Death Cab for Cutie
Codes and Keys

At this point, worrying about when Death Cab for Cutie jumped their indie rock shark for the bigtime is completely irrelevant. Plans, their debut for Atlantic, proved that “selling out” or watering down their mix of soggy pop and sappy emotions was an unnecessary consideration. The masses were already buying, and if it only took a few unassuming tweaks toward commercial viability, than why the hell not? Sure they had achieved their greatest artistic achievement just a couple years earlier with Transatlanticism, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the melancholy of even that record translating to sales with a larger audience of similarly doleful souls.

However, two records later, DCFC is still attempting to straddle the line between their sad-sack indie past and being the transcendental voice of a generation. You can hear it in every song on Codes and Keys; Ben Gibbard tries to convey something of the personal reflection that’s always been his bread-and-butter while the production of the record is geared at inflating the band into something that fills big spaces. This paradigm is achieved best on songs like “Doors Unlocked and Open,” with minor chords and Gibbard’s obtuse bittersweets given an epic scale. It’s hard not to be enamored with the enormity of the whole thing, so that even when it rings a little hollow, one is swept up in the album and its grand dynamics. Death Cab for Cutie is no longer the little band that could, but now that they’ve reached some sense of actuality, there’s no reason to necessarily dismiss them.
Stephen Slaybaugh

My Morning Jacket

My Morning Jacket have risen to such high regard as a touring force that it’s been easy to forget that they still make studio albums. Now that they’ve become heralded troubadours with a fanbase that draws equally from those of (and embarrassingly so) Widespread Panic to Ween, it’s easy to see that uneven influence reflected in Circuital. While the album title and the back story (Circuital was recorded with few frills in a Louisville gymnasium) suggest that this is a return to their roots, Jim James and company rely on hokum and pompous stylistic guffaws to pad what is a relatively yawn-inducing record. The seven-minute title track does suggest a spiritual ouroboros of sorts. The song’s ethereal groove slowly builds into the dense, soupy guitar jam that has made them so beloved, and it’s sure to become a road staple at festivals around the world. But for the duration, Circuital lacks a wholeness and shows My Morning Jacket more content chasing their tails and searching for new tricks than really refining their core strengths.

“Holding on to Black Metal,” approachable more for its pop culture hoodwink than its forgettable riff, piles on the children’s choir and the big brass as smoke and mirrors to mask the band being somewhat lazy with their collaborative songwriting. Circuital is reliant on autopilot, adding atmosphere in the form of synth layers and smoky piano lines over songs you think you’ve heard before—like the lead “Victory Dance”—once played in heavier, more meaningful circumstances. It all comes down to James’ over-ambition to prove he’s his generation’s Brian Wilson to a fault. Instead, he should be trying to prove his band still has relevance outside of the Bonnaroo contingent. There’s plenty here to enjoy if you’ve been a long time fan; “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and “Slow Slow Tune,” for example, have a heart, but might be better put to use on a Jim James solo endeavor as they accentuate the minimal magic that one can do with folk and blues hues. That said, don’t expect this train to halt; with a tour schedule that reads into infinity, these songs could likely become monsters on the stage once they’ve been worked over, improvised, re-arranged and jammed upon for an entire summer. Circuital may not be that definitive record the band is looking to make, but I’ve never met a My Morning Jacket concert I didn’t like.
Kevin J. Elliott

Friendly Fires

It raises a flag when a band names it’s album after the fictional island setting of Aldous Huxley’s last book, Island, particularly when the band is the dance-rock Friendly Fires and the title Pala has been adopted for its second record. Since the group’s self-titled debut record went double-gold in the UK and was nominated for the Mercury Prize, Pala is the anticipated follow-up. Even under less pressurized circumstances, the second album is always a tricky thing. The term “sophomore slump” has been worn smooth to the touch for a good reason. So for a band to invoke Huxley, it seems to signal a turn towards serious introspection and rigorous philosophical debate.

Luckily, it seems like Friendly Fires only read the Cliff Notes to Island and have instead responded to the idea of the island as utopian paradise. The result isn’t a stab for mature respectability, but instead a hands in the air, feet on the dancefloor throwdown. However, there has been some welcome maturing in the Friendly Fires camp. As compared to the songs from the first album, there’s definitely more polish. While their breakout “Paris” had a charming lo-fi feel to it, the songs on Pala are sleek pop tunes as vibrant as the cover art. Simply put, it seems like the band took the lessons it learned since its 2008 debut and gotten much more proficient in executing its ideas.

The lead single, “Live Those Days Tonight,” is easily the biggest indicator at how much things have changed. There’s a swaggering confidence from the word go. It’s the type of song that you’d be disappointed if it doesn’t cause a tangled sweaty mess at the club. However, Pala doesn’t rely on high adrenaline to get its point across. There’s a nice balance of mid-tempo songs that suggest they’re invoking the specter of “Perfect Way”–era Scritti Politti or mid-80s R&B. There are definitely a few songs that could get some burn during the “Quiet Storm” mix, but the trick is that it doesn’t sound forced or labored. Instead, Friendly Fires have managed to neatly sidestep the dreaded sophomore slump, lived up to the potential of the first album, and delivered the perfect soundtrack of the summer.
Dorian S. Ham

Ear Pwr
Ear Pwr

There’s a quote from the 1969 blaxploitation classic Putney Swope that occurs when one of the moral voices of reason accuses ad agency boss Putney Swope of “confusing originality with obscenity.” This quote applies quite aptly to the newest recording effort from North Carolina’s electronic dance duo Ear Pwr. The only thing to add would be that, along with confusing originality with obscenity, they’re confusing pretension with artistic intention.

This record, a self-titled affair, is generally a slog through every possible ’80s rehash cliche that the last 10 years of contemporary music has spewed forth. Ear Pwr consists of members Devin Booze and his female counterpart Sarah PWR, two cringe-worthy names creating cringe-worthy music. It’s not that it is electronic-based music, as there’s a long list of bands, such as Mates of State and Beach House, who attempt to consistently do something interesting with the genre, it’s the fact that Ear Pwr looks at this genre as less of a canvas on which to create but more as a hustle or dodge. It seems as though Booze and PWR are making music in order to get invited to the cool table instead of actually taking pride in what they make. Each song thanklessly bleeds into the next, the hooks are few and far between and Sarah PWR’s voice is uninspired and off-key more often than not. Booze, if his interviews are any indication, is a complete, top-tier wanker, taking more interest in the color of his neon sunglasses rather than the keyboard parts he unleashes upon the world.

It’s hard to truly name a bright spot on this album, but if one were forced to choose, the track “National Parks” has the most listenable chorus, albeit that is akin to saying that Herpes Simplex A is the most treatable STD. If you find your hand hovers nervously over the “engage” and “abort” buttons with regards to purchasing this record, it would be in your best interest to slam emphatically on the latter with no regrets.
Terrence Adams

Various Artists
Blow Your Head V.2: Dave Nada Presents... Moombahton
Mad Decent/Downtown

For fans of dance music, it seems like there’s a new genre or variation every other day. So when the term “moombahton” began to emerge almost a year and a half ago it seemed like business as usual. Yet somehow this was different. In a time when an uploaded MP3 can be worldwide in five minutes and old hat in two weeks, moombahton seemed to be a rarity in the digital age in that it’s been a slow-building grassroots movement. So now it’s reached the tipping point where it’s ready for a big coming out party, and who better to host than the creator of moombahton, Dave Nada?

Nada is one of the DJs who helped spread the Baltimore club sound to the world, but he has also become a versatile DJ/producer in his own right. The creation of moombahton came in a moment of pure necessity. Faced with a crowd that was getting down to reggaeton, he realized that his usual set wouldn’t work. So he slowed down Afrojack’s remix of “Moombah” by Chuckie & Silvio Ecomo to a reggaeton tempo and a light bulb went off. He began to make his own tracks that combined reggaeton and Dutch house and named the result for the song that inspired it. “Moombah” + reggaeton= “moombahton.” It seems only fitting that Diplo’s globetrotting label Mad Decent would dedicate a volume of Blow Your Head to moombahton.

The record is a compilation rather than a DJ mix so you get to see the songs in their unadulterated forms. It’s a blend of older songs, newer tracks and foundation artists. While the sight of an early ’90s Shabba Ranks tune or an appearance by reggaeton pioneer El General would seem out of place timeline-wise, it helps to show the building blocks for moombahton. The album also shows the diversity of the artists. There is more rave and dubstep inspired takes, while others have more of a tougher electro feel and some songs wouldn’t seem out of place in a dancehall session. While those whose ears and pelvises have been battered by the default of “harder, faster, louder” may not be able to grab on to moombahton, for everyone else it’s a breath of fresh air.
Dorian S. Ham