Moroccan Role: April 2007

Moroccan Role

A Totally Kiler Music/MP3 Blog.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky

Wilco will release its sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky, May 15th on NoneSuch Records. This will end a nearly three year period since the band's last studio effort, the sometimes unfairly maligned A Ghost is Born. The entirety of the album has been available on the internet for well over a month now, and while some initial impressions around the internets were less than overly-enthusiastic, it appears some subsequent listens have changed at least a few minds. Sky Blue Sky contains scarcely any of the experimental flare that shaped their last couple outings and, truth be told, it initially comes across as a bit flat. But, stick with it, the subtle intricacies and masterful musicianship reveal themselves in due time. Considering the strength of Tweedy's back catalog, you owe it to the man (not to mention yourself) to spend some time fully absorbing this effort.

The band's last album A Ghost is Born was, upon its release, often referred to as a "transitional" record. Whatever direction critics imagined Wilco would take following that effort, I'd surmise that few would have predicted the band would follow it with a record as straightforward, understated, and mellow as Sky Blue Sky. Accordingly, this album is precisely the type to usher in a new era for the band and Ghost's "transitional" label now seems apt. Considering the plight of a group unsure of how to follow-up a masterpiece like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they produced an album that-- notwithstanding a couple of experimental clunkers-- had more than its share of good tunes. In fact, if you start the Ghost on track 4, it's pretty solid. But to many ears, it came across as tired and bloated and I can understand that criticism to some extent. On Sky Blue Sky, Wilco's mid-career growing pains give way to an adulthood marked by quite confidence and assured professionalism.

Instead of employing their recent tendency to obscure songs in noise and experimentation, here the songs are given ample open space and room to breathe. In light of Jeff Tweedy's well-documented struggle with painkillers, it would not be a stretch to view his newly found soberity as a key in informing the clarity in the songwriting and vocal performances on this album. Sky Blue Sky's most apparent sonic reference point is 70's-Americana and the breezy feel of the album is unmistakably the product of a band completely comfortable in their own skin. While the songwriting is clearly the focus of any Wilco album, Nels Cline's amazing guitar work occasionally comes close to stealing the show-- see, i.e., the outro of "Impossible Germany". The laid-back and loose vibe of this album supports the accounts of how the album came together organically and spontaneously in the studio.

Album opener "Either Way" is a sleeper and could potentially be overlooked by many. This is a shame, because although it initially comes across as unassuming and deceptively simple, its masterfully layered, tasteful performances provide an excellent example of musical economy. "You are My Face" starts as a gentle ballad, then Nels Cline's inspired guitar work serves to transition the tune into a shuffling pop-ditty with playful organ figures, and then finally returns to where it started. "Impossible Germany", a recent live favorite, is one of the most immediately catchy tunes on the album and features a killer dual-guitar outro. The title track and "Please Be Patient With Me" find Tweedy in alt-country balladeer mode and the latter could be viewed as addressing the listener directly-- imploring us to hang in there until the album's second half picks up steam. The album's last three tracks are among the strongest: "Walken" is a top-tapping piano-led pop tune which features Tweedy employing his best McCartney-type falsetto in the choruses and some album's best guitar work; "What Light" is a weary, yet ultimately uplifting tune that, like "The Late Greats" from Ghost, vaguely refers to the modern music community; and "On and On and On" is an excellent closer that forgoes the album's breezy vibe for heavier subject matter, and thus, is the most emotionally-affecting tune present.

Every new Wilco album is greeted with a bit trepidation and uneasiness on the part of their fanbase, and Sky Blue Sky will be no different. What is different this time around is the fact that this album is difficult to pigeonhole stylistically. The album is not easily referenced by referring to one of their previous efforts, nor can it be easily tagged as falling within a particular genre (e.g., "experimental rock" or "alt-country", etc.). Provided listeners approach this album without preconceived notions that is too "soft-rock" or "easy listening" or particularly lofty expectations that is a "return to form" (whatever that really means) or "hits upon the best of the band's back catalog", they will undoubtedly find something they enjoy here.

Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment is that the band seems to have made the album they wanted to make on their own terms. Despite the amount of critical praise they've received and the fanbase they've garnered, they've done so without fear of how this album would be received by others. That type of move takes balls-- and taking these kinds of risks is part of what made Wilco great in the first place.

MP3: Wilco - "Impossible Germany"
MP3: Wilco - "Walken"

Buy the album here

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Handsome Furs - Plague Park

Handsome Furs are Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade guitarist/co-vocalist) and his fiancée, Alexei Perry. The duo will release their debut album, Plague Park, 5/22 on Sub Pop. While the dust has been slowly accumulating on Wolf Parade's excellent 2005 album Apologies to the Queen Mary for a little while now, Boeckner’s partner-in-crime, Spencer Krug, has remained quite busy during this downtime with various side-projects. These included an EP and the incredibly well-received full length Shut Up I'm Dreaming from his Sunset Rubdown project and the Swan Lake LP with buddies Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes and Dan Bejar of Destroyer and New Pornographers fame. Personal preferences regarding favorite Wolf Parade vocalist aside-- in the wake of Krug's side projects, it's fair to say that Boeckner has increasingly become known as the "other" dude in Wolf Parade.

Accordingly, Plague Park couldn't have came at a better time for Boeckner. He handles vocals, guitar, and keyboards, while his fiancée takes care of the drum machine programming and keys. But, make no mistake, this album sounds like a Boeckner solo project. His disenchanted vocals are featured prominently throughout, sounding fantastic and providing the album a good portion of its appeal. This short effort (9 tracks & 36.5 minutes) is fairly small in scope, but it is, by far and away, the strongest and most consistent Wolf Parade spin-off project to date. And, yes, this includes Shut Up I'm Dreaming.

A distinct big-city/rural tension is readily apparent on Plague Park-- not only in terms of lyrical content and song titles, but within the music itself. The juxtaposition of the traditional "rock" elements (ragged guitars, charismatic vocals) and the more synthetic elements (drum machine and keyboards) underscores this thematic restlessness. The urban isolation and open road escapism described in "Dead + Rural" resonates loud and clear when Boeckner repeats "wheels just spinning in the ground". Album standouts "Handsome Furs Hate This City" and "Cannot Get Started" also highlight this longing for change of scenery, but seem to recognize the fact that maybe what we're running away from has little to do with our immediate environs.

The lo-fi recording and sense of open space only gives these songs more character and serves to showcase Boeckner's unique and compelling vocal performance. Surprisingly, his voice sounds remarkably close to Beck's on a few of the tracks-- see, i.e., the great "Sing! Captain" and, to a lesser extent, "Hearts of Iron". He wisely forgoes any tendency to yelp (like his Wolf Parade brethen Krug) or to employ his Springsteen-esque drawl ala "This Hearts on Fire" from Apologies to the Queen Mary, making significant strides towards finding his own voice in the process.

With both Boeckner and Krug demonstrating they have no shortage of creative juices, the upcoming Wolf Parade album ought to be something special. Judging by their respective material outside of their main gig, it's becoming increasingly clear that one of Boeckner's roles in Wolf Parade is to rein-in Krug's more esoteric explorations and maintain their pop sensibilities. Animal Collective's Panda Bear and Avey Tare most likely share a similar working relationship, although their roles are not nearly as clear-cut. Plague Park is so strong that it just may re-ignite the classic 2005 indie-nerd "Krug vs. Boeckner" debate. Consequently, it's highly doubtful Boeckner will remain relegated to "other guy" status for long.

MP3: Handsome Furs - "Cannot Get Started"
MP3: Handsome Furs - "Handsome Furs Hate This City"

Download the album opener, "What We Had", via the band's MySpace page.

Buy the album here

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Man Man Live @ Southgate House, Newport KY 4/12

Last night marked my second time seeing Man Man and I did my part to spread the word by dragging about a handful of people to the show. This was also the second time I've seen the band at Newport, Kentucky's Southgate House and there's simply no other venue in the area that would be a good fit for them. Unfortunately, I didn't bring a camera. And we all know the cameras on cell phone generally blow, but I decided to take one from the balcony and posted it below. There was at least one other blogger in attendance who most likely snapped some fine pictures, so keep an eye on his blog.

The opener finally started around 9:45 or 10 and was relegated to performing on the floor-- as opposed to the stage-- for one reason or another. Once I heard them play a couple of songs, I no longer felt sorry for them in the least. They played some shoegazey instrumental brand of post-rock that just did not jive with the mood that should surround a Man Man gig. It seemed that everyone was anxiously, albeit politely, waiting for them to finish up throughout their set. The band was far too passive and I cannot even recall their name, as I do not think they even announced it-- at least in anything above a murmur.

Man Man did not disappoint. They donned their usual all white get-up and war paint and tore through a set comprised of a few new numbers from their forthcoming album (hopefully this fall??), a few from The Man In A Blue Turban With A Face, and a good portion of Six Demon Bag. The only new song I'm familiar enough with to recognize and comment on by name was "Zombies", which was making the rounds on the blogs yesterday and can be copped, along with a couple of other unreleased new tracks, here. Honus Honus and his crew brought their usual manic, swashbuckling energy despite obviously being a bit road-weary. Who wouldn't occasionally get tired performing the way these dudes do night after night? While he was chatting up someone-- presumably his lady-- on a cell phone in men's room, I overheard Honus say that he had hurt himself somehow the previous night. This might explain why the boys were marginally less crazy than usual on Thursday night.

The venue was at about 60% capacity and they drew a crowd about on par with the one for Ted Leo's most recent Southgate appearance. The enthusiastic crowd contained many that had never seen the band before and it is nice to see the band's extensive touring and positive live reviews are getting people out to the shows. We were fortunate enough to hear the amazing "Van Helsing Boombox", which the band did not play the last time I saw them and, according to the band, they reserve only for when the mood is right. Personal highlights included "Van Helsing Boombox" and the bat-shit crazy rendition of "Black Mission Goggles". If you've yet to catch these guys, you're missing out on one the best live acts in modern indie rock.

MP3: Man Man - "Van Helsing Boombox"

Also, I purchased a neat little 10" vinyl of Six Demon Bag at the show. Peep the pics below:

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Best of First Quarter 2007, Part. III

The third and final part of this series showcases a couple albums that I have spent a lot of time with over the past two months. This post will conclude the listing of what I view to be the Top 10 8 albums that have been released so far in 2007. It just so happened that when I finally had the motivation and time to start regularly posting again, my laptop hard drive died and I was without a computer for about a week and a half...but all is straight now. I was planning to discuss a couple of other records from earlier this year (Of Montreal & Patrick Wolf), but I'm ready to move on to some new stuff...The National, anyone? Following this post, we will be back to previews of upcoming records, highlighting lesser known acts, and individual tracks reviews/recommendations. Hope you enjoyed this quick series and thanks to everyone who, despite my lack of posts, still reads this thing.

The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
Expectations were off the charts for Neon Bible, the sophomore record from the Arcade Fire. Their widely loved 2004 debut Funeral was the album of the year and is one of the strongest albums of this decade. After a recent outbreak of the sophomore slump, (see, i.e., The Killers, Bloc Party, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah) a potent mixture of anxiety and excitement was in the air around the time when bits of the album started trickling out. When I first heard a few of the tracks that became available, I was not terribly confident this album would be nearly as good as it turned out to be. All was remedied once I heard the album in its entirety with the intended track sequencing. Thankfully, they did not set out to record Funeral part II nor did they undertake a radical stylistic departure; the band was smart enough to stick to their strengths and, as a result, produced a second great album. Comparisons between the two albums are inevitable, but they are, in many ways, two completely different beasts. Besides the thematic differences-- Funeral took internal pain and mourning and expressed them in a universal manner, while Neon Bible analyzes global events and makes them personal-- the scope of this album somehow feels smaller despite the use of huge church organ, ornate instrumentation, and political and religious lyrical content. This is a testament to just how epic and grand the debut really is. There is nothing on this album that quite packs the emotional punch of the two strongest tracks on Funeral, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" & "Wake Up" ("Intervention" is the closest), but with these phenomenal tracks notwithstanding, the albums are basically equivalent. The most important aspect of this album is that is solidifies the Arcade Fire as a band with definite staying power and, now officially, indie rock's premier act.

MP3: The Arcade Fire - "Keep the Car Running"
MP3: The Arcade Fire - "Intervention"

Modest Mouse - We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
Full disclosure: I'm a bit of a Modest Mouse fanboy. For one reason or another, I seem to be among the minority who claim to enjoy both their earlier material and Good News. This collection of songs is perhaps the most stylistically diverse yet from Isaac's ever-expanding troupe. There's a bit of everything here, as the album is bookended by a pair of aggressive teeth-clinched rockers ("March Into the Sea" & "Invisible") and, due in large part to backing vox from Shins frontman James Mercer, the midsection contains two of the most poppy songs of the band's career ("Missed the Boat" & "We've Got Everything"). First single "Dashboard" is the slickest thing yet from MM and even with the horns, strings, and disco-type feel, it still manages to sound like them. (Quick aside: Am I the only one who thinks this song is somehow reminiscent of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire"? I'm always wanting to sing, "woulda been, coulda been, Russians in Afghanistan" when I hear the verses) "Fire it Up" is probably my least favorite track and is a somewhat uneasy marriage of old-school Modest Mouse and nearly lowest common denominator accessibility, and as a result, has a distinct possibility of becoming a fratboy anthem. While clocking in a 5:37 and 8:30 respectively, the two longest tracks are among the best: "Parting of the Sensory" starts as an acoustic lament and evolves into a manic rave-up with its killer "steal your carbon!" outro and "Spitting Venom" contains expert shifts in dynamics (from quiet folkish top-tapper to loud guitar-driven indie rocker and back) and a triumphant horn-driven second half. These two are the type of works only a band this seasoned is capable of producing. Even though the original concept (envisioned as a concept album about a boat crew that dies in every song), was mostly abandoned, a distinct maritime/nautical feel still remains. The many faces of Isaac all make an appearance on this album, as he yells, barks, howls, croons, and talks (often within the same song) his way through these 14 tracks. For an incredibly accurate and detailed diagnosis of Isaac's multiple personalities see Will Hermes's Interview with the band in the most recent issue of Spin. The album ends strong with two excellent tracks, the awkwardly-titled "People as Places as People" finds Brock and crew at their most comfortable and the aforementioned rocking closer ties things together nicely. Is this their best album? No. Is this another fine entry into their already stellar catalog? Most definitely.

MP3: Modest Mouse - "Missed the Boat"
MP3: Modest Mouse - "People As Places As People"

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