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(Matador) By: Brett Spaceman | 7.7/10

julian plenti …is skyscraper

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Of course Julian Plenti is… Paul Banks (of Interpol) and yet crucially, Julian Plenti is most certainly not Paul Banks of Interpol. If that sounds obtuse think of it this way. Banks first solo project since way back in the day has nothing to do with his other band. The name, Julian Plenti was a further attempt, if not at disguise or distancing himself then at least at making a clear statement. ‘I am not playing on the Interpol brand. This is something else’. Effectively he is someone else. He is Julian Plenti.

Speaking of disguise, Banks appears here on the cover art sporting the kind of facial hair that would make Plenti a shoe-in to win La Nouvelle Star. (French equivalent of Star Academy) Yet in a funny sort of way, the whole secrecy thing has backfired in the most serendipitous of ways. A ‘Who is Julian Plenti?‘ buzz picked up around New York City at first, and then the industry in general. The rumour mill kicked in – the gentlest, most accidental of hype. One can imagine Banks genuine irritation at this while his agents; his people secretly rubbed their hands.

You have been warned then. This is not a missing 4th Interpol album. Skyscraper isn’t to Our Love To Admire, what The Eraser was to In Rainbows (or any Radiohead album since OK Computer) Skyscraper is new. Skyscraper is fresh and Skyscraper is playful. There’s variety here that’d make TV on the Radio blush. Doom-laden, effected guitars are largely dispensed with in favour of electronics and acoustics. There really is the sense of someone being let out to play. I have no real idea of the internal workings of Interpol but I can easily imagine a kind of democratic, ‘we’ll only do it if we all like it, all agree it’ approach. I guess any ideas Banks had which fell outside that bands (dis)comfort zone were parked and the Julian Plenti project became the perfect outlet.

The music here is by turns lush and light-hearted. We could call it art-rock one moment and whimsical folk-driven electronica the next. We could never be wrong and we could never be right. If you need one landmark to guide and comfort you through the trauma of it all being so different, Paul still sings. Yes, that rich, tinder dry timbre is still in evidence, still worth the admission money alone.

Skyscraper is an eclectic collection. But we’ll say it one more time. Skyscraper isn’t Interpol. Skyscraper is to Interpol what Colin Newman’s A to Z or The Singing Fish were to early Wire. (I.e. Fantastic). If Banks name, voice or reputation has brought you to this point, you’re by no means alone. But like the rest of us you’ll find yourself falling through an open door to newer, richer, quirkier discoveries.

Take a chance? Or play safe?

“Shake me
shake me
skyscraper”

(Thrill Jockey) By: Tim Clarke | 7.5/10

Tortoise – Beacons Of Ancestorship

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Tortoise are a maddening band. There’s no doubt that they’re massively influential and have produced some amazing music over the years, but of all their albums, the only ones I return to regularly are Millions Now Living Will Never Die and It’s All Around You. No surprise with Millions… as it’s widely lauded as a classic, but It’s All Around You is commonly panned for being smooth and overproduced. That’s exactly what I like about it – it feels like an album conceived as a whole, so I always play it end to end and love every minute.

I find that their other albums contain stunning moments, but don’t cohere as a front-to-back listening experience. The bass-on-bass weave of their debut is great in parts, but sounds underdeveloped; TNT has some of their best songs, but also a lot of disposable stuff; aside from the transcendent ‘Seneca’, Standards feels like a remix record, and I hate remix records – which is why very little of A Lazarus Taxon really grabbed me.

Beacons Of Ancestorship had me at the record store on the day of its release thanks to the mp3s of the opening pair of tracks, ‘High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In’ and ‘Prepare Your Coffin’, both of which are excellent. ‘Slim’ has one of those wonderfully recorded loping Tortoise beats, a fat synth riff, and plenty of meandering passages that keep you wondering where it’s going to head next during its eight-minute run-time. And ‘Prepare Your Coffin’ makes me wonder whether John McEntire picked up some ideas from Pivot while mixing their 2008 album O Soundtrack My Heart – it sounds like a track they could have recorded. This is a very good thing: fuzz-guitar melody, spy-theme urgency and crisp beats combine to produce a catchy, thrilling three-and-a-half minutes.

I furrowed my brow when I first heard the ragga squelch of ‘Northern Something’. I’ll give Tortoise one thing – they have a sense of humour! But this two-minute exercise in bass bogling could have been developed into an excellent song rather than just thrown in as a zippy vignette. Thankfully, the song that follows is probably one of Tortoise’s best yet. ‘Gigantes’ combines a thumping beat that bounces across the stereo field with a lovely hammer dulcimer motif, and evolves beautifully through a Jeff Parker guitar solo, some stuttering textures, then a fuzzy ending with another keyboard melody stacked on top. There’s so much going on in this track, so masterfully handled, that you wish Tortoise had paid such close attention to dynamics and detail elsewhere.

‘Penumbra’ is another short and silly electronic vignette, and the kind of thing that would no doubt sound hilarious when you’re stoned, but in the cold light of day it’s just a half-idea that should have stayed on the Soma hard drive. ‘Yinxianghechengqi’ is the perfect antidote to such daft electronic dabbling – the sound of Tortoise playing in a room, rocking hard. They rock so hard that it sounds like the roof is going to cave in as they pile distortion onto bass fuzz onto drum clatter, until the song sounds like their entire discography mashed up, warped and played in double-time. It’s good to hear the band pushing against the pristine meniscus of McEntire’s Soma studio bubble with some hilarious out-rock posturing.

I’ve read a lot of criticism of ‘The Fall Of Seven Diamonds Plus One’ as Tortoise on autopilot, but it works for me, especially as the calm after ‘Yinxianghechengqi’s storm. Doug McComb’s guitar twangs, chains clatter to the floor, and plenty of atmosphere oozes through, like some futuristic noir film. ‘Minors’, on the other hand, definitely sounds like Tortoise on autopilot in a bad way, and for this reason it’s probably the album’s weakest moment.

‘Monument Six One Thousand’ is an interesting idea that almost comes off – a wandering guitar line competing with a squelchy loop for the listener’s attention. Then, ‘de Chelly’ perhaps betrays another Pivot influence – or is at least part of the recent trend of bands going gaga over ’70s kosmische synth sounds. Finale ‘Charteroak Foundation’ then pits a wistful guitar arpeggio against head-down bass and drums, until the guitar lags so far behind the rhythm section that it starts to really grate. Intentional? Dunno, but it mars what is otherwise a really strong song.

So, Beacons has some amazing material, some daft dicking around, and some forgettable songs. When it’s good, it’s really, really good; when it’s bad, it sounds like a band trying to be something they’re not. But even then, to hear Tortoise pushing the envelope is a lot more entertaining than most bands at their best – so I’ll no doubt keep returning to this album and start warming to the weaker moments; maybe even fathom why they’re there…

(Island) By: EA Solinas | 9.5/10

Florence and the Machine - Lungs

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“Happiness hit her like a train on a track/Coming towards her stuck still no turning back/She hid around corners and she hid under beds/She killed it with kisses and from it she fled…”

Florence and the Machine is one of those little bands that seeps in under the pop radar, and becomes a sensation based on pure talent. And Florence Welch and Co. produce a solid debut, “Lungs,” that blends delicate polished instrumentals and different genres — there’s little splatters of pop, punk and soul woven together, and cemented in place by Welch’s lovely voice.

It kicks off with the plucked intro of ‘Dog Days Are Over’ with Welch’s sweet voice singing about “Happiness hit her like a bullet in the head/Struck from a great height by someone who should know better than that.” While it starts off as soft, ethereal pop, the melody is swathed in eruptions of orchestral pop-rock — it gets loud ‘n’ catchy, with Welch yelling, “The doooog days are OVER-ER/the dooooog days are ALL DONE!”

She continues the high note with ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’ a scintillatingly colorful melody that sounds like a thunderstorm in a flower garden. After that she unleashes a bunch of other great songs: the soulful ‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’, the urgent piano-pop of ‘Howl’, the wandering twangy ‘Girl With One Eye’ the bouncy wistful ’Between Two Lungs’ and the sweetly macabre ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’. An especially fun one is ‘Kiss With A Fist’, a blazing punky tune that celebrates rough ‘n’ passionate relationships (“You hit me once, I hit you back/you gave a kick, I gave a slap/you crashed a plate over my head/and I set fire to our bed!”).

But Welch and her revolving-door band really shine when the music overflows into a steady river of fiery rock ‘n’ roll, wrapped in twisting gossamer synth and soaring rich vocals. ‘Howl’ the hymn like ‘Drumming’ and the bleak ‘Hurricane Drunk’ all fit into this category — and these are absolutely stunning songs, if not as immediately accessible as the catchier tunes.

Florence and the Machine has a pretty unique sound — there’s a lot of punky rock’n‘roll, a spattering of pop’s catchiness, and some jazzy overtones woven into a few of the songs. As debut albums go, this is a pretty spectacular one, with a distinctive flavour that sounds like little else in modern music — the closest comparison that comes to mind would be if Joanna Newsom formed a punk-rock band and went for pop stardom.

In particular, Welch has a very pretty voice — it’s a little wavery and girlish, but she sculpts it into a flickering, roaring presence in the louder songs. And she has a knack for dark, evocative lyrics (“Louder than sirens, louder than bells/sweeter than heaven and hotter than hell!”) with a quirky edge (“He’s made [a coffin] for himself/One for me too/One of these days he’ll make one for you”). There are a few lines that need some smoothing out, but not badly enough to distract.

And the instrumentation from The Machine is a gorgeous accompaniment — lots of rich, swirling instrumentals and straight-ahead rock’n‘roll, usually depending on Robert Ackroyd’s strong electric guitar and Christopher Lloyd Hayden’s solid drumming. Isabella Summers wraps the album in gossamer-soft synth, and Tom Monger adds to the ethereal edge with a harp — it also helps give it a more classical sound, rather than straight rock-pop.

Florence and the Machine’s debut Lungs really shows why this band has been getting so much attention across the pond — it’s passionate, eclectic and a lovely piece of work. And it sounds like they’ll only get better.

(Warp) By: Tim Clarke | 7.5/10

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

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When I was a kid I used to love drawing in pencil. I would craft elaborate and detailed scenes that looked pretty good to my critical juvenile eye, but when I was finished I always felt that there was something missing – colour. So, I would crack open the coloured pens and pencils and start filling in the blanks. But then there would always be a point at which I would regret colouring in and want to go back to my original pencil sketch, perfect in its own way and fecund with possibility.

In their follow-up to Yellow House, my favourite album of 2006, Grizzly Bear have taken their meandering song-suites to the logical next step, colouring between their masterfully drawn lines. But there are too many moments on Veckatimest when I miss Yellow House’s space and restraint – that sense that the band are making it up as they go along. Veckatimest too often feels laboured, bogged down in baroque arrangements, to allow all of the songwriting to shine.

Often while listening to Veckatimest I want to hear these songs in progress, stripped of their glossy arrangements to get to the bare bones of the music. Once you get past the thrill of hearing ‘Two Weeks’ and ‘While You Wait For The Others’ in all their glory after months of YouTube clips, it’s closing track ‘Foreground’ that really entrances. Compared to the rest of the songs, which are richly festooned with multi-tracked vocals, a choir and percussive details, ‘Foreground’ brings a lump to the throat with its simplicity and sincerity. Like the rest of the album it’s beautifully recorded – three-dimensional and breathing with reverb – but with just a flush of choir at its close. The lonely piano and Ed Droste’s incandescent croon are luminous with longing and shadowed with melancholy.

It’s a moment of uncanny restraint on what is an uncommonly generous record. Elsewhere, it feels like the band have tried just a little too hard to fill all the available space with luxuriant details. Even ‘Two Weeks’, with its simple and catchy Rhodes riff, has its chorus filled to the brim with Beach House’s Victoria Legrand on backing vocals. On ‘While You Wait For The Others’, perhaps the finest Grizzly Bear song yet, the band get the balance just right, piling on giddy harmonies and hitting an impossibly spine-tingling high at its climax as Droste’s vocal soars in the higher registers.

‘Fine For Now’ points to a potentially fruitful new direction with its laser-like electric guitar leads at the song’s end, which are no doubt transcendent live. And while opener ‘Southern Point’ occasionally gets bogged down in disorientating effects, it does rock pretty hard for Grizzly Bear with its fuzz bass and hissing cymbal swells. Aside from his masterful turn on ‘While You Wait For The Others’, Daniel Rossen fares the worst of the two lead vocalists. ‘Dory’ and ‘Hold Still’ are the two most disposable cuts, his voice and the melodies sounding fussy, nagging like a guilty conscience. In comparison, Droste’s ‘Ready, Able’ and ‘About Face’ are more restrained and resonant, making a delectable mid-album pairing.

Overall, the album’s 52 minutes can become exhausting on repeat listens. There is some superb material here, among the band’s best songs, but Veckatimest would have benefitted from some judicious pruning to bring the band’s talents into sharper focus and turn what is a very good album into an excellent one.

(4AD) By: EA Solinas | 8.6/10

St. Vincent - Actor

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According to St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), Actor is all about losers – unhappy, lonely people who are struggling to tread water. Hey, any album that has makes the emoesque line “paint the black hole blacker” work has got to have something special. And Clark’s second solo album is a little lot of unhappiness and melancholy wrapped in wobbling synth and vintage crackles, eruptions of blurry sound and beautiful vocals. It has a more unified sound than her debut, twisting catchy pop melodies into unpredictable streams of oddball indie music.

“Lover, I don’t play to win/For the thrill until I’m spent/Paint the black hole blacker… What do I share? What do I keep from all the strangers who sleep where I sleep,” St Vincent sings wistfully over an angular little accordion-laced melody. About halfway through, it whirls off into echoing space while the synth spirals around her. It is followed by the ethereal, drum-saturated ‘Save Me From What I Want’ – fast-paced guitar pop laced with drawling vocals, and whirling fever dreams of slightly warped pop melodies – they’re soaked in organ, cacophonous eruptions of sound, and interludes of dreamlike synth. The album winds down on a mellower note with the last trio of songs: the off-kilter piano pop of the ‘The Party’ (which serves as an awe-inspiring climax), the crystalline fragility of ‘Just The Same But Brand New’ and the wistful horn-saturated drift of ‘The Sequel’.

Not to mention ‘The Bed’ a delicate tangle of piano and twittering flute… until you realize that it’s about children who have “gotta teach them all a lesson” (“them” being all-too-human monsters) with their “dear daddy’s Smith and Weston.” Seriously: “Stop, right where you stand/We need a chalk outline if you can/Put your hands where we can see them please…”

Speaking just for myself, I like my pop music to either be energetic enough to not merely be catchy, or bizarre enough to stand out in a sea of mediocrity and instantly forgettable pop hooks. You know, the garbage that pop tarts regularly put out. Fortunately St Vincent is more than quirky enough to fit the bill and while her previous album Marry Me was a colourful splash of different sounds, Actor is a more subtle affair with a more melancholic sound.

Most of the songs are polished, smooth concoctions with lots of classical instrumentation — piano, twittering flute, sharp drums, horns, and violins that switch between smooth instrumentals and squiggling bow-noises as well as weaving in some nimble guitar melodies. But those songs are given odd warps and bends thanks to the synth, which washes itself through every melody — sweeps, squiggles, fuzzing, and the occasional rich organ.

And then back to the album’s theme: losers and lots of ‘em. Okay, it’s a little harsh to describe every song as being loser-centric, but it isn’t focused on happy people. Most of the songs are imbued with a sense of everyday loneliness — an unhappy trip home (“All of my old friends aren’t so friendly/All of my old haunts are now all haunting me” ), nighttime drives, parties that are over and broken loves. St. Vincent has a rich smooth voice, a knack for clever phrases (“my pockets hang out like two surrender flags” ) and a few angular snatches of poetry (“The unkissed boys and girls of paradise /Are lining up around the block/Back pockets full of dynamite…”).

Actor is a gorgeously off-kilter pop album that sounds like a visit to a lonely urban street, full of rain and unhappy people. Bravo, St. Vincent.

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