Monday, April 1, 2013

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

Jagjaguwar, 2013

The first time I pushed play on We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic--the second full-length record from California duo Foxygen--and opening cut “In the Darkness” came cascading out of my speakers, I had to double check my iTunes to make sure I was listening to the right album. The sounds I was hearing--a wonky piano, a booming bass, a softly shimmering electric guitar, a chorus of distant back-up vocals, Sam France’s Lennon-esque croon, and some kind of vaudevillian trumpet roll--all of them told through a layer of 1960s vinyl distortion, instantly coalesced like some long-lost Beatles b-side. I felt like I’d just thrown on an alternate universe’s version of Sgt. Pepper (or maybe Magical Mystery Tour...), and it almost baffled me how perfectly France, band partner Jonathan Rado, and producer Richard Smith were able to capture that late-era, experimental Beatles sound. Indeed, “In the Darkness” is a thing to behold as an opener, a timeless slice of psychedelic rock, perfectly balanced between meticulous studio arrangement and tripped-out spontaneity, between avant-garde textures and pop sensibilities. I thought I was in for an album full of throwback Beatles imitation, and I could hardly have been more pleased.

But if there’s one thing Foxygen teach listeners throughout We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, it’s that we shouldn’t make ourselves comfortable with one specific sonic niche. As early as “No Destruction,” the record’s second track, things shift. France drops Lennon, opting instead for the disorienting drawl Lou Reed showed off so memorably on 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico. And before the song is even over, things shift again: France’s Reed impression morphs into rambunctious Bob Dylan gravel, the song traveling with him. Once a steady bass/piano/organ groover, “No Destruction” doubles down on its percussion elements and charges forward, France’s voice sliding and straining between spoken word and melody like he’s ready to bust into a well-timed cover of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

And those two songs are, quite literally, just the tip of the iceberg of musical reference that Foxygen scales throughout We Are. There’s the Elvis tribute of “On Blue Mountain,” where France directly quotes the melodic refrain from “Suspicious Minds” a numerous junctures; there’s the hazy California pop of “San Francisco,” which references a signature Tony Bennett song (you know, the one where he leaves his heart there), even while grounding itself more in classic, A.M. radio doo-wop or modern indie pop than with love-struck jazz standards; and the riotous title track sounds like it should have been on Exile on Main St., its scratchy production values and France’s unhinged vocal style perfectly distilling the spirit of rock music’s glory days for a new generation.

Somehow though, Foxygen manage to make their blatantly obvious references sound innovative and fresh within their wider musical context. A big reason for that--though certainly not the only one--is the way France and Rado are able to construct unusual, shape-shifting song structures with astounding ease. Revisit “On Blue Mountain,” which begins in organ-drenched Rolling Stones territory (think “Shine a Light”), accelerates towards Elvis appropriation, and then alternately pumps the brakes and slams the on the gas throughout the rest of its nearly six-minute running time. When the song finally reaches its climax--a smooth Clapton-esque guitar solo, surrounded by a cloud of noise and accented by France’s Jagger-like snarls--lsteners will almost have forgotten where they started. No less loose in construction is album stand-out “Shuggie,” a power-pop gem whose late-song funk-breakdown is legitimately impossible to resist.

A lot of artists write their own stories by the light of their record collections, and why not? We all love making playlists and mixtapes, soundtracking our day-to-day lives while hoping to project our musical preferences onto friends, family, and significant others. What Foxygen have done here is ultimately just an extension of that tendency. And they aren’t the first artists to do so, by any means: The Gaslight Anthem, for example, have saw a meteoric rise within this very scene, largely because of their ability to appropriate pieces of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, and old soul records into their own distinct sound. Albums like We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, however, are a rarer manifestation of this influence-collecting phenomenon. France and Rado show as much care for reference and tribute here, for capturing a distinct 60s and 70s mood, as they do for more conventional aspects of songwriting, to the point where We Are essentially becomes a treasure hunt for musical familiarities.

In lesser hands, such an intense focus on homage might have come across as a gimmick, or turned the finished product into little more than a glorified cover album. Foxygen pull it off though, and most of the credit for that triumph has to be pointed towards France’s chameleonic vocal ability. But if Jagger, Dylan, Reed, and Lennon are the singer’s main points of reference, they are hardly where the musical palette leaves off. Shades of Bowie’s trademark glam-rock, The Band’s rootsy Americana, The Kinks’ punked-up Brit-pop, and even the legendary L.A. “Mellow Mafia” sound, creep in around the fringes, while other listeners will catch everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Byrds to Jimi Hendrix. And as France adopts a faux-Sinatra croon over the album’s final moments, things are at last brought back around to this century, his vocal quiver and articulation recalling hues of Brandon Flowers. All of this may or may not have been explicitly intended when Foxygen sat down to write We Are, but the impact is the same: the record is a jukebox boiled down to its greatest hits, a playground romp through the back-pages of pop music history, and in this case, the journey is well worth taking. The album title may call them the “ambassadors of peace and magic,” but the music inside tells a different tale: these guys are the 21st century ambassadors of classic rock ‘n’ roll, and it's damn nice having them around.

Night Beds - Country Sleep

Dead Oceans, 2013

That’s certainly the case with Night Beds, the musical project of Nashville singer/songwriter Winston Yellen and the name behind Country Sleep, my personal favorite album of the year so far. Yellen and I must come from similar schools on the notion of musical familiarity, as nearly every moment of Country Sleep echoes with some glimmer of sonic nostalgia, some shred of homage to the vast collective of influences he gathers throughout. But unlike another early 2013, homage-fueled record (the Rolling Stones/Beatles/Elvis/Velvet Underground collision that is Foxygen’s We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic) , Country Sleep never crosses the line into obvious reference. Ultimately, listeners will hear what they want to in these songs, whether it’s hushed atmospherics in the vein of Cold Roses-era Ryan Adams (see “22”), or earnest, sentimental bombast, a la Sleeping At Last (the sweeping romance of “Even If We Try”).

Still though, Night Beds does a terrific job of weaving borrowed sounds and textures into a vision that is thoroughly his own. Few will miss the way Yellen’s reverb-drenched vocals recall older My Morning Jacket records, or how the echoing a cappella of “Faithful Heights” and the dizzying vocal harmony of “Even If We Try” feel appropriated directly from the Fleet Foxes playbook, but those familiar pieces are merely threads in a much larger tapestry. Country Sleep, as a whole, is a condensation of Nashville sounds, from the stark singer/songwriter confessional that is “Was I For You?” to the propulsive indie-folk-pop of “Ramona” (and if The Lumineers can latch onto the mainstream, the latter can certainly follow suit). “Borrowed Time,” meanwhile, balances the longing of Appalachian folk with the rollicking, boozy drive of something you might hear at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe. And album closer, “TENN,” is a timelessly nostalgic lullaby, a softly-strummed ‘song for the road’ whose wandering troubadour aesthetic gives the record its perfect coda.

All of Yellen’s best qualities coalesce on “Cherry Blossoms,” a trancelike piece of midnight balladry that at once feels both heartbreaking and euphoric. The song, like much of Country Sleep, is a sonic feast, Yellen’s gorgeous vocals padded and buffeted by a cloud of harmonies, a subtle electric guitar arrangement and the moan of a memory-laden pedal steel rounding out the symphony. The song crescendos as it goes, filling out in sound with each passing second until the whole thing boils over. Yellen’s voice leaps an octave, his repeated cries of the words “take me home” rising emotionally over the feast of sounds. And then, far too soon, it’s over.

“Cherry Blossoms,” and indeed, the entirety of Country Sleep, plays out like a musical vortex, a song and album so beautifully written, so meticulously recorded and produced, and so passionately performed by its creator, that it’s impossible not to be swept away by it. Undoubtedly, there will be listeners who write Yellen off as no more than the sum of his influences. But while Ryan Adams, Jim James, Robin Pecknold, Justin Vernon, Gram Parsons, Conor Oberst and so many more are probably at least partially responsible for making Yellen the songwriter he is today, the guy has a gift that can’t be learned through simple imitation. It’s something that can’t be faked by ProTools or brought in with session musicians, something that can’t be paid for in promotion or acquired through positive critical reception. And I’m not even entirely sure what that is. Maybe it’s the intimacy on display here, the emotional honesty of it all; perhaps it’s the confident variations in sound inherent throughout, or the sonic splendor of the finished product. Or maybe, it all comes down to Yellen’s warm and welcoming embrace of familiar territory. Regardless of the reason, Country Sleep is more immediately accessible and rewarding than most of the records from the artists listed above, a stunning surprise debut that will be sitting somewhere in my annual top ten come December. Until then, though, I’ll just flip the record over and play it again.

On a lot of occasions, music lovers get to a point in their listening evolution where they start to rebel against the familiar. I’ve always found that interesting, since when we first start falling in love with music, it’s the songs and albums that we can relate to things we already love that click with us most easily. And I’ve always remained like that to a certain extent, something that will never make me the “hippest” music writer in town, but also something I’m really not at all ashamed of. I still have an emotional allegiance to the genres that made me fall in love with music in the first place, and frankly, I probably always will. Alt-country, folk, roots rock: these sounds were my entry point, the hallmarks of bands like Counting Crows or The Wallflowers that transfixed me as a child, and they remain the sounds that can hook me faster than just about anything else in music today. Because sometimes, familiarity doesn’t have to be derivative or uninspired or forgettable; sometimes, it just feels like home.

Westland - Intimacy w/o Intricacy

Westland - Intimacy w/o Intricacy - EP
Unsigned, 2013

Every once in awhile, a band comes along that feels like a collision of everything this scene is about, a band whose music reflects the records that made many of us fall in love with music in the first place and makes us feel like our younger selves again. A few years ago, that band was The Dangerous Summer, combining the likes of Taking Back Sunday, The Starting Line and Jimmy Eat World into an emotive blend of melodic pop rock. Last year, it was Daytrader, who took that Jimmy Eat World influence, drenched it in the dark atmospherics of their favorite Brand New records, and created something that was at once familiar and refreshing. And if I have to nominate a band for the title this year, then my earliest choice is Westland, a talented alt-pop group from Boston whose brand-new EP, entitled Intimacy w/o Intricacy, plays out like an infusion of the melodic sensibility of Sherwood and Good Old War, the radio friendly surge of All Time Low, The Maine, or Boys Like Girls, and a tinge of nineties radio rock.
Intimacy w/o Intricacy, only six songs and 20 minutes in length, acts less as a cohesive record and more like a sampling of everything Westland can do, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. We get the electronica-infused trance-ballad (“Slowly,” which carries the EP out in balladic ambiance); we get the slightly-generic play for modern-rock radio that is “For the Moment Star,” a song whose repetitive, “been there, done that” chorus nearly derails a foot-stomping guitar intro, strong verses, and a booming bass-line (courtesy of Nick Karidoyanes, who anchors the band on numerous occasions throughout this record). Still, frontman Aaron Bonus goes for broke here, bringing more than a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll edge to the proceedings, and while the song isn’t entirely successful on its own, it’s at least nice to know that this band, so good at dwelling in the earworm pop-punk department, isn’t afraid to turn the amplifiers up to 11.

But still, it’s hard to deny that Westland is at their best with a greater level of pop sheen behind them. Case-in-point is “Jack and Coke,” the first single from Intimacy and the band’s greatest bid for mainstream success. Building from a piano-heavy intro (one that nostalgically echoes Semisonic’s “Closing Time”), the song explodes into a visceral, shout-along chorus. Bonus’s voice soars on the high notes, the guitars crashing around him, and for an instant, Westland seem to have recovered the keys to Marty McFly’s DeLorean and gunned it to 88, taking us back to the golden age of pop punk. Indeed, the vast majority of Intimacy w/o Intricacy feels like something I would have been absolutely in love with when I was a freshman in high school. My tastes have moved forward quite a bit since then, but there’s still a lot to be said for a band that can generate such a clear frame of throwback nostalgia, especially when they didn’t even exist as a musical outlet when I was a freshman in high school (the band formed in 2009). I don’t know if I can quite explain the impact here, but rest assured that it’s a monumentally personal one, something that will keep me coming back to this record all year long, and I’d wager this band will do something similar to a lot of listeners from around here.

“Bleed” layers vocals, guitars, strings, and acoustics for a similar effect, though its chorus isn’t quite as meteoric as “Jack and Coke.” The song’s break sounds like something that wouldn’t have been out of place on Jimmy Eat World’s Stay on My Side Tonight EP, and the use of acoustic instrumentation, though minimal, is a nice change of pace that I’d challenge the band to explore further in the future. “Too Late,” meanwhile, is the catchiest song on the record, opening with a gorgeous pomp-and-circumstance swirl of piano and strings, and transforming into a Something Corporate-esque showstopper. Producer Shep Goodman, known for his work with pop bands and solo acts, works his magic here, surrounding the bus-sized chorus with the kind of pop sheen that could make the song a global hit. Certainly, the radio waves have rarely embraced our scene, but with a shifting mainstream music landscape that put fun. on top of the world last year and made bands a force to be reckoned with again, could the hopeless romantics in Westland find themselves notching some national success? With a set of songs as solid as Intimacy w/o Intricacy, I must confess that I’d be happy to see it happen.

Green Day - ¡Tré!

Green Day - ¡Tré!
Reprise Records, 2012

Those who read my delayed review of Green Day’s ¡Dos! back in early December will likely recall that, for all of my disenchantment with ¡Uno!, the first piece of the band’s ill-advised triple-album, my distaste for the trilogy grew tenfold with its follow-up. ¡Dos! was an unmitigated disaster, a musical recycling pile of pop cliché and cardboard garage band imitations that ranked instantly as the worst release in the band’s catalog. But, as I noted at the end of my review, ¡Dos! wasn’t a complete waste: its vicious awfulness at least had the positive impact of making ¡Uno! sound decent. And luckily, that same impact counts for double with ¡Tré!, the final piece of the trilogy and the only truly “good” album in the bunch.

In a lot of ways, the songs on ¡Tré! are precisely what I hoped to hear from the band as they blasted past their rock opera phase and back into the realm of the more “fun” or “spontaneous” music they were making around the turn of the century. Indeed, the best moments of this record are collisions of the band’s most well-executed musical ideas to date, from the classic-pop-with-epic-sweep opening of “Brutal Love” (which sounds like it could have been an American Idiot b-side) to the punked-up, multi-part, soon-to-be live show staple that is “Dirty Rotten Bastards.” Even the songs that fall a notch below the highlights, stuff like “Missing You” or “8th Street Serenade,” come across as exactly what Green Day were trying to accomplish with this trilogy, and exactly what they missed the mark on throughout the majority of the first two discs. These are songs with solid hooks, full-bodied performances, and altogether more life than the band showcased on ¡Uno! and ¡Dos!, even on their best tracks, and the result is a record with infinitely more replay value than we've heard from Green Day in quite some time.

In fact, the band sounds so much more engaged here that it’s almost difficult to believe these songs came from the same sessions that produced drivel like “Troublemaker,” “Kill the DJ,” or “Nightlife.” Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong sings like a new man on “Brutal Love,” hitting notes hard, fast, and with more soul and attitude than he’s manifested since Idiot. Another key cut, the irresistibly addictive “X-Kid,” takes less than four minutes to boil down the band’s last 15 years into a should-be radio single, a song that’s both retro and fresh, nostalgic and of-the-moment. “Hey, little kid, did you wake up late one day?/And you're not so young, but you're still dumb/And you're numb to your old glory, but now it's gone,” Billie Joe sings over a halting guitar scratch during the song’s opening moments, revisiting the bored and restless kids that populated Dookie and the politically disenfranchised rebels of American Idiot, and showing us where they ended up once they hit middle age. For a band seemingly embroiled in the second identity crisis of their (still relatively brief) career, the song is a moment of clarity, an acknowledgment that they don’t quite know where to go next. Ironically, but perhaps appropriately, that revelation comes during the best song they’ve written in years.

¡Tré! has no overarching theme or unity of sound, though it’s a bit funny to note that this album, which the band called a “mix” or “grab-bag” of styles going in, is the most cohesive installment in the trilogy. Where both ¡Uno! and ¡Dos! tried to veer close to a pair of genre styles (the former was supposed to be the “power pop” record, while the latter was all about “garage rock”), ¡Tré! masters both with more confidence and energy than the genre-specific records ever managed. See the album’s mid-section, which blazes through fast and loose pop numbers (“Little Boy Named Train,” “Amanda,” “Walk Away”) with effortless power-pop gravitas. That effective mid-section plays like a nostalgic time machine, its songs ringing with slick melodic sensibilities and crackling attitude that land somewhere between the band’s roots, early Weezer, and the pop-rock genius of Butch Walker’s Marvelous 3.

“Dirty Rotten Bastards” kicks things back to the 2000s, playing like a truncated version of “Jesus of Suburbia” or “Homecoming,” American Idiot’s shape-shifting centerpieces. “99 Revolutions,” on the other hand, is more indicative of the overall sound of the trilogy, an upbeat pop-rocker that sounds destined to be played over the opening or closing credits of teen comedies for the next decade. Meanwhile “The Forgotten” closes out the record with a sappy bit of piano-laced balladry, its Twilight soundtrack roots masking the fact that it’s a dead-ringer for some of 21st Century Breakdown's most dramatic moments. While the song doesn't have the climactic force of the band's best closers ("Whatsername" from Idiot, or "Macy's Day Parade" from Warning), it's a fitting conclusion for both the album and for the weird, disjointed trilogy that it's a part of.

Just like its predecessors, ¡Tré! is neither flawless nor game-changing. These songs very much thrive on their hooks, featuring mostly naval-gazing lyrical content that leaves no real impression on its own. Then again, Green Day has hardly ever been known as a force of great poetry, relying more on all the fun, energy, and attitude that they can generate with only three or four chords, and that surge of melodic sensibility is very alive and well here. ¡Tré! isn’t quite a great record: it’s not going to define a generation of scene kids like Dookie did, nor will it take over the radio waves and invade all public consciousness like American Idiot. (And don’t expect to see the album’s narrative, whatever the hell that is, played out in a Broadway musical). But the true strength of ¡Tré! is found in the way it redeems a trilogy that many had written off after its first two installments, and for me at least, that's enough to serve as a reminder that Green Day can still make music worth caring about.