I am all about theme.
Each week, as I scan my ever-growing CD pile, trying to decide which records to review, I attempt to group my selections under some thematic umbrella. Even if it’s something as simple as picking two or three CDs on the same label, or manned by the same producer. I like to tie things together into neat little bows.
I have three albums to talk about this week, and I’ve been staring at them for a while now, and I can’t come up with one thing they all have in common. Aside from the fact that they’re all pieces of music etched onto plastic discs, these three couldn’t be more different. One is a Danish art-rock record with a 23-word title, another is a one-man electronic pop project full of disco breakdowns and lyrics about dentistry, and the third is a sweet and simple acoustic session with no drums and some of the prettiest melodies of the year.
Yeah, there’s nothing to connect them. So I’m not even going to try. Here are three reviews of three utterly incongruous albums, tied together by only one thing: I like them all.
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Some of you probably know by now that I’ve started a blog, at tm3am.blogspot.com. I’ve mostly been using it to post my first-listen impressions of new albums, ones I don’t necessarily expect to have time to get to in the regular column. My initial idea was to follow up in this space only if my opinion of an album changes markedly with repeated listens, with tm3am proper hosting the more considered review.
Well, here’s my first follow-through on that plan. On August 1, I posted my thoughts on Ocean Eyes, the second full-length album by Owl City. I said that while I enjoyed the synthetic textures and joyous delivery on display here, the experience of hearing 12 similar-sounding songs in a row was wearying. But I also said that Owl City makes me love life, and that opinion has only grown over the last month. I’ve been watching as critic after critic has picked apart Ocean Eyes, calling it a bargain-basement Postal Service tribute, and at the same time, I’ve been listening to this over and over, enjoying it more each time.
It’s amazing how quickly I’ve gone from “I like this” to “I love this, and stop picking on it.” But that’s where I am.
Owl City is Adam Young, a 23-year-old studio whiz from Minnesota. He has a love of old-school synthesizers and bad puns. The Postal Service comparisons are lazy, but there are superficial similarities, most notably in Young’s voice. It’s high and smooth, like Ben Gibbard’s, although every second of it is Auto-Tuned on Ocean Eyes. But where the Postal Service turned in a sparse album of self-serious dirges back in 2003, Adam Young has made something bursting with joy and color, and unlike his more image-conscious foils, he doesn’t care if he ever gets to sit at the cool kids’ table.
Want proof? Check out “The Bird and the Worm,” perhaps the silliest great song of 2009. It starts with a shimmying acoustic shuffle, but quickly blossoms into a full-blown poptopia, complete with “da-da-da” refrain. It also contains this line: “For all my pals who live in the oceans and the seas, with fronds like these, who needs anemones.” Seriously. That just brought either a grin or a grimace to your face, and you’ll know just from that whether Ocean Eyes is for you.
It’s all satisfyingly silly, from the disco-ball breakdown in “Umbrella Beach” to lyrics like “Take a long hard look in your textbook, ‘cause I’m history.” But there’s something in every song to catch the ear, hidden little touches that make these ditties come alive. I said a month ago that I probably wouldn’t like these songs had they been recorded with guitars, and that still stands, but it’s taken me a while to realize that the synth-pop wonderland Young constructs around his simple melodies is the point.
Young only goes a little too far on “Dental Care,” an admittedly catchy tune that’s actually about, well, dental care. (“I’ve been to the dentist a thousand times, so I know the drill…”) But one track later, on the brief yet gorgeous “Meteor Shower,” he lets his sentimental side out: “Please don’t let me go, I desperately need you,” he sings, over a dramatic synth bed. Single “Fireflies” is in the same vein, building slowly to a pure-pop chorus that’s just delightful.
Ocean Eyes contains three older Owl City songs, completely re-arranged, and it’s to Young’s credit that they’re among the least successful – that means he’s growing as an artist. But the new “On the Wing” is wonderful, and the new take on “Hello Seattle” builds up to that pop explosion at the end masterfully. (“The Saltwater Room” is still too sickly-sweet for words, though.) Young is getting better at this, refining his idiosyncratic synth-pop style into something unlike anything else around right now. Contrary to what some might have you believe, Young is not trying and failing to sound like the Postal Service, or anyone else. He’s trying and succeeding to sound like this.
Here’s the thing. My initial problems with Ocean Eyes are still there – the 12 songs all have a similar sound, and the melodies aren’t particularly original or complicated. But I’m under this record’s spell now, and its failings are nothing compared to the sense of warm, joyous exuberance coming out of every pore. As Young himself sings, he’d rather pick flowers than fights, and it’s obvious in every moment of this album – he just wants you to be happy. I’m glad to oblige. Ocean Eyes lifts my mood every time I play it. I said it before and I’ll say it again: it makes me love life. I can’t help it. I love this record.
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The first thing anyone’s going to mention when talking about Danish band Mew’s fifth album is its title, so let’s get it out of the way. Here it is: No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World is Grey I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away.
The second thing people will mention is the cover, a picture of a moth superimposed with a cartoon drawing of an egg-shaped monster with its own face on its nose. Yes, once again, Mew has decided to sabotage its own album, just as they did four years ago with the garish cover art and stupid title of Mew and the Glass-Handed Kites. You would never look at either album and imagine the intricate, moving and all-around excellent music that lies within.
Mew straddles the line between progressive rock and epic indie, songs built on a thick foundation of keyboards, guitars and harmonies. On The Glass-Handed Kites, Mew finally took their sound to its logical extreme, creating an hour-long unbroken suite that flowed from quiet moments of grace to gigantic oceans of noise. It was a crushing, expansive effort, one that felt like a plateau, and it’s no surprise that they’ve scaled things back for this new one.
But despite references to grey worlds and washing away, No More Stories is actually much more upbeat and accessible than its predecessor. The songs are shorter and simpler, the arrangements are less cluttered, and the overall effect is much less overwhelming. Of course, it also comes off as slighter, but it’s like saying this mountain is somewhat smaller than that mountain. They’re both mountains, at the end of the day.
No More Stories actually starts off with its weakest song, “New Terrain,” its backwards instrumentation and meandering tone kicking the record off awkwardly. Thankfully, things right themselves quickly – “Introducing Palace Players” is almost Mew as minimalist rock band, its repetitive guitar figure giving way to Flaming Lips-style synth textures and some soaring vocals. And then comes “Beach,” the closest Mew has ever come to giving us a straight pop song. This one actually has a Shins vibe to it, and lasts a mere 2:46. In an alternate universe, this could be a hit, as could “Repeaterbeater,” a jittery rocker with a hint of Bloc Party. (That one’s only 2:34.)
But don’t fear, prog fans, Mew still has your back. The seven-minute “Cartoons and Macrame Wounds” starts as a Soft Bulletin-esque synth-and-drums anthem, but shifts through a few softer, more meditative sections, singer Jonas Bjerre hitting those chilling high notes, before erupting once again. “Cartoons” is, at once, the centerpiece of the album and the antithesis of much of it, the band finally letting their more expansive tendencies out to play.
The rest of the album is a mix of the two extremes. The brief “Hawaii Dream” sets the album’s title to slow, drifting music, while “Hawaii” itself reminds me of the Dirty Projectors, all clean guitar, percussion and choral chanting. “Tricks of the Trade” is a standout, its synth drops falling like rain over a minor-key mantra, while “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” drops back into full Flaming Lips mode, its epic construction diving from sparse piano to huge orchestration in seconds. And yet, that song contains the album’s most memorable chorus. Oh, and a children’s choir.
Yes, despite the sonic detours of No More Stories, it’s a Mew album at heart, and as such, it takes several listens to fully grasp. While they’ve pulled back in many areas, creating a much more immediate record this time out, they’ve expanded their range here as well. It’s still a searching, intricate, unique piece of music. If you can get past the garish cover and the surreal title, you’ll find some of the year’s most interesting music here. There’s still no other band on the planet quite like Mew, and that’s a good thing.
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A new David Mead album ought to be an event.
Here’s a guy who has written more than his fair share of great pop songs, in a variety of styles, over five excellent albums (and a damn good EP as well). In 2006, he released his finest, Tangerine, a chamber-pop extravaganza with melody to spare. Just “Fighting For Your Life” alone would have convinced me to buy anything this guy does, if I hadn’t already been a fan.
So why isn’t everyone lining up to praise his fifth, Almost and Always? Why is a guy this talented relegated to tiny labels and unjust obscurity? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s his restless artistic nature – no two David Mead albums sound alike, and this new one is as far away from the unfolding expanses of Tangerine as that one was from the sweet country-pop of 2004’s Indiana. That makes him harder to market, sure, but the common thread here is that these albums are all terrific.
Almost and Always is Mead’s acoustic project. It is entirely without drums, and has an appealing handmade quality to it, despite including half a dozen guest musicians on a variety of instruments. But the key here, as usual, is Mead’s songwriting, and the sparse production zeroes in on it. These are mostly sweet and wistful folk numbers, the kind to put on during light spring rainstorms, and as usual, Mead’s gift for a memorable melody never fails him.
Take “Blackberry Winters,” for example. A breezy tune, “Blackberry” slips into an elegant falsetto chorus, uses an ascending guitar figure to link the verses perfectly, and includes a glorious harmonized middle eight. But none of these music-nerd terms matter at all – the song is just heart-swellingly pretty. Mead’s songwriting skill is so great that even when he’s firing on all cylinders, it sounds effortless.
Calling Almost and Always a folk album is doing it a huge disservice. This record is remarkably diverse, given its limited instrumentation. Mead pairs the beautiful spirituality of “Mojave Phone Booth,” a song that brings Duncan Sheik to mind, with the show-tune carnality of “Twenty Girls Ago,” complete with lovely clarinet arrangement. He covers Nashville songwriter Daniel Tashian’s “From My Window Sill” like it’s an old standard, and the lounge-y arrangement (with finger cymbals!) suits it well.
Elsewhere, he pulls out the Beatlesque shuffle for the gorgeous “Gramercy Vaudeville,” stops time for the ghostly title track, and pulls out an amazing piano-led refrain on the surprising “Sleeping In Saturday.” And at track nine, he gives us “Last Train Home,” one of his finest songs ever. The tale of two lovers exploring a city late into the night, then sleeping on the way home, it’s simply a subtle, winsome delight. This is the kind of song some musicians wait their whole lives to be able to write. And most never get there.
As I said, the release of this album ought to be an event. But then, that might not suit the delicate music Mead has given us this time out. This is the kind of album you discover on your own, tucked away in a friend’s record collection, and you cherish. I don’t know how many people will hear Almost and Always, but I know those that do will find some of 2009’s prettiest songs, played and sung beautifully. These are songs to hold close, to sing to yourself on rainy Sunday afternoons, songs about finding joy, reconnecting and finally coming home. Almost and Always is a little thing, but in the end, it’s the little things that matter most in this world.
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Next week, the Black Crowes. After that, Imogen Heap, Phish and David Bazan. And, if I can afford it, a trip down Penny Lane with a certain fab foursome. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent Twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.