erasing clouds

12 Music Reviews

Amestory, self-titled (Portia Records/Status)

If Amestory at first sounds like garden-variety indie-rock of the ultra-serious, heart-baring school, keep listening, because this is much more special than first impressions reveal. For one, this California-based group has an impeccable sense for timing and placement, a knack for arranging that gives their songs an intricacy and complexity that amplifies their uniqueness. Their self-titled debut album feels carefully composed and constructed from start to finish, with vocals, piano, guitar, bass, drums and occasionally vilolin woven together in just the right way. That attention to detail makes the songs both more arresting to the ear and more emotionally affecting. Mood is created in a way that amplifies each song's impact. There's moments when the songs build up almost to the point of being too bombastic, but they're always wisely reigned in right before they reach that level. Lyrically, Amestory's confessional but literary approach begs initial comparisons to Death Cab for Cutie - witness lines like "note the cause of all the cars that line your narrow street at night / it is so much colder when you're shaking" - but those comparisons do a disservice to the group. Listen closer to the lyrics, and you'll hear a surrealistic side and a disjointed side, bringing a pleasant sense of confusion and mystery to the open-hearted stories and feelings. Ultimately, in every way Amestory bring more positive creative energy to their music than it would first seem to require; what first seems like familiar genre music is proven to be unique and enchanting. - dave heaton

Death Cab for Cutie, Plans (Atlantic/Barsuk)

Plans is Death Cab for Cutie's fifth album, but it's also their "major-label debut", making their rise into the mainstream official. It's nominally a time of transition, then, but instead of altering their sound to better suit their new status, the band has solidified their sound, clarified with the band is about musically. To me Death Cab have always tried somewhat awkwardly to balance themselves between "rock" and a gentler style. One of the reasons the Postal Service album Give Up was such a success is that Ben Gibbard's sensitive, inward-looking songs quite simply fit more naturally with Jimmy Tamborello's light, airy electronics than they ever have with Death Cab's middle-of-the-road style of pop-rock. For Plans, they've wisely tilted their music toward its softer side, using that as the starting point. The tone is gentler, there's more piano and less overtly 'rock' guitars, and Gibbard shifts his voice in a lighter direction – occasionally singing in a near-falsetto, even. The more rocking, energetic moments arise naturally out of that base, therefore feeling less awkward than they did the last time around, on the otherwise excellent Transatlanticism. The overall mood is blissful solitude: you're in your own head but OK with it. That feeling is encapsulated in the key line of the first single "Soul Meets Body": "A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere". That's not to say, though, that the lyrics are giddier or that Gibbard doesn't sound as serious as ever. 'Relationship songs' are at the forefront, albeit relationship songs about loneliness and loss, and, often, death and how it affects people. Gibbard writes lyrics in a specific, detailed, quasi-poetic way (the 'quasi' is not meant as a criticism) that also carries with it the mark of real experiences, or at least vivid observations of real life. One of the album's best songs, "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," strips Death Cab for Cutie down to essentials: Gibbard, a guitar and observations about death and love. Its presence on the album of a 'band' seems less like a sign that Gibbard has inspirations to 'go solo' than that Death Cab is increasingly willing to figure out the best way to present each of their songs. Plans's success stems largely from the group's wisdom in that regard – the album's feeling matches the songs' content exactly, in a way that makes it easily their most affecting and enjoyable recording. – dave heaton

Field Notes, Color of Sunshine (Woodson Lateral)

Color of Sunshine, ex-Dutch Flat and current Mines member Chad Hanson's debut solo album as Field Notes, starts off seeming a bit scatter-brained, transitioning as it does from a genial, lightly sad shuffle to a guitar-led prog-ish rocker that feels a bit pedestrian. It soon finds its footing, though, a melancholic place somewhere between the Smiths and Elliott Smith, but with a bit of a rock edge. The middle stretch of the album is filled with gentle grace, with Hanson quietly repeating lyrics like "tears are all over the place" over sadly, delicately played guitar and piano. There's a real focus present in the album's best songs, a streamlined precision that by "Lonesome Microphone," Color of Sunshine's supreme last track, has lifted the proceedings up to a truly beautiful level. - dave heaton

Freiband, Flying (Scarcelight)

Fans of unconventional music-making techniques will likely be fascinated with Freiband's Flying EP, even just for technical reasons alone. On this 3" CD, Frans de Waard, aka Freiband, takes a recording of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour instrumental "Flying" as not just an inspiration but as an instrument itself. He's created 8 tracks, all using "Flying", by scratching the harddisc. None of the 8 parts of Flying literally sound like "Flying", of course - instead it's all popping and crackling, strange tones and waves of sound. You can sit around pondering the mechanics of this, or you can listen; I prefer the latter. Flying is notable for Freiband's techniques, sure, but what's really compelling about it is the atmosphere, the sounds themselves and how they affect you. How can such harshly created music sound so comforting, and so transporting? Not that it's all soothing, either...the music starts off ethereal and airy, almost invisible in places, but that mood's often interrupted but louder, more gutsy sound waves. But those still aren't as harsh as you'd expect - more adventurous than harsh. We are indeed flying, off into outer space, or perhaps just inside of our own minds. "That's it!," Paul McCartney's voice clearly states, arising out of chaos at the end of Part 8. He says it as if he was the one conducting this intergalactic performance. Was he? And is Flying the sound of de Waard creating or destroying music? In either case the resulting sounds are lovely, in their own weird way. - dave heaton

The Happy Couple, Fools in Love EP (Matinee)

"We're going on a road trip, you and I", the German duo The Happy Couple sing at the start of their Fools in Love EP. And it sounds like they're singing to us, considering the way the song, "Another Sunny Day," pulls us along on a bright and sunny pop vacation. The song sounds like absolute joy, with a bouncy feeling hinting at its former life as a disco song, once upon a time. "There's nothing nothing I'd rather do than sharing this shining dream with you," Janehoney sings, with a choir of endless ba-ba-ba-ba behind her, and you agree, without a doubt. "I'm all in a haze / my life is a mess," the next song, "Hopeless Case," begins. It's a sadder song, with the central sentiment "I don't love you / I don't love you at all" buoyed by harder-edged guitars, yet it's sung like it's a jingle for happiness, and still makes you feel giddy and ready to dance around like a fool. There's a rock edge present in the base of the next track, "The Pop Kid," too, though it's a pure summer single that looks upward to the sun. Closing number "Don't Call It" slows things down, with a mellow, still lovely, alleys-and-shadows vibe. 'The Happy Couple', they call themselves, but that doesn't mean these songs' sentiments are all happy. But certainly their overall pop sound is happy, and they sound as happy to be making their music as I am to be hearing it. – dave heaton

Annie Hayden, The Enemy of Love (Merge)

The publicity materials for The Enemy of Love refer to Annie Hayden eliminating from her music all traces of the indie-rock she played back in the day with the band Spent. Spent was a fantastic band, one of the first that comes to my mind when I think of words like "underrated" or "unfairly overlooked", so reading that makes me a bit sad. Yet Spent's music often contained more subtle textures than just the label 'indie rock' implies, and part of that came from Hayden's pretty singing and her remarkable, melodic guitar playing, always noticeable for how perfectly timed it seemed, but in a way that often felt unexpected. Thankfully those qualities are not only intact but accentuated in Hayden's two solo albums, both 'singer-songwriter'-esque quiet pop albums. The latest, The Enemy of Love, is even more consistent than the first, The Rub, which already was filled with evocative songs written and performed with grace and precision. The Enemy of Love opens with "Cara Mia," a breezy, pretty song that also contains a few great bluesy guitar bits. Like the album overall, the song seems carefully arranged but not fussed over, marked by a natural sort of minimalism. Each instrument and sound carries its own power, earning your attention, yet they collectively work towards a greater whole, a cohesive mood. The Enemy of Love has a distinct overall atmosphere about it – soft and sensitive but filled with its own gentle energy, yet it's also more diverse than you expect. Hayden quietly weaves together pop balladry and dreamy folk with hints of rock, hints of jazz, hints of laying back into the sun and dreaming yourself off to some imaginary place. There's a splendid cover of the Replacements' "Swingin' Party", straightforward yet marked by the same elegant presentation as the album overall. And there's song after unique song displaying Hayden's gifts as a singer, musician and songwriter, down to the fantastic closing pair of "Starring in the Movies" (a gorgeous piano ballad with a great opening line that neatly balances idealistic daydreaming with the real world: "I've got the music in me / tapeworms and other things") and the brief, dreamy vocal display "Boos", which leaves us with a lingering memory of pretty voices echoing around our brains. – dave heaton

The Hotel Alexis, The Shining Example Is Lying on the Floor (Broken Sparrow Records)

"I wanna roll, I wanna ramble, play piano in the dark", Sidney Alexis of the Hotel Alexis sings during "The Season for Working", the first song on The Shining Example. The rolling and rambling are evoked as well in the country toughness of his voice, but 'play piano in the dark' captures the overall mood of the album better than any of my words could. Piano isn't all that's played – there's pedal steel, keyboards and guitars on this track, plus organ, vibraphone and more later. But the atmosphere of the whole album is that of candlelit rooms in the middle of the night, or of being alone outdoors under the stars; of moments of solitude that are partly comforting and partly heartbreaking. Alexis's voice is rugged but hushed, when compared to a rock n' roll yell it sounds like a whisper. The Shining Example is the sound of a man reminiscing, pondering, crying inside…and singing gorgeous songs that are potent expressions of loss. "Blue in the Blackout" is an indicative title of the album's feeling, as are lyrics about playing only the black keys of the piano when you feel sad. The Shining Example has a glow to it, one which arises from its vivid setting (the instruments, the sound, the way everything's arranged) but also from the songs themselves. It's a sad glow, but a magical one nonetheless. It's the sound of a man drowning his sorrow in song, and turning it into something beautiful. – dave heaton

Isobella, Surrogate Emotions of the Silverscreen (New Granada)

Surrogate Emotions of the Silverscreen is the Florida dream-pop band Isobella's first release in a few years, but don't expect their sound to have changed drastically. Their third album finds them on the same basic path as before: immersing you in waves of atmosphere, and hiding pretty melodies underneath. And though it'll earn the same Cocteau Twins and Slowdive comparisons as before (and for good reason I suppose), somehow it sounds just as fresh and lovely as before, or maybe even more so. There's a haunting delicacy to the texture of songs like "Majestic", while songs like the fantastic "Brown on White" have a dynamic thrust to their song construction which reminds you that there are strong pop songs here too, not just entrancing atmospheres. The 'pop' side of a genre label like 'dreampop' is perhaps more evident on Surrogate Emotions, but that's solely because of an increased clarity in sound. While Isobella's first album blended singer Laura Poinsette's voice so thoroughly in with the music that it was impossible to make out what she was singing, here (even more so than on the group's second album) her voice stands out more. Hearing her beautiful singing voice more clearly is refreshing, though it does threaten to drain some of the mystery from the group's sound. Read once through the lyrics, and you'll find that their mix of the philosophical, the personal, the scientific, and the political maintains a sense of obscurity. There's no danger of direct lyrics overshadowing musical impressionism when you're using words like "magniloquent" or throwing out images like "a whale in lake Ontario falling hard like a glacial shard". Isobella's music still proves itself to be a puzzle, albeit a puzzle you can sing along to, and one loaded with feeling. - dave heaton

Moonbabies, War on Sound Mini Album (Hidden Agenda)

Swedish duo Moonbabies are like a two-person music factory - writing, performing, recording, and producing classic pop music in their own home studio. War on Sound may only be a mini-album, a temporary stop between albums, but it demonstrates again how skilled they are not only at writing songs, but at placing them in vivid, fully realized settings, with brilliant layers of sound. They're becoming their own Phil Spector, bringing full life to their already fantastic songs. War on Sound's main course might nominally be the title track, which'll be on their next album - it's a winning pop single that takes an intimate conversation with a hopeful message, translates it into it in a perfect melody, and wraps a big beautiful sound around it. But the rest of the CD is just as strong, from the dense, sadly blissful "Ghost of Love" and the complementary instrumental lullaby which precedes it, to great, faithful but fresh covers of Pink Floyd's first single "Arnold Layne" and Midnight Oil's Blue Sky Mining album track "Stars of Warburton". There's also a pretty, skeletal, early version of their last album The Orange Billboard's title track, a "Sweet Jane"-ish instrumental called "Don't Shoot the Ranger", and "A Minor Earthquake," a gorgeous, stark song featuring Carina Johansonn singing sweetly over piano. At every step of the way, Moonbabies captivate, both with their exceptional skills at writing haunting songs and their methods of best using the studio to make those songs even more haunting, with even more of a glow and presence. - dave heaton

The Spinto Band, Nice and Nicely Done (Bar/None)

The drawn cover girl's wearing a very late '60s-looking flower-print dress and standing next to a classic-style bicycle...yet the sticker on the cover quotes a critic calling The Spinto Band "somewhere between Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and the Flaming Lips." While those specific bands aren't at all relevant to the music on The Spinto Band's album Nice and Nicely Done (except maybe Pavement, but even that's a stretch), the 1960s/1990s dichotomy suggested by the cover is very relevant. The general aura exuded by this Wilmington, Delaware band's music is '90s college rock', or whatever you want to call it - snappy, messy, smart and slightly silly melodic guitar rock, with a nice off-kilter feeling to it. But not too far beneath the surface is also an obvious love for the Beatles and their peers; it shows through in the guitars when they're at their starkest, and in the sweet pop-rock melodies which shine through their sometimes spastic surface. Call it Merseybeat meets 120 Minutes, yet at the same time the group is firmly in the present-day. Their energy and the lively way they update various rock musics of the past recalls contemporaries like Tangiers, and the Strokes, even, though the Spinto Band feels much more alive than the latter, is certainly more creative, and has its own unique manner of rocking forward in a trippy, eccentric sort of way. They're playful about their rock music, they sound like they're having fun, they don't sound too concerned with becoming superstars...yet killer songs like "Oh Mandy" and "So Kind, Stacey" sure sound like hits to me. - dave heaton

This Charming Man , Every Little Secret… (XoXo Records)

With lyrics of longing and the triumph of true love, the popish Alkaline Trio sounds of This Charming Man will charm your eardrums into a state of musical bliss. The five piece led by singer Brian Fallon (with guitarist Mike Volpe, bassist Rob Carducci, drummer Christian Howe and organist Chris Shann) have a chilling tone to their rhythms. Songs such as "Sweet Delta Blues" are almost a breath down the back of your neck as you hear about: "…the seams finally tearing apart/ it was a cool, cool breeze on their skin as they stood in the dark." The track "Kiss me, I’m a Pirate" not only has the best title this writer had heard in a very long time, but is also a metaphor about what it’s like to be in love with a wandering soul: "…and we must just love these grey skies/ though, i hate to leave her alone/ but on the front porch, she'll wave you on". This EP Every Little Secret… doesn’t let go of the watery eyed feeling one gets when they’re waiting for that special someone to return. How long they’ve been gone (five minutes, five years) doesn’t matter. It’s all a lifetime to the heart. – eric m. hoover

The Zephyrs, Bright Yellow Flowers on a Dark Double Bed (Acuarela)

Oftentimes music is referred to as "literary", "literate" or "poetic" merely because the songwriter approaches lyric-writing carefully, or has a way with words that sets him or her apart from most. Those are the reasons I'm tempted to use those words to describe the fourth album by the Edinburgh band The Zephyrs. I hesitate, though, because it might suggest that their songs are wordy, when in fact they're the opposite. The Zephyrs' songs are marked by economy and impact. Song after song evokes big themes and feeling – love, loss, sadness – by using words sparingly, but well, often leaving open spaces for us to fill in. Some lyrics captivate through detail and verbal dexterity – "your perfume is the smoke-filled air / and your makeup is the rings around your sleepy tired eyes", for example. And others through the dark mysteries they present: the opening track's closing line "and every twist of steel caressed the way I feel / I heard them whisper that maybe I would die." But the lyrics are only the beginning. They'd mean nothing without the Zephyrs' gorgeous music – hushed, intimate pop meeting daydream country songs in the middle of a field somewhere. This is stirring music, haunting in a way that continually fits the themes that emerge from the lyrics. Death seems to hover everywhere, but also the afterlife, the question of what is next. The tone of the album is sad and hopeful at once, and the album cover photos of a sea of yellow flowers invoke a sense of stillness that could represent this world or the next. That sense of stillness feels so appropriate for the album overall, as it's filled with quiet beauty but also quiet hurt, and longing, and concern for what's ahead. – dave heaton

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