Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Andrew Bird - Armchair Apocrypha

On his third and most impressive solo album, Andrew Bird takes a leap into new territory while retaining what makes him so damn appealing in the first place. - by Connor McGlynn

I would like to express my love and admiration for the work of Andrew Bird. There was a time in 2005 between February 8th, the day Bird's The Mysterious Production Of Eggs was released into the collective indie eardrum, and March 22nd (the day Bloc Party debuted Silent Alarm), when I fell victim to his craft. It was my first exposure to his music, and songs like "Measuring Cups" and "Fake Palindromes" instantly opened my eyes to his unique musical and lyrical style. Each song on Eggs played with the tiny hairs on my cochlea covering a whole spectrum of intensity, from the lovely, swaying "Sovay" to the alarming and mysterious "Banking On A Myth."

For many, this album was Bird's best work, one that solidified a genre that he certainly made his own. After a two-year span of touring and recording, Bird returned with an album so blindingly close to perfection and deeply rooted in change that it left some reviewers gasping for breath and yet puzzled others. His lyrics retain their usual wittiness and humor ("And the wine made our mouths too loose / such a reckless choice of words / when you tell me that I'm too abstruse / I just thought it was a kind of bird") while his music may have succumbed to the greatest amount of evolution we've seen from him yet.

On "Dark Matter," Bird begins by demonstrating his remarkable whistling and progresses the song much like the way he constructs his live performances, piling on layer upon layer of violin plucking, progressive drumming, and loose guitars. On one of the album's many highlights, "Simple X," Bird showcases one of his catchiest tunes yet as drummer and long-time friend Martin Dosh beat-battles with a drum machine. It's hard not to recall a bit of Beck on this track (think Odelay's shifting beats and Sea Change's narcotic subtleties, with obvious vocal similarities).

Bird faithfuls generally seem to be on the lamb about Armchair Apocrypha. Some mistake Bird's inventive and dextrous lyrics for those of meaningless abstraction and abstrusity (see the lyric above for Bird's response), while others seem to feel that the album as a whole lacks the ingenuity and substance that his previous releases almost relentlessly display. It's without a doubt that Armchair is his most accessible release (that's not to say his others are inaccessible), but don't let yourself get caught up in cliché: just because an artist is creating undeniably appealing songs doesn't mean the artist has gone for the $green$ and abandoned his base.

Armchair Apocrypha is Andrew Bird's strongest release to date and if current vibes don't float that way, they most likely will as his career expands in the upcoming years. It's likely his future musical endeavors will see just as much progression but for an artist whose last two solo albums soared over similar plains, Armchair marks this Bird's flight into new territory while continuing to illustrate his strength as a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and yes... as a whistler too.
[MP3] Andrew Bird - Heretics

Previously on IGIF: Andrew Bird: Heretics | Fingerlings 3 | Black Session [Live]

<-- Andrew Bird -->
Official Site | MySpace Site | More MP3s | Buy Armchair Apocrypha

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Nas - Hip Hop Is Dead

In his 8th album, the Street’s Disciple creates a wake up call full of musical experimentation and dense wordplay. - by Louie Michaud

Illmatic proved to a bunch of us that Nas has an incomparable talent, and as I’ve said in the past I was not expecting him to repeat his work, but instead make an album that reflects those same abilities. In all honestly I figured this album would be pretty solid, like Stillmatic solid—not at all perfect, but pretty consistent, laced with a few real hits. I did not expect Nas to blow me away with his crazy wordplay on the first track. I did not expect Nas to be so brutally honest with his message, to expose the problems in hip-hop while still remaining poetically optimistic. I did not expect the music to so smoothly cross genres. I did not expect to be speechless as the last 30 seconds of the final song finished. Never have I been happier to be wrong…

Beats have never been Nas’s strongest asset, but with the help of Kanye West, L.E.S.,, and Dr. Dre, among others, almost every single track on Hip Hop Is Dead is creative enough to hold its own. A few songs, like “Money Over Bullshit,” “Carry On Tradition,” “Play On Playa,” and “Hustlers” are very catchy and straight up solid. There are also a couple tracks, “Not Going Back” and “Let There Be Light,” that utilize the best aspects of modern R&B to the point that the music is gripping and purposeful, instead of being half-assed or boring.

And then there are the biggest standouts, a handful of tracks that make this album very different than a standard hip-hop release. “Who Killed It?” is unconventional in the tightest way ever, with quirky 30’s detective music and punch-line beat breaks that change under the guidance of Nas’s Edward G. Robinson impression (props to my dad for picking up on that one). “Blunt Ashes” is meant to be trippy; Nas’s dragging flow f#%!s with you, especially with the haunting sounds in the background, and even more if you follow his lead and blaze yourself.

To me, “Black Republican” sounds exactly like it should, like the sound of two rap superstars coming together to unite when it’s really needed, even if that wasn’t Jay-Z’s and Nas’s intent. “Still Dreaming” and “Can’t Forget About You” could be seen as huge risks, blending rap with Bossa-Nova/lounge music and jazz ballads, respectively. But this might be the most exciting feature to the album, because the aforementioned songs are so beautiful; they are complete musical compositions that do not sound at all like awkward genre combinations.

I really love the music on this album, but the great thing is that you don’t have to settle on that alone, cuz the lyrics are just as infectious and meaningful. Nas manages to talk about so many different topics: the role of young rappers and the power-imbalance in the music industry (“Carry On Tradition”), living a new life outside the ghetto while still staying true to it (“Black Republican,” “Not Going Back”), getting caught up in the wrong lifestyle (“Still Dreaming”), and how paranoia from weed can complicate expectations as a famous figure (“Blunt Ashes”).

The themes are dark and explicit, but Nas also stays on the positive side. He reminisces of better times (“Can’t Forget About You”), gives props to some of the founders of rap (“Where Are They Now”) and looks forward instead of worrying about how he is perceived in the industry (“Let There Be Light”). On “Who Killed It?” sort of in the same way Common made the song “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, Nas refers to hip-hop as a woman with white gloves and a long cigarette as he cleverly investigates the murder of rap music. On the final track, “Hope,” he breaks the music down into its simplest form, rapping without music, as he defends hip-hop and points out that if anyone is to blame for hip-hop being dead, it’s those who don’t give a shit about it: those who couldn’t care less if it wasn’t there in the first place.

All of this is done so skillfully. In my opinion it is so hard to find any weaknesses in Hip Hop Is Dead. I would say that I really like 14 of the 16 tracks, with the exception of “You Can’t Kill Me” and “Hold Down The Block.” Those two songs are not bad at all, just not as outstanding as everything else. I also do not think it’s a coincidence that the guest appearances of Snoop Dogg, The Game, Kanye West, and the vocal contributions by Chrisette Michele and Tre Williams are very impressive, something that tends to happen with great albums. So what else is there to say? It’s lyrically sharp as hell, the music is technically creative, and the content covers issues that very badly needed to be discussed. Nas has upped his game and created something so amazing that it will hopefully influence certain artists in the industry to work harder, to strengthen a genre that according to God’s Son is in great need of repair. The woman with white gloves reiterates this idea on “Who Killed It?”, saying ”if you really love me/ then I’ll come back alive.”

<-- Nas -->
Official Site | MySpace Site | More MP3s | Buy Hip Hop Is Dead

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Lupe Fiasco - Food & Liquor

An album of good musical consistency and creative storytelling, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor gives the Midwest a new rapper to brag about. - by Louie Michaud

This year I’ve been caught up in the music of many familiar hip hop faces—DJ Shadow, Ghostface Killah, and Outkast to name a few. But with all this hype over the solo debut of Lupe Fiasco, a Chicago MC who spit a verse on Kanye West’s Late Registration, I was hoping that Food & Liquor would get me into a new face on the hip hop scene. People have been telling me that there’s been a ton of expectation for this guy—apparently Chi-town rappers need to fill Kanye’s shoes before anyone else. To make things worse, a stripped down versionof Food & Liquor was leaked before the official release last month. The bad news then is that Lupe sorta got screwed in giving his audience an unbiased listen to his debut; however the good news is that for some reason I didn’t know any of this.

I’ve had this album going in my room for the past few weeks, and here’s my one word description for it: solid. A friend of mine said that Lupe Fiasco is a “breath of fresh air,”—I’m gonna have to agree with that. He is a really good storyteller; songs like “Kick, Push” bring that out. His smooth, controlled flow is something to watch out for in the future as well. All of this comes together, in my opinion, on the song “Hurt Me Soul.” Even though the song might not reach single-status, it is easily the highlight of the album for me—a truly memorable beat filled with some really thought out verses. I’ll hold my official claims for the end of the year, but if I make some lists for you guys around late December, expect “Hurt Me Soul” to be way up there.

When an MC can control a song, and not the other way around, there is a lot more room for new and different music. I make that last point because Food & Liquor does have a flaw or two. The music is definitely interesting, there is no doubt to that (check out the song “I Gotcha, produced by the Neptunes). However it does become a bit repetitive at times, it falls off a bit at the end (especially with the Kanye-influenced 12 minute shoutout track “Outro”), and there is no real distinctness in the music—no more than one track really blows me away beat-wise.

You could say that the repetition in the music is not a bad thing, that it just shows how solid of an album Food & Liquor actually is. And while I agree, it is a solid debut by a creative mc with much potential, nevertheless this is no Black on Both Sides or any other album where the music is distinct from song to song, yet simultaneously consistent. Lupe Fiasco has done his job to keep hip hop solid, and luckily for all of us he has room for improvement.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

"By land, by sea, by dirigible..." Once again, The Decemberists have produced an album that, like any good hallucinogen, transcends the listener through space, time, and history. - by Will Levenson

I know this review is coming a bit late, but to be honest it's taken me some time to put words to the way I feel about the new Decemberists album, The Crane Wife. I mean, if you knew me you'd realize how huge it is that I'm speechless. A few albums have struck me like this one, and those are things like Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain, or pretty much any album released by Radiohead. There are just moments in music that are so difficult to define that it's almost a disservice to even try. But at the risk of perverting the brilliance of The Crane Wife, diminishing or misinterpreting it, I'm going to tell you about one of the best albums of 2006.

Unlike the Decemberists' previous LPs, The Crane Wife is most similar to their concept EP The Tain. By that, I mean that there are narrative themes running throughout the album, and it seems to reference itself constantly. The songs are all epics--it's not hard to believe when two of them are over 10 minutes long!--with incredible stories and even more incredible music. The new production value serves them well--it's their first album on a major label--and instead of downplaying their eccentricities and becoming more "pop", Colin Meloy and co. have found the happy medium between their unique form of musical expression and a more coherent sound traveling throughout the album.

This is the first time we have a full Decemberists EP without a sea shanty. This doesn't mean their material has changed--they are still writing about things like the Civil War and anti-Catholic serial murderers. Their style has changed though. But unlike some really horrific style changes--dare I invoke the name Plans?--the Decemberists have seemed to evolve, to adapt and grow and mature like truly legendary artists do.

So let's get down to specifics. The album starts with a beautiful piece called "The Crane Wife 3", which is the final piece of the 3-part Crane Wife "trilogy"--the first two parts come as the penultimate track. The second song on the album is a three-part epic that reads like a mini-Tain. This track introduces one of the Decemberists' newly evolved toys--the organ, which they utilize in fantastic ways. The rest of the album is filled with songs about doomed love affairs, criminal conspiracies, and, of course, a Japanese folktale called "The Crane Wife."

I don't know what else I can say about this album. Anything I can say is simply describing the basics of it, not the nuances and subtleties that enrich the album, filling it to the brim with a pulse and a life the likes of which I haven't seen in music for years. It's albums like this that can change genres, that can redefine what popular music can do and where it may go.

The last song on the album is a piece about hope, about the time when war is finally over and we can all find that place where the echoes of war can no longer reach us. It ends with a refrain of the line: "Hear all the bombs fade away..." Until that time comes, we can drown out the bleating sounds of rhetoric with the soothing, inspiring album The Crane Wife.

<-- The Decemberists -->
Official Site | MySpace Site | More MP3s | Buy The Crane Wife

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Grizzly Bear - Yellow House

Yellow House lifts its nose at traditional pop conventions, huddles by the fire to watch Bambi on VHS, and puts out its cigarettes in "freak folk's" eyes. Freak Folk, we barely knew thee. - by Connor McGlynn

I live in a fairly small town in Rhode Island called Little Compton, with a population of about 3,000. The land is very spread out: rolling fields, farms, woods, and plenty of beaches. Because of this, nighttime in my town is completely serene, as dark as night gets. On a good, clear night, the sky opens up to reveal thousands upon thousands of sparkling dots: shooting stars, radiant starlight, and waves of allure clearly not meant for this world. This wondrous sight, however, does not come easy. It's not for impetuous passers-by, nor does it reward nonchalance and passivity. Sure, anyone can spot the north star or the big dipper, but full scale beauty takes time and effort to achieve; eyes need time to adjust to darkness.

Grizzly Bear's sophomore release, Yellow House, is an album ambiguously feathered with both instant likeablility and mind-numbing complexity. It's not hard to spot and enjoy the album's immediate standout tracks, such as the doo-wop jam "Knife" and the guarded "Central & Remote." Tracks such as these are riddled throughout the album. Their melodies, such as the various layered vocal harmonies on "Knife" and the slow, taunting whistling on "Plans," are exceedingly imaginative and inviting, not to mention some of the loveliest and catchiest melodies I've heard since Brian Wilson's SMiLE or Sufjan's Illinois. However, the chance that you'll get hooked within the first few seconds of a song is fairly low. In a world of iPod Shuffles and 30 second previews, not to mention thousands of music blogs posting thousands of MP3s a day, music's increasingly critical finger is always on the trigger ready to press "next." That is by no means the way to listen to Yellow House.

Many of the songs on this album open fairly slowly, with extended instrumental intros and low, droning arpeggios. Because most of the songs lack a fail-safe system of verse-chorus-verse, its easy to feel overwhelmed, confused, and possibly conflicted... but this is all part of what beautifies the album. Induced emotion like that is not only hard to put into words, but hard to take as well. Some refrains, like the opening flutter of "Easier" that begins the album, is entirely bewildering, yet strangely comforting at the same time. While you're sitting there wondering what has come over you, you'll realize that the answer is simple: it's pure bliss. The song progresses with a decidedly strange, overbearing vocal harmony, a sonic representation of "follow the bouncing ball" from any number of your favorite Disney cartoons... and that's not surprising, considering most of these songs could easily sneak their way into Bambi, particularly the nightmare scene, and we'd all be none-the-wiser.

There are many casual (read: lazy) journalists that find satisfaction in grouping Grizzly Bear in with other "animal name" bands, specifically Animal Collective, Wolf Eyes, or Panda Bear, thus placed under the continuously annoying "freak folk" genre. What absolves Yellow House from adorning such a label (one that has now become an uneasy staple in alternative music), aside from not yet being blessed by his highness Devendra, is Grizzly Bear's tremendous propensity for depth and activity (as opposed to passivity). One weakness, however generalized, with "freak-folk" is a sense of dispassionate disregard within the creation and output of music. That's not to say the output is worse or bad because of that-- I loved Cripple Crow just as much as anyone else--but it is to say that while on one hand, "freak folk" is more free, rawer, more elemental, it nevertheless can be called out for the too-often causal approach to its creation. Grizzly Bear completely and passionately reject such procedure. The only thing "freak" about Grizzly Bear is the unusually outstanding, brilliant quality of their music.

Yellow House is certainly not an album to be missed. When a piece of music comes along that has the power to completely sway emotions, to become a literal presense in the room, among your surroundings, it becomes a piece of you. Yellow House won't be life changing for all of us, but given the time and attention it undoubtedly deserves, anyone can fall in love with this album. Beyond its walls, above its atmospheric soundscapes, dispersed throughout its never-ending universe of sound and beauty are hundreds and hundreds of beckoning notes, chords, harmonies, euphonies, overtones, and melodies staring down at us, staring deep inside each and every one of us, revealing things we never knew existed. We should all be thankful we can be part of such introspection and discovery.

[MP3] Grizzly Bear - Easier