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Sharon Van Etten – Magic Chords

January 20, 2012

Never has intonation–the tiny, idiosyncratic creaks, cracks and whines that fill-out and shape an uttered word–been so important for an artist. Sharon Van Etten’s lyrics are certainly poetic, but on paper, they could be mistaken for soft-ball, stock, indie-folk fodder. But when delivered by Van Etten, the simplest of refrains like, “You’ve got to lose sometimes,” becomes so defined and perfectly evocative of Van Etten’s signature hopeful despair. “Magic Chords,” a track off of the soon to be released Tramp, is like a lot of Van Etten’s tracks in that its treasures need to be mined, and its rewards are only often realized on second, third and fourth listen. It’s not that SVE is a grower (the ugliest word in the arena of music review), it’s that her talents are understated and subtle in a way that doesn’t imply there is a dearth of substance behind her music, but rather that, as of now, we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg.


Felix and Volcano! – Son Of Sam

January 12, 2012

The trick of Felix and Volcano! is that they’re able to keep things light without ever feeling trivial. It’s a tough high-wire act that starts with a keyboard riff that sounds like something you might have written while messing around on the $100 Casio that’s collecting dust in your parents basement. And it gives “Son Of Sam” a juvenile (not in a bad way) air until, suddenly, Sydney Bilodeau chimes in with heartfelt vocals that ground the track and turn it into something more than a couple kids fooling around on Garageband. Felix and Volcano! is somehow defined by the exclamation mark they daringly throw in at the end of their name–they recognize that their youth and their playful sound might characterize them as a fun band, but fun is no joke and, like this up-and-coming band, should be taken seriously.


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Grimes – Genesis

January 6, 2012

Claire Boucher’s high-pitched, airy vocals often seem like no match for the sonority of the tracks they are gently laid over, and yet, somehow Boucher’s whispers are always what remains behind–like a good taste in your mouth long after you’ve swallowed. “Genesis” opens with some epic, 80s-nostalgic electro-pop, but doesn’t get stuck in the generic track of pastiche. Instead, it jumps from one sonic landscape to the next, the constant always being Boucher’s endearingly childish vocal stylings. It’s not exactly a catchy tune, nor a rewardingly challenging one, but “Genesis” illustrates the qualities of ethereality and youthful confidence that make “Grimes” one of the rising indie acts of the moment. The album, Visions, is off of 4AD, is due out February.


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Poli├ža – Lay Your Cards Out (feat. Mike Noyce)

January 3, 2012

For a long time, R&B used to be an arena for heavy strutting–a place to display one’s power, strength and invincibility. But in a post-808s & Heartbreak R&B landscape, the genre has come to be defined by cathartic expressions of humanness and vulnerability. From Drake’s Take Care to everything The Weeknd has released to date, R&B artists aren’t just publicly displaying their faults, but exploring them, basking in them and admitting their fear of of them. Sonically, Polica, with their schizophrenic drum-beats and electronic tropes, isn’t easily classified as R&B, but their treatment of tracks like “Lay Your Cards Out” as spaces meant for therapeutic honesty is thematically in line with the modern incarnation of the genre. Channy Leaneagh’s vocals are toyed with until they sound almost totally synthetic, but, because they never lose their sense of human desperation, the track maintains a sense of accessibility and warmth. In short, “Lay Your Cards Out” derives its power from a capitulation to a certain powerlessness. “Give You The Ghost” is due out in February.


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The Weeknd – D.D. (Michael Jackson cover)

December 23, 2011

House of Balloons, the mix-tape that put The Weeknd on the map, was a meditation on hyper-sexuality. With beats and melodies that were filled with the malaise and regret of a lover on a Sunday morning, Abel Tesfaye explored the darkness that lies at the heart of sex. His vocal delivery usually settled somewhere between post-coital whisper (“What You Want”) and ecstatic yelp (“Glass Table Girls”), creating a visceral reaction to what many listeners relegated as music you can only put on when you’re actually having sex. But, while House of Balloons was indeed dripping with sexuality, it’s clear that The Weeknd is an entity that fears sex, the great faceless (or many-faced) monster of the human psyche. So, opening mix-tape number three with Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” makes perfect sense; no one feared his sexuality more than MJ, and “Dirty Diana” elucidates that fear under the guise of the cliche rockstar and his mistress dynamic. On the track, Tesfaye does MJ justice, not just in his incredible homage to Jackson’s signature vocal idiosyncrasies, but in his complete comprehension of what “Dirty Diana” represented to the king of pop–the side of himself that he could never truly look in the eye, let alone understand.

Echoes Of Silence  Cover Art

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Nujabes – Prayer

December 6, 2011

It’s strange how art is suddenly transformed when the artist who produced it is no longer around to be inextricably tied to the work. Jun Soba, a well known DJ and hip-hop producer in Japan, died last year in a car accident, leaving behind an album called Spiritual State. The fourteen track jaunt is chockfull of jazz-infused hip-hop that’s slathered with a malaise and melancholia that takes on a whole new shape in the wake of Soba’s death. “Prayer,” one of a handful of instrumental tracks on Spiritual State, toys with a dark ethereality that is more than a Nujabes trademark but a part of Soba’s sonic identity. It’s a simple tune with just a few samples over an ominous piano melody, but it’s tune that you just may be whistling for the rest of the day.

Nujabes Spiritual State

Frank Ocean – Thinking About You

November 15, 2011

What makes Frank Ocean so good is his ability to make R&B–a genre that is often so performative that it is rendered closed-off and inaccessible–that feels utterly vulnerable and naked. Sure, the topics at hand are somewhat cliche: women, relationships and heartbreak, but Ocean explores these themes in such an honest and unmediated fashion, it feels utterly juvenile. In “Thinking About You,” his lyrics aren’t the only thing that capture this state of vulnerability; his pained monotonic drone and angst-ridden falsetto both reek of desperation.

Frank ocean thinking about you 1

Tennis – Origins

November 10, 2011

When rumors started swirling that Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney would be producing the newest Tennis album, a few eyebrows were raised–the only thing these two bands share in common is that they’re duos. But if “Origins” is any indication, Carney has been able to bring the two-person wall of sound mentality that has made he and Dan Auerbach so successful, and translate it into surf-pop, adding depth and punch to Tennis’ signature light-as-a-feather jams. You can pre-order the sucker here.


Lana Del Ray – Video Games

October 30, 2011

“Video Games” is a bleak and dark track with, in a calculated and ingenious decision, pretty generic and cliche lyrics. The darkness comes from Elizabeth Grant’s delivery: she sounds like she just woke up from a long sleep and is lazily recounting the nightmare she just had. But the for Lana Del Ray, that nightmare seems to have something to do with life’s inauthenticity. Just like a video game, you can invest as hard as you want, but at the end of the day you’ll always be reminded just how inconsequential it all is–it’s all just “Video Games.”


The Tallest Man On Earth – Weather of a Killing Kind

October 12, 2011

A folk singer and his guitar–it’s a combination that really should be stale by now, no? But somehow Kristian Matsson, The Tallest Man on Earth feels as fresh as can be. He croaks out poetry with such apparent effortlessness, it’s as if he’s making up the story as he goes. This song, “Weather of a Killing Kind” showcases Matsson’s lyrical virtuosity and Dylanesque delivery. The track was released through the Adult Swim Singles Program on July 8th.