ANAÏS MITCHELL – Young Man in America (2012)

Review by: Jonathan Birch
Album assigned by: Graham Warnken

Anais Mitchell is a modern folkie, in the same ilk as Bon Iver, and from the cover it’s clear what you’re getting into: the travels and travails of the Americana experience. The opening song sets the mood, with a lot of sparse guitar chords, screeching vioin, and oohs and aahs. Dorothy, we have found ourselves back in Kansas.

The second title track highlights the grievances I have with this record.  The instrumentation is professional, the production clear and pristine, the backing vocals soulful and atmospheric. But Miss Mitchell’s voice could not be more twee and precious, as though she is purposefully emulating the intonations of a twelve year old valley girl from southern California. It was one of those things I could just not move past, save for when she briefly stopped singing, and it hampered my enjoyment of the rest of the record. Something about the overly earnest and cherry sweet delivery made me wince whenever her voice squeaked into my ear canal. Which is a damn shame, because everything about it is easy to like. The second track begins as a simple folk ballad, before morphing into this New Orleans jazz-style tale of a young girl’s journey to adolescence. It’s both simultaneously moving and annoying to listen to. It does finish with a little bit of flourishing flute work, so that creates a nice high note at the end.

Third song, “Coming Down,” has a lot of teary eyed emotion to it, with Mitchell singing about the time she got very high and laughed so loud. I’m not sure what the message behind the song is, but it’s very pleasant with the breezy backing harmonies and crisp playing. It gets better on “Dyin Day,” a country/bluegrass piece with a slightly more energetic feel. I’m no longer dozing off but tapping my feet to the steady beat and groovy mandolin solo. Miss Mitchell seems to know the way to my roots rock heart. “Venus” is a pleasant little number about the singer discovering her womanhood and meeting the Roman goddess Venus. A nice electric guitar shuffle melds with jovial accordion solo, which really tickles my earbuds. How can one not feel happy when listening to such optimism?

The rest of the songs do sort of blend together after a while in this pudding of syrupy folksiness. The lyrics do begin to travel bit heavily into biblical, country-bumpkin, John Steinbeck-ish territory, as Mitchell wails about how her daddy “was a builder who swung his hammer brown and silver” or “how she sowed a party dress with a needle and thread.” It’s almost like she’s trying her darnest to convince me how pragmatic and salt of the earth she is. Because she’s from rural Vermont you see.

The track “Tailor” has a fair bit of annoying, and dare I say ostentatious lyrical utterings, where she repeats some seemingly innocuous phrases over and over, such as “In and out, In and out, In and out,” or “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?” I don’t know Anais, I wish you’d get to the point and tell me though.  Apparently the album was designed to tell a story that relates to the recession of ’08, and Miss Mitchell seems to anoint herself as the voice for the zeitgeist of modern America’s alienated youth. But her themes never seem to expand beyond the superficial side of longing for love and motherhood, and her overall style is slightly too drippy to carry any weight; the track “Shepherd” sounds like something I’d hear on a commercial for Johnson’s baby powder. Supposedly it’s based on a short story her father, a college  professor and former novelist, wrote, which I appreciate for its honesty, but the self-indulgent audacity of it is rather cringe worthy too. Miss Mitchell, I understand you come from a long line of distinguished bards, but your poetry need some more bite for it to catch my interest.

“You Are Forgiven,” the second to last track, is slightly more rocking. Which means that the acoustic guitar is strummed a bit faster and we finally have some drums. There’s even a nice trumpet solo that adds some spice, but by now it’s too late to enlarge the horizons of this record beyond the obvious. It’s clear this was designed as one of those albums you listen to intently on a sultry evening, but there are billions of these homely folk albums that I would be willing to recommend in its place. It’s slightly less labored than your average Red House Painter’s record, but not as atmospheric as The Cowboy Junkies. It’s somewhere on the scale between enjoyable and pleasantly mediocre. 
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BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE – At Least for Now (2015)

Review by: Tom Hadrian Kovalevsky
Album assigned by: Viudas Tormo

God, how utterly cold.

I get it, At Least For Now is emotional, it’s desolate in lyrical content yet incredibly lush in terms of production, Clementine has a rich, beautiful, emotional voice that drips with passion, and his piano playing is beautiful and stark and fragile – but I just don’t like this album at all.

If one reads about the accolades the album received upon release, reaching high places in iTunes charts in Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland and Greece, even going as far as to reach the coveted place of #1 and a tidy little gold certification in France, I can merely purse my lips and think about how incredibly suited the album is to such titles. 

It reeks of the benign popularity and showmanship that musicians like Antony and Adele bring to the charts, a sense of being forward-thinking while making no innovation, expressing such emotional angst while not expressing any sort of true emotion at all; every attempt at meaning being brushed over by a uniform brown with which anything that is too startling is kept at bay, out of sight and out of mind for the general music consuming populace, who are seemingly unable to stomach actual sadness.

That isn’t to say either that Clementine possesses more talent than those artists; although such a statement might not be controversial, I shall not deny that both Adele and Antony are in possession of voices only slightly less powerful than Clementine’s, I will even be kind and say that the sort of bland indie posturing is much more interesting than a lot of modern mass-produced dancepop. Alas, Clementine, the blandness of this album makes my heart hurt. There are moments – during “Then I Heard A Bachelor’s Cry”, “Nemesis” and the interlude “St-Clementine-on-Tea-and-Croissants” especially – where the sameness of the affair is briefly escaped, and we glimpse his truly arresting talent, heart-rending and transfiguring, for brief glimpses of time, but the veil is quickly brought back down and we are shown normalcy once more.

I can barely even produce the sort of visual element that I would normally posit in a review, as I don’t even feel passion radiating from the music that’s sufficient to produce an image. In sublime moments? An androgynous figure in a dark, spacious apartment, indistinguishable as either man or woman, weeping silently to themselves. They have a cigarette, slowly burning between their pursed lips, and they swirl scotch in a small crystal glass, thinking about their situation. Occasionally, they glance to the telephone on the table next to them, and as they are about to pick up the receiver- then it cuts out again, and the lack of image, the brown colour that consumes the album, resumes.

Oh god. Clementine has talent enough to make a beautiful tragedy of an album, but he wastes it on this LP. Hope springs eternal for the next, though.

THE GUESS WHO – Canned Wheat (1969)

Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez
Album assigned by: Eric Pember

I had never listened to the Guess Who before, except for “American Woman”, of course; so while I knew they came more or less from the era of “classic rock” I did not know their style. So I was pleasantly surprised when, after the bizarre “out of tune music box” thing that opens the album (and the purpose of which I still struggle to ascertain), my ears were treated to “No Time”, which seems to derive all of their elements from Buffalo Springfield. You know, the kinetic rhythm section, active bass lines, high harmonies, country guitars, even the acid fuzz guitar solos. And that is fine with me. (Researching a bit I learned that this song was re-recorded for the American Woman album and released as a single, so if you have heard it before, it’s probably not the version I’m discussing here).

“Minstrel Boy” deceptively continues with the soft country-rock vibe, but it’s soon clear that the Guess Who are not afraid of variety and inserting some more sophisticated sounds (something the aforementioned Springfield were also fond of, to think of it).

Case in point, the single tracks “Laughing” and “Undun” that follow. “Laughing” is a well-constructed melodic pop song that seems tailor-made to make a splash in AM radio, and “Undun” adds unexpected soft jazz elements in the electric guitar and flute solo, which underpin a veritable vocal tour de force. And this streak concludes with “6 A.M. or Nearer”, which combines bachelor-pad-cocktail-jazz guitar chords in the verses with a Woodstock-ready California style chorus that, again, reminds me of the Buffalos or CSNY.

After this, “Old Joe”, while still in a melodic mold, takes us to a more rootsy, country-soul territory, and the pace then quickens a bit with “Of a Dropping Pin”, an infectious roots-rock number with R&B and gospel elements. Then, the piece de resistance of the album – the 11 minutes of “Key”. This one takes us back to the Woodstock aesthetics, with the rhythm section giving their all throughout (the jam section is mainly percussion-based, and it even has the mandatory drum solo to finish the proceedings) and some very welcome folk elements popping up here and there.

And we conclude with the jazzy ditty “Fair Warning”, with a rather bizarre spoken part that reminds me of something I can’t recall now. Speaking of ditties, many songs are linked by small segue bits – classical piano bits, Travis picking guitars, sitar noodlings, treated piano chords – which I think make them sound like trying too hard to invoke the spirit of the White Album, but that’s a minor complaint.

By the way, I enjoyed immensely Randy Bachman’s guitar solos throughout, but to me the hero of the record is Burton Cummings – not only he sings perfectly throughout, with finesse, flexibility and power, tender in the softest moments, raucous in the more driving points, soulful and controlled, but his keyboard touches are always totally appropriate and memorable and the couple of jazzy flute solos he has in “Undun” and “6 A.M. or Nearer” are highlights as well.

Bottom line: If the only thing you’ve heard from the Guess Who is the (terrific) “American Woman” single (or worse, the cover by Lenny Kravitz!) and you have this mental image of some king of Canadian Grand Funk Railroad, don’t be fooled by that impression, and if you like late 60s rootsy classic rock, don’t hesitate to give a listen to “Canned Wheat”. You’re in for a treat. Thumbs up.

CATHERINE RIBEIRO + ALPES – Le Rat Dèbile Et L’Homme Des Champs (1974)

Review by: Franco Micale
Album assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn

Although I like this album, it’s very difficult for me to actually judge it for what it is. The big issue I have is that I don’t speak French, so therefore half the time I have no idea what is going on; a lot of the music here seems to be highly lyrically centered. Also, the production and musical content here leaves much to be desired. Basically, the best way to describe this album is that it’s like a mixture of Renaissance, Can, and Nico, except with a very sparse range of instrumentation. There is also a noticeable lack of drums on this album, and although this sound does make for a fairly unique style, it wouldn’t have hurt to ingrain some more rhythmic textures to the songs. On top of that, the production is rather weak to my ears, as the instruments sound muddled together without any attempt to make the tones or timbres shine out. Also, melodically, few of the songs here really stick to my attention in any way, but I don’t think the band was necessarily aiming to create catchy melodies, so I’ll give them a pass.

However, despite all these flaws, I can’t deny that Catherine Ribeiro totally owns the show here. She displays some of the greatest and most expressive singing I’ve ever heard in rock music. I remember I once made an argument about how good singing in music was just as important as solid songwriting, and I declare this album as definitive proof of how right I was. If someone with a horrible voice had sung any of this, then I guarantee this would have been unlistenable, but this woman really raises this album’s quality from abysmal to highly captivating.

Because of Ribeiro, I can honestly say that the first three songs on this album are actually really great, all else aside. The album hits it off with “La Petite Aux Fraises”, a rushing piece with an intense performance from Catherine and a gripping arrangement, in which all the instruments sound as if they are racing against each other. There is also this jiggly and jostling percussive sound that I can’t quite discern. It sounds similar to the electric jug that would appear on a 13th Floor Elevator song (like on this tune), but I can’t tell. Anyone know?

The next piece, “L’ere De La Putrefaction,” is one of the two lengthy suites on the album, and it definitely has a “thematic” and “epic” feel to it. Even though it feels a little clunky at times (what’s with that gap of silence between the third and fourth movement of the suite?), when the piece gets heated, it’s BURNING. I especially love the last part, where the music gets all intense, Catherine boasts her singing out loud, the organ plays a fiery, Morricone-esque melody, and then they even bring in DRUMS! FRICKIN’ DRUMS! The piece just builds up more and more, the drums start going crazy and banging all over the place, all the instruments start doing random stuff, and then BOOM BOOM BOOM! Everything crashes and ends with a blast. Whoa…the whole thing plays out like a climactic scene in an epic movie, and if the rest of the album was like this, I definitely I would have gushed over this more.

Now, as the individual songs go, my favorite song here is the folky “Un Regard Clair”, if only because of how great Catherine sings on this track. Listen to how she oscillates her voice back and forth, swaying between triumph and despair, as if all the passion swelling within her is about to break her down in tears. And kudos to whoever wrote that concise yet anthemic organ melody that correlates to her singing, as it pushes the piece’s emotional power a few inches further. 

So that’s the first side: Extremely solid. Had that side been released alone, I would have easily given this album an 8/10. But then comes the second side, completely comprised of a 25 minute suite, and from this point on my opinion on the album becomes distorted. Basically, this isn’t so much a song as it is a long-winded poem spoken by Catherine, with the music providing the atmosphere and texture. Now see, it’s difficult for me to judge any of this because, well, I don’t speak French, so therefore I have no idea what the hell is going on. So this means I only have the music to focus on, and frankly, a lot of this is very grating. On one hand, I can admit Catherine really gives a fantastic performance on this track, injecting so much life and personality into the words that she speaks. When I focus on her voice, I find myself really enthralled by the track. On the other hand, the actual music here is very tedious, with no rhythm, structure, or logic to hold anything together. I guess it can be amusing at first, but the end result sounds like an ill-fated cover of The Doors’ “Celebration of the Lizard”. Perhaps once I major in French, I can appreciate this more… but for right now, ehhhh…

So in conclusion, flaws aside, I would say that while this isn’t the most likable album ever made, this is a perfectly enjoyable one if you pay close attention to Ribeiro’s voice, and disregard all of the other flaws surrounding the album. She is able to find all sorts of pitches, moods, and resonances to keep the music engaging. Once you have that in mind, everything else becomes very interesting, as she is able to lead you down this twisted, confused, yet sprawling and ambitious journey. But no matter what, this album is really not easy to swallow, so proceed with caution!

Melody: 2/5 
Resonance: 5/5
Diversity: 1/5 
Adequacy: 1/5
Originality: 3/5

Overall: 6/10

BURNING – Madrid (1978)

Review by: Alejandro Muñoz G
Album assigned by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

“En La Elipa nací y Ventas es mi reino, y para tu papá, nena, soy como un mal sueño.”

From the streets of La Elipa in post-francoist Spain came Burning, delivering ‘good old rock and roll’ to the madrileño public with their debut album. Lyrically, the album ranges from common rock and roll rebellion (“Sábado noche con mi chica voy a salir, cogeré el coche díselo a papa…”) to more local references (“Tendrás que sentir las caricias de Madrid sobre tu piel”) and slang (“voy hacerte un coco y chulearte la piba por el morro”).

Musically, we find piano driven rock and roll in ‘Rock’n’roll Mama’, a power ballad in ‘Lujuria’, and even an attempt at a multi-section epic in the closing track. There’s also some hints of glam rock here and there. However, for most of the songs, the main musical influence is clear, too clear: The Rolling Stones. Swap the singer for a Mick Jagger impersonator in some of these songs and you would easily end up with a Rolling Stones tribute band. All right, I’m probably exaggerating a bit, but not too much. In tracks like ‘Madrid’ or ‘Mientelas’ they channel the Stones’ sound and attitude in a very close way, at least instrumentally. In ‘Hey Nena’ they even imitate the background vocal “woo woo’s” of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.

That’s not to say this band just copies and does not deserve your attention. Burning’s debut may not be innovative, but it succeeds at its purpose. This band is really good at what they’re doing. They avoid the artificiality and dullness of sound of which many late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s attempts of recreating classic rock and roll and rhythm and blues suffer. These songs are fun and spirited and the album is completely enjoyable. The album is pretty consistent but if I’ll have to choose a highlight it would probably be the opening track with its catchy chorus: “Ah no, sin vivir en Madrid no lo entenderás”. I’ve never lived in Madrid and I may not fully understand what this men are singing about; but I believe their message is getting through pretty well anyway (and if it’s not, nevermind. This is good rock music).

THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH – Welcome to the Beautiful South (1989)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is one gloriously deceptive album, which after the first three listens I didn’t know how to approach – it sounded nice and cool-sounding but didn’t quite click with me… until on my fourth listen I finally paid closer attention to the lyrics. HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT. The lyrical dissonance here might be even more shocking than on Steely Dan’s records. This stuff is so gleefully dark, sarcastic and bitter – it features songs about murder, rape, backstabbing, hate, broken hearts and other beautiful things set to wonderfully poppy melodies and lush arrangements. Even quoting arguably the happiest Beatles’ song ‘She Loves You’ near the end of the epic ‘Love Is…’ comes off as a piece of deadpan humor rather than an actual positive emotion (especially when it turns into “I love me – yeah yeah yeah”). I won’t spoil you the rest of this wonderfully insidious album – let me only say that it features such lines as “That’s sweet – that conversation we had last week, when you gagged and bound me up to my seat” or “But he only knew his problem when he knocked her over, and when the rotting flesh began to stink”, set to catchy pop melodies! When vocalist Paul Heaton doesn’t sing disturbing songs about blood and women in walls (in a voice that sounds like a somewhat less depressed and more self-aware Morrissey), he engages himself in some social-political satire (‘Have You Ever Been Away’, ‘Oh Blackpool’), or creates some anti-love statements that are biting (‘Girlfriend’, ‘Love Is…’) or just incredibly sad (‘I’ll Sail This Ship Alone’). A very punky attitude, Paul – this is pop, but EDGY pop!

The music works just as well, of course – it could be described as catchy 80s jangle pop with a tinge of melancholy – Paul’s previous band, The Housemartins, immediately come to mind, as do The Smiths. This is enjoyable by all means.

So in the end it’s one of those cases when an album works in two ways: it can be enjoyed as a nice-sounding pop album with interesting melodies, great arrangements and production, as well as good playing and singing, or it can be seen as a collection of scathing, biting and malicious songs with quite a bit of dark and sarcastic humor. In any case – good stuff, fine album. 

DESTROYER – Kaputt (2011)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: Dinar Khayrutdinov

Kaputt by Destroyer can be nothing else than a metal album, right? Right, but I am sure by the time you have laid your eyes on the beautifully washed out indie cover with some really curly but understated in size cursive writing, you would have probably dismissed that option too. And to tell you honestly, I had to dismiss several other preconceptions in order to fully appreciate the album. Like it actually being current or the product of 20-year old hipsters who think calling themselves Destroyer is the ultimate joke. No, people, the person about to bare his inner world before you is actually a 43-old (a couple years less at the time of recording) Canadian guy with some wild curly hairdo going on.
But let’s look at the music. The sound is obviously retro, and tasteful, in the best traditions of 80s sophisti-pop and probably going slightly beyond. Critics have compared this work to the output of a lot of 80s artists, and I will allow myself to draw a parallel to the Blue Nile’s work as well, at least in terms of how the songs are built on and heavily rely on a driving steady rhythm, and unravel into beautiful soundscapes when the occasion calls for it. Most notable in this respect are the two longest tracks here – “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and the closer “Bay of Pigs”, which are entire immersive mini-movements unto themselves.
Well of course the singing is not similarly big and evocative, nor drenched in emotion (or melancholy) but this is probably just as well because I don’t think that sort of attitude will fly in our subdued, self-referential and self-deprecating 21st century. In fact, Mr. Daniel Bejar’s unconvinced mumbling may take some getting used to but once you do, you can appreciate how well it fits the mood and intention of the songs. It is at just the right level of understated, which is not always easy to pull off, and the occasional female vocals (of The Beautiful South’s Briana Corrigan persuasion) really make the whole affair memorable.

Largely the same goes for the lyrics, they go with the music better than they would stand on their own, and they are of the dense, somewhat ironic and theatrically mock-introspective variation. America gets mentioned a lot, and also the typically millennial fascination with underachievement (“I was poor in love. I was poor in wealth. // I was okay in everything else there was.”) and futility (“Winter, spring, summer and fall, // animals crawl towards death’s embrace.”) makes an appearance more often than not.
But it all goes together well, this fascination with retro sound, beautiful trumpet embellishments, random lyrical musings, and of course that steady pumping rhythm that will guide you along on your Kaputt journey. So if you like a more tasteful and sophisticated take on indie music and don’t mind Daniel Bejar’s monologued musings in front of the mirror (which are really okay for the most part and sometimes even verge on admirably well-crafted), put on this sophisti-pop record disguised as an indie record disguised as a metal record and immerse yourselves without fear.
I for one was also poor in love and poor in wealth but now I am richer in the sounds of Kaputt and this almost makes up for it 🙂