Nov 29 2011

Currently Digging: Black Keys – El Camino

It may seem a bit soon for this Akron duo to release a follow-up to the breakthrough album Brothers, but for those who have been following the Black Keys for years, we already know they like to keep busy. Their first three albums were dropped in the span of two years. The longest they’ve waited in between releases has been that amount of time. And while recent albums haven’t exactly packed the punch of early material, they’ve had moments of growth and sheer excellence along the way. Magic Potion was a critical darling. Attack and Release was a grand experiment. Brothers got them Grammys and Saturday Night Live guest spots and money. And now the Black Keys have returned with their most accessible work yet, this time produced in full by Danger Mouse.

There’s nothing new here, except for subtle growth. The duo has embraced their well-deserved fame and honed their trademark sound for a new legion of mainstream fans whilst keeping the hearts and minds of the longtime devotees. It’s the most focused Black Keys disc since Rubber Factory – it’s quick, powerful, and lacking any filler whatsoever. Perfect for an angry commute or a determined workout. “Lonely Boy” gets your booty shaking, “Gold On the Ceiling” gets your fist pumping, “Run Right Back” will compel you to challenge the mettle of your sound system. It hasn’t been that long, sure, but man it’s great to have these guys back.

Nov 23 2011

Currently Digging: R.E.M. – Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage

R.E.M. doesn’t exactly have a prolific career; after all, they were around for thirty years and gave us fifteen fair-to-classic albums in that time. Ryan Adams is prolific, Paul McCartney is VERY prolific, Bradford Cox is becoming prolific. R.E.M. are merely consistent…..speaking in terms of level of output. The sound of that output, however, has been anything BUT consistent. One listen to this career-spanning anthology will give you an idea of just how many curveballs the Athens-based group threw at their fans.

What’s remarkable about this compilation, now that the band is officially through and we can observe their legacy as a whole, is, even though it highlights the ups and downs of a legendary band’s career, the whole thing is GREAT. Like, really, really great. Even tracks from lackluster points (Up, Reveal, Around the Sun) sound appropriate, and remarkably sharp, in this context. And of course, the major hits are here, surrounded by strong tracks from incredible albums. I think it’s apparent everything R.E.M. put out up through New Adventures In Hi-Fi is just fantastic. With the exception of “A Month of Saturdays,” the new tracks are great examples of a band who have aged well and matured their songwriting to levels of sheer beauty.

Consider Part Lies a testament to the immense songwriting talent in R.E.M., a band that was great even when they had been better before. And consider Part Lies a musical reminder to all of us that we really don’t know what we have until it’s gone.

Nov 14 2011

Currently Digging: Drake – Take Care

Thank Me Later was a blast from beginning to end, but if that was the introduction, we can now safely assume Drake is just getting started. Take Care is long enough you can’t burn it on a blank CD, and the results are more moody and introspective than ever before.

Rap music nowadays usually divides the line between personal and decadent, tortured and boastful, and Drake’s got plenty of the former and very little of the latter. Don’t get me wrong, he’s bragging about his new fortunes, how he’s the hottest rapper in the game right now, etc. But his insecurities are laid bare for all to see; there’s no “Fancy” here to distract you from the sheer reality of how human this superstar is. On “Headlines” he laments how critics motivate him to progress musically, while boasting “the real is on the rise.”

Musically, the album is even more of a low-key affair than “Marvin’s Room” hinted a few months ago. With the exception of leaked tracks featuring Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross, Drake does a substantial amount of crooning; the Weeknd shows up more than once here to provide an ominous tone to Drake’s songs of self-questioning and heartbreak. Overall, Take Care is as bipolar and human as the human that made it. And in the 21st century making-it-rain/getting-personal hybrid of rap, this is probably the best it that it gets….and that’s pretty damn good.

Oct 19 2011

Currently Digging: Ben Folds – The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

If you’ve never listened to Ben Folds, you’re deprived of one of the finest pop pianists of the past quarter century. Plain and simple. And now the Nashville songwriter has released the first thing to come close to a greatest hits (other than the energetic Ben Folds Live album). The career-spanning three disc retrospective gives you the hits, highlights, live show energy, wit and charm, and even some demos and outtakes for the hardcore Folds followers. Most of the great Ben Folds Five tracks from the 90’s are here, and the trio even reunited for three new ones, one of which is actually not too bad.

As Folds has aged from jaded college kid to sentimental father figure, his music nowadays is less observational and humorous and more….ballad-y. And the post-Rocking the Suburbs stuff really dwells on that. Still, there are gems from the past years that do not go unnoticed, like “You Don’t Know Me” and “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You.” While not exactly the best introductory course to Folds’ prolific career (the collection overall seems more for the educated and devoted), the first disc does a decent job of covering big tracks from all of Folds’ full-lengths. And if you like what you hear, I highly recommend you delve further; the man still has a remarkable sense of how to craft a memorable melody.

Sep 20 2011

Currently Digging: Primus – Green Naugahyde

Twelve years is a long time to wait for a new proper Primus album. Trust me, I know. It was 1999, and I was in middle school, when the boys dropped their last full-length Antipop and went on a creative hiatus. They reunited many times, once even putting out a new EP, the highly underrated Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. And Les Claypool kept busy with his many solo projects. But now that they’re finally back with fresh material, let me tell you…it’s so great to have Primus back.

Green Naugahyde picks up right where the boys left off, if you pretend the Brown Album, and replacement drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia, never happened. The album successfully accomplishes what Anitpop tried with mixed results – a back-to-basics glory days record. So no, there’s nothing progressive here. “Eternal Consumption Engine” is reminiscent of Tales From the Punchbowl, specifically “Space Farm.” “Jilly’s On Smack” features the gloom and doom of Pork Soda. “Lee Van Cleef” is “Ballad of Bodacious” Part 2. “Last Salmon Man” could’ve been a Frizzle Fry or Sailing the Seas of Cheese highlight.

But it doesn’t really matter once you get back in the groove; the return of original drummer Jay Lane (who left before Primus even recorded their first album) has reignited a creative spark in the trio. Ler’s wail complements Les’ signature popping and slapping, and Jay’s presence makes it abundantly clear the guys are having fun again. And the best part? After all these years, Primus still sucks.

Listen to Green Naugahyde on Spotify.

Aug 29 2011

Currently Digging: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

The self-titled debut from Unknown Mortal Orchestra (album art above) is a lo-fi psychedelic pop adventure from start to finish, and it’s easily one of the finest surprises of the year. New Zealand-born Ruban Nielson acts as a clever liaison between Ariel Pink tape-hiss, Zappa eccentricities, Tame Impala space-outs, and the ever-popular indie dance vibe akin to first-album MGMT.

This is a smooth transition to autumn – a soundtrack upbeat enough to get that final dance in before the temp drops and the relaxed atmosphere returns. The Portland band utilizes the sample-based trend and electronic percussion, incorporates the recently hyped garage sound, and taps into some genuine stoner haze. Living in Austin, and hearing constantly how similar the two towns are, I can imagine an ATX band churning out something similar. It’s perfect for the environment of a hipster haven – a society encouraging creation, diversity, and sheer weirdness. So if you don’t dig Unknown Mortal Orchestra, never fear; there’s probably room for you in Dallas.

Aug 9 2011

Currently Digging: Big Black Delta

Back in high school, deep in my discovery of the FM-based WOXY web stream, I ran across a pretty excellent song from a band called Mellowdrone, a track called “Fashionably Uninvited.”

That was way back in 2003, but apparently Jonathan Bates and his crew in Mellowdrone have been making music nonstop since, releasing their latest LP in 2009. However, lately, Bates has gone solo with a new project called Big Black Delta, which sounds less like the guitar-based mellow rock of his main project and more like the electro-based, New Order-loving flavor the kids are into these days, akin to Cold Cave and Hooray For Earth. Bates has the sound down, yes, but he adds vocal effects and experimental textures to it for a downright unique, and sometimes foreboding, atmosphere. Tracks like “Huggin’ and Kissin'” and his collaboration with M83 for the Tron: Legacy remix album best display this, and are instant highlights.

Check out the snazzy BBD player below, featuring singles and all of the new EP1; all the tracks are available for free download at the Big Black Delta website.

Jul 27 2011

Currently Digging: Stereogum Presents: STROKED – A Tribute to Is This It

Regardless of what you thought of this year’s Angles (it sucked), there’s no denying the awesomeness of the Strokes July 2001 debut, Is This It, which turns ten years old this month. And as SPIN recently did in honor of Nirvana’s Nevermind, Stereogum has posted a tribute featuring a diverse collection of modern artists covering tracks from the album. Download it for free here.

There are definitely some standouts here; I would gather this tribute is even more diverse than the interesting Newermind from SPIN. Most notable is Chelsea Wolfe’s haunting take on “Modern Age.” Frankie Rose makes “Soma” a dream-pop event, replacing jangly guitars for synth hums and soft crooning. And with covers from Real Estate, Owen Pallett, and Austra, the album certainly remains an overall low-key affair, more subdued than its garage-rocking source material.

My personal highlights are the Morning Bender’s upbeat, true-to-form electro take on “Last Nite” and Heems’ scathing commentary on officers of the law over a sped-up sample of “New York City Cops.” Grab the mix and listen for yourself.

Jul 22 2011

Currently Digging: Newermind – A SPIN Tribute Album

I recently wrote about a tribute album to Buddy Holly featuring new and old artists covering the legend’s hits.  This tribute album I’m writing about today is a completely different animal – an impressive handful of contemporary bands came together for SPIN Magazine to pay homage to one of the finest albums of all time, Nirvana’s Nevermind, which turns 20 this year.

While bands like Surfer Blood and Titus Andronicus give us pretty straightforward covers of the driving tracks “Territorial Pissings” and “Breed,” respectively, most chose to stick to their signature sounds, which provides for an interesting listen.  Midnight Juggernauts synth up “Come As You Are,” Butch Walker and the Black Widows turn “In Bloom” into an optimistic singalong, Foxy Shazam gets a little Elton on “Drain You,” JEFF the Brotherhood turn “Something In the Way” super heavy, and 62-year-old soul crooner Charles Bradley steps out of his comfort zone for “Stay Away,” by far the weirdest cover of the bunch.

But probably the coolest thing about the album (which is free for all – grab it here on the SPIN Facebook page) is the fact that two bands Nirvana famously covered on a regular basis, most notably on the Unplugged album, the Vaselines and the Meat Puppets, return the favor in their own special ways.  As a tribute to what is still a pretty stellar, timeless album twenty years down the road, I’d say the kids over at SPIN did a pretty good job.  I mean, they ought to, after snubbing the disc back in ’91 for Album of the Year over Teenage Fanclub.

Jul 7 2011

Currently Digging: Clams Casino – Rainforest EP

Brooklyn freelance beatmaker Clams Casino has stated he is tired of the rat race of trying to collaborate with MCs to rap on top of his slick, ethereal productions.  He says the beats just lay around for months, waiting for someone to write a rhyme for the finished track.  It’s understandable – rappers have busy schedules, and one could argue these sounds are best heard as instrumentals.

Those in favor of the latter, myself included, have a strong EP as evidence – the newly self-released Rainforest EP.  Taking cues from West Coast hip-hop and sonic dance producers like Burial, Clams Casino unleashes his spaced-out, boogie-worthy, nature-themed creations to the masses as purely instrumental tracks, and the result is quick five ones, with a lot of awesome going on in each.

Clams Casino – Treetop