in your headphones

September 15, 2009

I wrote a few reviews for CDs coming out today. Blahhhh.

Vagrant Records

Irvine post-punk band Thrice has been at it for almost a decade, but its stalwart status makes no apologies for its seventh studio album, Beggars, which takes a step back from the band’s increasingly conceptual work to revisit the upbeat sounds of its past. After its first two albums — Identity Crisis and Illusion of Safety — introduced the fast, spastic guitar-driven songs that defined its initial popularity, Thrice slid into its softer side. Vheissu turned Thrice’s mosh-inducing hardcore into ambient, almost spiritual sounds by incorporating electronics, strings and a Rhodes piano. And with four separate CDs — each with an earth, wind, fire or water theme — released in two bouts of double discs, The Alchemy Index served as the climax for the band’s lofty conceptual goals.  But after four discs filled with various experimental techniques and ambiguously religious lyrics, Beggars comes in to showcase that Thrice is capable of meeting the two personalities in the middle. Singer Dustin Kensrue fluctuates between scratchy screams and soaring high notes, drummer Riley Breckenridge keeps 4-4 as often as he goes off conventional time signatures and the band as a whole presents on Beggars a more mature version of the sound that won its first fans nine years ago. After going to the extreme with an ambitious concept album, the members of Thrice have been able to hold back enough to make an album that isn’t too hot or too cold, but just right.

Pete Yorn and Scarlet Johansson
Break Up
Rhino Records

Three years ago, actress Scarlett Johansson and singer/songwriter Pete Yorn recorded a string of catchy duets in 48 hours without much thought of the outcome. Inspired by the 1968 actress-musician duets of Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg, Yorn asked Johansson if she’d like to record some songs with him and, unfazed by outside influences or expectations, the two laid down the tracks that were to become their album, Break Up. Although Johansson released a solo album of awkward Tom Waits covers last year, Break Up was recorded almost two years prior. The dreamy banjos and throaty soul vocals take listeners on a sonic journey though a mutually self-destructive relationship. Even though the story arc is depressing, the songs are upbeat. Even in moments when the lyrics threaten imminent relationship disintegration, one can’t help but bob along with the catchy guitar work. But while closer in concept to the Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward collaboration band She & Him, the Johansson-Yorn album varies in one major respect — Yorn wrote everything. Johansson lends unexpectedly sultry harmonies — like a more baritone Amy Winehouse — to Yorn’s crisp pop-rock songs, but she fails to demonstrate that she understands any of the musical technicalities gone into the album’s creation.  Great for the celebrity novelty — they even cover Big Star — but unfortunately, Break Up pushes little boundaries for either party involved.

Big Star
Keep an Eye on the Sky (Box Set)
Rhino Records

Big Star is the one band that everyone knows, but no one has heard of. Although the Memphis foursome self-released two albums during their three years as a band, they played only a handful of shows, received little radio play and were virtually unknown when they disbanded in 1974. But after a 1978 release of the previously recorded — and musically darker — album Third/Sister Lovers,  Big Star’s ragged-guitar, country-tinged power-pop slowly gained a cult following and the short-lived band has since inspired an eclectic list of subsequent generations’ alternative rock musicians from The Replacements to R.E.M.  Recognizing its influence on indie bands around the world, Big Star reunited in the early ’90s, and has been actively touring, releasing live records and keeping a presence greater than in its heyday (think That 70’s Show’s theme song and Adventureland soundtrack). And to demonstrate its evolution from refined British Invasion wannabe rock-n-roll to the meticulously textured pop finesse that fuels modern alternative music, Rhino Records has compiled a four-disc box set titled Keep an Eye on the Sky. With nearly 100 tracks of rarities, remixes, live recordings and unreleased tracks packaged together with liner notes, unseen photos and essays about the band’s history, Big Star is celebrating its belated popularity by giving its now-massive fan base the definitive resource for its cultural legacy.


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