|Dance With Me||Beta Love|| |
|Ra Ra Riot|
|Say That||Anything In Return|| |
|Toro Y Moi|
|While I'm Alive||Miracle Mile|| |
|Katachi||In Focus?|| |
|Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us||Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us|| |
|The Ash & Clay||The Ash & Clay|| |
|The Milk Carton Kids|
Ra Ra Riot's third studio album, 2013's Beta Love, finds the Syracuse outfit delivering an electronic, keyboard-heavy effort that still retains much of the melodic songcraft and orchestral influence that marked their previous work. Having parted ways with cellist Alexandra Lawn in 2012, Ra Ra Riot were surely at a creative crossroads during the recording of Beta Love. However, the remaining bandmembers (vocalist Wes Miles, violinist Rebecca Zeller, guitarist Milo Bonacci, and bassist Mathieu Santos) did not replace Lawn and instead traveled to the warmer climes of Missouri to work with producer/engineer Dennis Herring (Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse) and a handful of guest musicians on crafting a more experimental, synthesizer-based sound. With lyrics and songs inspired by a variety of future-looking sources including author/keyboard inventor Ray Kurzweil and writer William Gibson, Ra Ra Riot employed various synthesizers to complement their already innovative mix of rock and classical instrumentation. The result is that Beta Love, while clearly a move away from the precise chamber pop of 2010's Orchard, is still an immediately infectious, harmonically intriguing album that subtly incorporates Zeller's classically trained violin chops into an even more unified band sound. In fact, Zeller's shiny violin is employed so deftly here, often in tandem with the synth lines, that the focus ends up being more on the overall sound of a song than on any one aspect of an arrangement. Also still a focal point here is Miles' angelic, resonant tenor croon that, matched with lyrics that delve into alienation in a modern world, robot love, and the eternal question of whether or not Androids dream, works as an emotional core for the album. He coos on the ebullient closing track, "I Shut Off," "Who wants a human love? A Death trap? A Suicide club? I do... I do..." While there is definitely an atmospheric, introspective, and somewhat experimental quality to many of the songs on Beta Love, as on the yearning, lyrical ballad "When I Dream," it is undeniably a dance album. Cuts like the bouncy lead-off "Dance with Me" and the positively euphoric title track are wide-eyed, neon-colored anthems that seem to find the perfect balance between Michael Jackson's "Rock with You," ELO's "All Around the World," and Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend." Which isn’t to say that the album sounds exactly like the work of any one of these artists in particular, but Beta Love does fit nicely alongside works by such similarly inclined contemporaries as Minus the Bear and Young Galaxy; bands who've explored synthesizers and '80s New Wave and adult contemporary as a way to expand their sonic palette. Ultimately though, whether robotic or human, binary or organic, it is Ra Ra Riot's gift for addictive, romantic songcraft that gives Beta Love its heart.
Matt Collar, Rovi
Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick isn’t the kind of guy who likes to repeat himself from release to release. His debut album, Causers of This, was murky, subtle chillwave, the follow-up, Underneath the Pine, was a much brighter affair that sounded equal parts space age bachelor pad music (à la Stereolab) and late-night disco. He followed that up with Freaking Out, a bubbling, funky EP, and then 2013’s Anything in Return, where he mostly casts aside the guitars that populated Underneath the Pine and sticks closer to a sleek and subdued Chill&B sound that sounds like a sadder version of Freaking Out. All the songs are dipped in shimmering layers of synths with the uptempo tracks underpinned by gently bouncing drums, the ballads with stuttering beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Miguel album. Though the arrangements are the most complex and carefully built he’s done yet, Bundick’s vocals are more out front than ever and filled with a newfound high level of passion that gives each song a strong emotional heartbeat. Despite the occasional diversion like the super sweet love song “Cake” or the percolating “Studies,” the album is a quietly melancholy late-night experience that unspools slowly and smoothly like a brilliant quiet storm mix tape. The first time through the album, it almost seems too quiet and too smooth, but repeated listens reveal the album’s strength and power. It’s almost a daring step for Bundick to take, as expanding his sound by making it brighter and simpler may have led to some mainstream success. Instead, his retreat into more complex and restrained sounds makes for a richer and more rewarding listening experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t any tracks that stand out and sound like singles; “Say That” has insistent rhythms and chopped up vocal samples that are sharply hooky, “Never Matter” has an almost Prince-ly strut that is infectious, and “Rose Quartz” is a softly pretty R&B ballad with some great falsetto. Bundick’s genius on Anything in Return is that he blends these poppy moments into the overall fabric of the album and the whole thing holds together in a tightly wound, perfectly constructed ball of sound and songcraft. It may not be the most immediately exciting album of his career, but it is the most impressive and affecting.
Tim Sendra, Rovi
Portland, Oregon indie electro act STRFKR started out as the song ideas of Josh Hodges, equal parts sweaty dance beats and indie hooks brought into focus by a synthesis of live instrumentation and electronic programming. Earlier albums like their self-titled 2008 debut and 2009 EP Jupiter were essentially homespun recordings coming alive, while 2011's Reptilians expanded their palette and their songwriting chops, as well as drawing comparisons to similarly minded electro-rock mixers like MGMT and Cut Copy. With third album Miracle Mile, a few things have changed for the quartet, and there are some immediately noticeable differences. Longtime contributor Ryan Bjornstad left the band before the recording of the album, his slot filled by once-touring guitarist Patrick Morris. In addition to the lineup shift, Miracle Mile is the first fully collaborative effort from the group. Following ceaseless touring leading up to the writing process, the entire band stole away to a remote seaside town to compose all of the 15 songs on this epic album. Instead of Hodges working as the primary songwriter, every lyric, riff, and beat was created collectively, resulting in some of the most refined and focused songs from the band to date. The dance-friendly feel of Reptilians continues here, with almost every track diving deep into a simmering midtempo strut. The album kicks off in a heavy disco mode, with Shawn Glassford's slinky basslines driving heavy burners like "Malmö" and the standout album-opener "While I'm Alive." The glowing pulse of "Atlantis" taps into just enough '80s Top 40 mojo, followed by "Leave It All Behind" with its Human League-styled keyboards and relentlessly syrupy beat somewhere between Soft Cell and Glass Candy. Miracle Mile's running time approaches an hour, which could seem overly long were it not for the unhurried groove that runs throughout most of the album. By the time we get to "Golden Light" and "Nite Rite," the one-two punch that closes the album, the icy beats and slow-motion tempos sum up the journey of nuanced late-night moods that is Miracle Mile. As a fully realized collaboration, this record sees STRFKR dimming the lights just a little bit and coming into their own more than ever before.
Fred Thomas, Rovi
Memory Tapes is one of the most relevant acts in chillwave, but soloist Dayve Hawk attempted to break barriers and get adventurous with his third album, Grace/Confusion. Here, Hawk expands on the usual dreamy, '80s-referencing sounds of the genre -- washy synthesizers, crystalline vocals, and lo-fi drum machine beats -- and goes to great lengths to avoid snappy synth pop structures. Instead, he takes a winding, prog rock approach to his pieces. As a result, most songs on the sprawling 39-minute album are two or three times longer than usual. Hawk explained in a press release that he was in a mixed-up place while recording, expressing doubts with the new direction of his project by promising a return to form on his next release. This feeling of confliction embodies the album. Select copies of 2009's Seek Magic demonstrated just how far Memory Tapes could stretch when given free rein with a 22-minute bonus track, and the schizophrenic Grace/Confusion shows signs that Hawk might rather be spreading his wings and making something completely bizarre like Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti (these moments would fall into the confusion category), but he can't quite let go of the sparkling, somewhat sterile style (or grace) that comprised the second album. "Sheila" shape-shifts from a silky Rhodes ballad along the lines of Alan Parsons Project into a modern dance groove. But, just when you think you have it pegged, a ripping buzzsaw keyboard solo is introduced, and the textures evolve into a third part. And so on. This ongoing motion keeps things interesting -- and, cleverly, because no tracks break tempo, from a distance it all seems natural and unforced.
Jason Lymangrover, Rovi
With each of his albums, Shugo Tokumaru slowly developed an ever more polished and detailed style, as well as a bigger following: his third album, Port Entropy, made the Top 40 of Japan's Oricon album chart, and this album was mastered at Abbey Road. These could be signs of a dull "maturity" in some artists, but In Focus? is so irrepressible that Tokumaru's small steps toward the mainstream only serve to give these delightful songs the clearest, cleanest setting possible. There's no denying that many of these tracks are among his most sophisticated -- or as sophisticated as songs like "Poker," which combines breezy, Brazilian-tinged pop with slide flutes and backing vocals that sound like they were chirped by cartoon birds, could possibly be. Elsewhere, there's a grown-up ease to the way "Ord Gate"'s guitars and percussion fall into place without any obvious effort (in fact, Tokumaru spent painstaking months layering the sounds on In Focus? until they were just so), and even more ornate songs such as "Helicite (LeSeMoDe)" reveal their good bones in the artful chord sequences. This mix of strong songwriting and meticulous sound-crafting only strengthens the comparisons between Tokumaru and his fellow countryman Cornelius, and tracks like "Katachi," with its loopy acoustic guitars and sparkling keyboards, sound a little like the veteran producer on a particularly folky day. Like Cornelius, Tokumaru puts a dazzling array of sounds on display throughout In Focus?; perhaps the reason the album's title ends with a question mark is because what catches the listener's attention changes with repeated listening. The filigrees on these songs are just as engaging as the tunes themselves: "Gamma" is a feast for the ears in just over 90 seconds, with marimba, xylophone, toy piano, and rubber duckie squeaks wrapped into its kaleidoscopic swirl, while "Balloon" maintains its breezy freshness even with dalliances into ragtag junkyard percussion. Elsewhere, Tokumaru delves into pure flights of fancy on the cartoonish "Pah-Paka" -- another example of how he crafts the rare kind of gleefulness that's inviting rather than annoying -- and also delivers mischievous country-pop with "Down Down" alongside one of his simplest and most poignant ballads, "Tightrope." Some of his finest and widest-ranging music yet, In Focus? offers charming proof that a more accessible approach doesn't necessarily spell creative death for a musician, especially one as freewheeling as Tokumaru.
Heather Phares, Rovi
Recorded in a bedroom in the outskirts of London, Dear… is the debut album from folk singer-songwriter Keaton Henson. Full of candid, emotive lyrics and stripped back, intimate musicianship, Dear… has been compared to the likes of Bon Iver and features the single “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are”., Rovi