Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Kaki King's journey into revenge a stunningly good trip

By Jon Jacobs

March 19, 2008 | When Sony Records debuted Kaki King in 2004 with Legs to Make Us Longer, she was quickly heralded as a brilliant instrumentalist. Apart from her immense technical skill on the guitar, King also played drums, bass, and even hummed some pretty tunes as backdrops to her increasingly intricate work.

Of course, indie kids thought King was the coolest thing since sliced bread, and one could understand why; no other female to don the guitar in recent memory tops her skill with the instrument (and did I mention she's cute?). But for mass consumption, Legs was too technical, too revolved around self-assured skill and, frankly, just a little lacking in standout tracks.

So King did what any other indie-queen-uber-guitarist would do; she left her major label and joined with a new age producer. The result was 2006's . . . Until We Felt Red, an album that sounds like what would happen if Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Enya had a guitar-picking love child. The album featured substantively less acoustic guitar, actual vocals and more echoed backdrops, reminiscent of post-rock bands such as Mogwai or Sigur Ros.

Apart from its new age elements, Red featured arguably the most arduous melodies King has made; confusing in its sudden leaps into different time signatures and complete deconstructions of melodies and themes into a misguided ambience. Yet, despite this, Red was rather pleasing, a reminder to why we placed stock in King in the first place.

As could be expected, anticipation for King's next release was high, as her tours for Red were sold out nearly everywhere and she was featured on several feature-film soundtracks, including 2007's August Rush. In response, King hooked up with Malcom Burn, an anal-retentive adult contemporary folk producer, to create an album to push all of her limitations as a songwriter.

The result is Dreaming of Revenge, King's most accessible album to date that picks up precisely where Red left off; insanely impressive guitar work backed by subtle, ambient pads and strings. At times, the combination is nothing short of astounding.

The album is kick-started by the incredibly driving instrumental Bone Chaos in the Castle, showcasing some of King's most catchy melodies and rhythms: her sense of style never wavering for even a moment on the two-and-a-half minute opener. Much of the album follows this rhythmic and progressive model.

However, the most exciting tracks are those that do not. Such is the case with Life Being What It Is, a cadenced ode to revenge with lyrics such as "I just can't stay till you're gone. I won't wish you well; I won't see you off. I won't try to call, if I see you in my mind, I'll say to you 'it's not your fault.' You said I'll see you in September, but that's not long enough for me." Who's dreaming of revenge? Kaki King must be, as the lyrics on the four vocalized tracks on Revenge have a common theme of extreme dislike (if not hate) toward that special someone who set her off.

However, her lyrics aren't the only thing that haunts the CD. Much of the album daunted by a slightly eerie feel that permeates throughout the incredulous melodies and soundscapes, giving the CD a Nick Drake-worthy feeling of morose embitterment and sadness.

The truly amazing feat of Revenge being that it does so without feeling over-emphasized and forced. King's breathtaking melodies swirl over your head with an almost primal majesty, causing you to analyze your own thoughts of revenge and anger.

Such is the brilliance of Revenge. King manages to create an incredibly challenging album that flows with a more convincing precision than most rivers. The dreamy production only adds to emphasize her technical prowess, creating a layered and welcoming sound that is both alluring and compelling.

Certainly an adventure for the broken hearted or at least those who aren't in a particularly happy place- Dreaming of Revenge is easily the best in an already incredible body of work from King. And also one of the best (mostly) instrumental albums in years.

'Red of Tooth and Claw' whets the appetite for the (slightly) morbid audiophile

By Jon Jacobs

March 3, 2008 | The phrase "murder by death" seems a little redundant doesn't it? Let's be honest, murder very nearly always refers to the death of something -- be it a person or a concept -- so why the peculiar inclusion of the murder method modifier? Well, for Indiana's alternative rockers Murder by Death, being peculiar is something of a second nature.

Take for instance the band's 2002 debut release, attractively named Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing. The album featured a unique fusion of alternative rock and post-rock worthy instrumentals. This, in conjunction with song titles such as Holy Lord, Shawshank Redemption is Such a Good Movie made it one of the more unusual --and rewarding -- albums of the year.

As the band progressed, they developed a more conceptual approach to music, taking cues and ideas from classical literature to create thematic and applicable albums, even if with the same tongue-in-cheek antics. Their 2005 album, In Bocca al Lupo, is a sonic interpretation to Dante's The Divine Comedy, with each song trailing a person's ventures into each layer of hell.

With their upcoming release, Red of Tooth and Claw -- out Tuesday -- Murder by Death has kept in touch with their conceptual nature, but have taken their music to a new plain. Thematically, the album is, as singer/guitarist Adam Turla said, centered on the concept of "Homer's Odyssey of revenge, only without the honorable character at the center." And it works; and does so on every carnal level.

The album opens with Comin' Home, a nostalgic anthem to lost time, showcasing the same Johnny Cash-esque vocals and psychotic near-country guitar work that you have come to expect from the band. The unique amalgamation of the low, sinister Cello and the brisk guitar work both enthralls you and inexplicably creeps you out at the same time.

The fourth track, as well as first single, Fuego!, showcases the band at their absolute best; driving guitars, intimate vocals, incredulous dynamics and a rhythm section to knock your socks off. The song builds tension until the breaking point and then releases as Turla cries:

"I feel like a ship on dry land, or an island in the sand. Your kiss is cool, despite the heat; you've got my senses beat. If I stay, I won't last long; you've got a hold on me so strong. I hear your song, all I hear is your song."

It is in this fashion that the majority of Tooth and Claw flows, the immediacy level rarely descending below grueling. Though, amazingly enough, the album manages to never overwhelm or lull the listener into desensitization; succeeding in maintaining your attention without demanding it.

Among these rare descents from intensity is the fifth track Theme (for Ennio Morricone), a melodic three-minute instrumental piece, brilliant in its brevity, and alluringly calming in its execution. The band uses this track to flow from the immediacy of Fuego! to the calmness and mild-tempo of A Second Opinion.

The album's true highlight is in the dynamic confessional -- and unsettlingly depressing -- epic-lament The Black Spot. Here we find the droned guitars, bombastic drums and a bittersweet cello creating a glooming darkness that brings scarlet faces to even the most intense metal bands in terms of pure inherent passion.

The track is fronted by Trulo's cathartic and enticing vocals wailing -- no, not in the dashboard confessional way -- with a heart wrenching misery: "You can barely live on, make the foundation strong. But soon the cracks start to show. You can barely live on, as best as you can. But sooner or later it's gonna show."

As with all of Murder By Death's albums, Red of Tooth and Claw creates intense, yet fragile tales of loss and forlorn, all the while appealing to hard-core audiophile's demands for musical intricacy. The album flows with an intrinsic majesty usually reserved for bands with 20 years of experience instead of one with only six. Red of Tooth and Claw is not only Murder By Death's best album, but it could be the best release, thus far, of 2008.

Growing up doesn't always make better music

By Jon Jacobs

February 12, 2008 | It seems every snot-nosed-brat-punk band that gained popularity during the turn of the century's obsession over blink-182-style-pop-punk has, at one point in time, decided they need to "grow up."

Usually, this means signing to a major label, dressing in over-priced, skintight clothes and enlisting the help of uber-producers who add a touch of pop and electronic elements and making choruses layered a mile deep.

Sometimes, this attempt works. (See blink-182's self-titled album, Sum 41's Chuck, or Green Day's Grammy-winning American Idiot.) But more often than not, these endeavors are met with distressing failure. (See every album Good Charlotte has made since 2002 or New Found Glory's last two installments) It is in the footsteps of the latter group that the latest release from Montreal's Simple Plan finds itself.

With their most recent album befittingly self-titled Simple Plan, relative latecomers in the pop-punk world, decided to compensate for their late 'growth spurt' by enlisting not one major producer, but three. Hip Hop producers Danja - protégé of 'Timbaland' - and Max Martin add some flavor with electronic beats, church organs and some bells and whistles throughout. Leaving Dave Forman famous for his work with both Grammy-winning Evanescence albums ­ to fill in the gaps with densely layered guitars, stereo delay and string orchestrations aimed at tugging on those emotionally fragile heartstrings of ours.

As with all self-titled albums, Simple Plan showcases the band attempting to redefine itself by tackling broader topics, and craft songs that encompass a more mature sound. Unfortunately, not all bombardments hit their mark. In fact, more often than not, they fall embarrassingly short.

The album kicks off with When I'm Gone, opening with bells and a hip hop beat that almost makes you sure you accidentally received the wrong CD. Even after vocals begin, it sounds more like a boy band worthy quasi-rap than a pop-punk band. The chorus luckily shows the band returning to the form the band had created a name for, with big vocal walls and catchy one-liners such as "You're gonna miss me when I'm gone."

With the 80s rock inspired Holding On, the opening guitar-riff so closely resembles Joshua Tree -era The Edge that you find yourself digging through your old U2 records to find which song they plagiarized. Even the production techniques resemble The Joshua Tree with the brian eno-esque otherworldly backdrops over a subtle bass and drum line that turn into full blown emotionally indiscreet choruses.

Lyrically however, the song lacks the prudency and intimacy that Bono's songwriting delivered in 1987, with lines such as: "In the night there's a fire in my eyes. And this paradise has become a place we've come to cry. When I open your letter, the words make it better. It takes it all away. It keeps me holding on." Singer Pierre Bouvier's attempts deep moving lyrics throughout the album, but it still manages to feel like their coming from a teenage boy who's angry with his mother.

Simple Plan isn't an album completely devoid of worthy music, just mostly so. The albums overly lush production is, more often than not, distracting and unnecessary. However, sometimes it adds a pleasant extra backdrop to the songs, as with the second track, Take My Hand -- easily the best track on the album -- Where we find a densely layered, hastily executed track that shows Simple Plan at their best; fast choruses backed with catchy vocal lines.

Sadly, most of the time Simple Plan doesn't stick with the aforementioned formula that made their previous albums successful. They seem to want to sound like a boy band during their verses and a rock band during the choruses. And frankly, it gets annoying. Songs like Your Love is a Lie, and Generation genuinely sound like The Backstreet Boys; and if you're wondering if it's boy band in the entertaining, sardonic way. No, it's not.

It is in this vein that most of Simple Plan plays out; overlong, overproduced and potentially annoying. During the moments of experimentation the band falters and drowns in their unfocused ambitions. It is primarily in the moments where the band returns to form that an enjoyable listen follows.

Simple Plan isn't awful, but it's awfully close.

Ingrid Michaelson a songsmith of crafty, challenging pop

By Jon Jacobs

January 23 2008 | For those of you who joined the other 38 million viewers in watching the 2006 season finale of Grey's Anatomy, you may have picked up on the tune Keep Breathing that played during the closing sequences. The song, written especially for the finale, was actually the fourth track the sitcom had featured from singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson.
In the weeks following the finale Michaelson would be featured as an up-and-coming artist on stations such as MTV and VH1, as well as on spots for Old Navy commercials. As sales of her independently recorded and released album Girls and Boys increased beyond anything her label had anticipated, one thing was becoming clear: Grey's Anatomy had made Ingrid Michaelson a household name.

As with all indie-rocker-gone-stage-stars, major labels picked up on the success of Michaelson's then year old album, seeking a share in the growing market of her music. In a truly "indie" move, Michaelson opted to maintain her own label as the proprietor and owner of the music, while using the publishing company, RED Distribution to distribute her music to a larger audience.

Considering the vast number of artists that are featured on television shows that reach popularity, and the subsequently horrid music they go on to produce, the very fact that Girls and Boys doesn't suck is very nearly a miracle in and of itself. The album kicks off with Die Alone, a near-dissonant combination of vocal melody and crunched guitars that call to mind modern artists such as KT Tunstall and Amy Winehouse. Challenging pop music in today's world? In short, yes.

The album shifts direction with Breakable, a piano structured track that lacks all of the confidence and puissance of the previous tracks as she sings, "We are so fragile and our cracking bones make noise and we are just breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys." Though lyrics detailing the fragility of love and human nature have been written countless times by just about every emo band you can think of, very rarely are they delivered with such moving and immediate prudency.

Unsurprisingly, Girls and Boys has its fair share of love songs, some of which are actually very – dare I say - cute. The first single, and possibly the catchiest track on the album, The Way I Am could very easily find its way onto a "NOW, that's what I call Music" compilation with lyrics such as "If you were falling than I would catch you. You need a light? I'd find a match. Cause I love the way you say 'good morning,' and You take me the way I am:" Both adorable and yes, actually very musically rewarding.

Herein lies the secret to Michaelson's music; she drapes her often-arduous vocal melodies in sweet butter-pop production and song structure. Think Regina Spektor, but laced with guitars and modern post-production, mimicking the bizarre and juxtaposed nature of her music, but in a slightly calmer and more accessible setting. And, like Spektor, the pay-off is extremely edifying.

Taken as a whole, Girls and Boys is a very enthralling debut, with some moments of authentic ingenuity. Her songs are enjoyable, but not in the ten-listens-and-you're-done sort of way that most modern pop music tends to follow. Even after repeated listens, the songs sound new and fresh each time, yielding another vocal or piano line that you could have sworn wasn't there before.

If you can get over the peculiar structure of the music, Girls and Boys is a brilliant piece of work.

The Mars Volta: Drifting deeper into unimaginable oblivion with laborious fourth album

By Jon Jacobs

January 28, 2008 | When we were last left wondering what could possibly be going through the minds of The Mars Volta in 2005 with the overlong and schizophrenic Amputechture, it was clear that bandleader Omar Rodriguez Lopez gave no more thought to his previous band, At The Drive In, than he did to Celine Dion.

With near impenetrable structures and endless stretches of disfigured sonic sounds capes, it appeared that the band was more interested in alienating listeners than entertaining them.

In response, fans and critics alike compared the album to the darker, more unpalatable moments of their previous works Frances the Mute and De-loused in the Comatorium; lacking the arrangement and direction the predecessors enlisted to ground the commotion in cogency and logic. Yet, despite this, Amputechture was still an impressive work, whose brightest moments were akin to the most ingenious sections of the band's back catalog.

While few ever questioned their unrivaled proficiency as musicians, many began to question their sanity as songsmiths. In 2008 with the release of their fourth full-length LP, The Bedlam in Goliath, few things have changed.

The way they introduce an album, however, is one of the things that has. Unlike their predecessors, whose opening tracks are comprised of smooth tranquility that builds toward a leap into insanity, Goliath bypasses the dynamics and simply nosedives into it. Six minutes of musical self-indulgence follows: or rather, an hour-and-15 minutes of it.

Like its predecessor, Goliath is a difficult listen, venturing far too often into complete inaccessibility and labeling it progressive. Melodies dart passed at demonic speeds for a few minutes, only to shift in completely opposite directions and leave you wondering where the rhythm is supposed to be in the cacophony of instrumentation and vocals. Nothing a good dose of hard drugs can't fix.

However, unlike both Frances and Amputechture, Goliath seems to have rediscovered the majesty of songs clocking in at less than 10 minutes. Though the average song length is still over five minutes, none of the songs drifts endlessly into oblivion as the previous two albums tended to do. While they are just as bizarre and unapproachable, at least they end before you feel you are going to truly lose your patience and mind in the process.

Lyrically, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala still chooses to make as little sense as humanly possible, with lines such as "I'll never perish with the albino horns of a thousand young born. Will you drink to the depths of my seed? And your arms will break if you touch this fence. Praise them to this life comes to end." Poetic, perhaps, but nearly impossible to comprehend.

In terms of musical prowess, Goliath does not disappoint. You will still be hard-pressed to find a band with as much mastery of its instruments as The Mars Volta. With guitar solos and incredulous vocal falsetto and harmonies galore, the album is, even if for nothing besides the awe-factor, a breathtaking feat in musical aesthetics. The problem arises when the music simply becomes a juxtaposition of brilliance in instrumentation and production instead of complete album of definitive style and theme.

The Bedlam in Goliath is far from an awful album, in fact it showcases some of The Mars Volta's most stunning ideas, but it is toilsome, and incredibly so. If it could be stripped down to its highlights, it would be the one of the most astute albums in decades. But the decadent use of overproduced noise and the frequent, nearly inane shifts in direction make it nothing more than an escapade in musical showboating.
Angels & Airwaves 'I-Empire' better than its predecessor, but not as good as hyped

By Jon Jacobs

November 9, 2007 | When former Blink-182 guitarist Tom Delonge announced in 2005 that he and his new band Angels & Airwaves were creating "the best rock record of the last 20 years," skepticism was understandably high. Delonge, claiming to take inspiration from such groundbreaking groups such as Pink Floyd, The Cure and U2, seemed ready to try to conquer the world through his music.

As can be expected, his claims weren't quite validated with the release of Angels & Airwaves' debut 2006 release We Don't Need to Whisper. The album was overly synth-heavy, based upon near plagiaristic renditions of U2 songs, with an overbearingly uplifting subject matter making for a difficult listen.

However, the album did have its strong points: It certainly showcased the strongest collection of songs Delonge had written to date, and the increase in maturity and direction were a welcome change to the juvenile nature of his work with Blink-182.

If the lower than expected sales and reception of the album affected Delonge, he didn't seem to show it. Angels toured endlessly in support of the album, making two world tours, all the while writing and recording material for a second record. In early 2007, Delonge announced that his band was nearing the finish to its second album, I-Empire, which would act as a second half to the story behind Whisper, and that it was to be 10 times what Whisper was meant to be.

Understandably, the overly boisterous claims make for an easy letdown with Empire, but the album is a generous collection, picking up precisely where Whisper left off. The album's opener, Call to Arms, showcases some of Delonge's most accessible guitar work and vocal arrangements, resulting from the swelling, epic buildup that is transferred seamlessly into one of the album's most energetic tracks.

The album shifts direction with the stripped down, Phil Collins-inspired Breathe, a slowed down, and emotionally intimate portrayal of absolute adoration. Even with its repetitious lyrics, the song drifts effortlessly into a spacey ballad of genuine ingenuity. Delonge's positivity and sonic aesthetics are in contagious epiphany with the dissentious love song.

Unlike its predecessor, Empire doesn't feel pretentious and redundant, instead using motif to create a feeling of familiarity instead of hastily approaching self-plagiarism. However, like Whisper the album has a propensity to meander a little too often. Tracks such as Love Like Rockets and True Love are enjoyable, but instantly forgettable, where Rite of Spring and Everything's Magic are catchy but about as emotionally and mentally defunct as modern music gets.

In terms of lyricism, the album is a compendium of confusion. Some songs feature full anthemetic choruses, projecting feelings of change and positivity in aural artistry, while others exhibit juvenile exclamations of autobiographical history. The spacey, U2-inspired Lifeline subtly exudes an earnest and honest admition of imperfection, whispering in solemn prudence: "We all make mistakes, here's your lifeline. If you want to, I want to."

In contrast, the poppy Rite of Spring showcases an exceptional lack of Delonge's inabilities as a wordsmith, saying: "It took an hour to start a punk rock band, to offset my f***ed up family land." It seems as if Delonge is unsure of whether he is trying to change your life or simply propel entertaining, semi-cogent rhymes in your direction.

The chief problem with Empire isn't that it completely lacking in solid, structured music; it isn't. But rather that the album tries, and exceptionally hard, to be a second half to an album that was only about half decent to begin with. And as a result, about half of Empire entertains with the promise of earth-shattering sounds capes, but never finds its destination. Leaving the listener waiting for the moment when the music sends them on the journey Angels and Airwaves have the potential to embark upon.

I-Empire is not a masterpiece, but it does contain some of Delonge's most secure and promising work. When the album works, it works exceptionally well, but unfortunately it only does so about half of the time. Too often the tracks seem to blur together without leaving a lasting impression, making the album sound like a half-hearted opus rather than a second half to a spacey rock-opera as was designed.

Delonge's abilities in songwriting have improved, but he won't change the world until he learns to edit his own unfocused ambitions.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sigur Rós craft familiar a opus like cotton candy -- a delight that doesn't linger

By Jon Jacobs

November 14, 2007 | Icelandic epic-post-rockers Sigur Rós has never been shy on ambition for its music.

Whether it be the simplistic drift of Von, the sweeping brilliance of the band's untitled magnum opus, commonly referred to as ( ), or the bombastic jubilance of Takk, Sigur Rós has always been a centerpiece of modern progressive rock. The band's abilities to craft achingly gorgeous albums has never wavered, always hitting the mark with such an astute precision that we often feel other post-rock bands owe us an apology.

If Sigur Rós is guilty of any musically criminal behavior, it can only be redundancy. While each of four studio albums lacks nothing in poignant ingenuity, none pushes the boundaries of the musical scope Sigur Rós has long since adopted. This occurs to such a degree that one could take a random selection of songs by the group and it would have the feel of a full studio album. So when word arrived of a two-disc compilation album by Sigur Rós, most fans viewed it as a regular studio album, because, well . . . it's going to sounds like one.

It is not surprising then to discover that Hvarf/Heim sounds a great deal like a regular Sigur Rós studio album. The album's flow is impeccably crafted; the tracks are ethereal and breathtaking, often evoking a form of spiritual reverence that we have come to expect from the quartet. Yet, behind the lush production and the empyreal arrangements, there is something considerably alien at play here.

The change is first felt in the robust opener from the album's first disc Harvf, where we find the normally subdued group thrashing in full force. Walls upon walls of distortion and instrumentation fill the track to its brim, as though balancing a drink from toppling during an earthquake and barely succeeding. Though Sigur Rós has quite certainly let loose the chains of distortion before, it has never felt so immediate and stark. The result is startling.

As the band members are notorious for, they again shift direction with arguably the most experimental track they have ever attempted, the neo-ambient Hafsol; comprised of 12 minutes of directionless, otherworldly soundscapes. And yes, it's illustrious, and absolutely so. The track's flow and resonance force you to lose yourself in the sublimity of its artistic creation. Even with its considerable length, the song ends before you want it to, feeling as though it could have deviated infinitely and still maintained yourattention.

If the five-track first disc wasn't enough to swallow, the second disc, Heim, a collection of live recordings, is the icing on the cake. For fans who haven't seen Sigur Rós in concert, the tracks give a glimpse of the uniquely sublime nature of the band's performances. The songs are less dense, yes, but they are brilliantly transferred from the tape to the stage. This occurs to such a degree that in some cases the live version surpasses the heart-wrenching power of the originals.

Such is the case with the minimalistic Samskeyti, a pseudo-neo-classical instrumental piece that was brilliant in its brevity to begin with. Here, it is beyond intimate, reaching levels of emotional tenderness untouched by a vast majority of modern music. The repetition of the focal piano line cascades idiosyncratic imagery over you, forcing you to lose yourself in the epic crescendo of strings and ambience.

As with all Sigur Rós albums, there is a fairly strong feeling of familiarity with the music. You may not have heard the songs before, but somehow you know where it's going. The tracks have a tendency to blur together without signaling it has shifted. It is not to say that the music is unmemorable; it isn't, but it lacks certain characteristics that create lasting impressions on a listener. The music may be remarkable, but after it's over you can't seem to recall why.

And herein lies the problem with Harvf/Heim. While the music is as magnificent as ever, vastly emotive in its delicate finesse, it never buries itself in the mind. As soon as the music is gone, you forget what which melodic highlights you thought were so moving and fascinating. With every grandiose disposition, with every echoing, spectral lyric, the music drifts towards space, but never truly settles on your mind.

The album may be a brilliant opus of modern music, but don't be surprised if you forget why.