Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sleepy Turtles - Summer, Hither

Autumn + Colour Records, 2012
3.5 Stars

Fans of modern folk acts like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and My Morning Jacket, take note. Summer, Hither, a new EP from the Atlanta-based (and amusingly named) Sleepy Turtles. Right from the first song, the harmony-drenched title track, it's clear that these guys owe a lot to similar bands who have blazed a similar trail in recent years. But while their sound may not be terribly distinctive, it's still as appealing as ever, and Summer, Hither, standing at a short-but-sweet five tracks and twenty minutes, is a more than promising career-starter. The harmonies prove to be the norm throughout the EP, surrounding frontman Dylan Higgins' soft and welcoming croon with a sweet swell of sonic bliss. The instrumentation adds another dimension, with softly strummed acoustics, nostalgic banjo plucking, and occasional flourishes of electric and steel guitar. Mostly though, Summer, Hither plays things straight, offering up five quick (and stupendously enjoyable) tracks of traditional folk that straddles the line between Americana and Appalachian heritage.

But that's not to call the Sleepy Turtles limited. Where the first three tracks dwell in a similar sunsoaked, acoustic vein (befitting the album's title), "Reason to Hope" throws a wrench into the machine, twisting in a haunting and apocalyptic web that is certain to enrapture many a listener. Higgins sounds like a cross between Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody and modern folk hero Sam Beam here, and the song's evocative and elegiac plucking wouldn't have been out of place on an early Iron & Wine album: it's an instant highlight, but then, with five tracks this good, nothing falls out of context. Closer "Being Small" kicks off in a decidedly simpler and gentler vein, just a single guitar and Higgins' voice, before the song begins to build. Mandolin strokes add subtly to the texture as an ensemble of singers begins to gather around the song's melody. Drums and handclaps enter only seconds later, with competing vocal lines combining for a communal and classic folk sound that ends only just as the song is nearing sublime territory. It's a jarring finale to a musical project that, from the first song, feels like it should be a piece of something larger. And perhaps it will be: with the massive popularity that their influences have gained in recent years, perhaps the Sleepy Turtles will be able to make an impression: they certainly have the talent.

There's not a lot else to say here: these guys do what they do and they do it very well. There's not a weak song in the bunch, and, despite the fact that the collection never adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts (I find that EPs rarely do, for me), that's hardly a mark against its pleasant, dusky lilt. Higgins is a collection of his idols, sounding like a clone of Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold at the start, and hitting upon shades of guys like Dallas Greene (City & Colour) and William Fitzsimmons before ultimately settling on Iron & Wine for the final two tracks. But while Sleepy Turtles don't really make an attempt to strike out on their own or reinvent the wheel like Bon Iver did last summer, the songs are good enough for it not to matter, and any folk fan should be more than willing to spend the twenty minutes it will take to check these guys out. Sleepy Turtles are a band to watch for on the folk horizon, and I am excited to see where they go from here. If the near-epic ambition that "Reason to Hope" hints at is anything to go by, this is a band who would be far more at home in a full album setting, with room for their arrangements to expand and their songs to breathe. If given that opportunity (preferably sooner rather than later), I think they could have something really breathtaking to offer; I'll be keeping close tabs on them to see if they can make good on that promise.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten

The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
Mercury Records, 2012
Five stars

Last December, when I ranked Brian Fallon's side project (The Horrible Crowes, with an album titled Elsie) as my sixth favorite record of the year, I speculated that, probably, the young frontman still had his masterpieces ahead of him. That was a still few months before the title and tracklist for Handwritten, the fourth full-length album from Fallon and his main bandmates in The Gaslight Anthem, surfaced online, but I already had high hopes for what 2012 would bring for them. And how could I not? Fallon worships Springsteen and is a disciple of Petty; he's shared the stage with the E-Street Band; he can bellow like Tom Waits or croon like the old Motown legends: his band can scorch the stage like The Clash or convincingly deliver covers of untouchable hits like "Baba O' Riley" by The Who; and on Handwritten, that band, with Fallon at the forefront, finally has the talent, the resources, the songs, and the timing to make a case for themselves, not only as one of the last great rock 'n' roll acts, but as one of the all time greats, period.

I adored The '59 Sound, the 2008-released near-masterpiece that, until now, has stood as Fallon and co's definitive statement. That record was a deep collection of vintage rock 'n' roll, from the nostalgic Springsteen references to the wistful summertime imagery that drenched many of its songs, and in the years since its release, it has become a personal favorite of mine. 2010's American Slang was almost as good, trading Springsteen for shades of Motown pop ("Bring it On") and Van Morrison spontaneity ("The Diamond Church Street Choir"), but on the whole, it was distinctly less immediate. Detractors claimed that the band had shed every ounce of the punk influence that had defined their debut (Sink or Swim, a solid debut, but their weakest work so far) in exchange for a cleaner, more commercially viable sound. And while that was true, the main problem was that, as great as American Slang was, it just wasn't quite up to the level of its predecessor.

A killer side project, an adventurous covers EP, and a major record contract later, The Gaslight Anthem is finally ready to play in the big leagues. They bring in Brendan O'Brien, Springsteen's most recent go-to producer, to help them punch up the sound for their first play in the major label world, and boy, is it a powerful one. O'Brien, as is his custom, makes the band sound huge, bringing Fallon's distinctive vocals and Alex Rosamilia's massive lead guitar sound to the forefront, while leaving the talented rhythm section (Alex Levine on bass and Benny Horowitz on drums) to hold everything together. And surprisingly, despite the presence of Springsteen's producer in the studio, Handwritten ends up being the first time that The Gaslight Anthem haven't sounded at all like a band living in the shadow of their idols. It's one thing to wear your influences on your sleeve and another to actually quote them directly, and while Fallon's tendency towards lyrical references has always been one of the most enjoyable quirks of his songwriting (he prominently borrowed from both Springsteen and Counting Crows, among others, on The '59 Sound), his best songs have been the ones that have stood on their own. Luckily, Handwritten is the sound of a band who have only gotten better and come further into their own with each passing release. This time around, the boys aren't just paying tribute to Springsteen, or sharing the stage with him: this time, they're challenging him.

When Springsteen dropped Wrecking Ball earlier this year, I proclaimed it a late-career masterpiece, called it his best work since the '80s, and wondered seriously whether any artist would be able to make an album as good all year. But right from my introductory listen of Handwritten, right from the first time I pressed play and experienced this record, it was clear that The Gaslight Anthem had crafted something special. That was evident from first single and album opener "45," a propulsive hymn to the power of rock 'n' roll that burns with the energy of a hundred lesser acts. When the single dropped at the end of April, I almost immediately called it one of the band's best performances on record. O'Brien had captured everything that makes this band great, from the desperation in Fallon's voice to the classic rock swell that the band sits in so perfectly, and I figured that, if this song were the rule and not the exception, The Gaslight Anthem could just have an album of the year on their hands. Luckily for me, "45" is actually one of the weaker tracks, igniting a perfect five song progression that kicks off the record and climaxes with the almost Oasis-esque "Keepsake." The song, which features a particularly scorching guitar line, courtesy of Rosamilia, sees Fallon opening up about his relationship with his father. Marked by one of the biggest and angriest choruses the band has ever penned, "Keepsake" shatters into a tremulous cascade of plucked strings at the break, giving listeners a brief respite before the chorus barrels back in.

In between, Fallon and his trio of band members deliver three of the best songs they've ever written. The title track revisits the nighttime themes that accentuated the best tracks on The '59 Sound ("Here in the dark I cherish the moonlight/I'm in love with the way you're in love with the night," Fallon sings on one of the album's best lyrical couplets), while also lending it with some of the same darkness that surrounded Fallon's work with The Horrible Crowes. In addition, the song sheds a bit of light on the writing process behind the record. As the title suggests, Fallon scrawled the lyrics for these songs into a beat up old notebook, and the result is his most immediate and most personal collection to date. Want proof? Look no further than the transcendent highlight that is "Here Comes My Man," a rhythmically driving throwback to the girls groups of the 1960s and to Phil Spector's legendary "Wall of Sound" production technique. Springsteen has never been shy about his adoration for 1960s pop, especially girl groups like The Crystals and The Ronettes, and The Gaslight Anthem adopt that love as their own here. The song, told from the point of view of a female, offers an interesting lyrical direction reminiscent of the multiple gender-switching perspectives Jimmy Eat World employed on 2010's Invented. It also features an irresistible "sha la la" hook and one of Fallon's strongest vocal performances ever, two aspects that combine to make one of the summer's best should-be-hits: the Boss would be proud.

"Mulholland Drive" is almost as good, landing somewhere between '90s Counting Crows and Sam's Town-era Killers, and building to a spiraling guitar hook that is nothing short of indelible. The grungy "Too Much Blood" is another time capsule from the '90s, and will likely be considered the album's centerpiece cut thanks to a 5 minute run-time. The ghost of Kurt Cobain and the shadow of Eddie Vedder drift through the song's anthemic chorus, its dirty guitar lines, and Fallon's anguished, near-shouted vocals. And while neither of the '90s alt-rock gods have ever been idols of mine, Fallon's attempt to channel them pays off, giving the album's middle section an epic grandiosity that has been lacking thus far. "Howl" changes directions yet again, coming in at just over two minutes, and delivering the kind of spontaneous, shout-along anthem that the fans of their punk days have been begging for. It's far from a highlight, but the song serves its purpose and would likely be brilliant in a live setting.

"Biloxi Parish" and "Desire" land the closest to the territory the band mined on American Slang, with the former offering up a massive hook, and the latter, while probably the album's least distinctive number, still holding true to the impossibly high standard that Fallon and his band set early on with this record. But that bar is quite simply blown away with the final two tracks, as The Gaslight Anthem save the best songs on the disc (and arguably the best songs in their career, short of The '59 Sound's epic closer "The Backseat") for last. First is "Mae," a flawless penultimate number with a gorgeous sonic sweep and a tearful lyrical drive that will undoubtedly land it near the top of my "songs of the year" list. "And still this city pumps its aching heart for one more drop of blood/We work our fingers down to dust/While we wait for kingdom come with the radio on," Fallon croons, giving himself over to song's emotional and sentimental nature. It's a ballad, through and through, a heart-on-your-sleeve, thoroughly moving piece of music that hits all the right marks and lands as one of the best things Fallon has ever done. And while the Sink or Swim fans will likely cry "sell out" and beg for the punk edge that this band has long since shed, when "Mae" and its nostalgic guitar riff pour out of my speakers, I know that The Gaslight Anthem have reached a new level. When I hear this song, in the car on late summer nights, or through my headphones as I sit watching the sun go down and the season begin to dwindle, I know that I'm hearing something that truly matters.

"National Anthem" brings the record full-circle, ending it with a song that is both open-ended and resoundingly final. The spirit of Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen is at work here, in the atmospheric acoustic guitar picking, in the lush and haunting strings, and certainly in Fallon's words. "I remember she used to look so good in that dress/Now she just screams how I promised her more than this," he sings at the song's key moment, channeling the weathered and regretful, yet still somehow resilient voice that Bruce so memorably adopted for the most harrowing cuts on his 1978 classic. And while Fallon steers clear of reference and imitation on Handwritten (aside from the stellar bonus track "Blue Dahlia," which borrows a lyric from R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming"), his idols and influences are never far from the proceedings here. If The '59 Sound was Fallon's The Wild, The Innocent, The E-Street Shuffle, a rich tapestry of summer nights, pastime memories, carnival imagery, infinite youth, and lost heroes, and if Elsie was his Nebraska, then Handwritten is unequivocally his Darkness on the Edge of Town. It's his darkest, most personal, and most importantly, best album yet; it's a maze of fantastic hooks, soaring guitar lines, and personal confessions, both elated and anguished, and literally every time it ends, all I want to do is hit replay. I still think his Born to Run is ahead of him, but for now, I am content in calling Handwritten a bona fide masterpiece. It's the record I will remember as this year's summer soundtrack, the record that will encapsulate memories and moments from this season for as long as I continue to play it. It's also the best album of the year, edging out Springsteen himself, and for four New Jersey punks who have spent their lives and their careers chasing that impossible legacy, there can be no higher praise.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE
Island/Def Jam, 2012
Four stars

Last year, Frank Ocean sneaked into my end of the year honorable mentions with his innovative mixtape Nostalgia. Ultra, something that may not have seemed like anything to write home about to someone unfamiliar with my musical tastes, but something that was a bit of a surprise for me. Just like the vast majority of the population, I had no idea who Frank Ocean even was until last summer, but furthermore, he was a part of a genre (R&B) that I have very little love for. But Nostalgia was something fresh, a guy with a great voice spinning catchy, well written songs of his own or reinventing those of others. There were a few duds in the tracklist, but those were mostly forgivable, especially given the strength of originals like "Swim Good," or the yearning, emotional spin he put on Coldplay's "Strawberry Swing." But the reinventions - which also laid down new lyrics on The Eagles' "Hotel California" and MGMT's "Electric Feel" - were a gimmick, and as good as they were, it was hard to believe that Ocean would make them a regular least if he was hoping to be taken seriously as a musician.

Fast forward a year, and Frank Ocean is one of the biggest names in his genre, and for good reason. His talent is undeniable in anything he does, whether he's lending guest vocals (Kanye West and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne, also from last summer) or writing his own songs. He's also entered the news lately with a very honest and very public coming out, and that event will have many a critic reading very deeply into the music and lyrics on his major label debut, searching for a profound statement. That debut, called channel ORANGE, earned a sky-high 9.5 from Pitchfork last week - the kind of score that normally means Album of the Year contention - and while it's certainly a solid and interesting set of songs, I don't think it quite deserves that level of acclaim. That said, it's all about hype in this industry, and Ocean certainly has that on his side as he charges into the summer that is going to turn him from underground favorite into global superstar.

Upon a single listen to channel ORANGE, its hard to see what the big deal is: these songs meander and wander down roads that are almost impossible to anticipate, the flow is bizarre, with interludes and sound effects meant to simulate a "channel surfing" mentality, and Ocean doesn't have as many moments to show off his vocal prowess as he did on Nostalgia. The material is also all completely original, and while that's probably the right choice for him to make, the reinvention gimmick is missed here. Ocean forgoes choruses on a regular basis, opting instead for ambitious song structures that don't always work. But once all expectations and pre-conceptions of Ocean as an artist drop away, as they inevitably will, what's left is a compelling (if flawed) document of one of today's most intriguing and talented young artists. Look no further than album centerpiece, the 10-minute long "Pyramids," to know that Ocean's ambitions extend far beyond simple pop or R&B music. It's a two-part suite, with a driving introduction and a slow-burning, seductive second half that eventually gives way to an incendiary guitar solo from none other than John Mayer. Mayer sticks around for the sexy instrumental that is "White," and his presence is deeply welcomed both times, but the album has no time to linger on ideas: it moves along with a jarring and fast-paced clip, and if you blink, you might miss the transitions.

Perhaps the most prevalent of the personalities that Ocean adopts across channel ORANGE's 17 tracks is that of Stevie Wonder, who, himself a shape-shifting musical force, proves to be one of Ocean's most obvious influences. He lets loose a gorgeous falsetto on the chorus of "Thinkin' Bout You," references some of Stevie's biggest pop hits on the all-too-short "Fertilizer," and throws out the album's truest chorus and hook on "Sweet Life," never drifting too far from the musical territory that Wonder mined on key records like Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. But just like Nostalgia was more than a "cover" album, ORANGE is more than a tribute to one of Ocean's favorites, and he does a lot here to distinguish himself from the other figures in his genre, both past and present. Songs like "Super Rich Kids," "Monks," and "Pink Matter" (with an entrancing verse from Outkast's Andre 3000) veer more towards hip hop than Ocean has attempted yet (though, as a member of the Odd Future group, which consists mostly of rappers, it was only a matter of time until that influence manifested itself). Meanwhile, Ocean unleashes one of the best pop songs of the summer with "Lost," which sports an indelible groove and an addictive swagger that will doubtlessly land it on many a playlist this season.

But even with all of his musical ambition and varied styles, Ocean is at his best when he opens himself up and lets the world see the man behind it all. The song where that happens, the climactic "Bad Religion", is the closest he gets to the kind of "grand statement" that critics will be searching for here. The song, awash with strings and ringing organ chords, sees the protagonist climbing into a taxi at the end of a depressing and demoralizing night. He's looking for answers, for somewhere to think and someone to talk to, and he asks the cab driver to "be his shrink for the hour" and to help him "outrun the demons."  Everything builds towards the rousing "chorus," where Ocean belts, in one of his most spectacular vocal moments on record, "if it brings me to my knees, it's a bad religion." The result is the album’s peak and one of the best songs of the year. It's a sonic feast, a lyrical tour-de-force, an affecting and relatable piece of storytelling, and a vocal powerhouse all in one. It's also over far too quickly. Clocking in at 2:55, "Bad Religion" ends just when you think it could build into something truly epic. It's a shame for a record that has at least ten minutes of throwaway material (grating moments like "Sierra Leone" and "Crack Rock" come to mind, as do the utterly worthless intro and outro tracks), but when the song is so good, it's hard to complain.

Ultimately, while channel ORANGE may not be quite worth the profusion of hype it is certain to collect this week and throughout the rest of the year (look for this near the top of many a year end list), it is a solid and fascinating release from a charismatic and promising artist. Ocean doesn't quite sustain that promise throughout, occasionally stumbling on his own ambitious drive, but the album's highlights showcase a dizzying amount of talent and charm that demand to be noticed. For listeners more at home in this genre, channel ORANGE may well be a masterpiece, but I think it's equally notable that Ocean has been able to reach beyond those boundaries so effortlessly. His appeal reaches far and wide, thanks to his voice and his eclectic musical palette, and while the resulting cluster of musical ideas is hard for me to love completely, it's also impossible not to respect.