Music You Should Listen To, Reviewed

These are all albums I’ve had for a while, listened to a lot, and love.  I’ll add more reviews at the top of this page as I find more music, but at present they are in no particular order.

Unless otherwise noted, links to albums go to Lala, and links to songs go to either Youtube or Grooveshark, whichever I can find the song on.

Wolf Parade – At Mount Zoomer

Often, you can’t really get a good idea of what a band is about from listening to a 30-second clip of one of their songs. Not so for Wolf Parade. The opening of “Soldier’s Grin,” the first track on At Mount Zoomer, pretty much sums up the sound of the rest of the album – polyphonic synth hooks, bright rhythm guitars, and Spencer Krug’s wailing vocals. They’re fairly simple ingredients, but Wolf Parade does a lot with them. Having defined their language, they play around within its constraints, and the result is a superbly varied, cohesive, and instantly catchy album. On the final track, “Kissing the Beehive,” they delve into progressive rock structure and atypical time signatures, which, admittedly, doesn’t work perfectly – the song is an awkward closer to the album. Nevertheless, it shows that their sound is versatile, and I’m excited to see what they do next.
If you only have time for one song: Soldier’s Grin

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

One could imagine Death Cab’s music being covered by a slouchy dude with a guitar in a coffee shop, but it’s impossible to think that such a rendition would do the songs justice. Ben Gibbard treads a fine line between being a somewhat folky singer/songwriter and being the standout star of a rock band. His latest creation, Narrow Stairs, doesn’t quite have the intimacy of, say, Plans, but it does have all the exuberant melancholy of the earlier Death Cab albums. Between crashing rock riffs and broody crooning, the music occasionally becomes self-indulgent – the first four and a half minutes of “I Will Possess Your Heart” are basically a protracted piano/bass/drum jam. Perhaps this sort of thing gets tedious on a first listen, but it makes almost perfect background music for working, or driving, or whatever. For the most part, though, this album is instantly accessible, emotionally complex, and almost free of pretentiousness.
If you only have time for one song: Bixby Canyon Bridge

Explosions in the Sky – The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place

It’s not hard to dissect Explosions in the Sky’s sound. The recipe of three guitarists and a drummer, absent any vocals, is pretty typical for post-rock, but might seem stark and barren to the ears of first-time listeners. It is neither. As the album’s title reassures us, the earth is not a cold dead place, and repeat listeners will find that these meandering, monochromatic leviathans (the shortest song on the album is over eight minutes) express a rare intensity of emotion. The songs are drawn-out and dreamy, with cyclical melodies that grow, burst, and melt away. Explosions’ drumming is its own peculiar species, a stirring, almost martial beat that puts tremendous force behind what would otherwise be a series of disjointed, if pretty, melodies.
If you only have time for one (8:18) song: Your Hand in Mine

In Gowan Ring – Hazel Steps Through a Weathered Home

link opens in iTunes
After a distressing period during which their music disappeared from the Internet entirely, In Gowan Ring is back on iTunes. And I am very, very glad and relieved, because this album is simply a must-listen for anyone interested in psychedelic folk, early European music, or any hybridization of the two. I’ve already written a pretty detailed review here, but I’ll go over the salient features again. IGR’s music is reminiscent of medieval and renaissance music, both in the style and instrumentation, but takes a decidedly modern, retrospective view on the past, allowing it to dwell in the realm of nostalgia rather than trying to recover it. There are also influences from psych-folk artists like Devendra Banhart, although IGR tends to take a more polyphonic, layered approach to folk music which I find delightfully refreshing. Every song manages to be unique, even though they’re all fairly slow and soothing and singer/composer B’eirth barely raises his voice above a whisper. The lyrics – well, they’re weird. I mean that in a good way. They’re full of vague, almost synesthetic imagery, which is incomprehensible on a rational level but emotionally compelling. It’s as if B’eirth is using lyrics as he would another musical instrument – to paint a picture rather than tell a story.
If you only have time for one song: Hazel Steps

The Postal Service – Give Up

Give UpI wish I’d known about The Postal Service back when I was making electronic music of my own. If you think that “electronic music” is synonymous with obnoxious vocal trance mixes, or cheesy 80s synths, or sci-fi/new age ambient stuff, then you absolutely must listen to “Such Great Heights.” Ben Gibbard (the singer/songwriter of Death Cab for Cutie) and Jimmy Tamborello (of Dntel) have taken the best bits of indie rock, techno, and pop, and created a fascinating hybrid. The whole album gives off the vibe that the performer/producers are really having fun with their art – trying out everything from gritty trance bass to filter sweeps and spastic drum fills. The lyrics recall Death Cab’s brainy, melancholy take on love and loss, and Gibbard’s unassumingly perfect voice ties everything together. And because of the playfulness of the music, the complexity of the arrangements reads as fun rather than pretentious. It’s a great approach to music, and it makes for a thoroughly intriguing album.
If you only have time for one song: Such Great Heights

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