Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Overdue Eviction Notice

Dear SCQ Faithfuls,

There was a time when this SCQ Reviews page collected aging album reviews from www.skeletoncrewquarterly.com and dropped them here. They gathered, clusters at a time, in order to fulfill a system of links and code that I established back in 2008 when I had no idea how to organize a blog. As evidenced below, I quit the process last spring as it was becoming more complicated than it was valuable.

Well, as of today, I've effectively re-organized the main website so that current content can co-exist with the SCQ Review Archive at www.skeletoncrewquarterly.com. A good handful of rogue reviews remain exclusively at this Archive blog -- I'll get to them if they're worth saving -- but so ends a cumbersome chapter in SCQ's early-blogging education. 

Thanks for overlooking the mess along the way,

~ Love SCQ

Friday, March 11, 2011

Total Life Forever - Foals (No Ripcord Review)

Total Life Forever

Sub Pop Records.

No Ripcord Rating: 8/10
SCQ Rating: 85%

I’ve never heard Antidotes in full and, as it turns out, I don’t need to. For all intents and purposes of this review, that 2008 record may as well not exist since I’m not even going to blather about contrast and how its brass-addled, white-boy funk has been discarded this go around. It hasn’t. Upsetting as this may be to fans that sleep with a copy of Antidotes under their pillows, the album’s most memorable attribute is that even Foals didn’t care for it, at first shuffling Dave Sitek’s production efforts under the rug before outright dismissing it during recent press circuits. Another strike against Antidotes’ presence is that Total Life Forever essentially guards that same white-boy funk, less angular but increasingly dance-ready.

If there’s one hidden impression worth taking from the “controversy” surrounding Antidotes, it’s that Foals set their bar rather high. They were courageous enough to follow their ideals by shelving Sitek’s production and they’re serious enough about evolving to openly simplify their sound. That discipline shows on the surprisingly conventional Total Life Forever, which forsakes much of their earlier chin-scratching artiness for trendier dance-rock rhythms. Whatever the band’s intentions, you can’t fault opener 'Blue Blood' for appealing to a wider audience when its bouncing bass and crisp guitar chimes radiantly over Yannis Philippakis’ heartfelt vocals. Alternating between dewy atmospherics and guitar tones so brittle they border on electronic, tracks like 'After Glow' and 'Alabaster' make-up the general trajectory of Foals’ songwriting by rising to a percussive climax. Whether inspired by funky outbursts or frenetic emotions, Foals seem to be drawing more directly from the NME’s recent graduate class, utilizing the earnestness of Bloc Party and the soaring choruses of Friendly Fires as a template. That these newfound similarities with other successful British indie acts unveil themselves naturally amid Foals’ own idiosyncrasies is no fluke, rather proof that these lads are capable of far more than simply fitting in.

Considering the determination Foals have already shown over their young discography, it’s possible that this record could just be flexing their pop muscles. Yet Total Life Forever’s knack for dance-rock is so infectious and eager-to-please, it‘s almost troubling. Outside of the odd instrumental ('Fugue') or flirtation with excess ('Spanish Sahara'), the record seems hypnotized by its strict formula of repetitive choruses and building intensity until the final two tracks, 'Two Trees' and 'What Remains', remind what a compelling voice Foals can offer the Brit-rock universe. Beautifully ethereal yet firmly rooted in careful dynamics, these distinct, late highlights should serve as a wake-up call suggesting that by blindly embracing pop structures, Foals are weighing appeal against integrity. The difference? Integrity lasts much longer.

This review was originally published on No Ripcord...

There Has To Be More - Radioseed

There Has To Be More

Quince Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

A good percentage of listeners craving some sunny Scandinavian pop likely missed out on Ecovillage’s wickedly overlooked debut last year, which cluttered boy-band vocals and world-music touchstones into a warped and woozy long-player. In SCQ’s review of Phoenix Asteroid, the lazy term “ear candy” came to encompass the duo’s ability to collage antagonistic genres into something spellbinding and yet, after repeated listens, somewhat trite. Peter Wikstrom’s solo guise as Radioseed seems destined to kick off in the same Ecovillage vein with ‘Magic Friday’, a frolicking commune of stray woodwinds, folky guitar and harmonica, before ‘Raspberry Cream Dream’ raps on the door with a thick and humid dance beat. The swiftness with which Wikstrom’s beats direct There Has To Be More’s dreamy haze doesn’t divorce Radioseed from the Ecovillage umbrella so much as give purpose to what would otherwise sound like a world-music ambient wash.

Those buoyant beats of ‘Raspberry Cream Dream’ shed light on Wikstrom’s affection for late 90s house music which, if I’m not mistaken, puts Wikstrom ahead of electronica’s headstrong obsession with 80s synth-projects. Trendsetter or not, Radioseed’s earnest pop-confections and lyrical sincerity draw some curious comparisons; the bass-heavy beats of ‘Kissed Your Galaxy Goodbye’ call to mind Chris Sheppard’s Much-Music approved compilations whereas the title track digs into more soulful, if no less anthemic, synth-pop which verges on M83’s upbeat fare. From that title track’s midway point, There Has To Be More embraces a more somber tone alongside its tribal-inflected house-beats, with ‘Keep Your Friends Close’ and the eerie ‘Pearly Sister’ both utilizing wordless vocals to instill serene reflections. The solo LP, like Phoenix Asteroid, closes in epic fashion with ‘Miracle Of Triumphant’, a percussion-heavy track that ebbs into gloriously tender ambience before reassembling with a vocal-assisted outro.

Although surrounded by field-recordings of birds and gentle waves, There Has To Be More adapts better to the worldly burden Phoenix Asteroid occasionally felt anchored by. That said, Radioseed’s potential deal-breaker revolves around his unparalleled enthusiasm which, when pushed into overdrive (as on ‘Summer Shower’), results in the care-free tone of an amusement park commercial (i.e.: “everybody’s looking for something/it’s summertime/I can’t wait, I can’t wait to get out there/and show you what it’s all about!!”. (If you’ve heard the track, you’ll agree with my liberal inclusion of exclamation marks.) Wikstrom may push his pop sensibilities to uncomfortable limits that one time but the rest of Radioseed fits joyously into indie-electronica’s rewarding gray area. A thoroughly successful reimagining of the Ecovillage sound.

Pot Calls Kettle Black - Small Sins

Pot Calls Kettle Black

Small Sins
Arts & Crafts Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

It’s hard to forget Small Sins evolved from The Ladies and Gentleman, even if you never heard that mid-2000s band in the first place. Between his regularly updated website and promotional writing around the release of Pot Calls Kettle Black, Thomas D’Arcy still seems caught in the aftermath of The Ladies and Gentlemen’s demise and calls the past two years of public inactivity his “dark period”. Not one to shy away from his emotions, D’Arcy has integrated them as undercurrents for his latest electro-pop collection, Pot Calls Kettle Black.

From the lush opening of strings and soft bass, D’Arcy’s title track professes a major ace up its sleeve: producer John McEntire (of Tortoise and Broken Social Scene fame), who adds a certain sheen over these tracks. The choice of producer suits the utilitarian strengths of D’Arcy’s songwriting, leading to little songs that feel embossed with glossy finishes. Quaint confessions get magnified in the moody arrangement of ‘My Dear’ until it sounds like a Death Cab for Cutie song and ‘Tonight’ works no differently, its resignations blown up with ivory cascades and a pounding drum-machine. If you hadn't guessed amid all of these band-comparisons, D’Arcy’s voice (as both songwriter and vocalist) fits snugly into pre-worn song-structures and McEntire takes advantage with stylish arrangements that speak pop from different indie-genres. The electronic leanings of ‘Never Again’ evoke the perky undertones of Junior Boys while ‘Where There’s Gold’ gives melancholy a widescreen swoon similar to The Go Find.

We won’t try to sugar-coat it,” D’Arcy incites during ‘Tonight’ but the full orchestral flourishes behind him say otherwise, and the record thrives off of its contrast between songwriter and producer. Whether that sense of irony is why it’s called Pot Calls Kettle Black in the first place, I don’t know, but Small Sins should finally worm its way out of D’Arcy’s past with such satisfying results.

Loop Over Latitudes - Dalot

Loop Over Latitudes

n5MD Records.

SCQ Rating: 76%

It’s curious that n5MD, a label that initially dealt in the mini-disc as its format of choice, now regularly issues some of the most commanding, full-length-encompassing records of all the electronic imprints. This isn’t the case of a once micro-scaled label puffing out its chest; their reputation for quality albums that clock between seventy and eighty minutes in length renders each release day a massive one, each record a mini universe to carry home and discover. Loop Over Latitudes may break that reliable mould by registering well under the hour-mark but Maria Papadomanolaki, who records as Dalot, earns every second of n5MD’s aura by engineering compositions that stretch out ominously without ever blurring into drone’s seesaw dynamics.

As both a classically trained musician and a sound-collage artist, Papadomanolaki merges gentle ambient nuances with everything from crisp traditional instruments and field-recordings to carefully layered noise. Her breadth of knowledge quickly distinguishes ‘Solitary, Vacant’, a gauzy drone track peppered with glitches, by elevating its mood with pastoral guitar and wordless vocals. It’s but the first of many instances where Dalot shapes concrete and lucid structures out of something we’d be forgiven for assuming would remain a zone-out composition. ‘When’ has barely gathered its glum melody when a percolating rhythm rises in the mix, leading to a sumptuous swirl of bass, distorted synths and languid guitar. Even when thick beat-programming swells into ‘Time To Be (Out Of Time)’, these evolutions never sound flashy so much as integral to Papadomanolaki’s unspoken narrative, which unfurls at such a deceiving pace you hardly notice when she lets the ambience win (as on ‘View From a Hill’).

Loop Over Latitudes’ quieter moments unveil Dalot’s aptitude for sound-collages, a secondary ace-in-sleeve that gives her airier compositions a palpable place and time. The distant sirens that squeeze into ‘Rewind’ might’ve felt obvious in the hands of a lazier songwriter but here they contrast an initial seaside setting as though we’re sitting in Papadomanolaki’s passenger seat, drifting back into the traffic artery of a congested city. Loop Over Latitudes doesn’t deserve or plead for exclamation-ridden reactions; it’s a more inert listening experience, where the actual and imaginary aspects of Dalot’s songwriting play with your head.

Pete Yorn - Pete Yorn

Pete Yorn

Pete Yorn
Vagrant Records.

SCQ Rating: 78%

I think I’ve never been in love,” Pete Yorn confesses on ‘Stronger Than’, but it’s a sentiment his fans have long taken for granted. Over his previous four non-Johansson-ized LPs, Yorn's songbook has largely spoken of love in the pretense of its demise - of its shrugging, incapable squandering. And maybe that’s why 2009’s Back and Fourth soured many fans; its full-length scope of being a lonely dude, with shiny but lethargic production by Mike Mogis, lacked the thick-skinned tempos that once gave Yorn’s emptiness some nomadic purpose.

That punch has thankfully been restored on Pete Yorn, a rag-tag assemblage of eleven cuts Yorn and Frank Black (yes, of the Pixies) punched out over five days in Nowhere, Midwest America. From the searing guitar and pounding, no-frills drums of ‘Precious Stone’, Black’s raw production evokes the immediacy of hearing a garage-band in the flesh; the primitive relationship between guitar and percussion standing naked at the forefront of the mix. And Yorn, despite a nagging fever that permeated the majority of recording, revels in the grain of his fractured voice-box, embracing tuneless emoting on the cathartic crest of ‘Sans Fear’ and seething throughout ‘Paradise Cove I’.

To a Yorn-uninformed listener, this self-titled affair might sound like a 90s alt-rock retread – and, in the case of the power-chord driven ‘Always’, it sadly is – but Pete’s taking chances here. Shedding the thick production that protected him for bare-boned testosterone didn’t sound like a winning strategy for the songwriter who made his name with a layered, folky approach, but Yorn’s vocal risks empower some otherwise flimsy tracks (‘Badman’) into a fist-pumping good time. Yorn may not have learned a whole lot about love, but he’s ready to fight for it again. And Pete Yorn is a good fight, indeed.

Sleep Forever - Crocodiles

Sleep Forever

Fat Possum Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

If rock and roll got its start as the heartbeat of youth and aggression, psych-rock’s origin stemmed from marijuana roaches and comfy couches. A different sort of rebellion, then; one that welcomed grooves and tempos that Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry used, not for the purpose of dancing or flaunting their conservative parents, but as a means to surrender their understandings of a genre that had hardly woken up and become self-aware. As a child of the 80s who missed the mainstream peaks of both genres, I hear psych-rock as rock and roll surviving its adolescence and realizing an enormous world of influences and possibilities. Incorporate some eastern raga influences into your guitar-work, grab some dewy mysticism in the form of blown-out reverb, or maybe just act out by playing tapes backwards and singing far-out lyrics. My generation laughed at typecast hippies talking about mind-expansion but that’s because many of us grew up in a time of corporate radio. The tenets of psychedelic rock are all too real.

September saw the release of two prominent psych-rock outfits, Crocodiles and The Black Angels, harnessing similar strains of psych-rock into very separate end results. And although I initially envisioned penning a psych-rock duel contrasting the two, I’ve since resigned myself not to delve into the latter band’s work. Not to say Phosphene Dream isn’t without its merits; actually, The Black Angels hone a very faithful delineation of psych-rock’s roots, from Alex Maas’ vocal-take on Jim Morrison to the rhythm-section’s early-70s swagger. Yet occasionally punching your guitars out of the mix as the 90s saw fit doesn’t equal the progressive scope that a band like Crocodiles are taking on their spellbinding Sleep Forever.

Inaudible strands of heady loops unfurl from speakers into a chugging roar of distortion that sets the groundwork for ‘Mirrors’. And although that roar may not sound so far-removed from the guitar squalls conducted by The Black Angels or their colleagues, it’s just steadying the foundation for Sleep Forever’s coming permutations. Guitar-fuzz merges to haunted-house organs on the raucous ‘Hollow Hollow Eyes’ yet that fuzz develops an anemic sheen over ‘Girl In Black’ and ‘All My Hate and My Hexes Are For You’, as if their testosterone has been drained in favour of quieter reflections. Such meditative songwriting still presents a watershed moment for the band some publications considered a weak link in 2009’s lo-fi explosion, and Sleep Forever’s eight tracks show that Crocodiles aren’t content to simply rehash psych-rock’s greatest trademarks. Split between distorted aggression and hypnotic soundscapes, this record all but refutes the notion that Crocodiles have any contemporaries at present. Far-out, indeed.

An Introduction To... - Elliott Smith

An Introduction To…

Elliott Smith
Kill Rock Stars Records.

SCQ Rating: 80%

In university, I dated someone who kept a picture of Elliott Smith in her wallet. Cut from a magazine sometime during her late-teen years, it pressed firmly between her bills and I.D. as if Elliott was enrolled at a faraway college and I was taking advantage of their long-distance situation. It would be months before that pocket-sized picture was replaced with one of yours truly, but I’m sure he just got shuffled deeper into the wallet’s folds. That’s what Elliott Smith means to so many people; his songs reached out to us as naked and honest confessions and his death immortalized our devotion, the only currency we could reciprocate with. So once the vault-doors have been closed and 2007’s New Moon appears to be the last representation the Smith estate looks willing to impart, we reevaluate the loss of Elliott Smith with the first (of many, I reckon) compilations: An Introduction To….

Cleverly avoiding the impossible task of selecting either a “Greatest Hits” package or “Best Of” controversy, Kill Rock Stars’ Introduction draws from Smith’s entire catalog but most liberally from Either/Or. Alongside fan-favourites ‘Between the Bars’ and ‘Angeles’ sit compulsory sleeper-hits ‘Needle In the Hay’ and ‘Waltz #2’ that fanned Smith’s less committed admirers, the combination forming a first-impression that’s laidback and sorrowful. Then some unexpected selections try to lift the mood, using the charms of ‘The Biggest Lie’ to alleviate some strain and the single edit of ‘Happiness’ as a closer. Of course it’s all for naught because An Introduction To…’s very existence supersedes any narrative melancholy, becoming that fatalistic last straw to remind us that Smith’s canon is recyclable but asphyxiated. The best Kill Rock Stars can do is offer a collection versatile enough to promote Elliott Smith as a timeless songwriter and they accomplish this easy task without dwelling on much of the material that foreshadowed his demise.

As with any compilation, introduction or not, there will be discourse about sequencing and omissions. The disc avoids the chronological route, thereby ruling out any uneven weighing between Smith’s move from lo-fi troubadour to major-label orchestrator. I’d have made some alternate choices, like ‘Roman Candle’ instead of ‘Last Call’ or ‘Alphabet Town’ over ‘Alameda’, but everyone will differ over the best fourteen puzzle-pieces to reassemble a complicated songwriter. Hell, I’m certain many people will balk at the allocation of ‘Twilight’ or ‘Angel In the Snow’ where ‘Christian Brothers’ might’ve stood, but I’m happy they’re included, and those differing opinions all vindicate An Introduction To…’s primary intention. Elliott Smith’s catalog remains too colorful and powerful to be distilled within an hour’s listen. When dealing with a fan-base that holds their songwriter's music tight to their chests and occasionally tucked within their wallets, An Introduction To…’s saving grace is that Kill Rock Stars never try to tie a bow on his saga.

Kilimanjaro - Superpitcher


Kompakt Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

While his crossover success has been modest, Askel Schaufler, better known as Superpitcher, is highly revered within German techno’s progressive ranks. Besides collaborating with Kompakt co-founder Michael Mayer to form the duo Supermayer, Schaufler’s solo catalog has always prided quality over quantity, allowing only a filter of his most pressing work (remixes for the likes of Dntel and Charlotte Gainsbourg) to find clamoring fans. Kilimanjaro more than makes up for his frugal output; an overly generous full-length that lives up its namesake of Africa’s towering mountain, these eleven tracks show little self-consciousness in how they evolve and consume a vast array of svelte deviations.

If we’re to regard Kilimanjaro as a straight techno record, it’s likely one of the year’s most ambitious with Superpitcher creating his own aural playground, whereby expansiveness flirts at the fringes of decadence. ‘Friday Night’ and ‘Country Boy’ handily live up to club-goers demands with rhythmically tight hooks that ride subtle changes over ten-minute run-times, but they only hint at the convoluted directions Kilimanjaro delves toward. The dub-imprinted ‘Voodoo’ and the eerie guitar-affected ‘Give Me My Heart Back’ don’t shy away from Schaufler’s impressive beats, but they do present a more capable songwriting voice than your typical “It’s Friday night / And I’m not dancing” shtick, one unafraid to probe matters of quirky or personal nature.

When you hear the languid triphop of ‘Who Stole the Sun’ combine with creepy vocals, multilayered and in an unrecognizable language, note that top marks in ambition alone don’t equate to greatness. Uneven and colossal, Kilimanjaro wasn’t designed to be a straight techno record and, although its seventy-plus minutes ensure a few uncertain treks, its scope impresses. Merging his well-crafted techno with paranormal vibes and unsettling vocals, Superpitcher’s unusual generosity here won’t unveil his peculiar approach to dance music. And for that reason alone – namely the odd-ball character infused to these bangers – Schaufler’s fans will remain insatiable for whatever comes next.

New Love - Former Ghosts

New Love

Former Ghosts
Upset the Rhythm Records.

SCQ Rating: 83%

Few sensations can be as scary and self-effacing as falling in love. Every action and reaction committed by your love interest feels subliminal to something deeper, creating anxieties whether you choose to perceive such gestures as romantic or casual. So many doubts: are you both on the same page, does he/she feel the same, and - most terrifying of all - are you in this all alone? In the case of Freddy Ruppert last year, that fear had been realized and chronicled for Fleurs, a devastatingly detailed post-break-up record that enriched Ruppert’s loss in a reverb that simultaneously sought to bury him.

So while this new LP bears a title suggesting a reinvigorated chance at happiness, its thirteen songs thrive and thrash like the stream-of-conscious sentiments of an unsure lover. Pounding mid-tempo assertions set up Ruppert’s quiet confidence in ‘The Days Will Get Long Again’ but dissipate into wintry despair for ‘Until You Are Alone Again’ with a suddenness that borders on bipolar. His brittle emotions make for compelling listening, as the inspired rush that romances ‘New Orleans’ almost feels disillusioned in hindsight once we’ve heard ‘Bare Bones’, a plodding epitaph that finds Ruppert breaking down by the thirty-second mark. Quelling the emotional rollercoaster is Nika Roza Danilova of Zola Jesus, whose seismic vocal presence punches out two club-worthy highlights, but ‘Bare Bones’, while at first unlistenable, leaves the longer impact with a melody so peculiar it should be restricted to one’s subconscious (nevermind the unforgettable vocal performance).

None of this is meant to imply that New Love isn’t lighter, at least sonically. By dropping much of Fleurs’ moody reverb, Former Ghosts reign all of this rediscovered aural real-estate by embracing pop structures. Both ‘Winter’s Year’, which introduces Yasmine Kittles into the collective’s fold, and ‘Right Here’ breeze effortlessly on shimmering synths and a post-punk beat, providing the requisite balance to keep the record’s darker moments at bay. The cleaner production exposes both a glitchier aspect to Former Ghosts’ sound as well as a textural one, its odd rhythms permeating the title track like noises in a foreign bedroom at night. Somewhere behind the electronic curtain, Jamie Stewart can be felt tinkering around.

New Love seems burdened not by the countless anxieties that play into a relationship’s awkward beginnings, but by Ruppert’s self-acknowledged lusting, which treats each romantic possibility as a new obsession to fall headlong into. “When you kiss me / it seals my fate,” Ruppert sings at one point, confirming how vicious New Love’s cycle really is. Slick songwriting overcomes even this fated-to-misery narrative, resulting in one of 2010’s most unnerving records.

Things Luminous EP - Crush Buildings

Things Luminous EP

Crush Buildings
Rifle Eyes Records/Bandcamp.

SCQ Rating: 76%

With all of our possessions loaded into a U-haul truck, we pulled into Ottawa one night in late December looking to breathe fresh air after two years of Toronto smog. Mapping our way through its snow-covered downtown streets, I was also hungry to explore Ottawa’s local independent scene… something that, eleven months later, I’m still trying to locate the boundaries of. Thankfully the first band I’ve grabbed onto happens to be, in hindsight, one of our capital’s most promising; Crush Buildings refuses to be pinned to a particular music-tag and their recent EP vindicates this refusal to narrow their sights.

Although ‘Blueteeth’ and ‘Swinging the Lantern’ offer complex indie-rock compositions that deviate tempos and wallow in rich instrumentation, they’re just one side of Things Luminous EP’s understated tour de force. Electronic textures drift ‘The Minutes’ in a shoegaze direction that nevertheless fails to plateau the band’s creativity, as their euphoric slowdown at the bridge manages to deepen the track’s emotional core. Crush Buildings avoid jumping so far out of their comfort zones that they hinder their EP’s scope, thereby smartly leaving ‘The Minutes’ a spacey centerpiece around two couplets of original indie-rock. Rarely can a band – especially one this young – convey so much passion into a twenty-minute EP, but Crush Buildings’ songwriting affords that maturity. It’s anyone’s guess where the band will go from this point but one thing’s for sure: Ottawa could use far more records as unique as Things Luminous.

Song Islands Vol. 2 - Mount Eerie

Song Islands Vol. 2

Mount Eerie
Phil Elverum and Sun, Ltd.

SCQ Rating: 64%

Seriously?” Yep, that’s how I first responded to the very existence of Song Islands Vol. 2. Don’t get me wrong: Phil Elverum’s discography displays, if nothing else, how ‘prolific’ should be done, by assembling projects borne of personal heritage (Mount Eerie’s childhood fantasy) or social circumstance (Lost Wisdom's communal sessions with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire) and churning out sudden explorations into vastly new sonic terrains (Wind Poem’s metal affinity). And my disbelief over Song Islands Vol. 2’s premise doesn’t even rest at the seeming impossibility of gathering spare parts from those wildly different releases and cramming them together... although, let’s face it, that’s a concern. My disbelief instead stems from Elverum’s chosen tracklisting, which features an ungodly thirty-one songs all courtesy of someone who has already put out seven releases since 2008.

And then ‘Where?’ begins, a half-finished song full of Elverum’s familiar tape-hiss and multi-tracked murmurings, and I’ve already forgiven him. Despite Mount Eerie’s tireless parade of EPs, LPs, CD-books and 12”s over the past half-decade, the magic that first instilled early Microphones work with his personal, lo-fi oddness still sounds fresh today. Even amid the India-indebted ‘The Intimacy’ which overlays eastern rhythms with a beautiful collage of harmonics, the first, er, one-sixth of Song Islands speaks like an average (meaning peculiar) Mount Eerie release. Maintaining any sort of LP arch goes out the window with the trash-thrash of ‘instrumental’ and the isolated vocal-tracks from Lost Wisdom’s ‘Voice In Headphones’ and, although each of these leftovers offer a glimpse into moments of Mount Eerie’s back-catalog, there’s enough quality material here to warrant a thematically tighter collection of fifteen key tracks. The improvised strums of ‘Cold Mountain’s Song #286’ evoke Elverum’s rustic sensibilities so well, it could’ve tied swimmingly into ‘Grave Robbers’ or stretched into the more adventurous ‘Calf In Pasture’.

Yes, it’s difficult to resist the urge to re-sequence and, in a way, validate these many highlights from Elverum’s intended hodgepodge. Playing out like a restless retread of ideas that hovered above, if never settling upon, Mount Eerie’s previous entries, these seventy-odd minutes deliver the intermittent case of déjà vu here and there. Elverum’s aura may swerve this raw bulk of recordings from feeling like a gutter-scraping cash-grap but Song Islands Vol. 2 would’ve been far more approachable had Elverum not treated it like a waste-bin for everything lying around.

Swanlights - Antony & the Johnsons


Antony & the Johnsons
Secretly Canadian Records.

SCQ Rating: 88%

During his interviews promoting The Crying Light last year, Antony Hegarty admitted his approach to the studio process wasn’t nearly as accomplished as his live approach, and that he was hoping to better translate his recorded work. Such a humble stance on his previous albums comes as an obvious surprise to anyone who has heard the brilliant I Am a Bird Now or The Crying Light, but those perceived shortcomings actually gather some veracity over the adventurous bent of Swanlights, a record that wipes clean Hegarty’s conflicts with identity, if not the environment around him.

Inner peace aside, Swanlights doesn’t quite fill the shadows of the group's Mercury Prize-winning 2005 effort but the stakes here aren’t nearly as dramatic to begin with. Hegarty has fully embraced the romantic side that flourished up on The Crying Light (think ‘Kiss My Name’) but placates those convictions beneath challenging song-structures. No longer do Antony and the Johnsons’ songs line up as stoic pillars, either chocked-full or drained thin of emotion like the sharp contrast of their records’ black and white cover-art. Tracks like ‘I’m In Love’, with its oscillating organ, and ‘The Great White Ocean’ purposefully lack centers, choosing instead to unfurl without the pressure to build up or break down in linear fashion. Match this patient plateau of a template with some of the band’s most technicolor arrangements to date, and Swanlights offers a clean break from the melodrama of the band’s past efforts.

Hegarty admits as much on ‘Everything Is New’, a soft ensemble of piano, strings and cymbals that collectively paint the repeated phrase of its title as both wondrous and anxiety-ridden. The orchestration (assisted in part by Nico Muhly) roams freely over Swanlights, at times bleeding through song-boundaries and reducing individual tracks into a succession of ebbs and flows. ‘Violetta’, although a mere thirty-six seconds long, preludes the experimental title track well, whereas ‘Salt Silver Oxygen’ and ‘Christina’s Farm’ couple into a beautifully brooding finale. Only single ‘Thank You For Your Love’ circles back to Hegarty’s austere back catalog, yet even it feels imbued with its share of bliss. Having escaped the chiaroscuro shades of more troubling times, Hegarty has mastered the studio process with Swanlights, offering a bountiful palette where everything is, if not entirely new, certainly in bloom.

The Snowflakes That Hit Us Became Our Stars - Seven Saturdays

The Snowflakes That Hit Us Became Our Stars

Seven Saturdays

SCQ Rating: 74%

Hot on the heels of his self-titled EP that came out in January, Jonathan D. Haskell returns with a second mini-album of all new material that may instigate a concentrated bout of déjà vu for the first few minutes. Namely, opener ‘Early Morning Fog Bank’ is behind that familiar feeling, dousing the listener in pre-dawn downtown ambience and audio clips of feminine, French dialogue. Hypnotic though it may be, the track is punch-for-punch identical to the trajectory of Seven Saturdays' ‘The Shallow End’, only slightly longer. It’s a strangely assured move for Haskell, someone with such a vulnerably thin catalog, to self-reference himself so thoroughly but the way both openers lead into their second cuts offers an interesting contrast.

Unlike his earlier EP’s dive into pseudo-Album Leaf territory, ‘Early Morning Fog Bank’ clears up into the awe-inspiring ‘Au Revoir’, a pristine chill-out groove flurried over by strings and a choral. Throw in the intimacy of a toy-box bridge and all-too-brief vocoder-effected vocals - so subdued they’re hardly noticeable - and Seven Saturdays has officially broken new ground. Not the kind of “new ground” that wouldn’t sound terribly out of place on a cinematic car commercial but the kind of posh-electronic hybrid that would freeze you from changing the channel each time it came on.

The remaining five tracks follow ‘Au Revoir’’s lead, showcasing a finessed take on Seven Saturdays' orchestrated sullenness. Haskell’s brief 'Piano Interlude I' and 'II', although executed as stream-of-conscious mood-setters, sweat classically-inclined precision and switch up from the safer padded-keyboard approach of ‘True Romance’. As this nearly ten-minute dream-athon acknowledges, Haskell’s evolving songcraft and detail for arrangements does sacrifice that occasional punch his debut EP offered. Thanks to Haskell’s title track, Seven Saturdays anchors the EP with a percussion-oriented instrumental that prevents The Snowflakes That Hit Us Became Our Stars from getting lost in the shadows. Choosing intricate arrangements over the former EP’s forceful dynamics, The Snowflakes That Hit Us Became Our Stars offers a secondary angle at this convincing songwriter.

Ghost Blonde - No Joy

Ghost Blonde

No Joy
Mexican Summer Records.

SCQ Rating: 82%

The ease with which No Joy operate, as a thrashing punk duo bathing in early 90s sonics, belies the durability of their craft. For one thing, there’s enough sweltering feedback here to fuel a thousand attitude-based rock clichés or, equally, the misconception that Laura Lloyd and Jasamine White’s focus settles somewhere in the tall grass of their shoegaze surface. Ghost Blonde proves those assumptions false, its linear pursuits merely a trapdoor to trip listeners into a fuzz-laden cosmos of songs seemingly rapid-paced and drifting all at once.

That tempo paradox is the great hinge in No Joy’s songwriting machine; offsetting their punk-laced guitar stabs with reflective textures and ethereal vocals which blur along a chord’s creases, Lloyd and White support their scathing performances with a delicate, natural ambience. Fed by lush vocal tones and rough guitar-work, ‘Maggie Says I Love You’ ideally captures that nexus between raw musicianship and sound-exploration. All of Ghost Blonde features that execution of melodic punk through soft lens, trimming the guitar of ‘Heedless’ to a blunt rumbling or affixing some echo to the swirling ‘Indigo Child’. None of their clever doctoring is unique in and of itself, perhaps, but No Joy somehow manage to imbed these slow-blooming layers without dulling their riffs. This debut’s thick production, instead of feeling murky, actually extends the daydream qualities of songs like ‘Pacific Pride’ or the title track, where a heavier hand would’ve lost the rhythmic backbone pushing things forward so swimmingly.

Mind you, the whole record would sound like a static wash over a pair of tinny computer speakers - and that’s fair warning for anyone expecting Ghost Blonde to deal in brash dynamics. What’s dramatic and enchanting and oh-so-replayable about No Joy’s scene is its introverted nature slowly revealed; those private triumphs best complimented while strolling through November by one’s lonesome, and defiantly lonesome. Sure, Ghost Blonde's crowning moments feel sustained by a woman’s touch but they're razor-sharp enough to simultaneously question what the hell that even means anymore.

Full Circle - Shigeto

Full Circle

Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 76%

No other artist has greased Ghostly International’s blog-approved promotional gears quite as much as Shigeto, and the reasons for that are numerous. For one, the artist otherwise known as Zach Saginaw has released three records this year (alongside this full-length, the Semi Circle EP and What We Held On To EP), but it’s clear Ghostly’s enthusiasm for Shigeto goes far beyond the man’s prolific nature. Over two EPs that showcased an oft-experimental fusion of varied styles bound by a singular vision, Ghostly has positioned Shigeto to join acts like Mux Mool and Gold Panda as the imprint’s new graduating class.

It’s impressive company to find oneself in, no doubt, backed by arguably the best electronic label currently running. Yet until Full Circle, Shigeto’s praise seemed huddled toward his technical skill and not whether it could adequately create something greater than a disjointed flow of ideas. Full Circle puts those fears to rest, building upon What We Held On To EP’s embrace of grooves to christen Saginaw’s unique style amid an instrumental hip-hop framework. Alas, pinning this LP with an instrumental hip-hop tag likens to an insult, when tracks like ‘So So Lovely’ and ‘Sky Of the Revolution’ utilize those stuttering beats as a foundation for all of Shigeto’s detailed counter-rhythms. Synth bubbles orbit the scaffolding of ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and micro-house beats propel ‘Look At All the Smiling Faces’, niceties that somewhat disguise the straightforward digestibility of the set.

A love of jazz also figures prominently into Full Circle, casually loitering the looser confines of these songs and, in the case of ‘Children At Midnight’, taking center-stage with a relaxed jazz-piano sample. Really though, to continue deciphering all of Shigeto’s influences would transform this humble review into a critical essay when, all that aside, Full Circle’s ultimate focus remains groove-oriented. Call it a streamlined take on his more conceptual EPs if you must, but I’d rather hear Shigeto fully explore the possibilities of three ideas in a song as opposed to scratching the surface of twenty. Suddenly all of the hype launched for Shigeto makes sense; he has come "full circle" over the course of 2010, from theoretical taunts to concrete beats, and Ghostly knows this is just the beginning.

Down There - Avey Tare

Down There

Avey Tare
Paw Tracks Records.

SCQ Rating: 77%

This past summer - around the time Animal Collective unveiled a suspiciously late video for ‘Guys Eyes’ – I read a tweet that said, and I quote:

Dear Animal Collective, I still like you so please disappear for two years. Let me miss you. Sincerely, Ryan

Okay so it was me, but I meant it from the heart. The only shadow greater than 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion appeared to be its influence, helping spawn the figureheads of chill-wave while bolstering other acts to embrace the polished electronic leanings of modern psychedelia. Really, who needed a reminder of Animal Collective's impossible standard eighteen months after Merriweather Post Pavilion, when so much of the indie landscape was finally churning out their interpretations of the AC style? I’d heard, seen and read enough so I did what any determined visionary would: I tweeted about it.

Funny then, that none of these Merriweather-dizzy publications shouted from the rooftops over how enjoyable Avey Tare's Down There is. Sure, one magazine proposed that David Portner’s official (as in non-reversed, Kria Brekkan-excluded) solo debut closely followed the proven template laid down on Animal Collective’s most undisputed masterpiece, while another webzine prized Down There with the backhanded compliment of having shown all the chill-wavers “how it’s done”. Bizarre. Just because Avey Tare’s songwriting has contributed greatly to Animal Collective’s influence over young indie bands doesn’t mean he deserves to be grouped in with them, and both shortsighted assertions had me double-checking my Down There tracklisting (not to mention a calendar that dates back further than the chilly Summer Of Love, 2009).

In a move that should feel refreshing to any longtime AC fan, Down There tracks its ancestry from the suddenly out-of-sight, out-of-mind period that spawned Strawberry Jam and Water Curses EP, assuming the former’s disembodied electronic beats and the latter’s watery disposition. Elastic-snapped beats surge ‘Laughing Hieroglyphic’ with an off-axis rhythm to counter Portner’s plodding keys and, although elsewhere he wisely takes on 4/4 beats with ‘Oliver Twist’, most percussion plays sparse and cutting across several eerie (read: airy) compositions. Most stimulating of all is Down There’s sense of mystique, its willingness to confound and refusal to go technicolor with the rainbow’s array of grab-me dynamics that Merriweather Post Pavilion employed. For fans exhausted of Animal Collective’s recent crest of maximized anthems, Down There finds Avey Tare’s songwriting gifts tending to far more introverted gems.

The Age Of Adz - Sufjan Stevens

The Age Of Adz

Sufjan Stevens
Asthmatic Kitty Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

Without putting too reductive a point on it, to mourn Sufjan Stevens’ preciousness is to mourn his finest moments; from Seven Swans to Illinoise (and, to a lesser extent, The Avalanche and All Delighted People EP), Stevens gradually modernized folk with the widescreen scope of rustic hymnals to multi-suite orchestral pop, all the while never forsaking his tender muse. A vague and often contentious concoction of God, women, men and family, Stevens’ sentimentality acted as the central nerve to his songwriting’s voice, effectively imbuing his past couple recordings (including Songs For Christmas, probably the most precious by default) with a warmth that aurally somehow represented home, so who could blame us for anticipating a new Sufjan LP like the return of a family member?

Forget the "States Project" – the proximity of ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ or ‘Jacksonville’ never felt further than a nearby neighbourhood we may have never lived in but recall because something powerful happened to us there. Us being the listener, the royal we who collectively elbowed our own personal trials next to Sufjan’s; by that measure, The Age Of Adz only permits empathy if you’re nearly as self-involved as Stevens sounds here.

So in other words: don’t expect The Age Of Adz to sound like a long-lost reunion, as this isn’t the same Sufjan Stevens we last visited in Brooklyn, circa ‘Christmas In July’, 2005. He has his reasons, sure, although they’re enshrouded in the same vagueness – those unspoken descriptors that allowed us to revel in his inherent coyness – that now takes responsibility for The Age Of Adz’ disconnect. Stevens’ health-battles, while quite rightly none of our business, brought him to the introspective cliff-jumping that songs like ‘Vesuvius’ and ‘I Want To Be Well’ deliberate. His direct soul-searching, which felt so unprovoked and rewarding on All Delighted People, gets increasingly straightforward from the outset of ‘Futile Devices’, where Stevens lyrically paints all the twilight corners of a living-room crash and the host he confesses to love. Complimented by a lushly organic arrangement of piano and acoustic guitar that evokes something Joni Mitchell may have done if she was writing Blue in 2010, the opener’s also a parting shot for other things that Stevens deems as futile. Namely, his past.

Stevens is the first to tell us he’s “not fucking around” and, in that instance, we believe him. His earnestness in dour situations translates well to aggressive ones, and ‘I Want To Be Well’ stands proud in all its synth-bubbling and drum-cascading as a typhoon of human defiance. It might’ve been a rousing finale, there at the farthest divide from ‘Futile Devices’, but that honour goes to the twenty-five minute song-suite ‘Impossible Soul’ which basically finds Stevens fucking around. A lot. Not too long ago, a track like ‘Vesuvius’ would’ve held true to its segue-status by clocking within the three-minute scale, but here it’s padded to an unreasonable five-minutes as Stevens repeatedly sings himself a pep-talk toward good health. Coming from the man who thought we needed four different versions of ‘Chicago’ on The Avalanche and five discs of holiday cheer on Songs From Christmas, excess is part of Stevens’ musical DNA. But what usually camouflaged as “smart excess”, the kind that in short spurts sympathetically lent itself toward the greater picture, clashes on The Age Of Adz. Some truly majestic songs steer clear of Stevens’ tendency, like the behemoth title track and ‘I Walked’, but his excess often clutters that bigger picture, reflecting its author as more of a show-off than a visionary.

Still, some fans mourning Sufjan Stevens’ overt preciousness (R.I.P. 2003-2006?) have taken the melodramatic stance of calling this album a vanity project. The bitterness of that accusation suggests an epic betrayal on Stevens’ part and, while The Age Of Adz is indeed a knife - cutting a perforated line from his recent catalog - no one’s getting stabbed in the back. After the frenzied speculation on Stevens’ “existential crisis” as a songwriter and whether his prolific streak mid-decade had rendered him creatively empty, his mammoth step shows that Mr. Stevens hasn’t been burdened by baggage.

The baggage is all ours. I shared in it, expecting the gentle strums of ‘Future Devices’ to placate and extend Stevens’ knack for soft-sung intimacy. So when ‘Too Much’ explodes with, well, just that, I viewed such a construct as Stevens denying his own natural charisma and talent, hiding the banjo and acoustic guitar that commiserated with his fragility in favour of shock-and-awe electronic effects that inflate every past subtlety into a time-and-space crisis.

The realization that The Age Of Adz isn’t so different from, say, The Avalanche, struck me many listens later, hand-in-hand with the understanding that, despite some electronic foundations, Sufjan Steven’s songwriting has hardly changed. His vocal tone carries greater urgency and these songs amp up the symphonic bombast his previous records rationed wisely, but his sonic palette isn’t to blame for The Age Of Adz’ overacting (even if it enables those excesses a bit). What ails this intermittently brilliant album, and what likely caused his breakdown over what constitutes a song, is Stevens’ Epic-Sentimental-Disorder (ESD), which drops the reigns of self-control that disciplined his most heartbreaking work. No one should disrespect or doubt his need to move forward - even if that evolution includes auto-tune, I guess - but these results, all magnified slabs of synth, fluttering woodwinds and endless refrains of personal struggle, compile into a statement that sounds important but feels surprisingly undernourished.

Colleen & Paul - Colleen & Paul

Colleen and Paul

Colleen and Paul
Boompa Records.

SCQ Rating: 72%

Duos that allow their first names to double as their band name usually fall prey to a series of stereotypes that sketch a well-meaning-but-hopelessly-square folk outfit. If that misguided sentiment is mine alone, I’ll work on it, but my first listen to ‘Mermaids and Surfer Girls’ fit right into that typecast of cutesy folk singers who pride themselves on idiosyncratic lyrics about mermaids and aliens. What turns out to be Colleen and Paul’s fluffiest moment just happened to be my first impression and, needless to say, the song nearly upended my relationship with this debut. It would’ve been a serious shame, as the bulk of Colleen and Paul’s songs contrast their lighthearted approach with peppy compositions that leave melancholic edges for us to cut ourselves on. Don’t worry, it won’t bleed… but it’ll help you relive those times you did.

A good deal of Colleen and Paul’s material touches on relationships, their tumultuous nature and the silly ways we distract ourselves from facing them, so it’s hardly a surprise that Colleen and Paul skips between vague state-of-the-union appeals (‘Please Be Kind’) and disconnected daydreams (‘Ladybug Song’). Regardless of their lyrical content, Colleen Hixenbaugh (of By Divine Right) and Paul Linklater (of the Pinecones) arrange each song to feel carefree first and wistful later. The longingly finger-picked opener ‘Crepe Suzette’ establishes this soft sadness as pleasant and unavoidable; it’s how this nonchalance plays organically into the sharper ‘Shouldn’t I Breathe’ and ‘Lullabye For the T.W.’ that removes almost any trace of occasional triteness. Yeah, even ‘Mermaids and Surfer Girls’ is easier to stomach.

So how did I maneuver from that eye-rolling false impression to a clearer understanding of Colleen and Paul’s obvious talent? Nothing more than a stroll on a clear autumn’s day when the duo’s record unexpectedly registered for what it is: a sweet collection of modern folk that isn’t square at all.

Holkham Drones - Luke Abbott

Holkham Drones

Luke Abbott
Border Community Records.

SCQ Rating: 67%

Plenty of moments on Holkham Drones attest to Luke Abbott’s ability to cause elation in both our limbs and mind. A flurry of tones stir up and bedazzle listeners into a cocoon of barely distinguishable details before a procession of glassy notes steals your attention. From completely spellbound, you turn euphoric. Tricky sleights of hand like that one, from ‘Trans Forest Alignment’, are no doubt why James Holden signed Abbott to his exclusive Border Community label, but they also position Abbott at the gateway where only the most insightful electronic artists have passed through. He’s no Richard D. James and he isn’t quite yet Kieran Hebden, but Luke Abbott calls to mind the sensitivity those artists’ can impart through the unlikely means of harsh beats and alien synths.

Not much sounds outwardly pretty on Holkham Drones; in fact, the record feels incredibly self-conscious about overlaying too many ear-pleasing sounds at once. A healthy percentage of these tracks begin in only the partially constructed stage, whirring like machinery (‘More Room’) or gurgling like a chemistry experiment (‘Sirens For the Colour’), and Abbott – as mad scientist – slowly creates beauty out of these awkward collisions. It’s a ballsy approach to innovation, guiding listeners through every sonic manipulation, but it works so long as Abbott has an ace up his sleeve. That sleight of hand works wonders on the title track, a swollen coda gently streamlined to its pristine essentials, as well as on the techno rhythm that meets a shoegaze-worthy summit on ‘Brazil’. By squeezing harmony out of resistant forces, Abbott achieves an off-kilter hypnosis that not only sounds purely analog-based, but renders these tracks cozier than you’d initially believe.

Holkham Drones’ episodic momentum can only bring listeners so close and, at sixty-odd minutes in length, it requires rigorous levels of patience. Abbott’s processes are easier to respect than love, meaning those tuneless warm-ups that bookend some of his tracks will likely merit the skip button after a few spins. Still, weak moments aside, Luke Abbott has one tremendous thing going for him: he’s the only guy that sounds like Luke Abbott. In the world of electronica, individuality is a rare gift indeed.