#3 – Trouble Will Find Me by The National

Trouble Will Find MeLabel:  4AD

Date of Release:  21-May-2013

www.americanmary.com

It’s a grower!  Just like every album by this brilliantly morose band.

Full disclosure – High Violet by The National is one of the albums that changed my life.  I’ve bought this album three times.  I picked up the CD on its release day in May 2010, then gave it away when I bought the deluxe 2CD version on Record Store Day that autumn.  When I finally splashed out for a shiny new record player, High Violet was in the sack of LPs that I picked up on the way home.  It took repeated listens to fully open up to me but High Violet’s all-encompassing sense of melancholy and wistfulness, offset by snatches of dark comedy, is the soundtrack of my soul.

Fair to say – The National’s next album would have a lot to live up to.

Fast forward to 2013, and the Brooklyn-based band is back with Trouble Will Find Me.  Sonically, the template is much the same as last time.  There are plenty of brooding, introspective tunes, with deceptively complex arrangements, and tastefully deployed horns and strings.  Occasional bursts of distorted noise create angst-ridden counterpoints, but overall the noisy bits are fewer and further between than on High Violet, Boxer, and Alligator.  Early reviewers often remarked that the new record sounds “dull” in comparison to its predecessors, but I would argue that it’s simply just a little leaner and more grown-up.  And like one of your introverted friends, it just takes a little while to get to know.  True beauty lies within.

As always, Matt Berninger’s baritone vocals guide the attentive listener through a maelstrom of complex emotions and ideas.  The lyrics to “I Should Live In Salt” are drowning in regret, perhaps because of the protagonist’s inability to relate to family or friends as well as he would like to.  “Demons” is a little more upbeat musically, but the deadpan delivery of words peeks into the diary of a tortured soul.  In the bridge, we learn “every day I start so great, and then the sunlight dims / the less I look, the more I see the pythons in the limbs / I do not know what’s wrong with me, the sour is in the cut / when I walk into a room, I do not light it up / So I stay down, with my demons”.  To me, the lyric sounds like someone that has struggled to believe in something bigger and more profound than his own thoughts, but he remains trapped in his own well of despair.  Or maybe he chooses to stay down with his demons, because it’s the only place that makes sense to him, taking comfort in the familiar?  I love it when songs are so evocative, yet still open to multiple interpretations.

“Don’t Swallow The Cap” was the adult alternative radio single, with a breezy melody (insofar as The National’s catalogue goes) disguising a lyric that once again empathizes with someone that struggles to bring order to the chaos in his world.  “Fireproof” is a sad paean to a long-lost ‘Jennifer’, someone that was different enough from the protagonist (fireproof vs easily scarred, secretive vs an open book) that they were not meant to be together in the long run.  And yet, he retrospectively admires and envies some of her harder qualities.  Meanwhile “Sea of Love”, with its layers of fuzzy guitars and odd time signature, gives the album its title.

The centerpiece of the album is “Heavenfaced”, a pretty ballad that seems to be about the trials and tribulations of maintaining a loving relationship.  It’s a theme that seems to flow through many of the songs on the album.  Like on “This Is The Last Time”, where the exasperated subject muses on whether his complicated relationship with the mythical ‘Jenny’ is worth the effort.  In the first two-thirds of the song, a gorgeous guitar riff and rhythmic drums underpin the story of how “I wish everybody knew what’s so great about you / but your love is such a swamp”.  Later, the song abruptly switches course, diverting down a side street of mournful strings and acoustic guitar as Berninger mourns “Jenny, I am in trouble / can’t get these thoughts out of me / baby you gave me bad ideas”.

The song “Graceless” is built around an upbeat bed of drums and bass, and you may occasionally hear it on satellite radio.  Lyrically it returns to the theme of “Demons”, an introvert’s uneasiness with his place in the world, of struggling with how to tiptoe around other people’s lives with grace and dignity and meaning.  The music is slightly off-kilter and unresolved, providing the perfect foil for the subject matter.

Just like High Violet, Trouble Will Find Me is back-loaded with two of its best songs.  Matt Berninger is notorious for trying to balance his dichotomous “front-man for a major rock band” duties with his steep introversion.  By all accounts in the press, if it wasn’t for an unlimited supply of red wine he would never be able to go onstage.  To me, the words to the propulsive and melodic “Humiliation” are his way of seeing the black comedy in his chosen profession.  I especially love the funny word-play of “As the freefall advances, I’m the moron who dances / I was teething on roses, I was in guns ‘n’ noses”.  The playful, intentional slip reminds me of my favourite track on High Violet.  In the immaculate “England” he sang “you must be somewhere in London, walking Abbey Lane / I don’t even think to make corrections”.  I think Berninger feels both humiliated and energized by the trappings of being a singer in a touring band.  Every moment spent absorbing the audience’s adulation on stage is surely countered by the forced extroversion of meet & greets and soulless corporate handshaking.  Yet I’m sure he appreciates how lucky he is to have a cabal of talented musicians around him that create a safe musical arena where he can wrestle his demons.

The majestic “Pink Rabbits” feels like a second chapter to the previous album’s “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”.  Once again, a complex story unfolds over a loping, melancholy melody.  Berninger revisits the struggles of an introvert to survive in an extroverted world, and to build and maintain relationships with the people he cares about despite his all-too-frequent absence.  “Am I the one you think about when you’re sitting in your fainting chair, drinking Pink Rabbits?”  Listen carefully to the record, here and elsewhere, and you can hear dislocated echoes of calling the American east coast home but recording in Los Angeles.  “You said it would be painless, a needle in a doll / you said it would be painless, it wasn’t that at all”.  Listen to this refrain just once, and anyone with a shred of introversion will have it stuck in his or her head for days.

“Hard to Find” closes the album with a meditation on a past (perhaps a past lover, a friend, or a place to call home) that’s gone but not forgotten.  Every time I hear the line “really not that far away, I could be there in a day” I remember the life-changing trip that I took last year to a faraway land.  Maybe it’s true that the people and places that you encounter on your journey through life are never truly lost, so long as you keep them in your memory.  With a little patience and a few focused listenings, the indelible songs written by The National will likewise lodge in your memory and hopefully find you as they found me.

click to hear “Demons” by The National

#4 – Thr!!!er by !!!

Thr!!!erLabel:  Warp

Date of Release:  30-Apr-2013

www.chkchkchk.net

Blissful disco-dance-rock party from the Californian combo with the willfully obscure moniker.

!!! (or Chk Chk Chk, if you prefer something more easily pronounced and/or Googled) have made a decade-long career out of playing punk-infused, sometimes politically charged, rhythmic rock tunes.  Their previous album releases have made waves in indie rock circles, but never got beyond a cult following.  Perhaps it was high time to take a swing at something with a little more, if not mainstream, then at least some crossover appeal.  After all, dance-rock music is all the rage these days.

The magnificently named new release, Thr!!!er, dials down !!!’s punk inclinations and turns up the knob on sinewy disco rhythms.  Actually, it turns up the funk to 11, then breaks off the knob and throws it away.  The nine new tracks on Thr!!!er (the same number of songs as that other immaculately-produced Thriller album – surely not a coincidence) seamlessly ebb and flow into each other like a 40-minute DJ set.

“Even When The Water’s Cold” establishes the groove early, riding a throbbing bass line and a cyclical guitar lick.  “Get That Rhythm Right” is the rightful heir to the electro-rock throne abdicated last year by LCD Soundsystem.  “Slyd” brings some slinky house synthesizers and programmed handclaps to the dance party.

“Californiyeah” is the stand-out track, with its bouncing bass, funk guitars, and kitchen-sink percussion.  !!!’s ode to California packs forty years of Chic into four and a half minutes of euphoria.

The brilliant breakdown in “Except Death” comes out of nowhere, all funky delay pedals and four-on-the-floor drums.  The falsetto vocals and melody of “Careful” evoke the 1980s new-wave scene – I can’t help hearing the DNA of “West End Girls” in the mix – but the rhythm programming plants the song in the modern day.  The bright and boisterous “One Girl / One Boy” also smartly tips its hat to the decade of legwarmers, big hair, and acid-wash jeans.

Closing track “Station (Meet Me At The)” tries a little too hard to be a splashy up-tempo rock song; instead it comes across more like a slightly less terrible version of New Kids on the Block.  But it’s a rare blemish on an incredibly likeable, danceable album.  Thr!!!er is a lot of fun to listen to on a Saturday night.

click to hear “Californiyeah” by !!!

#5 – Opposites by Biffy Clyro

Opposites (front cover)Label:  14th Floor Records

Date of Release:  28-Jan-2013

www.biffyclyro.com

Hirsute Scottish rockers return with a sprawling double-album of full-throated glory.

Biffy Clyro are the Scottish practitioners of a brand of hard rock pitched somewhere in the same ballpark as Muse and Foo Fighters, accented by a dash of Rush power-trio goodness.  Over a series of indie releases in the UK, they honed their seemingly contradictory loves of punk and progressive rock into something with alternative radio-friendly hooks.  While 2007’s Puzzle was well received, things really started to heat up for the band internationally when their rock-solid 2009 release Only Revolutions was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize.

Four years on, and Biffy Clyro has returned with an ambitious new release called Opposites.  The sprawling double-album is split into two fraternal twins, the first half dubbed “The Sand at the Core of our Bones” and the second half called “The Land at the End of our Toes”.  Both mini-albums feature their own artwork, riffing on the surrealist spirit of the main album cover.  But to my ears, and despite the album’s title, there is no thematic segregation between the halves.  On Opposites, the band simply seems intent on exploring a variety of different sounds.

Playing against type, the big radio single is actually a straight-forward, mid-tempo rocker “Black Chandelier”. The title track continues in a similar vein, focusing on melody instead of face-shredding riffs.  The pretty ballad “Skylight” is almost completely devoid of electric guitars, and “Spanish Radio” features bursts of mariachi horns.  From this point forward, let no one ever accuse Biffy Clyro of being one-trick ponies.

But, truth be told, it’s when they get down to the serious business of Rockin’ Out that things get truly exciting.  “Biblical” disguises a surprisingly affecting melody and an undercurrent of regret with layers of squalling guitars.  “Little Hospitals” and “Stingin’ Belle” feature the band’s patented twisting time signatures and a hodgepodge of instrumentation, challenging the head-bobbing listener to keep up to the frenetic pace.  “Modern Magic Formula”, “Pocket” and “Picture a Knife Fight” dial back the polyrhythmic gymnastics for a more briskly anthemic rock sound.  One can easily imagine a festival field or an arena of sweaty lads, joyously punching their fists in the air.

I think my favourite song on the album is “Accident Without Emergency”, a slow-burner that builds to majestic choruses.  To me, it’s the pinnacle of a surprisingly solid set of ambitious, engaging rock tunes.  It’s a rare feat whenever a twenty-track album only features a few missteps.  Fans of melodic alternative rock are sure to find something ear-pleasing among the many facets of Opposites.

(epilogue: Opposites was also released in a slimmed-down, single-CD version that omits six tracks.  I suppose it might serve as a condensed introduction to Biffy Clyro’s new fans, but with the entire 20-track opus available on iTunes for less than $10 the single-CD version seems a little irrelevant).

click to hear “Biblical” by Biffy Clyro

#6 – Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit

Pedestrian VerseLabel: Atlantic

Date of Release: 4-Feb-2013

www.frightenedrabbit.com

Anthemic and affecting folk-infused music from stalwart Glaswegian indie rockers.

A great way to be exposed to emerging artists, or sometimes see bands that are established in other countries but unknown in your own, is by going to gigs and catching the opening acts. Sometimes the support act is a poorly chosen match for the headliner; sometimes the warm-up act just sucks. Seeing Alice in Chains open for Van Hagar back in the early 1990s did not boost my opinion of Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley’s crew – their sludgy, needle-drug sound just never connected with me. But once in awhile, lightning strikes and the opening act becomes one of your new favourites.

It wasn’t so long ago that I flew out to Burnaby, BC to see R.E.M. kick off a promotional tour for their Accelerate album. It would turn out to be the first night of R.E.M.’s last-ever North American tour. Also on the bill that night in Deer Lake Park were two support acts – Modest Mouse and a little-known group called The National. Modest Mouse (featuring the incomparable Johnny Marr on guitar) were pretty good. The National were a revelation. I had picked up a copy of Boxer the previous winter and, in the early summer of 2008, was just starting to fall in love with it. That support gig, maybe an hour in length, made me a fan of The National for life.

And so it was that I flew out to the west coast again this year to catch The National as the headliner at the PNE Amphitheatre. Their support act on that cool, drizzly Vancouver evening was a little-known outfit called Frightened Rabbit. Little known to me, anyway. Turns out these Scottish blokes have amassed quite a dedicated fanbase back in the UK. Intrigued, I picked up a vinyl copy of their fourth full-length album (and major-label debut) called Pedestrian Verse back in June and spent some time absorbing it this summer.

Turns out, lightning had struck once again.

Even if you only listen to the music, Pedestrian Verse is a rewarding indie-rock album. Slow-burning tracks like “Acts of Man”, “State Hospital” and “Nitrous Gas” explore the spaces between instruments, giving the guitars and vocals room to reverberate off the walls. Elsewhere, songs like “Holy” and “Late March, Death March” have that anthemic sense of urgency and propulsion normally associated with Arcade Fire. The bass line from “Holy”, seemingly on loan from New Order’s Peter Hook, is a joy to behold. At its core this is a guitar rock album, but with plenty of stylistic and rhythmic variety to keep things interesting.

But what makes Pedestrian Verse exceptional are the lyrics. If you’re a fan of, say, Billy Connolly or Craig Ferguson, you know that the Scots have a wickedly black sense of humour. Usually not cynical or sarcastic, instead they have a sublime gift for commenting on the tragic comedy of modern life from a deliciously skewed perspective. Scott Hutchison’s prodigious grasp of the English language is on display throughout this album. When referring to the adulterous skeletons in some of our closets on “Backyard Skulls”, he sings “Below our homes, underneath the lawns we keep / white silent skulls are smiling at the hypocrisy / backyard skulls, deep beneath the ground / those backyard skulls are not deep enough to never be found”.

Elsewhere, “State Hospital” tells the tale of a poor lass who struggles to cope with the poverty and misery that she was born into. The chorus darkly intones that “her heart beats like a breezeblock thrown down the stairs / her blood is thicker than concrete / forced to be brave, she was born into a grave”. The closing line of “but if blood is thicker than concrete, all is not lost” reveals the defiantly optimistic Scottish soul that yearns to both recognize, and ultimately overcome, adversity. It is very affecting stuff, and little nuances reveal themselves with each subsequent listen.

Sometimes, it pays off handsomely to check out the support acts at music concerts. Trust me – the merch table and the cold beer vendor can wait for later. If you’re very lucky, you might just discover another band as talented as Frightened Rabbit.

click to hear “State Hospital” by Frightened Rabbit

#7 – Junip (self-titled) by Junip

junipLabel:  Mute

Date of Release:  23-Apr-2013

www.junip.net

Trippy late-night Swedish folk-tronica.

The internet may have created chaos for the commercial side of the music industry, but it has also made it much easier for music fans to discover new artists from every corner of the world.  Every year, I seem to find a cool album by a band from a faraway land, completely off the North American mainstream musical radar.  This year, that album is the self-titled second full-length release by a Swedish trio called Junip.

If I had to characterize this band’s sound, I guess I would go with “electronic folk”.  The songs tend to be built around acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and drums.  The prevailing mood is autumnal and unhurried, making songs like “Line of Fire” and “Your Life Your Call” a fine soundtrack for unwinding after a long, stressful day.  The slightly more up-tempo “So Clear” rides a head-nodding synth groove, building slowly to its cathartic choruses.

Despite its title, the song “Suddenly” is in no particular hurry to go anywhere.  Nylon-string guitars, synths, and what sound like wooden blocks all serve the song’s easy-going melody.  “Villain” briefly amps up the angst and distortion, but at a tick of the clock less than two minutes it’s a momentary diversion.  “Walking Lightly” steers the listener right back into trippy electronic-folk country.  If you liked the Beta Band’s “Dry the Rain” – as featured in the movie High Fidelity – then you will most likely enjoy this record too.

The second-last track, mysteriously dubbed “Beginnings”, is particularly somber and rhythmic.  It masterfully sets the stage for the pretty closer, “After All Is Said And Done”.  I suspect this song’s dream-inducing slow groove and melody has found its way onto more than a few late-night Swedish playlists.

I forget where I first heard about this record.  Might have been in one of the UK music magazines I follow (Q, Mojo, Uncut), might have been a random blog posting.  Regardless, I’m glad that in 2013 I crossed paths with Junip – both the band and their self-titled album.

click to hear “Line of Fire” by Junip