Contra by Vampire Weekend

Contra

Vampire Weekend

Reviewed by Jessica Hilo

Three years ago, Vampire Weekend embraced a self-ascribed ‘Upper West Side Soweto’ sound that helped to gentrify the hipster movement as much as American Apparel. Their latest album, Contra, available for free streaming on the band’s website, moves us beyond- providing a soundtrack for our youthful Diaspora as we age into the second decade of the 21st century. Not as radio friendly as their eponymous first album, Contra takes the best of Paul Simon’s Graceland period and mind melds it with the calypso sounds we’re used to hearing in hits like “APunk” and “Oxford Comma.” The result is a peppered Casio keyboard demo of abandon and introspection. It wants to be influenced by the 80’s Clash if only it were up to snuff. Wonders on deck include “Taxi Cab,” “I Think UR a Contra,” and single “Horchata.” Contra is a delightful, subdued, and ultimately underwhelming second that will serve to stand nicely in this band’s long career. The album hits stores January 12, 2010.

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Welcome to Time

Yoko Ono: Between My Head and the Sky

As if in a hellish dream, women in rock, of a certain age, have somehow dug themselves into one of three niches: the lustful cougar, the flouncy Susan Boyle, or the pious mother-widow diva. In this haze of reality we find Yoko Ono: yes, widow of John Lennon, mother of Sean, and the butt of too many clichés that you might as well stop thinking of one lest you be considered out of touch. Ono’s latest, Between My Head and the Sky, is an album that demands much. To multitask in its presence does you no good, as her trademark moan-gasms and hypnotic ululations litter the listen. Favoring the stolen morsel of time, what you hear in Sky is a cacophonous and brilliant mess of multi-genred and undulating joy. Ono is a quick as ever: cynical, quirky, meditative, and vulnerable. Her album oscillates from night to day and moves its listener to different places and different perceptions. Gathering elements of her musical past- from her flash-fried Asiatic pop punk in “Waiting for the D Train” to dark Mint Royale-esq throbs in “Calling” to sexy electrovibe dance and promising sound with “The Sun is Down”- doesn’t equate for much in the end. There is nothing new, fierce, reflexive, or forward moving in this album that we haven’t heard from Ono or her son in previous records (though, the complexity and ornamentation of Lennon’s composition is, by far, his best yet.) What makes this album the cocaine of its kind, a luxury drug for the meandering temperament, is the prescribed method for its listen: take this the way music is supposed to be enjoyed and you’ll feel better. Her defiance of convention or link to an ennobled spouse is no longer the pathway to reaching her esoteric few. Between My Head and the Sky shakes a fist to anyone for want of a listen: take it as you will; I am alive.

Photo by Charlotte Muhl & Sean Lennon (C) YOKO ONO 2009

Swing and Amiss

Willie Ames: Willie Ames

Reviewed by Jessica Hilo

I love the 1956 French film The Red Balloon. Sure the film is older than my parents and in a language I will never understand (from a nation just as confounding), but its message about the endurance of a dreamer in a world of cynics is both heartwarming and inspirational. Cue Willie Ames: a talented guitarist, singer-songwriter whose dreams of a solo career should have ended long ago. I hate to cast a stone at his beautiful, bouncing red balloon, but Ames’ self-titled EP is a hard listen. His vocals are unstable and bad impersonations of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Leonard Cohen- sans the onstage fall. His material is underdeveloped and lacking focus. The EP was a painful get-through saved only by Ames’ talent on the guitar. Stringing together playful, earnest melodies (“Dance with You” and “Heart Hit Hard”) and performing with the knack and consistency of a pro, Ames’ proves he has the talent to make it in the industry- only muted and perhaps backing a better vocalist (like Kelli Barker, featured in hidden tracks on the EP.) Let’s hope taking aim at Willie Ames inevitably leads to a future soaring above the rooftops of the French Riviera- until then let’s call this one a do-over.

Heart Smart

Sondre Lerche: Heartbeat Radio

Reviewed by Jessica Hilo

 I first caught wind of a return to the eighties with the rise of Michael Cera and the renaissance of Brantley Foster’s hooded sweatshirt- smells of rain. Turning and turning in the widening gyre- soon came the shoulder pads and lyrca; the economic turmoil; the flocked seagulls of male updos. It was a matter of time before we saw a return of crooner Harry Connick Jr.- a trend I’m happy to welcome back in Sondre Lerche’s Heartbeat Radio. A not-too-bold departure from the pop of his former days, Lerche’s Heartbeat showcases the Norwegian singer-songwriter’s talent for kitsch in its many forms. Fun uses of instrumentation and plays in genres like rhythm and blues and seventies songwriting a la Harry Nilsson are punctuated by dreamy, exaggerated, electro-string accompaniment and poetry in lyric- where Lerche, as always, excels. Stand out tracks include album opener “Good Luck,” “Heartbeat Radio,” and “I Guess It’s Gonna Rain Today.” If I have to suffer through the eighties a second time, rocked like a hurricane, I’m thankful to have a talent like Sondre Lerche put a little heartbeat on my radio.

I Might As Well Break It

Modernboys Moderngirls

“I Might As Well Break It”

Reviewed by Jessica Hilo

 

Toronto based Modernboys Moderngirls, an industrial protopunk machine of ever-changing gears and the product of careful calibration by its maker, Akira Alemany, released its debut album ironically titled “I Might As Well Break It.” The album reflects a change in the band’s formative sounds of punkish dance bash- like the voice of a 14 year old, MBMG gets deeper with maturity. “Break It” is quiet evidently informed by relentless study of everything early sixties- soul, rock, and punk most notably. The sound achieved on the album, however, does the work an injustice. Vocals are so lo fi they’re almost kitsch and improper balancing, at times, emphasizes the particularly unimaginative while muting talent in composition of its keys parts. Intriguing, departure tracks include “Miss My Baby Girl,” “On the Line,” “I Can Hardly Stand,” and “Stay Under;” a great front to back listen on a good pair of headphones.

The Black Keys

Black Keys
“Attack & Release”
Nonesuch Records: April 2008

Corn-fed blues-rock duo, the Black Keys, redefine their indomitable Delta blues sound in latest studio venture, “Attack & Release.” The record stands as the Keys’ most adventurous and poignantly artistic album to date, featuring broadened instrumentation, psychedelic and trip hop backbeats, and a whole lot of electronic: synth, moog, and Syndrum (oh my!) Fans of their former, filthier pursuits will be undoubtedly taken aback- it sounds as if someone overdubbed Mississippi Fred McDowell with Vanilla Fudge’s greatest hits. Wholly unnecessary; after all, we have the White Stripes for such kitschy punk blues departures. The change is, in part, due to the Keys’ collaboration with producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who’s mixing method, heard on the “Grey Album” (a clever fusing of Jay-Z with the Beatles), drips its polished, city know-how all over this gritty, bottleneck record. He does to blues what Amy Winehouse does to soul, though I’m not entirely sure we’re as willing to embrace the difference. In his defense, Burton thought the material would go into a promising new album for the late Ike Turner, whose watered down version of the blues lacks the rough and tumble punch of the Keys’ four previous basement-side productions. Black Keys purists will scoff at the album’s mid-fi attempt at Delta grime and acrimony. But like it or not, the Black Keys make a resounding statement in their acerbic pseudo-requiem: “Things Ain’t Like They Used To Be.”

Murder By Death

Murder By Death
Red of Tooth and Claw
Vagrant Records: March 2008

Consuming passion, love, longing, revenge, and destruction are a few of the themes intricately balanced in Murder by Death’s latest alt-country release, “Red of Tooth and Claw.” Thundering whisky slathered pain through vocals the likes of Johnny Cash or the generation trendy Nick Cave, singer/guitarist Adam Turla shows a side of brooding masculinity that isn’t afraid to express anger through tear streaked eyes. This is made all the more frightening in the ominous elegance and delicate seduction of cellist Sarah Balliet, whose wintry accompaniment is finally given a voice in the boys’ club four full length albums later. Eerie southern goth rock is done quite well- snarling insolently in tracks like “Comin’ Home,” “Rum Brave,” and “52 Ford”- but the band’s evident attraction to Grecian tragedy and impossible heroism serves as its own Achilles heel. Eager character development and overstated themes weigh the album down, missing the mark ever so slightly. Fans may forgive, but what’s left bleak and incomplete serves as a tear in an otherwise strong and seamless fabric. Through this opening, tragedy turns tragic and grief becomes a luxury.