majical cloudz – are you alone?

are you alone? cover
out october 16th via matador

devon welsh directly dictated the ethos of majical cloudz when he intoned “listen to this song / i want you to know it’s how i feel” to open their 2013 standalone cut “savage.”  the track didn’t make it onto the duo’s breakthrough album from that same year, impersonator, but “savage” mirrored the record’s blunt, emotive, and minimalist tendencies so well that it felt like a proper extension.

as majical cloudz has continuously proved to be one of those acts that knowingly transcends the confines of writing music as a band to explore the broader realm of performance art, it stood to reason that welsh and collaborator matthew otto would compose something entirely different in the wake of impersonator.  but as are you alone? illustrates, the duo chose instead to explore the parameters and outer limits of their carefully-crafted sonic world, at times challenging perceptions while at others firmly holding up pillars.

welsh was undoubtedly the most enduring facet of impersonator, from his intense lyrical delivery to the wide-ranging contents of those lyrics, and the rich baritone he employed ensured that his vocals would cut through, enriching otto’s sparse, vaporous production.  the opposite holds true on are you alone?  as the subject matter settles into proclamations of intense feeling and more positive explorations of love and love lost, welsh slips into a higher register, one that’s more ambitious yet at times can truly hinder a song’s development.

we’re forced to reckon with this shift almost immediately.  the climax of welsh’s vocal line on “control” swells through the telling phrase “will you let me change? / i want to but / i think you want me the same,” one that speaks immediately to the song’s subject but also serves as an analogue to the new boundaries majical cloudz explores.  those changes are sometimes hard to navigate; both the album’s title track and its follow-up “so blue” are vocally unsteady, perhaps purposefully so, but otto’s production compensates time and again.  his arrangements are explorative, more orchestral (see the aforementioned “so blue” and opener “disappeared”), and altogether more aware of the space they occupy, working laterally rather than vertically to achieve sonic nuances.  it’s also worth mentioning that otto’s overall timbre of choice eventually cedes to welsh’s new vocal register; “silver car crash” and “if you’re lonely” are pillars of the album’s back half and are propped up by warbling organs and nasal synth leads, respectively.

much of are you alone? is not instantly memorable.  tracks bleed together, either due to thematics or the consistent organ as otto’s centerpiece, in an almost antithetical fashion to the quotable maudlin hooks sprinkled throughout impersonator.  welsh’s lyrical bright spots do persevere, however; it just requires a bit closer attention.  the chilly atmosphere of “change” is augmented by profound statements like “the one you are today / is you until you rot” while “if you’re lonely” reads as one giant mea culpa for welsh’s previous feelings of hopelessness before evolving into a self-help testimonial for other lonely listeners, and the overall intensity of crown-jewel “downtown” is enough to make anyone momentarily forget the album’s shortcomings.

from a vocal and melodic standpoint, are you alone? is largely a misstep.  welsh’s voice wavers so much at times that it bypasses the crutch of hesitant vulnerability and moves squarely into the realm of flat and out of tune, while there’s also a clear absence of the simple melodic genius and resonance that dotted impersonator.  but to simply write off the album as mediocre does a disservice to otto’s production and arrangements, a vast and intricate soundscape which could – and should – be scoring films, and ignores welsh’s penchant for incredibly direct lyrics that can become intensely personal at any given moment.  it’s an uneven overall performance, sure, but are you alone? is also an optimistic, challenging, and fascinating snapshot of the relationship between two highly gifted songwriters.  save for a blustery fall afternoon.

most anticipated albums of fall 2015

braun turntable 2the home stretch of each year always provides a plethora of new albums vying for contention in year-end best-of reviews.  invariably, at least one heavy-hitter holds onto a project until the quarter is almost over before unleashing it and messing with the internet’s ballots by proxy (here’s looking at you, kanye and frank).  the full list for this fall is exhausting; google searches and metacritic are good tools to keep yourself in the know, but we’ve also compiled a handful of albums we’re especially itching to dig into.  read on for more detailed explanations.

———

mind out wandering coverastronauts, etc. – mind out wandering
september 18th (hit city u.s.a.)

anthony ferraro has seen his exploratory outlet into the realm of pop music grow from a solo project to a full-band endeavor.  already armed with a quartet of impressive singles, astronauts, etc. should offer up a strong and nuanced debut full-length with mind out wandering.

every open eye coverchvrches – every open eye
september 25th (virgin/glassnote)

chvrches wrote and recorded their sophomore album over the span of six months, a quarter of the amount of time they spent touring in support of their massive debut the bones of what you believe.  still, the glaswegian trio’s penchant for huge melodies and their uncanny ability to weave downtrodden aspects of indie rock into massive stadium-ready anthems (see “leave a trace”) argues that every open eye will likely be a well-deserved victory lap.

new bermuda coverdeafheaven – new bermuda
october 2nd (anti)

remember that deafheaven is a substantially different band than the one that churned out sunbather two years ago.  the sense of urgency derived from a dire economic situation that permeated the band’s critically-acclaimed breakthrough album may be subdued, but this is a creative force bent on melding genre confines into a fluid product.  at the very least, new bermuda will not fall short on intrigue.

are you alone? covermajical cloudz – are you alone?
october 16th (matador)

speaking of critically-acclaimed albums from 2013, the duo responsible for our favorite record that year are returning with a new full-length in october.  are you alone? comes on the heels of an arduous touring regimen for majical cloudz, including a support slot for lorde that necessitated a re-write of most of the new material the band had fleshed out.  “silver car crash” finds devon welsh singing as directly as ever, and his easy command of a higher register suggests a newfound confidence; subsequent singles that emerge this month and next should paint a clearer picture of the album’s direction.

foxing dealer coverfoxing – dealer
october 30th (triple crown)

st. louis quintet foxing emerged from the recent emo resurgence as a clear frontrunner that could endure the waning fad and continue to contribute meaningful material.  their breakthrough the albatross juxtaposed moments of agitation with sustained introspective passages, a formula that will prove beneficial for a young band given ample time to hone their craft.

– other notable releases –

lana del rey – honeymoon (september 18th)
kurt vile – b’lieve i’m going down (september 25th)
milo – so the flies don’t come (september 25th)
youth lagoon – savage hills ballroom (september 25th)
chad valley – entirely new blue (october 2nd)
alex g – beach music (october 9th)
saintseneca – such things (october 9th)
beach house – thank your lucky stars (october 16th)
pure bathing culture – pray for rain (october 23rd)
gems – kill the one you love (october 30th)
the japanese house – clean (november 6th)
goldlink – and after that we didn’t talk (november 13th)
james blake – radio silence (tba)

best of 2013: albums

good things come to those that wait, right?  does this phrase even really apply to this situation?  probably not.  it may be a bit delayed, but my albums of the year list is finally done.  i’ve written long-form essays on my favorite fifteen records of 2013 over at playground misnomer; you should definitely head over there and check it out, along with lists from the other contributors to that site.  if you don’t feel like reading, below are some quick and simple pictures of my top five albums of 2013.  enjoy.

5. milo – cavalcade

chvrches4. chvrches – the bones of what you believe

daughter if you leave3. daughter – if you leave

2. caroline smith – half about being a woman

majical cloudz impersonator.jpg1. majical cloudz – impersonator

best of 2013: songs

i’m upping the ante and treating you to my ten favorite songs of 2013, as opposed to last year’s five.  my choices don’t necessarily reflect contenders for album of the year, but don’t be surprised if some of the same names show up over the next couple of weeks.

10. oostende – keep shelly in athens: “oostende” was my first true glimpse at sarah p.’s vocal personality, which stretches from hesitant to confident within the duration of a verse and a chorus.  the synth pads are brooding throughout, but the lead line that kicks in three quarters of the way through the song routinely gets stuck in my head.  easily the best track off of the duo’s debut album at home, the power of “oostende” is only bolstered by an incredibly heart-wrenching music video.

 

9. collapse – vancouver sleep clinic: the second of just two tracks released by vancouver sleep clinic this year, “collapse” easily proves what tim bettinson is capable of doing with his voice.  retaining an incomprehensible aesthetic akin to bon iver, “collapse” evokes a frigid winter landscape that has already become relatable.  the production behind the vocals is also impressive, molding some james blake drum pads with soft-rock, folky guitars.  both vancouver sleep clinic songs have been firmly distinguishable so far, but “collapse” flexes the ensemble’s potential the most.

 

8. graceless – the national: trouble will find me still hasn’t fully settled in yet.  while the cohesive aspect of the album may be lacking, i know that “graceless” is probably one of the best songs the national have ever written.  there’s that underlying post-punk tone that harkens earlier tracks off of alligator and boxer, along with a truly anthemic final chorus.  the national is a band that ages well, and a sustained break from their earlier influences helped to add depth to that sound.

 

7. diamond mine – pillar point: i love a good mystery.  when i found pillar point through polyvinyl’s twitter page, the sheer absence of a biography or any sort of personal identity attached to the project made me appreciate the music that much more.  “diamond mine” is a chillwave standout that mixes a multitude of pulses, but that lead synth line is always an earworm, whether syncopated or straight in time.  the lyrics are a bit melancholy, juxtaposing the sunny, up-beat accompaniment, but that only adds to the overall sophistication of the songwriting here.

 

6. tennis court – lorde: i could talk about “royals,” but everyone talks about “royals.”  lorde stands for something that goes against the mainstream materialistic values and idolization of glamorous pop stars, but she’s also still a kid, barely out of high school and three years away from turning twenty.  that doesn’t detract from the fact that she’s very self-aware and intelligent; i think “tennis court” showcases this the best.  its lyrics are less about dissociating from material goods and more about defying social trends and chasing perfection.  “tennis court” is fairly autobiographical, highlighting lorde’s naivete in the music industry, but her skeptic tone suggests that she won’t buy into its extravagancies.  i guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

5. savage – majical cloudz: there’s a lot to be said about majical cloudz and their fantastic, under-the-radar year.  devon welsh’s voice is routinely haunting, pairing well with the minimalist compositions that define the aesthetic of the duo.  impersonator was an admirable record, but i was drawn to “savage,” a bonus track released just last month, more quickly than any song found on the album.  the ostinato keyboard part sets the tone for welsh’s lyrics, a fairly direct romantic narrative.  the first time i heard him break from his declamatory phrasing to croon “high on lsd with you,” i was sold, and i’ve felt the same tingling sensation every listen since.

 

4. summer skin – teen girl scientist monthly: someone likened teen girl scientist monthly to the pains of being pure at heart on steroids, a comparison that works especially well for “summer skin,” the opening track on their newest album modern dances.  the opening guitar line sells the song as an instant earworm of powerpop, but the gradual additions of keyboard textures and gang vocals find the brooklyn ensemble as an amalgamation of the answering machine and arcade fire.  “summer skin” is the kind of song you would wait around for hours to hear on the radio, but thankfully, you don’t have to do that.

 

3. comrade – volcano choir: “byegone” garnered understandable praise for volcano choir, with its anthemic folk rock feel reminiscent of bon iver’s sophomore album.  but “comrade” is the essence of what volcano choir has become: the marriage of collections of colonies of bees’ post-rock leanings and justin vernon’s vocal tendencies.  responsible solely for the lyrics and vocals on repave, vernon was in his element, generously modifying his voice to embellish the experimental aesthetic of the band.  the autotuned coda at the end of “comrade” makes the song and is gloriously powerful live; watch the video below for a frame of reference.

 

2. lungs – chvrches: any song off of the bones of what you believe could contend for a spot on this list.  chvrches was one of the most impressionable bands of 2013, seamlessly blending pop hooks with indie sensibility and dance floor beats.  “lungs” is buried deep within the album and is a syncopated gem; lauren mayberry’s voice is subtly doubled with a vocoder, adding a harsh undertone to an otherwise crystal clear timbre, but it’s the quarter note-triplet pattern fed through a filthy bass synthesizer that defines this song.  friends of mine who almost exclusively listen to electronic dance music appreciate chvrches due to this song, further showcasing the band’s accessibility across a wide variety of genres.  “lungs” is on par with every single released off of the bones of what you believe, and is probably better than some of them.

 

1. boat rich – dads: it didn’t take long before “boat rich” was my most-played song of 2013.  clocking in at under three minutes helps, but the fact is that the guitar work is too catchy to not listen to on repeat.  dads started to receive some national attention this year with the resurgence of emo, but the new jersey duo are just as likely to throw a quick meter change into a song as they are to wear their hearts on their sleeves.  the chorus of “boat rich” is anthemic in nature and each repetition builds, culminating in a climax following a triplet-based interlude.  check out dads’ pretty good ep if you haven’t already, and keep your eye out for more material in 2014.  i know i will.