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The Spin Doctor – Bill Ryder-Jones, “If…”

Posted: 01/22/2012 10:31 pm

Bill Ryder-Jones, “If…” (Double Six Records)

4.0 out of 5

I’ve never read Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler but after listening to Bill Ryder-Jones’ debut LP If…, I’m certainly inclined to. Inspired by  the Italian avant-garde author’s 1979 novel, If… is Jones’ vision of what the text might sound like accompanied by music. Recorded with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at a friary in England, If… is a remarkably accessible blend of stark instrumental orchestration with just enough vocals to tie it all together; quite a departure from the 60’s psych-rock of the Liverpudlian’s work with his former band, The Coral.

Conjuring imagery of a grandiose European adventure, according to Jones, each composition encapsulates a chapter of Calvino’s text: The steamy small-town railway station in northern Italy depicted in the instrumental opener “If…”, onward to the opulent European city envisioned in “The Reader (Malbork)”, to a hospital along the coast in “Leaning (The Star of Sweden)”, and finally, reaching the album’s conclusion with “Some Absolute End (The End)”. What’s so rewarding about If… is how well the album plays regardless of your familiarity (or lack thereof) with the source material. While Jones’ inspiration is decidedly European, If… is malleable enough to work in whatever setting you might find yourself. Throw on a pair of headphones, head out your front door, and you’ll quickly realize that Jones’ beautiful string and piano arrangements are perfect fodder for walking the streets of any neighbourhood.

While there’s nothing very pop about If… it feels as much a pop record as a classical record. This is due in large part to Jones’ subdued vocal work on tracks such as “Le Grand Desordre”, and “Give Me A Name” where string arrangements built around an acoustic guitar or piano wouldn’t feel out of place on an Elliott Smith or Nick Drake record. “Enlace”, while being one of the more compelling moments on the record, is also the only moment that feels out of place. Some last bastion of Jones’ pysch-rock origins, the track somewhat awkwardly transitions halfway through from a simple piano measure and accompanying percussion to a breakout jam, complete with fuzzed-out electric guitar. “I don’t know what I was thinking here… it’s a bit silly really” said Jones describing “Enlace” in a recent interview. And while he’s absolutely right, it makes the guitars and crashing percussion no less enjoyable.

Although Jones has received no shortage of accolades in the UK, critics in North America and Asia have been slow to respond, which is a shame. If… is a wonderfully understated record, and truly unique both in its appropriation of a novel as soundtrack material, and as a genre bending blend of orchestral and vocal compositions. Much the way Colin Stetson made critics question the traditional parameters of a jazz record with last year’s excellent New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, Jones is challenging the conventions of what a classical soundtrack is and should be.

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – The Weeknd, “Echoes Of Silence”

Posted: 01/8/2012 12:40 am

The Weeknd, “Echoes Of Silence” (self-released)

3.5 out of 5

While starting the year off with a review of a mixtape that actually dropped in 2011 may seem counterintuitive, it certainly isn’t out of line. Toronto R&B artist Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a., The Weeknd was one of the big stories of 2011, with his self-released debut mixtape House Of Balloons shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and ending up on many critics’ year-end best of lists. Yet Tesfaye never intended Balloons to be a one-off and was, from the get-go, the first of a trilogy of free mixtapes that were to be released before the end of the year. True to his word, the follow-up, Thursday, dropped in August and, just when it looked like the final installment wouldn’t make it, Echoes Of Silence dropped in the final days of 2011.

Like any decent trilogy, it’s difficult to examine Echoes out of context. Thematically and lyrically the tape is closely tied to the blurry-eyed, sex-and-drug ridden narrative of Balloons and Thursday. But, despite being the closer, Echoes is without a doubt the darkest and most depraved chapter in the mix; far more Empire than Jedi. There’s no redemption to be found here and no happy ending: “I ain’t tryin’ to win your heart, and you can’t pay to win my love” Tesfaye sings on “Next”. It would appear the high highs of Balloons are now a distant memory. Even album closer, “Echoes of Silence”, the sparsest and most vulnerable Tesfaye has ever sounded, is dripping with morosity. Accompanied by little more than a piano, he brings it all to an abrupt close: “Don’t you leave my little life…” he sings. For a guy who has ascended the musical ranks faster than any artist in recent memory, Tesfaye sure makes the trip sound isolating.

Aside from Illangelo’s impeccable production and the disorientating (albeit ambitious) vocal modulations of “Initiation”, musically Echoes is the most straightforward dose of R&B to be found over the three mixtapes. And while there’s a sameness running from cover to cover, that’s kind of the point. We’re in bleak territory here, and Echoes is more about the comedown; the quiet hours after the after-party. Thankfully, the sameness is juxtaposed with some of the most ambitious vocal work Tesfaye has put to tape. For a 21-year old with three mixtapes under his belt, Tesfaye is starting to sing with the confidence of a hardened veteran. Opening the record with a cover of Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana (here titled “D.D”), should have gone horribly wrong but  Tesfaye’s delivery on the relatively straightforward cover is virtually unimpeachable.

While there’s nothing so revelatory here to encourage Tesfaye’s detractors to start drinking the kool-aid, there’s no denying the impressive arc that occurs from the opening notes of Balloons to the close of Echoes. That Tesfaye was able to accomplish all of this in the span of 10 months without a record label, marketing, interviews, or a tour, makes the feat all the more impressive. Not bad for an artist who technically has still yet to release his debut LP.

You can download all three mixtapes for free on The Weeknd’s website

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – Top 10 albums of 2011

Posted: 12/18/2011 11:11 am

Top 10 albums of 2011

Musically speaking, 2011 just might just go down as the year of the saxophone. Following almost two decades where the brassiest of brass was something of a pariah in popular music, the sax rose from the ashes of the 80′s rock dustbin this year. Regardless of your genre of choice, be it indie rock, folk, jazz, R&B, electro pop, etc., etc., the sax was there. This top 10 list is no exception, with the saxophone making a guest appearance on the majority of records on the list;  please don’t hold it against this reviewer. Included with each record is a link to the original album review for your reading pleasure as well as links to a few choice cuts to include in your best of playlist.

Thanks to all of the readers each week, and for all of your feedback and comments throughout the year. The Spin Doctor will return in 2012. Happy holidays one and all.

10. Other Lives – Tamer Animals

Choice Cuts: Tamer Animals, For 12, As I Lay My Head Down

9. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Choice Cuts: Riding For the Feeling, The Drover, America!

8. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Choice Cuts: The Shrine/An Argument, Helplessness Blues, Grown Ocean

7. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Choice Cuts: Midnight City, Intro (Featuring Zola Jesus), Wait

6. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

Choice Cuts: I Got A, Keep Me There, Space Is Only Noise If You Can See

5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Choice Cuts: The Words That Maketh Murder, The Last Living Rose, On Battleship Hill

4. Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

Choice Cuts: Judges, The righteous wrath of an honorable man, Fear of the unknown and The Blazing Sun

3. Destroyer – Kaputt

Choice Cuts: Chinatown, Savage Night at the Opera, Bay of Pigs (details)

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Choice Cuts: Holocene, Perth, Calgary

1. Wye Oak – Civilian

Choice Cuts: Civilian, Holy Holy, Two Small Deaths


The Spin Doctor – Top 20 tracks of 2011

Posted: 12/11/2011 6:06 am

Top 20 tracks of 2011

It’s been a fantastic year for music. With that in mind (and in no particular order), The Spin Doctor brings you the top 20 tracks of 2011. As any “best of” list is highly subjective, leave a comment, and let The Nanfang community know what your favourite songs of the year were.  Next week, we’ll run-down the top 10 albums of 2011. Without further ado…

1. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream” from the album James Blake

Following a run of successful EPs, James Blake finally dropped his self-titled debut to much fanfare and a Mercury Prize nomination. While for some, his songcraft has a long way to go, his unique blend of dubstep, Soul/R&B comes together magically on “The Wilhelm Scream”. Blake’s use of lyrical repetition, stripped percussion and layered vocals is stunning: “I don’t know about my dreams… I don’t know about my dreaming anymore. All that I know is that I’m falling, falling, falling, falling… might as well fall in.” You’ll fall too.

2. M83 – “Midnight City” from the album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

M83’s smash double LP (seriously, who releases double LP’s anymore?) has finally brought Anthony Gonzalez the mainstream success he so rightly deserves. While there’s much to appreciate on Hurry Up… (see “Intro” featuring Zola Jesus, “Steve McQueen”, and the Spiritualized inspired slow burner, “Wait”) “Midnight City” is the undeniable showstopper. With enough synths and electronic percussion to make you think it’s still 1984, Gonzalez’ vocals give “Midnight City” the distinctly human element it needs to take off into the electro pop stratosphere.

3. Colin Stetson – “Judges” from the album New History of Warfare Volume 2: Judges

Having spent much of 2011 working with Bon Iver, Feist, and The National to name but a few, the Montreal based avant garde musician’s most impressive feat of the year was the release of his Polaris prize nominated sophomore LP. Arguably, the most original piece of music you’ll find this year, Stetson’s solo sax compositions are recorded live off the floor, with no edits or overdubs of any kind. Using multiple mics placed on his sax, on his neck, and throughout the studio, Stetson’s bass sax sounds like an elephant trampling through a living room. Turn “Judges” up loud and feel the floor shake.

 4. Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms” from the album Smoke Ring For My Halo

So what if Vile licensed this gem to Bank of America? If that makes him a sellout then I wish more artists with Vile’s musical instincts would sell out. His acoustic guitar and smoky drawl on “Baby’s Arms” result in one of the prettiest melodies of the year.

 5. Nas – “Nasty” from his upcoming 2012 LP

Remember when Nas was the most important figure in hip-hop? Well that Nas has returned… I hope. Whether his upcoming LP will be on the same street as first single, “Nasty”, remains to be seen but for now at least we have the single. And oh what a single it is. “Nasty” is a quick reminder of just how good Nas is when he’s on his game. When “Nasty’s” backing track cuts out halfway through the song, Nas doesn’t miss a beat, blazing through the remainder of the verse a cappella. Pray to the hip-hop gods the rest of the record is half as good.

 6. Wye Oak – “Civilian from the album Civilian

“Civilian” is the undisputed highlight of the Baltimore duo’s breakout third LP. Combining Jenn Wasner’s smoky, mid-range vocals with Andy Stack’s massive percussion, the folk/rock, shoegaze-like dreamscapes of “Civilian” are slow moving before inevitably exploding into a wall of sound. Somewhere, somehow Neil Young & Crazy Horse are green with envy.

 7. Yuck – “Rubber” from the album Yuck

At just over seven minutes, album closer “Rubber” is an opus of distorted guitars, crashing cymbals, fuzzed out vocals, feedback, and… well, more distorted guitars. Reminiscent of Gish era Smashing Pumpkins, or Mogwai (who have already re-mixed the track), “Rubber” spends most of its time plodding along slowly like its trudging through a foot of mud before giving way to a barrage of cymbals and bottom end distortion: “Should I give in?” sings Daniel Blumberg, before resigning himself in the final verse: “Yes I give in”. You will too.

 8. Youth Lagoon – “July” from the album The Year of Hibernation

In a year with no shortage of bedroom-produced, dream-pop records full of lo-fi production, tape-hiss and buried indecipherable vocals, 22 year-old Boise Idaho native Trevor Powers (a.k.a Youth Lagoon) somehow comes out ahead. Album standout, “July”, opens with vocals so cavernous, you can’t help but turn it up loud in a futile attempt to decipher the lyrics over the tape hiss. But what initially feels like a contrived production trick makes perfect sense as Powers slowly but surely fleshes the track out resulting in one hell of a payoff.

 9. Wilco – “Art of Almost” from the album The Whole Love

Following two albums of bland complacency, I was starting to wonder if Wilco still had it in them. Thankfully, Wilco come back swinging on The Whole Love. Sounding focused, and still capable of a sharp left turn or two, album opener “Art of Almost”, is a 7-minute jaw-dropper full of frenetic guitars, ironclad percussion and Jeff Tweedy doing his Jeff Tweedy thing. This ain’t no dad rock.

 10. PJ Harvey – “The Words that Maketh Murder” from the album Let England Shake

“The Words That Maketh Murder” is both a damning of England’s militaristic past while expressing uncertainty of its future. Throughout the track Harvey takes no prisoners, spewing all sorts of disturbing imagery: “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief. Arms and legs were in the trees.” Before you can catch your breath, she coyly drops the piano and slide guitar infused coda, borrowing Eddie Cochran’s popular refrain: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”

 11. Other Lives – “Tamer Animals” from the album Tamer Animals

Other Lives’ Tamer Animals fell under the radar for a lot of listeners, which is too bad because there’s a lot to love about the Oklahoma five-piece’s latest LP. Incorporating strings, brass and woodwinds, the title track takes Other Lives’ Americana roots and brings a cinematic scope to a record that deftly defies genre constraints.

 12. Nicolas Jaar – “Keep Me There” from the album Space is Only Noise

Fusing an incredible array of musical influences including French Jazz, dub-step, down-tempo house, lounge, afro beats, minimalist techno, hip-hop, musique concrète and even classical, Jaar’s stunner of a debut LP miraculously never bites off more than it can chew. “Keep Me There” starts off mundane enough, with a simple “da, da, da, da” vocal refrain over synth samples. Around the half-way point the track comes alive, integrating cut samples of saxophone; first one, then two, then several, before a dazzling bass line ties it all together. How is this kid only 21 years old?

 13. Fleet Foxes – “The Shrine/An Argument” from the album Helplessness Blues

With crashing cymbals, the harshest vocal tone frontman Robin Pecknold has yet to employ, and a sadness clearly metaphoric of a disintegrating relationship, “The Shrine/An Argument” is one of the standouts on the Fleet Foxes’ sophomore release: “In the doorway holding every letter that I wrote, In the driveway pulling away putting on your coat, In the ocean washing off my name from your throat, In the morning, in the morning.” The crashing then subsides, before being slapped with a barrage of free-form saxophones and strings. It’s an incredibly ambitious track and, though it perhaps overreaches, it’s symbolic of a band working outside its comfort zone.

 14. Cults – “Abducted” from the album Cults

Sure this Manhattan duo’s blend of Motown, lo-fi and dream-pop is sugary sweet but that makes it no less enjoyable. Album opener “Abducted” sets the tone nicely: jangly guitars, xylophone and Madeline Follin’s alto: “I knew right then that I’d been abducted. I knew right then that he would be taking my heart,” Follin sings, metaphorically supplanting love with abduction. Cleverly, Brian Oblivion (yes… you read that correctly) takes the third verse, stepping in as the lover/abductor: “I knew right then that she’d been abducted. I knew right then that I would be taking her heart.” The witty narrative perfectly counterbalances the otherwise propulsive piece of bubblegum pop.

 15. Bill CallahanRiding For The Feeling” from the album Apocalypse

There’s something immediately striking about Bill 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. Such is the case with “Riding For The Feeling” one of the standout tracks from his excellent 15th LP.

 16. Bon Iver – “Holocene” from the album Bon Iver

Containing an army of instrumentation including: saxophones (courtesy of virtuoso Colin Stetson), trombone, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, synths, pedal steel, not one but two drummers and additional percussion, “Holocene” is wisely anchored around a simple three-chord finger-picked guitar progression. As everything ebbs and flows from the guitar, the arrangement retains a level of simplicity that gives Justin Vernon room to contemplate one of the more lyrically frank moments on his impressive sophomore release: “Someway, baby, it’s part of me, apart from me” he sings, and, later confessing “…and at once I knew I was not magnificent”.

17. The Field – “Then It’s White” from the album Looping State of Mind

Though Sweden’s Axel Willner, a.k.a., The Field, would best be described as a “minimal techno” producer, he has uniquely, albeit accidentally, positioned himself as the indie rocker’s minimal techno producer. For a performer that rarely uses guitars, employs vocals, or produces tracks less than 7 minutes long, that’s quite a feat. And while Looping State of Mind’s title track and opening one-two punch of “Is This Power” and “It’s Up There” are certainly album highlights, the record’s finest moment is also it’s slowest. Combining a simple piano measure, vocal loop, hi-hat and atmospherics, “Then It’s White” clearly demonstrates that when Willner strips away all of the bells and whistles, what remains is an artist capable of a breathtakingly beautiful melody.

 18. Austra – “Beat and the Pulse” from the album Feel It Break

The Polaris Prize nominated debut LP from Toronto based Austra, plays like a blend of late 80’s Depeche Mode, Siouxie and the Banshees, Bjork and a pinch of Kate Bush thrown in for good measure. With booming synth lines and Katie Stelmanis’ operatically trained soprano firmly firing up the middle, Feel It Break packs quite a wallop, particularly the synth-goth, disco party of “Beat and the Pulse”.

 19. Destroyer – “Chinatown” from the album Kaputt

Who knew 80’s soft rock schlock would serve Destroyer so well? Despite the abundance of easy listening, jazz-light instrumentation, Kaputt is Destroyer’s leanest effort in years. Opening track and first single, “Chinatown” is arguably the most accessible pop song Dan 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 (trust me, that’s a good thing).

 20. Dolorean – “Country Clutter” from the album The Unfazed

Although there’s nothing particularly novel about a record recounting a relationship gone sour, Dolorean’s singer/guitarist and principal songwriter, Al James drops lines that go well beyond your run of the mill “you done me wrong” breakup number. Take “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.” 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.

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – Tycho, “Dive”

Posted: 12/4/2011 7:28 am

Tycho, “Dive” (Ghostly International)

3.6 out of 5

Hooray! It’s summer… in December. Fortunately, someone forgot to tell Scott Hansen, better known as Tycho. Contrary to the dreary, winter weather upon us, the San Francisco-based producer’s sophomore release, Dive, takes its cues from the California sun. Exactly what one might expect from the cover art, Dive’s slowly building, mid-tempo ambient electronica is brimming with summery sheen and 70’s inspired synth washes. The album plays like Boards of Canada’s friendlier, easy-going younger brother; which, is both the record’s greatest asset and liability.

In addition to being a musician, Hansen makes a living as a graphic artist, a profession he has clearly incorporated into his music. Everything on Dive is expertly crafted. There’s not a single synth measure, drum line or guitar lick which feels even remotely out of place. Much like Dive’s album art, which was also designed by Hansen, the mellow tone deceptively conceals just how much effort was clearly put into constructing the record. Album opener, “A Walk” begins with spacey synths and a decidedly downbeat vibe, perfect, for say… swimming in the warm water depicted on the album cover. Album standout “Hours” is much the same: lush, droning synths, and electric guitars anchored by an impressive beat. Listening to “Hours” you can almost feel the sun on your face. In fact, all of the track titles “hint” at a similarly summery vibe: “Daydream”, “Coastal Brake”, “Adrift”, etc. Dive plays like a mood piece throughout, and there are no drastic deviations in tone or tempo to be found.

While this results in a remarkably consistent record, it also means there isn’t a great deal of variation. Dive is a fantastic record to work to (throw on a pair of headphones, hit play, and watch your productivity go through the roof), yet most of the album bleeds from track to track without a great deal of… well, there’s that word again: variation. Although the spacey vibes of “Ascension” (certainly the most outwardly Boards of Canada moment on the record), and the pleasant integration of acoustic guitar on “Melanine” are undoubtedly impressive, it would have been nice to hear Hansen step outside of his comfort zone, which he does… once. Where the vast majority of Dive is content with being inoffensively mid-tempo, “Coastal Brake” gets up in your face. The pulsing beat that unexpectedly comes out of nowhere following the track’s intro, is one of the more compelling moments on the record. If only there had been more of them.

All criticism aside, Dive is a highly enjoyable, if a somewhat predictable listen. While December may feel like an odd time to release a record so intrinsically tied to summer, it’s also a welcome contrast to the winter weather that we’re all stuck with for the foreseeable future.

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – Youth Lagoon, “The Year of Hibernation”

Posted: 10/2/2011 12:32 am

Youth Lagoon, “The Year of Hibernation” (Fat Possum/Lefse)

3.9 out of 5

At first blush, 22 year-old Boise, Idaho native, Trevor Powers (a.k.a. Youth Lagoon) and his debut LP, The Year of Hibernation, feels like yet another bedroom-produced, dream-pop record…and that’s because it is: the lo-fi production, the tape-hiss, the buried, indecipherable vocals, the cavernous reverb…it’s all there. However, as hypocritical as it may be for this blogger to endorse Youth Lagoon, while condemning similar co-conspirators such as Washed Out, there are a few distinguishing characteristics that make a compelling argument in support of Powers and Hibernation.

First, Powers wisely never overplays his hand. At 8-tracks and roughly 35-minutes in length, Hibernation goes by in a breeze, and never overstays its welcome. Second, while Hibernation is highly formulaic, the effect is executed so efficiently that it actually plays to the record’s advantage. Each and every track starts with a tiny, claustrophobic premise, that typically involves Powers’ thin, nasally vocals and a confessional tale, coupled with a simple organ or piano melody. Gradually, percussion is introduced, followed by additional synths and often, electric guitar leads. It’s an age-old songwriting trick that works, largely because the record is over before the listener gets wise to what’s going on. On album standout, “July”, for example the track opens with Powers’ vocals and a pretty little organ measure. His voice sounds so cavernous you can’t help but turn it up loud in a futile attempt to decipher the lyrics over the tape hiss. But what initially feels like a contrived production trick makes perfect sense as Powers slowly but surely fleshes the track out. First an additional synth melody; then a piano, kick drum and triangle. By the track’s midpoint, the kick drum gains momentum and a clever guitar lead is introduced before taking off into the stratosphere. All of a sudden it’s immediately apparent that the subtle beginnings of “July”, which fooled you into cranking the volume, were simply a means of validating the brilliance of the payoff.

Powers takes this formula and proceeds to recycle it over eight tracks. Yet, where other artists would get caught-up in additional production layers, Powers gets caught-up in melody. The subtle claustrophobic beginnings, which give way to monstrously melodic crescendos, feel as honest and youthful as the 22-year old who produced them. If “July” doesn’t get you, then direct your attention to exhibit B: “Montana”. Here the simple introductory piano measure incorporates distorted guitars, tambourines, hand-claps and more pianos. The formula and lyrical earnestness remains the same, as does the inevitable payoff: “A door is always open if it isn’t closed, and a plant is said to be dead if it doesn’t grow. I’ll grow… I will grow.” sings Powers, before the track takes flight.

Youth Lagoon’s press bio describes Powers’ voice as “eerie yet nostalgic”, however this feels like a contrived attempt to guise the fact that Powers can’t really sing. If he can, the production has been deliberately structured to compromise whatever vocal talents may be lurking under the reverb. This certainly hampers whatever is going on lyrically. Throughout Hibernation one can decipher just enough to identify themes of alienation, heartache and anxiety, but that’s about it, which is a shame. On the excellent album opener “Posters” for example, Powers sings: “You make real friends quickly. But not me.” The line could have so easily come off as superficial, yet it’s delivered with such devastating honesty that one wishes the other lyrics were as readily discernible.

That said, what distinguishes Youth Lagoon from similar dream-pop records is that the lyrical ambiguity doesn’t really seem to matter. Powers is disturbingly adept at constructing and then deconstructing melody. The quiet/loud dynamic running throughout Hibernation is expertly executed, as is the counterpoint of vocals, synths and remarkably proficient guitar work. It may be hypocritical to enjoy Youth Lagoon while railing against similar dream-pop artists but then again, if they all sounded as fresh and well arranged as Youth Lagoon, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much to rail against.

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – Wilco, “The Whole Love”

Posted: 09/25/2011 4:25 pm

Wilco, “The Whole Love” (dBpm/ANTI-)

4.0 out of 5

Rest assured, there will be those that will call Wilco’s latest effort, The Whole Love, a “return to form”, which is arguably the laziest of all music critic clichés. And, while it might aptly describe a band firmly planted within a single genre, for a band that wears as many hats as Wilco, the only appropriate response is a snarky: “return to which form?” A return to the Lennon/McCartney pop gems of Summerteeth? The glitchy Jim O’Rourke production magic of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? The pharmacological krautrock of A Ghost Is Born? The guitar-driven, 70’s classic rock of Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album)? Or the alt-country leanings that have permeated each and every record going back to Wilco’s 1995 debut? In other words, “return to form” will mean different things to different Wilco fans. What is immediately clear, however, is that after two consecutive records of bland complacency, Wilco once again sounds focused, and still capable of a sharp left turn or two.

Currently in its 5th incarnation, this is the first time in Wilco’s 17-year history that the band has recorded three records with the same members. While frontman, Jeff Tweedy has been quite vocal in claiming that the current lineup is the band’s best, it has taken three records to bear that out. Much of the lineup criticism has been targeted at guitarist Nels Cline. Often coming off as a bold attempt to pad mediocre songcraft with histrionic guitar leads, Cline’s work on the last two LPs proved a guitar virtuoso is only as beneficial as his ability to meld with the artists around him. On The Whole Love however, Cline’s contribution feels complementary, and more textural than virtuosic. His frenetic playing at the wild conclusion of 7-minute, jaw-dropping opener “Art of Almost” feels earned in the controlled chaos of the arrangement. Likewise, it’s Cline’s distorted slide guitar line during the instrumental chorus of “Born Alone” that gives the track the necessary abrasiveness to rank it among Wilco’s best pop songs. “I was born to die alone”, sings Tweedy in an arrangement that juxtaposes a lyrical darkness with instantly catchy guitar-pop, an effect Wilco perfected on 1999’s Summerteeth, but has rarely employed in recent years.

While Cline’s guitar work is top notch, the real stars of The Whole Love are drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist John Stirratt. Long the unsung heroes of Wilco’s live shows, Kotche and Stirratt are finally getting the LP exposure they so rightly deserve. Pushed to the front of the mix, the two bring a collective punch that runs throughout the record. Their interplay on opener “Art of Almost” and first single “I Might” is nothing short of brilliant, while their more restrained work on tracks such as the gorgeous ballad “Black Moon” show that, despite the heightened exposure, neither musician is above being economical. Credit not only producers Tweedy and Tom Schick for this move, but also keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone who, for the first time, gets his own production credit.

Texturally, The Whole Love is far more intricate than the last two LPs. Be it the glockenspiel backing the Motown driven guitar-pop of “I Might”, clearly another nod to Summerteeth, the mellotron of “Black Moon”, or the pedal steel which runs throughout “Rising Red Lung”, Wilco has clearly utilized the luxury of owning its own record label to take its time in exploring the minutiae of each and every arrangement. This is no more apparent than on 12-minute album closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. The song’s simple repeating guitar progression incorporates piano, pedal steel, bass, minimal percussion and a host of additional instrumentation floating in the background. It could have resulted in a gratuitous mess, yet ends up being one of the band’s finest moments: “I am cold for my father, frozen underground. Jesus I wouldn’t bother, he belongs to me now.” sings Tweedy, telling the haunting story of a father and son and the religious conflict that exists between them.

With new-found creative control comes the new-found importance of an editor, and although The Whole Love is a good 56-minute record it could have been a great 45-minute record. Tweedy remains enamoured with late 60’s era Beatles and this bogs down tracks such as “Sunloathe”, “Open Mind” and “Capitol City” which disrupt the overall flow of the record. That said, this is the first Wilco album in close to a decade where the band sounds not only like the sum of its parts, but a band that is still willing to take some chances, or, in Tweedy’s words, willing to “measure [oneself] against ridiculous heights of glory, with the firmly rooted reality that reaching that is impossible.”

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – Sean Rowe, “Magic”

Posted: 09/18/2011 8:47 am

Sean Rowe, “Magic” (ANTI-)

3.8 out of 5

New York native Sean Rowe just has one of those voices: part Van Morrison, part Tom Waits (his fellow label mate) and part Leonard Cohen, his baritone feels immediately recognizable, yet it is uniquely his own. And, much like the aforementioned artists, Rowe’s voice commands your attention and is not to be ignored. To say Rowe can “project” is something of an understatement; his bellow hits you like a ton of bricks. Rowe also looks like the owner of such a big voice: he is a big, burly and bearded man that, when not recording (or on tour playing gigs), is a dedicated naturalist and wilderness survivalist (he has even studied under wild food expert Samuel Thayer). While this certainly explains some of the lyrical imagery describing humanity’s interaction with nature, it also explains why so many of the songs on his debut LP Magic, feel as though they were written around the campfire. The record’s production further reflects this intention. Rowe’s voice completely dominates the mix, and is often accompanied by little more than acoustic or electric guitar. While Magic was initially self-released in 2009, Rowe went on to sign with ANTI- Records who have wisely re-released it.

“In your letters I can see your mouth was moving, your voice was at the tip of my recall. Then your ghost could only blush against my t-shirt, now your body shows up to take it all.” sings Rowe on the excellent opener “Surprise”, while an electric guitar, light percussion, and a single, sustained organ chord rings in the background. Equally impressive is “Night”, where Rowe’s heavily reverberated voice and acoustic guitar tell the haunting story of soldiers coming in the night through the eyes of a frightened child: “the snow was heavy and the sky was deep, and death was looking for a dancer.” Magic isn’t all slow and somber. There are a number of dirty blues-rock numbers to be found here, including the Nick Cave vibe of “Jonathan” and the excellent Cohen-esque numbers “Black Dodge” and “Wrong Side Of The Bed”. As the pace picks-up, and the arrangements get louder, so too does Rowe, who’s voice feels truly weathered and torn when he pushes into his upper register, particularly on “Wet”, where the accompanying string swells build to a moving crescendo as Rowe screams: “When your heart is broke, when your eyes are wet”.

Despite Magic’s exceptional production, Rowe’s a better folk-singer than blues rocker, and by your third spin through the record you may find yourself editing. Nevertheless, it’s rare to find such focus and maturity on a debut record. And, even where the arrangements are lacking, there’s still Rowe’s force of nature baritone to enjoy, and for many listeners, that might just be enough.

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – The Field, “Looping State of Mind”

Posted: 09/10/2011 10:36 am

The Field, “Looping State of Mind” (Kompakt)

4.3 out of 5

This has been a fantastic year for bedroom recording artists. From Washed Out to Active Child, and everything in between, the laptop has made music accessible to a whole generation of musicians that never would have made it in the era of $$$/hour recording studios. Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to see one of the big boys come along and demonstrate what serious production chops and studio time can buy. Sweden’s Axel Willner, a.k.a., The Field (amongst several other performance alias’), is just such an artist. Though Willner would best be described as a “minimal techno” producer, he has uniquely, albeit accidentally, positioned himself as the indie rocker’s minimal techno producer. For a performer that rarely uses guitars, employs vocals, or produces tracks less than 7 minutes long, that’s quite a feat. While Willner has been performing since the early naughts, it was his superb 2007 debut LP, From Here We Go Sublime, that really put him on the map. Combining minimal techno with an electro-pop sensibility and live instrumentation, particularly drum & bass (Willner uses a live band for his live shows), Willner’s production style is unabashedly electronic yet always feel alive and organic. Although 2009’s sophomore release, Yesterday and Today, was a solid follow-up and certainly had its moments, such as the drum & bass freak-out near the end of the title track, it somehow lacked Sublime’s warmth. That’s not the case with his most recent LP, Looping State Of Mind, which, coupling live percussion & bass, ambient atmospherics and even a few vocal loops, feels like an impressive distillation of his prior two LP’s.

Part of what makes The Field’s work so compelling is Willner’s integration of live instrumentation. While the drumming and bass work that shows up around the 7-minute mark of “It’s Up There” has probably been looped, it sounds like there’s a drummer and bass player jamming along with the mix. This is a regular occurrence throughout Looping State of Mind, and it gives the record a production quality rarely found in minimal techno, and most certainly not found among your flavour-of-the-month, bedroom-recording artist.

While Looping State of Mind’s highly repetitive measures are immediately accessible, Willner’s approach to mixing runs counter to traditional minimal techno in that there is no gradual build towards a crescendo. Instead, beautifully simple and lush measures repeat… and repeat, and then, out of thin air, the crescendo materializes. The effect is utilized to perfection on the outstanding title track. The distorted synth and bass measure, coupled with hi-hats run close to 7 minutes before the track really comes alive with additional swirling synths in the foreground, competing for your attention. It takes close to another minute before recognizing that, while initially chaotic, the synth measures are running in perfect counterpoint.

Although the title track and opening one-two punch of “Is This Power” and “It’s Up There” are certainly album highlights, the record’s finest moment is also it’s slowest. The majority of Looping State of Mind clocks in at around 120 bpm, but “Then It’s White” is closer to 100. Combining a simple piano measure, vocal loop, hi-hat and atmospherics, the track clearly demonstrates that when Willner strips away all of the bells and whistles, what remains is an artist capable of a breathtakingly beautiful melody.

Looping State Of Mind certainly isn’t for everyone. At seven tracks spread over an hour, there will be those who will find the repetitive measures nothing more than musical monotony. Fair enough, yet the same argument could be made for Brian Eno’s more ambient leanings or even Steve Reich and Philip Glass’ experimental work. The basis of crescendo driven techno has always been the destination, yet Willner is preoccupied with orchestrating a compelling journey (which makes the crescendos, when and if they do arrive, that much more scintillating). He’s also wise in recognizing that when the journey becomes the focal point, the record becomes infinitely more conducive to repeat listens; and, monotonous or not, I’ve been listening repeatedly for a few days now.

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here


The Spin Doctor – Bombay Bicycle Club, “A Different Kind of Fix”

Posted: 09/3/2011 4:16 am

Bombay Bicycle Club, “A Different Kind of Fix” (Island/Universal Records)

3.9 out of 5

Not to be agist, but for a band barely out of their teens, London based Bombay Bicycle Club have some nerve. Following their promising 2009 debut LP, I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose, the band, who took their name after a London chain of Indian restaurants, waited less than a year before releasing their sophomore record, Flaws. Yet rather than build on the goodwill and 90’s guitar alt-rock of their debut, BBC decided to release an all acoustic effort consisting of originals as well as covers of Joanna Newsom and British folk legend John Martyn. To be fair, frontman Jack Steadman’s quavering vocal, which sounds disturbingly similar to Devendra Banhart, certainly fits the folk-y bill; but, the move seemed cheap and undeserving. There’s no doubt that Flaws’ production and classic folk arrangements were impressive, however Steadman is not John Martyn and Flaws was no London Conversation (though interestingly BBC are signed to Island Records, Martyn’s former label). Despite the maturity of Steadman’s voice, without the gloss and jangly electric guitars of the band’s debut, the stripped arrangements highlighted a serious lack of lyrical sophistication in a genre where the words are everything.

Most bands would wisely take some time to regroup before plotting its next course; but not BBC. The band waited all of a year before releasing its third and most recent LP, A Different Kind of Fix. Instead of narrowing the scope and focus to develop a more honed sound, as the title rather astutely implies, BBC hedged their bets by doing precisely the opposite. They’ve returned to Jim Abbiss, the producer of the band’s debut, and brought on Animal Collective producer, Ben Allen, who, along with Steadman, share production credits. Stylistically, BBC has taken Allen’s influence and essentially thrown all of the elements of their prior two LP’s into a cement-mixer to see what might emerge. The intriguing thing, however, is that what has emerged is far more interesting than either the alt-rock of BBC’s debut or the folk-lite of their sophomore release. The ramshackle combination of the two approaches, coupled with some slick production tricks, loops and ambient atmospherics result in an exciting, albeit scattered release.

As principal songwriter and co-producer, Steadman is the obvious focal point, yet in addition to the excellent production, much of what makes A Different Kind of Fix work is the impressive, yet understated playing of bassist Ed Nash. The broader sonic template employed on Fix would fall apart were it not for Nash’s solid bottom end. His Sting-like measures on the unabashedly Sting-like arrangement of “Lights Out, Words Gone” keep the track firmly planted and give Steadman and backing vocalist Lucy Rose the room to breathe some life into the charming ambient synth line. On the James-inspired opener, “How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep” (a re-recorded holdover from the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack), Nash’s bass line is the perfect counter-point to one of Steadman’s many fantastic guitar measures. Rather than traditional chord strums, Steadman generally prefers off-kilter picking. In addition to the aforementioned tracks, the excellent “What You Want” and “Your Eyes” employ similarly clever guitar work, coupled with driving New Order-like arrangements that certainly reward repeated listens.

Steadman’s vocals work much better in the context of the big, busy arrangements, however not everything here benefits from the gloss. While the tale of forlorn love on “Leave It” works through the verses (again, largely due to Nash’s bass work), the anthemic chorus falls flat with Steadman lacking the grit necessary to deliver lines like: “Don’t you go evade me now, come see what you’ve done”. This is a recurring theme on Fix. As much as Steadman sounds the part and the lush arrangements certainly aid the band in playing the part, Steadman still lacks the lyrical maturity to allow some of the material here to resonate. While BBC have undeniably bitten off more than they can chew (90’s alt-rock, brit-pop, neo shoegaze, folk, and even a splash of post-wave), with Allen’s production work upping the ante sonically, and the band undoubtedly maturing instrumentally, they somehow get away with it. Here’s hoping that, rather than reinvention, they choose to refine the approach on their follow-up album, which at this rate, is on pace to drop sometime next summer.

Read previous Spin Doctor reviews here

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