Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Press Play, Repeat - Addictive Albums

Okay, let's kick this thing off with a summer music post. These are the albums I'm currently enjoying. There are several single songs burning up my iPod right now ("Sour Cherry" by The Kills, "Why Am I Still Broke?" by Treaty of Paris, "Only Fooling Myself (Brian Malouf Mix)" by Kate Voegele, "Stuttering" by Ben's Brother, "Shut Up and Let Me Go" by The Ting Tings, to name a few), but these are the albums that I love from stem to stern as complete pieces.

What I’m Listening To Now

Smile For Them – Armor For Sleep
I admit, I was initially worried when I saw that the first single off the album was a song called “Williamsburg”, because the last thing the world needs is another paean to hipster heaven, and AFS always seemed more down to earth than that. But, to my relief, I had incorrectly pre-judged what’s actually a snappy dismantling of Billyburg: “Bored again, watching the rats/ Eat all your food/ At least you'll be used to/ The place you'll be soon/ This city was the blueprint for hell.” As the song goes on to conclude, “You will all die in Williamsburg.” Well played, Armor For Sleep, well played.

This also serves as a nice reveral of my earlier quick-wrong judgement of Pitchfork’s rentboys – or is Pitchfork the rentboy in this scenario? – Vampire Weekend. I expected “Oxford Comma” to be a tribute to my favorite punctuation mark, the serial comma. Alas, I heard the opening lyrics – “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” – and my soul died a little. (Then I listened to the rest of the album and my soul died the rest of the way. I caught them live a few years back, and I distinctly remember them being more interesting and less smugly twee back then. Sad.)

But back to Smile For Them. Unlike AFS’s earlier stuff – Dream to Make Believe, and What To Do When You Are Dead – and, sidenote, that is why I give a fuck about an Oxford comma, because without it, you might think AFS has only one previous album with a confusingly long name – Smile For Them is not a strongly concept-driven album. And while this does mean there’s no emotional gutpunch akin to WTDWYAD’s penultimate track, “The End of A Fraud”, which nicely ties up the album’s narrative while reprising earlier melodies and themes, Smile For Them is probably AFS’s strongest album to date. There’s a wealth of stellar tracks, and a good variety in the melody and lyrics. I can easily distinguish one track from another, something that isn’t always true for other contemporary bands that fade into a wall of (admittedly pleasant) noise. It plays light (“Stand in the Spotlight”, a sweet, up-with-people track) and dark (“Chemicals”, a harrowing look at addiction) with equal deftness. For the first time, I feel like AFS is not standing behind a concept, conceit, or character. This album is raw, emotionally exposed, and quite tuneful to boot.

*DOWNLOAD THESE TRACKS: “Hold the Door”, “Somebody Else’s Arms”

Pretty. Odd. – Panic! At The Disco
First of all, yes, I am aware they have dropped the ! from their name, but I obstinately refuse to roll with name changes implemented once someone has gone famous, because that is ridiculous, egotistical, and very drama queenish. And also, I’m lazy. Exceptions granted only if someone got famous while young. If, in 10 years, Dakota Fanning would like to go under a stage name less stripperlicious, I’ll happily acquiesce. Otherwise, sorry Charlie. I refused to call Puff Daddy any of the increasingly ridiculous monikers he switched to over the years – Puffy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Sean John – and hey, looks like I’m finally in the right again. So I’ll keep using the exclamation mark until its inevitable official return on album #3 or 4.

Anyway, if the band’s debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, made you feel like swilling gin and picking fights in skanky bars, then the new album will make you feel like donning whatever the 2008 equivalent of this dandy look would be and skipping through a field of psychotropically-induced daisies. The lyrics this time are less tart and winding, but the tradeoff is that one can actually understand what they’re saying without having to read the liner notes or consult The melodies are lush, maybe a little more simplistic than Fever but ultimately more catchy. There’s still some simmering darkness, too, in “Behind the Sea”, whose creeptastic ending lyrics are “Legs of wood, waves / Waves of wooden legs” set to an unsettling sea shanty-style melody. It’s no gimlet-eyed “But It’s Better If You Do”, but it’s a nice throwback to the days when P!ATD was best known for a video of the skeeviest wedding imaginable.

(Okay, I lied, I don’t think that wedding is skeevy – in fact, it maybe just might possibly closely resemble a wedding I could fancy, because who doesn't love firebreathers and mimes? – but I know better than to impose my own lack of taste on the world at large. With the exception of starting this blog.)

*DOWNLOAD THESE TRACKS: “Northern Downpour”, “She Had the World”

Raise the Dead – Phantom Planet
Phantom Planet’s first album released by their new label, Fueled By Ramen (home of Fall Out Boy, The Academy Is…, Cobra Starship, Gym Class Heroes, and every other band beloved by 14-year-old girls...and me), is a bit of a departure from their earlier sound. For one thing, they inexplicably imported live children for the chorus of “Leader”. The whole album feels oddly vintage, a change from the dreamy broodpop of 2002’s The Guest and vibrant snarkpop of 2004’s Phantom Planet. And I admit it took a few listens for it to get under my skin, but get under my skin it did. Go ahead, I dare you not to sing along with the kids on “Leader”.

First single “Do the Panic” has a quasi Art Brut feeling of cheeky speaksinging and some skilled drumwork that makes me glad Jason Schwartzman split, paving the way for Jeff Conrad’s manic glee.

*DOWNLOAD THESE TRACKS: “Quarantine”, “Do the Panic”

What I Probably Should Be Listening To Now

@#%&*! Smilers – Aimee Mann
It’s not that I’m not excited for a new Mann album. Lost in Space is one of my all-time favorite albums, and The Forgotten Arm is wistfully beautiful if less emotionally raw. But when I finally get the new album, I want time to enjoy it, let it soak in, pull it apart. Listen to it on repeat for a day or two. And right now I’m too compulsively into a few other albums to give it a fair shot. And after giving me hours of moody contentment with Lost in Space, I owe Aimee’s new album the kind of unfettered reverence reserved for observing the work of great artists.

What I Wish I Was Listening To Now

The Glass Passenger – Jack’s Mannequin
The new album by my favorite band – I try not to play favorites but Andrew McMahon (of Something Corporate prior to Jack’s Mannequin) holds a warm spot in my heart, far above all other musicians – was pushed back from April to September, and I’m trying not to pine too much. What I’ve heard from the new album sounds good, and the track titles are intriguing – is “Suicide Blonde” an INXS cover? Will songs like “American Love” and “Annie Use Your Telescope” live up to my favorite Everything in Transit tracks, “Miss Delaney” and “La La Lie”? This is the first album since McMahon's diagnosis of and recovery from leukemia, and I’m curious to see how, if at all, the experience has influenced his music. So now I just have to wait, and hope it doesn’t get pushed back again.

? – Head Automatica
Head Automatica’s second album, Popaganda, took longer to grow on me than did their first album, Decadence, but I eventually acclimated to the tone shift from electroheavy to popunkish and now listen to both albums with equal frequency and matched enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to their third album, rumored to be out this summer, but info is scant thus far. Title? Release date? Anyone? Bueller?

Every album mentioned here is available on iTunes and Amazon, and all of these bands are small enough to be very appreciative of your financial support. Save the illegal downloading for artists who can literally swim through their money piles, Scrooge McDuck-style.

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