Reviews of the latest releases from Kaiser Chiefs, The Hold Steady, Foster the People, SOHN, Timbre Timbre, Mr Little Jeans, Oceaán, Evian Christ and Pill Wonder.
Kaiser Chiefs, Education, Education, Education & War
After allowing fans to DIY a Kaiser Chiefs album – buyers could choose their favorite tunes from a pool of 20 songs for a custom track list – 2011’s abysmal Start the Revolution Without Me surely must have seemed like rock bottom to lead singer Ricky Wilson and the boys from Leeds. Diminishing returns have been the name of the game since their earworm of a debut, the Mercury-nominated Employment, blew up 2004, and every subsequent album has yielded fewer and fewer hits, and even fewer genuine pleasures. Kaiser Chiefs had become such a bloody mess that even they weren’t sure which of their songs were good enough make the cut on a proper release.
So it’s hard not to be cynical upon the arrival of the band’s fifth album, Education, Education, Education & War. Drummer/songwriter Nick Hodgson has departed, Wilson is holding fort as coach on the UK edition of The Voice to drum up as much pre-release nostalgia/good will as he can muster, and the band has called Education a return to form. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Or perhaps it is, and therein lies the problem – the form has become a formula and it is completely and utterly out of gas.
“Factory Gates” gets the boring party started by walking down a well-worn path of faux blue-collar outrage, and the politically charged slog of perpetually bouncy tunes like “Misery Company”, “Ruffians On Parade” and “Meanwhile Up In Heaven” hover around the vicinity of successful pop hook but never do find one, which could have helped them overcome a serious case of the woe-is-us bummers. Only mid-tempo rocker “Coming Home” succeeds in matching the anthemic charms of Kaiser Chiefs’ earlier and best work. Education only teaches us that the band was at it’s best when they were merely predicting a riot instead of trying to lead one. D+ [Matthew M. F. Miller]
Oceaán, Oceaán EP
Mancunian producer Oceaán (real name Oliver Cean) emerges from the ether with a precise self-titled EP that hits all the right notes in all the right places. Over the course of five tracks in a concise fifteen-minute span, he manages to check off all the boxes that the blogosphere looks for in its heir apparent to the electronic throne. There is R&B sensibility on display here (“To Lose” and the tender “Need U”), as well as deep house groves (“Basement”), and hip-hop beats with traces of “BTSTU”-era Jai Paul (“Your Side”).
As a whole, Oceaán establishes Cean’s flair for toying with ambience. Some tracks bear the heavy atmosphere of an underground dungeon and submit themselves to an oddly compelling apocalyptic droning, while others fall on the lighter side of the spectrum and are propelled by handclaps and skittering bass. Many of the tracks possess some potential for success on the dance floor, but none of them stray far from Cean’s restrained vision, remaining dutifully on his terms. Even when Cean tries to span both sides of the spectrum on the same track, as on “Turned Away,” it seems adroit rather than cluttered. James Blake might want to watch his back. B [Jean-Luc Marsh]
The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams
For a band like The Hold Steady, the organic heart of emotive expression that is Craig Finn has created a quasi-real world in the midwest populated by the deadbeats and Skins and youth just trying to deal with whatever this American life throws at them. And in a five year span, the group painted tapestries within this world with the minutest details; Finn's sermons placed atop Tad Kubler's guitar and Franz Nikolay's keyboard in a haze of Replacements and Husker Du glory. But this isn't 2008; Nikolay left, the group put out the universally dull Heaven is Whenever, and everyone grew up. Teeth Dreams is the embodiment of that growing up, and while the aging process has been anything but graceful, the album still shines in places that remind us all why we fell in love with the group and the world they created.
On Teeth Dreams, there is a return, in a sense, to Finn's original approach to songwriting, although it's done in a sheen of inclusion reminiscent from 2010's Heaven is Whenever that sacrifices from what makes him a modern Kerouac. The youthful demise that make Hold Steady nights glorious, even romantic, are replaced by the struggle of adulthood, more mature observation of emotion, and "waking up with that American sadness," and that's to be expected from a band who is coming into its second decade. But long gone are Holly and Charlemagne and everyone else; characterization is replaced by pronouns, but we know Finn is still talking about the same cast (or at least we hope). Still, Finn sounds revitalized, in a sense, and truly carries an otherwise poorly produced album.
Musically, the band has never recovered from Nikolay's departure - and probably never will - but save face with their double axe arrangement. There are moments of musical dynamism in an otherwise placid affair; "Big Cig" and "I Hope This Whole Thing Doesn't Frighten You" are Hold Steady jams by definition, complete with healthy guitar riffs and driving hooks. "Oaks" is a magnificent, swelling nine minute closer that uses space more than of sound to tonally match Finn's languish as he sings "Keep the speed steady, hold the wheel straight."
So, Teeth Dreams is nowhere near the best Hold Steady album, but it shows the band aging in a direction that fills us with... hope? Perhaps that's all we can ask for. C+ [Dorian Mendoza]
S O H N, Tremors
At some point in time, any music fan worth his or her salt has wasted a significant amount of life imagining what potential collaborations could sound like between the most unlikely of duos. SOHN’s debut album, Tremors, pretty much nails the imaginary Thom Yorke/Justin Timberlake studio project absolutely no one has been clamoring for. As this bold, skittering triumph proves, maybe we should have been lobbying for just such a collaboration all along.
A Vienna-based Brit, producer Toph Taylor’s soothing falsetto and arresting melodies are the human anchor for these 11 electronic songs that evoke 2AM heartbreak (“Tempest”, “Lights”), percussive R&B (“Bloodflows”, “Ransom Notes”) and urban angst (“Artifice”, “The Wheel”). Gently and masterfully produced by Taylor (BANKS, Lana Del Rey, Rhye), the album ebbs and flows, at one moment a sparse stream of vocals and beeps, the next a tidal wave of choral loops, mellow bass, synthesizer weirdness and computer-generated beats. Unexpected structures and developments keep the listener engaged with these twisty, addictive tunes. At any turn a single element can morph into the choppy, rhythmic heart of a song, split into a thousand pieces or disappear completely.
On standout track “Tempest”, Taylor sings, “All this fuss over nothing, reinventing the wheel. All this searching for something that’s not real.” It’s a fitting statement not only to sum up the relationship about which he sings but also the art he produces. Recorded almost exclusively under cover of night, Tremors manages the feat of being both invigorating and mellow, and no matter how many layers of sound in which the songs find themselves wrapped up, electronic or otherwise, they remain painstakingly personal and human. He might not be reinventing the wheel, but he’s sure as hell making it a smoother ride. B [Matthew M. F. Miller]
Foster The People, Supermodel
The lead track from Foster the People’s new album is titled “Are You What You Want To Be?”. Let’s hope that the Californian trio have done a little self-reflection, because if they are answering that question in the affirmative and offering Supermodel to back it up – to put it politely – there’s work to be done.
Following the release of their megahit “Pumped-Up Kicks”, Foster the People, led by Mark Foster, have been pigeonholed, perhaps unfairly. Regrettably, the shiny Supermodel provides little indication that they are capable of branching out successfully. It feels like a largely empty exercise. The band can pen a decent melodic hook, but these small victories often drown in a sea of platitudes and unearned wisdom, as on “Ask Yourself”. When they’re unoriginal, it’s flagrant (“Best Friend”: Imitation Passion Pit), and when they aren’t, it’s not for the right reasons (“A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon”, co-writing credit to Felonius Gru). A couple of pseudo-anthems will likely nurse them through a handful of unearned headline gigs – but in all honesty, the world has no need for pop music this faceless, listless or sterile. D+ [Brendan Frank]
Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams
Between their easily parsed aesthetic DNA (Cave, Cash, Presley, Cohen, Orbison, Lynch, Suicide, Bauhaus, Nebraska) and stiff competition from the likes of Daughn Gibson and Dirty Beaches, Canadian act Timber Timbre have had a tough time attracting notice. Critics largely slept on sophomore LP Creep On Creepin On, but fans paid attention to those slow-burning songs, their intricate yet stark arrangements, their nightmarish lyrics, and Taylor Kirk’s black-as-sin baritone – especially if encountered in a live setting, where Timber Timbre put on a blood-curdling séance of a show that verges on traumatizing. New album Hot Dreams still struggles to find a unique vantage point on its assembly of vintage sounds and gothic vibes, but fans will be more than satisfied. It’s stronger and richer than its predecessor, and it mostly manages to avoid redundancy, offering up a magnificently creepy and successfully diverse collection of gorgeously arranged tunes off your favorite dive bar jukebox in hell. The title track, in particular, is a stunner, a romantic doo-wop waltz whose melancholy central lyric, “I want to wake from hot dreams of you,” is intoned in a way that makes you glad Kirk’s not asking for more – he seems like the kind of dude who’d find it logical to cut off your hand and keep it in a jar if you gave it to him in marriage. C+ [Samuel Tolzmann]
Mr Little Jeans, Pocketknife
Monica Birkenes, the woman behind Mr Little Jeans joins a long list of Nordic chanteuses with her debut full-length, the buoyant, satisfying Pocketknife. Her particular brand of synth-pop takes on a more organic form, harmonizing with real instruments to develop a fleshed-out backdrop for Birkenes to sing over. It is a wise move, as Birkenes’ vox often skews towards the incorporeal, a little too airy for its own good, and requires some form of substance to keep it tethered to the music. Without it, Pocketknife threatens to float away into some ethereal realm (as it tends to do in the latter half).
That being said, Birkenes does craft some gems throughout the record, such as the final minute of “Mercy,” lead single “Good Mistake,” the child chorus-featuring “Oh Sailor,” and “Lady Luck,” which carries a biological pulse that belies its parts. However, other parts of the album, especially the slow-jam triad of “The Suburbs,” “Heaven Sent,” and “Far From Home,” meander collectively for too long to hold extended attention. The outcome is a record that is so breezy at times, that it passes by with some notable highlights and a vague sense of having missed something. Yet, it is in the final moments of the album, on a classical version of “Mercy” hidden after “Valentine,” that Birkenes proves her prowess. Her delicate vocals pair marvelously with the string quartet behind her, and it seems she has finally found her element. B- [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Evian Christ, Waterfall EP
Just being sampled by Kanye (“I’m In It”) can get to one’s head, I guess. Evian Christ’s last pre-Yeezus EP for Tri Angle, Kings And Them, was an effectively atmospheric take on U.K. bass music; new effort Waterfall is jagged, face-melting EDM for a world that’s no longer impressed by TNGHT. It’s not hard to picture crowds at a festival or a late-night DJ set going absolutely apeshit at “Fuck Idol”’s out-of-the-blue wave of subhuman bass or the entirety of monstrous five-alarm opener “Salt Carousel.” Unfortunately, however, once you’ve heard one track from Waterfall (ideally "Salt Carousel"), you’ve pretty much heard them all, and while such a lack of variety might not be a nuisance to a live audience, it’s a problem when a four-song, fifteen-minute EP already feels a little stale halfway through. C-[Samuel Tolzmann]
Pill Wonder, Shy Dogs
It’s easy to see Pill Wonder, the solo project of Seattle-based dog walker Will Murdoch, getting the same kind of springboard blog love bestowed upon his closest sonic analogues – beloved acts like the Books, Oneohtrix Point Never, Ducktails, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Delicate Steve. But like all those bands, Pill Wonder is unapologetically weird, so it’s equally easy to see why that hasn’t happened yet. New cassette release Shy Dogs is a charmingly modest recording with a big imagination. Using a limited arsenal of instruments – guitar, cheesy keyboards, cheap beats, cartoonish sound effects, field recordings, and occasionally his own voice – Murdoch concocts unpretentious, elusive, deceptively complex songs that wander freely between psych, new age, synthpop, and lo-fi indie pop/rock according to a mysterious itinierary. Sure, it’s an on-trend palette of sounds, and Shy Dogs isn’t massively innovative, but take just two minutes out of your day to listen to “Why Of Love” and you’ll hear an artist who knows exactly how a romantic pop song works and how to take it apart and rebuild it so it’s fresh and new without drawing too much attention to itself. There’s even an electric guitar solo, and while it’s a Pill Wonder-style one through and through (fuzzed-out, truncated, low-key) it’s an electric guitar solo nonetheless, and, in its own way, it’s bold, powerful, thrilling, and totally badass – everything it should be. This makes, at once, no sense whatsoever and yet all the sense in the world. B [Samuel Tolzmann]