Calvin Love :: "Magic Hearts"

"This life is the best, but it's killing me fast," confesses Calvin Love at the heart of his bedroom synthesizer meditation, "Magic Hearts." He surely means it, a solidly down-tempo assessment for a song that relishes it's distant keyboards and lonely bass line as much as its clap-track drums. While Love mentions none of the debauchery that might be killing him, he does use the title, a reference to the magic heart that would change you in the future. It's Youth Lagoon for the dance floor, a snapping little single, so taut and steeped in equal parts fear and love of the technology that made the very recording possible. Love seems to have a plan, fall in love, the last magic trick we have, before the lights go down on the whole show.


Night Panther :: "Two Weeks" and "Fever"

Night Panther, the creators of "Snudge", are heirs to the New York City sleek, animal band throne that Tigercity once occupied with divine right panache. Here, the band turns themselves on "Two Weeks", the song that made Grizzly Bear sort of famous three years ago, recast with an emphasis on colliding crystalline vocals. On "Fever," an original composition, the band makes their play for both commercial syncs and a slice of your sensual heart. Full of guitar bursts, a rolling bass line and horn punches, it's easy to see this cast in a national television campaign or on repeat in your iTunes. The central lyric, "you were always in my mind," a wonderful second movement to the sound crafted on "Snudge" and applied to Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks", making Night Panther a band to watch in the coming months, the east coast's answer to the rapidly increasing animal empire of LA's Wildcat! Wildcat!. Meaning, they'll either tour together or meet in Kansas City to tear the place to bits.

Download :: Night Panther - "Fever"


Parade of Lights :: "Just Give It Up"

Tapping the same genome that M83's "Midnight City" and the Big Pink's "Dominos" made deservedly famous, Parade of Lights, a Los Angeles band, release a stunning first single, "Just Give It Up." Made for late nights and the fuzzy neon of downtown, "Just Give It Up" smashes its way through a shout along arrangement rooted in an enormous back beat and a karate-chop vocal loop that offers an implied and metaphorical violence. There is even a hint of the Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy" in the melody. It is, of course, about capitulation. On the surface, this all could be a ham-fisted allegory about sex, but grant them a bit of license and assume this surrender is lyrical, a grand giving in to the imperatives of dark bars and good looking people with downcast eyes, a dance floor burner for the zip codes of our perpetual disaffection.

Download :: Parade of Lights - "Just Give It Up"

The Vestals :: "Perfect Pain"

Emotional rock never dies, it just changes its delivery system every few years. The Vestals, a band with a churning and consumptive first single, "Perfect Pain," traffic in this maybe-insipid sentimental geography and the chorus is the archetype, waxing, "Say you'll stay the same/please don't change/it's a perfect pain." The refrain is rooted in three notes, the band modulating between them as the the arrangement, a chunkier Pains Of Being Pure At Heart or maybe We Were Promised Jetpacks playing twee music, unloads a carbonated strum pattern and chord resolutions that feel necessarily life affirming. It's so serious, it's nearly silly, a diary read at Marshall Stack volume, break up emails shouted aloud years later, and yet "Perfect Pain" is full of hooks and winning melody. Pop is, after all, a mirror. If this is a bit embarrassing in its lyrics, so are we all.


On The List :: Stars @ Webster Hall and Mercury Lounge [9.22.12]

Stars is Torquil Campbell's band now and everyone knows it. Maybe it always has been, but the transition became official - or at least undeniable - at somewhere north of 1am at the Mercury Lounge, the most crowded of all the crowded rooms on New York's Lower East Side. Campbell stared into the stage lights, dressed in his full Morrissey-lite regalia of a blazer with pushed up sleeves and thick glasses that he lifted to make funny faces at the soundboard. Amy Milan, Campbell's bandmate, and the shining light of all the female voices in independent rock over the last decade, was noticeably absent, having already left the stage before the night's last song. Campbell didn't look relieved or triumphant, his affection for Milan is obvious and immutable, but he allowed himself a moment of strangeness, alone at the middle of the band he started and Milan helped make deservedly famous. To be clear, this was no power struggle. It was something more complicated, sweeter, more grinding, the second set in the span of a few hours, the story of a band releasing their sixth LP depending on who, and if, anyone is counting. Campbell, alone, led the band in a long slow cover of "This Charming Man", and Milan, presumably, grinned from somewhere not the stage.

Stars were performing rare double duty. First, a 9pm sold-out gig at Webster Hall, a venue that was literally transitioning into a nightclub for thousands as the audience left, where they played for 90 minutes, and a smaller set of rarities that kicked off at 12:45am at Mercury Lounge, a room that fire codes south of 200 people, all in celebration of the band's latest album, The North. It was a gear problem at the very least. Stars tour with an enormous amount of equipment, the product of a rich sound, strong record sales and the natural accumulation of a band approaching their third Presidential election on tour. An incredulous member of the Diamond Rings, the very excellent fellow Canadians who opened for Stars at Webster, mused to me, "I really have no idea how they'll get their stuff down to the second gig." It was a structural problem Stars fans didn't have, walking 11 blocks south and two avenues east in the two or so hours between shows. Milan asked the audience at the Mercury Lounge how many had attended the Webster show earlier in the evening, an unscientific poll that indicated it was something like half. A better question would have been how long it had been since Stars had played a room this small. Campbell, as if paying this uniqueness homage, yelled, "We're gonna play a bunch of shit we haven't played in years!" Milan elaborated and cleaned up, "I mean, you don't want to hear the same songs we just played, right?" Someone in the audience yelled, "Elevator Love Letter!", the song that made the band famous, that they had played at Webster and would not play at the second set.

Campbell is at home on stage, an emotional universe with customized physics, a quirky guy who has made a career being very earnest in public. His wireless mic has a piece of green tape with "Torq" written on it, a nickname that sounds like "Turk," when people say it quickly. He was late to the Webster Hall sound check on Saturday afternoon, a gesture that was surely more pell-mell than rock star righteousness. He is reported to be hugely generous and funny, and in front of his audiences he gives the impression of a guy going every direction at once, a bit of unrestrained ebullient id set against Milan's pleasant and organizing superego. He speaks as directly as he can before the last song at Mercury Lounge, "Thank you, we love you; thank you for spending money on our band. You make our lives possible." This brief monologue, an odd lifting of the most obvious curtain in independent rock, was perfect for an audience who spent 30 dollars on Webster tickets (though fans received a free digital copy of The North at Webster and the Mercury Lounge show was free) and endured seven dollar beers at both venues. It was a winning moment, not the reason that people love this band, but the correct and honest response to that love. Earlier, as they took the stage, a breathless girl in the balcony at Webster Hall leaned over to a friend and whispered loudly, "Set Yourself On Fire is my favorite album ever." Both nodded gravely, elegiac even. Nearly everyone in the audience feels some variation of this exact sentiment.

This all makes the night feel both public and private. Stars' fame practically relies on members of their fanbase having an intimate relationship with their music, a bedroom band who happily soundtracked and counseled a million heartbreaks. In public all these threads braid, all these fans who have had this overwrought and important experience with the music, all these fans who know the words to "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" the way school children know the Pledge of Allegence; it is both celebratory and a little intense, like an emotional, music jingoism, punk music for people that don't like punk music.

Stars, in this sense, are less a real band than they are a collection of memories their fans have about listening to their music. The live show is this memory come alive. The band opened their Webster Hall gig with latest single, "Theory of Relativity," a song that relies almost entirely on this type of unremembered nostalgia with Campbell channeling Moz, "back in lame grade 10, I was a total devestator, baby/ down in the school yard they all fell to their knees " before closing the loop with, "but it can't be '93, sadly, 'cause I wish it could forever/you call it luck, I call it tragedy." This is the central contradiction, not only that Campbell was aged 21 in 1993, a good bit of magical remembering, fans and a band caught between an intense remembered self and the colder realities of the present. Campbell's success and his ascendancy in the band is that he believes this remembered self can't die if you keep writing the right song about it. He is the keeper of our story. Milan, too, traffics in this imagery but with a few more reservations. The band's web address and Twitter handle are the appropriately democratic, "You Are Stars."

It is not all winsome reminiscence though. Polemical and a bit silly, Stars played their most didactic song ever, "Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It" in the middle of their Webster set, eleven years of emotional catharsis, wrapped into one fortune cookie message. It is also one their finest creations of pop music and one of the best songs of 2012. Campbell is his most powerful self, both brittle and relentless, equally fervent on apologias like, "If I'm frightened, if I'm high, it is my weakness, please forgive it," and its corrolary, "take the weakest thing in you and beat the bastards with it," the closest thing the Stars crowd gets to marching orders. Everyone was a little drunk, if not necessarily high, and increasingly resolute.

The Mercury Lounge set was lodged firmly in the past, the place where Campbell is most comfortable. After the crushing and new "A Song Is A Weapon," the band played exclusively from the back catalog. Running through "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead", "One More Night" and "Calendar Girl", the last song before Milan left the stage, it was a memory of a time when Milan had as much skin in the game as Campbell, where they shared catharsis like thirsty elementary schoolers perched around a water fountain. And then it was Torq's turn. The North bears much more of his voice and influence than the band's previous work, and no one seems to entirely mind, least of all Milan. Campbell is, after all, fantastically talented and writes the songs his fans want to hear and remember hearing. He writes the music of the selves they want to remember being. This risks naming the elephant in the room, what we all came to see, a decade in the mirror with the truly ugly bits edited out and all the pain recast as moral victories. Milan headed to the back of the room and Campbell closed the show with perfect pathos; it was a charming man playing, "This Charming Man," a song of the story-keeper's remembered self.


New Hands :: "Whichever Way You'll Have It"

Cheery synthesizers and rolling drums announce the arrival of New Hands' latest single, "Whichever Way You'll Have It." Finding its legs behind a bass line and vocal that owe a great deal to New Order, "Whichever Way" ebbs and flows between a more skeletal series of verses and a swirling chorus. The hook is the an offshoot of the title, the provocative and maybe pedantic, "Would you have it any other way?" Answering their own question in a final movement that recalls elements of the sublime Future Islands, the band insists, "I'm alive and I can't say no," a resigned bit of fatalism with a glistening post-punk veneer.


Luke Reed :: "At The Harbor"

Luke Reed, an artist with the scant outline of a digital footprint, makes a tidy slice of fuzzy pop on "At The Harbor." In the spirit of Long Walks On The Beach, Reed drowns surf-guitar riffs under some deep-end reverb, adding a fuzzy, sing-song melody to sail over the top of the arrangement. It all takes place in less than two minutes, an odd antecedent to Reed's most gripping lyric, "I've been waiting for a long time," a song about summer sand castles and girding yourself against old heartbreaks in the face of new loves. It is a bit fleeting as Reed shambles, "I want to stay like this forever," knowing, in all probability, he can't.


Machine Birds :: "If I"

One part Imogen Heap and one part the Knife, Machine Birds are a sparse and beautiful keyboard outfit from Norway. On "If I," a glowing synthesizer progression pulses like those lonely red lights they put on smoke stacks to warn low-flying aircraft. And it would be easy to see vocalist, Maria Skranes perched up there, alone, bemoaning the terrible counterfactual landscape below. Each lyric in the first verse is rooted in the conditional of the title, lines like, "If I let you know how I feel, would it make a difference?" It all builds to a chorus of the same icy synths, accented with Skranes shimmering and crushing vocal describing the disaster as, "I can't compete with her/you made up your mind a long time ago/that I was never an option." What follows the first chorus is a rich and distended bridge, a middle section nearly meditative enough to lose the initiative of a break up song for a relationship that never was, eventually doubling back to the mournful first conditional idea, "If I," this last time with a layered, Vocoder duet. The final chorus is a killer and the last lyric, "Why can't you choose me?" is a loose rhetorical question, a sigh at the end of a well documented descent. Stream the radio edit below and download the full version here.


The Zolas :: "Knot In My Heart"

The Zolas' "Knot In My Heart" might as well be a punch in the chest. Both are these sorts of goofy visual similes that serve as the coded language for our deepest and most unspeakable emotional geography. The unmentionable becomes the banal, our common touch on things we barely understand, words like, "heartache," phrases like "love sick." Though in the midst of this linguistic obfuscation, the band gives hints of more straight forward depths on lyrics like, "It's hard and weird not to know how your day begins." The Zolas insist on their intention to take pop songs and "fuck them up," but there is nothing shabby or unintentional about the cloud-clearing chorus of "Knot In My Heart," where the arrangement almost visibly lifts off the ground. Growing in its insistence, The Zolas craft one of those pop songs that traffics in the dark sorts of solipsisms of the early 20s, the sorts of sea sick pains that you wake up with, a grinding anxiety of love and loss, and they set it to a bouncy, modulated chorus that tickles every dopamine receptor available. Easily one of the best singles of 2012, it is happy sounding music for the daily apocalypse of heartbreaks from afar. "Knot In My Heart," like "heartbreaks" and "chest punches," is silly language, semantic laziness, and it is absolutely the best anyone can do.

Download :: The Zolas - "Knot In My Heart"


On The List :: Alt-J @ Bowery Ballroom [9.12.12]

Ed. note: This review runs live and first on Bowery Presents' House List blog. Photo courtesy of @jenncorazz because 32ft/second's publication photography department still shuts down this publication's cell phone when this publication tries to take blurry pictures.

There was a certain geometric incoherence in play as hotly buzzed UK band Alt-J took the stage at a very sold-out Bowery Ballroom last night. Everyone was jammed together in this glorified square to see a band that insisted they were a triangle. See, Alt-J contend their name is more than a collection of letters, instead representing the outcome of a keyboard command, the combination of “Alt” and “J,” which on a Mac makes the shape of a triangle, making their very name an unspeakable symbolic iconography. Every face in the audience pointed toward four faces onstage offering seemingly infinite possibilities. This would all seem overwrought, if it weren’t for the uncommon quality of the band’s debut, An Awesome Wave, and their bizarre and brilliant live show. Somehow helpless against their insistence on three-way vanishing points—or how affected and silly this would seem in less capable hands—the audience and the band intersected over and over, creating a cohesive, if pleasantly limited, little world inside these invented boundaries.

The band opened with “(Interlude 1),” with a choir joining them to offer the band’s Baroque-ish two-part harmonies a chilling and elegiac varnish. One part Mumford & Sons and one part the xx, Alt-J slid between slow-drive, sexy arrangements and these warm duets between guitarist Joe Newman and keys player Gus Unger-Hamilton. “Something Good” and “Dissolve Me,” mid-album and middle-set songs expanded this notion of austere vocals and ebullient keyboard-driven arrangements, accented brightly with tactile guitar picking and high-fret work. The band played their best song, “Breezeblocks,” near the end, the track’s punching vocals and guitars ringing through the balconies as the audience shuffled around chanting lines like “Do you know where the wild things go?” The song’s conclusion, a collision of the lyrics “Please don’t go, I love you so” and “I’d eat you whole,” an awesome and approachable angle to a band that values its weirdness as much as its beautiful arrangements.

“This is the last song on the album,” Unger-Hamilton mumbled over the din as Alt-J returned to play “Taro” as the encore. At least one person in the crowd made the reference that is as controversial as it is possibly correct: “Radiohead.” This is a bit of branding too loaded even for a band currently touring with a gigantic neon triangle as their backdrop. However, there was something undeniable happening here. Alt-J finished the haunting last chords of “Taro” and held up a slightly altered version of the “diamonds in the sky,” triangle-ish hand sign that Jay-Z and Kanye West initiated with a straight face in 2005. The crowd returned it in kind having fully embraced this iconography of two lines and three points. The audience and the band made two of these three, one of the year’s best albums brought to the stage made the third at The Bowery Ballroom, a tidy and discrete geometric universe, a triangle inside a square.


Santah :: "Indigo"

A few weeks ago in The New Yorker, Oliver Sacks described seeing indigo for the first time while under the influence of psychotropic drugs. In his estimation, it was the first and only time he saw real indigo, the color in its purest and truest form, like some Platonic slice of the sky brought down to his wall, or, exactly the type of lyrical assessment you might expect from a world-renowned academic who spent his formative years taking hard drugs. Chicago band, Santah, address a love letter to "Indigo" on the track of the same name from forthcoming EP, You're Still A Lover. "Indigo" is a slow-drive, methodical upstroke guitars mixing with organ chords held unmercifully long. The chorus is a high-fret board meditation, a brief moment of urgency before the title lyric erupts, "Indigo ... you don't have to go," which sounds a bit too cheeky and absolutely isn't. A love letter to the passing summer, collected bits of magic realism: hotels you can stay in forever and rivers of a rich and unique blue. It is a lusty and ambitious finish in the final act, another moment that would prove unable to be recaptured, like colors only briefly seen and cast fleetingly on your wall.


Pretty Heart :: "Fraud"

The bombastic creep-pop that spills out of Pretty Heart's (nee Morgan Hollinger) "Fraud" is one part Kate Bush (it is, after all, still the Year of Kate Bush, 1979-present) and one part School of Seven Bells. Full of hooks and intentionally unsettling moments, Pretty Heart taps the same pathos that allows Ellie Goulding to say things like, "Do you want my heart between your teeth?", a sort of destructive but very serious approach to love and loss that feels important in an age of emotional unavailability. Love sounds like a dark, weird murder on Pretty Heart's debut EP, Half Asleep, a collection of songs that reflect both a tactile bedroom sensibility, an intimacy in the shadows. "Fraud," the most approachable of the seven track on Half Asleep is rooted in a dressed up keyboard progression and then accented with Hollinger's controlled and confessional vocals, layered into a dizzying and glittering array. It is either the biggest bedroom record of 2012 or a record that will only be in the bedroom until absolutely everyone hears it.


Jonquil :: "Mexico" [Fort Romeau's Graceland edit]

Jonquil came late to the world music meets indie rock party. Arriving after Vampire Weekend, after Local Natives, even after Lord Huron and so many others, the band's tropical pop could quite reasonably have been lost in the collective shuffle of post-Graceland bands. Unless, of course, the band wrote songs with barbed hooks and choruses that skittered around like a runaway piece of ice on your kitchen floor. "Mexico," a song described by at least one close friend of mine as, "so close to being terrible while still being awesome," has here been reimagined by Fort Romeau with the winking Paul Simon reference, "Graceland edit." The warm horns come on in waves, the original song deconstructed and then built piece by tactile piece: First, thumping kick drum and a flirty high hat, then bongos, and, finally, horn punches cribbed right out of "Boy In The Bubble" notebook. Then the deconstruction begins anew, Fort Romeau stripping the arrangement down to its studs and building it again, the sort of creative destruction that make people imagine lasers in the jungle or distant constellations dying the corner of the sky.


Ottilia :: "Heartless"

Ottilia is still one of the brightest young stars in independent music. Still a teenager, perhaps the best metric of this future success is the conspicuous disappearance of her most infectious track, "40 Million Light Years" from the Internet. This is the empty space that signals an arrival, a reverse dramatic irony where the people on stage know something profound that is hidden from the audience. The joke is on us. On latest demo, "Heartless," Ottilia pursues a more meditative aesthetic, channeling Lykke Li, Amanda Mair and others. The song muddles along under its own power, persuasive in its austerity and the central lyric of the chorus, "If I had a heart left to love you, I would do," one of those grammatically incorrect statements that holds a disjointed and terrible power.


Cinnamon Girl :: "Devil In Me" [Noosa Remix]

Everyone's a DJ and most songs have remixes. We are, in essence, modern in our criticism and edification. The guiltiest of pleasures, Cinnamon Girl is a hot mix of Robyn and La Roux on spasmodic single, "Devil In Me," now reimagined by New Yorker synth-dealers Noosa. Of course, this proves divisive (see above). At least one acquaintance of ours reflected on "Devil In Me" by saying, "This is no Robyn," which is exactly what someone who likes Robyn would say about Cinnamon Girl, before adding, "until this song is huge and I love it." And this is the final turn of the circle."Devil In Me" is an unselfconscious pop song about our collective, unrestrained id, at the fringe of being an enormous, everywhere anthem. The Noosa remix preserves much of the framework of the original, only clouding some edges and dulling the chorus from an amphetamine raison d'etre to a more echoing but still yelping reflection on the evil that lies in all of us. One of those most destructive of those human ills is criticism. So, let "Devil In Me" speak on its own terms, maybe not a guilty pleasure at all, a thesis statement for all the downtown kids who stayed out too late and never knew how to apologize.

Cajsa Siik :: "Was I Supposed To"

There are always dreams of regret. It is the unique quality of the human imagination to transcend the limited realities of things as they happened and imagine what might have been, to create little factories of invisible sadness. The heartbreaking pop of "Was I Supposed To" comes from the mind and voice of Cajsa Siik, a Swedish songstress who directs herself at these horrible counterfactuals, a world that had a chance to exist and didn't. Allegedly written on a trip through Spain, a place built for both imagination and regret, the playful guitar and bass lean winsome into Siik's chilly vocal, especially on lines like, "there is place I know where beauty is made/where I am out of control." But "Was I Supposed To" is the opposite of chaos as a tiny, tidy snare arms the back beat in metronomic pace and Siik breaks her voice in and out of her upper register with trampoline-like ease. The closest analog is Moonbabies, though noticeably without the male vocal counterpart. It would be easy to feel regret, a missing part, but Cajsa Siik already has this market cornered. "You will miss me when I'm gone," she waxes with a straight-face, making what was plain even more obvious, the imagined possibilities sentenced to get worse with repeated listens, time and a vicious imagination.