Tag Archive | "Albums"

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Album Review: The Decemberists – “The King is Dead”

Posted on 21 February 2011 by Mylynda Guthrie

by Gray Bouchard

I didn’t want to like one, I really didn’t.

My reasoning, of course, flawed, through perhaps not in the way you might think: I actually like the Decemberists quite a bit. In fact, it’s my enjoyment of their last album, The Hazards of Love, which had me rooting against their latest work, The King Is Dead, available now from Capitol (and, according to sales figures, appears to be doing quite well). Hearing the buzz anticipating King as well as its lead off single “Down By The Water,” I was turned off by the glee at declaring this a “triumphant return” after the “failure” of Hazards.

I had enjoyed Hazards proggy arrangements, its twisting narrative. It wasn’t perfect, there were moments of fey self-indulgence, but I admired the chutzpa and the vision and besides, I don’t feel they’ve written a better song than “The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid.”

Therefore, when King was being hailed as more of a “straightforward rock record,” I bristled. I didn’t really believe the band could function as “straightforward rock,” their virtue being found in their gleeful anachronism and goofy flights of fancy.

My first listen confirmed a few things: yes, this is a much more straightforward pop/folk/rock record. Yes, it sounds like the Decemberists. No, Colin Meloy still uses words like “anon” and writes about being a galley man on pirate ships.

Still, the question remained: Did I like it? Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure. I wasn’t disabused of my concerns. It’s distinctly different from Hazards. Another objection arose: perhaps it’s part-and-parcel with writing a “straightforward” record, but there’s a real lack of originality to the songs. Even in spite of that unmistakable voice at the fore, there’s not much going on here that’s new. “Don’t Carry It All” is a take on Tom Petty; “Down By The Water” lives in the shadow of “Losing my Religion;” and “Rise to Me” is a bit of a soulless rewrite of “Wild Horses” by the Stones. Furthermore, the inclusion of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Gillian Welch seems to me to confirm the deliberateness of these nods, a stab at silencing the critics who calling them wank-rock. There’s an aspect of pandering to it that, to quote Mr. Meloy on “Down By The Water,” “rubs me wrong.”

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However, even from that first uncomfortable listen, something hooked me. Even in spite of the lack of originality, there’s a tunefulness to the tracks that is undeniable. My head screams to not give them the satisfaction of knowing that a few lazy rips of classic rock is all it takes to woo me; but my heart knows no such logic. The songs are well constructed, the melodies undeniable, the arrangements showing a band in rare form. The boys (and the random girl or two) in the Decemberists know what they’re doing and, frankly, there’s real heart in most of the songs.

This is the most interesting aspect of the record; it’s divisive to the long time fans of the D. The soul they were missing when they were singing shanties about fairies kidnapping children and mariner’s revenge manifests here. Perhaps it’s the diminished expectations, the well-worn territory allowing for more directness. The songs grow on you, their melodies catching you first, then the richness of feeling behind it. It might not be original, but it feels authentic.

I still haven’t been convinced that the entire effort isn’t some crass stab at a degree of critical and popular respect (or at least to get people off their back for Hazards). It seems like a wasted opportunity: These bands that the Decemberists draw “inspiration” from have made careers defining themselves as musical iconoclasts, which the Decemberists have arguably achieved on prior records. It seems a misstep to transition away from the sound that distinguished them from their esteemed competition into something more familiar. Still, there’s something to be said for subverting expectation and crafting a tight, tuneful record along well-traveled lines after one of their most lofty, challenging ones. I can’t say I recommend it on principle, but still an enjoyable work.

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Album Review: Light in August – “Sweater Weather”

Posted on 14 January 2011 by Mylynda Guthrie

By Abby Holmes

Sweater weather is one thing you can count on to come around year-round.  It’d be unheard of to wear a down puffy jacket in the depths of summer, and donning a halter top in the below-zero temperatures of winter might get you tossed in a straightjacket. But no matter what the season, there will always be a time for sweaters.

That’s why Light in August’s Sweater Weather is so aptly titled. From start to finish, the nine-track album is breezy enough for spring, warm enough for summer, tranquil enough for autumn and stark enough for winter. Any time of year, the music fits your ear.

Lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Alex Wand put his work in good hands with Jim Roll, a veritable Midwest superstar when it comes to producing, mixing, mastering and playing music. Roll has worked on such fine albums as Frontier Ruckus’ The Orion Songbook and Deadmalls & Nightfalls, as well as Chris Bathgate’s Cork Tale Wake and Grey Buried by Drunken Barn Dance. He is also working with Gun Lake on their debut album, now scheduled for release in February.

Gun Lake singer/guitarist Mark Fain provides backing vocals on two songs from Sweater Weather. “Seraphim” is a bright serenade to a long-distance love, and “Winter Clothes” a somewhat more melancholy declaration of the same, insisting “I would fit you into my life, but it’s best that you stay gone.” Something tells me Wand carries a torch for some girl who’s gone East. Just a guess.


Whatever the reality, Wand’s got one generous muse to which he alludes on the opening and closing tracks, “Muse (Part I)” and “Muse (Part II),” resembling a fusion of Indian and Chinese folk styles with sitar, flute and a timpani drum sound. An Andrew Bird sensibility enters on “The First Days of May,” and sticks around throughout the album. “Water” flows in with the pitter-pat of drums and a brief tinkle of keys, just like a soothing rainfall, and “Weather Reports” is an amicable dueling of the flutes, blowing lightly along with cheery guitar, drum thumps and Wand’s floral voice.

Like a gray day when the greenery is in full bloom, Sweater Weather placates while it elevates, a nice companion to springtime gloom. Any day you think you may need to wear a sweater, you may think to pop in Sweater Weather, because it’ll complement the mood just right.

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Album Review: Ben Weaver – “Mirepoix and Smoke”

Posted on 21 December 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

by Amber Valentine

It’s diffcult to review an album that has already been reviewed perfectly by a friend and colleague only a few weeks earlier. You see, if it weren’t for Abby Holmes, I wouldn’t be saying this. If it weren’t for Abby Holmes being such a talented wordsmith and solid reviewer, I would never have begged her to write for my site, Radio Free Chicago. I would have never come around to the multi-layered pop wonders of John Vanderslice or taken a shine to The Moondoggies. Sure, I introduced Abby to some local favorites of mine like Lightning Love and Chris Bathgate but it’s Abby that undoubtedly wins this round of recommending great music with Ben Weaver. If it weren’t for Abby, I’d be completely unaware of the subdued beauty Weaver has to offer, blissfully ignorant to the lilting melodies and softly sung romanticism Weaver brings forth on Mirepoix And Smoke and for that, I would be that much less content.

From the opening notes of “Grass Doe”, it’s hard not be taken by Ben Weaver’s music. He sounds at times like a more darkly upbeat version of Iron & Wine, a more accessible Bonnie “Prince” Billy, maybe even a hushed, less obviously county take on Justin Townes Earle, with whom Weaver shares a label in Chicago’s Bloodshot Records. Weaver displays his artful ability to weave an unforgettable story immediately in “Grass Doe”, telling the tale of love gone by the wayside in such masterfully poetic lines as “Their legs were twisted up in each other as the rain came down like watermelon seeds” and, later on in the tune, “There’s never gonna be another one like her and now you see her everywhere you go, like a tag under an overpass”. Near everyone’s loved and the vast majority of those people have lost as well. I know I certainly have. And it’s that fact that Weaver capitalizes upon, taking his own heartache, stated so poetically again and again and set to the simple backdrop of a fingerpicked guitar, a slight riff plucked on a banjo. By the time Mirepoix And Smoke closes, on the gentle notes of “The Rooster’s Wife”, you feel as if, to quote Abby Holmes, you’ve just listened to a “button-up flannel set to music”. Despite the fact that I’d never heard Weaver before listening to Mirepoix And Smoke, something about him made me feel immediately at ease, as though I were listening to the recordings of an old friend who’s reappearance in my life filled a very obvious void.


I remember when Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago came out and I remember the subsequent nights I spent with that record. Never was I more at peace with my life than when I was driving alone, sometime around three or four a.m., with nothing but Justin Vernon’s impeccable falsetto harmonies at my side. Musically, Weaver’s Mirepoix And Smoke only has the rudimentary in common with Bon Iver’s release but to me, the records share a vast amount in common in reference to how they make me feel. Mirepoix And Smoke affects me in a way that only comes across a handful of times every few years. It’s the kind of record that lulls you into a false sense of security with it’s lack of obvious hooks but in the restraint that Weaver repeatedly exhibits, there is a seductive element, reminiscent of the first time you catch a glimpse of a beautiful boy from across a crowded room or a dingy bar, knowing with a foresight you probably don’t possess that this is the boy who will one day come to be your greatest triumph in love before he deftly destroys your heart with a grace that prevents you from harboring feelings of bitterness. There’s beauty in that moment, the discovery of great beauty and even greater potential, and even though you know it might break your heart (because doesn’t it always?), you know that it’s worth the risk, if only for the experience.

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Weaver sings songs that makes girls want to be the kind of woman he writes about and makes men want to find the kind of lady Weaver tells you of in such deftly written tracks like “City Girl” and “Grass Doe”. Nearly every track on Mirepoix And Smoke is an ode to a long lost dream girl, be her fiction or reality, and half of the beauty of the album lies in that amorous fact. “East Jefferson” features lyrics so strong that you’ll be hard pressed to not envision Weaver’s heroine sitting on the stoop alone, smoking her last cigarette as Weaver narrates the situation: “Cold wind blew through the swings in the park; by dinner time, it was already dark; the rain had turned to snow, everything whiter than a hundred ghosts at the end of the night.” That cinematic quality is one that Weaver exhibits over and over again, and by the time album stand out “Split Ends” rolls around, chances are you’ll want Weaver’s record narrating your life’s most poignant moments of heartache.


Building on the folk of yesteryear, occasionally bordering on the subdued country of like-minded fellas like Jacob Jones (only more beautifully subdued) and Jonny Corndawg (only much less raunchy), Weaver takes cues from the gentler moments of Bob Dylan and the more callous moments of Simon & Garfunkle, piecing together a veritable quilt of lullabies and longing with nothing but Erica Froman, his female harmonizer, and an acoustic guitar at his side. Weaver makes music for people who have been put through the ringer by love and, despite the fact that they’re left emotionally raw and slightly bruised, they’re still willing to put themselves on the line for the potential of more and there’s beauty in that willfulness. It’s like Weaver sings on “Drag The Hills”, “I’d rather have scars from the life I lived than have none from the one I missed.”

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Album Review: Jeremy Messersmith – The Reluctant Graveyard

Posted on 18 November 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

by Amber Valentine

I’ve always loved a good spook story. Blame it on my mom taking me to see The Nightmare Before Christmas one too many times as a child or blame it on the fact that death touched my life one too many times for comfort and, to cope, I’ve taken an intense interest in the macabre. So intense, in fact, that before my foray into music journalism, I was dead set (pun intended) on becoming a mortician. So, naturally, any album that deals with murder, loss, and eloquent tombstone testimonials is right up my alley but never had I heard a pop album on the subject until Jeremy Messersmith‘s The Reluctant Graveyard.

As the story goes, Messersmith and his wife moved into a Minneapolis house that neighbored a cemetery, spurring an idea in Messersmith’s hook-laden brain to write a concept album of sorts in which the narrarator of every track experiences death. Naturally, that would have you think that the songwriter had abandoned the infectious melodies of his first two albums for a more somber route. That assumption, however, is blown out of the water immediately.

The Reluctant Graveyard opens with a guitar hook that makes Messersmith’s love of ’60’s pioneers The Zombies and Beach Boys apparent and as “Lazy Bones” progresses, the album’s dark concepts dissipate in a pop chorus sunnier than an August day. The trend continues through “Dillinger Eyes”, a song that culminates with Messersmith being shot, his good intentions bleeding out around him, all because he “was born with John Dillinger’s eyes”. The album even verges on Neil Diamond territory with “Violet!” which, to me, is slightly reminiscent of Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” but hey, maybe that’s just me.

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Of course, my darker tendencies force me to gravitating to the album’s darkest tracks. Messersmith’s concept becomes clear on “Organ Donor,” a seductively eerie standout of a track that has Messersmith confessing that, after all he’s been through, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be whole again” against an understated background of strings and gentle guitar. Messersmith is never one, however, to overwhelm and it seems that every overtly grim track is sandwiched in between a folky tune that deceives you into thinking Messersmith’s verging on optimism until you take a closer listen. When Messersmith sings about “thinking of the friends (he’s) left behind”, it eventually becomes obvious that he’s not leaving on vacation but instead departing to the great beyond that Messersmith influence Elliott Smith was so fond of musing about.

While the concept is clear on The Reluctant Graveyard, it never overpowers the album’s pure catchiness. One of the album’s darkest tracks, “John The Determinist”, is wrought with dark desperation, a man insisting “Oh, you silly things, I’ve got you figured out” although it’s more than apparent that the narrator’s constant need to understand his own life and the lives of others will never leave him with any answers.

Even on an album fraught with standouts, nothing can compare to “A Girl, A Boy And A Graveyard”. You see, readers, every year for the past five, I’ve made a “Mental Health Mix”. This mix consists of me choosing one song per month that perfectly encapsulates my life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a new song, it just has to be a song that describes what I was going through during that month. This year, however, twelve songs aren’t necessary. I mean, I’m still totally going to make “Mental Health Mix 2010″ come December but I could sum up my life simply using “A Girl, A Boy And A Graveyard”. It would take quite literally a dissertation to discuss why every single line of that song affects my life so deeply but as Messersmith sings about his Lucy, whose “body’s cold” and “guts are twisted steel”, I can’t help but feel he, without knowing me, perfectly encapsulated every aspect of my personality, from Lucy’s cryptic optimism (“Life’s a game we’re meant to lose (but) stick by me and I will stick by you.”) to her complete fear of vulnerability. Before “A Girl, A Boy And A Graveyard”, I was quite fond of this Messersmith character. Afterward, however, I was completely and utterly in love. Any other musician, I feel, would romanticize his heroine in such a way where she was helpless, feeding upon most every guy’s superhero complex where he gets to swoop in like Superman himself and rescue his lovely Lois Lane. Messersmith, however, compares Lucy to “some kind of Frankenstein, waiting for a shock to bring (her) back to life. But (she doesn’t) want to spend (her) time waiting for lightning to strike.”

A Girl, A Boy And A Graveyard

It goes back to my love of the macabre, of the ghosts of my past that have left me afraid of becoming attached to any one person, afraid of my own “lightning to strike”, for all the reasons Messersmith explores on The Reluctant Graveyard: Despair, tragedy, and the type of catastrophic loss that Messersmith sings about in “Repo Man”, another track that finds a man reflecting on the defeat that has marred his life. Even so, Messermith manages to end his album on two incredibly positive notes. “Deathbed Salesman” finds Messersmith playing the role of just that, a very literal deathbed salesman, and despite the fact that Messersmith is offering his audience their final resting places, he never stops reminding you, while dying is inevitable, “all your friends are there and waiting” and “once you’ll gone, you’ll never want to live again.” The swirling, Beatles-esque chorus, wherein Messermith repeats “This is how it has to end, so love somebody while you can”, recalls Smith once again, this time evoking one of my all time favorite songs, Figure 8‘s “Happiness”, a song who’s lyrics I just so happen to have tattooed on my arm.

Messersmith, who released two stellar folk pop albums before The Reluctant Graveyard, finds the perfect balance of tragedy and beauty, of modern and vintage, on his third LP and despite his obvious infatuation with the literal end, Messersmith has managed to produce a remarkably optimistic album. Lyrically, this is the same guy that sang “Even the good times could be so much better…. Even the great times wouldn’t let me down” only now, he knows how to perfectly juxtapose the depression with the good times.

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Band of the Day: Amber Valentine reviews Archie Powell & The Exports – “Skip Work”

Posted on 12 November 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

by Amber Valentine

I was exposed to rock and roll at a young age. I knew the words to Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker’s “Refugee” when I was well under the age of five and one of the saddest days of my youth was when my dad told me that, during moving from Missouri to Michigan, we’d somehow lost our copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits. The first cd I ever bought was Abbey Road at eight. I saved up my three-dollars-per-week allowance until I had enough scratch to get my own copy of The Beatles’ legendary disc and, sure, my parents had multiple copies (Vinyl, tape, probably 8-track as well) but how cool was it to have my own?

Since then, I’ve expanded my horizons and all but left rock behind in the process. Yeah, I’ve still got the Traveling Wilburies in my iTunes library but I’m sad to say that these days, Jenny Lewis’s cover of “Handle With Care” gets more play than it’s original predecessor. Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken such a shine to Chicago foursome Archie Powell & the Exports. I came across the band shortly after both myself and Powell had moved to the city and was, at the time, going through a huge David Bazan phase. The band, it ends up, had just released a free five song EP on their bandcamp and who am I to refuse free music? Immediately, I was reminded of the bands that got me into music in the first place (Petty, Westerberg) but with a twist of the modern bands that Powell and I both cut our teeth on in high school (The Strokes, Weezer) and that mix kept the band’s sound from being a stale rehash of The Replacements’ Let It Be.

Even after the hearty reception the band’s EP received in my household of one, I must admit that I was slightly apprehensive to hear the band’s debut. Why? Well, because while every song on the band’s Loose Change EP was catchy bits of audible bliss with lyrics that, to a girl who had just moved to the exact city Powell talked about in “Moving To The City”, struck a major chord, I couldn’t help but feel that ten plus songs like that had overwhelming odds of growing stale.

This, however, was not the first time I’ve been wrong.

Skip Work is Archie Powell & the Exports to the extreme. These kids are ready to make a splash and they are not playing around. This isn’t kid’s stuff. This is a band that’s all in, diversifying their sound on more than a few tracks and releasing an album that includes not only the catchy bits of Loose Change, but also some songs that are shockingly different for the Exports.


The albums starts out with “Milkman Blues”, a minute and a half long tune that gives you the impression you’ve just popped in a much folkier CD than you actually have. When the song abruptly stops, only to punch your eardrums with the opening notes of lead single “Enough About Me”, it’s as evident to fans of Powell from his debut release as it is new recruits that this band is worth your time, more now than ever. Stand out track “Fightning Words” is a perfect example of this. Admittedly, being used to Powell and company’s straight up rock sound from the previous year’s EP, I hated “Fightning Words” at first. The verses are a spitfire assault of megaphone shouted lyrics while the chorus is signature Powell, megaphone tossed aside. The abrupt juxtaposition of the two versions of Powell present felt jarring, to say the very least but within days, the song had not only grown on me, but quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album, a song that when I tell people “You need to hear this band!”, ends up being the track I tell them to “wait for” because “this is worth hearing.”

Of course, this isn’t to say it’s all about Powell. Sure, he’s a hell of a front man but without the Exports, his talent wouldn’t shine half as much as it does. You see, Archie Powell & the Exports are sort of like the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Alone, they have spandex and mad ninja skills but together, they can transform into Megazord and that’s when you know some ass is about to get kicked. This, of course, is the proverbial ass of your eardrums, not the ass of Rita Repulsa, but regardless, ass? The Exports are kickin’ it. I never understood when people described a tune as a “bassist’s song” until I heart Okkervil River’s “Lost Coastlines” and goodness, am I ever glad that Okkervil River’s Patrick Pestorius came into my life because without him, I don’t think I’d truly understand the value of Adam Export (Yes, that’s totally his real last name) in Archie Powell & the Exports. Adam’s passion for his craft is showcased song after song and when the Exports bust out their rock numbers, Adam is just as prevalent of an asset to the band as is Powell himself.

I feel as if one of the biggest reasons the Exports shine so thoroughly, however, is keyboardist Ryan Export (Where the heck did Powell find all these kids with the last name Export?!), who adds an alt-country flair to Skip Work‘s best tune, swoon-worthy album closer “The Darndest Things”. Elsewhere, Ryan adds an appealing spice where a lesser band would have just put a lackluster guitar solo. To say the Exports function as a musically cohesive unit is completely accurate and even less memorable tracks like “All Tuckered Out” and “Follow Through” are incredibly solid songs.

Lyrically, Powell specializes in words that are equal parts sincere and snotty, singing earnestly about the pains of shouldering day to day responsibilities at a factory job where he “doesn’t want to have to fake it anymore” (“Piggy Bank Blues”, “All Tuckered Out”) before launching into a rockin’ tongue-in-cheek number about the shortcomings of his old friend Mattson who, yes, is a real guy that apparently skips out on chill sessions with Powell to watch reruns of the O.C.

Powell, as well as all the Exports (which, in addition to Adam and Ryan, include RJ, a recent acquisition that did not appear on Skip Work.) don’t only command your attention but they deserve it. They wear their love of rock on their sleeve and their type of rock is the rock that just doesn’t relay exist anymore, having been replaced in “hipster” culture with synth beats and music laden with irony and kitsch. Sure, Powell might be a snot on occasion but he’s never insincere and if there’s any justice in the world of rock and roll, Archie Powell & the Exports will be big time in no time.

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Album Review: “November Birthday” by Lightning Love

Posted on 10 November 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

by Abby Holmes

You’d be hard-pressed to find a trio more adorable than Lightning Love, and that’s majorly due to vocalist/keyboardist Leah Diehl’s cartoony voice and indie-cute fashion sense (not to mention that darling smile that probably helps her “Friends” forgive her after an embarrassing night of drinking).

Anyone who’s ever been 22 can probably relate to Lightning Love’s lyrics, which include the aforementioned chain of alcohol-induced events from “Friends”: “Well, they all had a laugh when I climbed up the shaft/ and I pissed in the elevator in that old parking garage/ but I really wish they hadn’t watched/ And they thought it was cute ’til I kicked off my shoes/ and I started to puke/ and my friends, well, they all walked away/ I thought real friends would have stayed.” Take note: The college/post-college experience that lacks a similar anecdote is truly only a partial experience.

Guitarist Ben Collins and drummer Aaron Diehl round out the lineup of sandy-haired youngsters from Michigan. The group’s debut LP, November Birthday, went on sale last year. A dozen electro-pop tunes splay drops of sunshine across these dreary months, like a musical scarf to warm up your wintertime.

Diehl’s self-deprecating lyrics are present throughout the record, lamenting professional obligation, a life without ambition, relationship disasters, cold weather, dealing with grown-ups, and becoming a grown-up. But she’s good about reminding herself that it’s all a part of life, so even while it’s getting her down, she doesn’t let it bury her. “I fail at everything/ And every day’s the same/ I’m human, that’s what happens/ and there’s no one else to blame,” Diehl sings on “Girls Are Always Wrong.”

The way the child-like musicality conflicts with the mature subject matter in the lyrics is almost in itself the starring point of November Birthday. It’s like Diehl’s way of negotiating a life she’s not ready to leave behind with a life she has to grow into, standing her ground somewhere at the cusp of those two phases. Old enough to drink and smoke and sleep around, but still too young to be expected to know better, consequences be damned. On “Good Time,” the keyboard melody begins forebodingly to illustrate the shame she doesn’t feel about transgressions she doesn’t regret only to cheerily climax with the declaration, “I can’t help having a good time.” And why should she? If there’s any time to be making mistakes, it’s in your early 20s, when you can still sort of get away with it.

Wait, Wait

Diehl puts her heart on her sleeve for “Wait, Wait,” revealing a moment of vulnerability that forces her to evaluate her priorities. Perhaps after the passage of a few more birthdays, Lightning Love will have a new sound to match its growth — but one can secretly hope the trio continues to sound just like it does already, because what Lightning Love has now is pure perfection.

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Album Review: Ok Go – “Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky”

Posted on 09 November 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

by Mike Call

Everyone likes a little Ok Go. Now add some Prince and some gritty electronic noise and you have their latest offering from earlier this year, Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. It’s a strange sound, many of you will like it and many of you will hate it. But really, you should at least check it out because it’s sweet! It’s not the pop sound we learned to love from the album Ok Go, but it is the next installment from a band that we know writes good music.

The track “White Knuckles” has been getting radio play, at least in my neck of the woods. It harkens back to the indie pop we are used to more so than the rest of the tracks. There are some good hooks, and some beats, but the overall feel of spaciousness takes over and leaves an air of … well, airiness by the end of the album.

©Jeremy & Claire Weiss Photography/Day19.

So, at least give Of the Blue Colour of the Sky a try. Ok Go is a group of artists after all, and I’d personally be dissapointed in them if they weren’t trying new things.

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Album Review: Tim Kasher – “The Game of Monogamy”

Posted on 24 October 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

I have a strange and wonderful relationship with Cursive front man and The Good Life troubadour Tim Kasher. I got into him very early on, via a mixtape (yes, a tape. Yes, I am getting old.) from my middle school’s only other indie kid. The fact that we both wore Chuck Taylors and exchanged mixtapes resulted in some lesbian rumors which I guess makes sense as our relationship was one of self-discovery. Only, instead of discovering each others prepubescent chests, we discovered something far better: Stephen Malkmus. I gave her Elliott Smith and Eels. She gave me The Dismemberment Plan and Cursive. To be more specific, she gave me Cursive’s “Cielings Crack” from their debut release, Such Blinding Eyes For Starving Eyes. And I was smitten. At the time, I was heavy in like with a boy who didn’t see me as anything more than “one of the guys” (probably because of those lesbian rumors) so the sentiments of Kasher’s screams echoed long and hit heavy. “I know I’m just a peon to you, but I deserve more,” he shouted and inside, I said “Eff yeah. I do deserve more. This guy gets it. He gets it!” Some years later, the same friend asked me to recommend her some happy music. I told her I’d been listening to The Ugly Organ a lot. When she informed me that Cursive was just about the furthest thing from “happy music”, I told her that she had done this to    me and really, she had. Without her, who knows when I would have discovered Cursive, or The Good Life for that matter, and what affect they would have had on my life.

Just like everyone who’s ever been bummed about heartbreak, Album of the Year holds a special place in my heart and “Sierra” gets me to shed a tear every time it comes up on my iTunes library. Black Out has more than a few songs that mirror my life and seeing Cursive play a cover of The Cure’s “Lovecats” to less than 200 die hard Kasher fans in DeKalb, Illinois ranks as one of the best moments of my musical life thus far. I heard rumors of a Tim Kasher solo show at Schubas in Chicago brewing before I heard any announcement of his solo debut, The Game of Monogamy, so when I heard that the man himself was releasing a solo debut, I had two thoughts: 1) Complete and utter fan girl excitement (Oh my god, did I mention the time Tim complimented my shoes you guys?! That totally happened! In real life!) and 2) Wait… Why?

You see, Kasher started The Good Life as a way to release all the songs that didn’t fit with his career with Cursive. Since that time, The Good Life has progressed from a electro-indie band to confessional acoustics and Cursive? Well, they just do whatever they damn well please these days. So really, a solo album from Kasher just doesn’t make sense. Surely, one of his outfits could be well suited enough for The Game of Monogamy.

Tim Kasher – Cold Love from Saddle Creek on Vimeo.

Apparently not. The theatrics Kasher displayed with Cursive on The Ugly Organ? Imagine that ten fold and you have the first ten minutes of The Game Of Monogamy. With his solo debut, Kasher has written a mainstream musical, complete with horn sections, pop arrangements, abrupt tempo changes, and storytelling lyrics. The only problem is… well, frankly put, all of these songs would sound better bare bones, Album of the Year style. Another problem? Well, aside from the unabashed mainstream overtones of the album, Kasher has, at one time or another, done everything here before. That isn’t to say the man is losing his talent, as he once expressed fear over in “No News Is Bad News”. Kasher’s songwriting is just as wonderfully, brutally, honest and self-loathing as ever but what Kasher has done on The Game of Monogamy was just better the first time around. Those horn sections that litter “I Think I’m Gonna Die Here”? They just fit better on Happy Hallow. The strings on “There Must Be Something I’ve Lost”? It was cooler when it was on “Driftwood: A Fairytale”.

No Fireworks

That isn’t to say that The Game Of Monogamy does not have it’s appeal. “No Fireworks”, in particular, is another damn near perfect Kasher composition, the type of song he does so well that manages to do nothing less than encapsulate my personal life with lyrics like “I thought love was supposed to spill from our hearts…. But I can’t feel anything at all.” Much like “What Have I Done” and “Staying Alive” before it, “No Fireworks” is a song for the ages of Amber Valentine, a lament of the sad state of my personal life, a dirge for my once a-flutter heart. If love has to suck so bad, at least I have Kasher to commiserate with me.

By the time the album wraps up, with “Monogamy”, if your ears have adjusted to the shock of Kasher’s polished sound, the closing tracks beauty will not be lost on you. Heck, even if your ears haven’t adjusted (as mine seem unable to do), you’ll be able to take note of “Monogamy”. The track sums up the entirety of the album, closing it on the somber note that makes it clear that monogamy was just a “charade”, a “game”, as the album title points out. Once again, just as with all of the endeavors Kasher puts to music, he’s failed. Is it shocking? No. “Ten years of wedded bliss” is not for people like Kasher, over grown teenagers who still lust after high school girlfriends, who want to sleep with every girl they see, just to see what it’s like.

For all it’s musical downfalls, The Game Of Monogamy is not a bad album by any means but the fact of the matter is that, honestly, I just can’t help but expect more from Kasher. My exceptions for the man, after all, are quite high. But at the end of the day, “Just Don’t Get Caught”, the country tinged b-side to Kasher’s Cold Love single, is just more appealing to me than anything that made the actual album’s cut.

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Album Review: Madjo – “Trapdoor”

Posted on 12 October 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

While I am an indie kid through and through, spending many nights in the audible company of Okkervil River and The National, I’ve always had a weakness for the music of my people, the Fench. I like being French for innumerable reasons, including but not limited to my love of the country’s seductive yet relâché take on fashion and the French’s laissez faire attitude towards relationships, but the thing I love most about my heritage is chanson. From Jane Birkin and Francoise Hardy to modern day French multitaskers like Charlotte Gainsbourg and Keren Ann, I’ve always been taken with my proverbial motherland and I’ve always wondered why it is exactly that more French music isn’t widely available and beloved in the states.

 Part of that, of course, is the fact that some of the loveliest French releases never even make it to America. One of these such releases is the debut full length album by chanteuse Madjo, a classically trained French-Senegalese violinist. If Trapdoor, her September released album, were brought to the U.S., I feel like Madjo could be the next big quirky indie female… if only people could hear her!

 Madjo is a spritely scamp who’s adorable nature brings to mind, vocally, a mix of Fiona Apple and Imogen Heap and, personality wise, a more three dimensional version of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s enigmatic pal Zoe in The Science of Sleep.

 Trapdooris split almost evenly between perfectly enunciated English indie pop and edgy, quirky tracks in Madjo’s native toungue. Album opener “Leaving My Heart” spins a jazz tinged web that’s not completely out of step with Fiona Apple, back when she was ripe with Jon Brion’s lovely oddities. As with the rest of the album, “Leaving My Heart” is heavy on layered vocals, making Madjo’s husky and melodic voice even more alluring.


 The dance beat of “Another Day” is ripe for play at hipster bars while “Le Coeur Hibou” is audible sex appeal, with enticing vocals that only a French woman could provide and a backdrop of multi-layered, echoing instruments. The album’s title track is a clap-along number that spares no expense when it comes to charm and it just begs to be in a Focus Features off-beat romance, during the inevitable “Why don’t we just fall in love?” moment between the two quirky and neurotic main characters.

 While I am French by birth, I cannot hold my own in a French conversation to save my life. Nevertheless, one of Trapdoor’s most captivating tracks is  “Le Nid Des 100 Soucis.” What’s Madjo saying? I haven’t a clue! But the fact that “Le Nid Des 100 Soucis” a straight up, infectious jam is a testament to Madjo’s talent. Nothing to do with the appeal of the song, or Madjo herself, is lost in translation.

 Amber Valentine is the editor in chief of Radio Free Chicago and you can read her review of Madjo’s first release, a self titled EP, here.

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Album Review: Ferraby Lionheart – Jack of Hearts

Posted on 27 September 2010 by Mylynda Guthrie

If a film were made of Ferraby Lionheart’s life, I feel as if he’d be played by Gene Kelly. Of course, this would involve Lionheart having been born generations ago, which he wasn’t, but Lionheart has a certain type of old Hollywood charm about him that makes you feel like, were you to encounter the troubadour, he’d probably hold the door open for you and offer you a jacket if you looked cold.

Jack of Hearts, Lionheart’s second full length album, cements his position as a thinking girl’s heartthrob, as it’s rife with lyrics that are heavy on romantic ideals and songs that would perfectly orchestrate a slow dance under the stars.

Vocally, Lionheart bears a strong similarity to producer-composer extraordinaire Jon Brion (who just so happened to help give Lionheart is big break a few years back) but musically, he couldn’t be further from Brion’s multi-layered, modern oddities. Jack of Hearts, despite it’s impeccable production, is a very organic album with a timeless quality. Lionheart shows his roots with pride, bringing forth an album of folk tinged alt-country that hits it’s stride early on and continues to be memorable through out. With Jack of Hearts, Lionheart has produced his most polished and cohesive album to date.

The album is perfectly bookended with “Holding Me Back” and “Minuteman,” both of which perfectly encapsulate what Lionheart is all about. However, it’s third track “Harry and the Bees” that really forces you to pay attention. With it’s twangy guitar and Lionheart’s signature romantic croon, “Harry and the Bees” is the type of song to have your last first kiss to. What can I say? Lionheart makes music for lovers and for people who want to fall in love. Never is that so evident as it is with Jack of Heart’s second to last song, “Drag Me ‘Round”. The song describes imperfect love to a tee with lyrics like “You kick me when I’m down; Who knew that you packed such a punch?” When Lionheart sings “I never want to get over it”, you never want him to get over it either because, quite simply, it sounds too beautiful to let go.

Drag Me ‘Round – Ferraby Lionheart

Of course, as with the rest of the album, Lionheart’s smooth and seductive voice is the true stand out here. Lionheart doesn’t sing. He croons. When was the last time you heard a good crooner? Lionheart’s ability to sing a well-crafted, melodically solid song with perfect pitch is the shining attribute of Jack of Hearts and after the closing notes of album ender “Minuteman,” you can’t help but feel Lionheart is at the only just start of a long and glorious career.

-Amber Valentine

Ed note: check out other worthy writings by the kick-ars Amber Valentine on our fellow site in musical appreciation and spread-ation (it’s a word only here, only now) Radio Free Chicago, where Amber serves and directs as Editor in Chief.

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