Crank the Treble: Volcano Choir

Volcano Choir - Unmap

Here’s my review for Unmap, the debut album from Volcano Choir, which was originally published over at Treble (where it includes, as all Treble reviews do, a short list of similar albums).

In 2007, and more extensively throughout 2008 following its wider release on Jagjaguwar and 4AD, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was received fairly consistently as a triumph of intimate and powerful bedroom-folk. And rightfully so. The solo debut of former DeYarmond Edison member Justin Vernon was simply stunning; its music fragile and rich, his outpouring of emotion refreshingly genuine. Since then, Vernon has graced the tracklist of one of the best compilations of 2009 and released an excellent follow-up EP, both of which have no doubt helped to satisfy that inevitable impatience for more Bon Iver works. So, for those still jonesin’, the debut of his new band Volcano Choir comes not a moment too soon.

A collaboration with fellow Wisconsinites Collections of Colonies of Bees, who Vernon refers to as his “favorite band”, the sparse and affecting Unmap unfolds as a meditative, experimental tapestry of slow, dramatic crescendos, calculated repetition, obtuse guitar work, and haunting, layered vocals. Unlike Bon Iver, lyrical content for Volcano Choir plays a decidedly secondary role. Vernon appears to be more concerned with the basic sounds and choral-like elements of the vocal work here, as much of it is entirely wordless or conceived as emotive stream-of-consciousness. This collection of songs, which dates back to 2005, both precedes and traverses across a greater stylistic expanse than For Emma, Forever Ago. Album opener “Husks and Shells” feels like the most familiar composition on Unmap, but is none the weaker for it. Spliced and looped acoustic guitar cuts patiently drone while Vernon’s tortured falsetto provides various vocal fragments, some soar, others tremble and dwindle. However, the more experimental bent of Volcano Choir doesn’t fully reveal itself until “Island, IS”. The core of this exploration of Terry Riley-recalling minimalism lies in its layers of pulsating loops that bend the album’s pensive melancholy into a vibrant wall of sound. The vocals are still intoned as tenderly as one has come to expect, but remain partially masked and obscured by effects and Vernon’s hushed delivery. From here they try their hand at slow-building ambience (“Dote”), off-kilter, Dirty Projectors-like meanderings (“And Gather”, “Cool Knowledge”), bleak Billy Holiday croons (“Mbira in the Morass”), and dark, brooding spirituals (“Youlogy”).

Though these compositions predate Bon Iver, they oddly enough seem relatable to Justin Vernon’s solo experimentations on this year’s Blood Bank EP. It appears that he was aware of this fact as well, as Unmap’s penultimate track “Still” adopts the auto-tuned acappella of “Woods” and supplies a surging crescendo of guitar loops, humming drones, metered drum work, and sporadic percussive rattles. These works speak well to Vernon’s current trajectory. He could have easily attempted to craft more music in the mold of For Emma, Forever Ago, which would have most likely pleased a good chunk of his newfound fanbase. Instead, his most recent works as Bon Iver and, more dramatically, with Volcano Choir, have pushed ahead into increasingly eccentric territory. This move may alienate a few, but it’s also sure to help win over some Bon Iver skeptics and bestow some much-deserved attention to Collections of Colonies with Bees. Here’s hoping Unmap isn’t just a one-off.

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Download: Volcano Choir – Island, IS
Buy: Pick up Unmap from Jagjaguwar as a CD, LP, or MP3s.

Crank the Treble: City Center

City Center - City Center

Here’s my review for City Center‘s self-titled debut, which was originally published over at Treble (where it also includes, as do all Treble reviews, a short list of similar albums).

Multi-instrumentalist and compulsive band-starter Fred Thomas has been involved in a veritable laundry list of projects over the course of his still-young career, his work with the soulful twee of indie-pop band Saturday Looks Good to Me being perhaps the most notable to date. Now Thomas embarks on his first solo outing with his self-titled debut as City Center, crafting a record of sparse psychedelics via detached bursts of percussive lo-fi pop and a couple extended, meditative soundscapes. That probably sounds like familiar terrain at this stage of the decade, but Thomas musters enough unique perspective to drive this latest batch of explorations into his own niche.

Throughout City Center you can identify those bits and pieces that the upper echelons of ambient psych-pop have already staked out as their own: bedroom drone a la Atlas Sound, High Places-like tribalist percussion, Panda Bear-esque sun-soaked sampledelic tendencies. By all rights, this should be getting into played out rehash territory, right? Yet somehow, the record maintains a basic, if somewhat intangible, independence. Thomas’ solo work certainly doesn’t sound like it exists in a vacuum — these connections are real and apparent — but, whether found in song structure, the progression of melodies, the record’s richly layered arrangement and production, or particular twists in the droning haze of ambience, the songs here seem to build and unfold in ways that speak to the hand of their creator.

Opening with the gurgling churn of “Killer Whale,” Fred Thomas intones: “Everyone else is gone / Don’t let me go / I can’t reach you / The waves come to eat you…” as a slow sonic crescendo threatens to overtake you. After pushing through relatively accessible gems “Open/House” and “Gladest” (hey, are those hooks!?), Thomas delves into the meaty centerpieces of the album — the dense “Bleed Blood” and “Cloud Center”. While the former features Thomas immersed in his best Panda Bear impersonation, the latter unravels with noteworthy patience. A transcendent collage of looping, phased-out electronics, reverbed tambourine, and billowing layers of vocals, the monumental “Cloud Center” is perhaps the achievement of City Center. His vision is at its strongest in this moment; by encapsulating influences and subverting them to his own bent, Thomas molds the song into a mesmerizing flood of kaleidoscopic sound. After easing the listener away from such weight with the sparse detox of “You Are a Force”, City Center closes with a second round of more tangible, pop-driven psychedelia.

While no doubt successful on a whole, traversing well-covered ground and relying on your perspective to define your work is a double-edged sword. Fred Thomas can ultimately call this work his own, but comparisons to some of his contemporaries can be less than flattering in some instances. City Center doesn’t quite absorb, soar, pop, or transcend like Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, Atlas Sound’s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, or Here We Go Magic‘s eponymous debut. Regardless of this fact, the record does what it does well and manages to do so on its own terms — a worthy accomplishment for any debut.

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Download: City Center – Bleed Blood

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Download: City Center – Cloud Center
Buy: You can order City Center from eMusic.

Crank the Treble: Clues

Clues - Clues

Today, more from the pages of Treble. Here’s my review for the debut from Clues, the latest project of Montreal indie rock heavyweight Alden Penner (ex-Unicorns). Originally published here (where it also includes, as do all Treble reviews, a short list of similar albums).

For many, the self-titled debut from Montreal’s Clues is expressly nestled in the shadow of rabidly cult-followed Canadian band The Unicorns, so let’s not beat around the bush. The excellent Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? is one of the most oddly satisfying weirdo-pop gems of this decade. As the defining statement of The Unicorns’ short run, it nearly single-handedly drove interest in Nick Thorburn (aka Nick Diamonds) and Jamie Thompson’s (aka J’amie Tambourine) post-Unicorns band Islands to a fever pitch and has no doubt helped to ensure their continued success. However, the other Unicorn, Alden Penner (aka Alden Ginger), has been relatively quiet these past few years… especially for those outside of Canada’s borders. That is, until now.

Those familiar with Penner won’t have to scrutinize this record all that closely to pick out connections to his past work. His instantly recognizable voice rings out on album opener “Haarp,” alternating between explosive shouts and fragile whispers before giving way to his signature riff-packed, melancholic guitar work. But, this isn’t a hollow rehash or cheap Unicorns imitation. While the music here may be, to some degree, in the same vein, the more obvious connective threads are merely glowing accents in a larger patchwork of sounds. Gone are the chintzy keyboards, silly call-and-response, and absurd, over-the-top antics. Yet, for what Clues may sacrifice in pure charm, they make up for with greater patience and maturity. Now teamed with co-songwriter Brendan Reed (formerly of Les Angles Morts and Arcade Fire), Penner’s compositions seem tempered to fit a more grandiose musical vision that does well to set itself apart from even the sizeable weight of either’s former bands.

Still, fans can rest assured that he hasn’t grown up too much. With its playful falsetto, moments of flamboyant theatrics, and all the talk of dragon’s mouths and thrones, elements of childlike fantasy appear throughout Clues as Penner grapples with themes of regret and identity, specifically, his identity as an artist. On “Lets Get Strong,” which appears to respond to both Islands’ “Bucky Little Wing” (supposedly about Alden’s departure) and The Unicorns’ “Let’s Get Known,” he falters at the prospect of indie-fame and alternatively opts for a focus on artistic integrity: “So instead, let’s get strong / I don’t want tourists flocking to my heart / and nesting with all my things / I’ve got wings, but they aren’t meant for viewing.”

With an album like this, Clues might have to settle for both. The more I listen to their eponymous debut, the more I’m convinced by their sound and Penner’s growth as a songwriter. When bands break up, the members of those bands often make a concerted effort to distance their new projects from their old, which can sometimes lead to music that’s centered on being “different” rather than good. Here you won’t find that feeling of distance being forced between this collection of songs and any albums that may have preceded it. There are no obvious compromises or overcompensations. Instead, it all feels very singular and organic…a difficult feat indeed. And while this may not be an instant classic, Clues remains a promising foundation to build upon.

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Download: Clues – Remember Severed Head

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Download: Clues – Perfect Fit
Buy: Order Clues from the Constellation Records webstore on CD or 180-gram vinyl.
Watch: Also, check out the video for “Haarp”, shot on Super 8 by Montreal experimental filmmaker Karl Lemieux.

Crank the Treble: Yoñlu


I’m excited to be writing for a new publication these days, the excellent (and, coincidentally, San Diego-based) Treble. This should be an eventful year over at Treble as we embark on an overly ambitious attempt to construct a list of the best tracks and best albums of the 2000s. Beyond the decade retrospective, there are plenty of other cool features and reviews to check out. For now, take a look at my review for the painful and powerful collection A Society In Which No Tear is Shed Is Inconceivably Mediocre from Brazil’s Yoñlu. The full review and a couple mp3s are available after the jump.

Music is, above all, a form of expression. A way to connect and communicate with something larger than yourself, be it some higher power, society, or even the people around you. Making music can be an expression of joy, love, faith or wonder, but often times it is a purging release of anger, sadness, frustration, pain or loneliness. Sometimes it’s enough to help someone move past a difficult period of their life or to deal with constant pain. Other times, those feelings prove to be insurmountable.

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Amplified: White Denim

White Denim - Exposion

Recently, I began writing for Amplifier Magazine, an online publication that specializes in concise (~200 word), substance-focused reviews of independent music. I’ll be posting some of my reviews here, especially those that are overwhelmingly positive. Check out my (somewhat brief) thoughts on White Denim’s excellent Exposion, along with a couple of mp3s, after the jump.

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