Crowded House

The Crowdies, as their diehard fans call them, are back... again... sorta. Amazingly, the most definitive comment I have about Intriguer is that it’s really a departure. One expects reunited bands with 20-plus years of history to pump out little more than new versions of old hits. And on 2007’s Time on Earth, Crowded House stuck largely to that formula. Certainly, ten seconds into that record, you knew it was a Neil Finn production. This  time, however, the band is almost chameleonic in its efforts to hide from expectations.

Finn has some help in those endeavors from multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart, of course, and even more significantly from Lisa Germano’s vocals and violins, and his son Liam on guitar. And there are a few guest spots from Jon Brion, who, according to a Finn-penned blog post, adds “layers of sampled voices and mashed-up guitar.” Don’t worry, Finn’s magical knack for hooks does surface on “Either Side of the World,” “Twice If You’re Lucky,” and especially in the bridge of the album-opener, “Saturday Sun.” But there are just as many instances of downbeat ballads (“Elephants”) and darker, dragged-tempo tracks (“Amsterdam”) that bury the lead under a sonic density that’s a lot muddier than Finn fans are probably used to.

When I said they’re being chameleonic, I wasn’t kidding. Try listening to “Isolation” or “Falling Dove” without thinking, “Gee, this could be on one of the last three Wilco albums.” A lot of those guys have taken part in Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide, so at this point one starts to wonder who’s influencing who. However, what’s clear from this record as well as his 7 Worlds work, is that Neil Finn refuses to rest on his laurels, no matter what expectations his most rabid fans have.
Matt Slaybaugh

Fol Chen
Part II: The New December
Asthmatic Kitty

For years, some bands have simply refused to show their face in public, on record sleeves, or in videos. This tactic of “maintaining secrecy” is ostensibly designed to keep fans from getting distracted by any aspect of the band other than the music itself. But in the case of Fol Chen, who are usually photographed in silhouette and often perform wearing raccoon/Hamburgler eye make-up, the secrecy is the distraction (or, as some might put it, the gimmick). That’s too bad because the pleasantly idiosyncratic music on their sophomore album, Part II: The New December, is well worth getting lost in, strongly recalling Enon’s Believo!, as well as contemporary pranksters like the Mae Shi.

On songs like “In Ruins” and “They Came to Me,” the band pours noise and childlike whimsy into dance-music templates with bizarre, yet undeniably catchy, results. But despite the fact that the band sometimes sounds like a bunch of kids during indoor recess, Fol Chen is more than capable of complex aural manipulation, as on “Your Curtain Call” which features a Björk-esque beat made up of human voices, and on “The New December,” which guides broken shards of acoustic guitar through a terrain that’s one-part Martian and one-part American West.

On Part II, Fol Chen never sits still for long, bouncing from genre to genre and completely changing up instrumentation, often within the same song. But what the album lacks in focus, it makes up for in boundless energy and creativity. Like early Clinic releases (another band with a tendency to hide their faces), Part II takes you to a place you maybe wouldn’t willingly visit, but once there, it’s a blast trying to navigate the band’s twisted, heady landscape.
David Holmes

MP3: “In Ruins”

Sun Kil Moon
Admiral Fell Promises
Caldo Verde

Mastermind of the Red House Painters and all around indie-folk enigma Mark Kozelek has continually championed the sentiment of isolation, longing and loss throughout the decade. While many of his similarly adored contemporaries (e.g. Bill Callahan and Will Oldham) have often been willing to “take the edge off” with morbid wit, humorous wordplay and the occasionally crass musing, Kozelek has always retained a sober and solemn demeanor in his delivery (despite the intrinsically silly boxing allusion that is the “band’s” name, releasing an entire album of Modest Mouse covers, etc.). This approach has kept Sun Kil Moon in the consciousness of critics and fans the world over.

On Admiral Fell Promises, Kozelek’s most recent release as Sun Kil Moon yet again succeeds in transforming the excruciating into the immensely palatable. Kozelek accomplishes this state of grace much as he has in the past: with precision, cadence, and all around mastery of that age old vehicle, the acoustic guitar. “Alesund” (the album’s first track) even opens with a minute and a half of tragic and romantic plucking before any lyric is uttered. The album’s pulse is dictated by a flamenco guitar vibe. Kozelek’s work has often hinted at this style, but the center-staging of this element establishes this record as another unique gem in the his catalogue.

Longtime fans will be familiar with the vocal work on the record—and that’s a very good thing. In typical fashion, Kozelek employs his “intimate for the world to hear” strategy, maximizing the hallowing effect that his lyrics inspire. “Sam Wong Hotel” and the epic “The Leaning Tree” are particularly jaw-dropping efforts, carrying with them all of the chilling drama and morose narrative we’ve come to expect of this songsmith.

It should be noted that this Caldo Verde (Kozelek’s label) release is not one that will tickle any fair weather singer-songwriter listeners. This record, unlike Ghosts of the Great Highway and even April to some extent, requires some acceptance and faith in it’s author and a willingness to engage in it’s somber reflections.
Phil Goldberg

The Books
The Way Out
Temporary Residence

The uses of samples have come a long way since Yes threw them into their 1983 mainstream hit, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” Samples have gone from simple stabs in songs to becoming the backbone to hip-hop, and eventually, so meticulously dissected and reconstructed that the origin is unrecognizable. Yet the prejudice remains that all hip-hop partakes in lazy sampling, ala Diddy in the ‘90s, or that any form of electronic music is techno. Thank heavens there’s actually more to sampling’s sonic life than that, and the Books are back to broaden your mind.

After a five-year hiatus, the Books have returned with The Way Out, the proper follow-up to Lost and Safe. The Books construct their songs by combing through hours of audiotapes and video cassettes and by sampling and looping found objects like kids toys and filing cabinets. Their approach is hardly unique, but what separates them is the fact that as a guitarist and a cellist, Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong, respectively, they’re coming from a different angle than a DJ or beatmaker, reconstructing the sounds into a pop format while still refraining from creating a mere backdrop to a pop song. It’s a tricky balance, but the Books are pretty clever in how they arrange and use the samples.

The Way Out continues in the same vein as their earlier releases, but vocalist Anne Doerner is absent from the record, at least in any clearly recognizable way. Her spot is filled by samples and the contributions of Zammuto. The result harkens back to the cut-and-paste style of sampling pioneers Coldcut, best known for their “Paid In Full” remix, but with a folktronica twist. Yet, the album is more than the sum of the parts. You don’t have to know how “A Cold Freezing Night” was put together to be freaked out by the violent snatches of dialogue made even more chilling by child voices. Or to crack a grin while listening to “The Story Of Hip-Hop.” The Books don’t need to impress with their techniques because the results speak for themselves. It’s fairly easy to get all the way into The Way Out.
Dorian S. Ham

MP3: “Beautiful People”

Au Revoir Simone
Night Light
Our Secret Record Company

The concept of the “remix treatment”—in the past, reserved to give stale Top 40 albums new life—has now become de rigueur for any and all up-and-coming artists in the music industry as of late. Bloc Party’s got one. Phoenix does too. Even the relatively unknown Canadian post-rock band Faunts has one. Really, anyone can release a remix album, yet it takes a rare combination of circumstances in order for such a record to actually make sense. The music must be, metaphorically of course, a blank canvas, easily malleable, yet also able to retain its material integrity, resulting in something aesthetically (or in this case, aurally) pleasing. Au Revoir Simone’s 2009 dream-pop extravaganza, Still Night, Still Light, with it’s ambient background layered with sincere, innocently breathy vocals, was perhaps the perfect candidate to get the remix treatment.

A gaggle of hip bands and musicians like Neon Indian, Jens Lekman, Tanlines, and Angel Deradoorian from Dirty Projectors has gotten together to give this record the proper remix treatment in the form of the aptly-titled Night Light. The result is, not unexpectedly, sleepy dream-pop on steroids.

Like most remix records, Night Light has its fill of high points and hang-ups. The standouts are stacked handily toward the beginning and end. The album opens with Neon Indian’s tribal-funk mix of “Another Likely Story” and flows surprisingly well into Swedish pop darling Jens Lekman’s sweetly string-infused remix of “Shadows.” The track, with Lekman’s wistful influence, is by far one of the most unique and delightful tracks on the album.

The trouble with remixing songs of such a delicate nature is that the remixes often overwhelm, rather than enhance, the integrity of the original. This is readily apparent on tracks like Jensen Sportag’s harsh treatment of the comparatively mellow “All or Nothing,” or the strobes and skimpy clothes-vibe of Punches’ remix of “Only You Can Make You Happy.” Commonplace as these remix albums are becoming, they certainly expose smaller bands to wider and certainly more eclectic audience. Hopefully, the outcome will be as interesting as Night Light, but if not, at least a solid jogging playlist for your iPod.
Jennifer Farmer

Big Boi
Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Legend of Chico Dusty
Def Jam

If you asked people in 2000 what would excite them more, a Big Boi solo album or an Andre 3000 solo album, most would answer the latter. Then in 2003, the world got one of each in the form of Speakerboxxx/Love Below and, with few exceptions, critical and popular opinion ended up on the side of Big Boi. It’s not that Andre 3000’s importance to Outkast was somehow diminished; audiences simply discovered that, when the two are left to their own devices, Big Boi’s music is definitely more enjoyable and arguably more interesting.

So when Big Boi announced his first “official” solo album, there was little reason to expect anything other than greatness. The fantastic singles that have crept out over the past three years (“Shutterbug,” “Shine Blockas,” and “Royal Flush,” the last of which apparently didn’t make the final cut) confirmed these expectations, and now the album itself has exceeded them. Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Legend of Chico Dusty restores our hope not only in hip-hop, but in pop music in general. It hearkens back to a time not so long ago when what Americans chose to call “pop music” was not only sonically adventurous, but also capable of being enjoyed for wholly non-ironic reasons.

On Sir Lucious Left Foot, Big Boi is joined by many of the younger artists who pass for today’s hip-hop R&B elite, including Gucci Mane, B.O.B. and T.I. But this isn’t a case of an older artist padding his record with young blood in an appeal to the “kids.” In fact, he’s doing the new guard a favor by allowing them to be involved with these songs; “Hustle Blood” provides Jamie Foxx his only legitimate contribution to music since Twista’s “Slow Jamz,” and Big Boi donates a verse to B.O.B. on “Night Night,” a song that’s way more hectic and fun than anything on the latter’s own album. He also makes plenty of room for old-school guests like George Clinton and Too Short, and more obscure new talents like Vonnegutt and Yelawolf. Pretty much everything Big Boi touches here turns to gold, even inspiring Scott Storch to previously unknown artistic heights on the rumbling “Shutterbug.”

As impressive as Sir Lucious Left Foot and Speakerboxxx have been, they just failed to achieve the dizzying brilliance of Outkast’s best true collaborations. In fact, it’s no coincidence that one of Sir Lucious’ best songs, “You Ain’t No DJ,” was produced by Andre. But even if we never see another proper Outkast release, Big Boi will always be around to keep the group’s spirit alive.
David Holmes