23 February 2014

voices || phantogram || 2014

It's a rare and beautiful thing to pull off a truly genre-bending album while retaining a core sound, and that is exactly what Phantogram has done here. I found this album in my inbox, sent by a friend whose recommendations I trust (as he has yet to mislead me; it was he who convinced me to give Daft Punk another chance when Random Access Memories was released last year). I was expecting synthpop based superficially on the band's name and the album cover, but the first track proved a pleasant surprise and the rest of the album went with the flow.

"Nothing But Trouble" is a straight-up trip hop song, the likes of which I've heard nothing similar to since '90s tracks by Sneaker Pimps, Portishead, and Tricky. All the grinding, industrial elements are over a crunchy drum track, which contrasts very nicely with Sarah Barthel's airy vocals.

It's at "Never Going Home" that the album takes its first surprising turn. Suddenly, the trip hop has become shoegaze-style noisy indie rock with Josh Carter singing and sounding very much like a modern Phil Collins. The lyrics are a beautiful desperate plea to a "dying" lover, though it's not explained if this impending death is literal, or merely the potential end of a relationship. It works either way, much like one of my favorite songs of all time: Shakespears Sister's "Stay." Definitely the high point of the album for me.

Barthel is back on vocals for "The Day You Died," another breakup tune but with more traditional pop sensibilities. The trip hop beat still looms in the background.

"Howl At The Moon" is a flawless trip hop track that stands above its peers thanks to its slightly higher-than-average BPM for that genre. Again, Barthel's vocals are flawless and contrast perfectly with the instruments.

Not sure what I was expecting from a song called "Bill Murray," but according to Carter: "We named it ’Bill Murray’ because we always pictured a sad Bill Murray for the visuals of that song. We want him to be in the music video." Hmm, okay, cool. Very pretty downtempo song; I'm sure Bill is honored.

There's something here for lovers of all kinds of alternative pop music. While not every single track has a memorable personality, there are some shining moments, and the overall listening experience is pleasant, almost soothing.


01 February 2014

bad blood || bastille || 2013

I had to wait for the right day to listen to this album, since I knew it would be a moody experience. Prior to my full listen, I'd only heard "Pompeii" and "Laura Palmer," so I was expecting brooding, full-wall-of-sound indie pop that really only works when it's grey outside, and by that benchmark, I'm a satisfied customer.

"Pompeii" is such an unlikely radio hit in 2013, but damn is it refreshing to finally see some new faces charting well on the Hot 100 instead of the career tributes we've been stuck with for the last 6 or 7 years. Every now and then a song like this pops up, something that's unique enough to briefly become a massive hit, but then we never hear from the artist again (see: Tinie Tempah, Taio Cruz, Far East Movement, etc.). I fear that's the path our dear Bastille is headed for, but I can still hope for the best. The song's true signature is the chanting riff that drives through most of it, which I haven't heard since the '90s.

Unfortunately, one of the pratfalls of creating a unique sound is that it's easy to create an album of 12 songs that run together and are indistinguishable. Lorde is an excellent example of someone who escaped this trap, but Bastille seems to fall right into it, at least for the first half of their album. "Things We Lost In The Fire" and "Bad Blood" are both mid-tempo and pretty forgettable. The production on "Overjoyed" ventures into Owl City territory.

My ears didn't particularly perk up again until "Oblivion," the first true ballad on the album. Vocalist Daniel Smith's performance isn't really different here than on the rest of the tracks, but it's a nice change of pace to hear him without loud instrumentation and backing vocals.

"Flaws" could become a college romance anthem if it reaches the appropriate audience. It's by far the most interesting lyrical content on the album, wherein the singer challenges his lover to drop all pretense and have a completely unguarded moment together.

My only complaint about "Laura Palmer" is that there isn't more direct allusion to the brilliant Twin Peaks. It's a pretty song though, and certainly follows the same sonic formula as "Pompeii." The music video is also worth a watch.

Bastille definitely creates a mood with this album and remains consistent through and through. It's worth a listen on a melancholy day.