Sam Billen :: "Different Lives"

Sam Billen is certain that he and a certain someone will meet again someday. These are his words, not mine and they might be a little cloying. The narrative structure of the echoing electro-pop of "Different Lives" isn't anything aching complex. Boy meets girl. Boy moves out of poisonous urban area to something rural and quaint with girl. Boy and girl stay up all night writing music. If only the movie ended there.

And this is where I'm filling in some of the gaps: Girl decides this is nice but not necessarily where she pictured herself at 25. She questions where this relationship is going. Boy fosters all the usual explanations. Boy says they're meant to be together. Girl furrows her brow and looks kind of sorry. Girl moves away. Boy is completely miserable. Girl spends gratuitous time "finding herself." Boy eventually and inexplicably defends these choices using phrases like, "her journey" and "different lives." Girl thinks twice about boy because it's not like he was Goebbels or something. Boy has largely moved on but still, as Billen says, is certain he will meet girl again. Girl doesn't think about these things unless she is alone. Boy makes electro-pop record. We'll assume the girl never hears it.

Listen :: Sam Billen - "Different Lives"
Listen :: Sam Billen - "Made Concrete" (Republic Tigers cover)

Marina and the Diamonds :: "Hollywood"

Marina and the Diamonds have been on our radar for a long, long time. In fact, it dates to a demo version of "Obsessions" we put on a mixtape in early 2008. The immediate feedback was something like, and I'm paraphrasing here, "It's good but it seems like a roughed around Regina Spektor." Well, it was a sort-of compliment and amazingly short-sighted. Today, we are leveled by the video for her latest single, "Hollywood" from coming epic, The Family Jewels. We don't write about much that has a chance to smash radio but this, this is going to be big. This song has a chance to go top ten at AAA and Hot AC radio. This song is about to be everywhere. But today, it's just here, for the moment, at less than 300 plays on youtube. Watch this blow up, I promise.

A more coherent, analytic assessment reveals why this is ready to explode. It has instantly singable lines with some cultural signifiers dropped in (the Shakira/Zeta line). It addresses the rapid decline and yet complete attraction of the American Empire. She is a Marie Antoinette for an infected American monarchy. And she's Welsh. Marina, as it happens, is stunningly beautiful and seems to relish every minute of the breath before being super-famous. Because that's what this is: The minute before things get completely out of control and you're suddenly performing at huge venues and playing late-night shows and the VMA pre-show. This is that moment, a breath before one of the most memorable choruses of the year. Soak. it. in.

Listen :: Marina and the Diamonds - "I Am Not A Robot"

Frightened Rabbit :: "The Twist" and "Head Rolls Off" [Live on Daytrotter]

I spent at least three of the last six hours in the back seat of a car, traveling at, quite frankly, unsafe speeds on a road that seems to relish claiming the wreckage of poor driving decisions and ill-advised lane-changes. Seat behind the driver, head leaned against the window, you aren't far from the mortality of the jersey barrier directly to your left. It hums by at furious, unfeeling speed, maybe thirty-six inches from your ear. If you're paying attention, you realize the finer than fine line between your continued living and your completely plausible and possibly imminent death. But, to dance with death means that death is dancing with you, moving to your coordinated floor plan; to court disaster means that disaster can't secretly be courting you. To live thirty-six inches from your own demise, if you wait and watch for it, is a moment where you can feel really alive. Undoubtedly, we are here and we are lucky for it.

Listen :: Frightened Rabbit - "The Twist" (Live on Daytrotter)
Listen :: Frightened Rabbit - "Head Rolls Off" (Live on Daytrotter)


Frightened Rabbit :: "Living in Color" and "Nothing Like You"

Back in 2007, Frightened Rabbit took a blunt object to our brains and hearts. Lyrically, it wasn't always the most nuanced (neither were our responses) and musically, it wasn't ground-breaking but none of that seemed to matter. From first interacting with "Modern Leper" to discovering "The Twist" and, in my group of friends, a new way of talking, "New band, new song, twist song, twist band, twist sandwich" (Looking at you, Nate), it was the perfect record.

Now, we are headed for a new release from Frightened Rabbit in March 2010. It's rather incredibly called Winter of Mixed Drinks, also a lyric from song "Living In Color." Like most things the band does, it appears overly emotional, destructive, solipsistic and crushing with shreds of a building pathos. With first single, "Swim Until You Can't See Land" already in the can and hitting the web, this week two more tracks filtered out during a live session on the BBC. "Living in Color" and "Nothing Like You" are the logical next step: A little more guitar driven, a bigger sound, something you could throw at an incredible engineer and mixer and make sound like it's going to explode your heart. What do you do with a recording budget that dwarfs your last record? Something like this. Lyrically, it's all still there: "I am floating with my eyes closed/with no sails/I am soaking, I am weathered/by the winter of mixed drinks." Get ready to feel sorry for yourself all over again, world - Frightened Rabbit are roaring back.

Listen :: Frightened Rabbit - "Nothing Like You" (Live on BBC6)
Listen :: Frightened Rabbit - "Living in Color" (Live on BBC)


Toro Y Moi :: "Blessa"

Eight years ago I was carrying a mix CD that actually contained the song "Raining In Baltimore" by the Counting Crows. Tonight, it actually is raining in Baltimore, 50 miles to the north, and I couldn't careless about Adam Duritz. Even in the damp rain of the eastern seaboard, Toro Y Moi's "Blessa" stumbles sea-sick, warm and colorful from its digital housing. In the spirit of Air France and the new Beach House, this is lo-fi, shimmering, keyboard pop. But this has a different rhythm. It breathes, heaving up and down until there isn't any air left. Loosely, the song is about being blessed. Less connected, this is about a paragraph with a topic sentence that doesn't quite work, about sunshine in the dead of fall, about giving thanks before Thanksgiving. Sometimes, you can look back and laugh and sometimes songs that are about staying warm work the whole year round.

Listen :: Toro Y Moi - "Blessa"


The Ghost Is Dancing :: "Battles On"

High school yearbook pages are deservedly notorious for their questionable content. Mine committed none of the following common mistakes: 1) I did not profess my love to a girl that I would stop speaking to within months. 2) I did not make any inside jokes. 3) I did not post some picture of kids at a party under the supposed coolness of having a "party picture" in the yearbook with the school's name on the front. 4) I did not overly graciously thank people, though perhaps this would have been nice and appropriate. 5) I did not reference any athletic championships or ever use the phrase: "Champs! They can't take it from us, baby!"

I did, however, commit the following act of adolescent solipsism: I made clear my disdain for authority. To paraphrase: you're time is over, old people. Of course, I was singing the anthem of youth, something that can only fade and look somewhat ridiculous years later. So when The Ghost Is Dancing thud through your speakers or headphones, you need to hear it with a more youthful ear. We are fighting against something. These people are ruining our generation. Authority cannot be trusted implicitly. Like a more frustrated and poppy Los Campesinos, this is big-scale pop music, a battle cry for people for who can say, "let's fight those bastards down" without blinking. Pounding drums, a call to action and the youthful mistrust of everyone who has an ounce of power - it's frankly beautiful.

Listen :: The Ghost Is Dancing - "Battles On"

Beach House :: "Norway"

Back in 2006, I was sleeping in what little darkness the enormous windows of my Bushwick loft allowed. A full moon hung over the gravel pit or "rock factory" we joked, outside. I was tucked in, headphones on, listening to glowing, down-tempo keyboard pop from Baltimore. It was Beach House's first album and the sun was going to rise like a blazing ball of fire in a few hours. If I was being honest, I wasn't particularly happy.

Of course it's 2009 and I've switched neighborhoods but Beach House, still very much the same, is back with a record to level us in similar fashion. Teen Dream, due out in late January 2010 is going to be this coming year's Veckatimest; the album people saw coming but didn't realize they would like so much until it was actually in their stereo. Frankly, the honest-to-goodness of this album isn't a surprise, but how good and how dense and how rich is shocking.

The melodies and the narrative come through immediately. The keyboard-rich, almost sea-sick first single, "Norway," isn't the best song on the album but its humming, glowing chorus is the crystalline picture of what makes this record and this band so powerful. The verses, a settled and woozy affair, make me think of 2006 and 2009 and 2010 and where the hell we might be in three years. The moon is up over the east coast and our time is short. Keep that in mind.

Listen :: Beach House - "Norway"


On the List :: Julian Casablancas @ Regency Ballroom [11.17.09]

(A brief introduction: Hi, I'm Noah. You probably don't remember me from such productions as "32feet gets impressively drunk on SPIN's dime" and "Good god, that's the Futurehead's music," but I was there. Now I'm writing here. We're taking this thing bicoastal. From San Francisco, with love.)

The Messiah -- happy, sober, and dressed entirely in black -- is bathed in white light at the front of The Regency Ballroom stage. Julian Casablancas traded his four horsemen for an impressively well intentioned if not always perfectly executed solo album and six new bandmates. Two guitarists, two keyboardists, and two percussionists are arranged in a semi-circle behind the once and future(?) lead singer of the Strokes, symmetrical through the Y-axis. They will barely move throughout the entire set, stuck inside their individual Casblancas-created Calling Bubbles.

The Chosen One, however, wanders freely around the stage. One earns this privilege after one's first band saves rock and roll. To his credit, "Phrazes For The Young" simultaneously builds upon and moves away from the music of the group that wrote the No. 1 album of our dying decade, a fact that's clear in concert. The choice to open the set with "River of Brakelights" -- whose backbone is the lyrics "getting the hang of it/timing is everything" -- hints perhaps at the novelty the singer experiences when he's alone as the centerpiece, but this thought fades minutes later when the chorus of "Left & Right In the Dark" explodes, driven by, dare I say, peppy keyboards. Casblancas can sing about stumbling in the dark, but he knows exactly where he's going. We, of course, will follow.

Julian, it seems, is enjoying himself on stage, becoming less posture and more human with each song. He increasingly interacts with both the crowd and his bandmates. Pretense washes away in a sea of well-orchestrated lights. During the set's one cover -- The Strokes' "I'll Try Anything Once," chosen, I have to assume, because a fan in the front row held up a homemade cardboard sign with the song title written on it -- he forgets the line "everybody was well dressed." (Accidental symbolism of mental departure from previous band known as time went on more for their clothes than their music=high.) Later, Casablancas announces that the group on stage at The Regency will play a b-side: "We'll probably ruin it, but shit, we're gonna have fun no matter what." By the end of the song, he's proven prophetic on both counts. The song is a wonderful disaster, ending with a wall of noise created by seven musicians playing their instruments, hard.

Being the Music Messiah is lucrative -- how else can you explain half a dozen band members in addition to a three-piece horn section that supports two songs? -- but I suspect it's not that much fun. The Strokes imploded under the pressure, splintering and going their separate ways. The band's lead singer doesn't want to save us again and, quite frankly, we don't need him to. But damn, it's nice when he walks among us.


Arms :: "Tiger Tamer"

I swapped out laptops today meaning I lost every play count, every playlist, even my tried-and-true system of arranging my music by "Date Imported." In essence, I've been asked to encounter my music library anew, an unfamiliar organization, no sense of time and space. This is as disorienting and stupid as I'm making it sound but practically speaking, it means that I'm dealing with an alphabetized music library for the first time in months. This means I'm in the "A's." Arms' "Tiger Tamer" is an urgent piece of indie-rock with a spaced-out, wide-open concluding movement. The band, featuring Todd from the Harlem Shakes, dropped their debut record, Kids Aflame two weeks ago. It's exactly the organization I need while this thing gets put back together.

Listen :: Arms - "Tiger Tamer"
Listen :: Arms - "Kids Aflame"


On The List :: Deluka @ Piano's [10.14.09]

There is a projector displaying the band's name against the backdrop of the stage. It is from a DVD and it says "PAUSE" in the upper left hand corner. The command is a little misleading, the screen is vibrating like a VCR with a tracking knob that either broke off or has a healthy problem with authority. For the duration of the evening, Deluka will play with their own name and the word "PAUSE" shimmering in the background. It will be the only thing in the room even trying to stand still.

Within seconds, it's clear that this band is bigger than this room. Of course, they're using some packaged synths and looped drums playing off a laptop but 80% of what's happening on stage is live, present and entirely organic. Deluka's frontwoman, a hybrid of Karen O and Emily Haines, has one of the best voices you haven't heard in rock. She is powerful without breaking a sweat, moving without thrashing around and spitting beer. As the tumbling synths of second-song, "Cascade" threaten to keep the evening too clean, the band charges forward with gritty, downtown rock and these powerful, spot-on vocals.

Over the course of a set that includes somewhere between eight and ten songs, the crowd moves forward, and people whisper to each other things like, "Wow, this is great." The only way to describe what's happening on stage is a pastiche of influences: A little of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a little bit of Metric, a little bit of the Industrial Pop of bands like The Big Pink. When Deluka is doing their best work, they're racing ahead with a clean mix of rock guitars, warehouse sized synth-riffs, and melody that will stick in your head for weeks. So, as Deluka hit their finishing kick, the sound, the volume, the backdrop, it made it seem like the whole room was vibrating. Which, okay, maybe it was.

Listen :: Deluka - "Cascade"


On The List :: Free Energy and Small Black @ Bell House [11.10.09]

Free Energy

It was a weird night at Bell House in Brooklyn. Ranging from the committed, almost baroque synth-collisions of Small Black, through the chunky, frankly forgettable, Diehard and closing with the if-you-haven't-seen-them-see-them-now Free Energy, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a little disjointed.

Small Black took the stage in front of something like 20 somewhat engaged music fans. Having seen them at CMJ it wasn't a surprise when big-packaged drums came thundering out of the speakers. They play this sort of broken-hearted synth symphony, but with live drums and thudding bass. If there was a indie version of The Breakfast Club, I would almost certainly want Small Black to do the soundtrack. I scratch, "We are wingless birds/engines of death" onto the back of a receipt. Listening to "Weird Machines," their last song, I think about a weird vision I had in the car the other day. All of us, a generation of overprotected kids who took off and never planned for what would happen next, we are birds rendered wingless in flight and now we silently soar towards the ground; a gigantic, v-formed fatal formation. Of course, this is absurd. But Small Black inspire a level of esoteric absurdity that I'm willing to accept.

Closing the night would be Philadelphia and DFA-signees Free Energy. Over the summer, their eponymous first-single put the screws to me in a way music hadn't in a while. It's a clear throwback, wearing its influences like a cut-off t-shirt or like the Dazed and Confused DVD that 85% of college students have somewhere in their private possessions. The music is unpretentious and uninhibited and the band doesn't play like the room is at 15% capacity, a circumstance more to do with night of the week and neighborhood than quality of music.

In fact, by the time they're motoring through "Free Energy," the audience is moving forward and shuffling around. When the lead-singer is sounding through the best lyric of the night, "We are young and still alive/now the time is on our side," it would be hard not to think of a reversed set of fatal emotions. You, whoever you are, might have clipped our wings. You might have tried to kill us. But we are still alive and this thing is blowing back on you like a hurricane. All those black, wingless birds aren't looking to crash, they're looking to blow you out of the water. If there's one band to see right now it's Free Energy. They are the best American rock band on tour and you should go see them, dead or alive.

Listen :: Free Energy - "Free Energy"
Listen :: Small Black - "Despicable Dogs"


the Swimmers :: "Shelter"

Sometimes claustrophobia isn't a bad thing. The feeling of being suffocated at least means something or someone is close to you. Without a fabric of personal relationships, work engagements and responsibilities we might never feel connected to anything. However, when this fabric is pulled over our mouths and every inch of our lives is closing in, it's easy to feel like these connections are a personal prison (body is a cage?). Consider this the beginning of a claustrophobic week.

Out of what I think is Philadelphia, the Swimmers have a light bit of synth-rock with a title about finding a demarcated place inside ourselves to hide out for awhile. So when the world presses in, dig inside yourself, get a little smaller and hole up in your new shelter. If the world won't move, shrink down and create some space inside yourself. The pressing outside just means you're awake and alive but it can absolutely wait.

Listen :: the Swimmers - "Shelter"


Two Door Cinema Club :: "I Can Talk"

Back in January '09 we suggested that Two Door Cinema Club would be a good band to check out. We even suggested that this might be "their year." Of course, we were only dealing with demos and a crafty looking video back then. Now 10-months later, they've stormed the palace, taken the guards hostage and terrified the royal family with lead-single "I Can Talk." If commercial success can be viewed as a violent political coup (and yes, yes it can), this is what it would sound like.

"I Can Talk" is overwhelmingly slick on the first listen. A combination of vocal-loops, Editors-styled high-fret-board guitars and a stomping, Saturday-night chorus, the band discovers something larger than its previous angular, if delicate, songs. This isn't some indie rock song you put on your headphones when your brain is waxing existential and your heart all ripped up about something that almost certainly doesn't matter. This is a dance-song to storm your ears when the sun is down and the wolves are out. It's about the powers of speech. It's a little Bloc Party, a little Postal Service - choppy, dance-rock with a back-beat to kick your doors in. You know, if this was a coup or something.

Listen :: Two Door Cinema Club - "I Can Talk"


[Elevator] Dominant Legs :: "Young at Love and Life"

Out of my top 20 favorite acquaintances, less than ten percent are in committed relationships. You could say this involves a troubling trend where the 90s grunge generation found that mastering disaffectedness came with terrifying consequences. Our ability not to be wowed by anything, to be made angry by little cultural slip-ups, to judge-first-lest-we-be-judged has left us strikingly alone. Our one skill: being unimpressed. Oh Love? Yeah, we saw them live a couple years back. They weren't even that good.

And yet, something else is at work. It is not simply a lost generation of youth reacting to over-stimulation, an intellectual community obsessed with post-modernism and a neo-romanticism that mostly involved things like Sex in the City. We aren't bad at love, we're just younger than you think. We will live far longer than we are comfortable with. In fact, it is possible we will see 105. Shot backwards through this space-time, we've been allowed infantalization longer and longer until we devolved into being these mostly taller children. We aren't bad at settling down. We are just young at love and life. Sounding a bit like Belle and Sebastian, Dominant Legs will bear this out for us. We might not remember how to be impressed, but I can assure you that this is impressive.

Listen :: Dominant Legs - "Young at Love and Life"

On The List :: Noah and the Whale @ Mercury Lounge [11.3.09]

This review runs on Bowery's Houselist Blog

It’s hard to say what this crowd came to see. Charlie Fink, lead singer of Noah and the Whale, sort of shuffled to the stage with his five-piece band fully intent on playing large swatches of their new album, First Rites of Spring, ostensibly a love note and a gigantic fuck you to Fink’s ex-girlfriend and former bandmate, Laura Marling. The record is a gut-wrenching exegesis on breaking up, and Fink is more than intent to play it the way a mechanic can stare into the bowels of your car and tell you, quite simply, your engine doesn’t work. Except that it’s Fink who is broken, which is exactly what the crowd has shown up to see. The band opened with “Blue Skies,” arguably the most uplifting of Fink’s tragic masterwork. Of course, this would be like saying The Old Guitarist was the most uplifting painting of Picasso’s Blue Period.

There are aspects of schadenfreude at work here. You couldn’t say Fink looked sickly or drunk or morose or any of the other signifiers that usually typify modern human breakups, and yet the music told a different story. Playing “Our Window,” which vividly describes the night of their separation, Fink was either completely satisfied with his documentation of this event or he’s still actively hurt by it. Either way, we’ve all stopped to watch his emotional car accident, beautifully scored as it may be. What’s that say about us, members of the nearly sold-out crowd, who came to witness this? Were we hoping to be healed in this fire? As the band ripped through the end of “First Rites of Spring,” you felt Fink connect for the first time with this catharsis we’ve come to be a part of. It was the last song of their main set and then they moved into “Shape of My Heart,” from their first album. It had a different tone but given the circumstances, whatever the shape of Fink’s heart, it was almost certainly still broken.


Letting Up Despite Great Faults :: "In Steps"

In the pantheon of "bands with names that are sentences," Letting Up Despite Great Faults bleed as the most poetic. "In Steps," the first track on their self-titled album is no less esoteric, if also immediately approachable. A humming, almost self-consciously Nintendo synth line is our first tone, backed quickly by a lazy guitar riff and a drum beat, all at the pace of a summer jog. It's like a Phoenix song spent too much time in the sun or like a Postal Service song fallen in glue and then accidentally rolled in glitter, "In Steps" is polished and bright in a way that is entirely unplanned. Late summer fades into fall and theoretically, you chase south in a game of chicken and equilibrium with the equator. Letting Up Despite Great Faults is the warm little center of the universe. And you are close to the heart of it.

Listen :: Letting Up Despite Great Faults - "In Steps"
Listen :: Letting Up Despite Great Faults - "The Colors Aren't You Or Me"


Stricken City :: "Small Things"

There is a thin line between suggestion and ultimatum. We've all been a part of a suggestions that are more than just requests and we've all been part of ultimatums with no punch. A few months ago, we sort of asked that you listen to Stricken City. Well, now we're demanding it. Since this is all happening over the Internet, this would qualify as a demand with no punch. But when you're dealing with a shimmering, thudding post-punk record like Stricken City's Songs About People I Know, I would rather traffic in unenforceable ultimatums than equally unpowerful requests. "Small Things" doesn't follow the strictest song-structure but after milling around in a few different melodies, it finds itself as a wailing, surging, pointed anthem in the final 90-seconds. Somewhere between an ask and a tell, Stricken City is a command you can't possibly enforce. But it is way more than suggested.

Listen :: Stricken City - "Small Things"