Ra Ra Riot, The Orchard [2010]

Posted by Greg , Tuesday, August 31, 2010 8:28 PM

The Orchard is not as uniformly upbeat and joyous as Ra Ra Riot's debut The Rhumb Line, which is somewhat of a surprise, given that the band does breezy upbeat chamber pop so well.  Still, there's something unexpectedly captivating about the band's new album, which represents not so much a change of direction as it does a commitment to exploring a greater variety of arrangements and moods.

In the pretty, melancholic opener "The Orchard," lead singer Wesley Miles is complemented by an achingly beautiful combination of Rebecca Zeller's violin and Alexandra Lawn's cello.  The song serves to re-orient the listener's expectations: This is not going to be a rehash of the first record. 

Still, it transitions perfectly into lead single "Boy," which sounds like it could have been lifted from The Rhumb Line.  While this is Ra Ra Riot's bread and butter, "Boy" is the result of a more experienced, self-assured band.  No matter what direction they pursue in the future, Ra Ra Riot will probably always have the ability to write a great song like this.

"Boy" is not the only upbeat song on the record.  The hyper "Too Dramatic" augments the band's typical sound with retro synths.  "Shadowcasting" bounces along before delivering a soaring chorus.  In both songs, Miles sounds more confident and mature than ever.  His growth as a front man is perhaps The Orchard's greatest accomplishment.

That being said, The Orchard also marks the first Ra Ra Riot record to feature cellist Alexandra Lawn on lead vocals (on "You and I Know").  It's always refreshing when the female singer in an indie band does not sound like every other female singer in an indie band (that is, sort of cutesy).  One of the album's highlights, "You and I Know" smolders like Stevie Nicks at her most heart-wrenching.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive comments above, The Orchard is a bit of a grower, especially for anyone expecting the carefree joy of the band's debut.  After repeated listens, though, it is clear that Ra Ra Riot have defied the so-called sophomore slump and crafted a record that exceeds its predecessor.

The Orchard:

You and I Know:

In addition, "Boy" can be found here.

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs [2010]

Posted by Greg , Monday, August 23, 2010 10:13 PM

The characters in Arcade Fire's third album are suffocating.  The Suburbs describes the disappointment of growing up in a modern, middle class life, forced to focus more on punching a clock than being alive.  Much of the imagery is viewed through the driver's seat of a car, winding through well-traveled streets in search of lost youth, meaning, purpose...anything more than the stifling monotony of everyday existence.  The album is pervaded by a serene melancholy, a yearning for the joy of youth mixed with a recognition that we can never go back to it.

Lyrically, the album is remarkably cohesive, with themes (and even particular phrases) introduced in the opening tracks recurring later in the album.  The title tracks touches on many of the topics explored later in greater depth, acting almost as a table of contents for the rest of the album.  This is a level of discipline that is largely absent from the works of Arcade Fire's peers.

Not all themes on the album are confined solely to the suburban experience.  In "Deep Blue," lead singer Win Butler expresses apprehension about the dehumanizing aspects of modernity.  Through a reference to the defeat of chess champion Garry Kasparov by the computer Deep Blue in 1996, the song ponders the impending uselessness of humanity in the face of increasingly sophisticated technology.  Butler doesn't let us forget, though, that this is something we've brought upon ourselves, by our increasing preoccupation with technology that ultimately alienates us from the world and each other:
Hey, put the cellphone down for a while.
In the night there is something wild.
Can you hear it breathing?
And hey, put the laptop down for a while
In the night there is something wild
I feel it, it's leaving me.
This loss of feeling is another recurring theme on The Suburbs, first appearing the opening title track ("I can't believe it, I'm moving past the feeling").  Butler wishes for a child so that he can "hold her hand, and her show some beauty, before this damage is done"; or, in other words, before adulthood steals it all away from him.  In "Ready to Start," he'd "rather be alone, than pretend I feel all right."  And in "Modern Man," he "feel[s] I'm losing the feeling."

Still, there are places when "the feeling" hasn't entirely been stamped out, namely in the darkness of sleep (as in Sprawl II: "but late at night the feelings swim to the surface").  In Half Light, "the night tears us loose, and in the half light we're free."  And even though Butler claims to have moved past the feeling, he admits, "In my dreams we're still screaming."

It's a dark sentiment, but perhaps screaming is better than feeling nothing at all.

The Suburbs:

Ready to Start:

Deep Blue:

Ra Ra Riot, "Boy" EP [2010]

Posted by Greg , Monday, August 9, 2010 10:57 PM

In advance of their second album, The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot have released an iTunes-exclusive EP for the album's lead single, "Boy."  For the price of two songs, you'll get three: "Boy," a cover of the Sparks' "Saccharin and the War," and a stripped-down version of Orchard-closer "Keep it Quiet (Bear)."

Or, if spending money on music isn't your thing, you can download the song from the band's website for the price of your email address.

The Orchard will be released on August 24 via Barsuk Records.


Local Natives, Gorilla Manor [2010]

Posted by Greg , Friday, August 6, 2010 9:21 PM

Imagine a Saturday afternoon in May on the first comfortably warm day of the year.  Your favorite book rests in your lap.  Kids are playing frisbee in the park.  A gentle breeze caresses your cheek.  This is the best day of the year.

On the surface, the preceding paragraph has little to do with Gorilla Manor.  Local Natives are not content to sit still and enjoy the world from a park bench.  Instead, the evocative songs on their debut album form a sonic adventure that needs to be experienced in its entirety.  It's an effect that cannot be reproduced by simply posting two tracks (although I'm still going to do that).  Local Natives find joy in the wonder of discovery, and the listener cannot help but be pulled along for the ride.

That sense of adventure is reinforced through the band's use of percussion.  Unlike bands that may have a drummer to simply keep the beat, Local Natives' Matt Frazier is featured as an anchoring backbone for the theme of each composition.  Just as any good adventure involves considerable walking (or running, skipping, jumping), percussion on Gorilla Manor is the foundation on which all else is built.  Percussion gives movement and fluidity to the songs, as in "Camera Talk." Opening-lyric "We're running through the aisles" is a line both heard and felt.  Indeed, the best tracks on Gorilla Manor are those that have Frazier leading the way.

That being said, Local Natives' sound is dominated by pretty vocal harmonies, such as on Talking Heads cover "Warning Sign."  Elsewhere, the vocals of "Cubism Dream" suggest Jeff Buckley's more subtle moments.  The band has also drawn comparisons to Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, and Ra Ra Riot (with the latter perhaps more for its similarly joyous percussion).

All of these elements are pulled together on the standout opener, "Wide Eyes."  Propulsive beats, an insistent harmonized refrain about self-discovery ("Oh, to see it with my own eyes"), and just when the song doesn't seem to know where it's going, it explodes in burst of guitars.  It's an apt summary of one of the finest debuts of the year.

Wide Eyes:

Cubism Dream:

We Are Scientists, Barbara [2010]

Posted by Greg , Tuesday, August 3, 2010 11:52 AM

I was apprehensive when I heard that We Are Scientists were releasing a new album.  The band's 2006 major label debut, With Love and Squalor, was a blistering set of post-punk revival tunes about getting drunk and waking up on an unfamiliar floor, and one of my favorite records of 2006.  However, its follow-up, Brain Thrust Mastery, took a step away from this scene towards a more 80s/new wave revival vibe.  I suppose this makes sense, as despite being an American band, We Are Scientists have had more success in the UK, where they fit in nicely with British bands such as the Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Maximo Park, and the Arctic Monkeys.

On the surface, lead singer Keith Murray hasn't changed his focus at all.  There is no shortage of inspiration from girls and drunken nights, and the bad decisions that arise from combining the two, but the lyrics also suggest a deeper reading.  Particularly, "Rules Don't Stop" may be less about youthful defiance (as the chorus "rules don't stop me / don't stop me" might suggest) and more a response to the band's critics:

Don't be alarmed, it's not the end of the world.
If we're breaking the rules, it's fine.
I disregard this kind of problem every time.

It's not as if it's gonna kill anyone.
If there's no victim then there's no crime.
Just draw another if you think we've crossed the line.

(Or maybe it's just about drugs...)

But Barbara has taught me a lesson, one which I probably should have learned by now: 30-second iTunes/Amazon clips can be misleading.  Despite my initial impressions that the album would be dominated by the synths prevalent on Brain Thrust Mastery, it actually manages to incorporate the energy of With Love and Squalor, as in "I Don't Bite" and "Nice Guys."

Part of the reason for that is a beefed-up rhythm section.  After the departure of drummer Michael Tapper, We Are Scientists employed session musician Garrett Ray for Brain Thrust Mastery.  For Barbara, they recruited former Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows, and the change seems to have revitalized the band.  The mid-tempo tunes from Brain Thrust Mastery are mostly gone, and the band plays to its strengths: crafting bouncy, energetic rock songs.

While a part me still misses With Love and Squalor, it's not like that album has gone away, and the band has clearly gotten better in the intervening years.  Barbara is a hybrid of the band's last two albums, and as a result, just might have more staying power than anything they've released previously.  It'll be interesting to see where they go next.

Nice Guys:

Break it Up: