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First Impressions: LCD Soundsystem, the Hold Steady, the New Pornographers and the National

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Friday, Apr 30, 2010
A "gut reaction" to four upcoming big releases.

May is shaping up to be a huge month not only for summer movies, but for music. Four bands that have released Album of the Year-quality albums are set to release new albums in the coming weeks. As a music geek, you may have looked forward to these types of “Super Tuesday” events when two or even three big releases dropped on the same day. However, the advent of streaming releases ahead of the release date has taken much of the luster out of these musical “Super Tuesdays”.


Almost a month before its May 17th release date, LCD Soundsystem is streaming This is Happening on their website. NPR is streaming the new Hold Steady and Broken Social Scene albums. And last week, The New York Times streamed The National’s High Violet.
  
Streaming albums days or even a week before a release date is a safe means to generate buzz. It strips away the power of those who leak a band’s album and gives the power back to the artist. And much like screening movies before the release date to critics, it shows the band is confident enough in their work that people will shell out money for a release even after hearing the album repeatedly in its entirety.


But streaming releases almost a month ahead of a release date has its risks. Wetting people’s appetite a few days or even a week before a release date is one thing. Releasing an album into the wild a month before a release can set up a potential listener fatigue. By the time the album’s available for actual purchase, some listeners may already be tired of the album.


As a fan of the physical product of music, listening to an album ahead of the release date can dull the first-time listening experience. There’s something to be said for going to the record store, shelling out the money for the album or CD, and then listening to it at home or in your car. But those days are dwindling. And besides, just because it’s out there doesn’t mean you have to listen to it.


That said, I’ve been torn about whether or not to indulge in these pre-release listening opportunities. I will most likely purchase the New Pornographers, the National and LCD Soundsytem’s newest releases because their previous releases were some of the best releases of the last decade. But with limited funds (all of these albums plus the new Broken Social Scene will likely put a $50-$60 dent in your pocketbook) comes a need for prioritization. So a compromise was struck. One listen for each album. No “second chances” to see if an album would grow with repeated listens. No revisiting tracks if a distraction came up. I wouldn’t even look at the song titles. This would solely be a “gut reaction” for each release. And with those parameters, here are the findings.


The National High Violet
I listened to this during the workday, which is an open invitation for distractions. Still, the leadoff track was a rolling masterpiece. Matt Beringer’s vocals are in fine form with typical detached coolness. Bryan Devendorf’s drumming is the band’s unsung hero, supplying much of the dynamical heft. It doesn’t sound like the band’s grand statement, as some of the songs midway through succumb to a sameness that may be worked out with repeated listens. However, the album’s closes on an amazing high note as the last four songs build in momentum to a great finish.


The Hold Steady Heaven Is Whenever
Like High Violet, the Hold Steady’s Heaven Is Whenever benefits from an amazing leadoff track. It is by far the most polished and moodiest of all Hold Steady releases. It is also an album where you can imagine critics panning out of sheer pattern laziness. All of the Hold Steady albums have received enormously positive reviews from critics, to the point where a backlash is forming. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay’s departure is definitely felt and as a result, many critics could easily give Heaven a mediocre review solely to balance two or three previous critical raves. Their loss. Heaven is Whenever doesn’t achieve the heights of Separation Sunday but its daring to be something other than a literate party album will hopefully find an audience after the initial “How much has Nicolay’s departure hurt the band?” argument fades.


LCD Soundsystem This is Happening
Made the mistake of listening to this one at work. Got distracted with an email trail about a project I was working on as well as two coworkers popping by my cubicle. Damn it. Still, This is Happening didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of grabbing a listener by the lapels. Instead, it seems like an album where the listener will have to meet James Murphy halfway in terms of appreciating this album.


The New Pornographers Together
This was my least guilty listen as to listen to this album, I had to visit a bar downtown to listen to this album. Unfortunately, the person sitting next to me never heard of the New Pornographers and kept talking about The String Cheese Incident and RatDog over the music. From what I could hone into, Together is far more Challengers than it is Twin Cinema. One major difference on Together: this is the first New Pornographers album where the Dan Bejar-fronted songs stick out more because of their memorable hooks than their general quirkiness compared to the more pop-centered A.C. Newman-fronted songs.

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