Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: She & Him – Classics

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With her old-timey voice and penchant for vintage garb, it’s kind of surprising that Zooey Deschanel hasn’t released an album solely of (non-Christmas) classic covers before now. However, the latest album from She & Him, simply titled Classics, now fills that void.

Teaming once again with M. Ward, Deschanel adds her smoky quirk to a string of familiar favourites. (Even if you don’t recognize them by name, you’ll likely know at least some of the songs on this album.) Whether or not that’s a good thing is almost entirely dependent on how much you like Deschanel’s voice and how much you buy her as a “real” musician.

Personally, I’ve been a fan of Deschanel’s voice since I heard her memorable rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in the movie Elf. So when I heard that she was teaming with M. Ward (who I was already a fan of as a solo artist) to form She & Him, I was pretty excited. And while I wouldn’t say that I’ve been disappointed by their output, none of their albums have really captivated me in the way I might have hoped. I mean, it’s not really a case of false advertising, because if you’re looking for gentle, retro pop nuggets, that’s what you’ll find on any of their five LPs. The music has just never felt that inspired to me and, perhaps especially in the case of Classics, that trend continues.

The songs themselves are lovely; they are (as the title of the album suggests) classics for a reason. But from the lounge-y swing of opener “Stars Fell on Alabama” onwards, the album feels like something Deschanel could record in her sleep. That said, the softly swooning “Oh No, Not My Baby” does nicely showcase both the bottom and upper parts of her vocal range that we don’t often hear. And She & Him’s torch-y, echoing take on “Unchained Melody” here is mesmerizing. But on the whole, the album is full of expected – though well-executed – covers.

One strength of Classics is that it gives Ward more of a voice than we’ve heard in the past. It’s still Deschanel’s show, no doubt, but it’s nice to see the “Him” of She & Him step into the spotlight a little bit more. The most obvious example would be the track “She”, which (ironically) finds Ward taking on lead vocals with his gorgeous raspy tone. “Time After Time”, a true duet between Deschanel and Ward, also serves a somewhat lively highpoint for the album.

It’s hard to find a lot to say about this very pleasant but rather uninspired collection. I found A Very She & Him Christmas to be a more successful cover album, as the holiday theme tied in perfectly with Deschanel’s wholesome-sounding, straightforward vocals. The low-key Classics, meanwhile, just ends up sounding a bit sleepy and dated.

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Album Review: Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

sonic highwaysHave the Foo Fighters become a parody of themselves? Their latest LP, Sonic Highways, makes a very compelling argument that this may be the case. Or, at the very least, it seems to be the final confirmation that Dave Grohl has befallen the same fate as so many musicians before him: Once at the cutting edge and involved with something big, his music now feels both hopelessly out of date and like a airless echo of what it once was.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Foo Fighters have ever been a groundbreaking band. Their sound vacillates between “accessible alt rock” and “accessible hard rock”, and there’s a good chance that your dad likes “Everlong”. Additionally, Grohl had the “misfortune” of having come up through the ranks by drumming for Nirvana – arguably the most revered rock band to emerge in the past 25 years – thus unknowingly ensuring that anything he did afterwards would pale by comparison. But considering that the Foos have now been releasing music for nearly five times as many years as Grohl spent in Nirvana, the band has had amazing longevity. Early hits like “Big Me” and “Learn To Fly” are still in high rotation on alt rock radio, and their past two albums (2011’s Wasting Light and 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace) were generally well-received. But whether it’s just the fact that Grohl’s straight-ahead brand of rock has fallen out of favour and or if he’s aging out of relevance, Sonic Highways is easily the most out-of-touch thing the band has done to date.

The album’s most befuddling and boated offering is its ill-advised medley, “What Did I Do?/God As My Witness”. The first half sounds like much of the bland cock rock that makes up the rest of the album, while the second half stretches into a drawn-out torch ballad that finds Grohl declaring over and over again, “With God as my witness/I’m going to heal my soul tonight”.

The Foo Fighters have for the most part avoided the dreaded “post-grunge” label, likely thanks to Grohl’s own legit grunge pedigree. But this album is undeniably post-grunge. From blandly chugging tracks like “Outside” to the frantic, screechy lead single “Something From Nothing”, this whole album is the sonic equivalent of someone taking a Ferrari for a leisurely drive around a retirement community and thinking that they look really cool as they do it. The genuine urgency and excitement of older Foo tracks like “Best of You” and “Headwires” is nowhere to be found. Nor is the more varied, thoughtful introspection of songs like “Stranger Things Have Happened” or “Next Year”. Grohl and company instead seem to operate on one gear for the duration of Sonic Highways: generic guitar rock.

However, the album is not without its bright spots. The sprawling “Subterranean”, while still a bit overblown with its soaring electric guitars, comes the closest to the textured mid-tempo offerings that the Foos have done so well in the past and offers a nice reprieve from all of the album’s riff-heavy offerings. “Congregation”, meanwhile, successfully achieves the arena rock sound the bands seems to covet by offering a strong hook and an impassioned vocal delivery from Grohl.

With this latest collection of songs, Grohl seems like he’s both grumbling about “kids today” not appreciating rock & roll music while still making a slightly desperate grab at relevance. I don’t know if there’s still a place for the Foo Fighters’ music in today’s musical landscape, but such a middle-of-the-road album certainly isn’t a great argument for why we should make room for them.

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Album Review: Damien Rice – My Favourite Faded Fantasy

mfffFor people of a certain age and a certain propensity for melancholy, Damien Rice was and possibly still is a big deal. (Just ask Josh Radnor.) I’m one of those people. After I caught up with his 2003 debut, O, I spent more hours than I care to admit alone in my room basking in teenage/Damien Rice-induced dramatics. I then went out and bought 2006’s 9 as soon as it was released, and I slowly grew to love it, too. I waited eagerly for his next album. But as the time passed, my enthusiasm waned. And eventually, after five years or so, I sort of stopped waiting altogether.

Eight years later, we finally get a follow up.

Sonically speaking, Rice’s new LP, My Favourite Faded Fantasy, more or less picks up where his last album left off. 9 saw Rice add lush string arrangements and more general bombast to his already dramatic sound. But for me, 9 works so well because it’s unpredictable. One minute, it’s just Rice and an acoustic guitar. The next, it sounds like all of John Williams’ orchestra is backing him up. The beauty of that album is that the drama can come and go in the blink of an eye and that it somehow never feels incongruous with Rice’s authentic singer-songwriter persona.

Now, My Favourite Faded Fantasy ups the production values and the bombast even more, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Every song on this new album seems to trace a similar path: it starts with a whispery Rice backed by gentle strings and then builds to a big crescendo before eventually fading out by the end. It’s not only a more predictable and less interesting format, but it also gives credence to one of the criticisms that’s frequently lobbed Rice’s way: it all gets a bit maudlin. Take “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man”, for instance.  At nine and a half minutes, it’s the album’s longest track (though not by much), and even the song’s spare piano outro grows into an unbelievably drawn-out, horn and electric guitar-tinged affair. If I could wish one trait upon this album, it would be restraint.

The production boost on this album also tends to obscure Rice’s voice, which is arguably his strongest suit as a musician; the bare ache in his vocals is what made O so dynamic. I dare say that he’s lost some of the vulnerability in his delivery since then. Maybe he’s just out of practice after eight years, or maybe he’s mellowed with age a bit. Neither option is a bad one. But rather with working with what he has, Rice seems to overcompensate with somewhat overbearing instrumentation. Even on one of the album’s simplest and most lovely songs, “The Greatest Bastard” (which sounds like a parody song title, doesn’t it?) Rice can’t seem to resist throwing in soaring strings by the end. It makes it seem…well, a bit cheesy.

However, this isn’t to say that the album doesn’t have some really strong moments. “Colour Me In” is sparse and quiet (at least for the first half of the song), beautifully showcasing both Rice’s bellow and his wounded whisper. As well, “I Don’t Want to Change You” is one of My Favourite Faded Fantasy’s tightest offerings and its mournful string backing comes across as dynamic and lovely, rather than overwhelming.

As a fan of Rice, it’s undeniably exciting to have an album’s worth of new material from him. There’s a lot here to like, and as with his previous albums, it’s likely to reveal new facets and depth on subsequent listens. However, it’s also hard not to hear My Favourite Faded Fantasy as an album shrouded in uncertainty. I’m all for a comeback, but perhaps Rice has been out of the game a bit too long.

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Album Review: Ty Segall – Manipulator

ty segallTy Segall has been cranking out albums full of blistering garage rock for years, and while I’ve been a casual listener and always enjoyed what I heard, his latest LP, Manipulator, takes Segall to heights that I haven’t heard from him before.

This album holds the ideal ratio of hooks to theatricality; for every string-backed swoop of falsetto that Manipulator offers, Segall also peppers a bit of accompanying melodic mega-wattage. Segall’s voice is perfectly suited to ‘70s rock opera flare – dare I invoke The Darkness here? – but also to the throat-shredding yowls of punk-influenced lo-fi. This LP is certainly an interesting melding of the two styles.

It’s fun to hear Segall show off his dramatic side on surprisingly lush tracks like “The Singer”. His falsetto is in fine form here throughout the LP, and it certainly adds to the dynamism of the Manipulator. Same goes for the flamenco guitars and violins that propel “The Singer” along pleasantly. But Segall’s true strength comes out in the album’s more abrasive tracks, such as in the blistering riffage of “Tall Man, Skinny Lady” and the chiming guitar rock of “The Faker”.

That said, the album never gets too shaggy, which might actually be to its detriment. Part of this can likely be attributed to the Manipulator’s decidedly glam-y bent, but the slightly lighter touch does little to enhance Segall’s songwriting. The guitar solos feel restrained and there’s a polish to the production that feels a little at odds with the sneer in Segall’s voice. This dissonance comes through especially strongly in songs like “The Hand”, a decent but surprisingly middle-of-the-road track from Segall.

There’s a lot of killer stuff to be found here, but at 55 minutes long, the album feels a little overstuffed and sadly threatens to overstay its welcome. The sonic experimentation is interesting, and much of it works, but if Segall had shaved off a few tracks and kept the runtime under 40 minutes, I think this album could have been near perfect. But while Segall’s varied influences seem to be at odds with each other, the album’s swooping, guitar-driven tracks like “The Feels” work so well that Manipulator’s modest amount of filler can be forgiven but not entirely overlooked.

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Album Review: Spoon – They Want My Soul

spoonHas there ever been a cooler uncool band than Spoon? It’s open to debate, sure, but Brit Daniel and company are so clean-cut and their sound is so precise that the music has no business rocking as hard as it does. But here we are – 20 years and 8 LPs in – and Spoon sounds just as vibrant as ever.

They Want My Soul offers much of the same jaunty indie rock that we’ve come to expect from the Austin natives, but they also show growth as a band. It’s their first album since 2010’s Transference, and after that strong but slightly stilted collection of songs, it seems like Spoon is back to their looser, quietly rabble-rousing selves.

The album opens with “Rent I Pay”, which is the sort of visceral garage rock that always feels a bit unexpected from Spoon. But they do it well, giving Daniel ample opportunity to show off his snarl. It’s easy to see why they would pick the propulsive track as the first song to show off from the album, but it’s really just a hint of what’s to come from the rest of They Want My Soul.

One of the strengths of They Want My Soul is that it offers many different faces of Spoon while still feeling cohesive. “Rainy Taxi” is urgent with its pleading lyrics and unrelenting percussion. As the chorus builds to something both aggressive and aggressively tuneful, it’s hard not to feel like Spoon is at the top of their game. The same goes for “Do You”, the album’s perfectly jangling lead single. It’s poppy and upbeat but Daniel’s rasp hints at something darker; Spoon is a band that’s great at presenting something pretty and buttoned-up on the surface but that reveals something much more sinister with a little prodding.

They Want My Soul is full of indelible hooks and songs like “Let Me Be Mine” offer the bouncy, driving catchiness that Spoon is at least partially known for. However, the album veers off track a little bit when the band reaches for something a little more unconventional. “Inside Out”, for example, has a more instrumentally stripped-down sound that Spoon has found success with in the past, but it’s never been my favourite mode for the band. The electronic loops and string flourishes just aren’t all that interesting, and the vocal melody is far less compelling than most of the album’s other tracks. Sure, it’s a meditative and sort of chilled-out song, but to me, Spoon isn’t a band that can really get away with playing it cool.

On the whole, though, They Want My Soul is a strong effort from the band, and it comes close to matching the pop bliss of their superb 2007 LP, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. They don’t really reinvent their sound here, but as They Want My Soul’s best tracks prove, Spoon is so good at what they do that it doesn’t really matter.

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