The Nanfang / Blog

The Spin Doctor – Dolorean, “The Unfazed”

Posted: 04/22/2011 7:43 am

Dolorean – The Unfazed

3.9 out of 5

Not to be confused with Spanish electro-pop band “Delorean”, or the infamous stainless steel paneled car of “Back To The Future” fame, Dolorean takes its name from “dolorous”, an adjective meaning grievous, or to cause pain. Considering the Portland, Oregon-based band craft songs of aching, introspective Americana in the vein of Joe Purdy and Richard Buckner, the name is rather apt. Over the last decade, Dolorean have quietly put together a respectable discography that culminated in 2007’s stellar You Can’t Win. Despite widespread critical acclaim and a lengthy European and North American tour, it failed to create the sort of commercial buzz the band (and, more notably, its label) hoped for. Rather than pack it in for good, the band went on a three-year hiatus, and parted ways with their former label before returning, with their fourth full-length album, The Unfazed. Despite lacking the raw, live approach of You Can’t Win, The Unfazed is a rewarding, more sonically diverse record than its predecessor.

Dolorean’s greatest strength remains singer/guitarist and principal songwriter, Al James. A poet in his pre-Dolorean life, James’ clean, almost whispered vocals are well matched for the band’s musical arrangements. Yet his greatest strength is his uncanny ability to combine understated yet striking melodies with impeccable lyricism. It’s this distinction that helps The Unfazed rise above typical folk/alt. country fare. Although there’s nothing particularly novel about a record recounting a relationship gone sour, James drops lines that go well beyond your run of the mill “you done me wrong”. Take the second track, “Country Clutter”, for example. The near syrupy melody and backing vocals, courtesy of Mara Lee Miller of Bosque Brown, are cut with lyrics that are anything but remorseful: “If you find anything I left behind, well you can have it. Let it clutter up your life, the way you cluttered up mine.” Even Robert Johnson rarely sounded so pissed off. And therein lies The Unfazed’s inherently contradictory sound. Although the music is wistful and the arrangements are rich, James’ lyrics feel like a sucker punch to the kidneys.

The Unfazed is a decidedly different beast to that of You Can’t Win. Though lacking the rawness found on the latter, (a by-product of its near live recording style), The Unfazed’s cleaner production has resulted in sharper arrangements. On the moody “Black Hills Gold”, the mid-tempo number is complemented with organ flourishes, fantastic drumming and some stellar electric guitar work. The same can be said for “Hard Working Dogs” where backing vocals, piano and fiddle perfectly flesh-out the mix: “Give-up this touch-up job” sings James, “there’s no way to make it pretty.” “Fools Gold Ring” contains some distressing observations on a broken relationship: “It’s just a fools coin toss”, says James. Things don’t get much better by the chorus. Juxtaposed with a dazzling pedal steel guitar line, James explains: “Even fools have needs” and “It’s just a fools gold ring.” The track is one of the more devastating moments on the record, both in its beauty and its lyrical directness.

It’s that aforementioned lyrical directness that makes The Unfazed such a pleasure to revisit. In the liner notes for You Can’t Win, James commented that the title’s philosophy had become something of a rallying cry for the band. It appears as if Dolorean have stuck with a similarly cathartic approach here. Though they may never attain the level of commercial success of some of their contemporaries, they’ve perfected a sound uniquely their own. If the worst thing that Dolorean does is to continue to churn out records as sublime as The Unfazed, I have a hunch they’ll be just fine.

- Ewan Christie



The Spin Doctor – The Weeknd, House of Balloons

Posted: 04/15/2011 8:39 am

The Weeknd – House of Balloons (self-released)

3.9 out of 5

The Weeknd (no, that’s not a typo), is the project of Toronto based R&B singer Abel Tesfaye. Up until a few months ago, The Weeknd were largely unknown; but, following a few leaked tracks in late 2010, a free mixtape titled House of Balloons that was released at the end of March, and twitter props by none other than Drake, the blogosphere exploded and House of Balloons started making the rounds. With such a hyped back-story, it’s difficult to separate the music from all of the online chatter. Disclaimers aside however, House of Balloons is an impressive debut release.

First impressions of House of Balloons start with the album cover. With floating balloons and font stylized like a Spiritualized record, the cover suggests the listener should get ready for a dance party. But then there’s that coy misspelling of “weekend” and the partially obscured naked body which hints at something much darker. Interestingly, both impressions are correct. House of Balloons is full of contradictions: huge club beats and classic R&B riffs, coupled with dark, grimy, often dubbed-out layers, distorted guitars, and impressive blown-out production courtesy of Doc McKinney and Illagelo. This is genre bending at its best. Just when you think you’re listening to a conventional R&B club track, the music transforms and all of a sudden you’re in dub-step and grime territory, or is it hip-hop, or is it minimalist techno? Underscoring the instrumental contradictions is Tesfaye’s vocals. Though his lush falsetto rather succinctly complements these nine tracks, his lyrical content is dark, drug addled, overtly sexual and highly explicit. This isn’t necessarily uncharted waters for the genre; sex and drugs have long contributed to the allure of R&B, but the message here is much more sinister, resulting in a somewhat voyeuristic listen.

The lead-off track, “High For This”, is every bit as suggestive as its title. Opening with a simple but effective looped synth line, distorted and flanged percussion, Tesfaye somewhat prophetically opens the record: “You don’t know what’s in store, but you know what you’re here for”. He’s right on both counts. When the beat finally drops it’s bigger and better than what you might expect, much like the drug induced sex romp Tesfaye promises to take the object of his affection on: “…trust me girl, you want to be high for this.” “What You Need”, takes a dubbed-out R&B beat and synth line, and then liberally borrows from the Burial playbook, fleshing-out the mix with vocals sounding like they were sung from the far end of a long hallway: “I’m the drug in your veins, just fight through the pain…he’s what you want, I’m what you need.” The trip feels a bit heavy by the end of the track but the vibe bounces back on “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls”. Dropping what is easily the biggest beat on the record, “House of Balloons” opens with a vocal sample and guitar riff from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1980 track “Happy House”. Slowing the original track down, it then adds a massive droning synth line, percussion and Tesfaye’s vocals. The bridge and chorus are equally rewarding, incorporating an additional piano line and lifting the vocals straight from the Banshees’ original track: “This is a happy house, we’re happy here in our happy house.”

Elsewhere, The Weeknd mix some truly beautiful music with some tragic lyrical imagery. Firstly on “The Morning”, which takes a killer blues guitar line and then drowns it in gorgeous, spacey production. Telling the story of drug fueled nights and call-girls, the insanely catchy chorus will stick with you for all of the right, and arguably, all of the wrong reasons: “All that money, the money is the motive, all that money the money she be foldin’, girl put in work, girl, girl put in work.” Though Beach House samples show-up twice on House of Balloons, it’s the use of “Gila” on “Loft Music” that’s most effective. I was initially taken with what I would call the “pretty” arrangement; that is, until I listened to the lyrics, which are so dirty that a Parental Advisory sticker seems grossly insufficient. If Charlie Sheen’s train-wreck of a “winning” lifestyle could be put to song, this would be it. The album ends on a high note with “The Knowing”. It has some of the best production on the record and though hardly uplifting lyrically, it’s arguably the most straight-ahead R&B track, and has a distorted guitar drenched chorus that leaves you wanting more.

It’s hard to believe that music this lush and well produced could be coupled with such lecherous lyrical content, and yet that’s precisely why it works. If Tesfaye didn’t actually write some of these tracks from a brothel while high on copious amounts of narcotics, he certainly had me fooled. It’s not often I can walk away from a record and have not only the beats stuck in my head but the accompanying lyrical imagery as well. House of Balloons plays like a Circus freak show (albeit with a glorious soundtrack), and though much of the imagery is no doubt disturbing, try as you might, you can’t look away.

- Ewan Christie


The Spin Doctor – Bill Callahan, Apocalypse

Posted: 04/8/2011 7:32 am

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

3.9 out of 5

Bill Callahan could very well be the greatest American singer-songwriter you’ve never heard of. Callahan fans would no doubt scoff at such a suggestion, particularly considering he has been releasing a steady stream of records since 1990 (including his work recorded under the band name Smog, Apocalypse is Callahan’s 15th LP). That said, Callahan’s work has never really cracked the mainstream, and I’m always surprised at the number of singer-songwriter aficionados unaware of his extensive catalogue. If you happen to be among them, you too may soon be singing his praises.

There’s something immediately striking about Callahan’s style. Part classic rock, part folk, part alt-country; his songs are often void of the traditional verse-chorus structure, opting instead for simple, repetitive chord progressions and fantastic lyrical phrasing. Most striking is his baritone voice. Though somewhat lacking in range, his delivery is direct and void of any reverb or other vocal effects. Listening to a Callahan record often feels like he’s sitting in your living room, telling you a story: every word is clearly articulated, and every lyric conjures vivid imagery.

As Paul Ryan’s cover art suggests, Apocalypse is a record about the American West (the painting is titled “Apocalypse at Mule Ears Peak, Big Bend National Park in West Texas”). As I was listening to Apocalypse’s seven songs, I couldn’t help but think they would have provided the perfect soundtrack to the Coen Brother’s recent screen adaptation of Charles Portis’ True Grit. Both are commentary on America’s Manifest Destiny, the Western Frontier, and of a country for better (and often for worse), in transition. Moreover, like True Grit, Apocalypse is subtle and slowly paced, yet interspersed with moments of loud violence, which is indicative of the very landscape and period it describes. The intention is apparent in the opening chords of lead-off track “The Drover”: “The real people went away” sings Callahan, accompanied by acoustic guitar, percussion and an electric guitar twang straight out of a Sergio Leone film. “One thing about this wild, wild country” sings Callahan in the chorus: “It takes a strong, strong, it breaks a strong, strong mind. And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.”

“Baby’s Breath” is a beautiful slow burner, telling the story of a man who finds a plot of land and a bride to share it with. The track constantly shifts tempo and gradually builds to a wonderful climax, courtesy of Matt Kinsey’s fantastic electric guitar accompaniment. The mood quickly changes for third track “America!”, the one jarring and divisive moment on an otherwise concise record. At times unabashedly sarcastic: “America, you are so grand and golden”, the track goes on to reference some of America’s more abhorrent acts of cultural imperialism; including Vietnam, Iran and Native America. As the country’s military representatives, Callahan cites some of his songwriting heroes by their actual rank and respective branches of the military: “Captain Kristofferson, Buck Sergeant Newbury, Leatherneck Jones, Sergeant Cash”. However, in the midst of all the military jingoism, he takes time to clarify that he himself never served his country. By the end of its 5:33 running time, if the wry, sarcasm of “America!” hasn’t caught your ear, the thumping kick drum and screaming, distorted electric guitar certainly will.

Callahan gives you a moment to relax again with “Universal Applicant” before dishing out what has to be the most beautiful moment on the record, “Riding for the Feeling.” Here the harshness of “America!” is replaced with soft brushes, melodic and understated electric guitar, and Jonathan Meiburg’s Wurlitzer. The album closes with “One Fine Morning”, a simple two-chord ballad that despite an almost nine minute running time never loses its trajectory. The track has a wonderful warmth and off-the cuff nature to it: “Yeah one fine morning, yeah it’s all coming back to me now. My apocalypse.” It’s a solid closer to a solid record.

Though much of Smog’s earlier work was often characterized as “lo-fi”, Callahan’s solo records are expertly produced, and Apocalypse is no exception. His voice is upfront and personal, and there are no production tricks, or fancy effects in sight. It’s refreshing to listen to a record where all of its collective parts are readily accessible and perfectly complementary. Gordon Butler’s fiddle, the percussion, pianos, and guitars are all clearly discernable, yet never compromise Callahan’s lyrical directness. For an artist who has been releasing music for over twenty years, the quality of Callahan’s catalogue is impeccably consistent, and one that any songwriter would be envious of. If you feel like stepping back in time, and traversing through an older, more rustic America, then Apocalypse is your record. Just don’t be surprised if you become a Bill Callahan fan in the process.

- Ewan Christie


The Spin Doctor – Colin Stetson, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

Posted: 03/25/2011 8:14 am

Colin Stetson – “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges”

4.3 out of 5

Perhaps the greatest complement one could pay Montreal based saxophonist, Colin Stetson, is that he doesn’t fit neatly into any one box. Although the saxophone is Stetson’s main axe, he also plays clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, flute and cornet, which effectively makes him a one-man army. With such an arsenal, listeners may be quick to peg him as a Jazz artist. Yet to call New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, a Jazz record, would be to unfairly deny the scope and originality of Stetson’s incredible compositions.

I had the privilege of watching Stetson play a few years ago when he opened for The National at the tail end of their Boxer tour. Walking onstage with nothing more than a saxophone, (no pedals or effects of any kind), Stetson proceeded to blow the roof off the venue with a blistering 30 minute set that left me dumbfounded as to how so much sound could be created by a single human being. That he was opening for The National also spoke to Stetson’s artistic range and the impressive list of musicians who have taken to his sound. In addition to The National, Stetson has worked with Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Tom Waits, Bon Iver, David Byrne, and TV on the Radio, just to name a few.

What’s so fantastic about Judges is that it defies traditional notions of what a single artist with a single instrument is capable of. Recorded solo, with no overdubs or looping, Stetson’s compositions hinge on his virtuosic technique and unique mic positioning. Impeccably produced by Shahzad Ismaily, and engineered by Efrim Menuck, Judges was recorded with no less than 24 microphones. Though it may sound extreme, the mic placement creates a breadth of sound, depth and tone that results in the illusion that there are three or four musicians, when it is actually only Stetson. Take the title track for example: “Judges” opens with droning bass sax (mics embedded in the horn), percussion (mics placed around the keys of the horn), and everything in between (mics placed on Stetson’s neck and at varying positions around the room).

Then there’s Stetson’s technique: a combination of circular breathing, which allows him to play continuously without coming up for air, tongue slapping, and multi-phonics. The result is that Stetson is able to incorporate a percussive effect and cyclical phrasing while literally singing through the saxophone. It’s this vocalizing that creates a counterpoint in the melody that is nothing short of astounding. Though he’s not the first sax player to utilize the technique (the late, Eddie Harris for example used it to similar effect), Stetson vocalizes without any additional instrumentation. This stripped approach and clever miking gives the compositions an organic quality; at times feeling as if you’re listening from inside the saxophone, exposed to all of the mechanics, wails, cuts and bruises the instrument has to offer. Elsewhere on the record, it feels as if you’re listening to Stetson play in the back row of an empty theatre, with the notes bouncing off the walls and reverberating throughout the hall.

With all of the technical wizardry, Judges could very easily have been a masturbatory exercise. But Stetson wisely switches things up just enough to keep the listener engaged from cover to cover. On several tracks, for example, experimental performance artist and musician, Laurie Anderson contributes spoken word. The effect is reminiscent of Tilda Swinton’s turn in Max Richter’s excellent record, The Blue Notebooks, and it helps to establish a narrative, which ties the record together. Then My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden contributes vocals to the gorgeous cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes”. Pushed to the back of the mix, Stetson’s subtle accompaniment complements Worden’s vocals perfectly, resulting in a haunting rendition of the blues classic.

Stetson’s Judges will no doubt be mentioned alongside more avant-garde artists such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and though the comparisons are warranted, Judges possesses a level of accessibility Glass and Reich’s more challenging works lack. Stetson pushes the boundaries of what a saxophone is capable of, and thanks in large part to his sense of melody and rhythm, the only thing you need to bring to the table when listening to Judges is an open mind… and perhaps a drink.

- Ewan Christie


The Spin Doctor – Toro Y Moi, Underneath The Pine

Posted: 03/18/2011 5:58 am

And now for something completely different! It has been a cold trudge through the past few weeks of winter, and in some respects, the records reviewed here on The Spin Doctor have reflected that sentiment. Though we’ve had some great releases, most notably PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake and Wye Oak’s Civilian, as we move closer to spring, it’s important to have some music to help dust-off the cobwebs and get you out of hibernation. With that in mind, The Spin Doctor offers a record that’s accessible, warm, and most importantly, grooves.


Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine

3.9 out of 5

Ask any successful artist which record in their discography was the most challenging to write and record, and the answer will no doubt be the same: the sophomore release. After spending what is often years cultivating the ideas and sounds that result in a debut Lp, there is a new-found pressure on the artist for the follow-up: time and economic pressure applied by their record label, pressure from the fans and critics who fall in love with them, and, finally, the pressure the artists place upon themselves to meet and exceed the quality of their debut. It’s a formidable task, and one that the majority of artists never quite live up to.

Toro Y Moi is the brainchild of 25 year-old South Carolina native, Chazwick Bundick; a multi-instrumentalist who released a string of Ep’s leading up to his 2010 debut Lp, Causers of This. With obvious similarities between Bundick’s work and artists such as Washed Out, Neon Indian, and Memory Tapes, Toro Y Moi was thrust into the musical genre known as “chillwave”. What makes Underneath the Pine such an impressive follow-up is that not only has Bundick avoided the sophomore slump, he’s moved beyond the artistic constraints the unfortunate chillwave moniker denotes. With flavours of electro-funk, 70’s jazz fusion, and French electronica, Underneath the Pine is one of those records you can reach for when your friend/loved one gives you that vaguest of vague musical requests: “Play something upbeat.”

Lead-off track “Chi Chi”, plays as the introductory warm-up. At a brief 2 minutes and 25 seconds, it sets the stage for what’s to come: organ drones, tambourine, piano, drum treatments, shakers, vocals and a sweet bass riff. So much warmth pours off the track it feels like sitting on a beach watching the sunrise, and just as you’re starting to wonder what’s going to happen next, it’s over. That’s largely because Bundick has funkier fish to fry. “New Beat” has a Rhodes piano line reminiscent of Headhunters era Herbie Hancock, killer upright bass, and hand claps. Aside from being one of the standout tracks on the record, “New Beat” is a showpiece for Bundick’s production skills, which are impressive, indeed. There’s a lot going on in the mix, yet everything flows seamlessly and leaves a lot to explore on successive listens. Speaking of production skills, the arrangement for “Go With You” is something to behold. The off-beat/on-beat fusion of the organ, bass and drums in the opening few bars is stellar, as is the understated guitar work throughout the track.

The record meanders a bit through it’s mid-section, opting more for lush dreamscapes and elaborate arrangements, rather than straight ahead electro-funk. “Before I’m Done”, for example, reminds you of how elegant Air sounded back in their Moon Safari days, while showcasing what Bundick can do with acoustic guitars and live drumming. Things pick-up again towards the end: “Still Sound” plays like the b-side to “New Beat”, with an equally killer bass line, and jazz fusion influences, while album closer “Elise” pulls it all together, bringing a tightly wound, and brisk 39 minute record to its close.

For an artist with so many tools in his toolbox, Underneath the Pine could very easily have resulted in an exercise in excess; but, Bundick never really overextends himself, most notably with his voice. Similar in tone to Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox, Bundick’s vocals help root the record while never compromising the impact of the live instrumentation, which, make no mistake, is the intended focal point. Rather than rely on samples, and synths, the live drumming, organs and guitars bring an organic richness, warmth and dare I say, soul to the record. They also suggest that Bundick still has a lot of growing to do and isn’t content simply exploiting the comfortable ground the chillwave movement has established. In the meantime, Underneath the Pine is a fantastic record to kick-off your spring; or at the very least, incentive to grab those old Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder records growing dust in your music library.

- Ewan Christie


The Spin Doctor – Wye Oak, Civilian

Posted: 03/11/2011 9:34 am

Wye Oak – “Civilian” (Merge Records)

4.3 out of 5

Wye Oak’s Civilian conjures the sort of adjectives music reviewers love to employ: lush, majestic, and grandiose, just to name a few. What makes Wye Oak such a compelling act is that those adjectives are compulsorily juxtaposed with: noisy, jarring, and Crazy Horse. Granted, Crazy Horse isn’t an adjective but we’ll get to that.

Named after Maryland’s former state tree, Baltimore’s Wye Oak is vocalist/guitarist, Jenn Wasner and multi-instrumentalist, Andy Stack. Following the promise of their 2007 self-released debut, If Children, they signed with Merge Records who re-released the album in 2008. Unfortunately their follow-up, 2009’s The Knot, failed to build-on the beautiful folk/rock, shoegaze-like dreamscapes their debut so effectively utilized. Although the tracks were ambitiously larger in scope (and certainly louder), it was at the expense of some of the subtleties that made If Children so appealing. Civilian, however, gets the balance just right.

Speaking of balance, this is the first record where the band has handed mixing duties over to someone else; hiring John Congleton who has worked with such notable acts as Modest Mouse, St. Vincent and Okkervil River. In a recent interview, Jenn Wasner called passing the reins to Congleton, “A leap of faith”, and from the opening track onward, it’s a leap that has paid-off. Despite being a duo, there’s nothing small about Wye Oak (that was a little arborist pun). During their live shows, for example, while Wasner lays out vocals and guitar, Andy Stack sings background vocals, plays drums with one hand and his feet, and uses his other hand to play keyboards. Some may call this multi-tasking; I call it being a superhero. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on and, by bringing the percussion up in the mix as well as fleshing-out some of the mid range guitar work, Congleton has helped Wye Oak realize a fantastic sound.

Album opener “Two Small Deaths” is a beautiful blend of synth washes, hi-hat, layered guitars and Wasner’s smoky, mid-range vocals. The track picks-up much where Beach House’s Teen Dream left off. The same can be said for the “The Alter”, with its mid-tempo rhythm and simple, yet plodding synth line. Wye Oak, however, is not Beach House, nor is it content with mimicry. In case there was any doubt, Wasner and Stack drop an anvil on your head with the third track “Holy Holy”. Opening with enough shoegaze oomph to wake-up Kevin Shields, Wasner’s distorted guitars and Stack’s mallet whacking (apparently simple drumsticks aren’t hard enough), give way to Wasner’s vocals.

That leads into the title track and album centerpiece. Sequenced in the middle of the record, “Civilian” is the meat to the rest of the record’s potatoes. The opening verse is a stunning blend of shimmering guitar, tambourine/kick drum and organ. By the third verse the track explodes into a wall of sound courtesy of Stack’s mallets. Just when you think the duo can’t squeeze any further noise out of the mix, the coda arrives and somewhere, somehow Neil Young & Crazy Horse are green with envy.

Wye Oak wisely strip things back in the latter half of the record but not too much. “We Were Wealth” opens with one of the prettiest melodies on the record, possessing an almost ghostly quality. It’s here that Wye Oak’s folk influences really show. Reminiscent of British folk hero Sandy Denny, Wasner’s vocals fill more space in the mix than most vocalists could ever hope for, while the track pushes to a dazzling climax.

Wasner and Stack deserve credit for the sheer ambition of Civilian. The two possess more than enough musical talent to record an endless number of accessible, dreamy pop tracks and yet they have opted for the road less traveled, interspersing beauty with clattering shoegaze and noise rock. This no doubt will compromise their ability to reach a broader audience, however it is a true credit to their dedication to making music that isn’t readily digestible but always gets under your skin. You may not be able to stomach all of Civilian in a single sitting, but rest assured it’s worth the effort.

- Ewan Christie

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The Spin Doctor – Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean

Posted: 02/18/2011 12:26 am

Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
3.8 out of 5

Sam Beam, better known as Iron & Wine, has two main camps of fans: the first are those who fell in love with the whispery, soft lullabies of his first two Lps, The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days consisting of little more than acoustic guitar and Beam’s beautiful, hushed vocals. The latter camp side with the fuller, rich production, and backing band affairs of The Shepherd’s Dog and Beam’s collaboration with Calexico, In the Reins Ep.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must concede I have always been firmly in the first camp. After watching Beam perform with his band just prior to the release of 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog, I couldn’t quite grasp why a songwriter who could have audience members eating out of the palm of his hand with little more than his voice and an acoustic guitar would invest in a 7-8 piece backing band to reinterpret songs that clearly were not in need of reinterpretation. It was a frustrating affair and somewhat exemplary of the age-old musical mantra “less is more”.

Thus it was with a certain apprehension that I made my way through Iron & Wine’s most recent effort, Kiss Each Other Clean. Would Beam move to an even bigger sound or would he instead appease the fans of his earlier releases? Well, the answer is that he has picked-up much where he left off with The Shepherd’s Dog. However I’m happy to report that’s not entirely a bad thing.

Lead track Walking Far From Home blends both worlds of Beam’s sound in a way I haven’t heard since the Woman King Ep. The gorgeous hymn opens with a layered and slightly processed vocal from Beam accompanied by a distorted organ sustaining a few simple chords: “I was walking far from home, where the names were not burned along the wall. Saw a building high as heaven but the door was so small, door was so small.” Despite the big, bold production, which includes organ, piano, xylophone, percussion, and backing vocals, the track retains the simplicity of the verse-verse styling’s Beam executed so well on his earlier releases.

Beam wastes no time however in switching things up. Me and Lazarus enters with a synth drone, a variety of percussion and bass before introducing acoustic guitar, saxophone and what sounds like a pan flute. It’s a bold choice and clearly an attempt to push the constraints of what an Iron & Wine record can or should be. The problem is it doesn’t exactly work. The sax acts more as a distraction than contributing anything authentic to the melody. This is also the case with Big Burned Hand which is best described as overkill. One part jazz, one part funk, Beam’s vocals get lost in the mix and the arrangement simply doesn’t go anywhere.

Then you get to Monkeys Uptown and everything falls into place. Beam has become a master of multi-tracking his vocals and here the process works to gorgeous effect. Likewise, all of the instrumental additions fall seamlessly into the mix. This effect is executed with even greater results on album standout Rabbit Will Run. While a distorted, electric organ attempts to tear a hole through the middle of the mix, Beam sings: “We bricked up the garden and oh what it means, and we’ve all kissed a virgin as if she were clean, and I still have a prayer despite all the colours I’ve seen.” It’s a stunning moment and a true illustration of how far Beam’s songwriting has come since The Creek Drank The Cradle.

What I found most impressive about Kiss Each Other Clean is the evolution of Beam’s vocal. Where he previously sang in little more than a whisper, here he has a tendency to swing for the rafters and is all the better for doing so. His vocal at the conclusion of the epic Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me, which is divided into two distinct parts, plays like a protest song: “Become the bandage and the blade, we will become, become. Become the word and the breath, we will become, become.” Beam sings like his life depends on it and as a result, it resonates in a way it never has before.

Despite a clear step forward in Beam’s songwriting I would be lying if I said I’ve been converted to that second camp. I will concede however that I’m now excited to see where he might go next and that’s more than reason enough to continue to explore the nuances of Kiss Each Other Clean for another week… or maybe two.

- Ewan Christie


The Spin Doctor – Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde

Posted: 02/11/2011 4:24 am

Smith Westerns – Dye It Blonde 3.2 out of 5

Smith Westerns’ Dye It Blonde is all about managing expectation and seeing it for what it is: a decent fuzzed-out, glam-rock record with some interesting synth moments; nothing more, nothing less. Yet, this young band from Chicago have sent critic’s hearts a flutter: a best new album award from Pitchfork, a 9 out of 10 from Spin and numerous other critical accolades. So what am I missing?

Smith Westerns released their self-titled debut in June of 2009, while they were still in high school. Recorded primarily in guitarist Max Kakacek’s basement, it was a rough, lo-fi affair (they tracked their seven-inch using the built-in microphone on their digital four-track), yet despite the rawness of the record it worked and caught the ear of Fat Possum Records who signed the band in the spring of 2010. Fast-forward to 2011 and their follow-up, Dye It Blonde, cut in a real studio, with a real producer, is quite a departure from their raw debut.

Dye It Blonde was produced by Chris Coady, who produced Beach House’s Teen Dream, one of my favourite records of 2010. However, where the dreamy atmospherics worked effortlessly on Teen Dream, here they get lost in the ether. This is largely a result of frontman Cullen Omori’s voice. Though layered/multi-tracked, and clearly produced to float effortlessly over the mix, it’s void of any punch. Thus highlighting the real issue with Dye It Blonde: as undeniably catchy as some of these songs are, there’s strangely a lack of substance. On the majority of the tracks the drums and bass are so far back in the mix as to be rendered negligible. Meanwhile, Kakacek’s guitar work, though fantastic on tracks such as Imagine Pt. 3, and Fallen In Love, often sounds more processed than authentically fuzzy. That said, when it works it works. Standout track Still New gets it all right: “I want to tell you, you’re hard to resist…” Omori croons while Kakacek drops a shimmering guitar line. On Only One, Kakacek plucks a jangly guitar figure that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an old Byrds record before exploding into a gorgeous coda.

Thus I find myself back where I began: attempting to manage expectation. Dye It Blonde is a decent record, but not a great record, which hardly seems like an insult considering how young the band is. Smith Westerns are clearly a band still finding their sound, and I suspect that a record or two down the road they may actually be worthy of the critical accolades. Until then, easy with the Bowie references.

- Ewan Christie


The Spin Doctor – Destroyer, “Kaputt”

Posted: 02/3/2011 10:35 pm

Destroyer – “Kaputt” (Merge Records)

4.3 out of 5

First things first: Dan Bejar, frontman of Destroyer, can’t sing. Bejar’s cadence and delivery is more akin to jazz scatting than actual singing. I say this because Bejar’s voice has detracted many a potential fan before they have had an opportunity to explore Destroyer’s greater attributes, of which there are many. Whatever Bejar may lack in vocal virtuosity he more than makes up for with lyrical hilarity, witty sarcasm, and some pretty awesome musical arrangements.

Following 2008’s overblown and underwhelming full length “Trouble in Dreams”, Destroyer have done a 360 and crafted a record full of horns, sax, synths, spacey ambience, guitars and, ahem… jazz flute. Despite the cornucopia of instrumentation, Kaputt is Destroyer’s leanest effort in years. Opening track and first single, “Chinatown” is arguably the most accessible pop song Bejar has ever written. With it’s mid-tempo swing, gorgeous backing vocals, brass, and synth treatments, the track wouldn’t sound out of place on an old Roxy Music record circa 1982.

Speaking of Roxy Music, that theme of easy listening, jazz-light, soft rock is all over this record, and although it could/should have gone perilously wrong, it somehow works. This can largely be attributed to Bejar’s stellar lyricism. On “Savage Night At The Opera”, interspersed with a solid bass line, and scatting “ba, da, da, dum, da da, dum’s”, Bejar croons: “A savage night at the opera, another savage night at the club, let’s face it, old souls like us have been born to die, it’s not a war till someone loses an eye.” Elsewhere on “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”, before proceeding to a gorgeous jazzy outro full of delayed, reverberated saxophones and trumpets, Bejar drops: “Enter through the exit, and exit through the entrance when you can, I’ve seen you consort with your invisible man-hole”. These are the sort of lines that go straight over your head on the first few listens yet really reward those listeners who stick it out for a few extra spins.

What is perhaps most impressive about Kaputt is how linear and structured it plays from cover to cover. Gone are the meandering verses typically associated with Destroyer’s work. Only the epic, closer “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” from the 2009 Ep of the same name feels out of place. At over eleven minutes, it definitely draws out the ending of a great record. Yet this fact doesn’t appear to be lost on Bejar who after a minute and a half of a spacey, ambient intro comes in with: “Listen, I’ve been drinking, as our house lies in ruin, I don’t know what I’m doing… alone… in the dark…” It’s as if Bejar’s attempting to somehow excuse the sheer volume of the track. That said, I couldn’t really blame him for its inclusion; it’s a fantastic song of space disco (yes… space disco), and deserves the broader exposure the Lp will undoubtedly bring it.

Bejar has always been a divisive force among indie fans; his voice, his delivery, his often nonsensical lyrics are if anything, an acquired taste. With Kaputt however, Destroyer have crafted a record that is not only beautiful and easy to listen to, it stands on its own two feet, with or without that peculiar voice front and center. Kaputt is a record you could play at a dinner party, dance to, or; as in Bejar’s case, after you’ve been drinking… and you don’t know what you’re doing… alone…in the dark…

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here

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