Last summer this Seattle band hooked me with their unique name. I'm always nostalgic for my childhood days of Nickelodeon and Super NES games, especially during summer months, so a band named after such an iconic symbol from the early 90s naturally piqued my curiosity.
It was USF's music, however, that kept me listening, and I'm still enjoying their debut LP - Ocean Sunbirds - almost a year later (out on Little Fury Things). It seemed like almost every indie band last summer were releasing tropical, dreamy, and borderline-ambient tunes into the blogosphere, but for me at least, only a few really mattered; only a few, like Universal Studios Florida, were creative enough to be appropriate after the hazy summer months.
USF's blending of 80s film score aesthetics and sparkly tribal grooves make them one of the most exciting bands making music today, despite any musical (or seasonal) fads. Check 'em out:
For your consideration: Florida's the Band in Heaven. And while their sound may not be "heavenly" per se, it is evocative of some of the most iconic shoegazers (i.e., the Jesus and Mary Chain, Yo La Tengo, and the Cocteau Twins, for example). Though they reflect music's fuzzed out, distorted past nicely, the Band in Heaven's songs also recall current acts like the Raveonettes, Deerhunter, or the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
And here is my point: this rising band has the potential to join the current shoegaze revival. The Band in Heaven - whose tunes of carefully placed distortion that somehow highlight their pop leanings - are as endearing as earlier artists and relevant as their contemporaries. In other words, they make listeners remember what made shoegaze so important.
As mentioned earlier, the Band in Heaven are releasing their feedback-driven brand of pop during a time when the industry seems flooded by similar acts, but I think there is room for them. According to the demos streaming from their Myspace page, their music remains wonderfully unique while echoing, reverently, their disparate and legendary influences.
There’s something spectacular, really, about the first few moments of MGMT’s second album Congratulations. Opener “It’s Working” plays out in a relentless blend of intricately layered harmonies and psychedelic surf rock and new wave that forwards MGMT’s idiosyncratic vision but simultaneously recalls the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and even the Jesus and Mary Chain, pioneers who once boldly challenged musical conventions. Why, then, has MGMT received generally mixed reviews for their sophomore effort? “It’s Working” is not a fluke; almost every track highlights the band’s creativity and reverence for some of music’s most engaging artists and genres. And like their apparent influences, MGMT also seem to be manipulating and mixing genres to create something interesting and accessible. Other bands that are usually rewarded for such creativity, however, are not working in the shadow of Oracular Spectacular.
Though MGMT’s first album helped them establish their musical credibility and gain almost instant popularity from both mainstream and indie music listeners, it is clear from Congratulations that the band did not want to simply expand the sound of Oracular Spectacular. They wanted to reinvent themselves.
Some have criticized this natural evolution, however. Upon a careful listen, though, I would argue that any overt changes in sound, for the most part at least, make for a better, more mature and impressive record. Instantly catchy songs like “Kids” and “Electric Feel” are gone, but in their place are tracks that invite repeated listens, tracks that are, especially in terms of longevity, ultimately more rewarding. “Song for Dan Treacy,” for instance, isn’t made for the clubs, but its interesting vocal effects, complex melodies, and rapidly shifting styles give listeners a reason to care about Congratulations months and years from now. And the epic, twelve-minute “Siberian Breaks” – the track that is sure to generate at least some kind of buzz – chiefly highlights the band’s progression as serious musicians; it isn’t immediately accessible like “Time to Pretend,” but it does transition through time changes and genres to surprisingly cohesive and beautiful ends.
But Congratulations is not a complete departure for MGMT. That’s what’s so unusual about the recent resistance against the album: many of its elements would have fit nicely with Oracular Spectacular’s weird Rolling Stones-meets-electro-pop formula. The latter half of album standout “Someone’s Missing,” for example, echoes with groovy Jackson 5 beats and MGMT’s idiosyncratic use of high-pitched, slightly distorted vocals. And “I Found a Whistle” maintains the Out of Our Heads-era melodies found in “The Youth” and ends with a sweeping crescendo similar to the one in “Weekend Wars.”
I’m not suggesting that Congratulations is a perfect album; “Brian Eno,” for instance, feels rushed, and “Lady Dada’s Nightmare,” interesting as it may be, could possibly pass for “filler” (an instrumental, mildly repetitive track like that isn’t appropriate for a nine-track record). I am arguing, however, that it should be recognized for its many successful elements and judged on its own terms, apart from the success of Oracular Spectacular. And even though such a complex, creative album requires the listener’s dedication, the experience is well worth the effort.
What's so fascinating about music, among other things, is the way it affects everyone differently. There is nothing objective about it. As interesting as these presumably subjective implications are, they are also causes of debate. What makes a song "good"? Why is one band "better" than another? On his first solo album, Go, however, Sigur Rós front man Jónsi accomplishes a unique feat: he is perhaps one of those rare artists who can bring objectivity into the discourse among listeners and make what were once arguable topics seem incontrovertible.
In other words, after listening to the album’s nine tracks on repeat, I can’t imagine someone saying this album is anything but beautiful – and I’m not using that term lightly. Sure, that kind of unquestionable beauty subverts music’s inherent subjectivity (arguably its most endearing quality), but more importantly, it highlights how important this album is.
The album echoes many of the lovely and sweeping sounds Sigur Rós fans have come to know and love; songs are layered with epic but fragile arrangements, melodies are executed, gorgeously, with a wide array of both classical and conventional instrumentation, and the tracks collectively reflect the familiar and successful juxtaposition between the somber and the triumphant. And then there’s Jónsi’s voice. Sigur Rós fans will undoubtedly recognize his angelic pipes, but they are also in for a surprise – and I’m not only referring to the use of English. On Go, Jónsi shows off his range more prominently than in any previous Sigur Rós album; through rich harmonies, he communicates his ability to reach impressive and stunning octaves, and he does so consistently. We hear Jónsi throughout, and that is a good thing. Furthermore, Jónsi’s pronounced vocals allow Go to follow a refreshingly straightforward path. It does not, in other words, meander as some Sigur Rós albums do but is instead marked by a stronger sense of melody and noticeable hooks (i.e., Sufjan Stevens or Owen Pallett).
This isn’t a Sigur Rós album. And this isn’t another Jónsi and Alex collaboration. Just as the lyrical theme of growth colors the entire album, one can sense Jónsi’s evolution as a musician, apart from his other projects, as each track beautifully blends into the next; his departure stands alone and is one of the most pleasing records of 2010. I was exaggerating earlier, of course, when I said that Go would be accepted universally as a beautiful album. Still, it does have the potential to resonate as one of those classic records that challenged music’s seemingly subjective nature.
Just as independent artists tend to challenge conventions and defy musical expectations, these bands/musicians are also known for their unorthodox - and oftentimes ridiculous - names. From Raccoo-oo-oon to Abe Vigoda to Sun 0))), indie artists choose monikers that are, admittedly, quite distinctive but can be simultaneously challenging and unnecessarily cumbersome (try Googling Girls or Universal Studios Florida, for example). Regardless of the effect, I am more interested in the motive. Are these names idiosyncratic representations of artistic visions? Or are they simply meant to be spectacles?
Despite the presumed novelty that the name suggests, I encourage you to take MICKEY MICKEY ROURKE seriously, or at least give it a careful listen. The new solo project from Neon Navajo's Miller Rodriguez is a perfect example of how an interesting band name can appropriately reflect an equally unique approach to music. He plays with sounds in subtle yet complex ways, similar to Ducktails or Bradford Cox's Atlas Sound, quietly manipulating typical arrangements to hypnotic ends; layer upon layer of ambient, beautiful (and sometimes sad) noise, communicated through a variety of instruments and styles, has a calming and engaging effect that even recalls earlier Sigur Rós albums.
Though MICKEY MICKEY ROURKE wouldn't typically be filed under "chillwave," his new album, Festive Bummer, seems like it was made to "chill" to. Listen to the track "Coze," embedded below, and experience it for yourself. But be careful, and don't let the name fool you: this is pretty addictive stuff.
Helping form what seems to be a natural union between audio and performative visuals, Florida's Hear Hums forward an experimental vision that begs a fundamental question: is music meant to be seen and heard? After hearing (and seeing) the group's latest album, Notions Shift at Tryptamine Bay, the short answer is - yes.
The songs refreshingly recall the eccentric playfulness of Animal Collective's Sung Tongs and even the ambient, tropical meanderings of Universal Studios Florida, but their delivery is altogether unique. In other words, they create songs that evoke complex, hypnotic musical landscapes, and they physically execute and complement their vision, at least in live shows, with their own psychedelic visuals.
Combining music with images (i.e., Caribou, etc.) isn't an entirely new concept, of course, but there is something special and endearing about Hear Hum's subtle yet earnest approach to "making music that is art." For those of you looking for something new and gorgeously progressive, then, look for the band's forthcoming record, Psyche Cycles, in the fall of 2010. In the meantime, enjoy a clip from one of their live shows:
"The always generous state of South Carolina just keeps on giving, coughing up another rareified little gem from its gilded lungs in the shape of TOP GIRLS and their lurid, polter-pop AM transmission 'Not Enuff'. All sorrowful mermaid moaning and unwell delirum trembling, there’s something unsettling about this song that promotes a kind of masochistic enchantment and we were still bouncing to its fried Arcade Console explosions and nuclear techno pulsing long after migraine descended and brains burst into flame."
What do you think? Download the track here for free.
Check out the insane video for "Suicide Dream 2" from How to Dress Well, Tom Krell's rising lo-fi, r&b project. The track comes from Krell's newest EP - Can't See My Own Face: the Eternal Love 2 - the latest in a series of exceptional "drone&b, abstract pop cuts." Enjoy.
Florida's Mike Diaz, who now answers to the adequately hip pseudonym MillionYoung, has done his homework. On his latest EP, Be So True, Diaz reveals what seems like reverence for chillwave's pioneers and uses the five tracks to respectfully pay homage; from Toro Y Moi to Memory Tapes, the biggest names in this latest music trend are represented with reminiscent arrangements and suggestive synth-pop textures. And while exploiting this genre, Diaz ultimately proves one thing: chillwave is alive and well.
Although it is becoming increasingly passé and "uncool" to like chillwave or even admit to its validity as a legitimate sub-genre, Be So True reminds listeners what made lo-fi, synth-infused dream-pop so appealing in the first place. In other words, MillionYoung makes it okay to echo other artists. While many claim that those riding the chillwave will soon come to an abrupt stop, Diaz suggests otherwise in his blending of chillwave's most engaging qualities.
But the EP is not wholly derivative, however. In the opener "Cynthia" and later track "Pilfer," for instance, familiar production techniques and hooks are present (i.e., Toro Yo Moi), but his vocals are organic and earnest, qualities rarely found in other chillwave (and often heavily produced) projects. Album highlight "Soft Denial" sounds a lot like Memory Tapes' "Bicycle," but the execution is more direct - more accessible and poppy throughout. Traces of Washed Out's signature blissed-out, "chill" beats color "Mien" heavily, but Diaz is willing to let it evolve and transform, giving life to the track in a way that is sometimes absent from even some of Life of Leisure's finest moments.
The EP ends with "Day We Met," an appropriate closing track that sounds influenced by chillwave in a collective sense - recalling many artists (even Crystal Castles) and their stylistic trademarks. Like the aforementioned tracks, however, Diaz makes it his own. Still, I am perhaps more impressed with the way Be So True urges listeners to admit that chillwave is still relevant, even if it means having to look to and mirror the past.
For your consideration: Florida's the Atlantic Manor. Though the prolific group have already released an impressive eleven albums, they somehow remain hidden from the mainstream music scene. According to what I've sampled from their catalogue, though, the Atlantic Manor serve as proof of what is so often true: quality music usually is absent from the mainstream.
In their pursuit to "keep the underground alive one record at a time," the Atlantic Manor create music that is massively appealing for its blending of endearing genres but is conventionally less accessible in its insistence on unpredictable and unique arrangements. That is, the band produces psych, folk, and drone country dirges, much in the same vein as Lambchop, Deer Tick, or Bonnie "Prince" Billy, that would be out of place on local radio but seem destined for vinyl on summer nights among friends.
If their latest release, "The World Beneath This World is Brightening," isn't immediately appealing, don't disregard the Atlantic Manor; after all, a twelfth record is probably already in the works.