DÂM-FUNK – Invite the Light (2015)

Review by: Ed Luo
Album assigned by: Markus Pilskog

Retro 80’s funk/R&B – it’s pretty fun, but kinda cheesy for me and it’s looooooong, at least for my current semi-fatigued state. The only tracks I can recall at the moment is “The Hunt & Murder of Lucifer” for the fuzzy bassline and “Missin’ U” for the flutes in the background. But yeah, good album if you’re endeared to this sort of 80’s funk aesthetic.

Oh yeah, Q-Tip, Ariel Pink, and Snoop Dogg guest star on a few track, that’s pretty fun too.

PAT METHENY GROUP – Still Life (Talking) (1987)

Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Lex Alfonso

Pat Metheny Group started out in the late 70s as a vehicle for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny to play in a more typical band setting and have a more regular band unit, with keyboardist Lyle Mears as the main sideman. While Pat Metheny does have his roots in the 70s jazz fusion scene, he quickly left, and on this album the band uses influences from Brazilian music (samba and folk music) as well as pop, rather than rock. This is highligted with the inclusion of the Brazilian musician Armando Marçal, who is featured on percussion and background vocals.

What becomes quickly evident when listening to this record is that it’s not a particularly difficult album to listen to, as long as you’re OK with music that don’t contain any lyrics. ”Minuano” opens the record with some dreamy synths and wordless vocals from Marçal, and it takes almost three minutes before Pat Metheny enters the arena. However, he quickly establishes a quite melodic and catchy theme that fit well with the Brazilian percussion and general feel of the song.

The rest of the record doesn’t stray too far away from this intial sound, though the songs do retain a distinct character, with some being more rhythmic and up-beat and others being more low-key and atmospheric. While some of the melodies and the atmosphere in general may feel slightly cheesy at times and somewhat dated, this never becomes more than a minor nuisance. This remains a jazz album that is quite accessible, while at the same time having its distinct character that separates it from quite many other records. This album should be enjoyed both by people that aren’t very familiar with jazz, as well as most jazz enthusiasts (perhaps with the exception of some purists). 

LOREENA MCKENNITT – A Midwinter Night’s Dream (2008)

Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Red Heylin

Loreena McKennitt is a name I have seen around a few times on the internet, though have never been exposed to her music, and were therefore quite surprised to see that she had sold more than 14 million records.  I initially believed that she was a new age artist in the vein of Enya, after having heard this album, she seems much closer to traditional folk music, though with a heavy leaning on the Celtic type, but with some other elements as well. My exposition to celtic folk music is not large (mostly some crossover like Mike Oldfield and Alan Stivell), though the style feels quite familiar anyway.

While this album was released in 2008, five of the songs were included in the 1995 EP “A Winter Garden: Five Songs for the Season”. Most of the songs seem to be traditional Christmas carols or songs about winter of British or Irish origin, though a few of the songs have newly composed music by McKennitt herself. Coming from a slightly different Christmas tradition, most of these carols are new for me, which is only a positive.

The album, while based on various folk genres are musically quite varied. While the opener “The Holly and the Ivy” is almost completely dominated by McKennitt’s beautiful and mournful voice, only backed by a some drony strings, it is followed up by a joyful instrumental number that seems to be made for some village dance. Songs like Noel Nouvelet and God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen reminds us were Jesus was born after all, with its Middle Eastern vibe (reminds me a bit of Sufi music, though that may be a case of limited exposure).

While the centerpiece of the music is McKennitt’s quite expressive and resonant voice, the instrumental arrangements (completely acoustic) are well done and generally fit the various styles. The harp (done by McKennitt herself) is quite prominent, though we also hear a hurdy-gurdy on “Seeds of Love” and the strings are varied between synthesizer-like coating and taking the lead and on the aforementioned “Sufi-songs”, the percussion is put more to the forefront.

While I find it difficult to talk much about the songs in particular, the album is generally enjoyable, the songs are done quite tastefully and parts of the album are downright beautiful. It helps that the songs haven’t been played to death during this December, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered listening to this outside the season, but it’s a Christmas album that I would consider playing next Christmas instead of the usual suspects others put on, and that’s really the best compliment such an album could get. 

MORPHINE – Good (1992)

Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Jared Walske

Morphine came out of the alternative rock explosion of the early ‘90s, though they didn’t really sound like much else from that period. A power trio with saxophones instead of guitar, they shared some of the darkness and rawness of those bands but infused it with elements of jazz, blues and funk to create something that was quite unique.

The lineup in this debut consist of leader and main songwriter Mark Sandman on vocals, (a quite prominent) bass and some other instruments, Dana Colley on various saxophones and Jerome Deupree on percussion (joined on some tracks by Billy Conway). This lineup would last until Sandman died of a heart attack during a show in Italy (!). What is immediately noticeable is that the musicianship on this album is a lot higher than on your average alternative rock album, while at the same time being somewhat restrained (there isn’t really much solos here at all with the exceptions of some sax solos which are never overdone). However, the album is filled with slightly complex, but groovy and catchy bass lines, and rather varied drumming (sounds quite jazzy and varies a lot with the technique and use of drums, though my drum knowledge is limited). The saxophones replace the role of the guitar, coming with quite a lot of cool riffs or complementing the vocal melody (Do Not Go Quietly Unto Your Grave).

The band is really tight, and the music is surprisingly groovy, which together with the jazziness and the oily vocals makes the whole thing sounds damn cool (this album in general is great to show your friends how cool you are) and sexy (something that cannot be said for much other alternative rock). The songs doesn’t really grab you immediately, and on the first listen it is mostly the cool atmosphere and sound that carries you through, though on repeated listenings you discover all those small cool melodies (The Saddest Song is probably the best song melodically), riffs and subtle choruses. Still, it cannot be avoided that the album has a tendency to sound quite samey after a while. The vocals aren’t that varied, and however much they try, the combination of sax and bass runs a bit stagnant by the end. When you listen more closely, you see that the compositions are quite different, but when you’re finished with the album, you still get the feeling that the songs themselves are a somewhat hazy memory (which may have been the idea of the band, as the album sounds quite “hazy” itself). Their intelligent use of dynamics and tension make the album more interesting to listen to, and as long as you like their sound, there is no reason to neglect the album for the sake of diversity, but at least it shows a possibility for improvement (I listened to Cure for Pain some years ago, though I don’t remember how it sounded compared to this).

One of the things in music I really respect is whether the performers manage to realize their vision, and it seems that Morphine have managed precisely that. They have developed a quite unique sound that is engaging throughout the album, and both the songs and skills are good enough to make you keep returning to record, though its drawbacks also make you want to explore the band further. 

EMIKA – Drei (2015)

Review by: Tristan Peterson
Album assigned by: Markus Pilskog

FFO: Sufjan Stevens, Blank Banshee, Deadmau5, Autechre

Emika is an English classical and electronic musician, with Czech heritage, by way of Berlin, Germany.  On this album, Drei, she delivers extremely cold, slightly glitchy textures (mostly Moog created) and beats, but with poppy melodies to carry the songs through.

The glaring issue, which becomes apparent by the second track, is that these songs don’t NEED pop elements and hooks to them.  The foundation she created, especially her glitched-out vocal samples, are strong enough to where her rather generic and monotone timbre detracts from what’s going on in the background.  Now, this isn’t the case with all the songs, but it does happen on most of them.

Like I said earlier, it does have a lot of plusses.  The Moog textures and beats have a very cold, almost paranoid quality to them, and the way she also treats some of her chopped up vocal samples only adds to the atmosphere that she creates behind herself.

Overall the record is rather enjoyable for what it is, though certainly not the best thing in the world. That being said, whoever happens to be reading this should give it a listen.

RATING: 7/10
FAVORITE TRACK: Miracles (Prelude) 


Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Pip Poodlez

Though I am somewhat aware that it exists as a cultural phenomenon, I have never really dealt much with steampunk as a scene, and wasn’t even aware it had a musical section as well. Therefore, I had few ideas on how Steam Powered Giraffe might sound prior to listening (Victorian-era style industrial?) except that I guessed (correctly) it would be some quite theatrical stuff. The band is made up of 3 members from San Diego who met while studying Theatre Arts (obviously), starting out as a pantomime act(!) and centered around the core of the Bennett twins. They dress up as three robotic characters called The Spine, Rabbit and Hatchworth, and the lyrics seem to revolve around these robots’ daily adventures and the world the band has constructed around them (including the titular giraffe). Apparently, the band has made a web comic about these robots as well, so for anyone interested; I guess it’s freely available.

In the time-honored tradition of Sgt. Pepper, the album starts by welcoming you to the show and introducing the band, before closing the show right before the end. What lies between, however is mostly folksy music with a lot of different instruments (guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and accordion), giving you that good old 19th century feeling. To the band’s credit, they manage to make the album quite diverse, both stylistically (country, old-time pop, cabaret, and mostly folk styles I don’t know the name of) in tempo and structure (many songs change considerably during its runtime) which suits the theatrical style of the album quite well. The instrumental arrangements are done quite well, with the varied use of instruments and small details helping to give the feel that the band is looking for. At many points while listening to the album, I found myself smiling because of the cheerful nature of many of the songs and the whimsical lyrics. The album is never hilariously funny, but a song like “Ice Cream Parade”, with a brilliant change halfway through the song, is quite entertaining. Also, a song like “Electricity is in My Soul” showcases a smart use of sounds, containing one of the better uses of a talk box I have heard in some time.

One of the areas that the band is really excelling in is vocal harmonies. All of their members are accomplished vocalists, and though a bit theatrical on their own, the album is filled with great vocal harmonies. Especially “Brass Goggles” (one of the highlights) features a really cool a capella section which showcase their vocal talents to the fullest. However, what this track also showcases is something that is a bit lacking in the rest of the songs, namely catchiness (it has a cool drunken chorus) and general songwriting. Most of the songs sound like they should (thanks to both good arrangements and really good production), but the songs themselves are seldom very engaging after first listen. I don’t think the concept itself is a hindrance to this, and several of the songs seem to beg for some jolly crowd-participating singing, though this seldom happens. Few of the melodies are very memorable, which is a problem since the album never really tries to reach you on a larger spiritual level. While listening to this album, I was reminded of Katzenjammer (Norwegian band), who plays similar music (no steampunk and less theatrical though), but are generally more memorable and gripping.

In the end, what saves the album, and ultimately makes it somewhat satisfying, is the execution of the concept and style of the album, which is done very professionally, especially when considering that they weren’t particularly old at the time. They already show that they know how transitions in the songs can work out, and they manage to make you feel good when listening to the music, even though the album does not stay with you for a long while. They have most of the prerequisites for making a really good album, and even if they’re not there yet, I would still conclude that this is a worthwhile listen.