Tag Archives: 2013 releases

New Music Tuesday: Looking at Lorde – Pure Heroine, One Year Later

Lorde Pure Heroine

By Jon Muchin

For something so many people can so easily identify, pop music is hard to adequately define. It doesn’t conform to any real type of genre; the Beatles (at least in their early days) and Daft Punk could be reasonably described as pop artists and yet – perhaps I’m blowing some minds here – their respective music exists in entirely different sonic strata. Folk, R&B, rock, country, rap, even jazz all can coexist within this manufactured label. The name pop comes from an external definition (technically, pop music is music that is popular, in the same way that fan is short for fanatic), but pop, in its most common construction, belongs to that class of definition through distinction in much the same way as the Supreme Court defined pornography: we know it when we hear it. There is undeniably something “pop” about pop music.

And for most of my life, I haven’t really cared for pop music. Sure, I like early Beatles (and late Beatles and pretty much anything even tangentially related to Beatles) and I like Daft Punk and a lot of pop artists in between, but by and large I don’t like pop music. If you were to ask me what I listen to, I would never answer with pop. I just can’t really explain why.

But pop is genre-amorphous! I like many of the styles it incorporates, and yet I don’t identify as  liking “pop.” Some of my distaste is probably the commoditization built into the music, but I’m aware that’s an inconsistent position. Commoditization has never stopped me from blasting the fuck out of some Hendrix, even though his estate would put his likeness on Electric Ladyland Vibrating Condoms if the abundant jump in safe sex didn’t mean risking the next generation of Jimi fans.

So, in the spirit of new beginnings, I’ve decided to use 2014 to throw myself into pop music present and past to try and see what all the fuss is about. Maybe it will turn out that I’m just not a “pop guy,” but I have a feeling I’ll find that I haven’t been giving it a fair shake. This idea is loosely based on (fine, ripped off from) Nathan Rabin’s year-long series of articles acquainting himself with country music, though I don’t know how often I’ll follow up or where this will take me.

First up: Pure Heroine, the debut album from teenage megastar Lorde.

The things I knew about Lorde before yesterday: she’s 17, she writes her own songs, and “Royals” is catchy as all hell. This would be an early test – could I identify what’s pop about her sound and “Royals” in general?

That track stands out for a few reasons. The beat is monstrous from the get go, a booming bass and clipped snare sound and a simple hooky vocal over the top. On Pure Heroine Lorde spends a lot of time in a mid-alto, a place in her range where her voice sounds relatively bland. It’s in the lowest depths of her register that Lorde really stands out, and that’s where “Royals” lies. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” she struts in her Adele-light voice, kicking off with a burst a song that is both indictment and celebration of the aesthetic pleasures of being alive and a teenager. The song has you from there.

Structurally, “Royals” is pretty similar to almost every track on the album. There’s almost no instrumentation beyond a drum machine heavy on the booming bass and a dub-step-reminiscent synth that pervades nearly every song. The first I remember anything to break up that combination was the on the tenth track, “A World Alone,” which starts off with a mellowed-out Strokesian guitar riff. Otherwise, Lorde and her producers have constricted the Pure Heroine’s instrumental palette in a way that unfortunately begets monotony (the album has some hypnotic qualities, but I found my attention flagging more than falling into reverie).There’s only so much you can do with so few sounds, especially since all the songs lie in roughly the same place in Lorde’s voice (if not in the same key). In lieu of instrumental variety, Lorde offers up stacked harmonic vocals, which propel the chorus of “Royals,” but elsewhere come off sounding like nursery rhyme. Befitting that theme, she is enamored of repeating lyrics, another tactic that occasionally pays off. “White Teeth Teens” turns a repetition of its final few phrases into a beautiful swelling fugue, but also contains cringe-worthy lines like “We got the glow in our mouths. White teeth teens are out.”

The album’s main themes, the alienation-cum-celebration of modern life and consumerism, are well-worn pop tropes; Frank Ocean’s breakthrough Channel Orange returned again and again to these ideas, among other, just last year. There’s a certain sweetness, too, in the childish poetry of Lorde’s songs (and the song titles like “Ribs” and “Swingin Party”). She seems, for one, to have little idea of how to construct imagery. In “400 Lux,” she sings “you drape your wrists over the steering wheel,” though maybe she simply wasn’t old enough to drive when she wrote the track. In the interest of fairness, “Maybe the Internet raised us, or maybe people are jerks” is a great lyric.

Pure Heroine is ultimately a fusion of folky singer-songwriter music – some of these songs wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jenny Lewis or a Feist record if you swapped in a guitar – with pseudo-dub-step instrumentation. I’m not saying that give her a guitar and she’d run off with Sufjan Stevens to write an album about a rural New Zealand province, but she’s not too far from that world either. Most of it works, and what’s more, she’s 17 and has plenty of time to grow. A solid first effort.

Lorde – Pure Heroine
Motown / Universal, 2013
Rating: A
Listen Now: “A World Alone”, “Ribs”, “Swingin Party”, “400 Lux”

Jon Muchin is a Boston-based musician, blogger, music enthusiast, and self-professed sports junky. He intermittently posts random word associations about athletic goings on at thewhole42minutes.blogspot.com and tweets @allormuchin.

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New Music Tuesday: Arctic Monkeys – AM

arctic-monkeys-am-album-artwork

By Andrew Burk

I’m terrible at being an adult. I consider myself an intelligent, (arguably) capable human being, but when it comes to adulthood, I’ve never found the knack. Taxes? Rent? Responsibility? What are these things? When did they start impacting my life? Is this what we dreamed about as children? Is this what we aspired to? Certainly not, but these are the things that the world expects of us, and whether we like it or not, everyone has to grow up sometime.

My very best friend (in this life or any other) asked me to write this guest blog over a week ago, and now I sit here writing, hours before I promised to deliver it, days of X-Box, booze, and karaoke echoing behind me. I’ve clung to adolescence with an iron grip, but now it’s time to let go, at least for a moment, and embrace the responsibility I’ve been handed. It’s time to grow up.

If a feckless degenerate such as me is capable of such growth, what sort of growth can a band of degenerates accomplish? Can a bunch of rowdy young men – banded together out of a mutual desire to get drunk, get loud, and play some music – transform themselves into mature artists? What about the music? Does music mature in the same way that people do?

The answer to all of these questions is yes, at least if Arctic Monkeys have anything to say about it. For those precious few of you who are unfamiliar with them, Arctic Monkeys are a four man Brit-rock band whose debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was released in 2006 amidst a whirlwind of both critical and commercial success. Within weeks, it had usurped the position of highest selling album in British history, immediately establishing the band as superstars in their home country. Although they failed to sell as many copies in the U.S., the band made a name for themselves here nevertheless.

Musically and lyrically, the album was an ode to the decadence, belligerence, lustfulness, and false sense of ennui that one only truly possesses in his/her early 20s. Its first single , “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor,” exemplifies the desperate, manic, and often one-sided nature of sexual diplomacy amongst the twentysomething set, guitars flaring in machine gun bursts and fast, wild crescendos, mirroring the frantic desire of the vocals. On the next track, “Fake Tales Of San Francisco,” the narrator scoffs at the “weekend rockstars” playing at the clubs, dismissing them immediately as phonies pretending to be interesting despite a lack of talent, his disdain dripping from every word.

Throughout the album, on songs like “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured,” “From the Ritz to the Rubble,” and even the modestly paced “Riot Van,” the band paints a picture of an excessive club lifestyle, and the potential consequences thereof, as all the while sharp punk guitar riffs and even sharper drum beats sound recklessly at a pace that will undoubtedly cause your heart to beat a little faster. Though undoubtedly well-crafted, one is left with a clear sense of the irresponsibility of its protagonists.

Seven years and four albums later, Arctic Monkeys have brought us AM, released last September, and this new album shows the kind of growth, both personal and artistic, that I now seek to find in my own life. Having proven themselves as royalty in the British rock scene, one would expect the band to further embrace the decadent, hard partying club life that they seemed so fond of at the dawn of their success, but this is not the case. Deceptively silly song titles like “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” hide songs that are full of regret and disappointment at the very same lifestyle that they had lauded earlier in their career, and the slow, soulful “Mad Sounds” wistfully recalls the wild nights and poor choices of the past in words that would be equally suited to the lips of an older performer. “One For The Road” and “Fireside” express a longing to correct the damage caused by the ill behavior of the narrator’s younger self.

Gone is the lustful womanizer of “Dancefloor,” replaced here by a desire for a real connection that permeates songs like “Arabella,” “I Wanna Be Yours,” and “Do I Wanna Know?,” the album’s first single. Gone, too, are the quick, angry beats and guitar lines that infused their first album with the energy of rebellious youth, replaced by a slower, heavier, bass-lined sound that echoes the new album’s change in temperament. Overall, AM shows a level of maturity that Arctic Monkeys were incapable of in the early history of the band.

As a young man trying his best to grow into a proper adult, I can admit that I identify strongly with the themes of AM, and as a lover of good music, I appreciate and enjoy the band’s shift to a more adult sound. It should come as no surprise, then, that I recommend this album to anyone who hasn’t already bought it, especially if you’re a fan of the sort of modern British rock that Arctic Monkeys have come to dominate. They have truly grown as musicians and individuals, and I, for one, expect great endeavors in their future. As for my own future, time will tell.

Arctic Monkeys – AM
Domino, 2013
Rating: A
Listen Now: “I Wanna Be Yours”, “No. 1 Party Anthem”, “Arabella”, “Mad Sounds”

Andrew Patrick Burk is a mysterious vagabond who doesn’t do any blogging of his own and doesn’t have a website, but enjoys music and can often be found performing in District Karaoke, DC’s only competitive karaoke league. Anyone interested in finding out more can visit their website at www.districtkaraoke.com or by visiting their Facebook page. And to those readers living in NYC, please check out their sister league Gotham City Karaoke at www.gckaraokeleague.com.

New Music Tuesday: Us – No Matter Where You Are

Us_NoMatterWhereYouAre_800

At first brush the album comes off so sugary sweet that even the most ravenous of the sweet-toothed pop enthusiasts might find themselves running to the nearest grungy, rough salt lick. You can’t blame them: these two young musicians, turned internet sensations, turned doting husband-wife alt-country pop pairing sure do love each other a whole heck of a lot. On further inspection, however, deeper dimension begins to appear, and a more complex confection takes shape.

Us, comprised of Californian musicians Michael Alvarado and Carissa Rae, first gained attention as prolific internet entertainers, posting well-received covers in long form on YouTube (Scream & Shout, Pop). More recently they’ve taken to the micro-video social media site Vine posting imaginative #6secondcovers including one of Royals by Lorde, a Michael Jackson Tribute, and this one by Earth, Wind, and Fire:

Clearly talented folk. And so gosh darn cute. And, oh-by-the-way-did-i-mention, recently betrothed.

So it’s no surprise that this, their second indie release should be a joyful ode to young love. It’s what The Civil Wars might sound like if they subscribed to a Keep-On-The-Sunny-Side-Of-Life mantra. The first 6 minutes of music alone signal the sort of proud, triumphant alt-country sound to drown out any Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, or like-minded group out there. All done with warm, airy harmonies and exultant, anthemic instrumentation. (The track “Falling In Love” alone is fit for any cheesy fondue-filled scene of a candle-lit dinner by the Seine, complete with cornball accordion accompaniment.)

Hyperbolic comparisons aside, given all the joyful blissful trappings and trinkets of romance and companionship found in the first few tracks, it’s easy to overlook the presence of other, less gleamingly happy tales, but they exist. They may seem like just bumps on the road of this couple’s otherwise exuberant love and satisfaction in each other, but the presence of these more somber pauses are no less well-crafted and executed.

If anything, these moments, like that of the biting “Final Bow” or the plaintive “Come Back,” are an even stronger representation of the duo’s skill in storytelling than are the rest of the lot. In a sea of otherwise gleeful optimism, these stories could just as easily come off as forced or dishonest, but they’re not. On “Heartbreak,” the harmonies that had formerly assumed a bright and airy quality now sound delicate, fragile, and breathless, perfectly in step with the storyline of love labors now lost.

There seems to be a resurgence of sorts in the field of talented male-female duos, a number of which are comprised of husband-wife pairings (Shovels & Rope and Grace & Tony among others). Though on the surface Us may appear to lack the emotional depth of some of their contemporaries, there’s no mistake that their peachy keen exterior hides some less-than squeaky clean damage and hesitation underneath that is definitely worth a listen.

Us – No Matter Where You Are
Independent, 2013
Rating: B
Listen Now: “No Matter Where You Are,” “Final Bow,” ” ‘Til the Morning Comes”

Monday Mixtape: 5 Albums to Get You Through the Winter

(or at least the beginning of it).

It’s been a whirlwind of a fortnight. Thanksgiving came and went, though I’d like to think I’m still basking in the glow of the lovely, much-needed week of adventure down to DC– by way of New York for a short spell– to see the family back home, and I’ll write more at length about some of said adventures later this week.

And hey, did you guys know it’s winter time out there? Crazy. It’s all cold, windy, mind-numbingly gray out there. I guess the signs have been there since just after Halloween: stores hocking their warmest, coziest, thickest, silliest sweater styles; the sun deciding to go down at noon each day; and every radio station giving more airtime to those holiday and holiday-aligned tunes out there just as egg nog and peppermint lattes start appearing en masse in every corner coffee shop and grocery store.

I don’t really mind any of those things by themselves, but after a few days of sitting in my favorite cashmere-cotton blend, thick-stitch, snowflake stitch turtleneck, sipping a peppermint-laced mug of hot cocoa, while reading a book and listening to five different versions of Silent Night, I’ve had enough winter cheer to last me well in to the next three seasons.

And winter hasn’t even officially begun. So I’ll take back control of the situation the only way I know how. With the distraction- and satisfaction- of good music.

Here are five albums, unfettered by holiday fluff or solstice-y proclivities, to help you get through the long nights and weeks ahead.

1. Storyman – This Time Round

I was lucky enough to hear these guys during my 36-hour lightning tour of New York City last week at their CD release show at Rockwood Music Hall. The album is lovely reflection of a band in transition from folk and experimental rock to a more polished pop-rock sound (Storyman happens to be the next iteration of the outfit formerly known as the Guggenheim Grotto). Even with their rounder, peppier sound (as in the song above and “You Got Me”), the band is able to stay true to their deeper, introspective selves as well. Listen: “Cherry Red,” “Hola,” “Strange.”

2. Swear And Shake – Maple Ridge

An album that gets better and better with each listen with sounds warm enough to melt any snowdrift.   With their ability to move gracefully between grungy, solid, rock & roll above to resonant, open harmonies and dreamy lyricism on tracks, this Brooklyn foursome is well on the rise. Definitely catch them on tour this winter. Listen: “Humming to a Sea Snail,” “Hand and Foot, Heart and Soul.”

3. The Milk Carton Kids – The Ash & Clay

Not every winter-ready album has to be one that keeps the fire red hot all night long, and the Milk Carton Kids prove it hear on their sophomore release. It’s a tried and true formula: two talented guitar players with complimentary picking and vocal styles. No matter the story, they make it sound comforting, serene, and timeless. Listen: “Honey, Honey,” “On The Mend,” “Hear Them Loud.”

4. Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough

Cancel all your appointments in the month of February, because you’re going to need all that time wrapping your head around this one. In a word: depth. Two more: of field. Of musicality. Of feeling. Of Soul. This debut album from the young British chanteuse is simply mesmerizing. Listen: “Age,” “Elusive,” “They Could Be Wrong.”

5. The Wood Brothers – The Muse

The new, full-length offering from these veteran musician-siblings is just plain good. No frills, no high production values- just good, medium-rare-style melody lines, harmony, and bare bones arrangements with songwriting chops to match. An any day album that seems especially appropriate for those marathon gray mornings. Listen: “Wastin’ My Mind,” “Honey Jar,” “Who The Devil.”

New Music Tuesday: Jake Bugg – Shangri La

It’s hard to talk about Jake Bugg’s sound without doing some A-class name dropping. No sooner had his first self-titled release hit the airwaves just over a year ago than the comparisons to Dylan, Simon, and Gallagher began to flood in. They’re worthy comparisons to be sure, and Bugg neither minds or ignores them, nor does he allow them to completely define or pigeonhole his own sound.

On his sophomore release, Bugg adds a strong set of new material that offers new insight to other influences (Elvis Costello, Nick Drake, and even Woody Guthrie come to mind) while also showcasing a wider depth of musical ability. Punk, blues, and rockabilly all get respectable airspace on the record as do other more subtle and nuanced sounds (there’s a particularly 90’s grunge rock influence in “Messed Up Kids”; also can’t miss that 60’s Laurel Canyon sound in “Kitchen Table”).

Though this strong sonic framework provides the perfect platform for Bugg’s frank lyrics and plaintive voice, there’s already a lot happening on the record and the true weight of his words can get lost in the shuffle.  Three tracks– quite possibly some of the most biting storytelling of the entire album– are posted up and gulped down in the first 8 minutes, leaving the listener to wander around, searching for musical balance  in a hangover-like state wondering what it was that just whizzed by him. Save for one or two tracks later on, the album keeps a fairly level pace from then on.

Given Bugg’s working-class roots and rough upbringing, this front-loaded, shotgun sprint of an opening is understandable, and on second and third reviews, the stories are made more clear. “Didn’t disappoint you /  Didn’t want to make you sad / Given all the choices / Good’s given from the bad.”  At 19 Bugg has had a lifetime of experiences both good and bad, and thematic musical balance isn’t at the top of his priorities.

Even as his sound echoes that of the greats of modern music, his stories and his delivery are very much his own. Just as is should be.

Jake Bugg – Shangri La
Island Records, 2013
Rating: B

Listen Now: “Kitchen Table,” “Slumville Sunrise,” “Pine Trees”