Your New Music Report! (May 2010)

By Chris Moore:

Well, it seems that I won’t be able to post the set-list for tonight’s Pearl Jam concert in real-time after all, due to either issues with the site or my WordPress app or both.

Instead, let’s talk new music!

It’s been two weeks since the first third of the year flashed by, and it’s been quite a year for new music.  Perhaps my surprise and excitement is due to the fact that I didn’t have high hopes for this year.  After all, nearly all of my favorite bands have put out music very recently (i.e. the past two years).  And yet there have been more than enough new releases to pick from these past four months.

Some artists, like Ringo Starr and Jakob Dylan, continue to put out music that lives in the shadow of their greater efforts of the past.  Others, like the Barenaked Ladies and Spoon, have somehow managed to create some of the best music of their lengthy careers.  Still others, such as She & Him and Broken Bells, are creating music and casting the shadows that future efforts will need to live up to.

This year has certainly had its hits and its misses, and it got off to an eclectic but ho-hum start, but I have already been hooked by five outstanding records.  Now, only one of these has received my five-star stamp of approval (All in Good Time), but the other four are a full four stars without question (Broken Bells, Volume Two, Heaven is Whenever, & Sea of Cowards).

The latter four albums represent an interesting range of sounds and influences.  Broken Bells have found a compelling sound by blending the rock basics with some more experimental, synthesized sounds.  She & Him give you the eery feeling that you’ve stepped into the past without actually sounding dated.  The Hold Steady have put together the best all-out rock and roll album of the year, to be sure.  And the Dead Weather present an out of control frenzy of rock, this time around with more single-worthy songs and considerably better continuity as an album.

In the midst of the outstanding and the forgettable are some interesting records.  Take American VI: Ain’t No Grave, Johnny Cash’s final posthumous release of new material.  It certainly doesn’t stand up to IV or even V, but it is such a beautiful that includes a perfect closing track for his long and storied career.  Steven Page’s first solo effort incited extreme reactions from most fans and critics, divisions in both categories respectively hating it for being so unlike his other music and loving it for… well, the same reason, I suppose.  As for me, I’ve very much enjoyed A Singer Must Die, although I rarely listen to it in the car and I’m very anxious to hear his first solo album proper, which should arrive later this year.  (And, to be fair, I downgraded it from four to three and a half stars in deference to what a full four stars should really represent.)

If you haven’t been listening to the first albums of the new decade, then you’ve been missing some real gems.  And, if you’ve missed my reviews along the way, I’ve compiled them below for your reference.  I’ve even translated my “Yes, No, or Maybe So” reviews to the standard five star system for your ease.   I’ve been listening constantly to the four listed as “coming soon” — between rounds of BnL, She & Him, and the Wallflowers, that is — and I’ll have those reviews posted throughout the next two weeks.

New Albums, 2010:

Y Not (Ringo Starr) – 2.5 stars

Transference (Spoon) – 3.5 stars

Realism (Magnetic Fields) – 2.5 stars

Heligoland (Massive Attack) – 2 stars

A Singer Must Die (Steven Page with the Art of Time Ensemble) – 3.5 stars

American VI: Ain’t No Grave (Johnny Cash) – 3 stars

Broken Bells (Broken Bells) – 4 stars

All in Good Time (Barenaked Ladies) – 5 stars

Volume Two (She & Him) – 4 stars

Women & Country (Jakob Dylan) – 2.5 stars

Forgiveness Rock Record (Broken Social Scene) – coming soon!

Court Yard Hounds (Court Yard Hounds) – coming soon!

Heaven is Whenever (The Hold Steady) – 4 stars

Sea of Cowards (The Dead Weather) – 4 stars

High Violet (The National) – 3.5 stars

She & Him’s “Volume Two” (2010) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

I read recently that Volume Two is, in so many words, a collection of some of the brightest sounding sad songs ever recorded, and I have to agree with that description.

Subtleties such as this are what set She & Him’s follow-up effort apart from the competition.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should concede that, after hearing a track and a half on my first listen, I actually expressed out loud my opinion that I was glad I bought this album, but that I recognized it as a one-speed album of retro pop.

As I have become so accustomed to finding, I was wrong.

By the third track, my nonchalance was deteriorating and before I had completed my first listen, I was hooked by Zooey Deschanel’s unique, alluring lead vocals, backed by M. Ward and company’s instrumentation.  Still, I assumed that this would wear off after a few listens.

Not so.

In ways that I have not quite been able to ascertain and certainly haven’t been able to translate into words, She & Him have managed to walk the line — never crossing it — with what should be derivative sounding retro pop.  At times, I feel like I’ve been transported back to the fifties or sixties, listening to A.M. radio of the past.  At others, these songs feel as new as any indie rock that’s available today, including the sorts of songs played by Deschanel’s husband, the king of indie himself, Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard.

She & Him's "Volume Two" (2010)

She & Him's "Volume Two" (2010)

With two exceptions, this is an album of Deschanel-penned originals, which adds strength to the collection.  Were this a disc of covers, there would be no real tie to modern-day, to the lead singer.  Instead, there is a sense of urgency and relevance in her words, although the overall sound may lean toward the aforementioned retro genre.

Songs like “Thieves” and “Don’t Look Back” are undeniably the highlights of this crop: unique, distinctive tracks.  Although — as per usual — I don’t necessarily agree with the choice of single, “In the Sun” is an entertaining track.

The first half of the album is rounded out with two excellent slower songs.  “Lingering” is an infectious little tune, and “Me and You” is a comforting number.

The second half of the album admittedly lags in a couple places.  “Home” is perhaps the most notable point.  It is not so much that this is a bad song, just that it is not an exemplary one.  (But, then, when has any song about home been great?  Nice, or heartwarming even, but rarely great.)

“I’m Gonna Make It Better” and “Sing” are good songs, but Volume Two doesn’t really pick up again until the final trio of tunes.  The first, “Over It Over Again,” is single material, and certainly first half of the album quality.

Next comes “Brand New Shoes,” a melancholy track that invokes Fiona Apple.

Finally, rounding out the collection, comes the lush, breath-taking vocals of “If You Can’t Sleep.”

Even the covers fit seamlessly — “Ridin’ In My Car” sounding like a natural addition to the originals, and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” being one of my favorites since my first listen.  Still, these songs — particularly the lyrics — sound dated in a way that most of Deschanel’s originals do not.

From front to back, She & Him have made Volume Two an album of authentic and distinctive sounds, simple but moving lyrics, all punctuated by Zooey Deschanel’s characteristic vocals — truly a must-listen.