Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Thoughts on Autolux "Transit Transit"

Almost six years after the release of their critically acclaimed full-length, "Future Perfect", Autolux finally released their sophmore effort "Transit Transit" in August. Upon first hearing "Future Perfect", I was utterly blown away. The band took shoegaze, indie-rock, noise and countless other genres and blended them together to create a futuristic sound that laid waste to their peers. The album was like nothing I have ever heard before and Autolux keeps up their trend of throwing curveballs with "Transit Transit".

"Audience No. 2", which was released as a single almost two years before "Transit Transit" dropped, was the only song I allowed myself to listen to before the album was released. I wasn't able to see the band live and I refused to spoil the wait by watching Youtube videos with poor sound quality. Listening to "Audience No. 2", I expected Autolux to continue on the path they blazed with "Future Perfect" and only making small tweaks here and there since the track could have very easily fit on the tracklisting for that album. Instead, Autolux made some significant overhauls to their sound. The album opens with the self-titled track that does away with reverb-laden guitars and heavy bass lines and instead focuses on a skittering percussion loop and minimalistic piano. Definitely did not expect to hear anything like that. Another odd turn was "Highchair", which found Autolux using more electronic elements than they have in the past. The song utilizes these electronic beat to create a hypnotic dance groove that was nonexistent in the band's past.

"Spots" is a piano-led ballad that creates a slower, more organic sound then what the band is known for. There is almost a vintage pop feel to the track, which is odd because Autolux always seemed like a band that focused more on reverb and favored a noisier approach to their songs. However, there are tracks that recall their previous works such as "Audience No. 2" and the infectiously catchy yet ominous "Census". However, there are moments where Autolux's attempts to expand their sound are not nearly as jarring as "Transit Transit" or "Spots", such as "Headless Sky" and "The Science of Imaginary Solutions". "Headless Sky" opens with  heavy, calculated guitar riffs that repeat throughout the track and this creates a great contrast to the quieter more melodic flourishes occurring with the riffs as a backdrop. "Headless Sky" is easily one of my favorite tracks on the album and as always Carla Azar's drum work is stellar. This could be a surprise candidate on many best of lists later in the year.

It's That Time of Year Again

Let me preface this blog entry by saying that I love Christmas and everything that comes with it. I love spending time with my family, the presents, the food and even the absolutely brutal winter weather. I also like that it is close to my birthday, but that is beside the point. However, there is one thing about Christmas that irritates me and I guess it is unfair because the thing that irritates me occurs as early as the end of October. I hate Christmas music.

Now, I can listen to Christmas music on the week of Christmas and it is enjoyable because it gets me excited about the upcoming big day. What I can't stand is radio stations thinking that it is a good idea to begin playing Christmas songs in the beginning of November. I think it is absurd that radio stations feel the need to satisfy their urge to play "Jingle Bells" and "Deck The Halls" before I even have a chance to put my Halloween costume away for the year. Another reason this gets on my nerves is because it reminds me that stores across the country trot out their Christmas decorations earlier every year. It has gotten to the point where some stores place their Christmas decorations and other yuletide paraphernalia a stones throw away from Halloween costumes and candy. Hey, why stop there? Why not trot out your Christmas trees and fake snow in the middle of the summer so that when it is over 100 degrees outside, I can at least pretend I am at the North Pole?

As I stated earlier, it isn't that I hate Christmas music entirely. I just think there is a fine line between a week's worth of it to get you in the holiday spirit and a month and half Christmas music marathon that drives you crazy after hearing "Dominick The Donkey" and "Jingle Bells" over a hundred times. I avoid the radio around this time every year to prevent Christmas music overload, but there are times when that is not possible whether it is because a store is playing it or you are in the car with someone else.

That being said, what are some of your favorite Christmas songs? Do you prefer traditional songs or covers of those songs by your favorite musicians?

Candidates for my Best of 2010 list

One of the worst times of the year for a music journalist is the months leading up to and including December. This is when the dreaded "Best of" lists are created. You would think that slapping together a list of your favorite 20 records from any given year would be a piece of cake. But you would also be wrong. I am sure every writer has their own thoughts on these and how they approach them, and many may argue with me that it is difficult to put together. However, my experiences have proven that most music writers agonize over their lists and try to justify which album gets which spot on the list. The easiest part is from about 11-20, usually those albums could be shuffled all over the place within those limits and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. The problem comes when you hit the top 10, particularly trying to chose between what album is ranked second and which one is ranked first.

Then to top it off, you may include other sections to your list such as "Most Disappointing Albums", "Best New Band" and "Most Anticipated Releases of Next Year". There is just so much music that comes across your desk that sitting down to sift through everything seems impossible. The funny thing is that you spend hours tweaking your lists, but if you revisit that list in a year, chances are you probably won't even listen to half of those records anymore.

That being said, it is almost that time of year again, and here are three of my favorite albums that will be sure to appear somewhere on my end of the year list.
Spoon "Transference" - I have heard mixed opinions about this album. Many people seem to love it while others seem to see "Transference" as an album Spoon has already done before and are pissed the band didn't seem to move in a new direction. Personally, I think "Transference" is a great album. It is one that initially seems like "just" another Spoon album, but the songwriting is excellent and there are little details that grab my interest and keep me coming back for more. Britt Daniels is an incredible songwriter and proves it time and time again across the band's latest albums. In my opinion, one of the best American indie-rock bands today.
Highlights: "Written In Reverse", "Trouble Comes Running", "Out Go The Lights"

The National "High Violet" - The Brooklyn-based band started their career trajectory like many fledgling indie bands, releasing their own albums and quietly building a dedicated fan base. That is where the similarities end. The release of their third album "Alligator" on reputable label Beggars Banquet found the band receiving praise from virtually every media outlet and even gained the attention of Bruce Springsteen. Although they were not household names yet, this is the album that set the wheels in motion. They followed "Alligator" with "Boxer", an album with extreme focus and is filled with emotion. This album catapulted them into the limelight and "High Violet" finds them picking up right where they left off. The album is haunting and has just enough subtle changes that differentiate it from being "Boxer II". This is a band that gets better with each release and if you haven't been paying attention before "High Violet", now is the time to start.
Highlights: "Afraid of Everyone", "Bloodbuzz Ohio", "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks"

The Gaslight Anthem "American Slang" - Seeing The Gaslight Anthem break into the mainstream is something I was not expecting. Sure, they wrote great songs and everyone seemed to be in love with "The '59 Sound", but a majority of their fans were interested in punk rock and magazines and websites that covered punk rock were where they were winning most of their praise. The release of "American Slang" changed all of that. Now the band has been hearing praise even from more mainstream media outlets, they were making television appearances and playing in huge festivals. People may still criticize the band for sounding like they took too many cues from Bruce Springsteen, but the fact is "American Slang" is one of the best rock records of the year.
Highlights: "American Slang", "The Diamond Church Street Choir", "We Did It When We Were Young"

Indie Label Spotlight

Starting and running an independent record label is a labor of love that requires paptience, dedication and a passion for music. When you combine technological advances that have made it easier for bands to release material without the help of a label with the current state of the economy, it seems like the days of small, independent record labels are over. It takes a lot of money to put out a record, depending on the size of the project, and many labels struggle from release to release. While this may sound like a gloomy forcast for small labels, there are many out there who are managing to succeed and put out quality records. Here are my two favorite labels that are currently putting out records I listen to constantly. Check out the links, you may just find your new favorite band!

1. Count Your Lucky Stars - The current emo revival still seems to be going strong and Count Your Lucky Stars is the definitive label in releasing most of the best records that come from it. Run by members of empire! empire! (i was a lonely estate), Count Your Lucky Stars was started in order for the band to release their early recordings. Since then, Count Your Lucky Stars has gone on to release landmark albums such as Castevet's "Summer Fences", Joie De Vivre's "The North End" and re-released Benton Fall's "Fighting Starlight". The label boasts an enormous roster that features some of the most popular bands of the current emo revival. Expect more great releases from this incredible label who are some of the nicest people around.
 CYLS Myspace - listen to some of the artists on the CYLS roster.

2. Tiny Engines - Tiny Engines is a relatively new label that was formed around 2008 to put out their inaugural release Look Mexico's "Gasp Asp". The label is run by Chuck, Will and Jeff and ever since the the release of "Gasp Asp" the label has released one hit after another. The label had a busy 2010 releasing the self-titled full-length debut of Everyone Everywhere, Castevet's "The Echo & The Light" and they also plan to release Annabel's "Here We Are Tomorrow" in December. The members of Tiny Engine have excellent ears when it comes to picking out bands and are one of the few labels where you know every record will be good. Also, it doesn't hurt that they also run Beartrap PR, one of the best promotion companies in punk rock.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Too Many Songs, Too Little Time

There are many perks to being a music journalist. You are able to get early listens of albums from your favorite artists, interact with artists you may never otherwise get the chance to meet and help introduce a band to readers. It is fun to do and while there are many perks, many jump into the field because they love music. However, the one drawback is being inundated with so much music. There are millions of bands out there and generally when writing reviews, you are sent so many albums that many fall through the cracks and many times you don't truly recognize the greatness of certain records until a year or two later and you miss out on something truly great that your readers may have liked as well.

I have found myself at times being overwhelmed with the sheer amount of music I am exposed to and sometimes, but as far as problems go, it is a good one to have. The ease at which music can be sent to reviewers since the implementaion of digital press kits is astonishing. In any given year I could easily listen to close to a hundred albums and I generally try and approach each one with a new angle and sometimes that gets rough. Those who do not write album reviews may not know just how much work goes in to each one. You listen to the album multiple times to get a feel for the sound and which tracks you want to highlight before you even attempt to sit down and start reviewing. Also, writer's block is the album reviewer's nemesis and can set in at the worst of times. You would be surprised at the revision that goes in to achieving the final product and how many sentences are written before the words simply freeze up and you find yourself deleting the entire thing and starting from scratch.

However, the feeling you get when that review is finished and everything fits together and the feedback you get from readers makes the entire process entirely worthwhile. The only thing is, you have to keep writing almost constantly in order to combat writer's block and sometimes that is not always the easiest thing to do.

Seasonal Playlists

It seems like fall has left as quickly as it arrived with temperatures being quite frigid lately. However, it is still technically fall, and with that comes another year of making a seasonal playlist and listening to certain albums on repeat. Since the very first mixtape until the rise of the MP3 and iPod playlists, music fanatics have been making mixes that chronicle relationships, the changes of the season and pretty much any other theme that comes to mind. It is almost a yearly ritual where you go through your vast musical collection and pick and choose songs that will fit your mood and your surrounding perfectly. There is a science to it that many adhere to such as making sure the songs flow together, making sure to balance the different styles in the mix, and don't even think about using the same artist twice.

For this entry, I wanted to share my fall playlist and a few albums that I constantly listen to in order to get through the week.

1. Matt Pond PA "Several Arrows Later" - Matt Pond PA is sort of the musical patron saint of autumn. No matter what album of his I listen to, it seems like the perfect soundtrack for when the leaves start to change.

2. The American Analog Set "Set Free" - I listen to this album religiously during the autumn months. One listen to the lush sounds of "She's Half" and you will understand why. The warmth that comes through on "Set Free" make it a prennial autumn favorite.

3. Elliott Smith "Either/Or" - Smith's third album "Either/Or" was the one that started pushing him a little more into the spotlight. Smith's hushed vocals tug on the heartstrings on the mostly acoustic "Between The Bars" and "Say Yes" has got to be one of the most uplifting songs in his catalog.

Fall Playlist 2010

Matt Pond PA "Locate The Pieces"
The Swell Season "Leave"
The American Analog Set "First of Four"
American Football "Honestly?"
Bright Eyes "Classic Cars"
Cat Power "Cross Bones Style"
Damien Rice "Volcano"
Feist "I Feel It All"
Death Cab For Cutie "Transatlanticism"
Papermoons "Live Right"
Elliott Smith "Between The Bars"
The Shins "New Slang"

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Radiohead Effect

Three years ago, Radiohead did something that has altered the way music was consumed and numerous band’s pounced on the idea. They released their then brand new album,"In Rainbows",online and allowed customers to choose their own price starting at free. I remember the day of the release (I think it was) when I stumbled across the article detailing that "In Rainbows" would be available as a download at around 6 a.m. Growing up during the 1990’s, my earliest and only memory of Radiohead was seeing their music video for “Creep” getting constant airplay on the radio and MTV and after that I sort of lost interest. However, I was intrigued at the concept and woke up promptly at 6 a.m. in my freshman dorm room to download the album. I will be honest, I chose to pay nothing for the download as I was low on money and I was not sure if I would like the album. Since I was able to get the album for free, I decided to take a chance.

Turns out, I loved the album. Every song resonated with me and "In Rainbows" quickly became my favorite album of the year. Since I was able to hear a full album from Radiohead with very little risk, I found out I liked the band and was interested in digging around through their back catalog. As a direct result of the "In Rainbows" download campaign, I went out and bought two older Radiohead albums. So while the band might have missed out on profits from my download of "In Rainbows", they in turn caused me to go out and buy two of their albums and I will probably buy their future albums as well.

I noticed that this experiment had an immediate impact after the release of "In Rainbows", but three years later it is clear to see just how much of an impact was made. Countless bands, established or young unknowns just starting out, were selling downloads of their albums for a pay-what-you-want price. Bandcamp, a popular digital music retailer, even allows bands to set the price of their albums as pay-what-you-want. Then there are countless donation-based record labels such as Death To False Hope Records and Quote Unquote Records. These labels most likely did not use Radiohead as an inspiration and would have been around anyway, but they are still part of this shift in the way music is distributed.

Although I call the increasingly popular pay-what-you-want method “The Radiohead Effect”, the truth is they were not even the ones to first toy with the idea. Harvey Danger, an indie-rock band from Seattle, toyed with a similar concept by releasing their 2005 album Little By Little as a free download on their website. What made Radiohead’s campaign the figurehead for this wave of change was the fact that they were a critically acclaimed band with worldwide success putting out their music for free. This is what made journalists all over the world go crazy over the campaign and stay up all night in order to download the album and try and beat their peers for that coveted first review.

I am a fan of this model and while I think established bands could benefit from a similar release model, I mostly like the implications for underground artists. Underground artists do not get the same exposure and rarely make it on the radio or TV and people are less apt to spend their money on a record from a band they have never heard of. Now, with the help of a website like Bandcamp, artists can let people choose their own price and gain a lot of fans through word of mouth and the fact that there is little risk involved for the listener.

I am excited to see how musicians and artists will build off of this idea and what kind of unique distribution methods will follow.

This one is for you Mr. Adams

From what I have gathered from my music loving friends is that Ryan Adams is a polarizing figure. There are those who can’t stand him and those who are willing to spend every penny in order to collect every song the man has written, and trust me, there are many.  I happen to fall into the latter category. Ryan Adams has received accolades from virtually every music publication starting with his work in Whiskeytown and his debut solo album "Heartbreaker", a country album that tugs at the heartstrings with every lyric and melody. However, the stories that have come to stick with Adams for better or worse focus on his personal life whether it was his long history of drug use, the public accosting from Courtney Love or his marriage to Mandy Moore.
Despite what sort of tabloid-worthy stories that have dotted Adams’ past, the fact remains that he is an incredibly gifted and prolific musician. Adams recorded three albums with Whiskeytown, eight solo albums (that were officially released, there are many more if you count unreleased works), three albums with The Cardinals, and one album with The Finger. That is just studio full-lengths since 1995 and does not include a slew of EP’s, singles, or unreleased works that Ryan Adams has talked about that have yet to be released for various reasons.
My favorite example of his prolific writing style involves the struggle to release "Love Is Hell". Adams was made to release the album in two parts at the insistence of his label who were worried over the shift in style. To reach a compromise, Adams recorded "Rock N Roll", an album full of upbeat rock songs , in two weeks in order to release "Love Is Hell". While many critics panned the album, the fact remains that many of the songs on that record were instantly catchy and could have had hit potential, and he did it all in two weeks.
Adams writes at such an incredible pace and it seems that he is constantly finishing new music and sure, being a prolific songwriter is impressive, but are the songs any good? You bet. Whether Adams is writing country, rock or metal music most of his songs are bona fide gems. Not only is his music top notch, but Adams also keeps his fans updated on what he is working on through his Facebook page. So, here’s to you Mr. Adams, for writing such beautiful music and hopefully one day the masses will catch on to your creativity.
Below is a video of Ryan Adams performing "Oh Sweet Carolina" during a rehearsal with his band and featuring guest vocals by Mandy Moore. An excellent performance and song, I hope you enjoy it!