Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some

When Living Thing came out in 2009, I was riding high on a perception of Peter Bjorn and John that was built around catchy soft-pop loaded with memorable whistles, guest vocalists, delicate guitars and sincere, emotionally open lyrics. Of course, I garnered those expectations from listening to 2006's Writer's Block, an album that so succinctly capture the indie-pop sensibility that it exploded into popularity. Living Thing was nothing like its predecessor. It was tinny, mechanical, crass and robotic. What happened to my whistles and acoustic guitars? In fact, I was so surprised (really, at the time, disappointed) with the album that I chose not to review it. I barely listened to it for weeks after I picked it up. I was disillusioned. But with time, I started to get it, which is an event that played strongly into the ideology of Gas Lantern Media. Essentially, Living Thing was one of those times that I forced myself to hear the project, rather than try to find the band I thought I loved inside it. Once I did that, I realized that Living Thing was a play. It was about the contrast of death and life, the contrast of acoustic and mechanic/electric, and the concept that musical expression doesn't just plop down one day, deciding that its past success ought to dictate all of its future production. And it's that moment that informs my view of Peter Bjorn and John's newest Gimme Some.

Fans of PBJ who jumped the bandwagon specifically because of "Young Folks" and its catchy, damn near perfect melody will be pleased with Gimme Some. The new album stresses catchy riffs and hooks over rampant experimentation. But now, the music is more strongly suffused with electric guitars, resulting in a less delicate sound that works in subtle and effective contrast to the once more sincere lyrics. Gimme Some runs back to the emotional zone of break ups, quarter-life crisis, boredom and all that stuff we love when we are those things, or at least as long as we remember that we were or are on the bottom line of our experience. And Gimme Some dishes out pop excellence like a deck of cards. The only thing this new album doesn't do is give out that same anthem that we got from Writer's Block. But bands AREN'T made of anthems, as my father used to say whenever I asked for additional allowance. Songs like "Tomorrow Has to Wait" and "Second Chance" are up there in the old brainworm stuck in the head territory. Both songs are brilliant, but also more like a dance-rock fusion (with some tasty cowbell) than the "original" impression we got from PBJ here in the States.

There's a lot of diversity here too, like the surf-rock-ish "Eyes" and "Breaker Breaker," both of which burst with energy and a strange disdain. Peter Bjorn and John are no longer trading entirely in pretty, but they're still trading in great. And the balance of pace and timing, along with offering some more clattering tunes mixed with softer, more haunting stuff ("May Seem Macabre" is a good example, but one with a stellar bass line that overwhelms any sense of dreariness) works so well that this may well turn into the favorite Peter Bjorn and John album of the three I've discussed here. This band is ceaselessly reinventive, something that many bands need long hiatuses to pull off this well, and Gimme Some is evidence that these boys from Sweden are not above bringing fun tunes back. Their audience, including me, just needs to learn that they probably won't sound the same next time, either. The album is streaming live through NPR's First Listen, just click on this here sentence to hop right there. And for god's sake, support public radio and all the national media outlets that can do amazing stuff like this and provide a good summation, too. It beats a message board where someone bleats illiterate text messages at your computer screen.
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Maritime - Human Hearts

Talk about a return to form. Maritime was one of my favorite bands the moment I heard 2006's We, The Vehicles. Their combination of sincerity and power-pop hooks just tapped into my mid-twenties sad-guy zeitgeist in a way that the whinier of bands (I'm looking at you Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie) never did. So back in 2007, when Heresy and the Hotel Choir came out, I felt a tinge of disappointment. Not because the album wasn't as good as the previous (it wasn't) but because lyrically Maritime seemed to be reaching to create something that was not ready. The album felt like a half baked pie. Sure, it tasted and resembled pie in all sorts of ways, but it just wasn't as delicious as the finished product that I knew. Even with it's high points, Heresy left me a little cold. So, Maritime took a little break. A four year-long break. And in that time, they have crafted a more spectacular album that jumps back to the glory of We, The Vehicles, harnessing the same jangly hooks, strong guitar riffs and sprawling musical scope on Human Hearts. And lyrically, they have returned to form too. We've gone back to disillusion and distemper set to pop beats. And frankly, it's very nearly perfect.

Martime isn't necessarily for everyone. I'll acknowledge that right now. Some people find Davey von Bohlen's voice (von Bohlen's voice is a little more produced here, something that may be slightly distracting, but really doesn't detract from the album as a whole) to be a little too airy and precious, but beautifully, Human Hearts operates on a guitar and drum heavy mixture that keeps the music feeling strong and gutsy, even as the lyrics contemplate emotional disasters and lovelorn complexities. This is especially evident on the sixth track "Faint of Hearts" that opens with a long, grungy, thick guitar and drum build and falls back into a marching drum scheme that perfectly backs von Bohlen's voice. It is a beating heart. And then an explosion of guitars. It feels like desire and passion, but never drifts too far toward the saccharine. The opener, "It's Casual," a song featured as the lead-in to the A.V. Club's Undercover 2011, is the perfect way to start the album, heavy with hooks and compassionate. There remain a lot of the late-'90s-early-'00s guitar sound throughout the album, with sweeping guitar gestures and quick, simple, distorted solos, especially on the raucous "Annihilation Eyes." And the more experimental "Out Numbering," which operates on muted guitar riffs and some vocal-mixing/manipulation rises and falls in brief peaks and valleys that are exceptional.

"Paraphernalia" and "Black Bones" both rock. And really, there just isn't a bad track on the album. Clearly, in taking a long break, Maritime has carefully crafted these ten tracks in a way that seemed to be missing from Heresy. It's back to basics with Human Hearts, going straight toward the album's titular hearts. Maritime has brought the humanity back and are once more unapologetically sincere, and that is the band's truest mode as the confronters of modern emotion and loving dissatisfaction. Listeners will feel good through each track and will find invigoration in the sturdy, energizing drugs. You can listen to the whole album, which comes out on April 5th, via the A.V. Club's streaming player here. And then, when you fall in love with it, you can take a little journey with your dollar bills and pick up a copy to cherish.
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#200: Sports, Music, Television and Media Consumption

This is the 200th post I have written under the Gas Lantern Media moniker. This whole project started as an outlet for random thoughts about music and has, since the end of 2008, become a much more formal place for me to write reviews and short essays about albums, movies, books and other pop ephemera. I won't go on with the self-back patting, this kind of writerly masturbation, beyond saying the following: Anytime you do something 200 times, that is an achievement. I have been lucky to have a handful of steady readers and several hangers-on as I keep honing my critical ears, eyes and voice. So, to everyone who has been around for all 200, or even bits and pieces, I say thank you, resoundingly. And as a "reward" I'm not going to review the new Duran Duran album in this post. I may in the future, but today I want to talk about a wide range of topics. This time we're making a stew. Of words. Do not eat your computer monitor, laptop screen, or keyboard. You will not like it. And there's a chance that you may get a shock.

As a longtime and loyal Nuggets fan, I've been following, but never commenting on the Carmelo Anthony situation that has now resulted in a reinvigorated team that seems to love playing basketball. Whatever superstar status Carmelo had acquired in his time here in Denver, the sports commentary consensus has turned more and more toward his failure to join and lead the Knicks to some kind of success. It's early, of course, in his tenure, but even the New York Daily News had an article comparing him to the failed star-savior, Stephon Marbury. The point of bringing this up is that we, as consumers of information, media, sport and all that, exist in a world that leans strongly toward "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" (WHYDFML). Since Melo has yet to save the Knicks, and because that team is floundering down the stretch, he is labeled as a failure-to-be. The jury should still be out, but it isn't. We are quick to decide that anyone, any entity, who hasn't wowed us in the couple of months has changed irreversibly. Melo isn't "good" anymore. Just like, a statement I have made and referenced in prior posts, how Weezer is no longer a good band.

And sports and music, television and all of media have this in common. Of course, politics too fall strongly into the WHYDFML camp. With the internet, a 24-hour news cycle and our continuous access to entertainment whenever, however and wherever we want it, the plight of athletes, musicians, etc., has become greater. It's not enough to create a magnum opus. One must now create a pantheon of magnum opera (and that is the proper plurality) to maintain any sort of public affection. Sure, I think Melo was a dick to the Nuggets and all of us in Denver. Especially because he said, immediately upon arriving in NYC, that he had ALWAYS wanted to play for the Knicks. That was his dream. And while I'd never begrudge anyone his dreams, I do think that he could have just as easily said that from the start, instead of PR-moving his way from lie to lie about not knowing or caring how the season turned out. With Weezer, or M.I.A., or any other band who has "fallen from critical greatness" I can see a similar type of creative pandering. Giving people what they want to hear, whether it's a group of bland, similar music, or a well-intentioned lie, is what we as consumers expect. Yet we reject it every single time.

But no band, athlete or actor can necessarily deliver consistent greatness. Just as none of us can be on and perfect every day of the year in whatever job or profession we choose. And the WHYDFML concept prevents us from accepting these human faults. Part of that comes from our knowledge that the people we revere make incredible amounts of money predicated on their consistent and continued success. When we decide a normal person or group is now a deity, we bolt far quicker to disappointment when they show their mortality. Weezer now "sucks" because they haven't done anything as epic as Weezer (Blue) or Pinkerton. Melo sucks because he hasn't brought a winning record to his new team. And surely even a band like Arcade Fire, who just brought home a Grammy, will fall into that realm when their next album isn't as immediately spectacular as Suburbs. WHYDFML prevents forgiveness of the Sophomore slump, and Senioritis. And all of it is based on the idea that we should, we consumers of media should be entertained to ball-stroking, intense pleasure each and every time anyone does anything. Our tendency is to say, critically, these failures are not good because they don't give us the same novel feeling of awe as their predecessors. Often we are wrong.

And being wrong is okay for us. We just want to be entertained. Silence is not an option. Failure is not an option. Instead, we want immediate results because we can be immediately entertained. That's something that makes a mess of our critical dialogue, but it also makes it difficult for us, this generation and those slowly aging from child to tween to teen, to enjoy life in a natural quiet state. So, my point, I guess, is that we should learn to maintain forgiveness when our heroes fail. And to remember that sometimes life isn't about entertainment. If we choose to seek a human connection and we are willing to excuse each person for their faults, then we will find ourselves more consistently entertained and less expecting of constant stimulation. Instead of asking "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" consider asking only the first part, "What Have You Done?" and try to break down the parts to see what you might be missing out on. If you think of each album, game, show and film as a present that you get to unwrap and analyze, then you can more deeply appreciate the effort that went into creating it. From there, if you don't like it, you don't. We won't like everything, but we can learn to appreciate everything.
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The Strokes - Angles

If you asked me where the Strokes have been for the last five years, I'd offer the quaint answer that they've been costume shopping. After their long hiatus, the band returns with Angles, an album that appears to be a compilation of ways they could look at writing catchy, chameleon-esque music. The one-time garage rock revivalists now appear in a sort of multiple personality driven sonic variety show. They are one part '80s pop-punk revivalists, one part dance-rock junkies, one part solemn songwriters and all parts hook-driven wunderkinds. Angles doesn't pick a style or focus long enough to become any one type of record. There are moments that sounds like the Strokes are doing a Decemberists impression, others where it feels like late-period Cyndi Lauper, and others that offer flavors and mixes that smell distinctly like Cut Copy. In each case, though, we are tied to Julian Casablancas' iconic voice as the thing that reminds us that we're listening to the Strokes.

We only get 10 tracks, that's about two per year for the hibernating former cock-rockers, but each one is milled from different materials. If these were terrible songs, then the album would be marred by experimentation, as if a painter decided one day to just sculpt something, but had no concept of working in three dimensions. Instead, this album is sadly short. One trip through the track list will barely fill an episode of Popular Television Comedy X. But, a lot happens across the 34+ minutes to be proud of and enjoy because it's not just familial pride here, it's the real thing. The Strokes play with production, adding fuzz, electronics, broad instrumentation that exceeds their trademark guitars/bass/drums. The sound is lush, occasionally melodramatic and exceedingly haunting. But it continues to be fun. The only problem with the record is that a few of the tracks border on epic in scale, but end well before they even reach episodic. Still, I'd say something similar about the bulk of Elvis Costello's work, so this album holds good company.

The raucous fun opener "Machu Picchu" employs a funky, nearly UB40 reggae style that ensures the audience knows this isn't the Strokes of 10 years ago. The song build brilliantly and it's only then that we remember what Julian sounds like. Many of the vocals are buried in overdubbing and tricks. This is re-invention. "Under Cover of Darkness" is more traditional in the Strokes hook brand, but plays with a little rockabilly jangle. "Two Kinds of Happiness" seems to heart Cut Copy and Crystal Castles with its opening echo, but plays with conventional rock more and more as it goes on with decadent guitar solos. The next song, "You're So Right" does great work with production and utilizes the stereo speakers to move the sound back and forth, but also feels unfinished. It is a good song that they slathered with bright paint hoping it would be a great song. But that's only a temporary lull because "Taken For A Fool" hops back into a pop-punk vibe that is enjoyable, if slightly less than perfect. But then my favorite back to back happens with the electro-pop-dreaminess of "Games" and "Call Me Back." In both cases, the experimentation, the costumes the Strokes put on for these tracks just fit better. When they fail it's like they're wearing another band's clothes, but here, they got the new outfits tailored. Especially the transition of "Call Me Back"'s sad riff into the rest of the song.

"Gratisfaction" is excellent too, bouncy and familiar with a catchy chorus. The last two tracks, "Metabolism" and "Life is Simple in the Moonlight" are a bit of a toss up. The energy in the former and the gutsy riffs, combined with the theatrical echo make it beautiful, but also leave it in a place where it could easily a Bond movie credit song back in 1986. For the latter, it feels like a ballad that the Police would have done. And the piled up vocals are brilliant. This year seems to be a one for diversity in albums, and strong closing songs. Perhaps this is the umbrella these bands are putting up against the falling anvil that is the collapsing record industry. Either way, it's kind of nice not knowing what to expect from a band. I had feared that the Strokes would try to trick that old pony one more time, but instead they bought a completely different animal to ride. Maybe it's a llama, but I'm more comfortable saying it's something mythical like a Kelpie.

Check out the free stream here (via Some Kind of Awesome) and then go buy a copy.
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Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears - Scandalous

There isn't enough funk in my life. While I don't frequent the dreary singer-songwriter tunes that were once my life staple; zoning out to poetic whispers set to sparse guitars, even the dance tunes, the hip-hop and the harder rocking indie stuff just doesn't bring that heart-elevating element that funk does. The thing about funk is that it is music infused so obviously and completely with life, hell capital Life, that it is sonically undeniable. You can't help but feel it while you hear it. The chunky guitars, the emotional, powerful horns and the barked self-assured vocals create an object of musical confidence that is unlike anything else. So, when my pal Kellen mentioned the new Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears album to me, titled Scandalous, in conversation yesterday I was instantly intrigued. Funk is ALWAYS worth a listen, even if it isn't always deeply effecting because confident music carries with it a strength that makes it strong. It doesn't have to be life-altering or earth-shattering or noun-hyphen-verb. The virtue lies in the potency.

General consensus on Scandalous has offered a "fun over depth" argument to capture the album's inadequacies. And yes, this is not an album that seeks the levels of experimentation with the medium that we've seen from the Black Keys in recent years, or even the solemn fearfulness found in some of James Brown's more inventive material. But, the band still manages to play within the genre here and there. They demonstrate some Spanish influence in the horns with "Since I Met You Baby" and hit some notes of bluesier lamentation on a few tracks. It's not entirely comprised of party music, but the bulk of the material feels similar... too similar to everything else. Consistency isn't a bad thing, we thrive on it. Hell, we all hope for it. A lack of consistency is why we claim bands like Weezer and Franz Ferdinand sucked post album one or two, but in this world of fully-embraced short attention spans, being able to instantly pick one track from the next, unless it is a free-flowing stream of consciousness project (like the Fiery Furnace's work), makes an album feel more fresh. Eventually, impassioned, grungy vocals and chunky guitars lose their meaning, especially when they are the focus of 11 consecutive tracks.

Scandalous has some definite, worth-your-time high points. The opener "Livin' In The Jungle" is peppy, funky and powerful. The opening riffs, horns and keys alone are enough to sell it. This is a pure, catchy track that throws you into the album. The pace settles back with "I'm Gonna Leave You," a song that feels just like the Black Keys in its falling back into minimal bass and guitar riffs and traditional blues structure. It's a good song, but a song that you've heard before. "She's So Scandalous" and "Booty City" provide the most solid back-to-back on the album. Both songs are excellent, energetic and interesting, using the lush arrangements of brass and guitar to their full capacity, but after those two, the album tails off a bit. By no means does Scandalous fail, but it is front-loaded. I concede that the ending tracks may just be a collection of growers too, needing repetition to blossom into full funky, life-changing madness. The album is a can of mixed nuts: there is variety, you'll find a cashew, a walnut, some almonds in there, but the bottom line is that you better fucking love some peanuts because that's the gross majority. In a live setting, as my buddy Kellen mentioned to me, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears is a phenomenal band, and I'm sure he's correct, because this funk is best heard infused with the energy of a life performance.

You can check out the complete album via playlist on Black Joe Lewis's Myspace page. And, you'll find tour dates, to get your funk on right, on the band's website here
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Around The World (And Back) in 32 Songs.

For today's playlist, rather than going in depth on 32 tracks at once (something even I consider to be downright insane as an individual undertaking) I decided to design something that can be listened to as a sort of sonic-geographic exercise. This playlist takes you around the world in 32 tracks. I know that I have left out some songs that might be otherwise notable, and regrettably (due to a Grooveshark limitation) I couldn't include "Cincinnati" by Manishevitz in its proper spot at number 9 on the list. So, the story of this playlist goes, we skip from here, for me at least, starting with "Home" by Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, bounding through "Colorado" by Grizzly Bear and then we "Drive To Dallas" with the Fiery Furnaces. From there it's a stop in "Commerce, TX" with Ben Kweller, a trip through "Minnesoter" with the Dandy Warhols, a jaunty historical ride through "St. Louis" with Paper Bird and then a road trip of heart and mind through "Chicago" with Sufjan Stevens. We stop off with +/- to visit "The Queen of Detroit," before ideally swinging through the aforementioned "Cincinnati" (Check it out. It's a great song.). From there, we check out Brendan Benson's "House In Virginia," and hit up "Washington, D.C." via the Magnetic Fields.

We make an ill-fated and potentially horrendous stop at the "The Farmer's Hotel" with the Silver Jews before traveling up to see "U-Mass" and "Plymouth Rock" with the Pixies and John Vanderslice, respectively. Modest Mouse beckons us to "Florida" where we catch a ship to see Arcade Fire's "Haiti," stopping only momentarily before jumping up to "Norway" by Beach House. Then we get "Stockholm Syndrome" with Yo La Tengo and drop down to the shore of Spain with Ted Leo's "La Costa Brava." Then it's over to "LDN" with Lily Allen and a post-war "Paris Is Burning" with St. Vincent. We stay back in time with "Holland, 1945" by Neutral Milk Hotel, before swinging back to the "Amsterdam" of present with Peter, Bjorn & John. Then it's a quick trip through "Rome," "Venice," and "Mykonos" with Phoenix, Beirut and finally Fleet Foxes before he land in "Vietnam" with Crystal Castles. Out of cash and (possibly patience with this cutely contrived list) we swing back to the States. We start in "Fire Island, AK" with the Long Winters, then skip to "Anchorage" with Surfer Blood, and hit the ENTIRE "West Coast" via Coconut Records. We listen to "Fake Tale Of San Francisco" as told by Arctic Monkeys before hopping onto "California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade" with Colin Meloy and the Decemberists. And after that, we're "Homeward Bound" for a traditionally hokey ending to an auditory intercontinental whirlwind. So, that's it. No huge sweeping insights today. Just some great tunes. Enjoy. The player is right down below this sentence.

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Starfucker - Reptilians

We live in a society where a band with the name Starfucker is compelled to abbreviate it to STRFKR for the purposes of marketing. But what's so bad about Starfucker as a name? When we work with profane speech, there has to be some intent to assault or assail attached, some angry, violent or objectifying aspect of the language's application that takes it from being a word and turns it into an act of malice. In this case, especially, the only one I'll apply this argument directly to now, "star" and "fucker" are individually powerful words, but put together there's almost a level of silliness that transcends any negative connotation. Either, we're talking about a person who has sex with celebrities (perhaps exclusively?) or a person who has sex with astronomical bodies of concentrated, explosive gas. In either case we're dealing with concepts of little consequence to reality. Still, Starfucker has to go with STRFKR to get into most record stores because (probably) if a child reads the word "fuck" they will repeat it. Of course, we're naive to think that this language doesn't exist in the world around us everyday and that most kids have already heard these words. But, my main concern is that kids who like this great new album, Reptilians, will be forced to choke on a garbed string of consonants to talk about the band they love. I guess they could say "Starfaker" or some such derivation, but when we become afraid of proper nouns, our level and attachment to civilized discourse goes to shit. That's a problem.

Music-wise, Reptilians by the pop-dance outfit Starfucker, is their most complete album to date, or at least the most complete album of theirs I have ever heard. The band combines a lucid and energetic string of dance-ready indie-pop songs, made possible through exceptional beats, those airy vocals we all love and some excellent synthesizer work, into one of this year's most fun and most dynamic album... The year is young, I know, but this album is really starfucking good. The beauty lies in none of the tracks being to heavy-handed. These boys from Portland know that they're making enjoyable music and openly embrace the pop. They ride hook after hook, move in and out of distorted, fuzzy static and hold onto a recognizable song structure the whole way. This isn't an album that is challenging to listen to, but rather a complete, pleasing experience. And there are layers, for those of the headphone-deep-listen persuasion, including some excellent spoken word samples that remind me of the Books and the Radio Dept. Throughout, the listener deals with rambling fun tracks. Some open honestly and clearly and others start with a darker initial resonance that gives way to perfectly crafted pop.

The album, for me, opens in a big way with the epic fourth track "Mystery Cloud," and from there Starfucker only gets stronger and more enjoyable. They have the ability to blend all the strengths of Apples In Stereo and Cut Copy with their rock-dance fusion act, and they do so without feeling terribly derivative. Sure, it's joyful and not-greatly-experimental album, but they cross their genres and they cross them well, taking all of the best parts and maintaining a successful concept over twelve songs. Key tracks include "Death as a Fetish," "Astoria" (which possesses a sweeping, twangy guitar/bass riff that is extremely catchy), the titular "Reptilians," the inventive "Hungry Ghost," and the solid closing punch of "Millions" and "Quality Time." But the rest of the album is phenomenal too. Pick it up, get your dance-pop on, and keep on swearing!

You can stream the whole album via the internets at Nialler9 here.
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Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine

For Chazwick Bundick's second album as Toro Y Moi, Underneath the Pine, the looping electronic chillwave styling takes on a broader sound loaded with influences that all point to a calm, hopeful world where nature, disco, funk and laid-back noise rock collide. There's even some classic motown chord progressions and constructions in there that manifest like a mellow Jackson 5, as if musically we are all sitting in a low-lit bar letting the songs wash over us as dances with without dancers. The beauty in Underneath the Pine lies in the sweet, pop-aware tracks that seem to combine Cut Copy and Beach House, forming a dreamy experience that still makes you want to move. It's a unique sound that seems familiar too. And that sense of familiarity will either make this foray an instant favorite or a instant dislike, though I tend to think most people will side with the former option. The sound is lush and full and the vocals whispery, echoing and fluid. This is an album designed for chilling out and it feels good to listen to. Call it a sonic painkiller. Or perhaps the musical equivalent of soma from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

The first track, fittingly titled "Intro/Chi Chi" is like a door opening followed by a rush of wind that swallows the listener, and at the same time ushers you in. And there's no better place to be ushered into than the funky second track "New Beat," a song that is not at all new as it claims. The beats here are perfectly assembled but entirely reminiscent of past motown and disco fusion. The song powers along, never building to a burst, but ending on crunchy talk-sung lyrics. The next track "Go With You" is a solid and catchy love ballad. But it's the pacing and structure of the album that becomes most impressive as the next two songs, first the short instrumental "Divina" dazzles with beautiful piano and delicate notes across the keys, and second with the cool, heartfelt and most Beach House-y "Before I'm Done." In fact, "Before I'm Done" feels a bit like peak-era Elliot Smith as much as it does anything else, largely because the guitar work is so precise, but still feels nonchalant and lazy (in a great way) and because Bundick's voice has that soft, falsetto pained quality that seems to simply let the words roll out as they may.

We see a quickening of pace in the excellent, crying "Got Blinded," a song with a melody that grabs you immediately. It's a song with a quick beat and slow, echoing lyrics. The bass line is brilliant and the touches of synthesizer fill out the song until it feels like you're speeding through a dream, careless and content. "How I Know" follows, redeemed by direct and sweet lyrics about love and confusion and some more great synthesizer work. The song as a whole isn't as beautifully driving as some that have preceded it, but it still works, if only as a bit of a letdown. "Light Black" opens with haunting crunch and rattling cymbals and then turns into a sort of hybrid of "Blue Jay Way" and "Within You Without You" by the Beatles. The influence is clearest here and that's by no means a dig. There are only so many ways to arranges notes and chords. And Toro Y Moi succeeds greatly by infusing a strong, funky drum line to back up the song's break down. There are even some looped howls and screams that fill it out as it grows from infancy to adulthood before our ears.

"Still Sound" takes a more conventional funk route, returning to the Cut Copy area bounding, sweet swaying bass-driven ballads. Following "Light Black" (the album's best track) this feels like a welcome return to normalcy and it is so beautifully done that it cannot be denied, especially as the keyboard work dances up and down the scale with a battery of strong drums behind it. "Good Hold" brings back the haunting feel, with heavy minor keys played slowly on piano as it leads in. Soon when drums and vocals appear, the song feels less dark and more sad. The closer "Elise" is just about perfect too, riding the excellent wave that completes the album. It is both bounding and sincere. Driving behind pummeling keys, guitar flourishes, crashing cymbals and more bass. It is the most conventionally rock-like song on the album, showing a lot of promise and calling back to simpler times in songwriting. Underneath the Pine is a strong album that closes on a rush of excellent songs. It feels alive, inventive and lush through and through, too. Check it out. You can stream it through Some Kind of Awesome right here. No excuses. Chill out and enjoy.
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Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo

Divorcing my love for Super Furry Animals from any review involving the band's genius and creative voice, this post's subject Gruff Rhys, is essentially impossible. I can recall clearly the first time I heard SFA's Rings Around the World. I was at work, in the office space, and a collection of electronic/'60s infused, energetic music poured from the speakers and straight into my heart. That album is almost too good, but this review isn't about that album, nor is it about poorly constructed sonic-emotional hyperbole. ("...from the speakers and straight into my heart?" Am I serious!?) Gruff Rhys, lead singer and guitarist for SFA has just released Hotel Shampoo, an album titled after Rhys' penchant for collecting hotel sample-sized freebies while on tour. And considering that the music itself feels like a broad-catalog collection of genres, bounding from SFA style electronic rock, '60s and '50s rock and some traditional Spanish-infused tunes, it seems appropriate that the album be titled about the act of collecting. Hotel Shampoo doesn't have a "sound" that a listener can easily pin down. And other than Rhys' signature voice, it could easily be a collection of free odds and ends in its own right.

Really, this is a prime example of the eclectic taste imparted in any Super Furry Animals record. Rhys sings sweetly, using a sort of free-association style lyrical quality to guide us from one beautiful melody after another. Not every song is a story and not every one makes a lot of sense. Often these are just the verbal images meant to populate a cascading drumbeat or fall behind the warm blaring of horns. But regardless, the tone and feeling given off is pure and kind, like a sort of musical hug, set to different time signatures in each case. As with SFA albums, Rhys employs as many instruments as possible. This is not a guitar-guitar-bass-drums album. There are trumpets, keys, electronic flourishes, and delicate strings. In fact there's very little about Hotel Shampoo that defines itself from any of Gruff Rhys' SFA work. The only problem is that the album lacks the definitive hooks we've heard on previous albums. Sometimes, the experimentation is perfect, but the laid back nature of the album betrays it, making it difficult to grasp initially. That said, giving up on this album straightaway is a fool's game. Songs like "Sensation in the Dark," the dissonant "Conservation Conversation" and the opener "Shark Ridden Waters" all carry the album and keep it both inventive and secure. "Christopher Columbus" is a sharp track too, loaded with brilliant laser sounds.

And that's the key, a combination of inventiveness and security have driven SFA's successful moments. No one expected their complex transitions and strange progressions, even as those same songs remained well within our universal music dialog. With Hotel Shampoo Gruff Rhys continues to use what he knows of pop and experimentation to make an album that feels seamless and almost easy. On a song like "Softly Sophie" where sentiment reigns, Rhys manages to keep the ship right, never getting too schmaltzy or sugary, instead allowing the sweet ballad to decay and wash away into a tip-toeing dance of piano keys. But I think I have the most love for "Space Dust 2" a beautiful, playful classic-'60s duet between Rhys and Sarah Assbring of El Perro Del Mar. It's a beautiful and smart lover's argument of a song. And it's essential, at least for me, and for everyone else. Check it out on the streaming widget below... it's the bottom left, pink shampoo bottle. Even though Hotel Shampoo isn't as epic as I've heard Gruff Rhys, he remains playful and mindful, creating great songs that make you think differently about how music can be made. The album really picks up in the last half and it's worth any SFA fan's time. And anyone else for that matter.

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