Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Kid Kruschev - EP - Sleigh Bells

I discovered Sleigh Bells over Christmas Break in 2012, my freshman year of college. I remember this vividly because their sound was unlike anything else I had heard; this fusion of pop synths, hip-hop oriented beats, and insanely overdriven guitars, with these beautiful vocals from Alexis Krauss on top.  I was super impressed when I found out it's just two people who do the music; an impressive feat for songs with such a large presence. Their first album, Treats, is full of these collision moments,  of unlikely sounds coming together and utilizing dissonance to their advantage. Songs like "Infinity Guitars", "Crown On The Ground", and "Kids" were my favorites and had me raving about the band to my friends. I then discovered they had a second album out, Reign Of Terror, which I enjoyed, but not as thoroughly as Treats. I followed them through the next year, when they released Bitter Rivals, but they fell off my radar, in spite of releasing another album last year, Jessica Rabbit.

Fast forward to now, when I discovered they had a new EP out, Kid Kruschev. I decided to listen to it, even though I hadn't been as impressed with Jessica Rabbit. But by the time I was done listening to the opening track, "Blue Trash Mattress Fire", I was prepared to eagerly give the rest of the EP a listen.

The song opens with a slow climbing instrumental of various synth lines, accompanied by distant vocals from Krauss. It continues in this fashion until the 1:36 minute mark, where the overdriven guitars and booming beats come crashing in on a huge wall of sound. Krauss's voice is powerful, yet pretty, next to the gritty instrumental, highlighting the contrast I had so very appreciated about their earlier work. This track is my favorite from the EP, with the intensity and rollercoaster of highs and lows that it takes you on.

"Favorite Transgressions", "Panic Drills", and "Show Me The Door" are all tracks that also utilize elements of intensity that "Blue Trash Mattress Fire" opens the EP with. "Favorite Transgression" does so with the guitar and beats, but in a more upbeat and driving manner than the previous song. The momentum never lets up, wavering only slightly at moments where the beat drops out and specific synths or guitar lines are highlighted. At only 2:27 minutes long, it's a short but wild ride of a track. "Panic Drills" also utilizes the crunching guitar and thumping beats I love, but the song heavily relies on the contrast created by the moments that use those two elements and the moments that do not, simply relying on Krauss's vocals and synths. The contrast is so great that it's almost like the song has two different moods, something that is very rare to find. There's parts where the song has a poppy-rock sound that's upbeat and almost makes you want to smile, but there's parts where the synths and vocals create a melancholy vibe, giving different experiences within the same song. "Show Me The Door" uses thunder noises in the background of the beginning of the track, as well as a pulsing synth and steady beat that eventually slip into a moment of half time that's not unlike a breakdown in a rock/pop-punk song. It's an interesting sensation, listening to these deep, resounding beats and bright synths coming together in a way that makes you want to rock out and headbang. Near the two minute mark, a piano line comes in, providing contrast to all the synthetic noise happening around it.

The remaining songs branch out in different directions from the signature guitar and drum pairing, such as "Rainmaker", "Florida Thunderstorm", and "And Saints".
"Rainmaker" flows very well from the previous song before it ("Favorite Transgression"), with the band using a hi-hat/tambourine combo to actually create the sense of rain on certain parts. Contrast shows itself in the switch to big, booming synth bass lines accompanied by the beats, which seem to take the backseat on this track. Krauss's vocals feel like the highlight of the song, with the lyrics being especially relatable (about a break-up) as compared to some of the more abstract songs they've done previously. Lines like:

"I can hardly stand
I can hardly sleep
I can hardly speak
I can hardly breath

It was never really meant to be
You and me"

really paint a vivid picture while retaining a fair amount of simplicity, something all lyric writers should strive for. "Florida Thunderstorm" actually uses an acoustic guitar, something that I've hardly heard the band use on other tracks. The guitar and Krauss create a very stripped down, vulnerable-sounding song that in itself becomes contrast to the rest of the album. My favorite moment, however, is right at 1:07 minute mark, where a dissonant and distorted synth note rings out, and Krauss's vocals become distorted as well. The song then switches for about 30 seconds to just Krauss's voice and a pulse-like synth that is vulnerable in its own way before switching back to guitar and an added string line (cello, I think) that fades out. "And Saints" uses just synths and vocals, with the former being stylized in a way that also partially provides a beat, and the latter uses some great layering to create almost choral moments, echoing voices crying out to "Tear up, tear up, gear up, stand up". It's haunting in the way it's composed, also due to the other, more subtle synth line that's flowing in the background like a ghost. It's a really interesting note to end the EP on, because it isn't a "calm" song thanks to the haunting vibe, but it also feels intense without being high energy.

I didn't have that many expectations going into this EP, as I had not been following the band as closely as I once had. After a few listens to the album, I found myself much more impressed than I expected to be. It feels like a lot of the elements that I really enjoyed about the band were present again, but also with some experimentation that didn't feel forced or overdone as it had on previous releases. Kid Krushev definitely focuses the attention more on the gritty, almost out of balance sound than a polished, pop tone that I was alright with but never impressed by. The band definitely has my attention back, if this is the direction they're going to continue in. Dark, brooding music that pushes the listener as much as it pushes the musician. I'm all about supporting that.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended: "Blue Trash Mattress Fire", "Favorite Transgressions", "Show Me The Door"

Related: Phantogram, Cults, Best Coast

Monday, November 13, 2017

What If Nothing - Walk The Moon

Walk The Moon is a band I discovered back in college, with their first self-titled album quickly becoming a favorite and a regular recommendation to anyone willing to listen. Their sophomore album, Talking Is Hard, blew away my expectations as well as putting them on the map with the help of "Shut Up & Dance". I saw them live last summer (May 2016), one of the few dates they played before they had to cancel their tour due to lead singer Nicholas Petricca's father passing. They took time to regroup and reorient themselves, and a year and a half later, we have What If Nothing, the third studio album from the Cincinnati-based group.

The two lead singles, "One Foot" and "Headphones", were both solid introductions to the new era of Walk The Moon (click on the links above for my thoughts on each song). With the rest of the album out, it's easy to see that the band chose to explore even more ground in their latest release. Songs like "Press Restart", "Sound of Awakening", "Kamikaze", "All Night", and "Tiger Teeth" each explore different areas that the band had not previously delved into with their first two albums.

"Press Restart" builds from minimalistic vocals and subdued guitar into a electronic heavy, pulsing track. There are a lot of vocal effects introduced that end up making appearances throughout the album, and a lot of layering of multiple vocal lines that range from the low end to high end of Petricca's range. The song ebbs and flows, building and pulling back, with the peak happening right before the 3 minute mark as Petricca builds the intensity of his vocals and the instrumental follows until the song explodes into the final, multi-layered chorus that ends with a very cool choir vocal ending.

"Sound of Awakening" is probably the most unique song on the album. From the opening vocals, it is apparent that the band has been listening to a lot of Phil Collins. The first non vocal aspect of the song doesn't appear until just after a minute and a half into the song, which is just a quarter of it's six-plus minute length. The vocal effects show up again on this song, accompanied by heavy electronic elements that come together to create this sprawling, 80's-inspired epic piece. The song has a verse-chorus type format, but does not feel similar to the structure of other songs on the album or in general. It rises and falls spectacularly, with the highs and lows captivating the listener at each turn and leaves them wanting more.

"Kamikaze", one of the other songs released before the album release date (but not an official single), feels very similar to something Imagine Dragons would put out (which I discovered is a shared observation amongst other reviews). It's very alternative/pop oriented, with a little use of guitar and drums on the alternative end and synth and drum machines on the pop end coming together for a pulsating song that's very compelling. The vocals are my favorite aspect of the track, with Petricca swinging between soaring vocal lines and almost-rap lines that create great contrast (which I'm always a fan of). 

"All Night" is another song that utilizes a mixing of pop and alternative-rock elements to create a very upbeat and radio/arena ready song. The synth lines are more prominent in this song, but are themselves distorted in the way that a guitar would be, creating a really high-energy song that emulates rock without using it. Seeing as how I think the mainstream music industry is going to move further into the synthesized area, this makes sense and shows the band's ability to identify current trends and incorporate them without disregarding their own sense of self.  The verses on this song intrigue me more than the chorus, which is a reversal of how I find it tends to be. They bounce more, feeling more unique while the chorus is a bit too repetitive for my taste and lacking that special, compelling element that a lot of the other songs have.

"Tiger Teeth" begins with just synths for the first minute, finally incorporating vocal elements to emerge fully as a slower, 80's synths driven love song. It's one of the slowest songs on the album, if not the slowest, providing some contrast to the higher energy and faster-paced song and showing the ability to switch gears. The vocals are very pretty and soothing, as is the rest of the song, and the emotions conveyed there are reflected in the instrumental. It feels a lot like some of the material from Talking Is Hard, but even more 80's influence than a lot of the songs on that album.

Other songs show that the band wanted to take their signature sound and comfort zone and retain that while expanding. Songs like "Surrender", "Feels Good To Be High", "Can't Sleep (Wolves)",  and "Lost In The Wild" capture the sound that fans have grown to expect from the group while pushing the envelope. 

"Surrender" was the third single released from the album, and the U2 influence was very obvious from the beginning of the track. The piano line from this track is one of the more unique aspects, being minimally processed and natural unlike many other elements on the song and the rest of the album. That combined with Petricca's vocals would be enough (I'm really hoping for an acoustic/piano-vocal only version at some point), as he shows off his range while delivering what he has described as some of his most emotionally revealing lyrics. The song builds incredibly, soaring high above the earth with the driving beat, the echoing guitar lines, pulsating synths, and the piano and vocals creating one of their strongest songs to date. The mood sways between sorrowful and hopeful, keeping you on the edge of dispair but never taking you over. The song is beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

"Feels Good To Be High" brings in more of the alternative rock elements, stripping away the layers of synths to focus more on the drumset and bass that guide the verses. They're joined by a very 70's sounding guitar line on the chorus and a distorted synth line as Petricca shows off his falsetto over the energetic instrumental (another nice use of contrast). The bridge shifts gears, with the synth taking over until a voice over says "Doesn't matter if it doesn't make my heart go" and the synth immitates a heart beat slowly building in intensity; a very cool use of technology and sounds. 

"Can't Sleep (Wolves)" also has more of a grounding in live instruments, a echoing guitar line leading the song as the drums snap with precision. The vocals are the focal point, with the build of Petricca's vocals on the pre-chorus starting lower and slowly climbing in pitch and intensity to the peak line "Wolves are coming for me" shows an excellent use of the music to accentuate the lyrics. It's not super fast paced, but it grooves along nonetheless in what is sure to be a fantastic summer song.

"Lost In The Wild" closes out the album with a good mixing of the natural and synthetic elements found all throughout the album. The chorus uses some of Petricca's highest vocals as well as layering of multiple vocal lines, all accompanied by a bright and pulsating instrumental that feels a bit like a hidden gem at the end of the album (where some people never make it to). 

This album has a lot of strong elements; perhaps too much. The experimentation was very well executed in some cases, but not always, and that led to a bit of inconsistency in the flow of the album as a whole. Certain songs felt like they lost themselves in the new elements and were hard to find a focal point to grasp onto. However, Walk The Moon managed to show that struggles and hardships won't get them down; in fact, it fueled them to come back and create strong and powerful music out of those trials. I don't know if this'll be my favorite overall album from the band (Talking Is Hard holds that spot for now), but it definitely contains some of the best songs I've heard from the band, and makes me excited for the what the future holds for this group that is clearly not letting of the gas pedal anytime soon. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended: "Headphones", "Surrender", "Kamikaze", "Lost In The Wild"

Related: Smallpools, Young The Giant, The Mowgil's

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Pacific Daydream - Weezer

Pacific Daydream marks Weezer's 11th studio release since their beginnings in 1992, and shows a change in direction from the alternative rock roots the band has hailed from. Led by "Feels Like Summer", it was clear that there would be more pop tendencies showcased on this album, as opposed to last year's "White Album". "Feels Like Summer" is a deceiving song, in terms of the sound and vibe versus the lyrical content. While you listen along to the bright EDM synths and falsetto vocals on the chorus, you might not notice the wistful twist provided by the last line of the song:

"When she was a lover to me"

This is part of a long trend of upbeat, catchy songs that are lyrically darker than one might expect (look at Foster The People's "Pumped Up Kicks" for reference), which I've always found to be an interesting use of contrast and juxtaposition. "Happy Hour", the second single released, expands on this concept. The song leans again towards more pop tendencies, but this time with more jazzy vibes and a bit less energy than "Feels Like Summer". Lyrically, the chorus itself is implying that lead singer Rivers Cuomo needs to drink to forget the sad days, which is pretty bleak. But, I would imagine that the song will leave the listener in a better mood than before they listen to the song because of the way it is constructed.

Nothing else on the album is quite as EDM influenced as "Feels Like Summer", but that also doesn't mean that they swing right back to the alternative-rock sound that Weezer is known for. Songs like "Mexican Fender", "Weekend Woman", and "Get Right" all lean more towards the pop side of things. "Get Right"uses a pulsating kick drum and a groovy bass to keep the song moving along, as well as a cool (if momentary) sampling line right after each chorus. The guitar doesn't lead the song, as it has on many of their past songs, but instead a blending of all the instruments and vocals to focus on the overall sound and not an individual instrument or aspect, as many pop songs do. "Mexican Fender" utilizes more guitar during the verses, but still has a mostly pop feel as Cuomo gives a great example of storytelling through lyrics. He creates very vivid and specific references that help the listener visualize the events in their minds. "Weekend Woman" features dueling bass and guitar lines that help give the song a strong feeling of being inspired by "Friday I'm In Love" by The Cure. Lyrically, especially on the chorus, you can hear how Cuomo might have been trying to emulate The Cure with the references to specific days of the week. It's definitely a warm song and has hopeful romantic written all over it.

Not all of the songs lean towards the upbeat, warm and fuzzy side, however. Songs like "QB Blitz", "Sweet Mary",  and "Beach Boys" all lean more towards the subdued, slower side. "Beach Boys", funnily enough, sounds very little like The Beach Boys; the funky bass line in the beginning brings to mind Joywave and it's a bit grittier and darker than one would expect, given the title. It is probably the most upbeat of the three, but still doesn't feel like the kind of song you'd play at the beach on a bright, summer day. "QB Blitz" has fairly somber lyrical content, which makes it hard to lose oneself in the instrumental, which also leans more towards sorrow than sweetness. Cuomo talks about wanting friends and finding someone who really loves him, leaving the listener a little bit down (at least, that's how I felt). "Sweet Mary" has a bit of an 80's sound in the beginning, with Cuomo yearning for a lost lover throughout. The song is on the slower side as well, adding to the mood established in the lyrics. I found this to be the weakest song of the album, feeling quite forgetful (despite having written notes for it, I had to listen to it again as I wrote this).

The singles leading up to this album had me fairly excited, although not on the edge of my seat. When the rest of the album released, however, I was not as impressed as I hoped I would be. While I think Weezer is an excellent band and I'll continue to support their music, this album wasn't the strongest piece of work from the group. The pop ideas were executed well in certain places ("Feels Like Summer", "Mexican Fender", "Get Right"), but felt a bit flat and uninspired in other places ("QB Blitz", "Happy Hour", "Sweet Mary"). I am all for bands expanding their sound and trying new things, but I think Weezer should let this album be a stand alone venture into the pop territory.

Rating: 2.5/5

Recommended: "Feels Like Summer", "Mexican Fender", "Get Right"

Related: The Pixies, The Cure, Cake