Sunday, September 27, 2009

Harlem Shakes (RIP) - Technicolor Health

The cover of Harlem Shakes new EP, Technicolor Health, depicts a rainbow over a desolate city street in a serious state of disrepair. This image illustrates the kind of clear-eyed optimism that the New York quintet radiated in their music and is a perfect introduction to a great album. Infused with bits of jazz, soul, and Latin rhythms, Harlem Shakes stirred up all kinds of buzz back in 2007 when they released their debut EP, Burning Birthdays. After hitting the road for a series of tours with bands like Deerhoof and Vampire Weekend, Harlem Shakes teamed up with producer Chris Zane (The Walkmen, Passion Pit) in the summer of 2008 to record their last album Technicolor Health. Yes kids, that's right, I said last. But well get to that later.

The albums title comes from the novel "Mysteries in Pittsburgh" by Michael Chambon, a coming-of-age tale set during the early 1980s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The phrase 'in our Technicolor health and high spirits' served as inspiration for the band during the creation of the album, a difficult time for the bands members. In a world full of cynical indie rock, Technicolor Health is refreshingly positive from start to finish. Full of catchy hooks, synth washes and clever writing that keeps telling the listener that things are looking up. The track "Strictly Game" perfectly sum up the feel of the album with the great lyrics "make a lot of money, take a lot of shit, feel real bad, then get over it, this will be a better year". The album stresses leaving the negative behind and looking toward tomorrow, a great listen for anyone having a bad day/week/year.

Throughout the record the band never rests, constantly switching time signatures and tempos, adding quirky instrumental embellishments, and simply playing their hearts out for the entire 37 minutes. Lead singer Lexy Benaim puts his high-pitched vocals to good use, injecting emotion into the songs leaving the listener feeling that the band has actually lived what they are singing about. Brent Katz, who has been with the band since their early dance club days, uses drums and drum machines to give the songs their poppy upbeat feel. Kendrick Strauch (keyboard), Tod Goldstein (guitar) and Jose Soegaard (bass) all give solid performances as well as providing all the back up 'oohs' and 'aahs'.

Technicolor Health is full of hopeful hooks and high harmonies combined with witty wordplay and an irresistible energy. There are plenty of great tracks that I can talk about, from the great album opener "Nothing But Change Part II" to the almost folk tracks "Strictly Game" and "Niagara Falls". While "Strictly Game" has the most hit potential, "Sunlight" is clearly the standout track on the album, an upbeat song using drum machines, synths and acoustic strums to create a indie-pop gem that you will be humming for weeks. Also making an appearance on the new album is Harlem Shakes long time live staple "TFO" (a family-friendly acronym for "The Fucking Ocean"), the song that served as my first introduction to Harlem Shakes.

And now for the bad news, despite producing one of the best albums of 2009 Harlem Shakes broke up earlier this month. A bit ironic considering the overall positive nature of their songs. However there is some good news, Shakes' guitarist Todd Goldstein is currently working on a side project called Arms, which will re-release their first album, Kids Aflame, in the US digitally on October 27th. I haven't heard it yet but I remain optimistic that it will be great.

Julian Plenti - Is...Skyscraper

It will take most people all of 5 seconds to realize that Julian Plenti is in fact the unmistakable voice of Interpol front-man Paul Banks. Hidden under a bad haircut and horrible satin shirt, Banks is fooling no one. However he is playing the pseudonym to the hilt going so far as to give interviews in character, insisting that journalists refer to him as 'Julian' and making any reference to Interpol forbidden. The problem is that despite being a fairly good album, Banks has delivered a solo debut that will sound inescapably to most people like a solo record of the guy from Interpol. It is his voice, that unmistakable, near-mono-tonal singing that destroys any attempt to distance Plenti from his Interpol past.

That said, Is... Skyscraper is actually pretty good if not all that original. The album has two very distinct styles of songs. The first of which is the uptempo indie rock sound we all recognize as Interpol, complete with all the catchy rhythms and angular guitars of Banks 9-5 band. Tracks such as "Only If You Run", "Games for Days", and "Fly As You Might" all sound like they could be Interpol demos.

Then there are the softer, moody tracks full of symphonic touches such as the horn filled "Unwind" and the nice acoustic lullaby "On The Esplanade". One of the most impressive tracks, "Skyscraper" is a soft string-led mood piece filled with haunting undertones. Another must listen is "Madrid Song", a slow and beautiful piece utilizing piano and strings over the haunting lyrics "come have at us, we are strong".

When all is said and done Is... Skyscraper ends up being a mediocre attempt to stand apart from his Interpol past. It seems that Banks, or Plenti, is forgetting that solo albums are a time for artists to forge their own creative innovations. Given the effort Banks put into his appearance and the dedication to stay in character, it's too bad that his music didn't take on an equally drastic change. In the end the problem is that no matter what Banks does his solo songs are always going to sound like Interpol b-sides, his voice is just too distinct.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Thanks to an early leak of their new album and a pair of late-night television appearances, Veckatimest has become one of the best-reviewed indie rock albums of 2009. In fact the song "Two Weeks" had become one of the most downloaded songs on the net long before the actual album had even been released. Usually when an album is getting this much hype this fast it has more to do with clever marketing and less to do with the album actually being good. I have been smacked in the face with this grim reality one time too many in the past few years. However I must admit Grizzly Bear's new foray into psych-folk-pop is a solid album and most definitely worth the hype.

Originally a solo project of singer Edward Droste (Department of Eagles), Grizzly Bear officially became a bleep on the radar in 2006 with the release of their first full album Yellow House. Throwing into the mix Christopher Bear (drums/percussion), Daniel Rossen (vocals/guitar) and Chris Taylor (multi-instrumentalist/sound mixer), Grizzly Bear received universal praise for their dense arrangements and winding song structures. They've toured with TV on the Radio, Feist, Paul Simon an even had an opening slot on the second leg of Radiohead's In Rainbows tour. In Toronto, on their last show of the tour, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood praised Grizzly Bear on stage calling them his favorite band.

With the release of Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has once again offered up an album of well crafted music full of sweeping melodies and lucid pop. They have honed their sound so well that it is amazing to think that this is only their 2nd full length album. All four members of the band sing, with Rossen and Droste trading lead vocals almost song for song. From the seductive guitar riffs of the albums first track "Southern Point" to the swirling psychedelic instrumentation of "I Live With You", there are plenty of stand out tracks to keep your attention.

If you haven't already figured it out, the best track on the album is the stunning "Two Weeks", a pure indie-pop masterpiece that will jump inside your head and refuse to leave for weeks. Starting with a simple repetitive piano note before Rossen and Droste jump in with their addictive vocal harmonies, singing about relationships over a plucky bass line. Keep an ear out for the swooning voice of Victoria Legrand (Beach House) who provides a wordless backing chorus that perfectly compliments Rossen and Droste voices. This is by far the most radio-friendly song on the album which explains it immense popularity.

Grizzly Bear are currently in the middle of a North American tour, which includes a stop at the Blue Note in Columbia, MO on October 1st. Tickets are $20 in advance/$22 the day of the show.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Edward Sharpe - Up From Below

One of the more unusual music acts to come out of LA, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros is a retro folk-rock revival of psychedelic-tinged tunes that will rattle around your head for weeks. Having not been alive during the age of 'Peace & Love' I find the pounding rhythm and folksy arrangements a refreshing change of pace in todays indie-pop soaked airwaves.

Their debut album, Up From Below, is full of communal music mixed with interactive clapping and addictive sing-a-long lyrics. The big, open-hearted anthems radiate uplifting vibes and take the listener back in time to an era when people weren't soaked with cynicism and irony. The album is a great throwback to a time of love, peace and a sense of community whilst introducing an array of instruments including trumpets, xylophones, harmonicas, accordions, pianos and tons of procussions and whistles.

Sharpe is the alter ego of Alex Ebert, formerly of the new wave indie rockers Ima Robot, who seems to have regressed to the state of a flower-child. Along with his 10 or 12 other band members, The Magnetic Zeros seem to be more like a family of gypsy musicians than a band. Traveling around LA in an old panted bus, complete with a driver named Cornfed, the album was recorded as a group effort over the corse of a year on a analog 24-track tape machine from 1979. There are several gems on Up From Below, from the pop sing-a-long "Janglin" to the melancholy "Desert Song".

By far the standout track on the album is "Home", a Cash/Carter inspired duet between Ebert and girlfriend Jade Castrinos. A great song that is already getting praise on college radio station with lyrics such as, "Home, let me come home/Home is wherever I'm with you". The best part of the song is the story Ebert tells of the time Jade fell out the window and almost bled to death while smoking the cigarette she feared would be her last in the back seat on the way to the hospital.

The band is now working on a series of short films based on each of the albums 13 tracks. The first of these films, Desert Song, was released in early June and will soon be followed by the second installment, Kissed Over Babylon.