Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Now Scything: M. Ward,

MSTRKRFT, Crystal Stilts

M. Ward
Hold Time
Score: 7

M. Ward has a reputation for crafting songs that sound much older than they are. Well, look at some of his sources of inspiration for his sixth album: Buddy Holly ("Rave On"), Frank Sinatra ("Outro [I'm a Fool to Want You]"), William Blake ("Blake's View"), the stars ("Stars of Leo"). Plus, he has that groggy, scratchy tenor taking us back to days of oil lamps and handmade goods. Hold Time gives us 14 opportunities to take that trip, from the strummer "One Hundred Million Years" to the smoldering Lucinda Williams duet "Oh Lonesome Me." She & Him partner Zooey Deschanel appears on the upbeat "Never Had Nobody Like You" and on the cover "Rave On." The title track has a beautiful drama to it, care of the moody strings, a reminder of M. Ward's talent as an arranger. "To Save Me" and "Stars of Leo" pack bombastic midsections with lots of percussion, but "To Save Me" is the one you really need to hear: An overdubbing of Bright Eyes member Mike Mogis' ebullient mandolin takes it to dizzying heights.

Fist of God
Score: 3

Clearly, the god at work here is a vengeful one intent on denying us the pleasure of a fatuous party album. (The fist was a tip-off.) Bizarre title aside; and gaudy, atrocious cover aside; and hideous-blob-of-naked-bodies art aside, and --- my, we have a lot of asides here --- the second release from MSTRKRFT does not, in fact, get the party started. Distancing themselves slightly from robot-rock luminaries Daft Punk, the Toronto duo team up with rappers, but hardly anyone benefits from the collaboration. The electro passes over E-40's rhymes like a static jet stream. MSTRKRFT tempt us with a Ghostface Killah cameo, then squander the opportunity by turning it into a sophomoric cut-up sure to exhaust even those who at first thought it amusing. Freeway's crudeness in the last track, "1000 Cigarettes," will jolt anyone out of boredom, assuming they're still playing the album. Fist of God really should have been a single, with "Breakaway" and "Heartbreaker" on it. "Heartbreaker" devilishly mimics the piano opening of Sara Bareilles' big radio hit, "Love Song," while "Breakaway" spotlights the Romanthony-like club-singer chops of Jahmal of The Carps.

Crystal Stilts
Alight of Night
Score: 5

The cavernous reverb of Crystal Stilts' debut album is striking, but it loses its novelty a few songs in and ultimately becomes too much. There's definitely an allure to lead singer Brad Hargett's half-intelligible ghostly keening; the trick is to frame it in ways that keep it interesting. Alight of Night indicates that Crystal Stilts excel when playing at the extremes: The placid, stripped-down "The City in the Sea" allows his voice to coast by, as if blown on the breeze, swirling in and out of caves and harbors. "Departure" worships at Joy Division's obsidian throne, the busy bass mixing with a constant tom-thumping- and snare-thwack pattern. Meshed with Hargett's wafting vocals, the result is an ominous, jerky swinging, much like Ian Curtis' epileptic swiveling and thrashing. Most of the time, though, the pace is midtempo and the atmosphere prevails at the expense of the songs. Overall, the echo-chamber approach works best when Hargett's vocals are either slower or not competing with electric guitars.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Less bounce to the ounce

Lady Sovereign
Score: 5

Once a gum-smacking, smack-talking Super Ball, rap's "biggest midget in the game" has taken a few licks since her full-length debut three years ago. Or so Jigsaw would lead us to believe. The slower material, the lean toward pop, the scattered ideas --- it's safe to say Lady Sovereign is suffering from a classic case of second album-itis. Possible causes: introspection, relationship drama and jadedness with fame.

Let's lay it right out at the start: Her heart is the titular jigsaw puzzle. "Pick it up and fix it for me," she implores less than 10 minutes into the album. In a similar vein, the glum hook of "Guitar" is Lady Sov as Eeyore, trudging through a day of interviews, photos, promotions. The nicely arranged strings carry a dignified air, as if emblematic of the dutiful, success-minded musician --- perhaps a violinist in a big-city orchestra --- someone whose work ethic Lady Sovereign might envy as she wrestles with motivation. She confesses, "I feel a little tired, I feel like cryin' / I feel like lyin', I feel like not tryin' to do / what I'm supposed to do today."

"Student Union," supported by crisp synths, describes her experience at a college bash her friend took her to. As a high school dropout, she finds it hard to relate, and the "fuddy-duddying" drives her batty. The quasi-drunken sing-along here surely comes from the same rum bottle as Todd Rundgren's "Bang on the Drum All Day," a song which, unfortunately, is about as much fun as being clonked in the noggin with a coconut.

"So Human," by contrast, is a playful experiment, with Lady Sovereign recasting The Cure's "Close to Me" as a tour diary. The brisk pace implies a whirlwind itinerary; her fleet-footed raps imply she's keeping up. Still, dissatisfaction seeps in: "Anyway things change always / like the hotel hallways / I'll be gone again in four days." There's a hint of Auto-Tune on the chorus, a warning sign. Sure enough, it returns, bigger and badder, spritzing its goo all over "I Got You Dancing ...," signaling that the pandemic continues unabated in hip-hop.

But other vocal effects are at work, too, and they serve the curious function of erasing her thick cockney accent. Her voice is pulled deep into male range in "Pennies," with its chopped-and-screwed feel; "Food Play" makes her sound alien. Her helium squeaks follow a Barry White-esque rumble from a guest named Joey Benjamin. "Food Play," about incorporating grub into foreplay (and possibly beyond), isn't a chocolate-and-strawberries R&B seduction. It's more like a disturbing dream. "Check out my diet tips," she says, "you don't need to eat that burger, so let's just rub it 'round your lips."

There are moments where her arch side shines through, as on "Pennies" when she reminds all the "futhamuckas" out there what her name is, and then turns her name into a weather report ("it's Sover-raining"). But the way she wielded her power with glee three years ago --- the way she snapped, "love me or hate me, it's still an obsession / love me or hate me, that is the question" --- that's absent.

"I Got the Goods!!" wraps up Jigsaw, popping in almost as an afterthought, as if she's reminding us that, yes, she can bring it. If she feels like it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Are we not beasts?

Crack the Skye
Score: 9

Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Score: 6

Accessibility, as we know from top 40 stations, isn't necessarily a determinant of quality. However, when a band is disposed to full-throated roars or puttering around like demented Smurfs, added accessibility is welcome.

For Mastodon, that comes in the forms of singing and song structures amenable to sung vocals. The Atlanta band have been cultivating a following beyond metaldom for several years, but Crack the Skye has the potential to go wide. 2006's Blood Mountain split time between singing and barks and shouts, but their latest seems to look to Tool and Black Sabbath, metal bands with strong singers.

Combined with chops that have never been fiercer, Mastodon sound hungry. For what, is less certain. Fame? Fortune? Perhaps, but the menacing riffs from guitarist Bill Kelliher on the album opener, "Oblivion," suggest something more immediate. Something like ... blood. Drummer Bränn Dailor follows the riff, commanding a march of toms that promises to take us to a place more beast than man. With a crash of his cymbals, the band churn, then break into a chugging tempo as he and bassist Troy Sanders trade off sung vocals amid lead guitarist Brent Hinds' growls, reverb dripping from their jowls.

Awaking even greater wild fervor, "Divinations" begins with Hinds strumming a banjo --- until the banjo drops its disguise, revealing that it was just a pawn in the electric-guitar ambush.

The slower pacing of "The Czar," split into the passages "Usurper," "Escape, "Martyr" and "Spiral," suits the dirgey singing. The vocals, perhaps colored by the reverb, at times recall Layne Staley's doomed cries; Ozzy Osbourne is the other nearest link.

Animal Collective don't have Mastodon's ferocity, though on some past songs, their yawps and whoops might have given you the impression they were raised by wolves. On their sixth studio album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective provide evidence to the contrary.

These compositions are more focused than their previous ones, and when the chants wear thin, at least there are hooks. "My Girls" is an earworm, thanks to a trickling keyboard that, in a parallel universe, would have lent its services to Eurythmics. "Bluish," the album's finest moment, rolls in on shimmering synth waves and lets Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) show off a Beach Boys vocal move on the chorus.

The initially sleepy vibe of "In the Flowers" conjures fields of poppies, but the lyrics make the blossoms in question more likely to be lavender. It's the national flower of Portugal, where Panda Bear lives with his wife, fashion designer Fernanda Pereira, and their young daughter. He describes meeting a dancer in a field and being entranced by her connection to her body's movement, while wishing he was capable of being so uninhibited. "If I could just leave my body for the night / Then we could be dancing / No more missing you while I'm gone," he sings. (His wife's Web site provides subtext with its motto: "Influenced by everything that moves.")

Merriweather Post Pavilion definitely doesn't sit still. A thicket of electronic insects click and chirrup away as Panda Bear and Avey Tare (David Porter) traipse through the flora, Avey the vocal yang to Panda's yin. Geologist (Brian Weitz), meanwhile, sets more of the sampler critters a-chatter. Organ pinwheels on "Daily Routine." Maracas (or their digital equivalent) rattle over shrill bleeps on "Brother Sport" as Panda Bear implores, "Open up your throat."

Not so loud, dude -- Mastodon might hear you.