Review: The King is Dead by The Decemberists

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Rating: 8.5/10

Time for an admission: I’ve only really listened to The Hazards of Love (the previous Decemberists record) once.  By that I mean once through, which is ultimately the only correct way to hear the sprawling rock opera.  But it’s exhausting.  The songs are dense, the storyline overwhelming, and the music not immediately welcoming.  I was disappointed, especially considering the high praise I’ve had for the band in the past.

But that all changes with The King is Dead.  Suddenly the Decemberists are accessible again, and it’s thanks to a real change in musical attitude.

Full review after the break:

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Review: Tourist History by Two Door Cinema Club

Rating: 9.5/10

I’m a bit late on reviewing this one.  I’ve been listening to Tourist History since September, so I hope that at least a few of you got some exposure to this Irish band.  The brilliant blog We All Want Someone to Shout For had covered these guys for a while and that writing ultimately pushed me to listen to the band.

Tourist History is rough to critically review because it doesn’t feel particularly different or innovative.  But what makes it stand out is effort, honesty and the most infectious music I’ve heard since Weezer’s Blue Album.

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Review: The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

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Rating: 9.8/10

You’ve already heard this album.  It leaked last week, it came out yesterday, and it was streamed on NPR for some time between those two dates.  If you wanted it, you certainly own it.  If you dislike Arcade Fire, you’re wrong but this won’t change your mind.  I think this is a real contender for Album of the Year; it has great depth and has rewarded multiple listens.

But you know all of this.  So why should I even bother with a review?  Besides a clear plea for internet credibility and attention (every music blog/site will have some review of this), I’m actually out to compare and understand this album.  I have two directions to follow: one in terms of the whole Arcade Fire canon, and the other in comparison to the greatest album in music at the time of this release.  That second part will be in another post.

As per the score, a brief review: at first it’s good but not overly great.  Then you listen again and it’s better.  You repeat this about 12 times and it’s spectacular.  I don’t know what trajectory it has now, but the whole this is just so cohesive.  The music and themes hit big like U2, but keep that work ethic that the band is known for.  The hype doesn’t really match the album – this is crafted and lovingly executed.  People are too loud in screaming about the album.  Let The Suburbs work on its terms and you’ve got a winner.

Okay, now for the fun stuff:

The Suburbs as an Arcade Fire Album

Funeral is an epic, emotional masterpiece of rock.  It is full of amazing anthems, great string parts, and upbeat songs.  While the whole thing is amazing, there are very distinct highlights: “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” are clearly the best songs.  These have been the best Arcade Fire songs since their release.  They surge with power, getting you to either move (with the latter) or feel shivers down your spine (with the former).

Neon Bible is a darker album, with a more thunderous bass and moodier atmospherics.  It is far more refined, and not nearly as optimistic.  This album is weaker than its predecessor, but underrated.  There are lulls along the way, but that leaves the top tracks on this release to stand much taller.  “Intervention” is amazing, and “No Cars Go” is electric.

The Suburbs does not have these highlights.  No one songs rises above the others in any significant way.  The opener (“The Suburbs”) is quite similar to others on the release – mid-tempo with meandering guitars.  Even the hard-rocker (“Month of May”) isn’t very noteworthy.  Perhaps the only song to be a semi-standout is “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” but that’s mainly due to the differing musical style.  I can’t see any of these songs being Song of the Year contenders.

But I propose that this is far better than Neon Bible.  Why?  Read on.

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Review: High Violet by The National

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Rating: 9.8/10

I really didn’t like this album.  I place some of the blame on me, but much on High Violet.  I finally got this album in an absolute downpour of music.  Flashy stuff from LCD Soundsystem and Janelle Monae were quick to get my attention, and I’ve already commented on “Compliments” brought me back to Band of Horses.

It took me a long time to finally sit down and listen to High Violet with real purpose.  Basic overviews left me uncertain, particularly with such an album low-point tacked on the front (“Terrible Love”).  I thought it was like a cheap imitation of Boxer.  I just couldn’t get myself to like it.

Then it clicked.  The key for me was hearing this in a quiet place with a decent set of headphones.  Unlike much in rock today, louder isn’t necessarily better here.  Instead, The National have refined the darkest, most somber moments from their past work.  Everything is very quiet, very textured.  After the intro song, everything operates in shadows.  The effect is mystifying and allows rewards with each listen.

But many bands are rewarding – why is this one so praised?  We can thank the musical composition and the lyrical content.  There are dense layers here, but never they’re never needless.  Instead there is a real atmosphere about this record.  Sometimes that term is condescending.  Here, it’s the perfect compliment: the album is sonically cohesive, while managing to explore.  Pianos, deep thudding drums, big bass, and appropriately sparse guitar all work well to paint a sonic picture.

Lyrical content is the next step on the path to excellence.  The singing is contained this time – tasteful background singing is met by a beautiful tenor lead (and this time without pointless yelping).  The words also manage to find reasonable meaning.  Everything seems of normal life and observation (yes, even the brains part), but is described in a slightly vague way.  While seemingly self-indulgent, the poetic technique works here as the sounds bring the rest of the mood.

Perhaps the best praise I can offer High Violet is my lack of a favorite song.  It’s not for lack of trying – I’ve been looking for one representative piece.  But each time I hear this record, I think “wow, this is a fantastic song,” only to repeat the act about four minutes later.  There are little moments all over the album – the part about the “hole in the middle” in “Anyone’s Ghost” where the cellos strike, the intro distortion to “Little Faith,” the light “ahhs” of the background vocals in most every song.  Then there is the line about the money in “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” or maybe the exhausted refrain in “Lemonworld,” and the chilling “silver cities” of “Conversation 16.”  Each song brings something, and manages to impress for the whole track.

I can’t overstate how suddenly and drastically this album has changed for me.  It went from a brooding failure to follow up on Boxer to a clear frontrunner in this already-packed year of music.  High Violet is both the most consistent and impressive release from The National.  It takes some time, but this is a must-own record.

Review: 99 Songs of Revolution, Volume 1 by Streetlight Manifesto

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Rating: 7.7/10

Independent or alternative music has been pushed into a corner.  I know that sounds stupid, but I believe it to be true.  Do you know what happened to ska music?  In the 1990s, Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones managed to hit the airwaves, and then Less than Jake accidentally got a hit with “She’s Gonna Break Soon,” but where has this brand of punk gone?  The answer lies in the exploits of Streetlight Manifesto.

Ever since forming in 2003, Streetlight has brought a sense of greater musicality to the world of ska.  Instead of the power-pop call-and-response of Reel Big Fish, Streetlight actively sought to build songs around the horns.  Even more importantly, the songs weren’t just with little flourishes.  Observe the song “We Will Fall Together.”  The whole intro is layers of horns, letting the trumpet and saxes drive the entire melody.  The song is technically and sonically impressive, showcasing horn players with a real sense of tone and dexterity.  As a trumpet player, I respect what they’ve done.

Enter their newest release, the first of a set of covers in a project titled 99 Songs of RevolutionVolume 1 offers eleven songs that the band has viewed as important to their lives and careers.  Somewhat unexpectedly, it is through covering songs that we get to see Streetlight at their most innovative.

In order to turn each of these songs into ska covers, the band has to add a bit of speed, a bit of swing, and then build a horn part from scratch (for most tracks).  The results are very satisfying.  Starting right from the proper horn into in “Birds Flying Away,” Streetlight is in excellent form.  The instrumental harmonies are clear and well-executed.

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BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 3-1

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Here they are, the three best albums of the past decade.  I particularly feel that numbers 1 and 2 are a cut above the rest, but everything on this list was worth hearing.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this run of posts.  Come back in the next few days for a few final clean-up things from the last year.

3. Embryonic by The Flaming Lips (2009)

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The Flaming Lips are tough to characterize.  While they’re seemingly always a rock band, that little phrase means a litany of things coming from these guys.  Here, we find them at a bold, fresh place.  Instead of continuing a commercially noteworthy run of happy dream-pop, The Flaming Lips turn in a new direction.

Embryonic is full of dread, sadness and terror.  But it’s also a crazed combination of sound.  Here we find a band acting completely unlike themselves and unlike any other group.  Insane guitars, brooding production, and deeply emotional singing are all played in a non-traditional guise.  From the first spin of the disk, Embryonic is quite clear in its individuality.  After repeated listens, the details still remain stunning and unfathomable.  The whole thing is gigantic and a bit overwhelming, but cannot be ignored.

It was tough for me to include such a recent album so high in this list.  I wondered if future reflection will find me willing to place it elsewhere.  But that this album pushes ahead into this location speaks volumes toward its worth.  Certainly this was the best album of 2009, and it is a strong candidate for representation of the whole decade in music.

2. Gimme Fiction by Spoon (2005)

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It all starts for me with Britt Daniels.  The man has a voice that cuts through me like butter.  It’s not the most technically proficient, nor is it the most emotionally charged.  Instead, he sings with a sort of blue-collared honesty, utilizing his powers and space as well as possible to sing his songs.

And then the music develops around him.  Obviously that doesn’t explain their creation process, but it’s how I rationalize these songs.  Everything is cut down to be exactly what is needed; no more, and no less.  This concept of minimal songwriting is brilliant, and doesn’t leave gaping holes, as might be imagined.  Instead, the songs are full of life, but not necessarily lots of instrumentation.

Things are better this way.  Without this cut down, we wouldn’t have the great dry jam of “I Turn My Camera On.”  But then there are songs like “Sister Jack.”  Believe it or not, this also subscribes to the minimalist theory.  Can you imagine if this song were loud punk riffs throughout?  Here we find a loud rocker that holds back.

Spoon released album after amazing album this decade, so I forced myself to pick just one album from the Texas natives.  Why such a limit?  Because I didn’t want spots 2, 3, 4, and 5 all from one artist and I didn’t want to lump them all together at number 1.  This also hints at how strong Gimme Fiction is within the Spoon canon.  That I can justify it standing head and shoulders above the rest is stunning.  See also, exhibit 4: “My Mathematical Mind.”  I dare you to name a better Spoon song.

1. The Moon & Antarctica by Modest Mouse

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And here we stand, in the presence of the greatest album of this past decade.  At this point, the praise for The Moon & Antarctica has seemingly taken a backseat to the amazing revelations of success found by Modest Mouse.  It is completely clear that “Float On” is a bigger draw than “3rd Planet” in the popular sphere.

So what makes this release so profound and leaves it to stand as the greatest album?  A good place to look is at the ambition.  The previous Modest Mouse release (Lonesome Crowded West) was an excellent indie rock album, full of skittering guitar and Isaac Brock’s crazed lyrics.  Unfortunately, that album was rather directionless, dragging on at times and leaving the last half to carry on a bit too far.  However, Lonesome was enough to push the band off to a major label.

Oh what a major label debut.  I think the best descriptor is “fearless.”  Every song is packed with ideas and each sound is refreshing and enjoyable.  Strong textures and great musicianship create something that is a real space-rock experience.

Things are taken even further by the power of the lyrics.  While Brock has focused on strange things, religion, and life (both before and after this album), he has never been so coherent.  Reflections on life, death, hope, religion, and the very nature of the universe are all included.  While this may seem a bit over-ambitious, nothing seems dilute or unnecessary.

When I created this blog, I named it “Essential Listening,” hoping to convey what any music fan should hear.  This is the apex of that output in this past decade.  Modest Mouse fan or not, this album stands out in stunning fashion.  Every piece, every epic element of this towering accomplishment is stunning, even almost 10 years after its release.  This is truly essential.  The Moon & Antarctica is the Album of the Decade.

BEST ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: 10-4

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Here is the second-to-last part of my decade list.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.  It’s really tough to put some of these in order.  So that pretty much means that albums 10-1 are all crazy good, and I think you should hear them at least once.

Come back tomorrow for the finale…

10. Picaresque by The Decemberists (2005)

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I am a total sucker for the theatrics of The Decemberists.  But Picaresque rises above the rest of their catalogue by offering wondrous detail, both verbal and musical.  The album never becomes unwieldy and is very charming.  Each track is full of lyrical wit and real emotion.  “Eli, The Barrow Boy” is painfully sad.  “The Engine Driver” pulls you into the loss and rejection of the titular character.  Yes, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is huge and crazy, but it’s also a powerful piece.  Nerdy?  Yes.  Brilliant?  Undeniably.

9. The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me by Brand New (2006)

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Having now heard their follow-up album (Daisy), it’s a bit disappointing to see Brand New stop their evolution here.  Brand New were an average snotty, crappy punk band that followed in the mold of Blink 182.  Forgettable radio fodder.  But then something magical happened: they decided to become artists.  The process was took two albums (leaving Deja Entendu as a nice straightforward punk album), but the result was fantastic.

Here there were textured sounds.  You could actually understand the band’s dynamics.  The songs had a hint of artsy production.  They even managed to pull some Modest Mouse stuff.  It was all brilliant, leaving a refreshing feeling and some faith in punk rock.  Even the simplest of songs were packed with mature themes and strong musicianship.  These guys need not be associated with that Jude Law song any longer.  This is a real statement.

8. Illinois by Sufjan Stevens (2005)

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Ambitious hardly begins to describe this album.  Contained within the now-defunct 50 States project are two records.  Seemingly, it would be pretty difficult to contain the spirit of a state in one disk.  But after doing so well with Michigan, Stevens completely eclipsed his own effort in the sprawling and stunning Illinois.

22 songs, and over an hour of playtime sound pretty daunting.  But when you realize that a few of them are mini-songs designed for album flow, the remaining stuff sounds even more overwhelming.  But Stevens has an amazing gift at hook development.  It starts from the first notes: you want to hear where those pianos will go in “Concerning the UFO.”  Soon you’re left wondering where “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” will go in its two parts.  Eventually you realize that you’re halfway through and still can’t wait to see what will come next.  Insanely classy and certainly brilliant, this is a wonderful epic.

7. Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes (2008)

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Okay I lied.  Back when I called this the best album of 2008, I also said something bold about this becoming the greatest album of the decade.  As you can plainly see, 7 is not the same as 1.  Why the change?  Well, I’ve had more time to consider the album and those I’ve placed ahead of it.

Fleet Foxes is a splendid album, still full of the gorgeous things that make me smile in its style of music.  Stunning singers are still the highlight, and it carries the whole album.  But has this recorded lessened in any way?  Almost.  Too much familiarity lessens some of the impact.  Thus, to keep this ageless wonder ageless, it’s best to not over-saturate.  However, when used appropriately, Fleet Foxes is still amongst the best of the decade.

6. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear (2009)

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My love for Grizzly Bear started as I listened to them before they opened a Radiohead show.  After that show, it was clear that I needed to pay attention to Grizzly Bear’s next album.  Then came the leak.  I was worried about hearing it, but was so painfully curious.  I heard, and was pleased but understood the audio quality as a barrier to excellence.

Oh boy was that quite the barrier.  Veckatimest is superb, offering gorgeous little details.  And really, this is all about the beautiful details.  It’s clear that this album was painstakingly crafted by four excellent musicians.  Every song has moments of pure brilliance and the whole album shimmers with production quality.  After such a great run in only a brief existence, I really look forward to the next release from Grizzly Bear.  It’s obvious they are great quality control experts.  But while I wait, I will have Veckatimest to keep me happy.

5. Funeral by Arcade Fire (2004)

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This was a game-changer for me.  I hadn’t quite realized the broad potential of indie rock, but I was getting there.  And then in the summer of 2007, I finally got my hands on this disk.  Late to the party, sure, but very interested.  I was blown away from the first moment.  The near-sobs of Win Butler’s vocals were stunning.  The fearless sincerity was unnerving.

People sometimes insult or marginalize Arcade Fire for being so loud.  I think that’s a mistake.  Loudness and bold statements do not necessarily lessen music.  When used as a tool for communication, loudness is a powerful resource for Arcade Fire.  They fill out the room like U2, but have the grip of Neutral Milk Hotel.  But for me, none of that matters without “Rebellion (Lies).”  That song is the keystone of Funeral.  In my mind, it all builds to resolve in “Rebellion.”  That progression and development is amazing and makes Funeral so good.

4. In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007)

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It feels strange ranking In Rainbows ahead of Kid A.  But for me, it’s so easy.  While I have to be ready to hear Kid A, this album can come on at any point and make me happy.  That’s one big difference: the joy involved.  Yes, songs like “Nude” and “All I Need” tug at the heartstrings.  But it’s the feeling of the whole album.  Freedom and warmth abound.

Forget about the pricing thing.  It was cool at first, but does not make this the best Radiohead album this decade.  Instead, the songs make this the best album of Radiohead’s decade.  Each one has personality, power.  They’re all made by a full band, offering insight into their powerful musicianship.  But really, it’s personal affection that gets me to place In Rainbows so high.  I love this album for all that it offers and it is in constant rotation in my music.  These 10 songs are phenomenal.