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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Joanna Newsom: "Have One On Me"

There should be no debate, frankly, about whether or not Joanna Newsom's latest album, Have One On Me, is too much music.  At over two hours in length, the answer is a resounding "YES!"  But we will not ask if it is too much music, simply, "Is it any good?"  The answer to this question is the same, though perhaps less emphatic as the prior response.  Trying to review such a monstrous album is a monumental task that I can't help but feel overwhelmed each time I sit down to write.  To ease my suffering, my review of this album will be done in 3 parts, at the end of which an overall score will be assigned.

--Disc 1--
Have One On Me begins with the piano-led "Easy," a song that sets the tone of the album.  It's intrumentally-lush, but upbeat, poppy feel is indicative of the experience most listeners will have with this album.  Far from the lengthy, harp-driven tales of 2006's Ys (her only album with which I am familiar), Have One On Me is much more easily digested, albeit in small, 45-minute doses.  "Easy" is a pop song in the loosest interpretation of the genre; but as is the case with most of Newsom's music, it remains categorically undefinable.  The album's title track, at over 11-minutes, is its longest song.  It flows effortlessly between sparse instrumentation, country-westernish flourishes, and surprisingly exuberant orchestral sections.  The song's composition is truly dense, and I've found myself battling between listening to the instrumentation and Newsom's voice often.

On that note, Newsom's voice seems much more polished in this release than on her past works.  It is still an "acquired taste," so to speak, but the moments where it cracks or seem strained are far fewer this time around.  There is, for example, a moment on "Have One On Me," towards the end, where she harmonizes with herself with full vibrato, and it sounds quite lovely; even by her standards.  "'81" finds Newsom playing alone with her harp for a change, it is is just as beautiful as it has ever been.  The lack of extra instrumentation let's us focus on Joanna's voice and her instrument of choice, which has always been my favorite aspect of her music.  She spends a surprisingly large time on Have One On Me playing piano, which I'm not the biggest fan of, truthfully.  Newsom is talented on the piano, for sure, but she's no Tori Amos or even Fiona Apple.  A lot of the songs that prominently feature the piano sound emptier than they should, and the "tickling of the ivories" is mostly downgraded to heavy-handed, simple chord progressions.

"Good Intentions Paving Company" is okay in this regard, but it fails in being a solid pop song a) because it's too long, and b) because the vibrato (real or faux) is entirely overdone.  The chorus sounds a lot a Little Shop of Horrors song, but Newsom doesn't really have the same vocal strongpoints as, say, Ellen Greene.  "No Provenance" is a much more subdued affair and is all the more gorgeous because of this.  Truthfullyt, I'm drawn to it because it sounds like it could have been on Ys; not only because of its length, but because of its style and storytelling.  If you're a fan of that album, this might not be a bad place to start.

The first disc closes with "Baby Birch," a solemn, touching hymn that is not hampered by its 9-minute length, but lifted.  It's a good 3 1/2 minutes before the opening progression even changes, but Newsom's delicate vocals remain constant throughout.  The last 3 minutes of the song add in percussion that is jarring, but powerful.  It is so joyous and celebratory, that one can't help but enjoy what they are hearing.  It is easily the disc's finest track.

--Disc 2--
Disc Two of Have One On Me begins with the simple (and short), "On a Good Day."  Joanna's voice is fully exposed here, singing a solid melody over subtle harp plucks.  Despite its brevity, it's a strong song, and one that's certainly easy to listen to.  It resembles Blue-era Joni Mitchell in its simplistic, but artful approach to songwriting.  On "You and Me, Bess," Newsom is joined by various brass instrumentation, and a guest vocalist who harmonizes with her beautifully.  The song is quaint, almost whimsical; and if there were any song on Have One On Me that perfectly captures the bizarre charm of Joanna Newsom, this may be the be the one!  The chorus, strangely, is relegated to "La la las," but the song is no less enjoyable for it.

"In California" is a mostly-dreadful song.  Newsom's vocal melody is okay at best, and things don't get remotely interesting until around the 4-minute mark, and then again a few minutes later with some really cool orchestration.  But for the most part, the song's only strong point are its lyrics (minus the "cawing"), which can be said for almost any of her songs. "Jackrabbit" is a very restrained tune, but its simplicity is not only acceptable, but necessary after the previous two tracks.  It's a good song, but it's nothing particularly special.

Joanna is an undeniably talented harpist, and no song on Have One On Me showcases her talent in this regard better than "Go Long." Her playing is dreamlike, surrounding the listener in plucks that seemingly fly in from all directions.  It is joined by one of the album's more lovely melodies; solemn, but truly beautiful.  It is a song that you'll want to listen to over and over again.  "Occident" ditches the harp, which I've already stated I'm not the biggest fan of.  However, I'm truly mesmerized by the chord progression of the song.  It seems like such a simple thing, but the construction of "Occident" is virtually flawless.  It's a comedown track, for sure, and if Disc Two were an album in and of itself, I would think it a satisfying conclusion to a fairly solid album.

--Disc 3--
Now that you've made it through 2 whole CDs of Joanna Newsom, you should be ready to tackle Disc 3, where the average song length is around 7 minutes.  "Soft as Chalk" is a pretty upbeat song in tempo, featuring Newsom doing some flat-out awesome things vocally ("Lawlessness!!").  Every movement of the song is interesting in its own way; and though seemingly discordant, Newsom's charming voice ties them all together nicely.  It's a "fun" song, which sadly isn't an adjective I would use often when describing her music.  "Esme" is the opposite.  Classic Newsom, it is gorgeous and simple, with story-like lyrics that are worth reading along with.  There's nothing really surprising or new about this song, but long-time fans should enjoy it well enough.

The sparse instrumentation continues on "Autumn," but not for long.  By the time the strings, percussion, and brass come in, you'll be pleasantly surprised.  They are subdued, however.  Not too overpowering, but complementing Joanna's harp and voice nicely.  The harp is the focal point of "Ribbon Bows," flowing gracefully throughout the length of the song.  It's songs like this that remind us of why we started listening to Newsom in the first place.  As much as I loved the grandeur of Ys, the major appeal of Joanna's music has always been the subtler, understated moments where one can really get a grasp on her songwriting talents.  "Ribbon Bows" is perfect in that regard, and it's one of the disc's finest tracks.

Have One On Me concludes with "Kingfisher" - a beautiful, perhaps mournful track - and "Does Not Suffice" - a soulful blues song, that serves as a nice ending to this monstrous album.  After listening through this album multiple times at this point (seriously...maybe 8-10 hours worth), the best piece of advice I could give to someone just going into it is this: take it slow.  My first listen to Have One On Me involved me trying to go through all 18 tracks (and 2 hours) in one shot.  I ended up getting frustrated and turning the thing off.  But don't make the mistake of thinking that this makes Have One On Me a bad album.  If anything, it is a collection of 3 really good albums that need to be digested individually.  There is a great wealth of music here that the average person can't appreciate when it's all thrown at them at once.  Take your time, sift through each disc, find the songs you like and then move on.  With the exception of "Good Intentions Paving Company," which I just abhor, there's really not a bad song on this album; which is impressive when you consider how many songs are on here and how many things could have gone wrong.  Newsom had proven her talent long before Have One On Me released, but putting out 3 really good albums at once, well, that pretty much seals the deal!  If you're a Newsom fan, you'd be stupid not to buy a copy.  And that's where I'll end this long, rambling review.

Key Tracks:
1. "Have One On Me"
2. "On a Good Day"
3. "You and Me, Bess"
4. "Go Long"
5. "Soft as Chalk"

Disc 1:  7 out of 10 Stars
Disc 2:  8 out of 10 Stars
Disc 3:  8 out of 10 Stars

Overall:  8 out of 10 Stars

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Audio Overflow's Guide to SXSW 2010

I have never been to SXSW in Austin, TX.  I live three hours away from the city and I've always wanted to catch a show or two; but if you've ever been to Austin, you know the traffic is pretty awful on a normal Wednesday afternoon, much less during the city's most tourist-filled week.  So I pass.  This year, I'll be in Austin here and there, but for those of you who'll be in the city for the long haul, here's a handy, Audio Overflow approved guide to the organized chaos that is South by Southwest.

Spotlight Show:  Uffie at Emo's Annex, 1:00am - Techinically speaking, the Parisian pop-star, Uffie is a taentless enigma.  Listening to her music, you may find yourself asking, "Why is this chick famous?"  Go to this show and find out why.  It's sure to be an awesome time!

Spotlight Showcase:  NPR Music Showcase at Stubb's - One of the most solid lineups you'll find all week, highlighted by the James Mercer/Danger Mouse project, Broken Bells at 11:00pm.
8:00pm - Visqueen
8:45pm - The Walkmen
9:45pm - Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
11:00pm - Broken Bells
12:15pm - Spoon

Other Shows:
Das Racist at Buffalo Billiards, 9:00am
Surfer Blood at Wave Rooftop, 1:00am

Spotlight Show:  Broken Social Scene at Stubb's, 12:45am - Truth be told, I'm not the largest BSS fan, but I'd still love to see them do their thing live.  Plus, at a venue like SXSW, who know's who will show up.  Also, they have a pretty sweet opening band.  Perhaps you've heard of them?  Band of Horses!

Spotlight Showcase:  Merge Showcase at Cedar Street Courtyard - Granted, it's not the strongest lineup on the planet, but if you're looking to hang out at one place all night, it's not a bad gig.  The highlight would have to be She & Him at 10:00pm, though Wye Oak is a close second.
7:30pm - Special Guest
8:00pm - Let's Wrestle
9:00pm - Radar Bros
10:00pm - She & Him
11:00pm - Wye Oak
12:00am - Lou Barlow
1:00am - The Love Language

Other Shows: 
Wallpaper at Beauty Bar, 5:00pm
Midlake at Buffalo Billiards, 1:00am
Rogue Wave at Emo's (Main Room), 10:00pm
Okkervil River at LaZona Rosa, 12:30am
Eisley at Maggie Mae's Rooftop, 1:00am
Rocky Votolato at RedEyedFly, 12:00am
Band of Horses at Stubb's, 11:30pm

Spotlight Show:  Plants and Animals at Antone's, 9:00pm - These crazy Canadians released their debut album way back in 2008, and it managed to make it in my Top 10 for that year.  I've been loving them ever since.  If there was one show on this day that I absolutely HAD to see, it'd be this one!

Spotlight Showcase:  Dickie's Sounds Showcase at Lustre Pearl - Four solid bands, all of them playing other dates at SXSW, but hearing them consecutively is not only convenient but awesome.  Or conveniently awesome.

9:00pm - Here We Go Magic
10:00pm - Surfer Blood
11:00pm - Broken Bells
12:00am - She & Him

Other Shows:
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears at Austin Music Hall, 8:00pm
Band of Horses at Central Presbyterian Church, 8:55pm
Anya Marina at Maggie Mae's, 9:00pm
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart at Mohawk, 1:00am
Uffie at Mohawk Patio, 11:30pm
Miike Snow at Mohawk Patio, 12:00am
Broken Social Scene at The Parish, 12:00am

Spotlight Show:  Wallpaper. at Beauty Bar Backyard, 11:40pm (or 8:00pm) - Times vary (depending on who your source is) on when my favorite band from Oakland starts playing.  Bottom line is this, they'll be at Beauty Bar on Saturday, and if you're off at some other venue watching a weak band from Ohio do their lame songs, I will hunt you down.  Don't miss this show!!

Spotlight Showcase:  AM Only Showcase at Beauty Bar - Not to be redundant, but besides the fact that Wallpaper. is playing this one, it looks like a fun show.  The other lineups for Saturday night are compartively weak, so if you want a good mix of pop, dance, hip hop, and electronic music, there's no better place to be on March 20th.
8:00pm - Body Language
8:40pm - Two Fresh
9:25pm - Mickey Factz
10:05pm - Hussle Club
10:40pm - Felix Cartal
11:40pm - Wallpaper.
12:10am - Treasure Fingers
1:00am - Daedelus

Other Shows:
She & Him at Auditorium Shores Stage (at Lady Bird Lake) - 8:00pm
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears at Austin Music Hall - 11:40pm
Rogue Wave at Day Stage Cafe (at Austin Convention Center) - 2:00pm
Surfer Blood at Mohawk Patio - 11:00pm


So there you have it, all the shows I'd go to if I were heading to Austin.  I will be in the city the weekend before, and I still may drive up to see Wallpaper., so who knows? 

Let me know if I missed anything in the comments.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: Field Music: "Measure"

The last time we heard from Field Music was on 2007's phenomenal Tones of Town, an album that turned out to be one of the decades best - a sleeper-hit if there ever was one.  If one could even find a flaw in that album, it would most likely be its brevity; clocking in at barely 30 minutes.  Well it looks like the Brewis brothers are trying to make up for lost time because their latest release, Measure, is...a double album!  If you're like me, the very term makes you uneasy, what with all the memories of bands who have been unable to hold a normal person's interest over the course of two whole CDs.  Field Music, an unlikely candidate for such an endeavor, actually does a pretty decent job.  While Measure may not be as instantly classic as its predecessor, it does have a wealth of music on it - both in length and depth!

On the band's previous albums, emphasis was placed heavily on piano-led compositions with expertly-crafted string compositions.  The guitar, an instrument at the forefront of any modern band, was assigned to accompaniment duties, rarely getting a chance to lead a song's instrumentation.  However, Measure is a very guitar-centric album, and it has more of a rock feel as a result.  One could logically assume that this is due to the departure of keyboardist, Andrew Moore, but Measure is all the more interesting for it.   David and Peter have the opportunity to shine in places where they had yet to fully display the depths of their talent (at least with Field Music).  All that to say this:  don't be too caught off guard when the album's opener features minimal, distant keys and heavy guitars.

The guitar-led awesomeness continues, most notably on "Each Time is a New Time," "Clear Water," or album centerpiece, "Let's Write a Book."  The latter song features an incredibly funky bass line throughout, creating a groove that is wholly inescapable.  Lead guitars are relegated to sparse but sexy flourishes.  Still the highlight of the song has to be its instrumental bridge with an absolutely schizophrenic synth line accompanied by an equally crazy mallet part.  Measure's first single, "Them That Do Nothing," is just as good, but in an entirely different manner.   Of any of the album's great tracks, it alone sounds like something that could have fit nicely on their past albums.  It's pop sensibilities and catchy melody are undeniable, and I'd be lying if I said I haven't listened to it on repeat at least a few times already.

Despite the fact that Measure is - by and large - a rock album, I've found that my favorite moments still lie in the album's poppier tracks; the two aforementioned tracks included.  Disc 2's lead-off, "The Rest is Noise" is an absolutely stunning track as well, with a building melody that finally erupts into a mind-blowing (by Field Music standards) guitar breakdown!  The album drifts solemnly into "Curves of the Needle," a slow, gorgeous song with heavy-handed Queen stylings.  Even the lyrics "Oh to be young again/ to be loved again!" sound like they could have been ripped from Freddie Mercury's songbook.  "Choosing Numbers" follows that track, showcasing an infectious composition and a passionate 80s-ballad-esque climax that people are bound to scratch their heads at.

While Measure is a terrific album by most standards, it is certainly not an easy one.  The sheer size of the thing is at once its greatest draw and most-considerable burden.  Simply put, there are some songs that require deeper listening to fully appreciate and you may find yourself skipping over them to get to the songs that you love immediately.  For this, I'm glad that if the band was going to release a double album, they at least split it up onto two CDs.  It makes the whole experience more manageable.  At the same time, Measure does have a small handful of songs that probably could have been left off the album entirely without me batting an eye.  While every song on here is worth listening to, I doubt many will always want to.  In that way, Field Music has fallen into the same trap as most artist who try to tackle the double-album concept.  Where the band exceeds is in creating something to which I'll continually return. Like a great novel, Measure is something you have to stick with in order fully understand and appreciate.  Though I've only had it in my possession of a matter of days as of this writing, there's still so much for me to get to and discover!  That's a feeling one rarely gets in the music world, so when it does appear, take note.  You've stumbled upon something special.

Key Tracks:
1. "Them That Do Nothing"
2. "Lights Up"
3. "Let's Write a Book"
4. "The Rest is Noise"
5. "Curves of the Needle"

8 out of 10 Stars

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Video: Field Music - "Them That Do Nothing"

Audio Overflow favorite, Best of '07 Champion, and Top 10 of the Decade placer, Field Music is back this week with a sprawling new double album titled, Measure.  I've been listening to the album over the last few days, and there are a lot of cool things going on therein.

The album's first single, and one of it's cooler songs, is "Them That Do Nothing."  The video for the song is a collection of live performance, brotherly hand clapping, and crossword puzzling all tied together with fast-paced editing.  I actually like it a lot.  At the very least, it continues the tradition of quirky Field Music music videos.

Check out the video below, and look for a review of Measure to drop sometime later this week.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Indie Gold: An Introduction

The year, ladies and gentlemen, is 2010.  This means that I've been a devoted follower, listener, and fan of indie music for a good six years now.  And truthfully, there's a lot of great music that I've listened to in those six years, much of which I blogged about right here on Audio Overflow.

But there is a gap there, as you might have noticed in my recent Top 50 Albums of the Decade post.  Perhaps you were caught off guard by the surprising lack of several notable, and worthy albums.  This is perfectly understandable.  There is a ton of music that I just never got around to listening to.  A lot of it, I'm told, is amazing.

So it's time to play catch-up.

In 2010, a large part of my blogging will be aimed at discovering indie gems that I've just never heard, or never gave a fair shot.  I've decided to call this series, Indie Gold. Sure, this may sound eerily similar to my 29 in 2009 Series (R.I.P.), but there are a few distinct differences.  Perhaps the most important difference will be that I plan on reviewing EVERY album that is featured in the Indie Gold series.  No more half-assed, meandering write-ups!  Just good ol' fashioned reviewing!  Secondly, I'm not putting a number on this series.  So where last year I had to force myself to listen to 29 albums in a whole year (in addition to everything else I was doing), this one will go on until I decide it's time to end it.  Hopefully, these two things will make the content of the series something worth reading.

So if you want to make recommendations, please post them in the comments!  I've just started listening to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and I love it!  Send me some more suggestions, and keep checking back to see if your recommendations make the cut.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

29 in 2009: A Conclusion

It's ooooooooooovvveeeeeeeerrrrrrrrr!!!!!

Honestly, there were several times during the course of this series that I thought I should just quit.  Somewhere in between The Velvet Underground and Joy Division, this fun idea for a series turned into a series of unspeakable burden.  But I'm glad I did it, and here's why:  There are far too many great albums on this list that I never would have listened to if it weren't for the recommendation of all the readers.  And for that I say "THANK YOU!"

If I had to pick a favorite album during the course of this series, it would probably be King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, which came out of nowhere and has received more listens in the last 12 months than any other album on here.  It would be followed by Led Zepplin's Houses of the Holy and Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson.  That last album I've even purchased on vinyl (recommended) here in the last few weeks.

My vote for worst album on this list unquestionably goes to The Velvet Underground's debut, which is mostly a collection of bad sounds, recorded and hyped up for no good reason.  The Who's Tommy comes in a disappointing second, followed by Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.

Without question, it was a long, drawn-out series, but I hope you enjoyed reading and I hope that you discovered a few new gems.  I know I certainly did.  If you're a first time visitor and missed out on this crazy, year-long series, be sure to check out all 29 articles below.
  1. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
  2. King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King
  3. The Who: Tommy
  4. Nick Drake: Pink Moon
  5. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
  6. Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers
  7. Jimi Hendrix: Electric Ladyland
  8. Buddy Holly: Buddy Holly
  9. Jethro Tull: Aqualung
  10. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground and Nico
  11. The Doors: The Doors
  12. The Clash: London Calling
  13. The Allman Brothers: Eat a Peach
  14. Miles Davis: Bitches Brew
  15. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
  16. The Smiths: The Queen is Dead
  17. R.E.M.: Murmur
  18. Joni Mitchell: Blue
  19. Serge Gainsbourg: Histoire de Melody Nelson
  20. Led Zepplin: House of the Holy
  21. Pink Floyd:  Dark Side of the Moon
  22. Frank Zappa:  Over-Nite Sensation
  23. Joy Division:  Unknown Pleasures
  24. David Bowie:  The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  25. Sonic Youth:  Daydream Nation
  26. Janis Joplin:  Pearl
  27. The Rolling Stones:  Exile on Main St.
  28. Tom Waits:  Rain Dogs
  29. The Beach Boys:  Pet Sounds
I've got a pretty cool idea for a 2010 series.  More info on that later...

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29 in 2009 - The Beach Boys: "Pet Sounds"

The Beach Boys:  Pet Sounds
Originally Released:  May 16, 1966
Genres: Rock, Pop
Rating:  9 out of 10 Stars

I know, I know; the idea of writing an article in a series called "29 in 2009" seems a bit silly now that it's February 2010.  But duty calls, folks.  Though I wasn't able to write about all of the albums in this series by December 31, 2009, I was able to listen to all of them at least once.  So that's got to count for something, I assume.

Speaking of assuming, when I saw Pet Sounds would be appearing at the end of this series, I assumed I'd be listening to a collection of the band's more notable hits.  Song like "Surfin' USA" and "California Girls," are what I usually associate with the band.  But to my surprise, Pet Sounds is a subdued album that focuses more on soft, emotional ballads than upbeat, beach party tunes.  When I first downloaded this album in December, I figured I could knock it out in a week because I would already be familiar with the majority of its songs.  False.

Of course, the album's best tracks are still the ones I had heard before.  "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is a fun lead-off track that I've been jamming to pretty consistently for the last month or so, while "God Only Knows" is surprisingly touching, even for a chronically single guy such as myself.  When people say they're influenced by The Beach Boys' sound, I've never really been able to hear it.  But Pet Sounds seems to be incredibly influential!  I'm hearing bits of pieces of some of my favorite artists in here (and even some that I don't like...Panda Bear).

The cool thing about Pet Sounds, for me, is that every song on it sounds unique and yet they all seem to fit together.  There's not a bad one on here.   And that makes this whole series of mine end on an extremely positive note, which is nice.

Verdict:  Classic

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