘Let’s Go Home’). Not only in the music, but repetition prevails throughout the lyrics, as well. “We have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please” announces Cosentino on the title track, while  ‘Up All Night‘ has her proclaiming “I wanna see you, I wanna see you, I wanna see you, forever and ever, forever and ever…zzzzzzzz”. This reliance on repeating lines, phrases and words over and over works for some musicians, but here it just adds to the sense of monotony.

The transition that the pair have gone through to shed the image created by the debut has bought with it a bag full of pros along with some downfalls. There’s still an undeniable charm to the band – the sun-drenched pop, the jangly guitar hooks and the simplistic yearnings of Cosentino all add up to something ultimately enjoyable and engaging. The upbeat moments on the album are a treat and will no doubt be a part of any summer playlist again this year, but things tend to drag when the tempo lowers. Considering that the album is only 37 minutes long, that’s kinda concerning. Fans of the first album might feel alienated by the lack of fuzz (it’s really not that big of a deal), but it’s still a pleasure to listen to.

7/10


STREAM: Chromatics – Kill For Love

I’m calling it, THIS will be the album that critics are buzzing about come the end of the year. I don’t normally devote whole blog posts just to a stream of an album, but I really feel this NEEDs your attention. It’s a ninety minute slab of meticulously put together synth-pop that’s as smooth as anything and as dark as Hades’ lair. Ruth Radalet’s alluring vocals will hypnotise your unassuming mind, while you ride along a sea of smooth New Order-esque synths. The amount of time and attention to detail that this album has gone through – created over five years in seven different cities across the globe – is quite hard to comprehend.

Johnny Jewel, multi-instrumentalist and producer for the band, provides a thoughtful list of just what went into creating this behemoth, with no less than thirty-six instruments used and a fair share of blood, sweat and tears. I think I’ve gushed over it enough, just do yourself a favour and click play. It’ll be the best thing you do with your day, or week in fact. I’ll write a full review of it when I can get round to it, it’s quite a task for such an album. The whole things available on iTunes, as they launched it as a surprise attack on Monday. If you enjoy any of these things: Late Nights, Drive, New Order, M83 (It feels like I compare every band to M83 in some way, these days), Pioneering Synth Pop, etc. then you’re bound to LOVE this album. Click the play button below to listen to the album in it’s entirety. I’m never usually this enthusiastic about anything. I think I might be ill. ENJOY, YEAH?


REVIEW: Tanlines – Mixed Emotions

Brooklyn duo Tanlines started out as a means for Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm to remix tracks by artists like Glasser and Au Revoir Simone, but it wasn’t until their 2010 EP Settings that they garnered attention from all corners of the blogosphere. As soon as the band started creating original tracks filled with sun-drenched synth-pop and world music-influenced 80’s dancehall, the world started listening. While the two people that comprise the project have experience in very different backgrounds musically, they come together succinctly as Tanlines using their combined skills to make lovely little pop gems.

Two years since their first EP and a few singles later, Tanlines have released their long-in-the-making debut full-length, Mixed Emotions. The album channels inspiration from countless areas of music, but all the tracks seem to meld together to create something very much their own. African rhythm influences can be heard throughout the album, but more so on ’Yes Way’ than anywhere else. Dancehall obviously had a big impact on the recording process, with ‘Not The Same‘ having a distinct dance beat and pulsing synths backing it.

Taking cues from bands such as M83, Hot Chip and Friendly Fires, Tanlines manage to blur the line between indie band and dance act. There’s a certain juxtaposition between the up-beat melodies of the songs on the album and the rather sullen, melancholic lyrics of said tracks. Almost all the songs have the innate ability to make you dance, and given the right scenario you wouldn’t even notice the lyrics. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a sense of loneliness and longing in the tracks. Take ‘Real Life’, for example. Emm sings “For a minute I was lost / I looked away / My destination was alone.” this sense of solitude exudes from all of the tracks, and if it weren’t for the way they delivered the music, this album would be a lot colder and darker than it makes out to be.

Opening track ‘Brothers‘ is covered with washed out synths that evoke sounds of waves crashing against the shore, and this is a trend that carries on throughout the album. It’s a slow-burning, fairly simple track that does well in introducing Tanlines‘ brand of pop. Sunlight permeates through all of the tracks and it’s hard to escape. If the conditions are right – scorching weather, nothing to worry about, et al – then Mixed Emotions is the perfect album to listen to. It’s lively enough to put on at any party and for late nights at the beach. But if things Ain’t so peachy, the unrelenting sunny disposition of the music might be a bit of a turn-off.

Throughout the album, Tanlines seize the opportunity to take a nostalgic trip back to the heyday of 80’s synth-pop. This has become such a common source of inspiration for contemporary artists that it should feel tired and well-tread by now, but Tanlines use these elements in just the right moderation to stop them feeling unwelcome. There are moments when this works to their full advantage, and other moments when it misses the mark. ‘Lost Somewhere‘, one of the weakest moments on the album, seems to get lost in the time period and just feels like a parody of the music it’s imitating, while ‘Rain Delay’ manages to mix up the 80’s vibes enough with their own style to make it worthwhile.

Lead single ‘All Of Me‘ is bound to gain cult status on dance floors across the globe, with its irresistibly bouncy beat and hook-laden chorus. Obvious inspirations are taken from various club anthems and it’s all put together in just the right way. They employ the tried-and-tested method of building up gradually, and by the time the chorus comes around, everything’s in full motion. It’s all rounded off with sincere and heartfelt lyricisms that guarantee that, come summer, this tune will be massive. It has all the ingredients needed.

The most disappointing thing about Mixed Emotions is the hit-and-miss feeling that taints this otherwise bold and delightful debut. Don’t get me wrong – it has more than its fair share of fantastic tracks that would stand well on their own, or as part of an EP; it’s just a shame that they couldn’t quite capture the same feeling on more of the tracks. ’Abby‘ feels largely flat and forgettable, especially following on from the trio of stellar opening tracks.

By the time the record reached the end, it seems ironic that the duo picked the album title that they did. Mixed Emotions aptly describes how I feel about the album. As a debut album, it’s a great attempt that shows bucket loads of potential from the duo, but it ends up feeling all a bit uneven in quality. Select tracks from the album are bound to be a highlight of more than a few playlists this Summer but it’s the moments in between that dampen the experience.

6/10


REVIEW: Blood Red Shoes – In Time To Voices

Brighton has always had a vibrant music scene, with bands like Electralane, British Sea Power and The Maccabees all hailing from the city. It’s also the site of the Great Escape Festival, which is well-known as one of the best festivals for showcasing new talent in Europe. One of the highlights of this burgeoning scene is alternative rock band Blood Red Shoes. Now onto their third full-length, the band have toured tirelessly around the world, since 2004, and developed as musicians greatly. With In Time To Voices, they’ve created their heaviest, most polished and ambitious record to date.

The band are actually a duo made up of Laura-Mary Carter and Steven Ansell, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to this album. While being made up of just a drummer and guitarist, the duo show the intensity and scope of a full band. Vocal duties are handled by both members, giving a healthy duality to the music. Songs are roughly sung in a fifty-fifty split, but Ansell’s voice is a little more prominent throughout. The two voices harmonise together well and interlace in a way that really shows how well they know one another, musically. On ‘Stop Kicking’ the two voices overlap one another towards the end of the song in a style similar to Brand New . Both vocalists sing with a similar pitch, which prevents dissonance and gives it all a warm chemistry.

Blood Red Shoes don’t make any compromises by being a duo. The lack of a bassist just means that they have to turn everything up louder and playing harder to cover up the bassist-shaped void. And play hard, they do. A similar approach was taken by a little band you might have heard of called The White Stripes, and it worked out pretty well for them. Extra instrumentation is used sparingly on the record, and when it is it doesn’t alienate the sound their sound.

In Time To Voices strikes a ideal balance between heavy, punk-influenced anthems and slower, more poignant moments. A prime example of their heaviest side is one-and-a-half minute belter ‘Je Me Perds‘, in which the band embark on a raw and frenzied shout-a-thon, with lyrics like “What the fuck am I doing here / lying face down on the floor“. If the whole album was filled with songs of this nature, it would get old very quickly but this fleeting moment of madness is enough to let us see the bands’ true ferocity shine brightly. In stark contrast, the track prior to it, ‘Night Light‘ is a more laid-back, sullen affair, filled with slow-paced vocals, acoustic guitars and even some simple piano melodies. The way the band embrace these two dynamics gives the record a cohesive and varied vibe, and just makes for a more exciting listen.

The album opens with title track ‘In Time To Voices‘ which highlights Carter’s vocal prowess. It’s a slow-building piece that builds up gradually to a triumphant finish complete with an impressive distortion-filled guitar solo. Lead single ‘Cold‘ is introduced by an intricate drum pattern and a fuzz-filled riff. Carter‘s vocals are at their most bold on this track, and they really carry the intro in an interesting direction, before Ansell‘s harsher tones take hold of the chorus. The track is both dense and complex while being catchy at the same time, and it really draws attention to how good the band strike that balance I keep going on about. ‘The Silence And The Drones‘ has a heroic vibe to it, with violin swoops that accentuate Ansell’s haunting sentiments (“Let me please forget“). It’s a definite highlight of the album and, again, illustrates the expanded vision of the band; these record feels bigger than any of their previous work and they know it. Almost-five-minute album closer ‘7 Years‘ has a Death Cab For Cutie-like sense of sincerity, before it fades away into the distance.

If Blood Red Shoes’ previous records didn’t quite get their hooks in you, this one definitely should. In Time To Voices is a more mature and diverse piece of work and seems like what the band have been working towards all this time. In an interview prior to the album’s release, Carter said “With this album we totally threw out the rulebook of how we write and record. We decided we wanted to make a really ambitious record.” Well, they certainly did that.

8/10


REVIEW: The Shins – Port of Morrow


It’s been around five years since The Shins last put out an album, with 2007’s Wincing the Night Away. Since then there’s been little output from the band, besides frontman James Mercer‘s foray with producer Danger Mouse for the 2010 album and EP as Broken Bells. With the announcement of Port of Morrow, fans finally had their prayers answered. With so much time passing, and a complete changeup of the band’s members, would The Shins live up to their past legacy? The answer: more or less, yeah.

Although they perform as a band, The Shins is pretty much just James Mercer‘s brainchild. There’s been so many changes to who’s who in the band that it’s hard to keep track. One thing remains constant: Mercer is in full command. If there were no Mercer, there would be no Shins. Even with some fresh recruits in the band, the instrumentation stays as strong as ever; from the flurry of lighter-than-air synths, to the jolly keyboard notes and the breezy guitar strums. The band play well together as it stands, and the changes don’t seem to have any detrimental effects on the way the band operates.

Now, as far as American up-beat indie-pop music goes, The Shins have been put upon a pretty big pedestal over the years, next to all the other contemporary greats. With this reputation in mind, after only a relatively small discography of three LP’s, it was always going to be tough to live up to the rather unfair expectations of the general public. And for all intents and purposes, they made quite an admirable effort with Port of Morrow.

The band have a very distinct sound to them due mainly to Mercer’s love-it-or-hate-it vocal style. I know some people who find his octaves a little too sugary-sweet to handle in large quantities but to my ear they sound almost heavenly. I’ve developed a theory that it’s almost impossible to not have a massive grin on your face when listening to Mercer’s tones, and that is still very much the case on their latest offering. Even when the album takes a turn towards more morose territory, Mercer’s delivery gives it all a warm glow that stops things from ever getting too dark.

Another one of Mercer’s many talents is his ability to conjure up illustrious imagery by putting words and phrases together in simple yet effective ways. The album sticks to well-trodden territory, thematically; love, trust, redemption, all that jazz. What defines The Shins are all the clever little lines and phrases that are bound to clog up many a peoples’ Twitter and Facebook feeds. Take, for example, lead single ‘Simple Song’; lines like “My life in an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff” and “you feel like an ocean warmed up by the sun” evoke such vivid imagery that it’s hard not to be drawn in by it all. Mercer explores a smorgasbord of attitudes and emotions throughout Port of Morrow, from triumphant (‘Simple Song‘), reflective (‘It’s Only Life’), thankful and understanding (‘September‘), nostalgic (‘Fall of ’82’) just to name a few.

Production on the album is overseen by Greg Kurstin, who has expertise mainly in pop music, with production credits on albums by Lily Allen and Britney Spears just to name a few. His assistance has helped give the album a very pristine and meticulously album. There are so many things going on musically that at times it feels a little overwhelming. It veers dangerously close to feeling too overproduced. I can see some of the tracks on here getting plays on daytime radio given the opportunity, and that’s probably due in part to Kurstin. Although the music does have quite a wide appeal, it hasn’t taken too much of a departure from their past material; it’s not like The Shins were ever a particularly hard band to get into.

Unsurprisingly, the highlight of the album is ‘Simple Song’. The song glimmers with the magic that make The Shins such a revered band. The bouncy, invigorating melody and whimsical lyrics are but a few of the things that make it one of the best songs that I’ve heard recently, and among the best songs the band have ever produced. Words won’t really do it justice so I’ll just link a video to this so you can see for yourself.

The biggest downfall of Port of Morrow is that is loses steam at quite an alarming rate. The band end up sounding a bit tired way before the record is over. By the time the almost-six-minute album closer rolls around, it already feels too long. This would be okay for most albums, but this record is only ten tracks long as it is. The latter half of the album feels kind-of throwaway compared to the strong start. ‘Fall of ’82‘ and 40 Mark Strasse‘ feel largely forgettable despite some nice touches from the band (such as the trumpet solo on ‘Fall of ’82’), while ‘No Way Down’ has a frankly generic 90’s alt-rock opening, that gradually improves as the song goes on. Midpoint of the record ‘September‘ marks a noticeable shift in quality from there on out and it’s honestly a little disappointing from a band of such pedigree.

In Garden State, (you knew I had to reference it somewhere) during a scene in a hospital waiting room, Natalie Portman proclaims that listening to New Slang by the band will change Zach Braff’s life. With Port of Morrow, The Shins haven’t really replicated that notion. Instead of ‘life-changing’, the music on display here is, for the most part, simply ‘pleasant and enjoyable’. It has its moments and provides easy and addictive listening that showcase Mercer‘s ever-growing song crafting skills and upbeat pop even during the most routine areas of the album. I wanted to like this album more than I actually did in the end, but there’s still a lot of the spirit of the band you know and love here. I’m just glad they’re back.

7/10


REVIEW: s / s / s – Beak & Claw EP

Ever since Age of Adz came out, I had a feeling that things could only get crazier for Sufjan Stevens; I just never anticipated just how crazy we were talking. s / s / s is a new project born from three very different musicians’ desires to make music together. Each ‘s’ in question here refers to a different artist – indie darling Sufjan Stevens, rapper Serengeti and classically trained composer/producer Son Lux. It’s a bold new direction and together they create music that is quite unlike almost anything else I have heard recently. The three distinct musical directions each individual possess meld together in a surprisingly succinct way. Beak & Claw is a fleeting but utterly unforgettable EP.

Stevens‘ vocals on the EP have taken lead from the more… auto-tuned moments of Age of Adz, (a la Impossible Soul) in a way that masks just how accomplished his voice is naturally. The digitization of his vocals would sound out of place in any other environment, but hearing it echo throughout the jungle of techno blips, berserk violin and witty verses makes it feel almost natural.

EP opener ‘Museum Day‘ greets you with Sufjan‘s Distinct vocals wailing ‘I don’t want resistance / put your hands in fire / realise, realise energy is only meant to burn a while‘, in a sincere, captivating manner. The 6-minute song is the slowest and deceptively simple song on the EP, but that’s all relative. On the track, Serengeti tells tales about pastimes filled with intricate details; about visiting dinosaur museums, stealing money from his sister and the like. His relaxed rhyming style and wry lyricism carry the song well before Sufjan chimes in again. Swooping violins and clattering cymbals mark Son Lux‘s impact. “I am recolouring“, repeats Stevens throughout. This is a song of redemption and the heavenly backing vocals towards the end have a heavenly ambience to them.

Beyond Any Doubt” showcases Serengeti‘s technique and flow as a rapper and he takes centre stage. It’s no mean feat to outshine a musician like Sufjan Stevens, but on this track he totally does. The song ends with a crescendo of warping, dub-infused synths and electro drum samples. “If This Is Real” sees further collaboration; this time with Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond lending female vocals to the mix; another box checked, then. Worden is no stranger to collaborating with Sufjan Stevens, having contributed vocals throughout The Age of Adz, and her voice helps the EP move in yet another direction to the rest of the EP.

Son Lux provides the EP with dense and highly technical production. This is felt more than anywhere on closing track ‘Octomom‘, where the glitchy distortion rips through the track and random blips and bleeps plague the track. Just as the myriad of elements become too much, the track breaks down to form a decidedly aborigines vibe, complete with mouth harps and harmonicas. Stevens manipulates the simple phrase “I had the time of my life” throughout in a infectious way.

If I could say anything negative about Beak & Claw, it would be that it feels a little too overwhelming to take in all at once. There’s so many things going on at once throughout that it suffers from the kitchen sink approach, frankly, it’s all a little bonkers. It’s almost like Sufjan Stevens thought “right, I’m an accomplished singer songwriter, I can compose staggering musical arrangements, what can I do next…?” and thus looked towards Serengeti and Son Lux to further boost his musical versatility and… oddness. In anyone else’s hands, NONE of this would work. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t. But it does.

Though it only lasts 18 minutes, s / s / s certainly leave quite an impression on the listener with their debut EP. On paper, it’s a collaboration that would never work, but the three manage to pull their respective expertise together to create something rather unique and wonderful. The brief running time of the EP means that there’s never a dull moment and it rewards the listener more and more with every replay. I just hope that this collaboration continues in the future. The world needs more of this kind of weirdness.

9/10