Review: Panda Bear – Tomboy (Expanded Edition, Paw Tracks, 2011)
Going into this review, we know at least partly how it’s going to turn out: Tomboy made my top ten list for 2011, after all, so I obviously think it’s a wonderful record. The Expanded Edition is a whole other beast, though: consisting of new mixes, instrumentals, and a capella versions of the originals, there’s a lot more for us to discuss with this release. As if the original wasn’t good enough!
This beautiful box set consists of a sturdy hard cardboard box featuring the original album art, containing four black 180 g LPs, with the original Tomboy tracks split between the first two LPs, along with extra track “The Preakness“, which opens LP 2, an album of mixes (the Single Mixes) on LP three, and instrumental/a cappella versions of the original tracks on the fourth, and an album-sized lyrics/credits booklet. The art throughout the box continues the theme of grey pencils on off-white crushed paper as in the original album art, with each LP featuring a different scene: a boy on his father’s shoulders, a man walking off a boardwalk onto a beach, and so on. The booklet, a high-quality affair with thick paper pages, is laid out the same way, with pencil on the cover, and lyrics typed on off-white crushed paper inside. Overall, the presentation is beautiful.
Like my last review, Tomboy had a lot to live up to, musically. Both artists were creating followups to groundbreaking pieces of art that were roundly recognized as such. How does one deal with the pressure that is placed on someone who produces so seminal a piece of work? Where Cursive’s answer was to change things up, Noah Lennox’s (Panda Bear’s) approach is to expand the range of sounds he creates while still remaining true to the musical philosophy behind the tracks on Person Pitch. Tomboy is the next logical step for the performer who created Person Pitch: continuing to do what works, and trying new things without completely redoing the formula.
Tomboy opens with You Can Count On Me, beginning with a chorus of harmonies, and we immediately know that we’re listening to a Panda Bear album. The soothing neo-surf meets ambient electronic that is characteristic of Panda Bear’s sound remains, though on this album, Lennox creates the sounds he distorts and loops with live instruments rather than making use of samples in many cases. These changes are obvious on the title track, where Lennox’s straightforward treatment of the song with guitar shining through mark one of the obvious changes from Person Pitch, which was a much less straightforward album overall. In fact, while stylistically, this album is similar in many ways to Person Pitch, it is much less sonically dense: Lennox has made the decision to strip down the arrangements a little, and the songs don’t suffer. Like I said in my year-end list, there’s nothing truly groundbreaking on this album, but that’s okay, Panda Bear did that last time around. We can’t criticize him for creating a near-masterpiece just because it’s similar to the last near-masterpiece.
As for the extra music on this expanded edition, it’s certainly aimed at the bigger fans of Panda Bear. The extra track, The Preakness, on LP 2 of the original Tomboy, is a fine addition: a soft, simple song that features Lennox’s guitar. The differences in the Single Mixes are very minor, for the most part (ie. minor differences in the mixing in terms of levels, addition of short parts or changes to the intro/outro of certain songs, etc… essentially touchups), until we get to Scheherazade, which is drastically different from it’s album version, and makes for a really interesting listen. As for the rest of the tracks, Alsatian Darn, Bullseye, and You Can Count On Me are also altered significantly, rocking up the latter with additional guitar and vocals, and perhaps even improving on the originals in the case of the first two. I was actually a little disappointed that they chose to include these tracks instead of the remixes that have appeared on the singles (ie. the Actress remix of Surfer’s Hymn) if only because the mixes are more drastic and I’m interested in hearing another take on the tracks. The instrumental and a cappella versions of the songs are pretty interesting, as we tend to focus on different parts of each of these songs when listening to the full mixes, and so the listening experience for these tracks is much more focused. I heard things I hadn’t previously heard.
This box is a neat addition to any library, but is definitely a must-have for big fans of Panda Bear, who will definitely want to have copies of this for The Preakness and for the interesting versions found in the Single Mixes. Buy it directly from the Paw Tracks shop, or get it at a better price from your favorite vinyl vendor. Also note that all the proceeds from the sale of this set will go to the American Cancer Society, as if there wasn’t already enough reason to buy this thing! With only 5000 copies pressed, get it while you can!
Review: Cursive – I Am Gemini (Music Plus Bundle, Saddle Creek, 2012)
Tim Kasher of Cursive is something of a storyteller. Since Cursive reformed in 1999, they’ve released almost exclusively concept albums, or at the very least, albums centred around some conceptual framework, tethered together by Kasher’s musings on society, religion, relationships, music, and often, himself. I Am Gemini is perhaps the most ambitious of Kasher’s concept albums: a piece of musical theatre; the story of Cassius and Pollock, twins separated at birth, one good and the other evil, who meet with explosive results. And when I say musical theatre, I mean it: the vinyl comes complete with a script with stage directions.
I came on board in 2003 with The Ugly Organ, which is the album I consider to be Cursive’s, and Kasher’s, masterwork. On The Ugly Organ, Kasher is at his most narcissistic, his most self-deprecating, his angriest, his wryest; he is at the top of his game. Since that time, unfortunately, Cursive simply hasn’t been able to catch fire in a bottle the way they did in 2003. Happy Hollow is a strong effort, fully committed to the concept album model, and to be fair, I am a big fan of that album. Mama, I’m Swollen, though, is uneven, and for a guy who is usually lyrically sharp, Kasher never reaches his potential as evidenced on previous efforts, from a lyrical or a songwriting perspective. Coming from Mama, I’m Swollen, I was a little apprehensive for the release of I Am Gemini, but optimistic; I love the two albums previous to Mama, I’m Swollen, and I was hoping that it was simply a misstep, that Kasher et al. recognized as much, and that I Am Gemini would be a return to form.
So, is it? Well, yes, for the most part. I Am Gemini is a bit hit and miss, but there is a lot less miss and a lot more hit than on Mama, I’m Swollen. Opening track This House Alive is vintage Cursive, their trademark tense dissonant emo sound (emo by the old guy like me definition, ie. ’90s emo a la Sunny Day Real Estate or Braid or Promise Ring) is in full effect. The band continues in this vein until Lullaby With No Name, which is a wonderful little interlude, but highlights one of my issues with this album: Lullaby is one of the few moments of relative peace or calm (or non-rockingness), and the softer, subtler side of Cursive is something that could have been more fully explored on this album. These parts could have been fully fleshed out: this album has no Bad Sects, no The Recluse. Lullaby has the potential to have been great in full song form. Other than that minor complaint, and a few isolated parts here and there that get under my skin, the album is a big step in the right direction for Cursive. That said, there still feels like there’s something missing if you’re a fan. Kasher never really pushes himself on this album, and the album lacks the dynamic changes of previous works: Cursive rocks out on this album, but they continue to rocking out, rarely letting up to let a song breathe. Perhaps that’s why I Am Gemini lacks the sharp edges of The Ugly Organ.
The album itself is a beautiful thing. The art is bizarre and interesting, a rusty theme that runs through all of the art for the album, with the twins, joined at the head, depicted on the rear, and the mirror images depicting the personalities of Cassius and Pollock with the stylized title on the front. Inside, the 180 g vinyl is in a plastic sleeve, which I appreciate, and we find the lyric booklet, which is the aforementioned script, a booklet about twice the size of a CD case, very nicely presented. The thing is something to behold.
The Music Plus Bundle for I Am Gemini is filled with goodies. Besides the album, it came with a T-shirt featuring the wolves from the CD art, a poster showing extended album art, a sticker with a stylized Gemini symbol, and a CD copy of the album. It was supposed to come with a 1″ button as well, but that wasn’t in the package, though Saddle Creek are pretty amazing so I’m sure they’ll make good. How amazing, you ask? Check out this handwritten “thank you” note:
you won’t get that from any freakin’ major label! Yes, I’m looking at you, RIAA, you big evil impersonal bastards!
Buy it at Saddle Creek (bundles still available!) or from your favorite vinyl vendor!
Review: Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory (Carpark Records, 2012)
Listening to the breakdown in the last 3/4 of Wasted Days, it might be hard to believe that Cloud Nothings create anything akin to pop, punk, or anything in between. The glorious 8+ minute explosion of rock power that is this centrepiece of the album spends time in indie/post/noise rock territory before coming to a screaming conclusion. Pure awesomeness.
Songs like Fall In and Stay Useless remind us of frontman Dylan Baldi’s almost pop-punk roots, but much of the time the influence is felt only in the speed and intensity of the music. The majority of the album spends more time in the realm of indie and/or garage rock, benefitting from the production of Steve Albini, who brings a small taste of Jesus Lizard into the mix. The rest of the band, having taken on full roles as songwriters on this album, inject their influence by creating some pretty intense sessions of rocking out (ie. No Future/No Past). Musically, the band is producing everything from indie that’s comparable to the more bombastic of Trail of Dead’s catalogue, to post-hardcore/90’s emo a la Moss Icon, to poppy, bouncy garage rock. Vocally, and in terms of his songwriting, Baldi reminds me of a darker, noisier, screamier Ty Segall: each has stepped up their game on their latest releases, writing bigger, more complex songs, which further highlight the quality of their songcraft. Baldi alternately channels Segall, Cobain, Yorke (circa The Bends, at least). He’s flexing his musical muscles on this album and they’re no joke.
The physical product itself is no-frills; single black vinyl LP with a plain dust cover and a regular album cover. Note that it comes with a free download of the mp3s if that’s your thing. The art is attractive, with the front showing a sepia-toned, blurry lighthouse overlooking a calm ocean, and on the rear, perhaps a dock of some kind, out of focus and done in the same style. The record sounded amazing on first listen, the warm vinyl bringing out the fuzzy bass tones.
Overall, stoked to have such a beautiful product from Carpark Records (you can buy it directly from them) and Cloud Nothings. Stick a pin in this one for the 2012 top ten list, because it’s a definite early contender! Pick it up from your favorite vinyl vendor!
Gerry’s Top 9 LPs (+1 EP) of 2011!
Let’s start this thing with a bang! Here are my favorite 9 albums of the year. I created a top 10 list, but unfortunately, The Weeknd’s 3 releases are digital only! To make up for this loss, I tacked on my favorite EP of the year.
On to the list!
Low is an interesting band for me. There’s something about the level of repetition that they employ: typically, I’d disregard music that’s so repetitive, but instead of getting under my skin, Low’s mantras get firmly lodged in my brain. That said, I think my favorite tracks on the album are those that don’t employ Low’s typical repeat ad nauseum strategy to such a degree: Witches and Especially Me are standouts. As much as I liked this album, though, I don’t think it demonstrates a significant growth from their earlier albums. That could be good or bad depending on your perspective. Admittedly, it’s much “fuller” than the sparse slowcore from whence they came.
(Here’s where The Weeknd would have gone)
Every Grails album is something to be experienced rather than simply heard or listened to. Deep Politics carries on this tradition. Cinematic, atmospheric, dark and foreboding, uplifting: Deep Politics is instrumental music that speaks to the listener. Between the haunting opening riff of Future Primitive and the slow death of Deep Snow, Grails attempts to squeeze in everything from Eastern sounds to metal to classically tinged piano, lulling us with quiet melodies before blasting us with metallic power, and does so with near-perfection. An intense addition to an already intense library.
#7: Okkervil River
I Am Very Far
IMHO, this album is a bit of a departure for Okkervil. Sure, they’ve been going in a rockier direction for a couple of albums, but this album marks a less gradual progression. Whereas on Black Sheep Boy, Scheff channeled Tim Buckley or Nick Drake, on I Am Very Far, he channels Springsteen’s rock on tracks like Rider, and the huge ornate sounds of the strings on tracks like We Need a Myth bring to mind bombastic rock a la Procol Harum. They’ve built a “big” sound on this LP. And that’s not a bad thing, demonstrating that Scheff et al. have rock chops and a wide range. That’s not to say that Okkervil’s range no longer includes the haunting indie that propelled them into everyone’s consciousness with their first couple of albums: Mermaid, for example, is reminiscent of Black Sheep Boy.
#6: Panda Bear
TomboyI’m not a huge fan of Animal Collective. I’ve tried, and given my thing for Panda Bear, I shouldn’t have to try so hard, but I just can’t get into them. Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) on his own, though, whole other story. I absolutely loved Person Pitch, and so I was stoked for this album, if not a bit apprehensive… I mean, how could it possibly top PP? Well, it turns out that it didn’t, but it was a fine effort. It’s an album full of Panda Bear’s signature soothing neo-surf psychedelic melodies constructed from weird samples; nothing new or groundbreaking here, but nothing that tarnishes Panda Bear’s stellar record either.
#5: Ty Segall
Ty Segall can do no wrong for the last couple of years. Everything he touches becomes sloppy, noisy garage rock gold. Goodbye Bread is no exception, though it demonstrates some recent changes. His most musically mature effort to date, it picks up where Melted left off, stepping up the musicianship and the complexity of his musical ideas, but not so much that the music loses its fun, easy feel; instead, we get a deeper, richer Segall. We get real evidence of Segall’s abilities as a singer/songwriter, and they’re no joke: he has the ability to focus the chaos of earlier releases into his songwriting without losing their energy. We might not understand why buying a couch was a songworthy endeavor, but dammit, we’ll sing along!
#4: Blitzen Trapper
American Goldwing is an appropriate name for this album, an album steeped in good old American rock. When describing this album to folks, I sometimes make the comparison to Wilco, and this year, with this album, I actually think Blitzen Trapper are one of the bands that out-Wilco’d Jeff Tweedy: the two bands explore similar musical territory, albeit with Blitzen Trapper we find ourselves exploring less alt-country and more rock. This is feel-good music; classic rock inflected goodness that warms us from the inside out.
#3: Cymbals Eat Guitars
I spent more time this year humming the jangly chords and the melodies of this album than any other, which is a sure sign of an album with staying power for me. On Lenses Alien, CEG straddles the line between indie pop and rock, and the result is the darkly urgent psychedelia, devoid of traditional “verse-chorus-verse” type song structures, built rather around musical ideas that change and flow within the songs. Joseph D’Agostino’s wailing vocals find a more appropriate home on this effort than on their debut, where he was responsible for the vast majority of the songwriting: CEG is a fully formed band, and the songwriting process that lead to Lenses Alien is obviously much more collaborative, with the members of the band feeding off one another to create a complex, challenging, impressive piece of writing.
#2: Bon Iver
Bon Iver, Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago is a beautiful album and a stunning debut. Who could have expected Bon Iver/Justin Vernon to step it up on his sophomore release? With his self-titled second album, though, that’s precisely what occurred, though perhaps we should have known, given that everything he touches seems to turn to gold (see Volcano Choir, recent Kanye and Anais Mitchell releases, and a National performance for further evidence). For Emma wasn’t without its issues, despite the quality of the songcraft, but Vernon works the bugs out on this album. The mixes are immaculate, the songs are staggeringly beautiful, and the result is a near-perfect listening experience.
#1: La Dispute
I read an article once that talks about how serious La Dispute are about their music; the meticulous detail they take with the recording, the perfecting of sounds and musical ideas, the lyrical content. They write music that has deep personal meaning, and don’t compromise when it comes to perfecting their art. This album is the product of this meticulous and directed effort: an album so honest and raw and brimming with emotion that at times it’s difficult to listen to. The themes run the gamut: the complexity of relationships, mental illness, the loss of a child to cancer or to an accidental shooting, where we fit in this world. We feel what lyricist Jordan Dreyer feels whether we’ve been through it ourselves or not, but when he speaks or screams about something we have experience with, the effect is to rip off the scars and reopen the wounds. Powerful stuff.
and our bonus EP:
Technical screamo/post-hardcore chaos from young Canadian upstarts. This densely packed EP brims over with mathematical complexity; the band is tighter than tight, the guitars crushing, the vocals intense, and yet the music isn’t lost in the intensity or the technical details: the riffs have a groove, the band has a clear concept of how to use dynamics, and at times, we’re tapping our feet to an almost danceable rhythm. Comparable to bands like Capsule, Kidcrash, or perhaps Frodus, Animal Faces nonetheless carves out a unique niche in the post-hardcore landscape.
To begin, I’m not trying to do anything new and/or groundbreaking with this blog. Music review sites exist, vinyl review sites exist; this is going to be a similar experience. I’ll be reviewing new albums, vinyls that I’ve owned for some time, and anything else that needs reviewing.
My intent was originally to review a vinyl from my collection daily, but I realize that I’m not going to be able to maintain that schedule. In recognition of my scheduling abilities, perhaps a flexible schedule is necessary. I’ll commit to posting at least one review a week.
Enjoy! Get out there and buy albums, and support your favorite artists!