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Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile

Lotta Sea Lice

Matador

Imagine the XX without the electronica, a slight country-folk spin, and more introspective lyrics, and you have the indie duo collaborative project between Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice.

Barnett and Vile are the perfect vocal match, a Dylan-esque hand in glove with an undeniable musical chemistry. One of the best song’s on the album, “Continental Breakfast” is filled with vivid imagery and music so cathartically country that it’s hard to not visualize being there with them having the continental breakfast in a hotel somewhere on the sphere around here. Other more enjoyable songs are the silly and fun “Blue Cheese”, “Over Everything” with its meanderings fit for listening and watching the clouds drift by, and the rocking “Fear is Like a Forest.”

For Barnett fans, don’t expect a continuation debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett mostly shelves her former quirky witticisms for an even more mellow and introspective tone. This is clearly closer to Vile’s style, wonderfully complemented with Barnett’s circular guitar sounds and flat, deadpan vocal tones.

Some songs seem to musically ramble a bit too long, like “Outta the Woodwork” with its minimalistic jam for over well over a minute, going nowhere into a fade. And some songs like “On Script” are just purely languid, as close to a Debbie Downer as you can get in dragging down the album’s pace – that is unless you enjoy a cut and slow bleed every once in a while.

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile are hyper-observers of the ordinary with laid back fleeting thoughts. Short moments of reflective brilliance, the kind where you might think if only for minute that you’ve stumbled upon a rare and simple truth, only to forget a minute later what that was. Except that Barnett and Vile seemed to have captured it on 9 tracks worthy of adding it to your music collection, filed under “songs to sink into your couch on a lazy Sunday.”

matadorrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile

b’lieve i’m goin down

Matador

If we all could make such sweet music from the sleepy, stoner confines of our living room couch then the word “slacker” wouldn’t exist. In reality, though, we can’t all be Kurt Vile and not every late night strum and scribble is going to result in “Like Like This.” The folk track (complete with super trippy animated video) that flows like the tide into an unlikely pop song is the standout track on Vile’s sixth album b’lieve i’m goin down: a perfect link in the chain between the poetic folk rock of Bob Dylan, the punk poetry of Lou Reed, and the lo-fi heartache musings of Lou Barlow.

A running theme of “anxiety” weaves through the record, but in various states of mind. From angst, to apathy, to dread, to acceptance and always with a sense of humor. If there’s one thing Kurt Vile teaches us it’s that social anxiety can result in some pretty fine tunes, as evidence on “Pretty Pimpin,” “That’s Life, tho,” and “Lost my Head there.”

Vile gets lost in his own mind and channels the poetic psychosis into a mind melding trip that can transform any room into a den of beautiful chill.

www.kurtvile.com

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Music Reviews

Iceage

Iceage

You’re Nothing

Matador

Remember when Punk Rock sounded dangerous? Denmark’s Iceage surely does. You’re Nothing, the band’s second album and first for Matador Records, is not a record to listen to in polite company. Even on low volume, the ire and angst of Elias Bender Rønnenfelt bloodlets the speakers.

Sounding like Richard Hell after a triathlon, Iceage is tumultuous enough to feel like a forgotten 1977 band, but their blurring of punk/ hardcore/ garage/ industrial lines outs them as more current. Think Fucked Up, No Age, or Ceremony to lay the foundation for what these Danes feel like… then give a good dozen listens to You’re Nothing — “Ecstasy,” “Coalition,” “In Haze,” and “Wounded Hearts” most especially — and bathe in the dirty waters of music that disrupts, music that demands attention. Music with a BITE.

Iceage: iceagecopenhagen.blogspot.com

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Music Reviews

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo

Fade

Matador

The opener on Fade is deceptive. “Ohm” might lead you to believe that the majority of the nine tracks that follow will be of the buoyant toe-tapping, head-bobbing variety found on I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006). Yet “Ohm” is actually one of only two anomalies here; Yo La Tengo’s thirteenth studio album is the trio’s most subdued since Summer Sun (2003).

When burrowing into the lyrics, however, it becomes clear that “Ohm” is the prelude to a collapse that runs through Fade as a motif. “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top/ Sometimes the good guys lose,” sings Ira Kaplan. The start of the next verse lends the album its evocative name: “Sometimes the bad days maintain their grip/ Sometimes the good days fade.” And things don’t improve from there. The narrator knows his lover is “slipping, slipping away,” and though the song’s title suggests that he is trying to be at peace with an unjust universe, he finds himself “resisting the flow.” This futile romance continues with “Is That Enough,” on which the lyrical sentiments more closely parallel the mood of the music. Backed on the chorus by a string quartet, Kaplan puts the rhetorical question of the song’s title to himself: Did the “[t]hings we did unthinking/ the joke we left unsaid” make his feelings clear? He takes the liberty of answering: “It’s not enough. No.”

To point out that Kaplan has never been a vocal powerhouse is a bit like saying that Derek Jeter has never been a good hockey player. But Kaplan’s singing on even as gentle a tune as “Is That Enough” elicits a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, his trademark delivery conveys a deflated melancholy that suits the song’s sense of despondency and introspection. On the other, there’s a lack of conviction that puts the singer and his material at one remove from each another. Gone is the confessional quality; the failing relationship is exposed as a narrative device. This rift isn’t jarring enough to ruin the song’s tender beauty, but it does exist to some degree, and it prevents an otherwise strong track from fully enveloping the listener in its emotional universe. That rift heals once we arrive at “Well You Better,” a feistier number with crisp drumming, bubbly keys, and staccato jive guitar. Kaplan implores his lover to “make up your mind before it’s too late” — and here he actually sounds like he means it. Nor is a lack of conviction an issue on “Stupid Things.” When Kaplan sings here, “I always know that when we wake up/ You’re mine,” it’s downright heartbreaking, in part because it sounds more like a plea than a declaration.

Georgia Hubley’s hushed, throaty vocals lead on three tracks: “Paddle Forward,” which brings Yo La Tengo’s familiar noise pop to an album that is largely devoid of it; the crepuscular ballad “Cornelia and Jane,” on which the poignancy of the questions “How can we hold on to you?” and “How will we hold back your tears?” are accentuated by a bittersweet interplay of horns; and the six-minute closer “Before We Run,” on which she briefly duets with Kaplan. The strings and brass (re)appear together on the latter (fittingly, the album gradually fades out from the nine-person chamber orchestra to ever more distant percussion); the strings attack in sharp, optimistic bursts, and the brass offers a slowly undulating lullaby.

Whether or not the switch from longtime producer Roger Moutenot to John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake) directly resulted in one of Yo La Tengo’s most cohesive and most bewitching albums to date is anyone’s guess. Maybe McEntire brought fresh ideas. Maybe Fade was simply the album the band was ready to make. But speculating about the whys and wherefores isn’t nearly as satisfying as settling in for the faint gallop of percussion at the start of “Ohm” and letting Fade take you straight through to the final strains of tom and snare on “Before We Run.”

Yo La Tengo: www.yolatengo.com

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Music Reviews

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Mirror Traffic

Matador

Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus joins his other group, The Jicks, to give us Mirror Traffic, highlighting the band’s don’t-give-a-shit attitude.

Mr. Malkmus has a wonderfully derisive sense of humor. He unapologetically satires traditional pop songs by punctuating them with untutored melodies and candid lyrics. Need proof? Look no further than “Senator.” “I know what the senator wants/ What the senator wants is a blow job,” sings Malkmus.

Or how about “No One Is (As I Be),” when Malkmus asserts: “I cannot even do one sit-up/ Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie.”

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks deceive us into thinking that their reckless nonchalance is easy. But the truth is that Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks do what they do better than anyone else. In a world of cheap imitators, these guys sound authentic.

“Tune Grief” is a hectic power pop jam. “Stick Figures In Love” features a blaring guitar riff that just won’t quit — literally. “Asking Price” is a sad, staccato track that seems to meander around as if it’s lost. “Forever 28” has a bouncing melody that belies its agitated, sarcastic verses. “Gorgeous Georgie” is a ridiculous tale delivered in a lazy, half-drunk sounding swagger.

Mirror Traffic will always hold a soft spot in my heart. I think it’s because I’m a sucker for sarcasm.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: stephenmalkmus.com

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Music Reviews

Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore

Demolished Thoughts

Matador

Sure, Beck produced Demolished Thoughts, but don’t expect a feedback-saturated Guero from Thurston Moore’s third solo album. This latest surprisingly isn’t even a trippy reinventing of Goo or one of Sonic Youth’s less fierce albums.

Despite a self-penned bio that sets Moore’s recording studio at times in the dirt or within the front seat of a 1978 AMC Pacer with the windows up (in the midst of a California summer, that’s either dedication or fantasy) and the inclusion of the odd tuning charts that are his weird calling card, Moore’s songs are both sparse and true, without a hint of forced fabrication.

A plucked harp and serious violin accompany Moore’s plaintive vocals and serene guitar strum, occasionally buttered with a pretty, tinkly triangle. Demolished Thoughts is the soundtrack to a very mellow party full of anarchists slyly plotting love.

“Benediction” conjures such tenderness — Whisper “I love you,” one thousand times into his ear / kiss his eyes — yet sneaks in an undercurrent of oppression. I know better than to let you go… won’t leave my head. It’s a gorgeous song that surely isn’t as dark as I think, though later, I just came by to shoot you baby (“Circulation”) makes me wonder about the album’s seeds.

As with most of Moore’s lyrics, these beg for repeat play with a few bottles of wine at the ready. Songs seem at once subversive and simply lovely; every one is beautiful. I challenge you to forget them.

Thurston Moore: www.matadorrecords.com/thurston_moore

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Music Reviews

Fucked Up

Fucked Up

David Comes to Life

Matador Records

Fucked Up don’t make it easy for themselves. The Toronto provocateurs started out by releasing many, many, many hard-to-find singles. When the sextet finally debuted a proper LP, it was a genre-defying blast of energy that cross-pollinated punk, hardcore, psychedelia, and experimental noise. Two years, and more singles later, the group garnered critical acclaim with their lush masterpiece, The Chemistry of Common Life. The album won the 2009 Polaris Music Prize (Canada’s answer to the UK’s Mercury Prize) and $20,000. Fucked Up used that money to fund a single for charity. In short, the band set expectations high for their next full length. Would they disappoint like so many artists who release masterpieces? Or do the damn-near-impossible and create something equally as good? Fucked Up did neither. They crafted something better.

David Comes to Life is a nearly 80-minute rock opera in four Acts. Yep, you read that right. Five songs comprise Acts 1 and 2 each, and Acts 3 and 4 each contain four songs. The namesake of the rock opera is a character the band has introduced in a few previous singles. In true Fucked Up fashion, the plot is convoluted and confounding. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: David is a young man who works a dead-end, boring job in a light bulb factory. He meets an anarchist named Veronica. David and Veronica fall in love instantly. They conspire to bomb the factory. Things go awry. Veronica dies in that bombing. David blames himself and falls into despair. Two additional characters reveal themselves in Acts 3 and 4. Octavio blames David for Veronica’s death and, addressing us, accuses him of lying. David’s ex-girlfriend Vivian also casts doubt on David’s character. Eventually, Octavio and Vivian admit that David is not to blame for Veronica’s death. In fact, Vivian confesses she was present at the bombing but doesn’t implicate herself in Veronica’s death. After much suffering, David finally comes to terms with his love’s tragic demise and is “reborn”. Guitarist (and co-lyricist for David) 10,000 Marbles (Mike Haliechuk) calls the plot “a simple love story”.

Admittedly, the monotonous growl of frontman Pink Eyes (Damian Abraham) doesn’t make deciphering the lyrics easy. No matter. The anthemic, melodic music of all 18 tracks will carry you through. David is the cleanest release yet from Fucked Up. There’s no indiscriminate riffage or bashing. That’s no easy task considering there are three guitarists. Props go to engineer Shane Stoneback for separating all the instruments without diluting the intensity. A faint woodwind bookends David. Fucked Up employed the same tactic on The Chemistry of Common Life. Other cohesive measures scatter about. The gradated chord progression in the debut instrumental “Let Her Rest” finishes the standout next track “Queen of Hearts”. Other songs effortlessly slide into each other, like the acoustic-tinged “Truth I Know” and the driving “Life in Paper”. The multilayered David offers something new with each listen. Pink Eyes claims that David is “the end game for this stage of Fucked Up”. That sentiment makes perfect sense — unlike the rock opera’s plot. It would seem impossible for Fucked Up to one-up their magnum opus. But ya never know. They are Fucked Up.

Looking For Gold: lookingforgold.blogspot.com

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Music Reviews

The New Pornographers

The New Pornographers

Together

Matador

I get the feeling A.C. Newman would be a pretty good writer for The Simpsons. No wait, hear me out. Y’know how episodes of The Simpsons these days give the distinct feeling that the writers sat in a room with a list of wildly divergent plotlines and tried to fuse them together to make a reasonably coherent episode (or at least to get Homer and company from point A at the beginning of the episode to point B at the end)? That’s a little bit how Newman’s songs are, taking unexpected turns in melody and style throughout Together. In fact, Newman’s occasionally circus-like contributions here may be some of the densest songs the band has ever recorded. Inventively arranged opener “Moves” has its sawing cellos and staccato piano. “Up in the Dark” with its gang of harmonies insinuates itself and gets under your skin like the best pop songs often do. “Valkyrie in the Roller Disco” (dig that title) is more stripped down but no less meticulously arranged and performed.

But Newman is of course not the only show in the New Pornographers. Billed as a Canadian indie-rock supergroup when they emerged in 2000, the members of The New Pornographers for the most part are now more famous for being in this band than they were their previous bands. The ringer here though is alt-country chanteuse Neko Case. Her always fantastic pipes get a showcase on “Crash Years,” the record’s strongest song and an amateur whistler’s dream. She also takes the lead on “My Shepherd,” a very pretty, ear-caressing song that reveals new layers on every listen. Together as a whole, it should be noted, is well worth a listen on a good set of headphones just to hear those layers and carefully placed bells and whistles.

The other female voice in The New Pornographers is Kathryn Calder, who is Newman’s niece and who is also in the band Immaculate Machine. She and Newman share vocals on “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” another of the album’s strongest offerings.

But some of Together‘s greatest pleasures lie in the songs of Dan Bejar, who also records as Destroyer. His David Bowie-meets-Robyn Hitchcock contributions here are some of the strongest he has made to a New Pornographers disc. That’s especially true of “If You Can’t See My Mirrors,” a tune with another great title that makes for an even better chorus. “Daughters of Sorrow” is alternately squalling and sensitive. And “Silver Jenny Dollar” is one of Bejar’s best pure pop delights.

Together may not quite hit the heights of the first two New Pornographers records (2000’s Mass Romantic and 2003’s Electric Version), but that might be asking too much. This record is an endlessly inventive hope chest of party favors from what continues to be a pretty super supergroup. It’s like a great episode of The Simpsons with Krusty, Mister Burns, and Comic Book Guy… or something like that.

The New Pornographers: www.thenewpornographers.com

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Music Reviews

Harlem

Harlem

Hippies

Matador

Matador’s got Austin fever, and who can blame them? Fucking great town, everyone’s way more concerned about their art projects than working for the man, and there are tons of places to buy records and good tacos. What’s not to love? The music scene’s dandy too, the iceberg’s tip of which Matador scratched with their Casual Victim Pile compilation (on the guitar tip). Now one of the bands on that compilation, the garage duo Harlem, is getting called up to the big time, releasing its debut album on the same label that was home to the Fall and Jay Reatard.

The band deal with the pressure admirably, staying slack as fuck and shambolic but really relentlessly pursuing their own skewed vision of beauty. I like how Harlem pulls off the whole, “not even fucking trying too hard thing” almost conscientiously, staying true garage rock believers in the pop and hiss and muffled guitar chime, but adding twists and turns and essential weirdness. To that end, they throw in bits of Daniel Johnston earnestness, splashes of doo wop inspired vocal harmonies (and great falsetto), and hints of old rockabilly. It’s a propulsive mess, and if the first few songs sound a little too much like Girls, well, don’t worry too much because about four or five songs in, Harlem really stakes out its own identity. Hippies has it all — airy lovelorn ballads, switchblade-ready cavestomp, Syd Barret-y craziness, and entropic noise. Throughout, songs about friendly ghosts and three-legged dogs (heh) give the album a frazzled, innocent quality like a Syd Barrett or a Roky Erickson that keeps it comfortingly “other.” Keep Austin Weird, y’know.

Matador: www.matadorrecords.com

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Music Reviews

Casual Victim Pile

Casual Victim Pile

Various Artists / Austin 2010

Matador

Texas, man, it’s got problems. However, good fucking god, the city of Austin is almost enough to redeem the whole godfersaken state. It just might be my favorite city in the country, in point of fact. Waterloo Records, Alamo Drafthouse, cheapo Mexican food on every corner, thrift stores and bookstores and arts and culture by the armload, and a kinda unpretentious artistic sensibility — it’s a great place to live cheaply and concentrate on the important things in life, like getting that band of yers off the ground.

It’s no surprise then that Austin has a thriving and diverse local music scene. To that end, Matador Records has taken the plunge and collected their cream of the local crop together for this regional comp, in the vein of such albums as Flex Your Head, Hell Comes To Your House<, and This is Boston, Not L.A.. Now I’m not suggesting that Casual Victim Pile has either the historical value or thematic unity of the aforementioned comps, but just that it’s good to see a solid regional comp released on a national indie. Speaking of indie, that’s the type of music that this comp focuses on — there’s not much in the way of hip hop, experimental, or just plain non-guitar oriented music. Which, at times, makes Casual Victim Pile tough going. Indeed, things don’t really get cooking until Kingdom of Suicide Lovers channels the boy-girl blues/punk roar of X on “Hoboken Snow.” I also really dig the Crampsian rockabilly-dirge swagger of Elvis’ (not THE) Mommy’s Little Soldiers. Woven Bones do a pretty goddamn great job of channeling Darklands-era Jesus and Mary Chain. The No No No Hopes turn in a track of wildman grungy blues. The Teeners whip up a hardcore hurricane, and the Persimmons whip us some crazy, phased-out outer space surf music — yowza. And of course there’s the eternally frazzled and fried Harlem, smiling like the Manson girls outside the courtroom. There’s some future fer ya. It’s only midway through the Stuffies’ “No One’s Gonna Miss You” that I realize the whole album does have an admirable brio and energy running throughout like a crackle of electricity.

In fact, if anything, the compilers could have expanded this release to include another disc (or two). If I may be so bold, may I suggest including Night Viking, No Mas Bodas, Christina Carter, Telepathik Friend, and Cry Blood Apache to the next volume? (I think I may.)

Matador: www.matadorrecords.com