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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Is Audio Overflow Back?

The numbers seem to point that way. Back in June of last year, our numbers (# of visitors, visits, new visitors) peaked, leading to a slow decline month after month...until this whole "29 in 2009" reared its head.

Despite the lack of daily updates and weekly reviews on all the big releases, 2009 is shaping up to be the most-trafficked month in the blog's 3-year history. March 2009 has already dwarfed June 2009 in numbers, and this past week (ending March 28) is the most popular week on Audio Overflow ever! You'd have to go back to August 2007 (the week of 3 big reviews: MIA's Kala, The New Pornographers' Challengers, and Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight) to find anything close to the traffic we pulled in this week. Apparently, people are taking notice of The Decemberists. A good thing...

Does any of this mean anything to you, the reader? Probably not. But sometimes a guy just needs to toot his own horn a little bit to justify the work that he's doing. Speaking of that work, expect the next update to the 29 in 2009 series to come sometime in the next few days. Until then, take care and thank you for your continued - though questionable - support of Audio Overflow.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Decemberists: "The Hazards of Love"

More than a singer, a songwriter, or an instrumentalist; Colin Meloy has always been a storyteller. From The Decemberists' humble debut in 2001, this has always been the case. It is for that reason, perhaps, that it's perplexing that it took the group this long to release a concept album, a record that tells one story throughout its length. 2006's brilliant The Crane Wife came close, with a story told over several tracks. Even with that under their belt, however, tackling a rock opera, a genre notoriously riddled with incoherent storytelling and major disappointments, is quite the mountain to climb - even for Meloy. Still, if any artist in today's musical world could right this troubled format, it would be Meloy. Fortunately, he has outdone not only the artists that have tried this method before, but even himself in the process.

The Hazards of Love tells the story of Margaret, a meek villager who falls in love with William, an inhabitant of a nearby magical forest. Margaret soon discovers that she is pregnant with William's child and sets off into the forest to find him. But as is so often the case with Meloy's stories, their love and future are threatened by William's jealous mother, the Queen of the forest, and a crazed, murderous widower. The album's first 8 songs set up the love story between the two central characters, while the album's second half brings the action to the story, ultimately ending with a beautiful, touching finale.

As already noted, the album's greatest strength is the story that it tells. Obviously, this should come as no surprise to any seasoned Decemberists fan, but the elongated format provides Meloy the opportunity to tell his story differently than has been done in the past. One of the devices that Meloy relies heavily on is foreshadowing, something that can't really be done on a single song. Throughout the tale, subtle imagery and lines are implemented that hint at the fate of not only William and Margaret, voiced by Meloy and Becky Stark respectively, but their antagonists as well. The implementation of foreshadowing lends itself to repeated listenings, and as the puzzle pieces all fall into place over time, I've found myself smiling at the intricacy of the tale.

One of the perils of concept albums that The Decemberists have overcome with The Hazards of Love is that they have kept the story about as coherent as possible. If one were to go back and examine all the "great" rock operas and concept albums of the past (Pink Floyd's The Wall, or The Who's Tommy), they are likely to find that the stories are weak, confusing, and stimulate little emotion from the listener. The Hazards of Love exceeds where these albums have failed, and though it's difficult to make a call on it this early in the game, it may be the greatest story that Meloy has ever told. Without question, though, it has already risen to the upper echelon of my "favorite concept albums" list.

A lot of that has not only to do with the story, but with the music as well. The Decemberists have taken a great risk in making this album as they have, relying heavily on aspects of progressive rock and metal. With the exception of "Isn't it a Lovely Night," there is little on The Hazards of Love that harkens back to the band's Victorian-era stylings of past albums. This is a rock opera, after all. With that leap comes the threat of alienating many of the fans that they have gained over the years. This album is awash with grandeur and bombast that would have never even have been considered for previous Decemberists' records. But all of it has its place on the album, and all of it feels appropriate for the story being told. For example, The Queen, voiced by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, is always accompanied by heavy metal riffs that mirror her evil, dark presence in the story. A lot of credit should be given to Meloy and Chris Funk who absolutely make these portions of the album feel natural and exciting, rather than forced. And while I'm dishing out praises, Shara Worden is a revelation as The Queen! Her few moments on the album alone make the whole thing worth listening to!

In truth, every musician who has leant their talents to the creation of this album has done a fantastic job. I do feel, however, that Jenny Conlee might have been underutilized this time around, as her skills are sort of downplayed throughout the album to make room for Meloy and Funk. There are moments where she shines, like on the instrumental "The Crossing," but these are scarce on the record. And yet despite all the musical changes that have been made to the band's sound to make this album work, I can't help but love every second of it! A Decemberists record or not, this is a fantastic work of art that I've listened to over and over again for the last few weeks. It is an album filled with beauty, emotion, and of course, Meloy's dark-twisted humor! I get chills when Shara Worden hits that last note of "Repaid," I chuckle at the ultimate fate of The Rake in "Revenge!," and a little bit of me breaks every time I hear the gorgeous finale, "The Drowned" (possibly the best song Meloy has ever written). This is an album that begs to be heard. It is one that is deserving of every positive word that it receives from myself or any other fan. The Decemberists have risked their reputation to release a record that is markedly different from anything that we have ever heard before. The result is something far too beautiful for words, too poignant for further commentary. My words end here.

Key Tracks:
1. "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)"
2. "The Wanting Comes in Wave/Repaid"
3. "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing"
4. "Annan Water"
5. "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)"

10 out of 10 Stars

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Friday, March 20, 2009

29 in 2009 - Robert Johnson: "King of the Delta Blues Singers"

Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers
Originally Released: 1961 (Recorded 1936-37)
Genre: Blues
Rating: 6 out of 10 Stars

This was a tough one for me guys. I've been listening to this collection of Robert Johnson recordings sing mid-January when it was first suggested for the 29 in 2009 series. Despite all that time with the record, I still can't say that I love what I'm hearing. Much of that has to do with the blues, itself. It's not a genre that I generally enjoy to listen to. One that I can appreciate, sure, but not one that I "like."

It's tough to explain. I'll try.

My experience with listening to music, judging it, making opinions, and writing about it deals significantly with deciding how "good" something is. When listening to blues, especially Robert Johnson, I literally have to throw all of that out of the window and try to evaluate it on a less technical, more emotional level. The blues isn't about concocting these elaborate compositions. It's not about perfection. It's not about being impressive. None of that matters when it comes to the blues. What matters is that the musician tells his or her story and makes it as real as possible. No need to be elaborate or metaphorical - just keep it simple.

And that is something that Robert Johnson does very well. The simple honesty contained within these songs is unparalleled in modern music; their relatablilty unquestionable. His influence is just as powerful, having a noted effect on artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Bob Dylan (their admission, not my words). So to say that every person who fancies themselves a music snob should listen to Robert Johnson is true. Everyone should listen to Robert Johnson if only for the sole purpose of laying the foundation for an understanding of rock n roll. I understand that sounds a little hypocritical for someone who's just now listening to him for the first time, but the puzzle pieces are slowly fitting together and his unofficial title of "Grandfather of Rock n Roll" is making a lot of sense to me right about now.

But then we get back to that whole technicality issue, which is something that I simply cannot overcome. The simple truth is that Robert Johnson, despite his skill and influence, plays a style of music that doesn't stimulate me in the way that I think music should. Many people may disagree with me there, and that's fine. But to hear Johnson repeat the same blues chords over and over again, to hear him repeatedly take his guitar on the same walks; it's tiring. It's not something that I can listen to over the course of an hour. Johnson's voice itself is nothing worth noting, but it works with the music. The unfortunate thing about Johnson, or the blues in general, is just that it is so repetitive and formulaic that many times - not always, mind you - I just start to tune it out.

That's why I think that Robert Johnson is probably best-suited for an iPod on shuffle, as a pleasant surprise on a long drive, or at a small get-together. As an album, "King of the Delta Blues Singers" is not something that I'm going to keep spinning for weeks, or hours for that matter. But it is good. It is important. And if you haven't heard it, or any other compilation of Johnson's recordings, you should probably check it out. I'm glad that I did.

Verdict: Required Listening

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Friday, March 13, 2009

The New Pornographers Return to Rock Band

Hey hipsters! Finally a good reason to download some songs for Rock Band. Next week's DLC will feature two songs by The New Pornographers. The songs are:

  • "All of the Things That Go to Make Heaven and Earth"
  • "Use It"
Not too shabby there, eh? They could've definitely picked some worse tracks (like "Entering White Cecilia"), but then again, these songs also release along side some Papa Roach songs.

Fair trade.

For those keeping count, that brings the total New Pornographers count to a whopping 3.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

29 in 2009 - Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited

Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
Originally Released: August 30, 1965
Genres: Rock, Folk, Blues
Rating: 9 out of 10 Stars

It's strange, the preconceived notions that we have about certain artists; how one song that doesn't "rub us the right way" can leave a sour taste that lasts for years. For me, this has always been my gut reaction to Bob Dylan. Yes, he's one of the most highly-revered artists of all time - probably the most, actually. And yet every time someone told me to listen to "this Dylan song" or to check out "this Dylan album," my response was usually a polite "No thanks."

Going into this listen of Highway 61 Revisited, I knew that what I was going to be listening to was influential and important, and I tried my best to set that knowledge aside and to just focus on the music. So I did, mostly. To my surprise, I generally loved every single moment of this album. "Like a Rolling Stone" is easily the most famous song on the album, and for good reason. It's at once the most catchy and poignant song on the record, probably of the decade, possibly of Dylan's career. Rolling Stone named it the #1 Song of All Time! While I'm not about to jump on that bandwagon just yet (primarily because Outkast's "Hey Ya" was in the Top 100 on that same list), I'll admit that it is awesome and leave it at that for now.

Other than that song, the only other track that I was familiar with beforehand was "Ballad of a Thin Man," and only then because The Grass Roots (best pop band ever?) had covered the song early in the band's mixed-up history. Both versions have their merits, though this version is clearly the more suitable of the two. There's also that one line from "Desolation Row" that was in Alan Moore's Watchmen (odd coincidence that I'm just now getting to this album, isn't it?) that I was previously familiar with. Other than that, the sad fact is that I was a complete newcomer to this album.

Dylan's lyrics are...odd. Everybody knows this - Demetri Martin pretty much rips into him every week with his folk singer sketches. If there was anything to criticize on Highway 61, that would be it. Still, I get the feeling that the real Dylan fans have spent their entire lives trying to decipher his lyrics to apply meaning to them. My dad took an English class at Rice University in the 70s where the professor spent the entire semester playing Dylan songs and having the students interpret their lyrics. They don't mean a damn thing to me, though, and that makes it perhaps a more difficult listen that it would've been otherwise.

Even with that, however, it's rare that an album comes along that defines not only a decade, but a generation. Highway 61 Revisited, may just be that album. It takes a genius to be able to dissect and define a culture in the way that Bob Dylan does on this album, and "genius" may be an understatement. I don't really know what else to write. I like it a lot. A whole lot. I'm going to go listen to more of it!

Verdict: Classic

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Spring Break Road Trip 2009

I generally approach the road trip playlist with a particular method. There are, to me, three essential types of music that need to be heard on the road (Indeed, some music is simply better on the road). These three types of music are:

- Americana-eque, upbeat, folk-country, indie music. Henceforth referred to as “Type A.”
- Solemn, introspective, sometimes-sad, but personally helpful music. Best listened to alone. Henceforth referred to as “Type B”
- Upbeat, sing-along, pop music ranging from beach pop to indie pop. Henceforth referred to as “Type C”

There is a pattern to when I make a playlist, and it usually involves rotating the three types of music, and interspersing them with “Wild Card” songs from genres like rock, hip hop, R&B, or 80s pop. Another thing that really matters to me is albums. If I’m on a long road trip, I tend to listen to full albums rather than setting the iPod to shuffle and letting it run wild. Granted, there are times when this is acceptable, appropriate even, but for the most part, I enjoy solid albums on the road.

With that in mind, here is my recommended road trip playlist for Spring Break 2009. At the bottom of this playlist are several recommendations for substitutions should you find a particular album disagreeable.

Road Trip 2009

Stage One: You have just left your city, town, or college campus to embark on a journey across America. Make your phone calls now. Reception will be hit or miss the rest of the way. This is an exciting journey, and you will need some music to get you pumped up for the long journey ahead. Might I suggest a wild card to start this whole thing off?

Recommended Wild Card Album – Our Lady Peace:
Happiness is not a Fish that You Can Catch


Stage Two: You’ve now been on the road for about 45 minutes and unless you live near the Eastern Seaboard, you’re far removed from any metropolitan area. Time to get the rotation started. Start with your Type A, follow it with a Type B, and then with a Type C. Here are my recommendations:

Recommended Type A Album – Band of Horses: Cease to Begin
Recommended Type B Album – Loney, Dear: Dear John
Recommended Type C Album – Pop Levi:
Never Never Love


Stage Three: Two to three hours have passed now, and if you’re lucky you’ve already reached your destination. But what if you’ve still got several hours to go? Let’s mix it up to keep things interesting.

Recommended Wild Card Mix – The Killers – Now you may not like The Killers, and that’s perfectly understandable. If you don’t, substitute them for another selection from below. If you’re down for some Brandon Flowers action, however, play the following mix or, if your options are limited, just the album Hot Fuss.

1. “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine”
2.“Mr. Brightside”
3. “Change Your Mind”
4. “Human”
5. “When You Were Young”
6. “Somebody Told Me”
7. “Midnight Show”
8. “Spaceman”
9. “Everything Will Be Alright”

Recommended Type A Album – Sufjan Stevens:
Recommended Type B Mix
1. A.C. Newman – “Take On Me”
2. Jaymay – “Sycamore Down”
3. Bright Eyes – “Land Locked Blues”
4. The Elected – “Sun, Sun, Sun”
5. The Shins – “A Comet Appears”

Recommended Type C Album – The Postal Service:
Give Up
Recommended Type A Album – Conor Oberst:
Conor Oberst
Recommended Type B Album – Nick Drake:
Pink Moon
Recommended Wild Card Album – The Mars Volta: Frances the Mute


Stage Four: For all intents and purposes, you should be entering the final phase of your road trip. This is where things start to get exciting again. The music should reflect that, right? Of course it should!

Recommended Type C Album – Rooney: Rooney
Recommended Wild Card Album – The Streets: The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living
Recommended Wild Card Mix – This is the final stretch, folks. Roll down the window and smell the sweet beach air, growing more and more potent by the minute. Play this mix:

1. Amadou & Mariam – “Magosa”
2. The Bird and the Bee – “Love Letter to Japan”
3. Wham! – “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”
4. MGMT – “Kids”
5. Wallpaper – “The Remix”
6. CSS – “Move”
7. Apples in Stereo – “Same Old Drag”
8. Beck – “Hell Yes”
9. Gorillaz – “Feel Good Inc.”
10. Crystal Castles – “Courtship Date”
11. George Harrison – “Got My Mind Set on You”
12. Talking Heads – “Once In a Lifetime”
13. The Lonely Island – “Jizz in my Pants”
14. K–Os – “FlyPaper”
15. Of Montreal – “Id Engager”

This mix is really going to vary based on your own personal preferences. Play music that gets you amped up and feel free to mix around the songs. Just be sure to end your road trip with a good mix rather than a single album. Also, try to keep “Id Engager” as the final song of your trip. Play it as soon as you pull into your destination. It’s always a good one!

So that should do it: the perfect playlist for your 10 hour road trip! As always, feel free to mix up the albums to suit your needs. Just keep the pattern in tact and you should have an enjoyable road trip, filled with the ups and downs of life (le gay). Should you want more recommendations, here you go:

Type A
Bob Dylan:
Highway 61 Revisited
Bright Eyes: Cassadaga
Built to Spill:
Keep it Like a Secret
Death Cab for Cutie:
The Decemberists:
The Crane Wife
Hotel California
Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes
Kill Them With Kindness
The Honorary Title: Anything Else but the Truth
Loney, Dear:
Loney, Noir
The Trials of Van Occupanther
Plants and Animals: Parc Avenue
Rogue Wave:
Out of the Shadow
The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow
The Wrens: The Meadowlands

Type B
The Notwist: Neon Golden
Radiohead: Kid A
Sigur Ros: ( )
Slint: Spiderland
Sufjan Stevens:
Seven Swans

Type C
Fiona Apple:
Extraordinary Machine
Architecture in Helsinki:
Places Like This
The Bird and the Bee:
Ray Guns are Not Just the Future
Death Cab for Cutie:
Narrow Stairs
Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Lily Allen: It’s Not Me, It’s You (Songs 1 – 5)
Mates of State:
Re-Arrange Us
Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?
Of Montreal: Satanic Panic in the Attic
The Unicorns: Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone
Wallpaper: T.Rex EP

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Get Cursive's New Album on the Cheap!

Anybody who has been a longtime reader of Audio Overflow knows two things about me:

  1. I'm a big fan of the band Cursive.
  2. I'm not a big fan of digital media.
Saddle Creek is quickly changing my mind, however, as they're currently offering up Cursive's new album, Mama, I'm Swollen, for the ludicrous price of $1. As always, there's a catch. Here's what the company has to say:
As of today, March 1st, Mama, I'm Swollen in MP3 format is available for $1
exclusively in the Saddle Creek Online Store.
On March 2nd, it will be $2
March 3rd, $3
March 4th, $4
etc, etc
until March 10th when the record hits the shelves, at which point the MP3
files will remain at their regular price of $9.

This promotion only applies to the digital MP3 version of Mama, I'm
Swollen. CD and Deluxe LP physical editions are also available, and include
an instant MP3 download of the record, deluxe art and a download card for
additional bonus music and videos.
Obviously, this isn't the best deal in the world (hey, Radiohead and Trent did just give away their shit), but it's good to see labels getting in on the action. My copy is currently being downloaded, and I can't wait to hear the end result.

What about you? You hopping on board this one?

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