M. Ward
Hold Time

With last year’s collaboration with Hollywood starlet Zooey Deschanel, under the name of She & Him, M. Ward went from the tin can alley of his solo work to a buffered pop world that ended up including a TRL appearance. So after such a successful detour, where would Ward end up for Hold Time, his sixth solo album?

The answer is pretty much where he left off with 2006’s Post-War, on the county line between lo-fi folk and sepia-toned honkytonk. But listening to Hold Time, it’s evident that he may have found himself in a rut. This is the first record since End of Amnesia that Ward seems clipped by his own predilections. What was once his calling card—a combination of hollowed vocals and ferrotype guitar tones—becomes a crutch on songs like “Jailbird,” where he lets his fingers follow worn blues progressions. Even pal Deschanel can’t help him break free from such trappings when she appears on “Rave On,” nor can Lucinda Williams, who sounds bored herself on their cover of the Don Gibson (by way of Neil Young) classic “Oh Lonesome Me.”

But Hold Time isn’t without redemption, and fittingly it comes with “To Save Me.” It’s Jason Lytle (formerly of Grandaddy) who is Ward’s savior, helping him construct what’s essentially an old fashioned rock & roll stomper at heart, but imbued with Spector-esque orchestration, something much more transcendent. “Stars of Leo” is similarly striking for its break from the norm, Ward’s voice and guitar whetted with reverb and emotion and backed up by rhythmic rushes approximating the subway cars of which he sings. As such, Hold Time isn’t a step backward for Ward, but perhaps as its name indicates, a simple stopgap until his next move—whatever that may be.
Stephen Slaybaugh

Thrill Jockey

There’s an illusionary element to Mountains’ third album, Choral, that’s impossible to source. Perhaps the quality of an instrumental record, void of words and traditional conventions, is measured in the ability to conjure visions as it explores a clear path only to obscure it or change directions moments later. To that effect, Choral is mesmerizing. What may sound like hypnotic experimentation through ambient electro-acoustics, field recordings and drone, is actually composed of multiple layers, complex melodies and delicate structures that collapse and dissolve without notice. What appears as cyclical is actually linear—there is no pattern. What sounds like psychosomatic-induced waverings, waterfalls and thunderstorms are really there, just placed with the utmost nuance so that hallucinations are in order.

Choral is the product of absolute craft, and the beauty lies in the details Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp embed within their compositions. Transcendence is not a descriptor that should be tossed around as much as it is, but as far as records of this ilk (i.e. by contemporaries like Eluvium, Fennesz, Books) are concerned, this record cannot be contained to any one corner of the electronic neo-classicist universe. Truth be told, Mountains built the bulk of Choral with acoustic guitars, evident in the stunning Fahey-esque picking of “Map Table,” manipulating those arborescent melodies as they grow through sonic brush and atmospheres, unrecognizable from their initial root. “Add Infinity” is a blueprint of sorts, beginning with a standard folksy strum that’s soon enveloped in soft buzz and those same chords echoed back as celestial voices and then eventually melded into one gigantic puff of static fog. Something less organic can be found on the constantly shape-shifting chimes and bells of “Melodica,” but by no means is it any less emotionally stirring. In fact, trying to find meaning and/or dissecting the process employed by Mountains on Choral is defeating the purpose. The best experience is to simply sit back in awe as this record’s seemingly limitless crevasses are revealed.
Kevin J. Elliott

Mi Ami

San Francisco’s Mi Ami includes former Black Eyes members Daniel Martin-McCormick and Jacob Long, and like that short-lived Dischord band, features the unique yelps of Martin-McCormick as well as no-wave guitar skronk tendencies and polyrhythmic percussion. But the key difference between the groups is that Mi Ami tends to focus more on groove and rhythm. Black Eyes’ tunes were short, sharp shots whereas Mi Ami crafts extended jams. Think Liquid Liquid as opposed to Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Most every track on Watersports, the band’s debut album, runs well over the five-minute mark. The record exists as a more cohesive piece than anything Black Eyes ever did, the dub-influenced echo that permeates the album serving to tie it together. Everything—vocals, drums, guitar—is drenched in a watery swirl that adds claustrophobia to the resultant effects.

The first three tracks, single “Echonoecho,” “The Man In Your House” and “New Guitar,” flow almost seamlessly into one another and bridge the great gap between A Certain Ratio’s weirder world percussion moments and the Pop Group’s jagged post-punk dub experiments. But the second half of the album starts to fade. By this midway point, Martin-McCormick’s voice starts to grate a little, no longer counterbalanced by four other voices like in Black Eyes. By closing track “Peacetalks/Downer,” the yelps have evolved into the sound of a baby crying in church, and are just as unbearable. Up until this last track, the music engages, but here becomes faceless in a blur of drums and guitar stabs. With a second vocalist, this might not be as much of a problem, but it’s too much of a distraction in an otherwise solid album.
Tom Butler

MP3: “New Guitar”

Friendly Fire

Faunts are one of those bands that just aren’t in a rush to do anything. Formed in 2000 in Edmonton, Alberta, they spent their first few years as a threesome (keyboardist Rob Batke and bassist Scott Gallant were added in 2006), releasing their first full-length album in 2005. The album, High Expectations/Low Results, showcased their penchant for “swimmingly beautiful melodies,” distorted guitars, and dreamy vocals. An EP of short-film scores released in 2007 followed Expectations’ same coma-inducing formula. Whether it was the languorous tunes or the time taken to record albums, Faunts seemed to be lost in a slow-motion world of their own—but not anymore. This time around Faunts have, as Emeril would say were he still culturally relevant, kicked it up a notch, and the result is definitely worth a “Bam!”

The overly distorted guitar melodies and indistinguishable lyrics are a thing of the Faunts’ past, though their influence is still tangible. Feel.Love.Thinking.Of. is a splendid cross-genre excursion, with influences spanning everything from electronica (“Feel.Love.Thinking.Of.”) to an intriguing mix of ‘80s synth-pop and ‘70s soft rock (“I Think I’ll Start A Fire”). “Input” sounds like a track that would blend right in on Radiohead’s Amnesiac, and “Alarmed/Lights” follows in the vein of Explosions in the Sky. Still all these tracks are done in a style that is entirely their own—they’ve got Faunts’ signature ethereal dreamscape written all over them.

For an album so long in the making, Feel.Love.Thinking.Of. was indeed worth the wait. It’ll be exciting to hear what the future holds for Faunts, hopefully sooner than later.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “It Hurts Me All the Time”

The Spirit of Apollo

Sometimes when something seems too good to be true, it’s best to lower your expectations. Then lower them even more. Such is the case with N.A.S.A.’s debut record, The Spirit Of Apollo.

N.A.S.A., which is short for North America/South America, is the brainchild of DJ Zegon and Squeak E. Clean, a.k.a. Sam Spiegel a.k.a. Spike Jonze’s brother. Clean, while not a household name, has worked behind the scenes as a deejay and commercial/film scorer for years and also produced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Show Your Bones. All of his time in celebrity circles explains how he got 40 guests to contribute to the record. With appearances ranging from seemingly opposite corners of the music spectrum—from Tom Waits to Ol’ Dirty Bastard—The Spirit of Apollo seems like the audio equivalent of Hanna-Barbera’s Laff-A-Lympics. However, one gets the feeling that N.A.S.A. is hoping the “wacky combinations” are so mind-blowing that the average listener would just marvel at their cleverness. But in this post–Handsome Boy Modeling School, post–Judgment Night world, you have to try a little harder.

Still, there are some songs that at least surpass those lowered expectations. “Way Down,” featuring RZA, John Fusciante and unsigned artist Barbie Hatch, is a tense and moody love song with a Curtis Mayfield meets Portishead vibe. And while RZA drops a really short verse, it manages to actually be on topic, the perfect coda, and thus an anomaly in the world of hip-hop cameos. The pairing of Cansei de Ser Sexy’s Lovefoxx with Sizzla and Amanda Blank makes one long for a full-length from the trio. Sadly, the best song to spring from the project, “Electric Flowers,” with RZA and the Cardigans’ Nina Persson was cut from the final release in favor of a Kanye/Santogold collaboration.

Overall, the real problem with the record is it’s under-produced, the irony being that it took five years for The Spirit Of Apollo to be completed and released. Often times the tracks just seem to be underwritten, meandering with no clear direction, and ultimately, the album screams of wasted potential.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Spacious Thoughts”

Asobi Seksu

Yuki Chikudate’s voice is dreamy, by which I mean she has a voice that causes you to dream of her. In the post–Jenny Lewis world she’s the next logical step in the indie-dreamgirl progression. Her music, with teammate James Hanna is also dreamy. By which I mean hazy, lush, and unbelievably pretty.

Asobi Seksu (colloquial Japanese for “casual sex”) stick with the winning formula of their past work on Hush, only giving us more, more, more of what we love them for. Propulsive drumming? Check. Atmospheric layers of background vocals? Check. Chiming guitars? Oh my God, check, check, check.

What’s really great about this record, though, is how many new textures they add to to the mix, as if they’re testing to see how far the formula will stretch. Can Chikudate’s voice hold up against churning, distorted chords (on “Me and Mary”)? Does it still sound like us if we throw in a taste of death metal (on “Mehnomae”)? Can we write a song (“Familiar Light”) that’s all build but never actually reaches the chorus? Can bombast be a mantra (“I Can't See”)? Can we switch tempos mid-track (“In the Sky”)? Can we write music that’s even more ridiculously catchy than usual (“Sunshower”)? Is Hush the best record of the year thus far? The answer to all these questions is a resounding, reverb-drenched yes, yes, yes.
Matt Slaybaugh

The Blue Depths

Chances are, if you’ve encountered Odawas before and weren’t already locked in deep concentration on their emission, it was a fleeting, ephemeral moment in time. Prior to The Blue Depths, the San Francisco duo dealt in blurry sheltered psych, an ominous chamber folk that was as rooted in earthy hues as much as it was drifting in phantom mist. Raven and the White Night unfolded like a Grimm fairytale for acquired tastes, spilling suicide, false prophets and sleepwalkers through a thread of fantasy more akin to lucid nightmares. It was an album remarkable in its understated glow.

While mood certainly overshadows any sense of immediacy in the songs that comprise The Blue Depths, there’s a tint of reawakening on much of the album. Odawas have dabbled in electronics before, but on this third record, synths of varying shades and heartbeat pulsations lend an air of scintillation to their dour identities. “The Sound of Lies,” the record’s uplifting centerpiece, falls somewhere between Vangelis’ gilded soundscapes (think Chariots of Fire) and Massive Attack’s android coitus. And “Swan Song for the Humpback Angler” is an almost cheerful, albeit extraterrestrial, diversion towards balmy Balearic house. This ethereal voyage into new romanticism, though giving way to more glissandos on the keys and spectral pop in the choruses (the highlight, “Harmless Lover’s Discourse,” could be easily mistaken for Ultravox), is coupled seamlessly with Odawas’ languorous etchings. The Blue Depths waves a spotlight over the duo, and as a result the album becomes less of a dream and more a divine encounter—or at least a memory with a vision, scent, and feel that’s hard to shake.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Harmless Lover’s Discourse”

The Appleseed Cast
The Militia Group

Before “emo” became synonymous with poor articulation of juvenile torment decked out in skater apparel and make-up, there was a different “emo.” To make it sound tougher, folks called it “post-hardcore” or “emo-core.” Regardless, the discourse over the delineation of the sound and the semantics of the genre is completely pointless and—even worse—boring. Let it just be said that there was, at one point in time, a slew of bands who were some permutation of “emo” that were actually very good. Many of these bands faded into the abyss, with a member or two appearing in some subsequent group or on some album that most people never heard or will hear. Despite all of this, Kansas’ Appleseed Cast continues to play and record their atmostpheric “emocore,” despite line-up changes and fickle demand for their now rather endangered “genre.”

On Sagarmatha, the band’s eighth album, the Cast continues its sometimes tedious, but mostly effective, use of layered reverb sequences to create moody and arena-worthy intros, outros and transitions. It is really no surprise that eight-minute opener “As the Little Things Go” is exactly this kind of crescendo-ed ditty. Track two, “A Bright Light,” could just as easily have appeared on the band’s Low Level Owl installments from 2001, where the band achieved the balance necessary for the implicit grandiosity of the form. This, the standout track, features vocals completely drowned out by the fuzzy rhythm section and incessant ride of the E-string.

Where the band falls flat becomes obvious after the third track (which, by the way, is about half way through the 50-minute runtime). It would seem that what had once made this band unique, has become the only thing the band puts effort into for the listener, and any trimming of the fat has gone completely out the window. Once the listener actually makes it to the more traditional songs, they are given downbeat and moping filler that does very little in the hook and riff department, two things the band is fully capable of if judging by their earlier work. Finally, the album ends much as it started, with an enjoyable jam, “An Army of Fireflies,” which, if it had lyrics, might give some hope for better things to come from these strange “emo” mainstays—or whatever you call them. Despite its flaws, Sagarmatha will certainly strike a pleasant and sympathetic nerve in long time fans, and may show a few of these Atticus sporting kids that there is merit in at least paying attention to production and quality.
Phil Goldberg