Matthew Dear - Black City

Matthew Dear's Black City is one of those special albums that captures darkness and dispenses with just enough menacing restraint to hold your attention and never go over the top. This is an art album of sorts, not one that, for all of its electronic-influence and motivating beats, that tries to get you moving or make you dance. Though track 3 "Little People (Black City)" shades toward an LCD Soundsystem-like deliberation. Dear creates a lot of mood throughout the album, and buries the lyrics under one type of droning tone or another, which free the vocals up to enact some A Cappella instrumental value. And yet, even when the electronic aspects of the music evaporate or fade out, Dear leaves us with well thought out and strong-finishing tracks that all feel a little lonely or contemplative, but nonetheless human and alive. The scratching and primarily instrumental "Soil To Seed" illustrates this idea well, by first beginning with just a guitar, then garbled words and finishing on the human growl of the vocal.

And throughout its ten songs Black City feels like a place as much as an album. It feels oppressive and alive, as if the black sky were suddenly roused from its sleep to bellow menacingly down upon the people below. There are definitely a couple, perhaps a few, songs that could be considered traditional electronic and dance-ready, but for the most part this is the type of music one listens to while staring at the ceiling after eating mushrooms. It is creatures and melancholy, madness and passion, all grown together. And all of it is passionate. The greatest thing Dear does on the album, though, is close out the album on a sweet, choral and freeing note. "Gem" starts with a brief glitch, and then turns to pianos and a looped track of laughter, all set up by rushing waves of static. It is a song that feels like the beach, it feels like solemn moments spent out by the water, questioning ones choices as the sun sets, knowing that the light is leaving and that time is passing rapidly. "No reward for calling out your name, as I have done time and time again," starts the second verse of haunting lyrics. And for all its sadness, this captivating song closes on soft piano and cresting waves. And the distant cry of a single voice before fading to black.

Black City is every bit the masterpiece it has been reviewed to be. Matthew Dear has captured a litany of emotions and crafted them into mood and sound. It is shoe-gazey, and electronic, and dark, but there's a place for music like that in all our libraries, just as there is a place for those feelings in all of our lives.

Score: 9/10
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The Walkmen - Lisbon

Rather than break down The Walkmen's newest, Lisbon, in the track-by-track format that has become so common in this space, I'd like to talk about the successful chameleon act The Walkmen have pulled off with this album. Lisbon is, for the most part, another collection of quietly artsy, galloping indie-rock tracks with Hamilton Leithauser's trademark crying vocals, but it's also a cohesive experience; a complete album. On Lisbon, the band takes up horns and turns up the melancholy, but they never sacrifice the enjoyability of the album. Nothing here has the bravado and punk-influence of previous work like Bows + Arrows, but those traits are traded for dreamy masterwork surf-rock that compares well to Beach House's Teen Dream. The theme seems to be escaping the city for a more peaceful life in the country, where space equates to freedom and loneliness equates to self-evaluation and slowing down. The Walkmen have evolved into a band of beautiful imagery and slow riffs for Lisbon, and that leads to some incredibly satisfying music.

Still, The Walkmen drop back to the old styling at one point on the album with "Angela Surf City," a song so driving and fun that it's a remarkable lift as the second track on the disc. But aside from that exception the pacing is calm, the mood is one of lamentation and wailing vocals, and some of the songs begin to blend together. As the band attempts to be something more emotional, at least more emotional in the sadness sense, rather than the aggressive sense, they also give away some of the work that attracted their audience to begin with. It's the chance they take. But, with Lisbon, The Walkmen have a great album, one of dreamy satisfaction that perfectly captures the transitional season of autumn and the ways we all phase from creatures of high-energy to creatures of comfort and quiet. It's a bold move by a band that continues to buck roles and expectations to transform. And it's a perfect album for an overcast day and a cup of coffee.

Score: 8/10
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Chromeo - Business Casual

Chromeo returns with a delectable '80s-driven collection of songs that could have easily come from dance montage and strutting scenes in a pseudo-John Hughes movie. Business Casual rides a heavy dose of synthesizers and Casio-keyboard style electronic beats to create uniquely (if homage-heavy) textured dance tracks. And several times, an original song has just enough in common with an at least somewhat recognizable '80s staple that it's impossible not to latch on purely out of nostalgia. At their best moments they capture the musical eloquence of LCD Soundsystem without the vulnerability and honesty, and at their worst the music is simply fun, unadorned by any life-changing lyrics or mind-blowing electronic work. They do take chances, don't mistake that, but some of the chances seem like variations on a chance previously taken. Business Casual is a great album, loaded with catchy hooks, and delightful music. It puts Chromeo on par with a personal favorite of mine, Cut Copy, and this band succeeds through a consistent and well-paced collection. And Chromeo willfully calls back to electronic music's past, reaching out to Daft Punk and to a lesser extent the sweet beginnings of Erasure.

The track opens with the soundtrack-y "Hot Mess," which effectively blends a Bravo/internet meme and turns into a song you could see Molly Ringwald putting on 11 bracelets and a veil to. "I'm Not Contagious" brings in more vocal manipulation, giving it the vibe that robots are on the way, and they want to dance. The lyrics are fairly cliche, but it's a love song built around getting the girl through the charmingly touch-in-cheek titular claim. "Night by Night" is maybe the most solid track on the album, leading with a slightly altered "Eye Of The Tiger"-like riff, and building into a delightful dance refrain that grows progressively more electronic. The same praise can be foisted up on "Don't Turn The Lights On," which has the best and most original lyrics on the album, with a sweet Junior Boys'-esque vulnerability and delicacy. "You Make It Rough" is central opus, invoking growling vocals and numerous changes over 7 minutes. It also features a breakdown that occurs about 5 minutes in is both entrancing and disorienting. On "When The Night Falls" they tread back into the Junior Boys territory, decorating a smooth, faux-R&B track with fast-talking calm lyrics and climbing xylophonic garnishes. "Don't Walk Away" is a bit bland, but it leads to "J'ai Claque La Porte" and the French track's soft, rhythmic lyrics that seem here to use the vocals, more than anywhere on the album, as an instrument in and of themselves. The album closes relatively strong, but also relatively uninspired. "The Right Type" feels like an '80s television show theme that plays over the expository title and cast-credit screens (think: Perfect Strangers). And "Grow Up" is sort of a bland closer that feels simply like Chromeo ran out of gas after 7 and half great tracks.

If you are a fan of any of the bands to which I compared Chromeo's Business Casual then this is a must-have. The album holds its own and feels fresh, and while it doesn't specifically reward re-listening, it is definitely built to hear over and over without becoming tired. This won't change your life, but it will make a for a solid party, and maybe some good psyche up music as you approach the work day. And it's all catchy enough that you're sure to get a few of these tracks stuck up in your brain zone.

Score: 7.5/10
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Blitzen Trapper - Destroyer Of The Void

Hop into the Wayback Machine and set the clock to Baroque-Retro-Pop where "Greensleaves" meets the funky late-60s/early-70s. Blitzen Trappers' newest Destroyer Of The Void is loaded with poetic sentiment, wailing, low-key Big Star type guitar and harmonies, and several thumping bass lines that will likely lead to a new baby boom (I'm looking at you "Evening Star"). The band, as much as the album, is defined by the joyous and experimental (if within the boundaries of period work) song design of Eric Earley. Blitzen Trapper gives you a lot of high-drama, climbing the scales and descending them theatrically, but always well within sight of predecessors like Bob Dylan, Steve Miller, and The Beatles. Throughout Destroyer Of The Void, they hook you with a quality lick or bouncy piano riff, and the lushness of the sound is what makes it possible to listen again and again; keyboards and strings fill in the standard bass, guitar, drum setup. I guess, as I'm thinking of this now, one of the best contemporary comparisons I can make is to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The vocals can be eerily similar, and the style is right there, but really where Edward Sharpe hit lulls in his album that weren't as enjoyable as the classic tracks, Blitzen Trapper avoids that entirely and provides a continuous chain of quality songs.

The album opens with the excellent and eclectic titular track, through which we get hear a lot more spare arrangement and a contemporary, if homage-esque look at the late '60s. The rest of the album takes a more earnest approach to that homage by loading with tracks that could easily be from Let It Be (Beatles, not Replacements) or any other album that blends folksy country inflections with stadium rock embellishments. But, Destroyer Of The Void deals heavily in excellent lyrics, from the descriptive "Heaven and Earth":
"Over the western world/ shadows fall/ under the kind and dying trees we call/ together still, the feel, the breeze/ to shatter all these waking dreams we've told/ ourselves to keep us free and clean" to the lamentative "The Man Who Would Speak True": We lived together in an old hotel/ A broke down palace with a wishing well/ The neighbor girl taught me how to spell/ And how to steal what I could not sell/ But I fed my tongue on the Devil's rum/ In a roadhouse run by godless bum/ On a drunken night with a stolen gun/ I shot my lover as she made to run." It's lyrics like these that make Blitzen Trapper a powerful band, even if the sound is sometimes too familiar. I would defy you, or anyone to walk away unaffected by either of those two songs. It's just plainly beautiful music that raises emotion. It's not light, it's not bristly or angry. It's poetry with instruments attached.

It's probably that demonstrated excellence that makes the few near-misses feel less fantastic. I have a hard time complaining about anything on Destroyer Of The Void, and even calling lesser tracks like "Dragon's Song" and "Lover Leave Me Drowning" bad is a grievous error because they aren't bad, just less memorable, less affecting. Any disappointment I have with this album is purely motivated by letdown from the bulk of exceptional work that can't completely offset the so-so stuff. Regardless, this is an incredible album and one that deserves to be heard far and wide. Now, a pair of additional comparisons: Fleet Foxes and Chutes Too Narrow "folksy" era The Shins.

Score: 8/10
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Time - Nine Headed Hydra: 9 of Spades

Local indie, hip-hop producer and artist Time has been releasing his Hydra series since the beginning of 2010. In 9 months, he has churned out several excellent tracks, many of which, in complete honesty, I have yet to hear. But knowing the vast span of this project, releasing a new album each month leaves me with a sense of just how amazingly great music and creativity can spring forth into the cultural consciousness via the internet. This specific release, September's own Nine Headed Hydra: 9 of Spades is a compelling and thoughtful assemblage of rap and hip-hop that showcases the greatness in a growing Denver music scene. These songs travel deftly from moments of individual confusion and listlessness to broader topics of politics, violence and religion, but as a whole it functions as a beautiful expression of self, with excellent lyrics and beats garnished with the just right amount of sprightly piano and synth.

The opener "Paper Doll and the Hungry Tooth" is about individual courses and the ways we seek meaning and look for purpose. It opens the album with strong lyrics and music and closes with a guest spot from Denver's own Jason Horodyski from Maudlin Magpie. "Nine Of Spades" and "The 50 Foot Woman" are both exemplary examples of classic hip-hop, both dealing in the violence of youth and laden with references to politics, war and terrorism. It's thinking man's hip-hop in the truest sense. "Weapons of Mass Abduction" and "The Genocide of Us" take an even more earnest tone on those subjects, which in the moment, seems hardly possible, but the sincerity just cranks up. The hope dials back a bit and there's an admission of doubt about what good may or may not exist out in the world. The closer is more experimental and trades on sparse arrangement and beautiful, vulnerable vocals from guest Robin Walker.

You can get this album, and any others from the Hydra series for free, though I'd suggest dropping a couple bucks in the digital collection plate, through dirtylaboratory.com and you can get more information on the project through Time's blog. This is unique, thoughtful and purposeful music from right here in Denver, CO. Support local artists, and then, hey, you can say you loved them before they even ran for one of the coasts.

Score: 8.5/10
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Pomplamoose, Ben Folds and Nick Hornby

A new Pomplamoose track, with a fresh video featuring author Nick Hornby and the immortal Ben Folds. Just another incredible piece of work from Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. It's a catchy track with some stellar Hornby-penned lyrics and what I can only describe as some Carl Sagan-esque spoken voice track. Check it out, share it, and then go see the rest of Pomplamoose's catalog because they're nothing but excellent each and every time. Enjoy.

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Here We Go Magic - Pigeons

With Pigeons, Luke Temple and company bring another upbeat, but low-key set of pseudo-psychedelic songs loaded with looping beats and repetitive backing tones to the table. These are bouncy anthems with the sprinkled in flavors of Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and healthy dose of dance pacing that make each song desirable enough to tap your feet and thick enough to be a rainstorm of music surrounding you. The songs are retro in a dignified, subtle way (much like Belle and Sebastian on Dear Catastrophe Waitress). It's clear that Temple has latched onto the '60s - '70s folk rock genre, and infused enough disco-like elements to keep the pace quick, and none of it, luckily, feels forced or too on point. Less is more here. Specifically, following the two fun and bounding opening tracks "Hibernation" and "Collector," the album drops back for a seriously excellent song that holds itself in a lamentative state of dreaminess called "Casual." On "Casual" the lyrics repeat "It's casual, not heartbreaking," capturing that hopeful, if often misguided idea that relationships are small things that can be viewed from a safe external rampart, even when you're in the thick of them. The music, though, is more sad, tired, and reflecting the internal struggle between love and labels. I could go out on a limb and say that I see a lot of mid-period Serge Gainsbourg in Temple's Here We Go Magic, because while the music lacks the blatant sexuality, it does flux successfully between genres with such ease that you nearly don't notice.

"Surprise" is another example of this excellent album succeeding through a less is more policy. It's a whirling, dynamic track that fills pretty basic electric-folk licks with whirring feedback and synthesizer mischief. There's just enough happening here to create a mood, one that is optimistic, but perhaps addled with optimism. Pigeons brings with it a sense of calm. This is music to get high to, or at least to imagine a circle of friends seated on the floor around a turntable by candlelight. And each track dials the dreaminess up a notch, making a certain disorientation cradle you into a sort of waking slumber. But, everything picks back up, and Temple brings the quick pacing back to the forefront with the excellent "Old World United." And then the Radiohead-esque "F.F.A.P." feels like something lost from the Ok Computer - Kid A era. The final 4 tracks on the disc are arguably the best and most complete; lush and charming. All in all, for an album that skips between happiness and sadness, waking and dreaming, Pigeons is always compelling. This is an album that transcends time and genre and is easily one of the most interesting of 2010.
Score: 8/10
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