ibeyi – ibeyi

steeped in spirituality, themes of personal loss, and an intricate interplay between piano and afro-cuban hand drums, the self-titled debut from ibeyi should read as the definitive album from a pair of seasoned veterans.  that lisa-kaindé and naomi díaz are instead just twenty years old and only beginning to hone their craft is stunning, and speaks volumes about the body of work they’ve created with ibeyi.

the parisian-born díaz sisters have deep ties to the afro-cuban religion santería – their moniker means “twin” in the religion’s language of yoruba – and many ibeyi songs contain titular references to various santerían spirits, collectively referred to as orishas.  on “oya,” lisa-kaindé intones the spirit’s name in an almost chant-like fashion over a bed of droning, close-knit vocal harmonies bolstered by subterranean synthesizers.  naomi’s percussion eventually kicks in, and the sisters harmonize for the duration of the song in a mixture of english and yoruba.  “oya” almost seems to test the waters of the duo’s musical boundaries before coming to the conclusion that any restrictions are few and far between.

ibeyi is largely an amalgamation of old-school jazz and contemporary r&b, but it’s the personal spin put on each genre by the duo that makes the end result so invigorating.  the díaz sisters’ father was renowned cuban percussionist anga díaz, whose premature death was the primary catalyst for his daughters’ foray into music.  naomi’s almost-exclusive use of the cajón and the batá as rhythmic forces are a nod to him, and “think of you” is a stuttering, eerie elegy for their father, its title delivered repeatedly in meaningful harmony.  lisa-kaindé’s smoky alto and plaintive piano playing are indicative of the french jazz clubs of yesteryear, and serve as a foil to her sister’s emphatic drumming, particularly when she’s fully exposed on tracks like “behind the curtain” or effortlessly interlocking with naomi on “ghosts.”

this embracement of personal and cultural history bleeds seamlessly into a fascination with contemporary musical elements.  equally commonplace throughout ibeyi is a bevy of synthesizers and samples, largely provided by producer richard russell.  on “river,” an early standout in the duo’s catalogue, piano and cajón are downplayed in favor of muted drum programming and a choir of vocal loops while “stranger / lover” inserts a slithering bass line and de-tuned synths into the typical sonic palate.  these enhancements are often subtle, never dramatically shifting ibeyi’s sound, yet they add an incredible amount of depth and maturity to the young duo’s music.

nestled towards the back end of ibeyi is “yanira,” a second familial elegy for their older sister of the same name.  it’s indicative of every characteristic found in the duo’s sound, from lyrical themes of spirituality and personal loss to the interplay of piano and cajón, yet the song seems to transcend the notion of merely being the sum of all of ibeyi’s parts.  the triplet-based motif winds up like a music box, perhaps evoking childhood nostalgia as lisa-kaindé sings “all my dreams lead to you, queen of my thoughts” with a heartbreaking tone of emotional vulnerability, but the song’s simple chorus toes the line between lament and celebration of life.  at the very least, “yanira” is a collective demonstration of deeply profound songwriting, and that the díaz sisters chose to bury their best and most meaningful piece of work so deep into their album speaks volumes of their self-awareness as musicians.  ibeyi is certainly best-experienced in full; artistry this nuanced cannot be confined to a lead single.

8.5/10

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the antlers – familiars

when the antlers released burst apart three years ago, it was clear that the album constituted a make-it-or-break it scenario for the band; their 2009 album hospice, the brooklyn trio’s debut effort as a collaborative project, received immediate, almost unanimous universal acclaim and catapulted the antlers into the indie spotlight.  luckily, burst apart was a suitable follow-up and a substantial success in its own right, but frontman peter silberman still finds himself confronted with inquiries about hospice, more than five years after the album’s release.  although there are those who still can’t let go of the past, silberman certainly isn’t one of them.  the antlers’ newest effort, familiars, is a lush musical experience that all but abandons the outfit’s signature heartbreak.

while silberman is the face and the voice of the antlers (after all, it was his initial solo project and his emotive metaphor that began to turn heads), familiars is an environment that finds all three members contributing equally.  a large portion of musical direction seems to come from darby cicci, the multi-instrumentalist responsible for much of the texture on the album.  previously confined to a primary role of keyboardist and an explicit secondary exploration of trumpet, cicci has full reign on familiars; many songs have a foundation of acoustic piano, layered trumpet, and michael lerner’s drums, further augmented by extremely prominent bass lines (also courtesy of cicci) that slither throughout the chord progressions and give the antlers’ sonic palate a more organic low end.

instead of silberman’s guitar largely defining the album like it did on hospice and, to a lesser extent, on burst apart, the instrument has the chordal support of the piano and the occasional melodic support of the trumpet, making the moments where it truly separates from the texture that much more meaningful.  take “director,” the album’s centerpiece, for example: although the ostinato guitar riff is arguably a staple of the song, the instrument doesn’t really begin to take control until the descending riff and subsequent counter-melody kick in halfway through.  underneath is that warm palate, full of drums and resonant bass that, although devoid of the trumpet in this particular instance, help the antlers firmly place a foot in the realm of jazz that has so long been an influence.

though a musical liberation of sorts for the antlers is present, silberman’s lyrical and vocal progressions are less discernible, relying even more so on subtle nuances.  his falsetto lamentations are still there, but silberman showcases a desire to return to his natural range, even dipping into lower, haunting extremes on “doppelganger.”  lyrically, he’s more of a wildcard; “hotel” is extremely sparse yet somewhat confessional, as silberman admits “i rent a blank room to stop living in my past self,” while “parade” traces a more narrative style and lacks any type of hook.  one constant that remains throughout is a sense of ambiguity, as silberman seems to strive less to attach an explicit meaning to each song and instead explore more inclusive, multi-dimensional emotions.

familiars is nearly an hour of slow-burning which may inevitably put listeners into two broad camps: those that dismiss the album due to a perceived sense of stagnancy and those that appreciate it for its nuances and painstaking attention to detail.  the latter of these two camps is the best lens through which to view this album.  the antlers continue to expound and expand an incredibly complex and dense aesthetic, and provide another body of work that demands to be addressed before the reminiscing can begin.

8.9/10

sleep party people – floating

brian batz makes music under the moniker sleep party people, but his given name never seems to be that detached from his project.  there’s never been any question about the identity of the man behind the music, and batz even goes so far as to post every sleep party people song on a soundcloud account bearing his name.  personally, if i were responsible for something as breathtaking as the music of sleep party people, i would want direct credit as well.  on the project’s newest album, floating, batz ups the ante and creates one of the year’s best amalgamations of pop music and ambient sounds.

the lead single grabbed from floating, “in another world,” was – and still remains to be – a delectable earworm in every sense of the term.  as the first taste of sleep party people’s new material, the song leans heavily on batz’s signature falsetto while adding strings and groove-heavy percussion over a minor key to make it truly ominous yet simultaneously infectious.  the tracklist of floating is more or less aesthetically constructed around “in another world,” which gives the album a logical, if not somewhat predictable, trajectory.  the opening triptych of songs are traced by warbly, modest mouse-esque guitar lines that weave expertly through batz’s ethereal voice and the percussion it sits on top of.  “a stranger among us” seems to swap the six-string for the sine wave, promptly foreshadowing the electronic turn batz will begin to take shortly.

after pitting a western-themed guitar loop against synthetic strings on “in another world,” batz begins to broaden his horizons, culminating in “i see the sun, harold,” a hazy instrumental that bleeds acoustic piano effortlessly with feedback and other white noise.  the song’s counterpart, appropriately titled “i see the moon,” offers an eight-minute detour down the most upbeat road batz travels throughout floating, but the song ultimately proves to be nothing more than a well-structured bypass; floating closes out with “only a shadow” and “scattered glass,” two melancholy cuts that are among the strongest on the album.  “only a shadow” adds hesitant, vulnerable vocals to the aesthetic dictated by “i see the sun, harold,” allowing “scattered glass” to provide a huge contrast with its gradual layering and steady crescendo, effectively ending floating on a rather triumphant note.

brian batz is incredibly well-versed in manufacturing emotive songs, and he continues to display this trait on floating.  sleep party people’s music is utterly cinematic, and this album is best experienced through headphones in order to appreciate each song’s subtle nuances.  keep tabs on floating and try not to fall in love with the album artwork.  it’s a harder task than it seems.

8.5/10

cloud nothings – here and nowhere else

when i first heard cloud nothings’ tremendous third album, attack on memory, dylan baldi’s screeches of “i thought i would be more than this” resonated incredibly with my nineteen year-old state of mind.  the album soon became the soundtrack to my 2012, its raw dissonance juxtaposed with hook-laden gems like “stay useless” and “our plans.”  still, the overall darkness in mood of attack on memory, coupled with the increased abrasiveness of instrumentation, all but erased the breezy bedroom pop aesthetic baldi had cultivated on cloud nothings’ first two records, leaving the trajectory of their subsequent output open-ended.  on here and nowhere else, baldi arrives somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, resulting in the band’s most polished sound to date.

baldi’s detractors frequently cited his sub-par vocal delivery as the band’s main pitfall throughout attack on memory, and while opinions on the effect of his raw voice are entirely subjective, it’s worth noting that his voice is unquestionably at its best on here and nowhere else.  he’s in tune and more articulate, and songs like “just see fear” have moments of sheer melodic beauty.  at the same time, baldi is even more punishing and menacing than he was on cloud nothings’ last album; guttural screams emit towards the end of “just see fear,” and the repetition of the word “swallow” on “giving into seeing” sounds tortured yet purposeful.  overall, baldi the singer is very much in the foreground of the songs on here and nowhere else, putting emphasis on the last refined element of the band’s sound.

cloud nothings slimmed down to a power trio before heading into the recording studio, but the absence of a second guitarist seems to cause no problems.  jayson gerycz is an unstoppable force of nature behind a drum kit; in the early days of the band, his presence was almost comical at times, but his relentless technique mirrors and personifies the cacophony cloud nothings has perfected.  here and nowhere else doesn’t stop for a breather throughout much of its duration, with gerycz flirting with the front of each beat and bassist t.j. dukes dutifully following his example.  the songs largely return to a more structured pop formula that aided baldi’s ascension from anonymity; “patterned walks” is the only clear outlier, drawing on the expanded structure of “wasted days,” but songs like “now here in” and “psychic trauma” are upbeat and irresistible, with only hints of the post-apocalyptic dissonance that permeated attack on memory.

baldi’s prowess as a songwriter and guitarist has only grown over time; he handles all of the six-string chores on here and nowhere else, creating a thick, distorted tone befitting of the old punk bands he frequently name-checks in various interviews.  the final song on the album, “i’m not part of me,” might just be the band’s best to date, and it’s telling that they saved it for last.  from the outset of the first chord in his progression, baldi reminds everyone of his talent, fitting a subtle melodic line into the harmony.  his voice is comparatively calm for the most part, and his proclamation of “i’m not telling you/all i’m going through” seems to echo the ethos of the entire album: the dark undertones are still there, but they’re more reserved and less prone to explicit despair and self-deprecation.  here and nowhere else doesn’t quite match attack on memory in terms of raw emotion – few records ever will – but its songs continue to sculpt baldi into a fiercely formidable presence still very much capable of writing acutely polarizing and meaningful lyrics.

9.0/10

vampire weekend – modern vampires of the city

as one of those ladies on npr so astutely pointed out in an interview with ezra koenig, this is the last album vampire weekend will make while its members are in their twenties.  everyone expresses some fear or general sense of unrest about reaching their third decade, but few incorporate as many references to mortality and death as vampire weekend.

modern vampires of the city is the band’s third record since taking over the blogosphere back in the summer of 2007.  throughout their self-titled album and its 2010 follow-up, contra, vampire weekend freely explored afro-pop, shameless ’80s influences, and prep-school commodities, often playing into the stigmas and stereotypes that were attached to them.  in many ways, media and public perception contributed largely to the aesthetic vampire weekend attempted to create – whether they’ll admit to it or not – so while it may be surprising that modern vampires of the city is a notable departure from the band’s previous style, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s so good.

changes in the band’s musical direction can be traced back to contra, which saw multi-instrumentalist rostam batmanglij take over a larger share of the songwriting, along with his emergence as the band’s true lead guitarist and overall musical director.  the songs on modern vampires of the city were exclusively written by koenig and batmanglij, and the latter provides nearly every instrument heard on the record, save for chris baio’s bass guitar, chris tomson’s drums, and koenig’s lead vocals.  while koenig may be the face and certainly the literary component of vampire weekend, batmanglij can be credited for the new musical direction the band has been taking, and should be praised for the fact that it’s going so well.

gone are the days of the simple piano riffs accompanied by reverb-washed guitar lines found on the band’s self-titled effort and referenced on contra.  production is dense across modern vampires of the city and the tone is notably more serious.  opening track “obvious bicycle” is a very bleak and bold way to begin an album, but within the context of the rest of the songs on the album, it winds up to be a very calculated choice.  mid-tempo offerings like “unbelievers” and “everlasting arms” keep the mood light enough for the album to still be recognizable, but the true power comes from “diane young” and “ya hey”; the two songs that feel most like vampire weekend, but are a stark lyrical departure.

to move away from a pigeon-holed genre is both a bold and sensible decision for a veteran band in the digital age, but a brash, brief embracement of old stylistic pillars as the backdrop for a radically different lyrical context is rare.  “diane young” is a clever double-entendre and marketing ploy; the band didn’t believe it could function as a single with the more direct title “dying young,” but the message remains the same.  the sense of abandonment and overall morose atmosphere of “ya hey” and “hudson” underscores koenig’s delayed quarter-life crisis.

modern vampires of the city is vampire weekend’s best album to date and, according to koenig and batmanglij, is the last installment in a trilogy of records.  my suggestion is to listen to the album as a stand-alone, and then to go back and listen to all three with gapless playback.  i guarantee it will be a different experience.

9.2/10

mikal cronin – mcii

as i start to branch out into more and more different subgenres of the indie rock spectrum, i inadvertently find myself attaching certain music to certain moods, as well as to certain seasons.  surprisingly, summer is the hardest three-month slot to fill.  for music to qualify for this illustrious position, it must reach one or both of the following criteria to the utmost degree: 1. the music must be equal parts pop and beach-ready, with superb arranging and exquisite lyrics.  2. the music must be perfect for driving late at night through the back roads of wisconsin with the windows down.  the first category is home to your vampire weekends; bands i wouldn’t hesitate to listen to while drinking a pale ale on my porch or reading steinbeck on the beach.  the latter group is for your japandroids of the world, with brash, guitar driven songs and sing-along choruses about youth and girls and driving and cars (see also: the gaslight anthem, early kings of leon).

on his second solo album, part-time ty segall band bassist mikal cronin manages to find some sort of curious common ground between these two categories.  across the ten tracks on mcii, cronin creates bursts of fuzzed-out guitar rock infused with astute pop sensibilities, yielding anthemic results with the support of backing vocals already built in.

 

the extra touches cronin adds, like the 12-string guitar on “weight” and the consistently harmonized lead vocals on “am i wrong,” provide counteractions to any overbearing tendencies the aggressive distorted undertones of the album may have.  the result is a record that is equal parts porch-appropriate and midnight drive-ready.  vocal hooks are abound; i’ve already had the chorus of “see it my way” stuck in my head ever since mcii started streaming on npr, and cronin continues this impressive streak across the album’s entirety.

cronin the instrumentalist and arranger also deserves a nod for his superb musicianship on this album.  his marriage of clean lead guitar lines over muddy, distorted rhythm tracks is surprisingly aesthetically pleasing, and his work with string arrangements on “peace of mind” and his intermittent dabbling into piano is also admirable.  from the simplistic galloping tendencies of “change” to the more cohesive offerings from “peace of mind” and “shout it out” all the way down to the stripped-away brilliance of “don’t let me go,” mikal cronin has given me the record that i will be spinning in all possible scenarios this summer.

8.8/10

daughter – if you leave

i’m happy that this album is finally available in north america.  i’ve been following daughter since early last year, when the london trio began picking up steam and recognition on this side of the atlantic.  still, the band’s media presence is just about as low-key as the music they create, and those are the two aspects i enjoy the most.  led by elena tonra, daughter craft morose and hauntingly ethereal songs that provide the perfect backdrop to sleepy wisconsin winters and long walks in the snow.  with a collection of demos and two superb eps under their belt, daughter was poised to take the next step and procure a more cohesive offering of their capabilities.

rumblings about if you leave began surfacing as early as last fall, when the band released a new song entitled “smother” backed with a reworked version of an early demo, “run.”  after disappearing for another short stretch, daughter confirmed that they were putting the finishing touches on their debut album and that if you leave would be available in mid-march.  this was followed by the release of another single, “still,” along with an accompanying music video.

 

armed with two very strong lead-in singles, daughter confirmed my suspicions; they were only going to get better.  if you leave contains ten one-name tracks, including fully realized versions of early demos like “tomorrow” and “shallows,” as well as a reworked version of “youth,” my favorite song off of their stellar the wild youth ep.  upon simply gazing at the tracklist, cause for concern due to repetition was initially felt, but these songs feel fresh, with new arrangements and more confident vocals and ensemble presence felt throughout.  the flow and contrast of if you leave is greatly aided by “human,” a standout track that feels positively upbeat in comparison with the rest of the band’s repertoire.

the absence of love is not absent from the core of if you leave, as reflected in the album’s title itself.  tonra still masterfully sings about solitude and bleak outlooks on life; “touch” finds her almost begging for physical contact, confessing “i’m dreaming of strangers/kissing me in the night/ just so i can feel something.”  the album title sneaks into its finale track, a reworked and substantially longer version of “shallows,” originally the opening song on a collection of early daughter demos.  it’s fitting that their catalogue would come full-circle, and in such an eloquent fashion.

9.0/10