The Fiery Furnaces
I’m Going Away
Thrill Jockey

It’s uncertain whether the debate of ambition vs. indulgence still rages when discussing Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger’s work as the Fiery Furnaces. After all, their exhaustive and puzzling triple-live record forced many to throw in the towel. Either they were genius—too genius—to enjoy or hacks capable of repeating the same one trick numerous times, even within the same song. Maybe that’s the reason it’s taken so long (at least within the Fiery Furnaces timeline) for I’m Going Away to surface. Was it a conscientious decision to become sonically thrifty, to sacrifice sprawling prog and concept for tunes stripped to their melodic core? Or is it all a trick, a reverse on the Blueberry Boat blueprints, where concept and endless connections were unfolded over 80-plus minutes of confusion?

I’m Going Away is far and away the duo’s most economical record since their debut, a feat that will be welcome to many. It even boasts a traditional as its title track and a run time closer to the length of a sitcom than a Biblical epic. But don’t be fooled, Eleanor’s still cramming in the syllables, tongue-twisters and quirky imagery. There’s also a loose story involving Times Square, a girl named Charmaine Champagne, and the “squarest thing on the jukebox” that frames these mostly straight piano vamps. Supposing mood trumps aesthetic then, there’s a comforting feeling in the Friedbergers’ evocation of ’ 70s A.M. gold and AOR rock radio. Hearing Eleanor nervously shag through the Steely Dan–like refined schmaltz of “Keep Me in the Dark” or lament on the late-night martini-clink of “Drive to Dallas,” is a refreshing shift for the band. And despite the lounge and midtown vibe that permeates I’m Going Away, Matthew adds the distinctive stamp of the Fiery Furnaces, namely surprise tempo shifts, scribbled solos and the occasional moog workout. Perhaps that’s the joke, though brother and sister sat at the drawing board with a handful of sing-along standards in mind, they’ve managed to preserve the grotesque nature of their songwriting, dressing it up in a guise befitting these meager times.
Kevin J. Elliott

Ty Segall

To some degree flying under the radar of all but the most ardent of aficionados, Ty Segall quietly released a self-titled, self-played album on John Dwyer’s Castle Face label at the end of the last year that was anything but quiet. The San Franciscan one-man-as-band created something that bounded in several directions, an erratic mix of loner-pop, garage scuzz, and lo-fi outerbounds. Overlooked, but not underdone.

While he’s recruited a couple mates to help with the live show and hooked up with Goner in the short interim, Lemons still adheres to the form of its predecessor, Segall knocking out a dozen cuts himself. Economic, though hardly lacking, the squall is lean and mean, a couple guitar tracks—one usually crunchy, the other, reverbed—some drums and perhaps some bass. The MO manifests itself in powerful bursts of flurry and melody. “Standing at the Station,” with a cavemen-stomp of a beat, is a primal, loving crunching of nerves and skull. “Can’t Talk” is suicidal and lovelorn in theme, but whiplashing in intent, all of two chords (and a cloud of dust). Similarly, “Cents” is white boy blues as sung from the deadzone, bathed in reverb and blackhole angel dust. Segall’s cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Drop Out Boogie” is not to be missed either, more frantic than the original, perhaps, but hitting the same synapses. Again, this is a record of economy, with the whole album over and done in less than half an hour, but that’s all the time Segall needs to once again prove his mettle.
Stephen Slaybaugh

MP3: “It #1”

Wye Oak
The Knot

Male and female duos are frustratingly trendy in musicland lately, and many, like a failed marketing gimmick, pass through quickly, making few ripples along the way. They dress quirky, make simple songs, and break up and get back together—all with a lot of fanfare and little substance. Wye Oak, fortunately, avoid all the pitfalls of those bands, as they take their turn producing beautiful melodies with just two people. The duo, hailing from Baltimore, borrowed their name from the honorary state tree of Maryland. The tree is oft referred to as “the quiet giant,” but the moniker is perhaps more fitting for the band than the tree, as it perfectly sums up the deceptively complex, multi-layered melodies that Wye Oak manages to create.

The Knot is the band’s second full-length, but it’s their first on a big label. It is certainly more polished, yet Wye Oak maintains a strange sense of childlike rawness while expertly crafting sweeping melodies that swell and explode with little warning. It’s hard to imagine that two people can produce such sound, shoegazed with a slight back-country twang, which makes for an intriguing and unexpectedly satisfying combination from the very first song, the string-laden “For Prayer.” The album does not rely on heavy distortion or feedback. It’s raw, yet polished at the same time, and the contradiction is beautiful and refreshing. There is a strange, hopeful, yet melancholic force driving both the lyrics and music. As a whole, The Knot manages to capture the essence of what it feels like to be small and trapped in a large world, and then gives you the sense that everything will work out in the end, all at the same time. If only there were more albums out there that could simultaneously knock you down, whilst taking your hand and helping you up. Wye Oak has the musical depth to make not only ripples, but waves, and with any luck, they’ll stick around to do so for a long while.
Jennifer Farmer

MP3: “Take It In”

White Ink Black Ink
The Rebel Group

Wheat’s latest album, White Ink Black Ink, nails all the details. Each song is a showcase for unique guitar textures, inventive drum effects, and strangely phenomenal bridge sections. (I can safely say I’ve never heard a band whose bridge sections were so clearly their greatest strength.) But while nuances like these make all the difference between a forgettable album and a full-blown masterpiece, they won’t do you much good as a pop band if you lack solid hooks and a decent frontman. Sadly, all of Wheat’s little moments of brilliance are wasted on an album that features no more than three memorable choruses and is spearheaded by a singer who believes that just because his grainy vocals sound a bit like Beck’s, he’s excused from hitting the proper notes. And though the road to indie rock canonization may be paved with terrible singers, Wheat’s Scott Levesque doesn’t have the lyrical chops or vocal peculiarity to make up for his limited natural abilities.

Nevertheless, White Ink Black Ink begins surprisingly well with the opener “HOTT” (though my enjoyment of that song was clearly enhanced by the remarkably low expectations I had before listening to a song called “HOTT”), and the second track, “Changes Is,” features one of those rare aforementioned choruses that don?t completely suck. Unfortunately, Wheat follows that promising start with “My Warning,” a half-hearted attempt to hijack Vampire Weekend’s Afro-indie bandwagon, and for the remaining 25 minutes or so (the album does have brevity going for it), Wheat slogs through six socially appropriate, college radio–ready anthems, one 30-second throwaway track, and an atrocity called “Music is Drugs” which, believe it or not, is at least twice as obnoxious and it sounds.

Usually, bands who write nice pop songs for nice people shouldn’t be encouraged to get too adventurous. But a greater willingness to experiment might actually suit Wheat’s particular talents. The song “El Sincero” displays this potential as Levesque sings bizarre melodies that befit his vocal style, while the band eschews their preferred “verse chorus repeat” format in favor of one long extended verse that slowly builds to a satisfying climax of echoing drums, tastefully triumphant strings, and broken electronic noises. And while a head-first dive into eccentric atmospheric rock could be disastrous for the band, it couldn’t be any worse than the MOR sinkhole they’ve found themselves stuck in now.
David Holmes

MP3: “H.O.T.T.”

Various Artists
(500) Days of Summer: Music from the Motion Picture

According to the narrator at the beginning of (500) Days of Summer, the film is not a love story, but “a story of boy meets girl”—the tale of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who believed he wouldn’t be happy until he found “the one.” This belief, we’re told, “stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie, The Graduate ” He meets Summer (indie darling Zooey Deschanel) and all the ingredients for a quirky romantic comedy—and for an accompanying soundtrack—come together.

At one point in this boy-meets-girl story Summer hears “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” playing on Tom’s headphones and tells him and says she loves the Smiths before launching into the lyrics, “To die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die.” So it’s appropriate in a case of art-imitating-life-imitating-art (or something like that) that Deschanel covers, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” in She & Him, her music duo with M. Ward. Over alt-country tinged melancholy, Deschanel is reminiscent of Neko Case. (The original Smiths version featuring Morrissey’s trademark resigned, dejected longing is on the soundtrack as well.) The Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” also gets covered, by singer-songwriter Meaghan Smith.

Of course, Deschanel doesn’t take all the indie-songstress spotlight. Feist contributes “Mushaboom” and Regina Spektor’s “Hero” and “Us,” showcasing her unique voice against strings and soaring, sometimes frenetic, piano. “Quelqu’un M’a Dit” from model/singer—and current first lady of France—Carla Bruni Sarkozy, whose whiskey-and-honey voice flows over simple acoustic guitars. The time warp that is Wolfmother gives us the new-yet-sounds-like-classic-rock “Vagabond”—though there are older songs from duos Hall & Oates (“You Make My Dreams” from a film dance sequence) and Simon & Garfunkel (“Bookends”). Fellow Aussies the Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” meld crooning falsetto and the slow building of atmospheric sounds to create one of the standout tracks on the album. (It’s tied with Spektor’s “Us” to be for this film what Moldy Peaches “Anyone Else But You” was to Juno.) Black Lips contribute “Bad Kids,” a bawdy song that’s half melodic sing-along, half irresistible barroom brouhaha. There’s also jangly upbeat Brit-pop on “She’s Got You High,” courtesy of Mumm-Ra.

The soundtrack is one of the few that’s listenable from beginning to end. The variety of these songs flows more like a mixtape, that age-old weapon for boy to try to win girl.
Josie Rubio