Album Appreciation – The Velvet Teen’s All is Illusory

All is Illusory CoverI discovered The Velvet Teen (2000 – Present) when Elysium (2004) came out and loved it. They seemed quiet since their No Star – EP (2010), so it was a surprise to see they were playing a show in Minneapolis. No, Songkick wasn’t mistaking them for Minneapolis’s the Velveteen. They were even releasing a new album! Here’s a summary of my impression and descriptions of the stand-out songs from All is Illusory (2015).

Each song on the album is fairly straight forward and consistent in itself. The more mellow songs outnumber the upbeat ones, making this seem like an album of ballads. There are moments of dynamic intensity where the music bursts and then pulls back or slowly builds, though these moments don’t payoff on every song., I liked the rocking ones listed below.

“Eclipses” is the first fast-paced song on the album. It’s short and sweet, but sounds really full with multiple guitars constantly strumming. It’s a got a syncopated hook, dissonant chorus, and key change in the bridge. The drums are crazy as usual and the singing and music reach a nice climax near the end.

“Pecos” has an upbeat keyboard hook and soaring vocals. The guitar strumming and bass fill it out, but keep it light.  The song builds after the second chorus with a keyboard solo and some “woah, woah”s. It releases into a soft bass solo among arrhythmic finger-picking that sounds like harps. They kick back into the song for a strong finish.

“The Giving In” was streaming on NPR before the album came out.  It’s got bass and drum triplets partnered with atmospheric guitars. Another guitar provides a simple lead.  The song builds into the first chorus and after a guitar solo the drums build in the second chorus to basically a drum solo.  

“You Were the First” has a tricky rhythm drum, but fun breaks and guitar lead. The vocal lines go up and down octaves and have some shouting from the back up vocals. The second verse starts off with short, pointy notes before going back into the strong sound it started with through the second chorus to a quick ending.

Overall, the variety of keyboard sounds are interesting, ranging from harpsichord and classical piano to vocoder and catchy synth hooks.  The vocal harmonies add to the impression that these songs could be ballads.  Guitars vary from main accompanying instrument to atmospheric layering, from acoustic strumming to distorted shredding.  The bass blends into the background mostly, but does offer some interesting swells and harmonics.  The drums come off as bit too complex, but pound away in new and interesting ways with lots of fills. It’s generally good with some great moments.

Check out more Album Appreciation posts. Please e-mail me suggestions for albums you’d like to see in a future post. And if you find value in Write to Remember, consider buying my music.

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Album Appreciation – Kurt Vile's Wakin On A Pretty Daze

Wakin On A Pretty Daze CoverKurt Vile (1980 – ) came to my attention in the pages of GQ and later at Rock the Garden, so I thought I’d listen to his 2013 album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze.  His songs flow in at unhurried pace, incorporating numerous guitar solos, extended jams, and sometimes complete changes. All the songs incorporate multiple guitar parts, alternating or blending acoustic and electric.  Vile’s playing style ranges from folky strumming and stompin’ rock to delicate fingerpicking. Most guitar parts are clean, with only slight effects on solos or accents.

Vile’s relaxed, almost-mumbling vocals slide around in a style reminiscent of J. Mascis, though his music is much mellower.  His singing retains a rough authenticity as well; though seemingly relaxed, he spits his consonants as he emphasizes the beat.  His introspective lyrics casually cover topics of daydreaming, death, love and longing, and shame and recovery.

The album’s subtle instrumentation creates a rich atmosphere that lightly ebbs and flows in the songs. Besides the sound of many guitars, Vile often incorporates synthesizers and electronic instruments. There are jingling and dripping samples as well as organ, bells, and synthesized string in the mix.  While the drums are simple, he adds some nice auxiliary percussion – shakers, tambourine, and even cowbell.

Highlights include “Was All Talk”, “Never Run Away”, “Pure Pain”, and “Shame Chamber”.

Album Appreciation – Young Widows' In and Out of Youth and Lightness

In and Out of Lightness and YouthWhile Young Widows (2006 – ) recently released a new album in May,  In and Out of Youth and Lightness (2011) stands out above it. Its taut rhythms combine with the dissonant guitar licks to create an almost cinematic atmosphere around the brooding vocal harmonies. Most songs can be characterized as grinding — driving forward and pounding despite any complication the other instruments provide.  While the songs don’t have booming climaxes or quiet lulls, there are changes, stops, and starts.  The vocal harmonies even include a female vocalist and three part harmonies.

The drums contributes most of the complexity to these songs with rolls and fills accented by sleigh bells, cowbell, and chimes. The bass guitar growls as it accentuates the punch of the bass drum.  It’s thick tone creates a hard and heavy connections with drums and guitar, occasionally adding interesting harmonies and musical counterpoints.  The eerie guitar riffs reverberates through every song, pulling the ear with looping patterns and blasting it away with shredding chords.  While the guitar maintains a fairly constant tone, the playing is interesting and not heavy for the sake of being heavy.

The subdued vocals echoing on each track adds a lot of tension.  The variation here comes from the two or three part harmonies that build on the choruses and more intense parts.  The speak-singing stretches out over many bars and takes time develop.  This singing style doesn’t  provides no relief with an explosive emotional climax, but draws the listener in but

Highlights include “In and Out of Lightness”, “The Muted Man”, “Miss Tambourine Wrist”, and “Rose Windows”.

Click ‘Continue reading’ for an explanation why I even listened to this album.

Continue reading “Album Appreciation – Young Widows' In and Out of Youth and Lightness”

Album Review – Blood Red Shoes' Blood Red Shoes

Blood_Red_Shoes_Self-Titled_Album_CoverBlood Red Shoes  plays fast-paced, raw rock. This British duo put out their fourth full-length album, Blood Red Shoes, last month.  With mostly just guitar and drums backing the vocal, these two are able make a huge sound and manage to keep it loud and interesting.  What makes them stand out is their emphasis on hard-hitting rhythms while also creating great melodies.

The guitars and drums sound massive.  The guitar bends and shreds in multiple parts, while the drums sound just as huge, bouncing off every wall of the metaphorical garage.   It’s not just noise, though — there are complex rhythms, dynamic shifts and agile breaks.  Angular riffs that are abrasive but fun. A plethora of effects keep the guitar tone interesting as well. The drumming patterns vary subtly while still driving hard.

The male and female pair have ears for melody and vocal harmonies to boot.  They trade off aggressive, yet catchy vocal tunes.  They balance each other well, combining salty and sweet tone.  They can also switch to create the right counterpoint for the music.

Highlights include “Everything All at Once”, “Stranger”, and “Cigarettes in the Dark.”  They’ve also got videos for “An Animal” and “Speech Coma”.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Pick Favorites – Arctic Monkeys' Humbug

Arctic Monkeys' HumbugArctic Monkeys have released five albums from 2006 to 2013.  Since I’ve had the titular line of the single “R U Mine?” stuck in my head and saw Alex Turner was in GQ, I thought I’d give them a listen. Luckily, all of Arctic Monkey’s albums are available at my local library.  After a thorough review, I pick Humbug as my favorite.  This album stands apart for Homme’s production.  It’s pop-punk soaked in stoner rock.   The songs still have an intense pulse, but it’s also got an eerie vibe provided by the dissonant harmonies and shrill accents. 

While the guitars  grind away in some of the songs, they do so more to support, not standing in the forefront.  This role change allows them to really pop in solos and other cool effects.  With the guitars backed off, the rhythm section shows off its tight chops; fuzzy bass punctuates the drum’s interesting grooves.

Another noticeable shift is in the vocals.  Vocal harmonies  that range from high falsetto and ominous low chanting sneak in throughout the album.  Turner remains verbose as ever on some songs, but he’s also got a lot of memorable lines.  He’s tempered his vocal snarl with an expanded range that croons softly and pronounces emphatically.

Lastly, the production is sweeping.  Shimmering guitars, punchy bass, and eerie background vocals, and ominous organs  meld a vast, reflective soundscape.  The rhythmic range shifts from brash punk to a swaggering swing and spooky grooves to grinding, sludgy breakdowns.  I thought the Josh Homme-produced album was just okay when it came out, but now I really dig it.

Which Arctic Monkeys album is your favorite?

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Album Review – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Specter at the Feast

5ce2f273Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released their seventh full-length studio album, Specter at the Feast, in March 2013.  The songs range from stompin’ rock to meditative gospel.  Whether loud or soft, the album is full of sound with rich harmonies and effects.  The band adds organ and strings in with the usual guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.  The guitar remains at the forefront, though, providing a dense, effects-laden atmosphere.  Wailing, echoing, reverberating, and screeching creative touches add to the depth of each song.

BRMC stands out the most with its overdriven, gritty bass, which provides a creative riffs linking the pounding drums to the melody.  Also, the singer’s ability to transform from a dark snarl to soaring chorus to yearning whispers keeps the mood of the album fluid within in the bluesy garage rock realm.

Highlights include, “Fire Walker,” “Returning,” “Rival,” and “Sell It”.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Album Review – Land of Vandals' Sing Us Offshore

Sing Us OffshoreA friend from Madison introduced me to Land of Vandals in a post for their Kickstarter campaign.  I had perused musicians to back for a while, but few caught my ear until I listened to this band.  A year later, they’ve released Sing Us Offshore and it’s playing in my headphones.

The instruments sound so distance on the recording, creating a vast open space like the sea.  With mostly sparse arrangements, the waves of sound build and flow; they swirl around the listener and then wash away in quiet resolution. The musicians take their time creating an atmosphere and shaping a dynamic environment for the singer’s words to float upon.  Echoing distant vocals (male and female) call out like sirens.

The distance separating the instruments also takes off  the edge of the spacey guitar that shimmer like a mirage or crash like the tide.  The rhythm section keeps their composure among the waves.  Clever and consistent driving drums ranging from brushing wisps to hammering down.  The poised bass reigns in the dynamic fluctuation at the frenzied moments of the climaxes.  The organ and horns add to the ‘offshore’ aesthetic as well.

Highlights include, “Eulogy,” “Hills,” “City Boys,” and “New TX / Sing Us Offshore”.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Album Review – The White Whales' Lakestate

The White Whales' LakestateLakestate is the White Whales‘ first full-length album.  The five piece band (that includes Michael from Half Dug and Motion Jones) released this collection of  indie rock tunes early this month.  The melodious guitar hooks flow over the punchy chords, hinting at a British rock revival and post-punk/new-wave influence.  The music is clean and polished indie with simple, yet memorable lines that brighten the rocking parts and keep a positive vibe.  There are many good moments in the songs that should create a great live experience.  The drums push the dynamics and creativity with great control.  The vocals are of a confident but subdued croon that yell out at the sour moments.

This great summer album is like aural cherry lemonade — a refreshing balance of sweet and tart that leaves you wanting more.  Highlights include, “Transfiguration”, “Fake History”, “Babe the Blue Ox”, and “Lakestate”.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Pick Favorites – Portugal. The Man's Censored Colors

Portugal. The Man - Censored ColorsPortugal. The Man‘s live performance at First Avenue in the Fall of 2011 blew my mind!  After hearing Alberta Cross’s Broken Side of Time that summer, I was excited to see them open. I was much less excited by In the Mountain in the Cloud.  Afterwards, I changed my tune about the band and skimmed through their music to find songs that moved me like that concert.  With the recent release of their eight full-length album, Evil Friends, it seemed like a good time to go back in more depth and pick a favorite album.

2008’s Censored Colors stands above the rest for its soulful melodies, dramatic vocal harmonies, even-handed orchestration, and solid grasp of tension and release.  Their third album included keyboardist Ryan Neighbors and drummer Jason Sechrist as well as founders John Gourley and Zachary Carothers.  At least ten other musicians contributed vocals, strings, brass, and percussion to these songs.

The lyrics take on dark topics of death and dissatisfaction, but Gourley sings in such a tuneful melody that it seems possible to transcend them.  His soulful vocals slides all over, from whisper to snarl, often and smoothly.  His ringing falsetto provides a great counterpoint to the bleak subject.  What’s more, the vocal harmonies subtly add to the soft parts, rippling in moody flows, and punctuate crescendos with bursting vocalizations.  This choir rise up in dynamic choruses throughout the album — sometimes in supporting, other times overlapping or responding.

The music that supports the singing is great, too.  While this album gets quieter than others, it is incredibly intense.  The dynamic from song to song or even verse to chorus is dramatic — an excellent example of restraint and serving the song instead of   just indulging the musician.  Lonely, sparse instrumentation in parts give the singers room to breathe and move.  Elsewhere, walls of sound immerse the listener in the full power of the music, an intensity built up in the song or even over the course of the album.  Soft piano and acoustic guitars set of hard-hitting electric guitar and bass.  Psychedelic grooves and rocking breakdowns  meet ska off-beats and anthematic singalongs.

The music and rhythms are never boring or cliché.  The instruments and vocals are in constant flux, pushing and pulling on the harmonies in minor tension and major release.  The consonance and dissonance are most evident in the vocal slides, but are also more subtly present the strings that underly many of the songs.  They linger at the end just to pull on the ear a bit longer until the next song kicks in.  Every instrument adds to this tension, reusing melodies and patterns in different keys for an uneasy feeling that ultimately comes back together in a triumphant lift.

Which Portugal. The Man album is your favorite?

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Album Review – The Appleseed Cast's Illumination Ritual

04-03-Discs-The-Appleseed-Cast-Illumination-RitualIllumination Ritual is the Appleseed Cast‘s ninth full-length studio album. This collection of ten tunes layers on spacey guitar loops, echoing vocals, technical rhythms, and atmospheric keyboards.  It contains familiar chord changes and harmonies with nice touches of additional instrumentation and an organic, human sound.

This album pulls the singing back to the level of the other instruments, leaving the listener to wonder if the music serves the words or the words serve the music.  This lack of hierarchy can be an aural workout, requiring a search for the hooks among the groove.  The orchestration could have been more deliberate in gradually adding the individual layers to show create a focal point and more dynamic shifts.

The complicated, energetic drumming immediately stands out and ahead of the reverberating/echoing  guitars and vocals.  It can be a bit overwhelming, but there is a good flow throughout the album that creates an vibrant atmosphere.  This album requires multiple listens to pull out the pieces that make it unique for each listener — an illumination ritual in itself.  Highlights include “Great Lake Derelict”, “Cathedral Rings”, “North Star Ordination”, and “Clearing Life.”

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars