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.

Radiohead ventures boldly (and successfully) into new, emotional territory

By Jon Jacobs

October 15, 2007 | The year is 2003; Radiohead has just released its sixth full-length album Hail to the Thief. Critical acclaim ensues. The album, following the semi-difficult listener Amnesic, is being heralded as a brilliant return to form, and noted as the only Radiohead album that seems conscious of the band's previous work.

After an extensive tour in support of the album, the band makes a sudden statement announcing a hiatus. Cogitations of joy by Radiohead fans do not ensue.

Fast-forward to 2007, and Radiohead has been recording for more than two years, the longest studio session the band has ever embarked upon. This, in conjunction with the complete lack of a label and subsequently a deadline, wreaks havoc upon eager Radiohead fans awaiting the first glimpses of new material in more than four years. Times are trying for fans, and the likelihood of the album ever seeing the light of day seems distant and incomprehensible.

However, on Oct. 10 Radiohead released the eagerly anticipated In Rainbows as a digital download on its website for the mere price of "what you think it is worth," with an $80 disc box being released later this year.

Upon first impressions, the album certainly feels like Radiohead at its smartest. The exceptionally digital opener 15 Step feels like a lost daughter of the Hail to the Thief sessions.

After seven years of waiting, after seven years of wondering where arguably the most influential band of the modern age would go next, Radiohead does not disappoint.

Yet, amid the enthralling riffs and studio trickery of longtime producer Nigel Godrich, there is something substantively different about these new tracks -- something distant, ethereal and even revelatory. The album is drony and bass-heavy, but not dissonant and alienated as 2000's brilliantly conceptual Kid A. The lyrics are haunting, personal and emotive, but not in the socio-political manner of Ok Computer or the depressive introspection of The Bends.

As the album unfolds, there is an ever-present feeling of immediacy, and yet despite this the album never brings discomfort or uneasiness. It echoes with majesty, connecting effortlessly with the listener with a faint amity of familiarity. Singer Thom Yorke's volatile voice suspends itself seamlessly over the layers of instrumentation on tracks such as the distant, atmospheric ballad Nude and the subtle guitar and string-driven Faust Arp. Radiohead's ability to craft delicate and yet driving material is in top-form.

The true genius of Rainbows however reveals itself in the new lyrical and sonic direction of its slower tracks. The surprisingly minimalistic, yet deeply emotive All I Need finds Yorke's fragile voice barely surfacing over the ocean of pneumatic soundscapes and bass. Yorke's obvious pain is illustrated as he sings in a near-whisper, almost pleading, "I am a moth who just wants to share your light. I'm just an insect trying to get out of the night. You are all I need. You are all I need. I'm in the middle of your picture lying in the reeds."

The inception of love songs by Radiohead is not the only surprise from Rainbows, as the album explores the more subtle aspects of the band's musical ventures. And because of the band members' prowess as musicians, the result is that the album doesn't so much play as float from your stereo. The guitar and keyboard parts feel intimately close and personal, yet sound as though they are being played in deep space, echoing toward infinity.

This subtlety, though unusual upon first discovery, showcases Radiohead's confidence and creates an album that is both painfully personal and sonically aesthetic. The album's tracks to not blend together as with albums such as Kid A and Amnesiac, but rather uses motif and composition to flow with a harmonious tranquility.

The album closes with one of the most eerie and haunting tracks Radiohead has ever produced, the emotionally captivating Videotape. The track, comprised of spine-chilling piano hovered over ambiant electronic drums, feels brittle and frail, as if Yorke's voice might give out at any moment, succumbing to whatever personal demons he is facing. He finishes the song by singing, with heart-breaking submission, "No matter what happens now, you shouldn't be afraid. Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen."

On the whole, In Rainbows is a potentially difficult album to understand, as it lacks the raw drive of their early work, as well as the vastly experimental nature of their late material. However, the album unfolds with some of the best and most rewarding material Radiohead has produced, to date. It is an emotional magnum opus, akin to Radiohead at their very finest, and at times surpasses any expectation of their ingenuity.

It may have taken four years, but Radiohead have crafted an achingly beautiful masterpiece.

'Shepherd's Dog' takes Iron & Wine in new, and surprisingly welcome, directions

By Jon Jacobs

September 27, 2007 | It is said that change will move us, erase all that we were and leave us blank, waiting for the next adventure. Sometimes this change is unexpected, causing an erosion of the mind that unsettles us. Still, change can be needed, beautiful and fundamentally good. And sometimes it is exceptionally good.

With The Shepherd's Dog (Sub Pop label: Sept. 25), the latest release from Sam Bean, AKA "Iron and Wine," we find his normally subtle and humbly quiet voice being set to walls of instrumentation, tribal drums, and, God forbid, electric guitars. The acoustic guitar is still present, but drowned behind the album's lush and polished production, a movement away from the traditional folk-acoustic 'lo-fi' nature of Bean's previous efforts.

This journey from bare-bones folk to full-band-one-man-instrumentalist first found its way on his last effort, 2005's Woman King EP, with its rich electric/acoustic infusion that marked an exciting turn to the future. Here the switch is in full form. Melodies swirl over your head in waves of sonic epiphany, recalling the calming warmth of great singer-songwriter albums such as Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

The album's slick production however, never serves as an obstacle the listener must overcome to enjoy the tracks. Bean, unlike other songwriters who allow production to be a barrier shrouding the shoddy song structure and movements of the music, uses it fully to his advantage. The album's focus still is that soft voice and its often heartbreaking honesty that makes you swear you've heard the song before. The song crafting is still in full form, on par if not superior to the entirety of his catalog.

As if to complement the common comparison to Simon and Garfunkel, Bean's voice is doubled in fifth and fourth harmonies, insomuch that some of the tracks wouldn't feel out of place onParsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme. That is not to say, however, that Dog lacks originality. In fact, it reveals a confident and independent artist who, rather than running from his influences, embraces them with full intention and fervor.

Lyrically, the album is a mixed one. As always, there is a presence of heartache and loss, but here the focus is often replaced by religious turmoil, and political injection. Unlike his previous LP Our Endless Numbered Days, with its harmonious and peaceful delivery of intimate and personal love stories, Dog finds our beloved Bean venturing into a brooding anger at times.

Songs such as Pagan Angel and Borrowed Car deliver a sense of immediacy with lyrics such as "Every morning we found one more machine to mock our ever waning patience at the well. Every evening she'd descend the mountain stealing socks and singing something good where all the horses fell. Like a snake within the wilted garden wall."

Even with the new lyrical direction, Bean hasn't lost his ability to craft the flowing love songs that brought him renown. The soft mid-tempo ballad Resurrection Fern finds Bean recalling a lost love with a tenderness unachieved by musicians twice his age. The heartbreaking lyrics "and we'll undress beside the ashes of the fire, both our tender bellies wound in baling wire. All the more a pair of underwater pearls than the oak tree and its resurrection fern."

Though the album bids farewell to intimacy brought by the stripped-down nature of his previous releases, The Shepherd's Dog opens the flood-gate of Sam Bean's musical genius. Never before has he sounded so confident in his song crafting abilities, and as a result Dog doesn't so much play as much as it shines -- brightly and proudly.

If musical change sends albums like this, then bring it on.

Jimmy Eat World chases a dimming light

By Jon Jacobs

October 8, 2007 | When we last left Jimmy Eat World, we found ourselves bobbing our heads (albeit slowly) to the droned new-age-emo balladry of the band's critically acclaimed last effort, 2004's Futures.

Singer Jim Adkins' ethereal voice hovered over often-subdued guitar melodies in a near-perfect mosaic of emotional intimacy and rock action. The album's release guaranteed the band's place as forerunners in the world of modern emo rock.

So when Jimmy Eat World announced in 2006 that it was working with legendary producer Butch Vig, famous for his work with the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, excitement levels were understandably high for the band's followers. It seemed as though Jimmy Eat World really would "eat the world," and its latest release, Chase This Light (Tiny Evil label, in general release Oct. 16), sounded perfect in theory.

Unfortunately, not all theories perform as planned in reality, as Light seems to illustrate. The album's opener as well as first single, Big Casino, showcases traditional Jimmy Eat World kickoff tracks such as Futures and Bleed American, except featuring multi-layered guitar overdubs reminiscent of The Smashing Pumpkins' 1993 album Siamese Dream and an insurgence of synthesizers and vocal harmonies layered a mile deep. "Big production for a big song, perhaps" you find yourself thinking, yet are sadly disappointed as Casino seems more content to simmer in the memory than to burn.

The standard set by Casino seems ever-present on the entirety of the album's tracks. The slick production demands your attention, even if you're not sure which innovative production quirk you're supposed to be focusing on.

The guitar melodies are gigantic, stampeding your eardrums with walls of distortion and enough punch to knock your socks off. The vocals are accompanied by a choir of backup harmonies seeming to beg you to be moved emotionally. Symphonies of synthesizers, bells, and whistles add an unfortunate flavor of modern pop to your ears. But for every wailing, cathedral-sized chorus, there is a reminder of the absence of the band's prior lyrical and sensory sublimity.

The album's heavier tracks such as Firefight and Electable (Give It Up) inflict a much-needed set of polished, sonic hysteria, but fail to achieve the emotive nature of the band's earlier releases. While the calmer Futures-era ballads such as Gotta Be Somebody's Blues grasp at the heartstrings but end up only pulling your patience.

The lyrical nature of the album appears to intend life-altering changes of heart and mind, yet miss their mark on most accounts. Lyrics such as "You don't speak for me, I am my voice, and I want to scream" feel more reminiscent to a band with 14 months of experience instead of 14 years.

The album is not completely lacking in standout tracks, however. The dancy Here it Goes displays Jimmy Eat World's ability to craft polished, clever pop tracks. And the percussive and melodic simplicity of Let it Happen uses the album's eccentric production to its advantage, even if suspiciously similar to the structure of their 2004 track Kill.

Overall, Light feels more like the product of Butch Vig's pristine and masterful production skills than the sixth album from Jimmy Eat World. Sonically, the album sounds as tight as the band has ever been, and the production makes for an enjoyable listen. Yet too often the band seems content to allow that production to overpower its ingenuity in song crafting.

Chase This Light is not a bad album, but it is nothing spectacular when compared with the powerful stature of the band's back-catalogue. Where Jimmy Eat World seemed to want a lesson in production mastery, it seems the band truly needed a lesson in brevity.

Welcome, welcome

Welcome fellow music lovers.  I have created this blog in an attempt to give criticism to the albums we have come to love (or hate).  A lot of the things I will review will be recent releases, yet I will certainly give due tribute to older albums as well.  Of course, if you have reviews of your own, please feel free to submit them; I'd be happy to post them here.

If necessary, I will also upload (or give links to) a preview of the album(s).  But remember, this isn't a download website, but rather a review site where people can submit their reviews of music, or simply their feelings about how certain CD's make them feel.

Thanks, and enjoy.