Monday, May 10, 2010

5 Albums/ 5 Months - Music Reviews by guest author Stephen Sharbatz

May is now upon us and it seems like a perfectly suitable arbitrary time to assess this year’s music releases thus far.  There are a lot of good albums to consider, but there have only been a few albums that I have come across this year that could potentially get my vote as album of the year (my vote is very influential you know).  Here are my top five of 2010 along with a few other categories.  Please share your picks, I am constantly searching for new favorites.
5.  She & Him – Volume II
This album is a little tough to recommend as one of the year’s best.  Despite critical kudos, I still find it a tad embarrassing to enjoy She & Him, I would almost categorize them as a guilty pleasure.  While M. Ward delivers stellar production that is perfectly suited to singer Zooey Deschenel’s somewhat limited, but altogether enchanting, voice, the result is musical confection.  Deschenel’s lyrics could sometimes be described as trite, saccharine, and simplistic, which is the main reason for my subdued enthusiasm for the album.  Deschenel’s saving grace is that she comes off a sweetly naïve rather than amateurish or out of her element.  As I mentioned, the album is ultimately ear candy; it is okay in moderation so long as you are getting your nutrients elsewhere and exercising regularly.  Fortunately for She & Him (as well as their fans) sometimes music need only sound pleasing to the ear, in which case Volume II ranks as one of the year’s best.

4.  First Aid Kit – Big Black & the Blue
The first LP from this Swedish sister act follows in the storied tradition of Swedish indie folk-pop.  The lyrics are very rich and somehow convey a wealth of life experience; no small feat for a pair of teenagers.  The real draw, however, are the lovely melodies that the sisters create together.  The new LP continues right where the debut EP Drunken Trees left off, it is difficult to separate the two.  This is not a criticism, this is a sigh of relief that the group has not yet felt the need to change their style and they have not had the all too common “sophomore slump”. 

3.  Avi Buffalo
Another group of teenagers, this time from the United States, offer a solid debut LP.  While First Aid Kit sing songs of love that seem beyond their years, Avi Buffalo focuses on songs of lust that are pretty much age appropriate.  To accompany the teenaged preoccupation with fornication, Avi Buffalo delivers carefully crafted and skillful pop arrangements that both belie and embody youthful spirit.  The songs on this album are catchy and fun; the perfect soundtrack for a summer road trip.  A little Shins-y, sometimes Stars-y, Avi Buffalo surpass all other U.S. teen groups.  My only complaint is that I would like to see front man Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg make a little more space for the wonderful female voice of Rebecca Colemen.  Top tracks for me include Truth Sets In and One Last, songs that feature both vocalists equally.  With a little more maturity in their lyrics, Avi Buffalo could be an indie mainstay for years to come.

2.  The Watson Twins – Talking to You, Talking to Me
Another sister act in my top five, this time twin sisters Leigh and Chandra Watson.  This is the second LP release for The Watson Twins, but they have produced a lot of music over the past several years, starting with their contribution to Jenny Lewis’ solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat.  While The Watson Twins have always dabbled in folk, country and pop (and continue to do so) the most striking element of Talking to You, Talking to Me is the new, relentlessly vicious soul sound that dominates the album.  Songs like Harpeth River and Midnight may sound somewhat familiar in the way that most soul songs do, but the delivery is like a heavyweight punch to gut.  The voices, keyboards, guitars and drums provide a deep aching that rattles the body and soul.  When they let up just a little on Forever Me, the result is sweet, sultry and heartbreaking.  I do not think that I could make it through an entire album of songs like this, and the twins must know that and there are a couple of pop tunes and songs with lighter harmonies to provide a nice balance.  If you have any sort of emotion bottled up, Talking to You, Talking to Me provides a truly cathartic listening experience.

1.  Beach House – Teen Dream – 
This album was released on January 26, 2010 and that was the day that it became album of the year.  Over four months later this album is still getting heavy rotation in my various music-playing devices.  While it is still early, I do not expect a better album to come along for quite some time.  In my opinion, Teen Dream is an instant classic and the bar has been set for any other artists that have designs on the top spot for 2010.  I had given Beach House’s previous releases a shot, but they did not draw me in.  Teen Dream hooked me immediately with Zebra and did not let go for the rest of the album.  Teen Dream is a fitting title for this collection of ethereal songs.  My wife commented that the album sounded depressing.  As a general rule I prefer up tempo songs and I too will dismiss songs that are simply too slow, dreary or depressing; but this album is far too nuanced to be described by any single term.  While I will argue against the depressing tag, I will say that the album is very emotive.  The best way for me to describe the emotional rush you will experience while listening to Teen Dream is to liken it to a strong memory.  The memory may be good or bad, but the fact that it is in the past gives you a better perspective with which to analyze it.  If remembering a first love for instance, you might focus on a happy moment and then start to feel down because it may not have worked out; you might then chuckle at yourself for being so young and different from today.  You may catch yourself wondering “what if” before appreciating what actually came to be.  Each song on Teen Dream can take you through the full gauntlet of emotions, perhaps touching on depression, but there is too much buried in the sounds to stop at any one emotion for too long.  Singer Victoria Legrand’s unique voice rides the dreamy instrumentation expertly; her husky intonation smoothes out beautifully as she delivers bigger notes, creating sublime crescendos in each song.  With most albums, even if I like them, there are a couple of standout tracks that become my favorites and the rest quickly fade away.  With Teen Dream, six of the ten songs have been my favorite at any given time; none of the tracks are disposable.  This is a rarity these days.  

Other quality albums released this year:
  • July Flame by Laura Veirs
  • Plastic Beach by Gorillaz
  • Wu Massacre by Meth, Ghost and Rae
  • Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene
Biggest Sophomore Slump:

Amy MacDonald – A Curious Thing


Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – A double album dedicated to Imelda Marcos, really?  This is just a truly bizarre release but I cannot dismiss it because it features an amazing collection of female singers including Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, Santi White, Sharon Jones, Florence Welsch, Nellie McKay and many more.  The tone seems very positive; I do not really detect any sarcasm.  The title track features Florence Welsch and is a highlight for me.  Please give it a try and then you can explain the whole concept to me.  They know she was exiled from the Philippines, right?

Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant – Another double album, this one from one of my all-time favorites.  I cannot over-emphasize how much I love Natalie Merchant, but a double album consisting entirely of lyrics taken from obscure poems, really?  Only a handful of the songs are truly listenable here and while the concept is intriguing, the result is like a master’s thesis for art school.  This is impressive on one hand, but on the other, well, I will just say that it has a limited appeal.

Biggest Disappointment:

Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom – My explanation will require an entirely separate blog entry:
stay tuned.

A Few Artists to Watch For in the Coming Months:

  • Samantha Crain
  • The Roots
  • Wolf Parade
  • Stars
  • Sarah Harmer
Stephen Sharbatz lives in the Detroit area and is a relatively new father.  Stephen studied media ecology at New York University, has written album reviews for The Michigan Journal and was content editer for the official website of The Wu-Tang Clan.  Stephen's favorite artists include: Neko Case, MF DOOM, Feist and The Cardigans.Check out his new blog: 

1 comment:

  1. Love the new She & Him. They are even better live!!!