20 November 2009

Album Review: Jupiter One - Sunshower

Indie rock is a curious thing when so many of its perpetrators practice a genre that doesn't sound like actual rock--a movement that all too often thinks that awesome, horns-throwing music should be restrained, perhaps made more subtle, because to do otherwise would destroy any image of being cool, which might as well be all that matters to the band. Let's be frank, we've seen a scores of "serious" indie rockers ever since the recording studio was democratized: young musicians in skinny jeans trying to look nonchalant while pretending to go wild. That kind of half-hearted disinterest only succeeds when the music itself is credible.

Jupiter One is not ready to (or simply not good at) pulling off this delicate balancing act with Sunshower, released in the third quarter of 2009. The band's photo in the liner notes gives off that "Oh yeah, we're all just chilling with our instruments; you wanna take a photo? Nah, we don't mind..." vibe, as does, unfortunately, their music. The record starts out well enough, striking up cosmic riffs and revving up the intro with the falsetto "ahhhs" that made the Flaming Lips famous. Turning down the spacey knob a notch, the band does its best VHS Or Beta impression for the verse before switching into the symphony-sprinkled chorus lite, full-flavored without overexerting itself. The average listener would expect roughly the same kind of rock for the other 10 songs. Oh, how you are led to believe this notion! After this flashy starter, the band throws you into "Lights Go Out," a credible body mover that dances through its rhythms, alternating between post-punk's fastest riffs and the most bombastic chords Interpol could think of. K Ishibashi meanwhile croons like he's auditioning for a spot in Bloc Party, and all feels right. So, hey, that style is nailed down. Why not switch up things next song?

And so, "Flaming Arrow" presents an almost whimsical folk rock ballad about arson, and this is where the album missteps for the first time. Everything from this point loses the luster exerted so amiably . "Made in a Day" is "Lights Go Out" lite, adding organ hums and violin whines to what should be indie rock with dance pop sensibilities; instead, we get something cutesy and not so much sung as pled. Deciding to confuse us, next we get "Anna," which jumps in with power pop chords that Boston once rejected. As the first verse bridges into the chorus, the band brings in an industrial-sized vat of kitsch and slathers on the early 80s glam rock, complete with organ swirl and Beach Boys-style cries backing up the punchy rhythm.

And then the band just gives up. We're treated to dance duds nothing like the first half, like "Simple Stones," which is too laid back to sound interested and sounds like elevator muzak for 20-something kids from New York. "High Plains Drifter Finds the Oracle at Delphi" plods along at a maddening pace but tries to make up for it by just slathering on cheese on the melody, alternately tickling the listener with sitar, strings, glockenspiel, woodwinds, and a smooth pop, licked by some strange abomination that sounds like Barry White without soul. The rest of the album wouldn't be worth mentioning if not for "Come On," which carries a faux new wave sound in the name of The Killers without giving up its soft harmonic riffs and roaring chorus blasts, supplemented with "you can't be seriously that dramatic" strings.

The resulting collection of songs sounds about as fractured as a cyclist trying to pedal frantically at 50 miles an hour through a sea of bricks. Sure, you get some solid indie rock that takes cues from respectable new wave and nearly-dance pop; at the same time you get some schmaltzy power pop that Julian Casablancas thankfully chose not to throw into his classic rock-tinged solo album released not too long ago--and I haven't yet mentioned the bizarre folk rock ditties. Why are they there? Why? Why?

There's no good answer. It all sounds like a bad impression of an indie rock band too much in love with itself and whatever it can do. Yes, Jupiter One apparently feels justified in joining together whatever music it comes up with, even if the song choices match up like they were all thrown together at random. The band's got some knack for pop--the first few songs bear that out--but when not in top shape the music is lazy. Seriously, the last half of the record sounds like breakfast for hipsters--its too full of itself to care about the music.

Why? It's just that good.

No. It isn't.

18 November 2009

Dethklok/Mastodon/Converge/High on Fire @ The Marquee 11/17/2009

High on Fire is one of the better bands around currently in my opinion, and thankfully that opinion has led to me seeing them headline or play more prominent positions on a few tours, since there was no possible way for me to arrive at 5:30 for their set (a time made even more ridiculous given that the entire show was aver by about 10). I will assume they rocked as usual though and plan to catch them on their next trip through.

Converge played a fairly lengthy set considering their lower slot on the tour, but I was glad to see it. As one of the only metalcore bands who releases CDs I consistently enjoy, it was interesting to see them live. In some ways the music seemed even more aggressive live, but I believe that in part that was due to the muddling of the instruments live which made it even more of a wall of sound (also the kick drum was ridiculously powerful). It was disappointing but not surprising to see so little of the sold-out or nearly so venue really getting into the music. It feels a little cheap seeing these guys on such a commercial tour.

Mastodon played a similar set to what they did when they last came through on a headlining tour, with the entirety of Crack the Skye followed by a couple of old songs. Given that they were not headlining though, the second set of songs was smaller and, frankly, the ones chosen were a bit of a disappointment. The background videos have been improved since last time and are much more coherent and involved in the songs. It's a shame they didn't have as good a video background on the last tour so that both elements of good could have occurred in the same set.

Dethklok was absolutely entertaining start to finish. Though I expected only a screen with music being performed off stage, I was surprised to see the screen going the entire time, but with the full band also on stage, though not interacting with the crowd at all (though Brendan Smalls got into characters for that which was fun). The videos were great, though possibly less entertaining for those who watch the show (I do not, so I have no idea if it was all excerpts or if it was original material). The inter-song videos were also quite fun and helped maintain continuity in the show while the musicians got their rest...much more effectively than most bands are able to pull it off in fact. This felt like a complete show start to finish. Quite cool, I'd see these guys live again even though I don't love the music as much as many other bands just for the show.

06 November 2009

Album Review: Noah and the Whale - The First Days of Spring

This album is not so much a pistol as a shotgun, its ideas roughly discernible as a concept album. Here we have Noah and the Whale, trading bright, poppy folk for gloom. Here the listener is treated to not one but nearly a dozen songs of longing and distress. Not as much cerebral as melodramatic, it's difficult to admit that this record has any staying power.

This is a breakup album--every song on the album makes clear you know that. And while repetition gets the point across, redundant repetition drowns out of the point, and we are left to focus only on the minutiae, where every song is the same by its unity of theme. While we the audience are told from the beginning that spring is starting, no chronological progression is made, even as we are told that this is a concept album, that the narrator is progressing.

Progression is slow, reversible, sidestepped, even redefined. Virtually the same palette of sounds plays throughout the record. I do not slight The First Days of Spring for reusing instruments (as that is never a crime for a band, except in electronica), but the intended impression upon the reader's mind is only slightly changed from tune to tune. I can break down the mood into archetypes: slow, deep, drums, with a slow riff played in the alto range of an electric guitar; light airs played on a piano like wind chimes--the beauty of life; janglyacoustic guitar--raw heart; a violin with a legato like an elephant is tall--the undying romanticism of the hopeless narrator; that ol ' "get all the indie kids together" ensemble, completely with jangly acoustic guitar (the band probably owes Architecture in Helsinki royalties). Now, some diversity stands, but the presence is unmistakably novel.

For the most part, the above mentioned ensemble of ideas is repeated and mixed. Any attempts to sketch the plot will result in just that: a sketch. There's really only a few points of note: spring starts and the narrator has no girlfriend ("The First Days of Spring"). Regret, denial. A weird perpendicular shoot into happy denial ("Love of an Orchestra")? Back down to Earth ("Instrumental II"). Sleeps with a stranger to prove he's not attached anymore ("Stranger"). Even stronger denial that he's still in love with her--claiming he is no longer concerned with his ex-girlfriend ("Slow Glass"), even though she's mentioned for every single song until the album ends. The narrator claims that he failed her and she failed him ("My Door Is Always Open"). End.

Huh? Even as the motifs play out and this slow-moving eleven-song ballad depart, I can only say that the album fails its parts. Too many ideas play out. The orchestral bump in Love of an Orchestra never attempts to unite its differences with the more baroque outlook of the rest of the album. In the end, this is no more a tale of recovering from loss than the ennui of modern infatuation, captured in amber for the world to hear for as long as MP3s will be spread around--for Noah and the Whale and possibly the indie movement, love is not just an emotion or state of mind but a separation from society. Being cut off becomes isolation from not just love but society itself. The problem is that this view is only melodrama. Unfortunately, that is the only view The First Days of Spring is capable of expressing.