Eux Autres
Broken Bow
Bons Mots

Taking the French for “them others” as their moniker seems a perfect encapsulation for the infectious whir that San Francisco three-piece Eux Autres makes. It exemplifies the dichotomy of their sound, which is something that breaks from the pack just as it works within time-honored parameters. Beginning with “Jamais” (more French, this time meaning “never”) the band’s third album, Broken Bow, is filled with the kind of zippy, melodic pop songs that have enchanted since the dawn time, or at least from when guitar first met amp. But the trio—brother and sister Nicholas (vocals and guitar) and Heather Larimer (vocals and percussion) and Yoshi Nakamoto (drums)—mix in more than enough ingenuity to set their particular take on the tradition apart. The combination of Heather’s moody vocals and Nicholas’ chiming tones on “Queen Turner” is a churning mix of bittersweetness and alluring disenchantment. “Wind Me Up,” with Velveteen riffs and a lyrical nod to the Searchers, is slightly reverential, but is invigorated with a bright exuberance that trumps any derivations. Similarly, “You’re Alright” sounds buoyant even as it laments ages long gone.

The band’s knack for hooks and harmonies is clear, but each coalesces within a melange of atmosphere and verve applied to varying degrees, so perhaps its the intangibles that separate Eux Autres most. Whatever that (to use the band’s parlance) “je ne sais quoi” is, this record is easy on the ears.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Go Dancing”

Minitel Rose

While the name Mintel Rose sounds like either the heroine of an old-timey radio serial or a complicated classic cocktail, it’s actually a band of Frenchmen dropping their second retro-mining CD, Atlantique. Whenever a band proclaims its love for the ’80s, it usually suggests a few scenarios. There will, of course, be heaping portions of synths, but it’ll be either an attempt to carbon copy the sounds or to try some new fusion. Mintel Rose falls squarely in the carbon-copy camp. But the main problem with Atlantique is that it takes such a narrow view of what synth pop was or could be. It’s as if someone commissioned a soundtrack for a movie written by the cast of Gossip Girl, and since no one had any point of reference, this is what came out. A bad record would be one thing, but the majority of this record is almost hilariously anonymous. Not only could it be some never-was band from back in the day, it could be any newer band with an eBay account overworked buying vintage synths and an overworked retro fetish.

There are a number of solid tunes in this living museum, however. The second half of Atlantique has a slightly more sassy punch, starting with “So You,” a brief detour into the soulful version of pop that bands like Scritti Politti embraced. And after so much well-mannered and restrained vocal performances, the swagger of “Too Late” pumps some much needed blood into the proceedings. But because the album is so much a product of its perceived influences, it’d be a better bet to dig out those ABC and Erasure records.
Dorian S. Ham

Franz Nicolay
Luck and Courage
Team Science/Sabot

Franz Nicolay left the Hold Steady earlier this year under slightly inflammatory circumstances; he told Paste after the split that “They have their one big idea—making literate lyrics over big anthemic rock—and the last two records were about as good as I felt like I could do with that idea.” Not necessarily the stuff of Noel and Liam Gallagher, but prickly enough to question the Hold Steady’s dynamics and elicit some interest into where Nicolay’s vision differs from that of his former bandmates. Now, two solo records deep, Luck and Courage arrives only 10 months after his departure and doesn’t sound necessarily unlike the music that made him famous.

Franz instead sounds indebted to the core elements of the bar-rock jangle for which the Hold Steady became known, embracing the sooty warmth of the Band and the word-cyclone sputter of Bob Dylan and John Darnielle. The album is embroidered with a crisp layer of traditional folk—plucked banjos, tinkled pianos and domesticated bass—and packed with enough biblical, literary and artistic references to make an English major proud. He’s allowed himself to sing more personally and more directly than anything in the Hold Steady catalog. “This is Not a Pipe,” named lovingly for René Magritte’s famous surrealistic painting, The Treachery of Images, has Nicolay waxing both gently and rhythmically on abstract substance: “And I have not been unhappy my whole life. All the lies I ever told will come back to me one day. If this rain keeps coming, it’ll wash the world away.” Other tales, “Job 35:10” and “Z for Zachariah,” are plucked straight from folklore, with Franz’s narrative yelp guiding the way. They certainly don’t carry the frantic Americana glory that Craig Finn spills, but the songs that make up Luck and Courage fall into a subdued lineage and ultimately offer a meaningful diversion in the singer-songwriter craft.
Luke Winkie

MP3: “This Is Not a Pipe”

The Soft Moon
The Soft Moon
Captured Tracks

Captured Tracks is an odd bird, one interesting to watch progress, even if the Brooklyn label doesn’t always fly straight. Their fascination with the subterranean cold wave being re-made/re-modeled in empty warehouse spaces across the globe is trumping their original love for homespun post-pop. Velcroing themselves to the brooding Wierd Records is only furthering that fetish. That label is where the Soft Moon would feel most at home. There are moments on the eponymous debut from one-time Mojave Desert survivor Luis Vasquez where things feel bigger than life. “Breathe the Fire” is entirely approachable, a velvety and morose goth propulsion that shares equal time with the Jesus and Mary Chain and Sisters of Mercy. The same could be said for “Dead Love,” made for a flooded black dancefloor, its liquid, Low-Life-lifted bassline and mood unmistakably indebted to the dark romantics. Then again, those are the “songs” on the record—the linear support to an album which, for the most part, goes soundtracking in circles.

If you’re a fan of the Not Not Fun label’s usual aimless expulsions, rare Italian horror scores, and the extremist side of electronic meddling, the Soft Moon is in a similar mindset. Believe me, Vazques does his best to create menacing aural landscapes and full-on creeper disco. The sinister “Primal Eyes” is sort of transcendent in a Gary War type of way. But that’s the point. There are guys already on this label (hint, hint, the boss) who understand the makings of a desolate post-apocalyptic and submerged punk much better. For the Soft Moon, everything from the polyrhythm to the gurgling synths are slightly out of focus, forcefully bent, and juxtaposed to the pleasure plane usually in place for ambience of this ilk. It seems more a taunt of “how fucked can I be” than a serious discourse on the genre Vasquez obviously adores. Still, falling apart, pushing the altimeter, laying it on thick, especially played loud, sounds like the rumbling underbelly of a midnight beyond Thunderdome. In the right setting, blood might actually flow.
Kevin J. Elliott

MP3: “Tiny Spiders”

Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Def Jam

To say that Kanye West is the most divisive musician in the world today gives the word “understatement” a bad name. He’s been called a genius just as frequently as he’s been called a douchebag, and Kanye himself will tell you both of these labels are accurate. His off-album antics (“Imma let you finish...”) have alienated a huge chunk of the pop-listening audience that would otherwise have no reason to hate on killer tracks like “Through the Wire,” “Touch the Sky” and “Stronger.” To some, being a Kanye fan is a testament to how capable they are of separating the music from the man who produces it.

But these fans may find their half-hearted fandom pushed to the brink by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Here, Kanye fully embraces his role as a villain, shattering any barriers between Kanye the man and Kanye the musician. His egocentricity, his arrogance, and, most fascinatingly, his self-loathing take center stage as Kanye runs a clinic on douchebaggery, emailing girls pictures of his dick and banging porn stars in bathroom stalls. If Jay-Z is the Michael Jordan of rap, kissing babies while laying waste to opponents, Kanye is rap’s Kobe Bryant; more neurotic, less personable, but equally intimidating, his character imperfections drive his success. And just as Kobe won his first MVP in the wake of trade-demanding petulance, Kanye turns an all-time popularity low into one of the best albums of the year.

At this point in Kanye’s career, we can take for granted that the quality of his beats will be sky high, and Twisted Fantasy is no exception, featuring some of the most creative compositions of the year, hip-hop or otherwise. “Monster” and “Lost in the Woods” feature a vocoderized Justin Vernon and stand as strong examples for any rapper thinking of introducing “that indie rock sound” into their work. “Gorgeous” is driven by brilliant old-school soul guitar riffs, while “All of the Lights” and “So Appalled” recall the intricate orchestrations of 2005’s Late Registration.

But Twisted Fantasy is at its best when Kanye engages with his own despicable nature, as he does on “Runaway” and “Hell of a Life.” On the former, he resigns himself to the fact that he can’t change, thinking it better to alienate himself than to inflict his personality on the people he loves. On “Hell of a Life,” he wearily describes his hypocritical addiction to sex and salvation to the tune of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man: “No more drugs for me, pussy and religion is all I need.”

There’s a reason The Sopranos is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time and why Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show in The Dark Knight: people are fascinated by the psychology of evil. And while it might be a stretch to call Kanye evil, he certainly plays the part on much of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But he also parlays that same irascibility into valid criticisms of society and the establishment, just as the same outspokenness that left him with egg on his face at the VMAs also gave him the courage to call George W. Bush out before it became fashionable to do so. With Kanye, it’s never as simple as “love him or hate him.” The man simultaneously elicits both responses in spades, making him one of our era’s most fascinating figures and, lucky for us, also one of the most talented.
David Holmes

Ill Ease and Lazer Crust
A Double Edged Sword Reversed

Generally, mash-up music comes across boring and lacking in creativity. The mash-up—taking another artist’s hard work and fucking it all up by trying to mix it with another artist’s hard work—may require a modicum of technical skill (not much, though, considering the crap you can pull off with a Mac and a little bit of patience), but beyond that it’s incredibly hard to do anything that’s actually worth hearing. Sure, some artists have come close. Others, like Ghostface Killa on “Holla,” which is basically verbal graffiti over an old soul standard, have superseded the idea entirely.

Mash-up music is the last thing I expected to hear from Ill Ease, the Brooklyn-based one-woman band and former drummer of indie rock’s deadbeat parents, New Radiant Storm King. Ill Ease’s side of this split record follows the same path as Ghostface, except she seemingly transposes the beats and basslines she would hum if she had certain songs stuck in her head over top of those certain songs. Coming from the composer of “Too Much Sucky (I Hate Drum Machines)” weirdly enough, the first song is a glitchy, automated beat pasted onto Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High The Moon.” It works because it’s completely bonkers; this is beyond the cute, fun, novel mash-up junk that gets passed off as pop music. “Fool For You,” the Ray Charles song, gets a subsonic organ buzz reminiscent of the Upsetters’ “Dracula” that changes it into a different, clodhopping beast entirely. The fact that it’s hard to tell if she’s using a turntable to screw up “Something Stupid” by Nancy Sinatra might be the most interesting part of her version, unfortunately. She remixes, adds a thumping bass drum and what sounds like turntablism to Willie Dixon’s “Brooklyn Tite Pants,” to give a modern party feel to it; it will sound better at your X-mas party than that other guy with the white sunglasses.

Lazer Crust’s flip side sounds like well-crafted indie rock with the spastic quality of New Radiant Storm King (funny he’s sharing a slab with the former drummer). Most split LPs end up as a competition for my ears, but both of these sides are incredibly listenable. This half is dark with lots of reverb, and Lazer Crust (a.k.a. Jason Zavala) goes ape just enough to sound like it'd be fun to watch him freak out onstage. The backing is solid, but frenetic, sort of like Jimmy Page’s recording studio swallowed a punk rock pizza and all that was left was the, er, crust. Sure, it’s a weird pairing for a split record, but think of it this way: you’re getting twice as much weird for the price of one.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy