Lily Allen
It’s Not Me, It’s You

Lily Allen’s bungling sophomore album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, is proof that we should never expect our starlets to evolve, even when they are twittering to the universe that they are. The fact is Allen didn’t enter as a starlet, more as a femme–Mike Skinner slipping Joyce-ian verse about the mundane life of a 20-something Londoner over faux-reggae and thrift-store pop swirls. Alright, Still, her debut, was completely innocent, embedded with instant infectiousness. Of course, her trip over the pond and onto the charts sent her into the spotlight and consequently her own personal tailspin, forcing her to find her own place in a world of faceless, exchangeable, disposable, pop princesses.

It’s Not Me, It’s You is maturation, to a degree, shunning stardom in favor of artistic freedom. The record leads with a moral tale of sorts, the sci-fi future-grind of “Everyone’s At It,” a veritable PSA against drugs and the hypocrisy that comes with their abuse. But it’s the lead single, the stunning and shimmering electro-glisten of “The Fear,” where Allen posits the most self-reflection on the album. She wants “fuckloads of diamonds” but doesn’t know “what’s right or real” or even how she’s “meant to feel.” The confusion lies in exactly how much we are to care for Allen’s new found awareness.

The obvious cues that she’s abandoned her former self come in her transformation to steely ice queen, full of damning vindication and general gloominess, particularly on the dubby disco-buzz of “Back from the Start” and minimalist hues of “I Could Say.” Though they lack the preset cheekiness of Alright, Still, her new songs are replenished with sweeping electronic backdrops similar to the recent gear-shifts by Kylie and Robyn. As refreshing as that change sounds, it dissipates in the first fleeting moments of It’s Not Me, and we’re left with the same old Lily and an even hokier sonic playground (“Fuck You” and “It’s Not Fair”). To some that might be fine and dandy. I can’t complain about the girl mumbling about moping around in her panties, eating Chinese take-out and vegging in front of the “telly.” It’s candy: unequivocally fantasy pop that’s easy to digest. Accepting that she’s a new woman, boldly forging her status as the anti-starlet and attempting to dupe the world with an increased vocabulary, is where I draw the line.
Kevin J. Elliott

Lower Heaven

Taking their name from a somewhat obscure Echo and the Bunnymen song (“Higher Hell,” an album cut from Porcupine), it would seem the lads (and one, er, lad-ette) in Lower Heaven have their hearts in the right place. The reference is even more appropriate when hearing the darkened, yet shimmering, sound they make, their autoharp strums approximating that song’s icy plumes. But while the band’s debut, Ashes, makes some nods to those Liverpudlian legends, on “Waves,” in particular, it isn’t all bedbugs and ballyhoo.

Similarly, the band’s name also reflects the ether in which their songs are swathed. On “Fruitless,” Lower Heaven’s euphonic tones are cast in gray heather, creating something beautiful in its malaise. Indeed, singer Marcos Chloka puts it into words when he sings, “I don’t need to see the sun. I think I’ve seen the sun enough... I just want to see some rain,” on the simply titled “Rain.” It’s these contrasting foggy notions of allure and elegy, light and dark that give the band its dynamic and depth. This chasm is cut deepest on “Lose It All At Once,” where the thundering gloom of its refrains parts to let the chorus cast its piercing light. Here, and on the record as a whole, the band proves that they’re not standing in anyone’s shadow, but shine brightest in the dark nonetheless.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “Lose It All At Once”

Ben Lee
The Rebirth of Venus
New West

On the subject of Ben Lee, a friend once asked me, “How long can you be a charming man-child?” It’s a pretty fair question. Long removed from his time as a child prodigy in the criminally underrated Noise Addict and just as far from his initial embrace by the indie set, Lee has trafficked in arrested development, easy-going singer-songwriter rock for nearly 14 years. By this point, you know what you’re getting from a Ben Lee record. And this year’s model appears as The Rebirth of Venus.

The Rebirth of Venus appears to be, on the surface, the standard issue Lee record—and in many ways it is. Lyrically he’s always sincere but kind of skims along the surface. There are the Springsteen-ish character studies, but the character always seems to be an awkward version of Lee or his perceived fan singing along in his bedroom as he updates his LiveJournal. The main problem is that he knows his lane a little too well. If it isn’t broke, maybe he should fix it. Lee knows how to construct a first-rate pop song, but he too often seems to be treading water. There are no doubts that songs like “What’s So Bad (About Feeling Good)” and “Sing” are going to kill in the live show but they’re nothing to necessarily get excited about on record. There’s also “Yoko Ono” which is... a fan letter to Yoko Ono. Sure, why not?

However, just as soon as you’re ready to write him off, Lee will give a stunning performance like on the stripped “Rise Up.” While it’s more lyrically abstract than anything else on the record, the song is the aural equivalent of eavesdropping on a personal conversation. Closing the album are two equally strong songs, “Family Cheating At Board Games” and “Song For The Divine Mother Of The Universe” making for a triple-play showing Lee at his “mature” best.

The Rebirth of Venus could be a good record, but it’s split on the battle between boy and man, leaving one hoping Lee eventually grows up.
Dorian S. Ham

Hot Panda
Volcano... Bloody Volcano

This is the first full-length release from Alberta, Canada’s four-piece Hot Panda—not to be confused with Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear, Mexico’s Panda or the Panda Band from Australia. Luckily, Hot Panda’s sound is less easy to confuse with fellow indie popsters than the name. It’s not every band’s line-up that counts an accordion and glockenspiel.

Though “quirky” seems to be used often to describe the music, that’s the first word that comes to mind—not that the songs are completely oddball to the point of being inaccessible. The loveable, slightly dance-y tunes have interesting eccentricities—as if the tracks were spontaneously interrupted by cameos of wind-up monkeys clanging cymbals, renegade retro flying saucers and dancing bears—or hot pandas, in this case. (We mean this as in a warm panda kind of way, but if you think of sexy pandas... well, maybe you hear something we don’t in the music.) But don’t worry, it’s all part of the show.

The ringmaster would be vocalist Chris Connelly in tracks such as “Whale Headed Girl” with his delivery of lyrics such as “Have you heard the one, the one about the girl, with a whale’s head, and a large tail?” Beginning with a simple bass line and the aforementioned glockenspiel, the song is then accompanied by what sounds like an attempt at whale sounds. There’s often something unexpected that somehow works, whether it’s the runaway guitar in “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet” or the point in “Cold Hands/Chapped Lips” where the song dissolves into controlled chaos. “Holes” is some kind of Nordic cha-cha (Connelly and drummer/vocalist/glockenspiel player Maghan Campbell were inspired by time spent living in Norway) meets a circus sideshow—not the scary kind—think a seal bouncing a ball on its nose. Hot Panda’s sound is so inviting, you’re almost tempted to take them up on the “Chinatown Bun” lyrics: “Let’s move to New York and live out of a van.” It seems like it would be fun. Hot Panda is kind of fuzzily adorable, yet shouldn’t be underestimated—as with any bear, really.
Josie Rubio

Lars Horntveth
Smalltown Supersound

Lars Horntveth is a co-founder of Jaga Jazzist, arguably the most influential experimental jazz troupe from Scandinavia. Aficionados have learned not to expect hard bop on Jaga’s albums, and the group’s members have made a habit of straying even further upstream for their solo albums.

Horntveth’s last album, Pooka, was all about the pairing of acoustic, orchestral sounds with electronic strains. Think beats and bassoons. The best moments of that album came when Lars pushed both tendencies to the extreme, either focusing on one at a time, or better yet, smashing the two against each other and finding a really new space for his vision to play out.

The same is mostly true of Kaleidoscopic, though Horntveth seems to be working mainly on his symphonic side this time, turning in a 37-minute composition performed with the help of 34 players from the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. The electronic underpinning expresses itself mainly as rhythm and occasional melodic elements supporting the strings. The few times the keyboards and computers do take the lead, the orchestra mostly disappears, and its usually after the orchestra has been dominating completely for a few minutes.

Horntveth deserves credit for his continued efforts to make something new, but he hasn’t pushed too much farther forward this time. There are unfortunate moments in which you can’t help but think of Mannheim Steamroller, and at times, Kaleidoscopic actually hearkens backwards to Mike Oldfield and other prog-smiths of the early ‘70s. Unless you like that sort of thing, it makes it difficult to be fully pleased with Horntveth’s latest work.
Matt Slaybaugh