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Miranda Lambert

Revolution

(Columbia)

Review [27.Sep.2009]

10



Miranda Lambert
Revolution



Out of the gate, the singles on Revolution failed to burn up the charts, raising some eyebrows as to whether Lambert’s follow-up to 2007’s critical pants-wetter, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was set to disappoint. Forget it. The thing is, each song on Revolution sounds like a single, as Lambert shows everybody up—modern pop-rockers, mainstream country sirens, and indie-roots folkers alike. Lambert, a vocal powerhouse, makes it look easy, cramming more great hooks and melodies onto a single platter than on any other since, well, her last album. However, this is no retread. Revolution showcases a broader, edgier sonic wallop, from sheeny rockers like “Maintain the Pain” to the pedal-steel-and-organ loops in the soaring “Love Song”. The wild-gal image is still here in songs like “Sin for a Sin” and “Heart Like Mine”, but the songs are stronger and the jokes are smarter than ever. And when she keeps it country, as on “Airstream Song”, her excellent ode to getting off the grid, Lambert represents dreamers and tramps just like you. Only prettier. Steve Leftridge


 

 



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Girls

Album

(Matador)

9



Girls
Album



Set aside the fickle love-hate permutations of the blog hype cycle and the singer’s childhood stories, and you’ve got a vital debut LP that stands on its own. Girls shuffle through pop-cultural archetypes of youth in an exciting way that’s very “pop” – an instant-gratification manifestation of human desires and fears, played with panache. Freedom, infatuation, and self-doubt are boiled down to simple terms. It’s all one big playful romantic fantasy soaked in red wine, sunshine and the sound of music. Everything Girls does seems at its core to be about music itself. The deep-purple dreams of long-ago crooners join with Jesus and Mary Chain-esque hot-rod fuzz rides, Beach Boys harmonies, and twee-pop sensitivity. Singer Christopher Owens twists his voice for effect, studying what it will do to us. Album is a tribute to music’s capacity to make us feel like anything is possible, like life will be better. Everybody sing along: “Man I felt like I could lay down and die / then I found my life in a song.” Dave Heaton


 

 



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Mastodon

Crack the Skye

(Reprise)

Review [23.Mar.2009]

8



Mastodon
Crack the Skye



Mastodon’s latest album, Crack the Skye, is a truly rare beast: a record that encapsulates all of the best aspects of a given style, but that transcends genre and remains accessible to neophytes, all while avoiding the middle of the road. On songs like “Oblivion” or “Divinations”, Mastodon achieve the incredible feat of writing music of baffling complexity, switching between different knuckle-busting riffs every 30 seconds or so, but still remaining essentially melodic and approachable. Lest metalheads be dissuaded by the presence of clean vocals (as opposed to guttural screaming), hooks, and a banjo, I should also point out that Crack the Skye is incredibly heavy, and boasts two multi-movement epics, each over ten minutes long. Ambitious, with pummeling beats, catchy choruses, and gnarly solos—what else could you want? David Gassmann


 

 



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Raekwon

Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II

(Ice H2O)

7



Raekwon
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II



In 2009, while Jay-Z looked to Grizzly Bear to inspire hip-hop, Raekwon took matters into his own hands, and crafted his second sprawling classic. With he and Ghostface once again pushing each other to new heights, the Chef’s low growl flows all over the map. From frustration over poverty, to heartbreak over personal loss, to crime boss bravado, Raekwon covers each corner of this album’s huge globe with cutting rhymes and deep understanding. He yanks in nearly every rapper under the sun to help out, too. Never mind the usual Wu suspects—although Ghostface and Method Man are MVPs here—the real strength of the album comes in how the likes of Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, and Beanie Sigel—all rappers who have underachieved recently—each go off. Everyone here is at the top of their game, leading by example and calling out to the rest of mainstream hip-hop to respond in kind. And with beats by the likes of the RZA and Marley Marl laying the stark foundation to Raekwon’s brilliant, epic vision, really no other hip-hop album stood a chance up again Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II. Matt Fiander


 

 



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Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

(Anti-)

Review [2.Mar.2009]

6



Neko Case
Middle Cyclone



Middle Cyclone has all the hallmarks of previous Case albums, yet it also manages to expand her sonic range. Her songwriting is still as idiosyncratic as ever (succinct tracks with no easy refrains, songs about animals), but by now she knows how to best show off her tremendous voice. She’s never had a single as catchy as the jangly “People Got a Lotta Nerve”, but album opener “This Tornado Loves You” runs a close second. And yet the former is about brutal animal attacks, while the latter talks about a tornado leaving a path of destruction through three counties. Her evocative, aching singing is still best served by melancholy love songs like “The Next Time You Say Forever” and “Vengeance is Sleeping”, and also by gothic country tunes. “Prison Girls” may be the creepiest thing she’s written, with its unsettling, unrelenting yet spare minor key guitar lines. Plus the album cover has her riding on the hood of a Mercury Cougar and wielding a sword. That cover is the badass cherry on top of a great album that makes Middle Cyclone the total package. Chris Conaton


 

 



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Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

(Glassnote/Loyauté)

Review [26.May.2009]

5



Phoenix
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix



With the tightly wound pop of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix takes their place alongside Air and Daft Punk on the short list of French musicians with worldwide approval. While Air arguably peaked in the late ‘90s and Daft Punk has receded from view for the moment, Phoenix has risen to take their place as the preeminent Gallic musical force for the 2010s. With the unstoppable “Lisztomania” and a bevy of other gems, the entire album stands up to repeated spins with a polished majesty. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a credit to persistence and dedication to craft, especially with the knowledge that the band has been together since childhood and worked on album centerpiece “Love Like a Sunset” for two solid years. To wit, it’s a rare feat in pop music that inclusion of a song in an American car commercial run ad nauseum doesn’t dull the impact of the sharp songwriting and emotional bounce found on a song like “1901”. Such is the power of well-crafted pop. Craig Carson


 

 



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Dirty Projectors

Bitte Orca

(Domino)

Review [9.Jun.2009]

4



Dirty Projectors
Bitte Orca



At this point on the indie rock timeline, you might rightfully call the Dirty Projectors overexposed. A quick listen to Bitte Orca, however, will explain why the band continues to command attention. From the off-kilter R&B of “Stillness is the Move” to the crashing dynamics and Jùjú meets post-hardcore guitars of “Temecula Sunrise”, Bitte Orca is undeniable, a perpetually restless, endlessly challenging, deeply satisfying work of pop songcraft. Back in June, when I asked lead Projector Dave Longstreth what it felt like to have graduated to the indie rock big leagues, he laughed and told me that the band was still crashing on friends’ floors while on the road. A headlining tour, gigs with the Roots and David Byrne, Letterman and Fallon performances and a slew of accolades later and it’s clear that that’s probably no longer the case. And yet, Solange’s largely faithful cover of “Stillness is the Move” might just be the sweetest validation for Longstreth. Some fringe songwriters bend to suit the tastes of the mainstream. Dave Longstreth made the mainstream bend to suit his. Mehan Jayasuriya


 

 



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The Avett Brothers

I and Love and You

(American/Columbia)

Review [28.Sep.2009]

3



The Avett Brothers
I and Love and You



With Rick Rubin at the knobs, these North Carolina alt-folkgrass boys jettisoned their manic mountain-punk, traded in the banjo for the piano, and broadened their sound into a series of lush, epical ballads. Some old fans grumbled over the new slickness, but the record marks a major leap forward in songcraft and musicianship, as Scott and Seth Avett cut their chests open and ten thousand words swarm around their doubt-filled heads. Amid swirling organs, cellos, pianos, and acoustic guitars, the brothers wrap their voices around a pile of cosmically gorgeous songs, and for the first time, the Avett Brothers create exquisitely arranged masterpieces worthy of their rigorous, sincere lyrics of love, family, and manhood. The band still knows how to rock, as on the winning pop blast of “Kick Drum Heart”, but the record gets seriously timeless on delicacies like “Laundry Room” and “Ill With Want”, full of knee-weakening close harmonies and elegant instrumentation. Through their evolution, the Avetts stretch out but recall the abiding sounds of an ambrosial yesteryear, feeling at once deep-rooted and wholly original. Steve Leftridge


 

 



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Grizzly Bear

Veckatimest

(Warp)

Review [25.May.2009]

2



Grizzly Bear
Veckatimest



If the swirling, distant echoes of sound that brought Yellow House to such a beautifully dissonant conclusion left a few doors open for Grizzly Bear’s subsequent growth—the ending chants of “what now?” seem to infer that the band is just as confounded as the rest of us—nothing could have prepared their fanbase for the cataclysmic leap that is Veckatimest. It would be easy—maybe a little too easy—to assign weight to their assertive, ever-expanding command of the studio and all of the can’t-go-back-home-again sentiments that cling to its use, yet after absorbing these 12 songs, the emotional core takes utter reign over everything that encircles it and cuts right through to the audience’s heart. What evokes such a tender, striking reaction to Veckatimest is in the unhurried essence in which Grizzly Bear approaches life’s struggles, their cerebral proclivity never sacrificing their humanity. The orchestral flourishes that flutter up and enshroud their gorgeous melodies are less an artifice of sound and more an extension of their doubts and uncertainties. And that’s really what this record is: a soundtrack to youth’s fleeting optimism, and the fears it breeds when the dust settles.


By taking those heartful concerns and building them into this grand statement, Grizzly Bear not only face artistic and intellectual hardships with a strong backbone, they hold a mirror up to a scene’s worth of wound-lickers in their towering, majestic arrangements. The emotions explored are universal in their scope, but there are no blanketed generalizations here, no instances of insular navel-gazing; the band’s crystal-eyed documentations of time-worn subjects in pop music are fresh thanks in part to the dichotomy between their fearlessness and their vulnerability, and the ways in which they display those feelings with such a sense of self-discovery. Sure, it helps that these songs are constructed with such sneakingly adhesive melodies, with a coating of such enveloping beauty, yet its aural audacity is ultimately vicarious to what’s inside of them. After hearing Veckatimest, it’s hard not to wish all of life’s adversities came packaged in oscillating choirboy harmonies. Anthony Lombardi


 

 



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Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

(Domino)

Review [11.Jan.2009]

1



Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion



As the prolific Animal Collective prepare to leave 2009 with the release of a new collection of songs, the hotly anticipated Fall Be Kind EP, it’s appropriate to remember how they entered the year, with the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The album, named after a favorite concert venue, was their most well-received to date, garnering “album of the year” plaudits before January had even got under way. Particular love was thrown at “My Girls”, and rightly so—a lot of love had clearly gone into it. Here was a track that showed a more adventurous approach to harmony singing than the recently-lauded work of Fleet Foxes. The Animals’ sonic environment was harsher than that of the Foxes, mixing ghostly technostalgia with machinic malfunction and uncanny loops, overlaid with those wonderful harmonies and yearning solo vocals. Avey Tare and Panda Bear had given us many of these elements before, but never in such a broadly appealing package. Here was an album that non-fans could embrace and that anyone could get pleasantly lost in, only to wander out of its magical forests in awe of what Animal Collective had done and wonder what they would do next. Richard Elliott


 
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