Category: Music Reviews

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Wye Oak – Civilian

Wye Oak’s third album has been repeatedly described as ‘subtle’. It’s difficult to say whether Civilian is ‘good’ subtle, or just plain boring. Most of the songs lead the listener through airy soundscapes, but they never really arrive anywhere different.

That being said, the Baltimore indie-folk duo find some redemption halfway through the album, where there are a couple of truly brilliant songs. With its stunning, rolling verses punctuated by powerful and gripping breakdowns, ‘Dogs Eyes’ could be one of the best songs of the year if commercial radio picks it up. The title track ‘Civilian’ sees Jenn Wasner’s delicate vocals float above a rolling off-beat until the lightly fuzzy guitar tone reaches a steep wall of noise.

Unfortunately, apart from these two stellar tracks, there are no others which are memorable for any reason. Wasner seems proud that only one of her songs has a chorus, but the album could benefit from some more structure. For subtle folk-rock to be any good, there need to be well composed melodies hiding underneath, which this album lacks. With the exception of ‘Two Small Deaths’, the vocal melodies are rarely outstanding.

There are opportunities for the songs to really explode into something complex and beautiful, but they are rarely taken. ‘Fish’ and ‘Two Small Deaths’ are a little too shy to break out confidently. ‘Hot As Day’ makes an attempt at this, but without the success of ‘Dogs Eyes’.

Subtlety is often a trait some artists aspire to. Bon Iver, Nick Drake and others have it to thank for their success. But there is a fine line where that subtlety drifts into obscurity and sameness, and Civilian falls just on the wrong side of that line.

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Oh Mercy – Great Barrier Grief

Alexander Gow has been left as the sole creative force behind Melbourne’s Oh Mercy, releasing Great Barrier Grief under major label EMI. Such changes have evidently affected Oh Mercy’s sound, and it seems that former member Thomas Savage has taken the bands edge along with him.

Great Barrier Grief is a sweet blend of acoustic pop, laden with soft airy vocals delivering tales of love and longing via Gow’s honest songwriting. Upon first listen the album presents itself as a wash of acoustic driven pop rock, the tracks seemingly molding together, and by the fifth or sixth listen not a whole lot has changed.

Opening track ‘Stay, Please Stay’ is an obvious single choice and arguably highlight of the album. Its steady beat compliments Gow’s breezy vocals and you’ll be tapping your feet and singing along in no time. The track sees the introduction of the Marimba, adding a little flavor to the somewhat stripped back instrumental arrangement.

‘Stay, Please Stay’ is comfortably followed by ‘Keith St’, displaying similarities in structure and instrumentation. The track opens nicely, bouncing along with a steady bass line and once again will have your foot tapping through the verse. However come chorus time the song progresses little, as we are seemingly pushed through a lazy vocal melody by the incessant bass line. The track showed great potential in the early stages, but its lack of development is its downfall; a precursor to the rest of the album really.

Elements of 2009’s debut LP Privileged Woes are positively revisited in ‘Let Me Go’ and perhaps vaguely in ‘Blue Lagoon’however Great Barrier Grief lacks the colour and vibrancy of Oh Mercy’s debut, presenting itself as a somewhat lazy album in comparison.

‘Doldrums’ suitably closes the album, with Gow’s vocals dreamily caressing the soft 6/8 guitar accompaniment and resonating piano chords. Its minimalistic and sombre approach providing a welcome relief from the acoustic pop that dominates the album, concluding Great Barrier Grief on a positive note.

Great Barrier Grief is too sweet and safe an album, washing over you unnoticed in a wave of unchallenging acoustic pop. A good album at best.

 

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Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

‘Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying’ sings Thom Yorke on Radiohead’s eight album The King of Limbs, an honest statement of where the band are right now. Since the release of their 2003 album ‘Hail to the Thief’ and the end of their commitments to EMI, the quintessential Oxford five-piece have been doing things their own unique way. On Valentines’ Day, the band created media frenzy when they casually announced they were going to drop their latest effort on the 19th Feb. Now that the hype around the release has died down, the question must be asked, “Is it any good?”

The familiar shimmer of synths of Radiohead open the album with ‘Bloom’, a track which exemplifies Phil Selway’s trademark percussive off-beat drumming. Past ‘Bloom’, it sounds like Selway went out of town for the weekend and the band recorded half an album without him. ‘Morning Mr. Magpie’ and ‘Little By Little’ sound like Thom Yorke’s solo efforts, also introducing guitars to the album into the mix. ‘Feral’ is Radiohead at their experimental best, with it’s unintelligible vocals and bizarre sonics, it won’t appeal to everyone, however, it does create a sonic palette cleanser for the rest of the album.

The lead-off single, ‘Lotus Flower’ (probably because it’s the only song on the album with a chorus that isn’t a ballad), is a fine example of where Radiohead lie right now. It’s a combination of Colin Greenwood’s slinky bassline, Phil Selway’s eclectic drum patterns, Thom Yorke’s crooning falsetto about love (‘Take the lotus flowers into my room/slowly we unfold’) and Jonny Greenwood’s minimalist guitar patterns combined with the electronica beeping influences from their previous albums to create a natural sound, much happier than their landmark albums OK Computer and Kid A.

Then the album transitions into the traditional Radiohead melancholy that we know and love. ‘Codex’ and ‘Give Up The Ghost’ are achingly beautiful, the band allowing their instruments to shine through a heavy reverb for a naturalistic sound, stripping it back to vocals and acoustic guitars and piano, creating such sweet sorrow in the style they have trademarked over the last 12 years. ‘Separator’ is a glorious finisher, echoing traces of the glowing warm balladry that Coldplay only wish they could create.

The King of Limbs is one of Radiohead’s most polarizing albums amongst fans. Some say it’s the best, some say it’s average, some say it’s too dense, some say it’s not dense enough. Whether or not there is a disc two coming (There’s a large conspiracy theory regarding this), this is a true grower of an album, one that will reward time invested tenfold. Go with the hype, this is one of the best albums you’ll hear this year and it stands well amongst one of the best back catalogs of all time. In the words of Fox news, “It’s truly the great post-ambient-dubstep-trance-soul record we’ve been waiting for.”

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Malachai – Return To The Ugly Side

Following up their hugely acclaimed 2009 debut Ugly Side Of Love, Malachai didn’t exactly make it easy for themselves by naming their latest album as a sequel. Fortunately for the Bristol duo (and their fans), they’ve held up the standard with their sophomore release Return To The Ugly Side.

The gloriously schizophrenic album is a competition between two very different styles of songwriting. Half of the album is 60’s acid rock, while the other is progressive industrial. The transition between the two styles is practically seamless, drifting in and out of mood changes with ease.

The album peaks early, with the dirty, grinding ‘Mid Antarctica (Wearin’ Sandals)’ and Katy Wainwright’s guest vocals on ‘Rainbows’. That’s not to say it isn’t worth listening through to find the remaining moments of brilliance later on. ‘My Ambulance’, with it’s busy and rolling drums, is reminiscent of early Cream. ‘Let ’em Fall’ stands out for it’s bellowing bass lines and layered top-end.

‘Monster’s haunting beginning alternates with a welcome reprise of fiercely industrial album opener. The orchestral string arrangements in these tracks are surprisingly unpretentious. They only get a bit too much during ‘Snake Eyes’; the arrangement could be better suited to a BBC costume drama.

One let down in the album is its length. Return To The Ugly Side is barely 35 minutes long, hardly long enough for a 14 track album. In fact, most songs end before the three minute mark. The album could have well benefited from a few more expansive tracks.

With Ugly Side Of Love, Malachai set themselves a high bar to clear. Their debut blended styles in ways that were fresh and innovative. It was always going to be difficult to match their debut album, but they have managed to put out a very solid follow-up release.

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James Blake – James Blake

Apparently, if you believe the media, dubstep has a saviour and electronic music has a new wunderkind. His name is James Blake. The Londoner released a couple of EPs in 2010 to widespread acclaim. Blake looked set to crossover to the mainstream when the album dropped. However, now that it’s here, the feeling is underwhelming.
Blake fortunately refused the obnoxious “wubwubwub” bass lines that are being generically tagged to his genre, opting for a more paired-back, minimalist approach. Whilst this works for certain tracks (Album highlights ‘Wilhelm Scream’ and the truly stunning Feist cover ‘Limit to your Love’), throughout the album, it tends to wear. The album starts to blend together (‘Lindesfarne I’ blends into ‘Lindesfarne II’ on purpose) and it starts to drain the listener. Tracks such as ‘Measurements’ and ‘I Mind’ would have been benefited by a slightly more full, richer production.

Production is not Blake’s only forte: his stunning croon is a constant star, shining throughout the album. ‘Unluck’ and ‘To Care (Like You)’ show true emotion on what can come across as bland tracks. Unfortunately, Blake has a tendency to apply a filter or effect to his vocals (often doing this with multi-tracked vocals) which is a shame. This is either because he’s too shy to demonstrate the full capacity of his voice or this is Blake precociously over-producing himself (this reviewer’s money is on the latter). Whatever it is, it doesn’t work.

The album truly does fall between the hype of the media and the blogosphere and the perennial ‘haters’. Blake certainly does have talent; anyone who listened to the ‘CMYK’ EP knows this. The album shows flashes of this brilliance and indicates there will be a future for him. However, the flashes of brilliance are drowned in a sea of tedium and filler; led by Blake’s ability to sound over-produced AND under-produced at the same time. It’s like the art-school kid who takes 82 photos of a pair of shoes for his assignment, it’s cool and arty, but he’s really just a hipster with an SLR.

James Blake isn’t the messiah dubstep is looking for. That’s Mount Kimbie.
Blake’ll give them a run for their money, though. Just you watch.

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The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

The Decemberists took a lot out of themselves with their 2009 epic song cycle The Hazards Of Love. It came directly after their other concept album The Crane Wife, and frontman Colin Meloy now says that, with their new album, he “just wanted to play some normal songs!”. So the quintet holed up in a converted barn outside of their home city of Portland, with the aim of returning to the songwriting style of their first three albums.

The focus has shifted back to stunning lyrical complexity and simple yet beautiful vocal melodies. Meloy’s delivery is as earnest and warm as ever, making his descriptions of sweeping landscapes seem unpretentious. The King Is Dead benefits hugely from the guest vocals of folk royalty Gillian Welch on seven of the ten songs. Welch and Meloy’s voices lock together perfectly in harmony on tracks like ‘Down By The Water’.

Long time fans will miss the way The Decemberists’ earlier songs tell different characters’ stories, with Meloy slipping in and out of these fictional personas with conviction and ease. Instead, the lyrical focus lies on the pastoral landscapes that informed and surrounded the album. The bucolic setting of the recording can be clearly heard throughout the album. The slide guitar and drifting harmonica are done tastefully enough to avoid falling into cliche’s.

Meloy admits to the influence of R.E.M. on the album; he even got their guitarist Peter Buck on board. He plays guitar on ‘Down By The Water’ and ‘Calamity Song’, and mandolin on ‘Don’t Carry It All’.

Another guest on the album is Annalisa Tornfelt, who plays in bluegrass band Black Prairie with the other members of the band. ‘All Arise!’, record opener ‘Don’t Carry It All’ and ‘Rox In The Box’ feature her sharp violin strains.

It’s refreshing to know that The Decemberists have kept a sense of perspective, and have not drifted into musical obscurity by making another risky concept album. They describe the transition between Hazards and their new album as “like going from reading a novel to reading a bunch of short stories.”