Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Listen: The Tallest Man on Earth - "Sagres"

photo by Cameron Wittig
One of the most frequent answers Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson aka The Tallest Man on Earth gives when asked what he's been doing between album cycles is working on his singing. It's an answer that always struck me as a little odd considering Matsson doesn't exactly lack in vocal ability and I found his occasional grittiness a charming infusion of character.  And yet on "Sagres", the first single from The Tallest Man on Earth's heavily anticipated follow up to 2012's There's No Leaving Now it's never been more evident that that's exactly what he's been up to.

Matsson's characteristic rasps is transformed instead into a sweet, supple croon and his higher register is enough of a marvel that he spends a considerable amount of time up there. There's a comfort and ease in the slide and glide of his vocals that enables him to do considerably more with it. But that's not the only new quality in "Sagres". Matsson doesn't exactly shelve his trademark guitar but guitar and vocals are no longer the sole focus and Matsson opens the song up with a lush expansiveness. From castanets to violin and mandolin, The Tallest Man on Earth explores a diverse array of instrumentation in what's arguably one of his lengthiest songs. "Sagres" is perhaps the poppiest Matsson has gone but even then it's not that far from his guitar-driven folk rambles.

He may not have spent the whole three years between albums off the grid but there's no denying "Sagres" reveals a refreshed and re-energized Matsson with a bevy of new tricks up his sleeves. There might be no need to fix what isn't broken but Matsson's gone about improving anyway and "Sagres" bodes well for the rest of the upcoming album.

The Tallest Man on Earth's fourth full length album Dark Bird Is Home is out May 12th on Dead Oceans. Pre-order is available on digital, CD, LP, or limited edition deluxe bundle here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Watch: Sondre Lerche - "Lucky Guy"

photo by Sean Hagwell
After the cathartic and surreal trilogy of videos directed by Evan Savitt, Sondre Lerche latest video is a much less cerebral and certainly much simpler affair. Frequent collaborator Marius Hage returns to capture Lerche and band (drummer Dave Heilman and Chris Holm on bass) in stark gray in a pretty straightforward performance of one of the most emotionally resonant Please tracks. "Lucky Guy" is a proper summation of all the turbulence, diversions, and pathos of the album with none of the record's insistent fervor.

With no real plot to speak of, the video instead becomes all about Lerche's songwriting and the band's performance played with an uncharacteristic solemnity as Lerche grasps his consolation prize: he may have lost the girl but he's gained some hard-won wisdom and perspective. It's one of the rare moments Lerche allows Please to function like the actual break up record it's purported to being and Hage's honest, no frills approach capitalizes on that energy. Lyrically Lerche aims for introspective over sad and Hage's director completely fits that vibe.

Listen/Watch: Waterstrider - "Calliope"

photo by Cara Robbins
If there was any hint that Oakland world pop quintet Waterstrider were not playing around, it's now. After years of playing it slow and steady in terms of their recorded output, they're finally rushing full speed ahead with their debut full length record Nowhere Now. With the exception of the Little Dragon cover they put out last year and the odd single or two, its the band's first major release since 2012's 3 song suppressed-but-not-forgotten Wind-Fed Fire EP and we're already, surprisingly, three singles in.

"Calliope", named for the muse of epic poetry, builds quite naturally from the nature of celebrity addressed in its double A side companion "White Light". In a similar vein as "White Light", "Calliope" embraces the darker aspects of its source on inspiration - in this case inspiration itself. As "Calliope" addresses the hard won battle of stirring up inspiration and following it through to its artistically satisfying conclusion. While making full use of the whole band there's no denying "Calliope" functions as an impressive showcase for Nate Salman. From the androgynously silvery falsetto at the song's introduction, its sumptuous craning choruses, and his ferocious wail at its climax; "Calliope" demonstrates in full force the sheer strength of Salman's vocal performance. It's not a one man show of course - the foundation for those stratospheric leaps being laid by a band with five years of familiar comfort under its belt but its a notable turn - the rare instance where Salman rushes forth with an unbridled sense of purpose.

In the dizzying time-skipping narrative of director Joe Nankin, the muse is once again granted a physical form as the video's protagonist (played by Paul Collins) finds himself thrown to and fro through time; from the Crusades to modern day California while looking for her. The question becomes not whether or not she'll continue to elude him but if he wants to keep pursuing her as each time he closes in on her, he's shaken vigorous off of her trail. It's a centuries-spanning game of cat and mouse where the mouse is both the captivating seductress and wily fugitive.

Waterstrider's debut full length album Nowhere Now is out April 6th. You can pre-order it now as well as listen to the previously released singles "Redwood" and "White Light" via Bandcamp.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pitstop: Agnes Obel

One of the things I did in my early days of music blogging was sign up for a bunch of mailing lists for a bunch of New York City venues. Sure, some venues already add you on a mailing list if you buy tickets online to go to them (looking at you Bowery Presents) but I welcomed what some what see as annoying intrusion. Or I did at the time. The idea behind it being that I would totally use it to keep up on shows happening I might otherwise miss (I haven't) or find artists I might not have seen (I didn't). While I'm too lazy to unsubscribe from the majority of these mailing lists I did finally find an artist exclusively through an email sent promoting hers and other shows at Le Poisson Rouge. Enter Berlin based Danish songstress Agnes Obel.

While I couldn't make it to her show I found that the name had managed to stick with me. Something about the combination of its symmetry as well as the press photo used - Obel in profile silhouetted in red (the album art for her latest album Aventine) seemed to stir something in my very core. You want to listen to this. Obel's music manages to be at once totally straight forward and yet totally hard to classify. A classically trained pianist, Obel's music seems to reflect this (especially in her instrumental turns) while there's a definite push for a pop-like accessibility. As good as they are, Obel has more to offer than lyrical piano-driven ballads. While piano and Obel's vocals always maintain the main focus and in impresively equal measure, Obel allows a bit of orchestral flourishes on the new album and songs like "Dorian" and "Aventine" manage to show her pivoting from the occasionally folk-inspired turns of her debut album Philharmonics to her more seriously plotted nascent art-pop of Aventine while still retaining at last the hint of pop momentum.

And yet, on Aventine Obel's music retains a pervasive introspection - melancholic at times, merely contemplative at others. It's hard to label Obel a pop artist when the music is so definitively solemn. In that regards Obel has more in line with artists like Efterklang and Sigur Rós - much more content to just make the music they want to with little thought for what to actually call it. Not only does Obel strengthen her songwriting chops but she also refines her creative process in a way that's totally genre-blurring.

The most exciting thing about Agnes Obel is that she's knows either consciously or instinctively that in order to avoid stagnation there needs to be more happening than merely being beautiful or catchy and in her own quest for interesting musical routes provides music that's engaging and rewarding to listen to while also offering these things. Obel is the kind of artist that you can count on to evolve from album to album and while her current output is endearing an solid, I'm intrigued at the possibilities.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

North Highlands - North Highlands (2015)

It's a bit of a shock that Brooklyn powerpop quintet North Highlands' follow up to their 2011 debut full length Wild One arrived almost entirely without ceremony. After premiering the first single "Shade" the first week of February, a stream soon went up a week later followed almost instantaneously by the official album release. But North Highlands have never been ones for hype and playing their final show in March, it makes sense that they'd keep to that method of relying far more on word of mouth from dedicated friends and newly converted fans to drum up interest than engaging in much of the music industry game.

Building off of 2013's "I'll Do My Best"/"Halo" 7", North Highlands have refined a bit of the more nebulous parts of their sound. Gone are the folkier and chamber pop-esque elements as Andy Kasperbaeur shelves his violin for guitar and Brenda Malvini leans harder into the use of various synth tones. However that's all that's been carried over from the one-off single, the surf-pop aesthetic abandoned for something far truer to North Highlands' elected home. North Highlands have always reveled in a sense of nostalgia - the sincere pining for hometowns long since abandoned aiding their whimsical, lilting brand of dream pop on Wild One and their self-titled is no different. However on North Highlands, the band longs for days on the road, for cities left behind, and the New York City they once loved.

Rather like their debut record, North Highlands never offers these devastating takeaways point blank. Malvini retains her delicate, inviting coo and the band are in rare form shuffling through an impressive amount of ear-catching musical moments and a dazzling array  of textures. Each song on their sophomore has at the very least two moments that you're basically guaranteed to return to from the shimmering shuffle of "Axelrod" to the soft-focus guitar pop of "That's So Good"; the soaring, ecstatic heights of "Quitter" to the sweeping harmonies of "Shade" North Highlands are on their A game - taking each music idea to its logical conclusion and pushing it forward into something interestingly different.

North Highlands is a pretty accurate summation of the band delivered at their absolute peak. After spending much of their career settling into a characteristic sound they've finally achieved it - capturing perfectly the subtle way they feed off of each other live to tape. The fact that they can shuffle so seamless from music idea to music idea in a way that doesn't just seem like they're grasping at straws is indicative of that. The album's a full band effort; all hands in the pot and that's evident in the way the melodies - swirling synths, Malvini's feathery light vocals, the guitar interplay built upon Jasper Berg's steady but skillful percussion.

North Highlands approaches the band's growing sense of malaise with a surprising lack of fire. Malvini's vocals aren't emotionally detached but she handles falling out of love with an impressive amount of decorum. It's an amicable break but one which North Highlands ushers in a manner that's downright celebratory. All of the energy reserved for fighting transmuted into an acceptance of what the band sees as an inevitable end that simply won't deter their fun. The irony of course that the self-titled is the more down tempo of their two records and yet, even at its most languorous there's the persistence of infectious melodies. That's the real takeaway. Released nearly a year after the band have officially called it quits (or gone on an indefinite hiatus and scattered across the US), North Highlands never lose their comforting sense of persistence. Their melodies are as catchy as they've ever been even as they reach emotional depths Wild One only hinted at. Where Brenda Malvini held listeners lyrically at arms length on Wild One, she's shortened the distance here, bringing the arms in as the band give us one last dance before the lights go up.

North Highlands is out now and available to buy digitally now. Stream the album in full via NME or on Spotify.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Listen: Christopher Tignor - "Thunder Lay Down In The Heart"

As I looked at the lineup for an upcoming show at Cameo Gallery featuring Friend Roulette collaborator Paul Damian Hogan the Third this Friday night another name curiously caught my eye: Christopher Tignor. I recognized the name - not only that I remembered exactly from: Tignor's "Together Into This Unknowable Night" was one of the two original works on Brooklyn Rider's Seven Steps. Though I didn't realize it at the time, the Brooklyn based violinist/software engineer follows the path of most modern composers through forming his own ensembles to perform his works. That's essentially how Thunder Lay Down In The Heart, Tignor's second "solo" album, came to be.

While much of the album itself contains reinterpretations, reworks, and reconfigurations of  a piece Tignor wrote for string orchestra, electronics, and drums inspired by poet John Ashberry's "A Boy", at the album's core lays the work from which the album draws its title and the rest of the album acts as a reaction to: "Thunder Lay Down In The Heart", split into three parts for what seems like convenience considering it's attacca cohesiveness.

Tignor's approach is slow and steady - stealthily assembling the necessary themes and harmonic devices that are sure elicit a strong reaction; Tignor's work shows a considerable amount of restraint. He introduces the electronic element of his work first and foremost as a sort of steady pulsation while the strings' fluid arcs act in counterpoint to build much of the tension. And yet, Tignor's form of tension release comes through unexpected changes - after nearly five minutes of slow burning melodic thaw, the ensemble overtakes the electronic pulse and comes sharply into focus.

Christopher Tignor's "Thunder Lay Down In The Heart" is a work borne of patience. Not only his own but requiring a bit on the listener's part to make it all worthwhile. Instead of throwing an endless assortment of ideas at you to sink into, Tignor shuffles a handful in from the periphery. Considering Tignor's minimalistic tendencies, the real surprise is how swiftly the man can shift themes. The build ups are organic and develop through sensible pacing but Tignor still finds a way to make his climactic surges unpredictable. Tignor's grandiose music moments arrive in a heady rush, he obscures the gears from view while clearly working off of them to make those moments the most satisfying in a way that's almost subliminal.  

Christopher Tignor's Thunder Lay Down In The Heart is available now via Western Vinyl. You can catch Tignor at Cameo Gallery with Secret Cities on 2/13, St. Vitus with This Will Destroy You, or at Littlefield 3/13 with Bing & Ruth

Monday, February 9, 2015

Listen: Soft Cat - "Somebody"

Though recommended to me by our mutual friend and their Friends Records labelmate Jeffrey Silverstein of Secret Mountains around the release of the album Lost No Labor, I had failed to actually follow up and listen to Baltimore chamber folk ensemble Soft Cat. I'm not entirely sure why exactly - their setup not unlike that of Portland's Horse Feathers, a group I was more than familiar. It wasn't until I traveled to Baltimore for Portals' Living Spaces traveling showcase last year that I was finally listened to Soft Cat for the first time - through watching them play first at an art fair/farmer's market that afternoon and the later that night at The Crown as part of the showcase.

Seeing them twice in on day really just cemented what a colossal mistake I had made in not seeking them out immediately. But music discovery runs on its own clock and I was lucky to hear several new songs well ahead of their release. Which brings us to today - As Soft Cat are readying their third full length album All Energy Will Rise this Spring, "Somebody", a favorite from both their sets that one day is finally available to listen to over and over again as I can assure you you are sure to.

If you're looking for honest folk music free of cliched tropes and asinine affects, "Somebody" offers that in spades. While the brainchild of songwriter Neil Sanzgiri, Soft Cat never feels simply like a vehicle for his songwriting. There is a very obvious spirit of collaboration that can be heard in just how prevalent the strings are in the arrangements; a dependent part of the actual action instead of merely ornaments. They're a strong constant presence, providing the bedrock while Sanzgiri's vocals rise and dissipate like puffs of smoke in the cold night air. "I still need somebody" Neil sings and they're the clearest lyric in the entire song - right smack dab in the sweet spot of his register. "Somebody" builds off that sense of consistency - the insistent guitar line before the vocals or other instruments even enter. The reoccurring oscillation that's traded from cello to violin and back. And yet even with that familiar repetition, there's still some entirely unpredictable, intangible moments of compositional majesty. Soft Cat isn't the focus for Neil Sanzgiri's lyrics nor the string arrangements but rather everything comes together just so - unquantifiable; ephemeral and fleeting but effortlessly, captivatingly beautiful - Soft Cat's own constant.

Soft Cat's third full length album All Energy Will Rise is out April 7th on Miscreant & Father/Daughter Records.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Viet Cong - Viet Cong (2015)

It is a common misconception in rock music that the loudest band is the best band. While the ability to inspire frenzied uproars merely from the existing is built into the history of rock and roll, there has of course been a notable shift in expectation and presentation - and not just due to decline of genrification. Calgary's Women was such a band that while never really relying on deafening volumes or aggressive guitar techniques was without question a great band. Viet Cong, formed more or less from the ashes of Women after guitarist/vocalist Chris Reimer's death continues in that tradition without merely being a carbon copy.

After debuting with their "Cassette" EP, which relied heavily on the idea of genre before ultimate subverting it, Viet Cong's self-titled full length explodes that notion from its very beginning; much truer to the band's shared history. "Continental Shelf", the first single from the self-titled record, is a bit of a misdirect. Essentially the only song on the record easily accessible enough to be presented out of context - it's the catchiest track on the record by a long shot. The next catchiest of course being second single "Silhouettes" which is perhaps a better encapsulation of the brusqueness of the album. "Silhouettes" is the single that clues you in to the hidden depths of Viet Cong, whereas "Continental Shelf" serves merely to pique interest.

Viet Cong is essentially a continuation of the murky, devolution of "Cassette" ender "Select Your Drone" dialed back a hair so there's at least some room for growth. Viet Cong are sure to garner a lot of comparisons to Women and this latest record seems both to be an acknowledgement and a violet rejection of that in equal measure. It's a record that doesn't just require patient from the listener but demands it - it's expansive builds littered with abrasive textures and rugged tones. If you stick with it long enough, you're rewarded with transformation of those harsh tones into brilliant displays of guitar tones and ability. Viet Cong enact the grand build towards ruination of "Cassette" on a smaller scale and basically in reverse. "Continental Shelf" might be unlike any other song on the album but in the context of the album - as it rebuilds itself from the wreckage - of their former band, of their former album, it coalesces into the moment of melodic clarity that is "Continental Shelf" and yet if you listen to the lyrics and Matt Flegel's growls it's as steeped in the darkness and disarray as the rest of the album. It's this willingness to embrace the darkness, to expound on the certainty of death that grants Viet Cong their strength as they avoid both the whininess of emo and the effrontery of nihilistic metal. Much like "Cassette" builds to "Select Your Drone", Viet Cong builds to "Death", an 11 minute opus that capitalizes on the record's parade of bleakness and reliance on harsh sounds that also rewards you if you can endure - into a blistering, blustery b-section.

The loudest band isn't always the best band but on their self-titled debut full length Viet Cong prove the real measure of a great band is knowing when, where, and how to use that loudness. In restricting their reliance on volume to inform their sound, they ultimately draw more from themselves - requiring an inventiveness in their usage of different tones and textures from each of their members as well as how the band functions as unit. Each song seems to require a different skill from each member of Viet Cong - like the continuous percussive switch ups from drummer Mike Wallace but the most impressive moments on Viet Cong are when the band are totally in sync - skating across their songs like geese in formation.

Viet Cong's debut self-titled record is out now on Jagjaguwar.