Happy Birthday

Delivering love-centric, teen-style, classic-infused pop rock can be hard to do with a straight face. It's so easy to make cloying, mind-numbingly catchy music in the "genre" (let's call it a super-genre). And when you're bending numerous influences into one band or one album, it can make listeners struggle to find their footing when it's done poorly, but when it's done right complicatedly simply music can be staggeringly amazing. In the case of the latter, of successes, comes Happy Birthday and their self-titled first album. The Vermont band brings out heartfelt and complex pop-rock tunes that are almost dance ready, but always emotionally effecting. Through classic song composition and standard progressions, built in with garnishes of chaotic looping, growling effects and lyrical nuances (a combo of harmonies and taxed, melodic chant), Happy Birthday presents eleven tracks that may take a listen or two to grab onto completely, but ultimately stick with you like fine pop-rock should.

Most impressive is the mix of genre here, as touched on above. The opener "Girls FM" is a pure '70s punk-pop track, loaded with post-Beach Boys style sentiments on love and those feelings that it's everywhere and the obsession with attainment. "2 Shy" falls back into a mindset of lamentation, being the person who knows how to talk to people, but is just too shy to do it. These are the sentiments of the young, but they ring universally true. Even as we get older, love and meeting people can become obsessive aspects of life that are as much a boon as a curse. The album turns suddenly with "Cracked," a punk-driven pseudo-screamer that seethes with frustration. Then another turn, to the softer side with "Perverted Girl," which uses a gentler melody and a catchy riff to drive a song about doubt and confusion. But the best song on the album is the one that follows, "Subliminal Message," about unrequited love that uses beautiful harmony and has a brilliantly catchy and retro chorus to drive the track. And there lies the lyrical gem, for a song about unrequited love: "Close your eyes/ Concentrate/ I'm send a subliminal message to your heart." It's a brilliant song that brings the sincerity of the album to an initial head, and in a lot of ways it's the big payoff for the album, but it also marks the depth of Happy Birthday's writing (both of song and lyrics) because the rest of the album seems to evade pop-punk conventions for a more individual imprint. "Eyes Music" is a dense, electronic, chanting swirl of elements, "Maxine the Teenage Eskimo" drops back into '60s surf-rock with "Good Vibrations"-esque sound play, "I Want to Stay (I Run Away)" feels like dreamy '80s pop mixed with '90s radio-rock (with another exceptionally hooking riff). "Pink Strawberry Shake" and "Zit" find similarly strange bedfellows, attaching to '60s power-pop and something like the Kinks meets the Sex Pistols, respectively. And it all closes with the antithetically named "Fun," a song about not being fun, being eternally depressed and distant from the people around.

Happy Birthday is a case where a band really goes all out on the first album, covering a lot of musical and emotional ground with the skill of a mad scientist. There are a lot of experiments on this album that all succeed, and considering all the disparate styles and changes in tone, it's a compelling listen. At times manic, and at times depressive, Happy Birthday's album reflects the chaotic flow of life in youth and in age. They speak to the struggles of the wayward soul and the staunch cynic alike and nail every note. This is one of those albums, one that I bought on a whim, with very, very little idea what I was getting into, and it blows me away, time and again. This is a band to latch onto, to recommend, and to watch grow. Happy Birthday can travel a nearly infinite number of paths from here, and I'm betting wherever they go they'll flourish. Check out Happy Birthday's MySpace page to hear what I've so heavily promoted.
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LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening (pre-release stream)

It's sad to think that there may be an end to LCD Soundsystem's exceptional dance-punk style on horizon. I have a special attachment to Sound of Silver, mostly cultivated through extensive listening at work that planted a seed, finally blossoming into an unfaltering love. LCD Soundsystem excels at blending digital, multi-track music with words that are so real and readily applicable to life. Songs like "All My Friends" and "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down" have a sort of eternal resonance that makes them not only interesting to listen to, but also builds a sort of kinship. We've all been in the mental/emotional places that these songs highlight. Distance, sadness, confusion, incompleteness, and nostalgia comprise a large portion of life. The whole exercise of growing up is predicated upon failure, retries, ego-boosts and ego-breaks. And we'd all be so lucky to have our individual experiences soundtracked by such dynamic, motivating music. LCD Soundsystem's newest This Is Happening will release here in the States on May 18th, but at present it is streaming for free via the band's website at lcdsoundsystem.com/thisishappening/. I have listened through the album twice, and I can't imagine a better way for the band to cap off this project (if this is, in fact, their final collaboration).

James Murphy has always had a grasp of those qualities that make up great music. While the music LCD Soundsystem has shown some signs of repetition, the mood, style and tone of each song has been carefully honed. This Is Happening starts with a slow burner, "Dance Yrslf Clean," which plays up a certain level of drama in the whispered, paced lyrics that builds up and finally overflows in an explosion of dance beats and raucousness. Really, it's the perfect "welcome back" track because it doesn't force its way into your ear so much as (like a great salesman) endear itself to you before showing its true colors. If you know LCD Soundsystem at all, you will instantly recognize this track, like a mother knowing its baby's cry. The powerful opener fades down into "Drunk Girls," a track that is chanting and anthemic. And then "One Touch," which calls interaction and connection as its primary topics. Really, there's not a bad song on the album. The confessional, intimate style (something rare for dance music) permeates this album, as it does other LCD Soundsystem albums, but here even more so. "All I Want," "I Can Change," "You Wanted A Hit," and "Pow Pow" all fulfill the upbeat requirements, creating an air of happy dance-pop that drives the core of the album. But, it's the closers that really pluck at the heartstrings. "Somebody's Calling Me" is a quiet, austere track that settles the mood for "Home." "Home" is the last song on the album. It's all about leaving something and moving on, and reconciling that change. In a lyrical gem we're given: "You might forget the sound of a voice/Still you should not forget the things we laughed about." It seems that we're always confronting this idea, moving on, leaving, changing relationships. Life is transition, or rather, living is transition. When we're stationary (in mind, heart, body, or any combination) is when we begin to die. Sometimes, as in this closing track "home" is actually just transition, rather than some arbitrary stationary object. Ultimately, "home" lies in love and memories; it's always there, but the way we perceive it always changes too. So, LCD Soundsystem leaves us with some philosophical thoughts, as they've done before. If this album is a goodbye, a parting gift, then it's a truly sincere one. And if LCD Soundsystem returns for a fourth helping, then it's just an incredibly apt closing to the album. Pick up a real copy on May 18th, and listen through the catalog because every song in the LCD Soundsystem project is precise, caring and exceptional.
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A Retro Kick: The Beach Boys

The last few album reviews here have been from bands either re-asserting old styles (Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings), redesigning classic songs (The Bird and the Bee), or taking a basic, traditional format in her own direction (Laura Marling). I feel like I've been on a bit of a retro kick lately. Last night I strolled the internet seeking videos of Hall & Oates, Blondie (specifically "Heart Of Glass, live), Toto, Peter Gabriel, and even some Traffic. But it's not just me. Some large portion of hipster-esque, 'net culture is hanging onto the '70s and '80s (and not entirely in an ironic "meme" way). A few weeks ago I posted a video from the A.V. Club featuring Ted Leo covering Tears For Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." And this week, they featured Retribution Gospel Choir (2 of the 3 members of Low, plus) playing a cover of the Beach Boys' "Kokomo," which is a song that I can't hate entirely, even if I don't particularly like it. "Kokomo" is tied in with childhood memories. I seem to recall girls in my elementary school doing a dance recital to the song for a talent show (also featured: "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack). "Kokomo" was inescapable when I was young. It came out when I was eight, and pop-radio was everywhere. And then it was on Full House, too. So, even if I don't think it's a good song artistically, it has a sort of peanut butter quality because it sticks with me. It's one of the few songs to which I'll never forget the words, or melody. The lyrics are dreamy, empty and it's definitely no property of Brian Wilson, but does stand defiant in the face of time, screaming, "Screw you!" in sweet tones to every cynical/realistic song that came before and after it. And so, here's the video because, well, it's actually a little fun.

Retribution Gospel Choir covers The Beach Boys

And another Beach Boys homage/tidbit that came my way via my friend John, who admittedly surfs the web for hidden nuggets way more efficiently than I do. Florida's newest indie rock darlings, Surfer Blood, have recorded a rough, but completely enjoyable version of "Don't Worry Baby" from 1964's Shut Down Volume Two. Really, early Beach Boys music is some of the most earnest and best harmonized in all of modern rock/pop/folk history. Consider the frank, tender, but solemn tone of the lyrics and the way that "Don't Worry Baby" captures both learning to assert oneself and remembering that individuality doesn't mean having to be alone. Brian Wilson, everybody! Surfer Blood does a great job hitting all the marks to keep the song in Wilson's voice, but also carefully spun to their sensibility. Great stuff. Really. Retro kicked. Enjoy. (Via Tim Chester's Soundcloud page)

Don't Worry Baby by tim_chester
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April 20: Phoenix

I'll admit that following the Them Crooked Vultures show on Monday night, I had a bit of bad taste in my mouth so to speak, but more accurately a bad ringing in my ear. It just wasn't the kind of show that results in an uplifting, awesome feeling of general euphoria. Luckily, Tuesday night meant that the Ogden played host to French wonderband Phoenix, a show that I was not only insanely excited for, but one where I would enter as a sort of savant of the music catalog, rather than the novice costume I donned on Monday night. Already, you can see that this show was predisposed for greater success than the last one, but Phoenix also succeeded in playing a staggeringly exceptional show to a packed Ogden. And it was a show that felt both rock star big, and coffee shop intimate. The intimacy was the combined result of stage presence (a notably kind and thoroughly thankful Thomas Mars consistently praising and reaching out to the audience) and sound mixing that was so clean and crystal clear, you'd have hardly believed the show was live, in a small theater at all. The vocals were strong and clear, the guitars grinding, but never lost in the wake of drum and bass. And the keyboards (of which there were 4 at use on different occasions) filled in the sound with an album-like perfection. This was, in recent memory, my favorite live show (ever!).

There was no opening band, a surprise to be sure, given their tendency to exist in almost every show. Instead, a DJ opened with fun mixes of popular songs that were 90 percent successful, and made for a good chatting and drinking environment for the show's first hour. Phoenix took the stage at about 9pm, opened with "Lisztomania" and simply blew the crowd away from there on out. They snagged all the hits, "Fences," "Too Young" and on and on. And there was no wastefulness. These songs were self-contained masterpieces of pop. After each handful of tracks, Mars would thank Denver profusely and they'd crank back into it. The end of the show, following so many tightly played, passionately performed songs, came in a three-part encore set. They closed, of course, with "1901." (This song also prompted a funny show moment: A girl near me in the crowd, during the last lines of the encore opener shouted loudly, "1901!" I love all-ages shows for this reason. I've been to enough concerts to know that the band will play their big song, unless they've toured with it once before and they're tired of it. Good times.) While the final choruses of "1901" turned into fading guitar riffs, Mars found his way out into the middle of the crowd, climbed up on a rail separating the floor levels, and thanked everyone again. Finally, he invited the fans at the floor directly beneath the stage to climb up and finish the song with them. As the band played the grinding riff made famous by Cadillac commercials, and people climbed awkwardly onto the stage, and Mars belted "Fold it!" I felt suddenly and completely tied in with a band that I respect, who didn't just come there to show off (the way I felt Them Crooked Vultures may have), but to play to their fans, to the crowd. Phoenix chose to be entertainers, rather than people entertained by entertaining. It was refreshing, it was fun, and it was exhilarating. And when the show ended at 10:30, it wasn't a welcome ending so much as a satisfying one. Phoenix guaranteed on Tuesday night that I will seek them out again. And they forged a place in the high-ranks of my concert memory. Stellar, incredible, awesome show. That's it.
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April 19: Them Crooked Vultures

It's hard for me to complain about a live show. Even bands for which I have the most lukewarm feelings can impress simply by creating a dynamic performance; grinding, loud, intimate and real. The Fillmore is not a venue for intimacy. It is large, broad and open with infinite opportunities for a gentleman of average height (read: short) like myself to be lost amid the jumping, cacophonous denizens. In seeing Them Crooked Vultures, I had expectations (which is usually not good) that I would see exceptional musicianship, polished stage production and that by the end of the night, my ears would be on the brink of bleeding. All of these expectations were met, and as for hearing loss, met exponentially. The presence of Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones, all on stage at once, was thrilling, and each played their hearts out, so I can't deride the experience. Yet, even with these superstars present, there were aspects of the show that failed.

Them Crooked Vultures is a band with only one album, 13 songs (6 or 7 of which are very good, and the rest on a sliding scale toward filler) and they played on stage for about two hours. I'm not one to decry a great band for playing long, but when the band, like this one, is known for powerful, punchy, punk-power songs, it is especially disappointing when showmanship takes precedent over conciseness. I went to see a band that rocks hard, and generally quickly, and instead found myself mired in a supergroup pseudo-jam. TCV consistently dragged songs that normally come in at between 4 - 7 minutes out to 10 or 15 minutes with long solos, extended "how loud can we get" grinds, and mediocre free-form rounds. Note though, that the music itself was not mediocre, but the fact that these songs are punctuated by their speed and power, were paced out until they had little impact remaining, and at least I (perhaps unfairly) was waiting impatiently for some to end. My as yet un-noted final expectation was primarily the culprit. I thought, as the sound check droned and the suspense built that Them Crooked Vultures would, surely, do a few covers of songs from each member's band. I dreamed of a Foo Fighters cover, a Led Zeppelin cover and a Queens of the Stone Age cover, all provided as penance for the high ticket price ($50) and as a fun time-filler for a band with only one, not-entirely-great album. This never transpired, and I should have known better.

In total, Them Crooked Vultures was solid, loud and exceptional. Grohl battled the drums like a warrior, Homme's vocals were perfect and his guitar excellent. Jones played a great piano solo, and was as expected awesome on the bass. But sometimes a great band is not merely the sum of their parts, and the same sentiment applies to a live show. The best moment of the night came without expectations, as they so often do, with the opening band: Mini Mansions. The sole opener, they played a set of awesome, creative, drum-driven rock that incorporated keys, bass, guitar and harmonies in unexpected measures and proportions. And, they covered "Heart Of Glass" by Blondie, so that pretty much sold me on them instantly. Mini Mansions deserves high-praise for opening for a "huge" act like TCV and doing such a stellar job. The lesson for this show is one of ditching expectations, even if the band seems at times to be playing more for themselves than for the audience.
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Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

Laura Marling is only 20 years old, but sizing her up based on her age or her youthful beauty betrays the amazing potential in her music. At first listen, I'd never have guessed that such a full, mature voice could come from such a young, fresh face, but that's only the initial pleasant surprise of many when listening to I Speak Because I Can. While in many ways a typical singer-songwriter guitar-folk album, Marling's newest also carries with it a mature sadness that's very atypical. The songs that are stories are dour ones, for the most part, and that makes the tone of the album very sedated and heavy. Marling tends to feel intimately close on every song, a recording quality that makes I Speak Because I Can even more effective. While her lyrics concede and reveal feelings of aging, lost love, and isolation, the music and proximity of the tracks make every feel almost coffee-shop immediate. It's as if Marling were sitting just feet away, quietly concocting these little gems of musical poetry. When you can hear the pursing of lips and the catching of breath mid-song, it has a similar quality to the squeak of fingers sliding up and down guitar strings on a long finger-picked lead or solo. It's immediacy, realism and closeness that carry I Speak Because I Can, especially because the tone and mood keep the pace slow, without any popping hits or sudden lifts.

In all fairness, Marling opens with an excellent title track (but one that sets a faster tone than the rest of the album provides). "I Speak Because I Can" begins with a needle dropping onto a record, with the crackle and whir of the turntable, followed by Marling's soulful, staggering voice. The track strolls the line between folk, rock, and country, all the while maintaining a minor, traditional Renaissance waltzing style. And after this relatively (to the rest of the album) raucous opener, "Darkness Descends" imposes the tone of the rest of the album quickly. Much of the interior of the record sounds like the lamentations and memories and lost dreams of someone much older than Marling's twenty. I was reminded of the slower, more minimalist Feist stuff, and even the quieter works of St. Vincent, but Marling definitely has a stronger hold on a more pure folk angle. "Hope In The Air," and "Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)" are both excellently beautiful tracks. And "Rambling Man" provides a brief increase in pace that shores up the end of the album. But ultimately I respect Marling's choice to keep the album primarily dark, deep, mournful and wintery. It's a tough call, to send a sophomore release like this one into the world without a big latch-on track, but artistically I Speak Because I Can is about asserting its title. Marling can write stellar, dark, poetic (good poetic, not Jewel poetic) music, and that's precisely what she does here, unapologetically. A great rainy day album, and one that sounds great with coffee, tea, and reminiscing.
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Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way

Stylistic aping is a necessary creative card for any band to play. Without knowledge of the genres of the past, how can anyone bend them, break them and redesign them? Often this leads to positive results, as with Fleet Foxes' '60s folk flirtation, and Hot Chip's '70s-'80s dance hall dalliances. Sometimes it fails, when bands try so hard to be like music's past that they create nothing new to add to the discourse. Most often that failure is the result of trying to be too exactly like that older style. This is a pothole that Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings could have fallen into, one where their attempts at classic, quintessential soul tunes comes off as forced or needless. They don't. I Learned The Hard Way, their fourth release since 2002's Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is another pure piece of ideal soul. Jones alone could carry almost any genre, with her full, emotionally honest and powerful vocals, but with the powerful horns, keys, and backing vocals provided by the incredibly talented Daptone Records house band, there is a lush, nostalgic abundance here that never feels forced.

Loaded with classic arrangements that are both anthemic and thoughtful, I Learned The Hard Way is an album that suits both casual listening and audiophilic nitpicking. All the classic themes are here, mostly revolving around love, feeling like an outcast, and rejection. It's an album built on devotion, both to its classic style and to people entering and faltering in relationships. The tunes are reminiscent of The Supremes, Billie Holiday, big band jazz, dance hall R&B, and anything you could ever want from something feeling like an archival bit of lost '60s Motown perfection. Where Amy Winehouse creates contemporary R&B centered on modern ideals, Sharon Jones makes music that speaks to the places music came from, and Jones does it better, more honestly, and every song feels like it belongs, rather than being an experimental bit designed to sell an artist. Songs like "Mama Don't Like My Man" and "Window Shopping" are just plain spectacular, and they are as timeless as they are exceptional. And, the entire album is a great. It's perfectly paced, thoughtful, fun and dynamic. There are no trap-tracks here to fight through to get to the good stuff because it's all (ALL) really good. That said, go get it. It's on sale at Starbucks shops across the country, but do yourself a favor and hit up a record store this weekend. April 17th is Record Store Day, after all. And while you're there, consider getting some of Jones' older albums too.

As a little digression, since I've been on a pseudo-retro kick lately, with this and my last post about The Bird and the Bee's album of Hall and Oates covers, I have been thinking about why these old songs (and new ones that song old) are so important to me. We all love older music, there are some bands that transcend their era without fail. I've only met a couple people, ever, who didn't go through an extensive, or at least extended, Beatles phase. The same is true for Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Big Star, CCR and so many more that I can't even begin to list. And it's not that the music is necessarily infinite or hyper-dynamic, many old Beatles tracks are simple and uninteresting musically when compared to contemporary creations. But, we love old music all the same because what it says. I feel silly boiling it down so far, but that's where I've reached. I love listening to The Bird and the Bee cover Hall and Oates because Hall and Oates wrote love songs that are pure and idealistic. They capture an era, but they also capture something inherent to all of us. "Kiss On My List" is one of the most plainly sweet songs ever (which makes it easy fodder for a cynical age) and it is about true love. We want to believe true love exists, so we latch onto songs about it, no matter how saccharine they may play out. The majority of early Beatles is about just that love. And then the later Beatles exemplifies another topic we all care for endlessly: the philosophical journey of growing up, and the idealism that powers our belief that we can change the world as individuals. Why would Pink Floyd stand the test of time when there are bands like Liars doing similar things that are more palatably orchestrated? Because Pink Floyd sang about Being and floating through existence looking for answers to big questions. CCR told us not to give up on battling against corruption. And Big Star gave us a buddy to cry with when things were bad, and was ready to cheer us back into loving and believing again. Music isn't timeless because of how it sounds (everything becomes dated in 2 or 3 years anyway), but it says things we need to hear, and it asserts things we believe in and can't always articulate. And it does so with the passion and gusto that makes it resonate. That's my little end piece. Listen to music and keep believing in things.
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The Bird and the Bee - Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates

If you say you don't like Hall and Oates, even the old hits, you're probably lying. The "blue-eyed soul" troubadours who began their musical journey in the 1970s own 6 Platinum albums and 5 Gold. They own the keys to ubiquitous super-hits "Kiss On My List," "Maneater," and "Private Eyes," songs which, if you grew up during the '80s or '90s you've definitely heard, whether you remember them by name or not. Hall and Oates have seen a relative re-birth via referential comedy and the hipster/review community. Often the butt of jokes, but really, jokes at the expense of long since super-famous musicians is more parody and appreciation than outright vitriol. So, every time that Hall and Oates comes up in conversation or in popular culture, it's evidence of a heartfelt outcry. And two weeks ago, the AV Club's Undercover series featured Fruit Bats doing a version of Hall and Oates' "One on One":

The Fruit Bats cover Hall and Oates' One On One

All of this Hall and Oates mania leads to the new The Bird and the Bee album Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates (and from here on out abbreviated to Masters Volume 1). Masters Volume 1 presents a sincere batch of covers, each stamped with The Bird and the Bee's style via musical redesign. Nothing here is remixed or rearranged. And Inara George's vocals are true to the source material. She avoids some of the melodramatic octave jumps and wail built into the original "Maneater," too, which makes the song seem strangely more timeless. George keeps the entire album even keel, without any absurd vocal heroics. Instead, each of these covers feels nostalgic, but modernized. "Rich Girl," "Kiss On My List," and "Private Eyes" are all unmistakable and yet in a side-by-side listen with the originals these versions feel like new music. Greg Kurstin brings new layers of guitar work and some interesting keys and synthesizer that fill out negative space without being overbearing. Essentially, this album functions two ways. It reminds me of how much I remember these songs, and have a soft-spot for them (even if I was just a boy when they first released), but it also drives me to like them more.

The Bird and the Bee don't do anything that is dangerous or wild with Masters Volume 1, but I don't want them to. These played-straight versions of classic songs reasserts that they are classics. We don't often think of Hall and Oates as a classic group/duo, but if a group's songs can translate and remain interesting over time, even if that requires a little boost/manipulation by current artists, doesn't that make it a classic? The songs musicians decide to cover, no matter how obscure, are songs with some inherent value. And Inara George and Greg Kurstin know that there is an audience of mid-20s to mid-30s (and well beyond each boundary) music aficionados who appreciate these pieces of pop archaeology, so here it is.

But Masters Volume 1 has one original song, a stage-setter, which may be The Bird and the Bee's best. Opening the album is a perfectly-Hall and Oates-esque track called "Heard It On The Radio." It's a electro-pop masterpiece, that will surely catch on as a dance track or at least the sampled beat in some other club mix. But, it's a song about how we associate a certain point in time, a certain love, a certain memory, with a song we heard on the radio at the time. What more appropriate contribution could a band make to a cover album. "Heard It On The Radio" is like the primer track, it gets you in the mood, saying, "We're gonna play songs that remind us of that summer, that relationship, that road trip, that are surely going to remind you of important things too." And it's not at all heavy-handed, rather just a quality, enjoyable pop song before a list of classic quality, enjoyable pop songs. If you've had questions about The Bird and the Bee, don't question this album, just get it and enjoy it. And if you've had questions about Hall and Oates, re-read all of this, and then check out their Wikipedia page, and then go get this album. It's fun, and it might just take to on a journey you forgot you remembered.
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April 6: Spoon, Deerhunter, Micachu and the Shapes

When bands play back-to-back concerts, you can't ever be completely sure what you'll get for the second show. Will they be worn out from the night before, and all the requisite partying? Will they be as tight or tighter musically? Will they want to blow your mind before they blow out of town? The good news is that with Spoon, Deerhunter and Micachu and the Shapes a great show is just about a guarantee. Last night's shindig at the Ogden was laden with powerfully awesome performances and did nothing but exceed expectations for nearly 4 hours. Often, a Tuesday night show will play out by 11pm or even a little earlier, this is Denver after all, but the spectacular line up rocked nearly into Wednesday with showmanship, intensity and staggering musicianship.

Micachu and the Shapes opened the proceedings with their divine mix of experimental pop and grime. A performance littered with crashing drums and howling vocals that set an artistic tone for a show that was no doubt populated primarily with Spoon fans expecting some straight up indie rock. This was my first exposure to Micachu, but it definitely won't be my last. Mica Levi's attention to composition, mood and tone are nothing short of incredible. I won't pretend, after several orange vodka shots and a couple of beers, that I absorbed the specifics of the music, but each song felt like a complex art project, built by transitioning between standard song formats and broken, minimalist styles. The performance had me so psyched to pick up an album that I sought the merch table, but a little too late. They had packed up during Deerhunter's performance, but I will seek them out and perhaps drop some knowledge pellets in this space in the future.

Deerhunter was raucous, grinding and exceptional. They played album-perfect versions of "Agoraphobia" and "Never Stops" from 2008's Microcastle that were impossible to ignore. Bradford Cox belted lyrics with ease in his trademark vulnerable, but full style. And while the music was great, the stage presence and audience interaction was pure icing. Cox, after playing a brief and ill-fated cover of Soundgarden's "Spoon Man," attempted to rile the audience into a vocal vote as to whether Chris Cornell's vocal style rivals Eddie Vedder and others in its baritone-warbling way (what Cox called being a "yarbler"). The audience voted by decibels and shockingly, voted that Cornell was not a member of that semi-pejoratively-referenced group. When the vote came out, only slightly in Cornell's favor, Cox appeared shocked and a woman in the audience yelled up at him, "Suck it!" To which Cox quickly and wittily replied, "Suck what? Your giant, distended clitoris?" Then Deerhunter blazed into their final song. Yes, folks, it was that kind of rock show. And we hadn't even seen the opener yet.

Last night was the third time I had seen Spoon live. Ever since I picked up Kill The Moonlight I was hooked. Since I still have mixed feelings about this year's Transference, I was a little weary that the show might be heavily weighted to the new album, but with a catalog as large as theirs Spoon was able to pull out most of the old hits. "Underdog," "The Beast And Dragon, Adored" and "Me And The Bean" found their way into the main set, and the encore featured "The Way We Get By" and "Small Stakes." But, Britt and the guys played a little from every album, and a lot of songs I hadn't heard live in performances past. The highlight, for me, came through a cover. Much like St. Vincent's excellent cover of Nico's "These Days" at her show in February, Spoon busted out an honest, true to original version Wolf Parade's "Modern World." Definitely unexpected, considering how recently Wolf Parade wrote and recorded the original, but Spoon put their own stamp on it while never teetering into parody. The trend of tossing one cover into a set shows a connection to the rest of music and reverence of other artists. With indie bands especially, the camaraderie between groups is extremely important. It makes shows better, leads to incredible onstage compilations and merges of styles and maintains that feeling that all of us, listening, buying this music, loving these bands on the fringe or near it are part of a large musical family. Another fantastic Ogden show.
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Broken Bells

In a lot of ways, Broken Bells (a tandem bike of low-key electro-rock ridden by The Shins' James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse/Brian Burton) sounds precisely like the logical follow up to The Shins 2007 album Wincing the Night Away. It is an album that fleshes out the concepts established by the tracks "Sleeping Lessons" and "Sea Legs" (and to a lesser extent "Phantom Limb"). Mercer's multi-register singing ability and often philosophically dour lyrics present themselves again, but this time to a more spare musical arrangement. Where a company of musicians is replaced by synthesizer, looped tracks and an emphasized beat. After all, Mercer showed the ability to stretch the boundaries of The Shins indie rock premise. Starting with classics like "Caring is Creepy" and "New Slang" there were hints that we could just as easily see the band turn to straight out art/synth/electronic stuff. That's what happens with Broken Bells appropriately titled release Broken Bells. This an album that sounds just as lamentative and thoughtful as any Mercer helped create with The Shins, and the vocals are unmistakable, but the genre has bent just barely far enough to be considered something different. It's a project that was necessary given what we knew, and I can't imagine a reality wherein it doesn't exist. It fuses the slow-strumming quality of Mercer's other songs with something bigger and vaguely ethereal.

But, in a lot of other ways, Broken Bells is the ideal follow up to 2003's Chutes Too Narrow. Jumping straight from the sad lessons and momentary joys the elder album to something that wholly embraces transition, loss, change and contemplation. Where Chutes Too Narrow opens with bounding, poppy delight, it closes with three of the saddest songs on any album: "Pink Bullets," "Gone For Good" and "Those Who Come." This would have been an incredibly point to rest, revive and rebirth, coming back as something that sounds wiser, refined, fragile and knowing, as Broken Bells does. My main gripe about The Shins 2003 - 2007 change in sound is that they gave up a lot of the fragility they held so tightly on their first two albums, but came back with songs that had a similar style and sound, but weren't as broken-heartedly sincere. Broken Bells, as a project, or perhaps a note of new creative direction, assuages that concern greatly. After all the love and lost and sadness ending the 2003 album, Mercer returns, now more knowledgeable, still fully aware of the complications of love and the philosophical difficulties in defining our lives, but presents it more sagely. What I'm saying in a circuitous way is that Broken Bells feels like it all fits together and fits the time line, while Wincing the Night Away felt like an album they had to make (as required by outside forces). I have, over time, grown to love The Shins' 2007 album, but it always seemed lost, asking "Are we the NEW Shins? Or are we the 2003 Shins?" Of course, I can ask this question as a listener, a fan, a critic, and it floats out there rhetorically.

Broken Bells is James Mercer doing the kind of lyric writing and song writing to which we are all accustomed, but the new sound and mixing acts to refresh the sentiments. The album isn't loaded with driving indie pop/rock, instead content to plod and occasionally trot forward while the mood plays as much a factor in the "band" as the vocals, drums, organ, synthesizer, et al. If you've heard "The High Road" you'll know exactly what I mean, or at least what I'm trying to assert. Other tracks featuring awesomeness are: All of them. There's a lot happening despite the spacey, shoe-gazey tone. "Your Head Is On Fire" is a clear callback to early Shins-Mercer, but wobbling within a pseudo-psychedelia that relegates the acoustic guitar to the background. "The Ghost Inside" and "Sailing To Nowhere" are other winners. And while this isn't a perfect album, and its tone fades to more sad lamentation at the end, it is a new direction that could use even further explorations.
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Untied States - Instant Everything, Constant Nothing

Art/Noise rock lives and dies by its ability to create a comprehensive mood, playing with sound not only to create an enjoyable melody, but also concocting something theatrical with each track. This is music built for analysis, and understood best by weaving through the layers to find all the elements comprising a single song. Often, we are dealt a handful of lo-fi, clattering, noisy tracks that all feel like one-off experiments with effects pedals and fuzz, where the vocals and guitars are lost in a jungle of punching drums. But, luckily, in some cases we get the perfect combination of noise, brutality, artistic tinkering and pop sensibility with bands like Liars and Japandroids.

And with Untied States. The Atlanta band's new release Instant Everything, Constant Nothing finely molds mood and tone with enjoyable music into an album that is dramatic, physical and brutal. Instant Everything, Constant Nothing is about songs that simmer, boil over, and then cool, where a delicate piano opening quickly takes on operatic brilliance and then runs flat into a wall of powerful drums and fuzzy, grinding guitar. Nothing can be taken for granted as you listen to Untied States, and for those who would quickly flick through tracks hoping to gain some idea what the music is like, you just can't. Everything is too ornate, like elaborate clockwork where the first sound you hear both piques your interest and activates the next section in a song, until where you end up is dramatically different from where you started, and you're left hoping you left a trail of breadcrumbs for reference. This album is like musical time travel.

The pummeling, fuzzy opener "Gorilla the Bull" features the trademark lo-fi, buried vocals and an appealing clatter, but Instant Everything, Constant Nothing goes far beyond such humble beginnings. The anthemic "Not Fences, Mere Masks" follows the course of creeping guitar and bass lines that build into a wall of angry fuzz. And then "Grey Tangerines" throws in everything to accompany weary, growling vocals with a scratching heartbeat and '60s-style power-pop guitar solos. And you never know what's coming next. After the punch of "Grey Tangerines," "These Dead Birds" greets you with a gentle waltz and an ominous mood, fading in and out from lament to destruction as it builds slowly into brief explosions that die out quickly. The great success of this album lies in Untied States' ability to craft mood effectively, and vary the pace and style of each song while still holding onto a sense of self. Instant Everything, Constant Nothing never loses its identity, even as each song grows heavy with the weight of production and layered track upon layered track. It's that each track is interactive and impossible to ignore. Like individual sprawling epics, they refuse to fall into the background.

The entire disc is exemplary, but I gravitated to "Not Fences, Mere Masks," "These Dead Birds," "Delusions Are Grander" and the feedback heavy closer "Kowtow Great Equalizer." You can check out Untied States via their website untiedstates.us and get a digital download of Instant Everything, Constant Nothing at Distile Records.
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