David Bowie Retrospective/Blackstar Album Review

I think it would be self-indulgent to spend more than a paragraph or two writing about what David Bowie meant to me. I was just at a bar the other night talking about how he’s my all-time favorite artist, and how I was disappointed that I’d probably never get to see him perform live, although I always held out hope that he’d return to headline a big festival like Coachella. Bowie was the first queer icon I latched onto, before I even really knew what queer was, and definitely before I felt comfortable with my own relationship to the term. There was something, at once both sexy and a little scary, about the worlds his music inhabited. I was the kind of kid who got lost in those worlds, the polished landscape covered in grime covered in a second layer of polish, to the point where I wrote a musical (in the vein of Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia!) about them when I was about 14. My short-lived junior high band (consisting of me on guitar and my friend on vocals) debuted by playing a cover of “Space Oddity”.

I don’t think I’m alone in having these kinds of stories, because I think you could ask all manner of artists, musicians, and general creative-types about David Bowie and get similar memories shared. He had that kind of broad influence, as a musician and actor, as a fashion icon and a queer one, as an artist who never felt dated or aged, even as he approached 70 years old. When he performed with Arcade Fire in 2005, he stood alongside the band not as a desperate hanger-on clinging to relevance, but as a kind, paternal figure using his own status to help lift others up. Even in his musical prime, the breakneck pace with which he shifted genres never felt disingenuous. Whether he was tackling soul music, German-inspired avant-garde, glam, folk, new wave, or pop, Bowie came across as someone with such limitless passion for so many things that it was a struggle to pick just one.

It’s also easy to forget how prolific he was. From the release of his self-titled album in 1969 (not to be confused with his debut album, also self-titled, in 1967) to Scary Monsters in 1980, Bowie released 12 studio albums of original material, as well as an album of covers. Moreover, there’s not a bad album in that stretch. Lodger might compare unfavorably to Low and “Heroes”, as Diamond Dogs might to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, but effectively all of Bowie’s material during that period is great. He also released a handful of non-album singles, wrote songs for other artists, and performed on and produced albums by the likes of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed during the same period.

Furthermore, he was no passive frontman, contributing heavily to the writing and arranging of his music and playing over a dozen instruments including most notably guitar, piano, harmonica, and saxophone. Even his covers feel uniquely his, whether he was covering old 50’s and 60’s standards, or his rock contemporaries. Compare the Johnny Mathis original cut of “Wild is the Wind” (itself, a great track), with Bowie’s sprawling, 6-minute epic, or compare Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”, a working class anthem (like all great Springsteen songs), with Bowie’s glitzy, campy, danceable version. He even had the bold audacity to cover “Across the Universe” only five years after the breakup of the Beatles, and with John Lennon himself in the studio.

Bowie’s passing has shifted the nature of this article from a review of his newest album, Blackstar, to sort of a retrospective, but it should be noted that once he found his stride again in the mid 90’s, Bowie never slowed down. Blackstar is just the final chapter in the modern Bowie canon, and it’s every bit as exceptional as Reality or Heathen before it. Conventional wisdom holds that Bowie’s greatest strength has always been his ability to reinvent himself, but I think to boil his quality down to that is disingenuous. Yes, there are great differences between glam Bowie and soul Bowie, between folk Bowie and late 90’s drum-n-bass Bowie, but there are similarities as well. There are subtle homages to older work, but never to the point where one gets the sense that Bowie’s moved backwards.

There are brief, fleeting instants during the title track, “Blackstar”, where the instrumentation sounds like it could be from Earthling. The harmonica that echoes in the background of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is extremely reminiscent of “A New Career In A New Town” off of Low. The 12-string guitar on “Dollar Days” recalls a lot of tracks Bowie put out in the early 70’s. Yet, Blackstar never rests on these brief moments of homage. The moments of comfortable familiarity are just the opening act for what Blackstar has to offer. Jazz dances throughout Blackstar, paired with Bowie’s avant-garde leanings and rock sensibilities into a dense, artsy declaration of purpose.

It’s haunting, too. Bowie hid his illness well, but after passing away only two days after Blackstar’s release, it’s hard not to feel like he was just holding on until the album came out. Knowing this, lyrics like the opener from “Lazarus”, which goes, “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen / I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen / Everybody knows me now” or the first lines of “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, “I know something’s very wrong / The pulse returns for prodigal sons / The blackout’s heart with flowering news / With skull designs upon my shoes” take on a new meaning. Whether intentional or not, Blackstar seems supernaturally imbued with a sense of finality, as if it were silly to ever think there could be anything else after it.

There won’t be anything after it. Depending on Bowie’s last wishes and back catalogue, there might be some loose tracks that might come out, or perhaps archival footage or demos, obscure b-sides that were only released in Japan and then fell to obscurity, but in terms of a complete, fully-realized work, Blackstar is the endpoint. If there had to be one, then at least it was something as sweepingly beautiful as Blackstar.

Embedded below is the music video for “Lazarus”, the second single from Blackstar. In addition, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a playlist of Bowie tracks spanning from his 1969 album to 2013’s The Next Day, in chronological order, that can be viewed here. It’s funny to call anything Bowie released a “deep cut” given his legendary status, but these tracks were generally not singles, and are probably less popular than Bowie’s most famous songs. If you’ve never really listened to Bowie’s work, or haven’t in a while, this playlist might  give you an idea of the scope and diversity of his music.

[youtube_sc url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-JqH1M4Ya8″]

Featured Artist Update (4/22/2014)

As 6 new albums go in, 6 old albums have to come out. Such, there is balance. This week, we added some great new music, including an EP from DWNTWN that’s sure to thrill fans of electro-style indie in the vein of CHVRCHES or Crystal Castles, and a noisy album from Pink Mountaintops that, in the words of Music Director Jon ” is good music, but doesn’t follow pop conventions”. We’ve also began keeping track of how long albums have been in the binder for. On the other side, we said goodbye to some of our favorite albums of the spring, including Night Drive’s Position 1 and Bend Sinister’s Animals. Be sure to check back next week for another Featured Artist Update.

  • Austin Plaine – Austin Plaine (3 weeks)
  • The Black Angels – Clear Lake Forest (1 week)
  • Big Scary – Not Art (4 weeks)
  • Chappo – Future Former Self (3 weeks)
  • Cloud Nothings – Here + Nowhere Else (3 weeks)
  • Dan Croll – Sweet Disarray  (3 weeks)
  • Doghouse Swine – Dogs of War (4 weeks)
  • Drake Bell – Ready Steady Go! (3 weeks)
  • Dry Heeves – Boogie Till Ya Puke (5 weeks)
  • EMA – The Future’s Void (New)
  • Future Islands – Singles (3 weeks)
  • Grumpus – Man Child (2 weeks)
  • Howler – World of Joy (3 weeks)
  • Jack Berry – Heathen Heart (New)
  • Jeremy Steding – My Own American Dream (5 weeks)
  • Jessie Clegg – Life on Mars (3 weeks)
  • Kate Tucker and the Sons of Sweden – The Shape, The Color, The Feel (3 weeks)
  • Keley Mae – Keley Mae (3 weeks)
  • Kingston Crown – Show Me Now (5 weeks)
  • Liars – Mess (3 weeks)
  • Little Lapin – Little Lapin (3 weeks)
  • Longboat – Untitled Vanity Project (New)
  • Matt Koelsch and the Allies – Epic Summer (New)
  • Mr. Little Jeans – Pocket Knife (3 weeks)
  • My Fiction – Shallow Highs (3 weeks)
  • Peter Lalush – Crash! (4 weeks)
  • Pink Mountaintops – Get Back (New)
  • RAC – Strangers (2 weeks)
  • Tijuana Bullfight –Southern California (3 weeks)
  • We Are Scientists – TV en Francais (5 weeks)
  • Wild Ones – Keep it Safe (2 weeks)



  • Phebe Starr – Zero (7 weeks)
  • Ruby the Rabbitfoot – New as Dew (7 weeks)
  • The Falls – Into the Fire (7 weeks)
  • Lone Tyger – Lone Tyger (7 weeks)
  • Bend Sinister – Animals (7 weeks)
  • Night Drive – Position 1 (7 weeks)

Featured Artist Update 4/09/14

We’re returning to a (hopefully) weekly update schedule with regards to Featured Artists. Be sure to check back here every Wednesday to get your updates on what is in the Featured Artist Binder for the week. This week, we added in Wild Ones and RAC. Wild Ones is a chill piece of female-fronted indie rock, while RAC is an electronic smorgasbord of guest stars including Tegan and Sara, Tokyo Police Club, YACHT, and Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke. Other personal recommendations from the binder include the debut album of Norwegian space-songstress Mr. Little Jeans (check out her cover of Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs”), the new release from Future Islands, and the surprisingly good rocker from Drake Bell (yes, that Drake Bell).

Current Featured Artists

  • Austin Plaine – Austin Plaine
  • Bend Sinister – Animals
  • Big Scary – Not Art
  • Chappo – Future Former Self
  • Cloud Nothings – Here + Nowhere Else
  • Dan Croll – Sweet Disarray
  • Doghouse Swine – Dogs of War
  • Drake Bell – Ready Steady Go!
  • Dry Heeves – Boogie Till Ya Puke
  • Future Islands – Singles
  • Howler – World of Joy
  • Jeremy Steding – My Own American Dream
  • Jessie Clegg – Life on Mars
  • Kate Tucker and the Sons of Sweden – The Shape, The Color, The Feel
  • Keley Mae – Keley Mae
  • Kingston Crown – Show Me Now
  • Liars – Mess
  • Little Lapin – Little Lapin
  • Lone Tyger – Lone Tyger
  • Mr. Little Jeans – Pocket Knife
  • My Fiction – Shallow Highs
  • Night Drive – Position 1
  • Peter Lalush – Crash!
  • Phebe Starr – Zero
  • RAC – Strangers
  • Ruby the Rabbitfoot – New as Dew
  • The Falls – Into the Fire
  • Tijuana Bullfight –Southern California
  • We Are Scientists – TV en Francais
  • Wild Ones – Keep it Safe

Album Review: Carsick Cars’ “3”

In writing about the Beijing-based noise rock trio Carsick Cars, there is an overwhelming temptation to compare them to Sonic Youth. It’s a natural inclination; Carsick Cars supported the alt-rock pioneers for two shows in Vienna and Prague on a European tour in 2007, shortly before releasing their eponymous debut album. Since those shows, they’ve performed at three SXSW festivals, and released two more albums, the most recent of which dropped last month. Some of the songs off this album, titled 3, wouldn’t sound out of place as B-sides from Daydream Nation or Goo.

Still, Carsick Cars aren’t Sonic Youth. They don’t have the swagger; they don’t have the savvy. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (still drinking from whatever weird hipster Fountain of Youth that has kept him looking like a weird 20something for 30 years) cut an imposing figure of “coolness”. Hell, they did a song with Chuck D, who is mad cool. Meanwhile, Carsick Cars stand together wearing shirts that read “CSC” like sports fans too embarrassed about their bodies to bare their chests (for the record, I am one of these sports fans. Go [Sports Team]!).

After a second or third listen, Carsick Cars start to sound a lot less like Sonic Youth, and a lot more like their lower-fi contemporaries, Pavement and Guided By Voices. 3 is less Daydream Nation and more Slanted and Enchanted or Bee Thousand. This is great news for CSC, who make up for their lack of ability in smoking a lot and staring off into the distance at things with a relentless enthusiasm for their music.

3 opens with a song called “Wild Grass”. There’s a quick little bass riff at the beginning, before the guitars and drums cut in. It’s a pretty simple moment, but it’s a beautiful defining point for what Carsick Cars are. High-energy and lo-fi (it’s a testament to their commitment to distorted vocals that you sometimes can’t immediately tell which language singer Zhang Shouwang, who sings in both English and Chinese, is singing) and pretty damn good. I also have no idea what they’re saying most of the time, so I am complete qualified to say the lyrics are spectacular.

No other moment on 3 quite ever matches the opening of “Wild Grass”, and it does occasionally feel like Carsick Cars are chasing their influences a little too eagerly. The album lags a little in the middle, but more than makes up for it with the final track, “White Song”, a seven minute mini-epic that builds and builds to a satisfyingly chaotic conclusion. 3 isn’t a perfect album, by any means, but it’s certainly worth a listen.

Album Review: Against Me!’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”

Punk rock is dead.

I have written that multiple times, for English papers no less, and it has become a music journalism cliché. For some people, punk rock was born in 1977 and died in 1978, and in a stylistic sense, that’s not too far from the truth. With regards to substance though, it’s pretty hard to agree. If Punk Rock is just musical minimalism paired with some kind of anti-establishment sentiments, then we can trace it from Richard Hell and Iggy Pop to The Ramones and Sex Pistols, to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, even to more polished, modern bands like Green Day and Against Me!

Punk rock is stale.

That’s probably more accurate. I’m no purist. Slick production in the Butch Vig mold doesn’t bother me, and I think American Idiot, for all its naysayers, is still one of the most important punk albums of the last decade, both for its popularity/visibility and its attempt to take both the standard punk stylings and overwrought “stadium rock” tropes and blend them into something relevant. Recently though, they’ve lost the plot. The Uno! Dos! Tre! Trio of albums aren’t bad, but they’re misguided, and mostly scatter messages everywhere, hoping to find something that sticks.

I’m sure if you scour the awesome, seedy punk rock scenes of the world, you can find something real, but whatever “mainstream punk” (ew gross) is out there is either clinging to Green Day’s blueprint a decade after the zeitgeist, or has become Warped Tour-ized, catering to “edgy” junior high students who ride around on skateboards and doodle little Anarchy A’s in the margins of their math homework. Punk is losing relevance. Everyone wants to be “authentic” and the movement is turning on itself, even as most people don’t even know it still exists. Such is the subject of Against Me!’s 2010 single “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”. It’s a great track, if not particularly innovative. It speaks to that “authenticity crisis”. Against Me! Aren’t very “authentic”. They started as acoustic anarchopunks, and have become increasingly electric and apolitical as they move to bigger and bigger labels.

But now, with Transgender Dysphoria Blues, they’ve given up the ghost and blown all notions of “authenticity” out of the water. A pseudo-concept album that’s sort of about lead singer Laura Jane Grace, who came out as transgender in 2012, Transgender Dysphoria Blues makes one realize how silly it is to hold onto 1970’s standards of false “authenticity” or “cred”, instead of trying to make something real. This album is real. It’s released on Against Me!’s own label, Total Treble Records, and it comes it at under a half hour, but it cuts deeper than any contemporary “punk rock opera” twice its length.

Grace’s lyrics bite, and she doesn’t pull any emotional punches. She plays with language, vulgar and sultry all in the same breath, and when she snarls “You want them to see you like they see every other girl, but they just see a faggot”, you instantly realize that this is not some ivory tower punk philosophy, but real, ugly experience. It’s her lyrics that give the album a sense of gravity. It’s never pretentious (an occasional failing with some of my favorite punk records, unfortunately) and Grace doesn’t see herself as some kind of idealized punk rock savior, but rather an angry, vulnerable, fully realized human.

Lead Single “True Trans Soul Rebel” sticks to the “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” musical mold, but rather than aim her gun at a dangerously (at times) out-of-touch subculture, Grace turns it on herself, expressing every vulnerability (mental, physical, social, sexual) as an almost anthemic rally cry for the sexual outcasts, the weird kids that helped make punk a real genre, only to be cast off in favor of screamo brats with bad haircuts and worse attitudes (how’s that for a run-on sentence?).

Still, Grace’s greatest lyrical strength is making the album, part auto-biographical, part fictional, resonate. You don’t need to be trans, or queer, to empathize. It takes the visceral, painfully specific reality of her life and this story, and gives it the voice of ten thousand different outcasts. At its core, it is an album with a message, a powerful, beautiful message, but it’s a message that can echo throughout the entire genre. It’s a shock to the heart. Maybe if Punk can get away from phony posturing about authenticity and cred, and get back to making damn good records that mean something REAL, we’ll see more albums like this in the future, but for now, this is the best we’ve got, and it’s pretty damn spectacular.

10/01/2013 Featured Artists Update

This week, we said goodbye to a lot of good artists from our Featured Artists binder. Starting today, the following artists are not longer featured.

  • Safety Orange
  • Pity Sex
  • Alice Brightsky
  • Charli XCX
  • No Age
  • City Riots
  • Third of Never
  • Ty Segall

But not to fear, we’ve stocked up with some great new artists. We’ve got the new album from Deltron 3030, which features guest appearances from Damon Albarn, Zach De La Rocha, Mike Patton, and even Joseph Gordon Levitt. We’ve also got the newest release from Campfire OK, a great folk outfit from my hometown of Seattle. There’s also great albums from Kelley Stolz, Scary Cherry and the Bang Bangs, Eyes on Ivan, Teitur,  and Peace. And of course, we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t mention the awesome new offering from Grouplove.

A full list of the featured artist binder can be found below.

And So I Watch You From Afar – All Hail Bright Futures
Beecake – Blue Sky Paradise
Campfire OK – When You Have Arrived
Chad Kichula – The Whale’s Back
CHVRCHES – The Bones Of What You Believe
Claude Von Stroke – Urban Animal
Cloud Control – Dream Cave
Deltron 3030 – Event 2
Eyes On Ivan – Way Of The Fool
Ezra Furman – Day of the Dog
Grouplove – Spreading Rumours
Hunters – Hunters
Kelley Stolz – Double Exposure
London Grammar – If You Wait
Luna Down – The EP
Moon Taxi – Mountains, Beaches, Cities
Peace – In Love
Right Start – Come To Know
Royal Bangs – Brass
Scarlet Youth – The Everchanging View
Scary Cherry and the Bang Bangs – Girl
Teitur – Story Music
The Chambermaids – Whatever Happened Tomorrow
The Lower 48 – The Lower 48
The Paper Kites – States
The Persian Leaps – Praise Elephants
Top Less – Top Less
Vance Joy – God Loves You When You’re Dancing
Versus Angels – We’re Only Human

Artist Profile: The Uncluded

I don’t like to get too sentimental or romantic but I’m going to allow myself this nostalgic self-indulgence. For my brief, pretentious career as an amateur music journalist, I’ve often thought about how to put into words my feelings about alt-rock as an emotional movement. Even with some musical differences, there’s something to be said about bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, The Mountain Goats, and Arcade Fire as an emotional mirror.

If you liked music as a kid, you probably have musical memories. For me, I remember listening to Breakfast With The Beatles with my family on long Sunday car rides, or listening to 90s country with my mom on the way to doctor and dentist appointments, or discovering entry-level punk music at 12 years old. Those songs put me back when I was 9, 10, 11. Likewise, music I got into in high school reminds me of sitting in my car in a school parking lot, or driving around late at night in my small, Washington town.

However, most powerful among music are the songs that seem to remind me of both times. Songs by The Mountain Goats and Arcade Fire, despite having been discovered later in my teenage years, seem to resonate with my childhood memories as well. Logically, it’s pretty ridiculous. I was 16 when The Suburbs came out, so it can’t possibly tie to my ten year old self, and yet, it does.

Indie rock works like lullabies, or crackled melodies transmitted through a broken radio to youth. They conjure powerful images of lonely streets, small towns, and emotional connections between people not fully in control of their emotions. Even so, they connect to where we are now. There are these reference points, footnotes, asides, that put us back in 2013, as young adults with lives, relationships, and some abstract concept of the “real world”. It’s powerful.

Enter The Uncluded. Made up of Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson (two powerful songwriters and storytellers in their own right), The Uncluded are a weird hybrid-y folk hip hop that strikes that emotional balance perfectly. Since leaving The Moldy Peaches, Kimya Dawson has made a career out of silly, pretty children’s songs and initially, the debut Uncluded album (titled Hokey Fright) seems similar. With songs titled “Eyeball Soup” and “Jambi Café” that include nonsense words and silly mispronunciations in their lyrics, The Uncluded seems like another foray into children’s music.

Songs like “Delicate Cycle” paint vivid pictures of childhood (Dawson sings about her mother working as a lunch lady and her father’s career as a laundromat worker), contrasted with adult understanding and reflection. Inside of the childish lyrics and silly rhymes, The Uncluded are explicitly linking childhood and adulthood. Introduced at their live show as “A Public Service Announcement”, the song “Organs” juxtaposes clinical, macabre language about death and organ donation with rhymes about animals trading parts (“The turtle gave its shell to the crab who gave its eyes to the bird who gave its wings to the bat”).

The Uncluded put on a great show. I saw them in Seattle last week and they were exceptional. Their songs are catchy and nice, but it takes a step away from the show to really understand how talented they are. By taking those elements of childhood and mashing them up with the realities of adulthood, they’re creating something relatable to weird in-between people. How else are we supposed to take an album that references the Jonestown Massacre and has a song called “Tits Up”, while also earnestly endorsing blue raspberry candy and fluffernutters.

Check out The Uncluded. You’ll be glad you did.

Album Preview: CHVRCHES’ The Bones of What You Believe

In terms of mildly gothic, female-fronted indietronica, we are living in an unprecedented Golden Age. In a historical sense, it probably all started with The Knife, the early 2000’s duo from Sweden whose 2003 single, “Heartbeats” echoes through a lot of alternative electronic music of the past decade. Despite a bit of chart success in continental Europe, The Knife were never championed by the indie elite and consequently haven’t received the accolades or recognition they probably deserve.

In a historical, theoretical sort of way, it was The Knife, but in a cultural, zeitgeist-y way, it’s hard to argue against Crystal Castles. With Ethan Kath providing both cute melodies and demonic glitches worthy of some kind of LSD Gameboy fever-dream and Alice Glass punctuating her sweet nothings with staccato shrieks, it’s not surprising that they were swallowed up wholesale by the internet hype machine. Despite some growing pains and reasonably high-profile performing scandals (Glastonbury 2008 comes to mind), Kath and Glass became the poster children for the chaotic, sweet-then-scary indie electro music that has grown every year.

There’s Purity Ring, a duo following the successful formula of a female vocalist paired with a male instrumentalist. There’s Charli XCX, a British singer-songwriter who recorded her first album (albeit an unreleased one) at 14 and has only improved since then. Now, there’s CHVRCHES (don’t let that “v” fool you, it’s pronounced “churches”), a Scottish trio whose first album, The Bones of What You Believe, is set to be released in September.

With the market flooded with good, female-fronted electro, one might wonder what sets CHVRCHES apart, or at least makes them worth a listen. Musically, CHVRCHES inches closer to pop than some purists may like, with the synth lines of Martin Doherty and Iain Cook having more in common with M83 than Crystal Castles or The Knife. Still, it’s self-produced and charming in its accessibility. Early singles “The Mother We Share” and “Recover” are downright bouncy, with their unashamedly cheesy drum machines providing an upbeat lift to the songs.

However, it’s vocalist Lauren Mayberry who sets CHVRCHES apart from their contemporaries. She has an intelligibility and dynamism that’s hard to find in modern electro. She practically whispers her way through intimate verses, only to deliver bombastic, soaring choruses. She’s also a master of the subtle and subversive, playing up her charm and the upbeat nature of the music to mask the surprisingly dark lyrics.

CHVRCHES have been good about releasing music in the lead-up to The Bones of What You Believe, with 4 singles from the album already floating around the indie blogosphere and radio waves, as well as an EP for “Recover” that features two additional songs and two remixes. They’ve also been active with special performances and projects, with Prince and Haim covers coming from radio performances, as well as making remixes for St. Lucia, MS MR, and Ultraista. Still, none of it substitutes for a proper album and I’ll only be properly satisfied when The Bones of What You Believe drops on September 23rd.


Watch the CHVRCHES music video for “Gun” below!

[youtube_sc url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktoaj1IpTbw” fs=”1″]

Album Review: The National’s “Trouble Will Find Me”

Some cool August night in 2010, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my best friend’s car as we drove to another friend’s house. It was late at night and there wasn’t much traffic in our small town, so we made idle conversation and listened to the radio. The DJ was saying something about the next track being her favorite song of the summer, because she felt like it summed up how she’d felt about it, chiefly melancholic. It was by a band called The National, a band I had heard of but never seriously listened to. She introduced the song as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and then began to play it. Shortly after, we arrived at the parking lot outside our friend’s apartment. My friend turned off the car. “Turn it back on.” I said. “I want to finish that song.” I got a raised eyebrow for my remark, but he turned the radio back on and we sat in silence for the rest of the song.

To call The National “sadcore” would miss the point, although Matt Berninger’s easily-identifiable baritone does seem to perpetually reside in that state two or three weeks after a big breakup where everything begins to slowly sink in. With a rhythm section liable to give you claustrophobia and minimalist guitar crunches synced with the occasional synth hit or string section, The National occasionally come off as a Joy Division minus the suicidal tendencies.

Yet, there’s something about their body of work that is oddly entrancing, even hypnotic. From their somewhat awkward alternative country beginnings to their trio of critically acclaimed albums beginning with 2005’s Alligator and ending with 2010’s High Violet, Berninger’s earnest vocals, mixed with word salad lyrics and beautifully tragic music have made them indie darlings. In those first few albums The National struggled to find their ideal sound, but by Trouble Will Find Me, the band’s sixth album, released earlier this week, they’ve perfected it.

Realistically, there could be no real follow-up to High Violet. The duo of Alligator and 2007’s Boxer ultimately served as teasers for High Violet, the critical and commercial peak of the band. As such, any new album was always going to be measured against their last offering.

Any song on Trouble Will Find Me would sound perfectly at home wedged into High Violet. In terms of exploring new ideas, The National have done very little in the last three years to evolve their sound. Berninger’s voice is as dramatically depressed as always, and the music provided by the guitarist Dessner brothers and their rhythm section counterparts, the Devendorf brothers, is simultaneously as intimate and bombastic as always. Given the success of High Violet, it’s understandable that they’d stick to the script for the follow-up.

It’s a tad disappointing, even so. On Trouble Will Find Me, The National largely stick to their middle-register. The slower ballads don’t match emotional heavyweights like “The Geese Of Beverly Road”, and the more uptempo almost-rockers never quite match the chaotic breakdown in the chorus of “Mr. November” or the rawness of rollicking stompers like “Murder Me Rachael” and “Available”. As a retrospective of their career thus far, Trouble Will Find Me sounds less like an alternate Greatest Hits and more like an alternate universe version of High Violet that was slightly less good.

In no way is Trouble Will Find Me a bad album. It doesn’t really even have any bad songs. Early single “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and first track “I Should Live In Salt” stand among the best songs the band has ever recorded, and the rest of the album offers more than enough to satisfy hardcore fans and casual listeners alike. As far as albums go, The National could have done far, far worse than release High Violet: The Sequel. It is a bit of a missed opportunity, but it still stands as a very good album, if not the great one that its predecessor was.

Album Review: Anamanaguchi’s “Endless Fantasy”

Somewhere in the peculiar brainspace between John Hughes movies and beating your friends at Mario Kart (I suggest being Luigi, because who doesn’t like Luigi? Dirty Communists, that’s who), there exists a genre of music known as chiptune. Defined by the use of Game Boys and other old-school video game consoles as instruments,  chiptune has found a niche at geeky conventions and through the internet, but has struggled to break into more mainstream outlets. You’re unlikely to find anything by Disasterpeace or Sabrepulse in a record store. Elements of chiptune have crept into pop and hip hop songs (Go listen to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” for evidence), but chiptune bands themselves haven’t made the same impact.

With luck, that’s about to change. Anamanaguchi, one of the most celebrated bands of the genre, released their new album, Endless Fantasy, earlier this week. Funded through Kickstarter (where it has earned over 175,000 dollars, far from the 50,000 dollar goal), the album will be released on CD and vinyl and is expected to hit record store shelves in the near future if all goes as planned. A music video for the first single, “Meow” was released in January and further videos are planned.

In many ways, Anamanaguchi are apt flag-bearers for the entire genre. Releasing music since 2006 (beginning with their EP Power Supply, followed by their 2009 full length debut Dawn Metropolis, and a handful of non-album singles in 2010), the band’s “big break” came in 2010 when they scored the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World video game for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The soundtrack hit number 3 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and was highly acclaimed. However, it epitomized the biggest hurdle for chiptune music as a whole; it sounds too much like a video game.

That in itself is not a bad thing. Even on old consoles like the NES, the music in video games was top-notch, and the music in some modern games is so thoughtfully composed, it could belong in a film. However, the type of chip-based, glitchy beep boops of Anamanguchi and their contemporaries made them a “sometimes” band. When jumping perilously over a puddle as if it were a set of spikes in Mega Man, or when day dreaming about beating up an endless horde of muscle dudes a la Final Fight or Double Dragon, listening to chiptune makes you feel like a serious badass. Other times, it felt out of place. Since their beginning, Anamanaguchi has leaned towards dance music. Early songs like “Helix Nebula” and “Flora/Fauna” had a kind of danceable groove, but other songs sounded abrasive, or too minimalist to really work as alternative pop music.

These problems disappear on Endless Fantasy, which sounds like Koji Kondo DJ-ing at a sick rave. It’s eminently danceable and nothing short of a dance pop rock chip masterpiece. Chiptune music with vocals usually sounds gimmicky and Anamanaguchi have traditionally stayed away from it unless remixing someone else’s music. On Endless Fantasy, guest vocals by Bianca Raquel and Meesh add a dimension to the album and make tracks like “Prom Night” and “Japan Air” stand out as some of the album’s gems. Although video game sounds are still at the forefront of the music, the guitars have been moved further and the songcraft perfected. These aren’t gimmicks; they’re legitimately great songs. Many of them tend towards up-tempo dance stompers with great beats, but the band also shows their softer side with a couple shorter songs, including a bizarre (though very good) chip cover of the classical piece Gymnopedie No. 1.

Endless Fantasy is a true modern masterpiece in its field. It’s chaotic and jumbled and straight-up weird, but it creates beautiful art inside the mess. If you’ve never listened to music made on a Nintendo, start with Endless Fantasy.


Watch the delightfully weird music video for “Meow” here!

[youtube_sc url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vc3JWo2iiGc”]