Album review: Youth Lagoon comes up for air and ambience with ‘Wondrous Bughouse’

Youth Lagoon
“Wondrous Bughouse”
Fat Possum

Youth Lagoon’s second album, “Wondrous Bughouse,” captures the mercurial cerebrum of a 20-something thinker with aural examples of torturous moments in young adulthood. In lieu of conversation, Trevor Powers will exorcise his chronic anxiety by making records with vistas of psychedelic musical plains. These pathways to Powers’ mind funnel in the ambience of the Cocteau Twins and mysticism of Tangerine Dream.

Powers’ debut, 2011′s “Year in Hibernation,” is a cave of nocturnal emotions easy to absorb on a rainy day. Its minimalistic course steers from foggy pianos echoes (“Montana”) to crystalline synth jabs accompanied by supple guitar tones (“Daydream”).

In contrast, “Wondrous Bughouse” is a colorful listen appropriate for any shadow on the sundial. Anxiety and mortality are Powers’ muses on this merry go ’round spun by fear’s illusory demons. Such subjects creep up at any hour. Powers chooses to place them throughout the album in a helter-skelter, yet concise fashion.

“Wondrous Bughouse”‘s opening track, “Through Mind and Back,” rests supine in the dark night of pessimism. Its murk relaxes itself onto “Mute” the way a swimmer would churn through the Black Lagoon, weary of the creature that waits beneath. “Mute” acknowledges “Through Mind and Back” with lyrics that describe a world unseen by a worried consciousness’ filter. Powers tampers with a style that mimes a short attention span. His conscious thought deviates from subjects while it maintains the same overarching emotional tone. Powers indicates these shifts with ellipses. Found in the belly of sentences, or clamped on the tail end of his accounts, they illustrate the constant swing of an overactive mind’s pendulum.

The album’s macabre themes drown in resilient affirmations of longevity. Powers insists, “You will never die, you will never die” on “Dropla.” While the death of a loved one is a perpetual shock, the after-effects felt for miles, “Wondrous Bughouse” squelches the pain. It calls for those left to remember how simple things — a song is Powers’ example — can play and cause the mourner to recall the one he or she misses. Through the power of memory, people can achieve immortality.

The track that follows “Dropla” is an abstract sonic dimension built around a beguiling circus march. It dictates a whirlwind lack of lucidity and control when anxiety pilots a body. A terrifying hybrid of John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the sluggish drone of the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Sleep Paralysis” teeters on the edge of insanity.

Yet, “Wondrous Bughouse” has the ability to quell a soul’s turbulent waves. After the tumult of “Sleep Paralysis” — during which Powers loses his grip on his synth and plays in keys that sound like a string quartet with eyes that have become black and white swirls of what-was — comes “Raspberry Cane” and “Daisyphobia.” Both carry emotions less severe than what he explores in “Sleep Paralysis.” Powers appears to come-to-terms with what plagues him.

If “Wondrous Bughouse” is Youth Lagoon’s in-depth exploration of spiritual planes and the endurance of human life with the comprehension of mortality, then by the end of album its leader resurfaces. When Powers comes up for air, something as brief as life is worth the pursuit — no matter the turmoil it takes to achieve this realization.

Album review: Thao & the Get Down Stay Down reconvene over unconventional ground on ‘We the Common’

“We the Common”
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down
Ribbon Music

Thao Nguyen formed the basis of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down around 2004 with drummer Willis Thompson in Falls Church, Va., later picking up (and, since then, dropping) musicians Adam Thompson and Frank Stewart and relocating the duo’s efforts to San Francisco.

Nguyen has cited Lilith Fair as an influence on her early career, and that folksy, singer-songwriter character — simple chords, baby-soft voices cooing Oberlin-ish poetical lyrics such as “baffle a skeleton dry” — is most detectable on songs like “We the Common (for Valerie Bolden)” and “Kindness Be Conceived,” featuring Joanna Newsom.

Since releasing her first album, 2008′s “We Brave Bee Stings and All,” Nguyen has given herself over to the thrill of experimentation. She’s still an admirer of uncomplicated chords and moody tones, but presents them in an unorthodox way that’s less of a precise arrangement than it is a messy assemblage. This is neo-tribal indie folk, I guess the Internet is calling it, and it’s only been expanded from 2011′s partnership with Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (“Thao and Mirah”).

“We the Common” is an unpredictable, dangerously catchy album that’s caused me to wake up with one song or another in my head for more than a week now. It swings, it dives, it scratches all of these funny little itches that come out of nowhere. I truly cannot get these songs out of my mind, which is understandable on one hand because I’m the one reviewing it, but also they’re really good songs.

Wily and brazen, they careen all over the map (if one was written in the first place), and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down employ barrages of horns, chimes, and backing tracks that sometimes do little but breathe into vintage microphones. “City” starts off like an early Red Hot Chili Peppers B-side, and the psychedelic guitar screech in “Move” leads the ear in one direction while it’s follow-up, “Clouds For Brains,” is an unsettling dirge as seductive as the witch beckoning you into her candy house.

I’m particularly hooked on “The Feeling Kind,” a getting-ready-for-a-night-out kind of track that, with its thumping beat and jazzy horns, sounds like a New Orleans funeral march up Sesame Street. “Human Heart” is another sax-heavy track with retro influences that tip just so into “Age of Ice,” a closer with a blues guitar riff lazing behind the verse.

The vocals do sometimes over rely on the flattened distortion that’s steadily becoming the Auto-Tune of the indie-music world. This effect paired with atonal yelps and untuned strings brings to mind (accurately or not) the cringe-worthy trope of a video populated by bokeh-obscured white girls wearing feathered headdresses. However, more of “We the Common” resists this unwelcome image than not, and the album is best when it gets out of its head and back to a libertine disregard for convention.

Anyone can tell you that being cool is all about not caring whether or not you are, and when Thao & The Get Down Stay Down keeps their approach to their material cavalier, the result is a devastating left hook wrapped in a velvet glove; injuries forgiven, the memory lingering, and something to tell your friends about.

Album review: Heidi Talbot glides through ‘Angels Without Wings’

Heidi Talbot
“Angels Without Wings”
Compass Records

Here’s how every review of Heidi Talbot opens: Talbot is from County Kildare, Ireland, and famously was a member of the Irish-American all-female supergroup Cherish the Ladies.

“Super group” seems to be an important term, and is so often used that it seems like part of the band name. And County Kildare seems a very big deal, for whatever reason. The reviews for her new album, “Angels Without Wings,” likewise will all tell you in the first paragraph that Jerry Douglas and Mark Knopfler play on this disc, so there now I’ve done it too.

More importantly, though, is that it’s a really nice collection of new songs from a seasoned performer and writer. While Douglas and Knopfler are the big names that guest here, their presence is so mild as to be non-existent. Better is the inclusion Dirk Powell’s fiddle and banjo on “Dearest Johnny,” and Tim O’Brien who lends his voice in a very noticeable and lovely way on “Wine and Roses” and “When the Roses Come Again.”

And, indeed, the wealth of the material here is lovely. Talbot’s voice is a draw, one that is both strong and delicate, often impossibly at the same time. Her phrasing comes from traditional Irish music, the genre within which she has made a career, though here she branches out. The guest musicians too hearken to the transatlantic sessions O’Brien and Douglas have taken part in at the request of the BBC, and Talbot’s goal seems to be the same as well: to shift the focus a bit from the highly traditional sounds of Ireland and to tease out the commonalities between that music and traditional North American music.

This is her fifth album as a solo artist, though just the second that includes only original material. It also presents a broader range of sounds than her previous albums have, from Parisian accordion on “Angels without Wings” to a feel that echoes ’50s pop on “I’m Not Sorry.” There are many arching melodies that we associate with Irish singing, though “Will I Ever Get to Sleep?” has a bounce that is more US than UK, though with a beautiful pipes part played by Michael McGoldrick that reminds us what we are listening to. That song stands out, as does “The Loneliest,” a sparse vocal piece that will rightly get a lot of attention.

But, really everything here is a strength, and if you haven’t been familiar with Heidi Talbot, this album makes the perfect introduction to an impressive talent. (And did I mention she’s from County Kildare? Apparently, she really is…).

Album review: Tegan and Sara make a sweet, smooth but still dark sound on ‘Heartthrob’

Tegan and Sara
“Heartthrob”
Warner Bros.

Writing charming and infectious pop is nothing new for Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara Quin, but seven albums later they’re still finding ways to change their sound.

“Heartthrob,” Tegan and Sara’s most recent album, gives us 10 upbeat, sugary tracks. This really isn’t anything new for the sisters — they’ve been writing songs filled with catchy refrains since they started, but while their earlier songs relied more heavily on guitars and still had some roughness around the edges, “Heartthrob” is punctuated by synths with smooth pop production.

The album opens up with the first single, “Closer.” A simple synth line and harmonized “All I want to get is a little bit closer / All I want to know is can you come a little closer” kicks things off before the song erupts; it almost feels like you should be bopping around a moon bounce. But, as with much of the album, the glossiness of the tracks belies some of the darkness in the lyrics. When the song ends with the same refrain with which it opened, there’s a bit of wistfulness to it.

The sisters have always been good at expressing realistic relationships and honest emotion, and that’s still the case here. These aren’t songs about the perfect romance, and even if they may sound saccharine at first, the lyrics aren’t sugarcoating anything, admitting on “I Was a Fool” “If you’re worried that I might have changed / Left behind all of my foolish ways / You best be looking for somebody else / Without a foolish heart.”

In recent years, Tegan and Sara have been enjoying broader success, and as a consequence, alienating some of the smaller communities that have supported them for years. On the song “Someday” from their 2009 album, “Sainthood,” there’s the refrain of “I don’t wanna know that you don’t want me” alternating with “I might be something someday.” Now, nobody can deny that they’ve become something, and with “I’m Not Your Hero,” they’ve captured the other side of that feeling: “It’s so hard to know I’m not what they want.”

Tegan and Sara’s latest album could be the soundtrack to a late-night dance party, but the songs still contain the same quality of lyrics and hooks that made their previous albums accessible. The only danger of the slicker sound is that it may get lost and blend in with the pop airwaves. Ultimately, Tegan and Sara have added another album to a catalogue that moves them further into the mainstream without compromising the things that got them to this point.

Album review: Kris Kristofferson may be ‘Feeling Mortal’ but he still has superb songs to sing

Kris Kristofferson
“Feeling Mortal”
KK Records

Many songwriters lead storied lives, no doubt, but few are as successful and iconic as Kris Kristofferson.

It’s a cliché to say, “Seen it all, done it all,” but one gets the impression that the Country Music Hall of Famer has, in fact, done just that. A boxer, Rhodes scholar and military officer, not to mention an actor and singer-songwriter, Kristofferson has found success in a variety of vocations.

His notoriety as a songwriter allowed him to launch a career as a performer, and he began recording his own songs, releasing his first album in 1970. However, success as an actor came more readily than as a singer and he appeared in many films throughout the 1970s and beyond.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that Kristofferson is perhaps better known to the public as an actor, as a songwriter he has been an influential force in country songwriting. His songs are both personal and reflective, yet strike a chord with a variety of people in all walks of life. His latest album is no exception; it is the work of a man at peace with both his demons and his legacy.

“Feeling Mortal” is Kristofferson’s first album of new material in four years and also his first independent release on his own KK Records label. It is the third record in a trilogy, produced by veteran producer Don Was, that began with “This Old Road” (2006) and “Closer to the Bone” (2009).

“Wide awake and feeling mortal/At this moment of the dream,” he sings on the opening line of the title track, a song which finds the singer facing his own mortality; reluctantly perhaps, but with gratitude and without regret. At the forefront of this record is Kristofferson’s weathered voice, no longer the voice of a young man of course, but still strong, with a gentle grace and a hard-won wisdom.

The musicianship is excellent throughout; a fine band backs the veteran performer and also features Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, lending vocals and violin. The record consists of 10 songs, all penned by Kristofferson, with the exception of the old 1970 song “My Heart Was the Last One to Know” co-written with Shel Silverstein. Originally recorded by Connie Smith, the tune is a simple and beautiful country classic.

“Stairway to the Bottom” is another vintage piece, a rerecording of a song that originally appeared on “Spooky Lady’s Sideshow” in 1974. But “Bread for the Body” and “You Don’t Tell Me What to Do” are among the most enjoyable on the record, the former a song of realization about what’s important in life and the latter an ode to freedom and an independence of spirit.

And I will go on making music
and whiskey
and love for as long
as the spirit inside me
says you don’t tell me what to do.

If the songs on “Feeling Mortal” are any indication, it looks like Kristofferson will be doing just that for a few more years.

Album review: Old Man Luedecke proves himself on ‘Tender Is the Night’

“Tender Is the Night”
Old Man Luedecke
True North

“Tender Is the Night” is the fifth solo collection from Old Man (Chris) Luedecke, and it feels like some of the musical ideas he’s been working with are really beginning to gel. His writing has always been very strong, remaining true to the roots of American folk and country music, though dealing with modern themes and ideas.

The production on some of the earlier releases, however, often sounded as if he was trying to find his footing. In some instances the settings for his songs were overly sparse; in others, it was overly rich, as with the fuller band numbers that were included on 2008′s “Proof of Love.” He was ranging across the spectrum of arrangements in order to find a home, not entirely successfully.

But with “Tender Is the Night” he’s clearly found what he was looking for thanks in large part to the involvement of Tim O’Brien who produced and plays on this album. O’Brien’s mandolin, fiddle, octave mandolin, guitars and harmony vocals are the perfect accompaniment to Luedecke’s quirky, unique and delightful lyrics and hooks. The production has granted a confidence and clarity to Luedecke’s writing, especially on songs like “I’m Fine (I Am, I Am)” which are tougher to pull off solo, just him and his banjo, which is the typical approach of his live gigs.

All of the great things that Luedecke has been doing so well are also utterly intact here, in particular the way he brings traditional sounds and structures to modern ideas. On “A&W Song,” he laments the awkward feelings of holding up a line while the debit card reader rejects your pin. It’s an idea that could come dangerously close to novelty, but he’s a skilled enough writer to give the idea real poignancy.

The material has a nice range: Luedecke can be old-time mournful, as on “Little Stream of Whiskey,” and cunningly funny on “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Throughout is the charm that comes through so well in his live shows. If you haven’t given much thought to Old Man Luedecke in the past, this is the album that you might want to give a good listen to. It has the feeling of a true arrival, and I suspect that that’s exactly what “Tender Is the Night” will prove to be.

Album Review: The Zolas’ subtle, addictive ‘Ancient Mars’

The Zolas
“Ancient Mars”
Light Organ Records

Oh, Canada.

I’ve always thought that Canada and St. Louis have a lot in common. Both experience frigid winters, both are relegated in popular conscience as being backwaters of significant size and both carry an inferiority complex about their place in that conscience, because both know that they’re capable of so much more than anyone gives them credit for producing.

In addition to screwball comedy and jokes about moose, Canada excels at producing prog rock, the latest example being the Zolas’ “Ancient Mars,” released in October on Light Organ Records. I don’t normally recommend this approach – I like my gratification like I like my oatmeal, instant – but “Ancient Mars” demands a gradual approach. Listen twice, more if you can.

On first listen, “Ancient Mars” is pleasant, a solid release bolstered by a few singles that I’d probably put on a mixtape a couple of times. On second listen, the album opens up with track after track hiding subtle-yet-addictive hooks, the non-singles just as elaborate and intriguing as the rest. It’s a conspiratorial rather than provocative tactic, as if the Zolas are sitting nearby to gently nudge your elbow and mutter “Did you catch that?”

Vocalist/guitarist Zachary Gray and pianist Tom Dobrzanski broke from Lotus Child in 2008 to take a break and record 2009′s “Tic Toc Tic” as the Zolas. This debut was a departure from the heavy pop orientation of Lotus Child, but still retained the verve and infectiousness of a rotatable release. “Ancient Mars” is a touch more subdued, showcasing melodies layered over shuffling rhythms, which, dare I say, sounds a little bit Britpop to me.

The Zolas and “Ancient Mars” seem just as influenced by The Shins as by Sloan. It’s a rock release assembled by musical geeks, surprising the listener with complex choices of vocabulary (“let in the cold / we defenestrate the past” from “In Heaven”) and echoey lamentation (“I’ve painted you a hundred times but I still can’t sign my name” from “Local Swan”) packed into a thoughtfully short length that tricks the ear into thinking it’s minimalist even when it isn’t.

This album is not completely sharp-edged; there is some restrained fuzz on the single “Knot In My Heart,” a track that’s perhaps the most tolerably mathematical song I’ve ever heard. “Strange Girl” is its fraternal twin, coolly upbeat with a crunching riff pairing off against chiming strings and an organ so quietly insistent that you could easily miss it on first listen. The tone and lyrical content of another track, “Cold Moon,” sounds like a previously unreleased Jeff Buckley song recorded in the time of Internet stalking, and “Observatory” includes a delightful meter manipulation to fit the title into the chorus.

While I listen to all of the albums I review several times, I’m on what is perhaps my seventh session with “Ancient Mars” and still finding treasures buried in its bedrock. It’s a rare album that grants the listener with an assumed ear and appetite, giving them so much more credit than most artists are willing to acknowledge. “Ancient Mars” whispers even when it blusters, and I’d like to nudge the Zolas right back to say “I heard everything.”

Album review: Nothing better than Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott on ‘We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This’

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
“We’re Usually a Lot Better than This”
Full Lights

In 2000 Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott released “Real Time,” a gorgeous album of duets by two complete masters of instrumentation, arrangement and performance. Beautiful.

Then the duo toured it and pretty much immediately demonstrated that there was a dimension to their playing that the recording lacked; it was a studio piece, and didn’t entirely capture the energy, spontaneity, camaraderie and humor that both O’Brien and Scott share. In a live setting, the pairing of these two performers — who can be absolutely commanding of an audience on their own — was pure unadorned fireworks.

Since that tour, I’ve often had discussions that began “Weren’t Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott fantastic at that show…” and then devolved into the kind of conversation you’d hear between grade-schoolers when discussing Pokemon cards — your basic immature enthusiasm.

This album, “We’re Usually a Lot Better than this” comes from just after the period in which they toured “Real Time.” The tracks are taken from two shows they did in 2005 and 2006, and if anything they are even more infectious than the music they created together when touring “Real Time. What really shines here is the sheer, unbridled confidence that they have in what they are doing. Neither one wants for confidence on his own, to be sure, but together it’s as if they are each pushing each other further. They take what, for others, might be real chances, but they just pony up and let fly. Their voices dance around each other, and their instruments do too.

The performances here sound spontaneous — something of a pure lark — and that’s because, to a lesser or greater extent, they really are. In the liner notes Scott writes, “Some songs we’d played [together] hundreds of times over the years, some we just did on the stage on this recording for the first time.” Gutsy, to be sure, but it’s a reminder of just how good they are at what they do.

One of the things they do so well is bring new energy to old songs and old ideas. There are some standards here, including “House of Gold,” though on this album they do it a cappella and with a kind of force and authority that raises the song from dirge to field holler. O’Brien’s delivery of “Mick Ryan’s Lament” is a stand out, as is a song that he wrote early in his solo career and which was later a hit of sorts for Garth Brooks: “When There’s No One Around” (a song that many people have covered, including Darrell Scott on his 1999 release, “Family Tree”).

The album is also a reminder that, for some people, it’s more about the performance of the songs than it is the recording of them. Yes, O’Brien has some great recordings, including “Away out on the Mountain,” and the more recent “Chameleon.” But he’s a performer, and to go to see him live is more than worth the effort. Darrell Scott is cut from entirely the same cloth. I hope that this album prompts them to head out on the road together again. Fingers crossed.

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