Dance music for people who must really, really hate dance music, Black Magic often feels more like a call into space than a call to the floor. Bells, Bass, and White Noise occupy it at every turn, making it sound sparse and alien in a fascinating way. It’s a race to see what BM does to you first: Puts you in a trance, or makes your foot tap. Trust me: It’s one or the other.
Coming from the same school of orchestral pop as Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird, Pallet stepped out from behind his moniker Final Fantasy this year with the strikingly beautiful and immaculately crafted Heartland. Each song is dense and wonderful, Pallet’s voice staying mild and mannered as the song structure becomes more and more complex and spell-binding. Built to sparkle, Heartland is one of the year’s greatest offerings in the name of craftsmanship.
Much like Cee-lo’s effort (well, ok, only in this respect, really), Big Echo is an album with one priceless gem of a song (Excuses) surrounded by an impressive supporting cast. Even if BE never again reaches the heights of its opening Five and a Half Minutes, the jaunty acoustic strum of Cold War, the sudden rise in intensity of Hand Me Downs, or any other number of shimmering moments should not be discounted. The Morning Benders make the same kind of harmonizing, poured-over pop as contemporaries like Grizzly Bear and Local Natives, but they do it in their own singular fashion.
The Black Keys don’t really mess around with new sounds too often, and why should they? Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney simply have no peers when it comes to their southern rock bluesy-poppers. Almost like Coldplay did when Radiohead left most of their old style behind, TBK seems to have watched and learned from The White Stripes, and if their songs still aren’t as exciting, they're certainly more finely tuned. To listen to Brothers is to hear hooks, grooves, and singable chorus’ being churned out by the dozen.
Menomena is one of those bands who only makes offerings that sound endlessly exacting, dissected and reassembled over and over again until perfect in their artist’s eyes. Mines does absolutely nothing to break away from this trend, though its songs are hewn a bit closer to conventional verse-chorus-verse than usual. Somehow, this makes them no less exciting, any number of instruments popping up at any moment, dramatic changes is sound and tone possible at any second. A beauty tailor made for replay value.
White Magic is enormous, lush and varied, all within Twenty Eight minutes, and just Eight tracks. Eric Berglund’s side project is synth heavy and 80’s recalling more often than not, but it’s the breaks from this, such as majestic opener All Around, or the mid-song Spanish Guitar of the title track, that make the whole of the thing exciting, and unpredictable. Occasionally not for the cheese adverse, WM is bright-eyed and peppy, as well as nostalgic and longing, often at the same time, a tasty concoction for those who can accept motivational lyrics.
Avey Tare’s solo debut by now appears to have officially been met with a whisper instead of a bang. The cause of death, by my estimation, was its lack of any real single to carry the thing. But what Down There lacks in catchiness or stand-out moments, it makes up for in its full exploration of the haunted swampland in which Tare chose to lay its scene. Listened to from front to back, the thing really does sound like a journey, from the slow-build swirl of opener Laughing Hieroglyphic all the way to the joyous escape of closer Lucky 1. Deep, detailed, and dark, Down There is more of a journey than a collection of songs, and a vivid example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Giant shifts in musical stylings are a bit risky where audiences are concerned. Equally fatal are unavoidable comparisons to superior albums. For both of these reasons, the new electronic focus and the enormous shadow of Merriweather Post Pavilion, Fight Softly didn’t see the Ruby Suns into the next step of indie pop stardom, but by my count, it had every right to. Sure, these are not The Ruby Suns of old, but they sure do know how to make the sun shine though sound, warmth and brightness around every corner without ever slipping into easy sentiment. As sure to plant a smile on your face as any album this year.
Fang Island’s self-titled disc begins with a light, blissful note that gives way to singing that's joyous, and ragged. This lasts for two minutes, and then the boys get down to it. FI is a band that loves to jam, concocting one poppy little rock riff after another. They don’t bother singing too often; you get the feeling that they just don’t find it to be as fun as rocking out. But the words are there when they need to be, providing triumphant chants just when their tunes need them, and getting out of the way the rest of the time. Fang Island’s record might not be as fussed over and exact as the rest of the year's best, but it sure does sound like the most fun to make.
Much like The Black Keys, Wolf Parade is a brand for specific people, and I am one of them. Though Krug and Boeckner both could (and do) sustain their own great bands, they form one hell of a two-headed monster of rowdy pop rock. Trading off vocal and songwriting duties, the two frontman and the band recorded nearly all of Expo 86 live in studio. Being a band that has a lot of different things going on musically, 86 could have benefitted from the same mixing abilities of the band’s last two efforts, but here they trade them for energy and tightness. Slow-burn rock jams are what Wolf Parade does, and if you’ve ever gone hoarse from singing at raspy full blast to the radio on your way home from work, you might want to check this one out.
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