Friday, April 4, 2014

5 Best Albums in March 2014

March may not have been as backloaded with high profile heavy hitters as February, but there are a couple records here that will likely end up on a number of year end best of lists. These were the five I thought lead the league last month. All very different recordings, each with their own own charms and loveable ugliness.

Elbow - The Take Off and Landing Of Everything

In some ways it is hard to believe this is the sixth album from these gentlemen. It is also maybe hard to believe that their debut was released within the same twelve months as Coldplay's debut back in '00-01. Sadly, but maybe not surprisingly, Elbow have clearly never achieved even close to the same level of international success or notoriety. Emerging from the same era of bands as Doves, Travis, and company, Elbow have never wavered from what makes them such solid song craftsmen. People have fairly described them as one of the most dependable active bands. This new record not only has them sticking to their strengths, but there is an ease with their place in the current music game, that perhaps could make this their strongest effort to date.

The songscapes as usual are gorgeously composed and the mature themes and above average musicianship really shine on this record. Guy Harvey's voice still echoes unapologetically of Peter Gabriel, and his words continue to be thought provoking and engaging for listeners. This is a world class band, who are beyond comfortable in their skin and with their place among younger bands getting much more attention. I am so thrilled with how this album turned out. For people who love Coldplay, but have never heard Elbow, that is really too bad, but it is never too late.




Trust - Joyland

This second record from Toronto's Trust, is largely the solo work of main dude Robert Alfons. This album, as with the last, continues to see Trust discussed in circles with the likes of other Canadian electronic artists such as Grimes, Austra, Purity Ring, and Crystal Castles. Understandable, but for anyone who spends even a few minutes with Joyland, it should be obvious this is a pretty different animal from that very respectable company Alfons has been thrown in with. On tracks like "Geryon" you can hear the thumpy weirdness of Swedish synth gods, the Knife, but this record has an unmistakable listenable quality more akin to early 80's and late 70's synth. This is a synth album with modern elements of electronic music thrown in, and not the other way around.

On this album, Alfons seems more comfortable vocally, with natural pieces of falsetto incorporated over his more staple gothish delivery. Some dark synth stuff these days gets lost in posturing. This record carries an eeriness throughout, no question, but never shies away from melody. The synth track isolation midway through the title song, for instance, perfectly highlights the deliberate breeziness of the album. "Are We Arc?" even has moments where it could be OMD, but with Bauhaus-esque vocals. Joyland is a very 2014 sounding electronic album, and epitomizes perfectly what a dark synthesizer album should sound like. One where you can actually press play, bob your head quite a bit, and sink into the inherent sadness without needing to throw yourself into a pit of fire. Unless you are really into that sort of thing, in which case have at it.




Liars - Mess

Liars have never made the same record twice. Not even close. They may also be philosophically the same band as they were in 2001 on their debut, but Mess is about 180 degrees removed from how they sounded then. Admittedly, I have never been a huge Liars fan, nor have have I ever disliked them. I have found some of their output challenging beyond being enjoyable to me, but always kind of respected them for trying things that may or may not work. 2014 appears to be the year they decided to release a record that absolutely works for these ears of mine in every way. The increased use of electronic layers on their last album, WIXIW, was clearly, in retrospect, a sign of where they were looking to go next. Make no mistake though, this is still not for everyone, and I am not sure they will be opening for Mumford and Sons or their ilk on the strength of this one.

Mess feels like a band standing on a mountain proclaiming that this is where electronic music should be heading. As with just about every Liars recording, listenability is not the first consideration with these songs. Many of them are played from down in the mud or a scary factory basement, but there is a haunting repetition in rhythm and flow on songs like "Boyzone" that create, if nothing, an illusion that the band is interested to engage in a bit more of a friendly way with listeners. I am not sure Mess will make these guys a household name (I'm also pretty sure they don't give a fuck), but if my reaction is any indication, there will be those who have similarly sat on the fence, appreciating and respecting what these guys have been doing, and we are now finally able to participate a bit more. This is a fearless record from a fearless band.




Eagulls - Eagulls

Over the years it has become increasingly tricky to know whether Joy Division influenced post-punk type sounding bands are from the US or the UK. When I first heard the self titled debut from Eagulls however, I had to check, and found out they were from Leeds. Perhaps it is because the vocals have a bit more English affection, but regardless, there is still something aesthetically appealing to me with bands that sound more like UK post-punk than US punk. I recognize it is a bit of a silly hair splitting exercise really, since bands in this category who have recently brought solid energy and upbeat in your face type riffing, have tended to be North American. I think of Metz from Toronto for instance, but I digress.

There is a complexity in the songs here, even if they are framed in simple focused furious attacks of upbeat vocal blasts and tempo runs. Unlike a band like Metz though, there is clear effort to give these songs corners and hooks that pre-empt and sit on top of the fuzzy wall of noise. The playing is loose enough that these songs could never reside up on a shelf with so many pretty things, but the deliberateness of their approach to make compact songs means they also have no interest to be seen as just another silly sloppy punk band. "Tough Luck" is a great choice for a single. It has licks and riffs that pull from the standard New Order and Cure trough, but the singer's vocals maintain the same urgency that never wavers throughout the record. These are ten tight, potent, and listenable post-punk songs that never veer into tripe anthemic whoa whoa sing along stuff. I love this record more every time I listen. Likely to be a real sleeper favourite in 2014 for music nerds.





Future Islands - Singles

This is the fourth recording by Future Islands. Thanks in part to a superb and well shared online performance on Letterman, it could also very well be the record where larger numbers of people start paying attention to these lads. I was aware of the band prior to Singles, but sadly had never spent much time with their catalogue. Irrespective of the semi-viral late night clip, this album stands on its own as a tremendous collection of songs, but also as the sign of a band who are clearly hitting their stride quite nicely. They get described as an electro pop or a synth pop band, but that label feels a bit unfair to these guys. Sure there are synthy pop sounds, and maybe it is the exceptional vocal work of Samuel T. Herring that sets them apart from other bands in that crowd, but these are exquisite pop songs that just happen to have synths. Plain and simple.

As with the performance that has recently put them on a wider radar for folks, I find Herring's singing occasionally a bit forced, but I think it is more a case of adjusting to such a prominent vocal approach juxtaposed against classically simple pop song structures. It is unusual, wonderful and refreshing to hear a singer singing modern pop songs who sounds more like Al Green than Bernard Sumner. Whenever voice and lyrics become the focal point of three minute pop songs, it takes a pretty special singer to pull it off seamlessly. Many reviews have been and will continue to be focused on Herring. The playing here is extremely competent, and the songs are top tier, but there are just few other pop bands right now with their words being delivered so passionately and sincerely. There is not one bad song on Singles. Ten perfectly crafted and executed pop songs. Lovely melodies, interesting yet familiar chords and notes. This record should have appeal to every kind of music listener, regardless of their typical stripes.





Honourable:

Tycho - Awake
We Are Scientists - Tv En Francais
La Dispute - Rooms Of The House