Can an album really be a departure if it's the first thing a group's released in 11 years? It ideally would be for a genre-bound band turned brand name like Portishead: As much as there is to miss about the mid-late 1990s, the time for any trip-hop revival is far into the future, and picking up right where they left off in 1997 would make Portishead some kind of sad cipher coasting on the fumes of an exhausted trend-- something they've always been above. If the voice of Beth Gibbons wasn't so ingrained in the consciousness of a whole generation of indie kids, you could look at Third as a sort of re-debut; it posits that the sound of Portishead can actually exist even after the group excises every possible remnant of trip-hop from it.
It's disingenuous to talk about Los Angeles' New Yorker-profiled, vegan-snacks-serving, book-lending, all-ages venue the Smell with the same high-art vocabulary you'd use to dissect other creative collectives, like Andy Warhol's Factory-- the Smell's constituency (L.A.'s optimistic experimental art pack) appears un-fixated on fame, self-aggrandizement, or furthering its nascent mythology. To an outsider, the Smell is idealistic and romantic, a stroller-friendly, cheap-haircut-hock ing haven that's as functional as it is fruitful. Save Baltimore's Wham City, it's been a while since American music fans have had a similar hometown scene to get riled up about; regional culture has been fractured and marginalized by the internet, and being too focused on anything local-- except produce, maybe-- feels depressingly provincial in 2008. Consequently, it's weirdly thrilling that a community-sponsored, community-supported art space can attract (and sustain) such a horde of admirable bands.
For better or worse, Cut Copy swim in the same pool as those electro, French touch, and new wave revivalists for whom fashion, irony, and self-consciousness represent swords to live and die by. In a scene as self-reflexive as this, backlashes are the order of the day, but even still, there are signs-- such as the increasing use of "blog house" as an eye-rolling pejorative, recent records by Calvin Harris, Does It Offend You Yeah?, and Ghostland Observatory, and the parallel rise of Balearic-feeling dance as a worthy substitute-- that this world might be slipping under the weight of its own ubiquity. Based on their patchy and rainbow-chasing 2004 debut, Bright Like Neon Love there was every reason to believe that a new Cut Copy record this late in the cycle would only accelerate the meltdown; after all, there are only so many ways to arrange and re-arrange vibrant art direction, moneyed aloofness, and the right kinds of sounds before the party heads to a new venue altogether.
Deerhunter toured with Nine Inch Nails this summer, making a stop at Colorado's famed Red Rocks Amphitheater. That canyon found the Atlanta noise-rock quintet at a precipice. In the few months prior, Deerhunter had added a new guitarist, Whitney Petty, to replace the departed Colin Mee. Lead singer Bradford Cox had released his debut solo album, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, under the name Atlas Sound. The band's third album, Microcastle, and its would-be surprise bonus disc, Weird Era Cont., had both leaked half a year before they were due in stores. U nimpressed NIN fans were writing blog posts comparing Cox to Geddy Lee.
Dear Science, TV on the Radio's follow-up to 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain-- a dense and textural album with an optimistic core-- is catchier, but thornier than its predecessor. Musically, it's an instant grabber: Handclaps crack like fireworks. TVOTR's horns, courtesy of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, sound punchier and brighter than ever before. Vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and guitarist/singer Kyp Malone thrive as dual frontmen: They're sexy when they're angry, and even sexier when they're not. And David Sitek's production is shiny and urgent, while his harsher synths and doo-dads hang back like a commentary track.
Saturdays=Youth-- the new album from French musician M83 (aka Anthony Gonzalez)-- opens with a stately piano phrase. Synths gradually overtake the piano and Gonzalez sings concise lyrics in falsetto-- "It's your face/ Where are we?/ Save me"-- amid billowing harmonies. It's the sort of big, beatless slow-burn he often uses to dramatize an impending pivot, a moment when the percussion gallops in and the song takes off for the stratosphere. But on this track, "You, Appearing", that pivot never arrives. Instead, the music tapers off into the booming overture of "Kim & Jessie". Saturdays=Youth is still huge music, with three players in addition to Gonzalez-- but it has a different kind of heft from previous M83 records. On Before the Dawn Heals Us, M83 was all about the vertical push-- layer after layer of synths and drums piled up in a vertiginous tower. But these new songs disperse in all directions: Producers Ewan Pearson and Ken Thomas spread the melodies and beats into a sound world of uncommon vibrancy and pristine clarity, mounted on a massive yet now more proportionate scale.
Forget disco for a second. The most significant thing about the debut album from New York's Hercules and Love Affair has less to do with revival than arrival-- that of a compelling new voice in American dance music. Not Antony Hegarty's, of Antony and the Johnsons, even though his pipes are an integral part of Hercules' aesthetic, but Andrew Butler, a twentysomething resident of New York who has made one of 2008's great albums, and one of the best longplayers from DFA. (DFA's Tim Goldsworthy surely deserves some of the credit as well, as the album's co-producer and the programmer behind most of the record's beats.) Butler got his start writing music for art projects in college-- "like a remake of Gino Soccio's 'Runaway' done in the style of Kraftwerk," he told Fact magazine-- but Hercules and Love Affair's music doesn't require Fischerspooner-type theatrics. This debut album is a self-contained, self-assured, 10-song set that runs vintage styles through a restless compositional imagination to create something joyfully, startlingly unique.
Lil Wayne is a terrible guitarist. Just incredibly bad. The fact was evident at this year's Summer Jam, when he spent two and a half interminable minutes noodling and crooning all by his lonesome while a stadium full of New York's most devout hip-hop fans looked on bewildered. "Is he really playing the guitar right now?" giggled a teenage girl. "That's not a chord or anything!" Still, she recorded Wayne in all his tatted-up Tracy Chapman glory for YouTube posterity just the same. While everyone else on the day's bill-- from Alicia Keys to Kanye West-- filled their shortened, festival-style sets with hits and finely-tailored theatrics, the audience's most anticipated act took the opportunity get his Guitar for Dummies on; Lil Wayne is, as he likes to say, "different." Always has been.
The American media and public have spent a fair bit of the past months being fascinated and appalled by various remarks from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, of Chicago. Those months have also seen a fairly warm critical reception for Erykah Badu's terrific new album-- one whose notions and ideologies sometimes come from the same nexus as Wright's. Badu's theology is different, of course: more personal, more scattered, less Christian, laced with Five-Percenter notions. And Badu salutes Farrakhan explicitly, rather than just nodding politely across the South Side. But there's an odd echo in her wording on that one: "I salute you, Farrakhan/ Because you are me." Less than a month after this record's release, Wright's most notable acquaintance was describing the reverend as someone who "contains within him the contradictions-- the good and the bad-- of the community.... I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community." He is me? Until he hits the press club, anyway.
Crystal Castles prefer traveling light. While the hotly-tipped and already hotly-contested Toronto duo's basement party set-up doesn't look like it'll fill up the passenger seat on a tour van, they also like to play fast and loose with their associations. They've remixed at a Hot Chip-like pace for everyone from Bloc Party to Uffie to Klaxons, but they're not a part of your nu-rave genre (really, who is?), or blog house for that matter. Their de but LP partly picks from 7" and 12"s that have been available in some format since 2005, and it's every bit as difficult to pin down.
Whether it's their second release or their 60th (no one's even pretending to be sure), Fucked Up's The Chemistry of Common Life is really easy to get excited about. A lot's been made about how it could possibly revitalize hardcore, although framing it within genre terms tends to lead to the wrong questions: Is it too melodic and instrumentally diverse to qualify as hardcore? Maybe. Is it heavy and chaotic enough to sa tisfy fans of the debut, even while it dramatically broadens their fanbase? Possibly. Can a band as destructive as Fucked Up really carry an entire scene on their sweaty, unshaven backs? Stranger things have happened.
On both record and onstage, the Walkmen have always reached for the rafters-- often at the risk falling on their collective faces or completely overshadowing their moodier material. In the light of their previous powerful singles and go-for-broke performances, the New York band's latest album, You & Me, might seem like a step down. However, it's the first that fully commits to their seductive, eminently soused-sounding late night sulk. If there are people who still consider the Walkmen a singles act-- granted, that will happen when you write a couple of the best rock singles of the decade-- You & Me might finally convince them otherwise.
Floating around the internet last fall before emerging on a 7" in November, Fuck Buttons' "Bright Tomorrow" proved surprisingly resilient. The duo's blunt repetition of simple elements-- metronomic drum-machine, chugging synth, blissful keyboard, and distorted screams-- seems like a formula for tedium. But the song somehow gets stronger with each replay. For a noise group, Fuck Buttons are surprisingly welcoming-- for noise music, anyway-- and their mix of dreamy melody and abrasive climax evokes strange stylistic bedfellows: Yo La Tengo and Ministry, My Bloody Valentine and Prurient, Spacemen 3 and Black Dice.
Santi White used to work in A&R, which gives her put-downs on debut single "Creator" a professional air: "Sit tight I know what you are/ Mad bright but you ain't no star." As Santogold, White is putting her knowledge of star quality into practical effect. At its best, her album's cross-genre confidence is dazzling, combining dub, new wave, and hip-hop to create some of the year's freshest pop. At its worst, it feels annoyingly overthought.
The received wisdom on London's Hot Chip is that they're equal opportunity funsters who'll pinch from any old genre in the name of a grin. But after the potent combination of "Over and Over", "Boy From School", and all the attendant remixes increased their festival bill font size by about 20 points, there was good reason to believe that the London quintet's next record might find them rectifying their cartoonish pop into something sleeker and more streaml ined. They might have, for instance, decided to expand on the soul and R&B influences that occasionally pepper their music; or to smoothen the undanceable rumples of their creaky, short-circuited pop with a few well-placed blasts of minimal techno; or maybe, to topple their previous output with an even more dazzling pastiche of color, candy, and complexity.
Gang Gang Dance's third album, God's Money, remains a revelation three years after its release. Pouring the muffled art-beats of 2004's Revival of the Shittest and the extended space-jams of 2004's Gang Gang Dance into structured songs, the record was starry and dreamy, yet also taut and focused. It made evident what was implicit from the start-- that these four hyperactive talents with underground pedigrees (see the Cranium, SSAB Songs, Angelblood, et. al.) could funnel their ideas into melodic pop without diluting them.
Bradford Cox spent the summer he was 16 in a children's hospital having multiple surgeries on his chest and back. His condition, Marfan syndrome, has proven difficult to separate from his music. Cox's lost summer hangs over his songs, and his gawky physique has been the dress-draped centerpiece of his band's confrontational live shows. At the same time, he can also be defensive about his appearance, using it to explain why his music's detractors are sometimes as hyperbolic as his most fervent admirers. Thousands of words later, other music critics still ask me what I could possibly like in Cox's work.
Hip-hop's earliest records often relied on faded, scratchy source material run through entry-level equipment. Even as technology advanced, the grain and the gristle stuck around-- sometimes out of necessity, sometimes as an extra ingredient. Over time, those aged, decaying sounds burrowed their way underground to crop up in pockets of IDM, dubstep, and indie hip-hop, resulting in music, built around texture more than bass or treble, that often sounded ragge d at birth.
The Hold Steady weren't the likeliest candidates for success. Pulling together after the demise of the imaginative, verbose, and mostly overlooked indie act Lifter Puller, Craig Finn relocated to New York to start a new band. Holding to his distinctive poet-lost-at-karaoke delivery, Finn-- like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü before him-- began unashamedly mining classic rock radio for inspiration. Surprisingly, it's the latter group you can hear on opening track "Constructive Summer", and not just in its title's resemblance to one of Hüsker Dü's most celebrated songs.
Christian Fennesz is one of a handful of people from experimental electronic music's late-1990s halcyon days still kicking around. Where others have disappeared (Oval), taken on a curatorial role (Gas), or resigned themselves to arms-length abstraction (Autechre), Fennesz has evolved his aesthetic and found new avenues of expression. In the last few years he's released two albums with Ryuichi Sakamoto, collaborated with Mike Patton and guitarist Burkhard Stan gl, knocked out some remixes, and created music for dance and films. He's been busy, but people who don't follow this music closely probably haven't noticed. They've been waiting for a new solo album, preferably something that might cross over from the "electronic music" racks in the way that 2001's monumental Endless Summer did. But Fennesz's unhurried approach to his solo work has yielded dividends. Since he takes so long between proper Fennesz records, the release of a new one still feels like an event.
This is how rock musicians are supposed to age. At 50, Nick Cave's hairline is receding, but he's turned that setback into a "look," growing out his locks and cultivating the coolest mustache in the industry. Over 30 years, first with the Birthday Party and then with the Bad Seeds, he has refined his lurid growl and lascivious subject matter-- the usuals: sex, death, God, murder, redemption, all in the most brutal and salaciously poetical terms possible-- without losing any of his charisma or menace. During the past decade alone, despite sounding hoarse on No More Shall We Part and Nocturama, he has transformed his swagger into a potent brand of musical and amoral authority, honing his persona in tandem with the Bad Seeds, who a few years ago were one of the tightest and most versatile backing bands around and have only gotten better with each release.
On the surface, Scottish trio Frightened Rabbit are like a lot of other bands. You could file them away with other musicians from their Glasgow scene, or other bassist-free groups, or other bands of literal brothers (frontman Scott and drummer Grant Hutchison are siblings). But somehow, despite the fact that their methods are well-worn, their product is one-of-a-kind, as their consistently great second album (in under a y ear, no less!) attests.
As I was finishing an interview with Gregg Gillis in July 2006, he casually mentioned his desire to see M. Night Shyamalan's just-released fantasy movie Lady in the Water. Given the film's wretched reviews-- a pitiful 24% on Rotten Tomatoes-- and the train-wreck hype surrounding it, I thought he was kidding. He wasn't; Gillis liked some of Shyamalan's other flicks, so he wanted to check this one out. Simple. And it's this omnivorous, pleasure-seeking attitude toward pop culture that defines his work as Girl Talk. (Luckily, his taste in music is superior to his taste in film.)
"The underground just spun around and did a 360!" When Eminem spit this rhyme in 2000 on The Marshall Mathers LP, he was, as usual, talking about himself, but I imagine the line must sound depressingly prophetic to circa-2008 underground rappers surveying the last eight years. In a strikingly short time, all of the mutually understood rules of independent rap's mid-to-late-90s golden age have been overturned, rendered obsolete by a c ombination of shifting critical opinion and the democratizing bulldozer of the internet, and indie-rappers have been struggling to gain footing in their bewildering new landscape ever since. Criticizing mainstream hip-hop's misogyny, violence, and materialism, for instance, once meant approving, pat-on-the-head reviews from mainstream rock publications like Rolling Stone and SPIN. These days, it is the quickest route to being derided as a self-righteous "backpack rapper," a term that has soured into a reflexive sneer.
Kevin Martin, under a dozen-or-so aliases and across numerous genres, has been screwing around with deep bass for well over a decade. 1997's Tapping the Conversation-- a concept album conceived as a surrogate soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation-- was his first release as the Bug, and in retrospect, it sounds like an alternate-universe prototype of dubstep, based on instrumental hip-hop rather than UK garage rhythms. By the time he issued his 2003 follow-up Pressure, he'd already charged headlong into heavy digital ragga, building a repertoire of grimy, distorted beats that mutated dancehall into a glitchy, blown-out commotion.
So much for cleaning up their sound for Matador. After two releases on the recently returned Siltbreeze label, Times New Viking have become better songwriters, but thankfully don't change much of anything from their humble home-recorded beginnings. An effusive press release for Rip It Off draws a line from the Sex Pistols through Slanted and Enchanted and Alien Lanes to end at these guys and girls, and while those claims are a bit too bold to take at face value, they make a certain kind of sense: The Pistols ended up holding the banner for all the bands who realized they could do it themselves, and the songs written by Pavement and especially Guided By Voices swelled with the pride that their basement tapes could stand ably next to their heroes' carefully constructed classics.
There's nothing like a nice surprise from musicians you love. In 1981, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and producer Brian Eno united for one of the most fruitful partnerships of the post-punk era to release My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a groundbreaking record that made prominent use of sampled soundbytes and disembodied voices in place of singing. The album, recorded betwee n sessions for the Talking Heads' essential Remain in Light LP, was released with surprisingly little fanfare, yet pioneered and popularized methods that have since become part of our musical lexicon.
Since last year's partially re-recorded and re-released Palo Santo, Shearwater have gone out of their way to assert themselves as more than just an Okkervil River side project or one man's solo recordings, but a living, breathing full band. Rook, however, is their first album-length test, one that reaches deeper into their influences and flexes muscles no one knew they had. Singer and principal songwriter Jonathan Meiburg's voice is just one instrument among many that color these ten tracks, which, in one way, is disappointing, as Meiburg is a stunningly expressive singer who could easily carry a record by himself (see: either edition of Palo Santo). Regardless, they're blessed with engineers who sweat and toil over every incidental noise, guests on everything from clarinet to harp, and a drummer named fucking Thor-- all of whom assert themselves on Rook. This is good news for any listener, but perhaps especially for those who favor the more sensitive and baroque strains of indie rock, yet are tired of hearing it soundtrack every stray minute of public radio or primetime TV: Shearwater give "pretty" indie a good name.
Sweden has found a niche for itself as the backroom of modern pop. Its production teams provide the engineers for global Top 40 sounds; in men like Jens Lekman and Johan Agebjörn it produces theorists of pop classicism; and its own top-sellers, like Robyn and now Lykke Li, are welcomed into collections which otherwise carefully sidestep the commercial. So it's not wholly surprising that Youth Novels, Li's first full-length album, has the air of the workshop about it. The careful, spartan production-- by Bjorn Yttling of Peter Björn and John-- asks listeners to do more work than most pop records allow for. At its frequent best, the record manages to sketch out widescreen hit songs with a remarkable economy of means. At its more occasional worst, the tracks feel frustratingly underthought.
Baltimore is as musically diverse as anywhere else, but in 2008, indie rockers associate the city with colorful, energetic music, from the expatriated Animal Collective to Dan Deacon's Wham City crew. The music of Beach House, the Baltimore-based duo of multi-instrumentalist Alex Scally and vocalist/organist Victoria Legrand, is a shadow narrative running parallel to this trend: Their delicate, lovelorn pop comes in the form of deathly waltzes and dark pastoral dirge s on which Legrand sings about desire, loss, and dreams as if telling a ghost story, splitting the difference between lovely and creepy.
You know that gesture when you put your lips together but let them go slack, and then blow air our of your mouth while humming? It's not a raspberry-- no tongue involved-- more like an imitation horse whinny, and it's the kind of thing you might see a baby doing when she's figuring out all the different sounds that the body can produce. Well, Molly Siegel of Ponytail knows this gesture, and she thinks enough of it to have it be her first sound on the band's second album, Ice Cream Spiritual. At the beginning of the opening "Beg Waves", as two guitars play one little angular riff over and over while the drummer makes a nifty hi-hat pattern, like all three are stretching before heading out for a long run, Siegel puts her lips together and lets them flap and then turns the hum into a sort of "mmmh-bhrrrrrrrr-ahhh!" And we're off.