Aural Impressions: Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney Barnett is one of those musical acts that basically dropped on me from heaven one day.  A simple coincidence led to an interest piqued, and one album listen later, and I was hooked.  Just two years ago, I sat outside enjoying the late spring sun to her optimstic, laid-back, yet energetic stylings and I haven’t let that feeling go since.  Hell, the catchy, escalating narrative of “Avant Gardener,” from her second EP, inspired me to get out of the house and do yard work.   As soon as she announced a show in town last year, I didn’t think twice about snagging tickets, even if they were fairly expensive.  I caught Courtney Barnett in Oakland with Kurt Vile and the Sea Lice in the fall, and then again in San Francisco earlier this month in the first real show of her latest tour.  To begin this show, she played through the entirety of her newest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel.  Ironically, I couldn’t really get a feel for the album live, as the sound at stage front was somewhat difficult to make out — the venue had opened only a day earlier and I don’t think the room was quite tuned yet.  However, I recall very much liking several of the new songs, especially the closing tracks of the record.  Whether or not my live impressions hold up will be determined — right now:

  1. Hopefulessness:  Detuned and grim, this is a dark start for a second record.  I adore the guitar riff though — it’s grungy and resonant.  A stark contrast to the jounce of “Elevator Operator,” this song is mute, claustrophobic, and trance-inducing, with an extremely slow crescendo adding stiff percussion and transient production effects like synth pads and, ultimately screeching feedback.  A spacey guitar solo struggles to stand out in the cacophony by the end, but that only adds to the tight, closed-off feeling we started with.  And I’m pretty sure that’s a tea-kettle whistling there at the end.  This is a great opener for what aims to be a fairly different album than we’ve heard from Courtney before.
  2. City Looks Pretty:  A burst of energy after a slow climb, we’re back in that Sometimes I Sit… area of liveliness.  The song pushes forward on the back of a steady guitar-drum mix, sprinkled with blasts of distorted guitar and climbing bass riffs.  The chorus is so uplifting musically that I can see the sun coming out in my mind’s eye.  At the midpoint, we take an abrupt turn into 3/4 time at half speed, with the drum instrumentation being reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” and playing alongside, the same sort of bluesy clean guitar riffs and solos that had been prominently featured on Courtney’s first album.  This song is pretty fantastic as is, but honestly it could have been longer.  That second half could have lingered for a few minutes more and I would have loved it.
  3. Charity:  There’s something supremely nostalgic buried in that syncopated chord progression, whilst I find that pre-chorus riff screaming of a Sleater-Kinney-style polyphonic-guitar riot grrrl sound, if only for a moment.  Courtney’s singing is a bit subdued given how lively and bright the music is, but that’s kind of her thing, isn’t it?  Musically, it’s fairly simple, although the chords take a few neat unexpected twists and turns throughout the boilerplate sequences, specifically during the choruses; those changes create incredibly satisfying transition points between stanzas and verses.  This might be my early favorite for the album; I can see myself putting this on repeat for a while.
  4. Need A Little Time:  With a slowly strummed minor-key guitar and little to no flourishes in production, this feels a little bit enervating in the wake of the last few rockers.  It reminds me a bit of the feel of the first EP and its stripped-down pieces, though; it’s rough around the edges, for better or worse.  Twice during this plodding affair, we’re treating to rockin’ solos, the first one shattering the first half din, whilst the second, a repetition at a lower octave, finishes off the song suddenly.  While okay, this song doesn’t really have a hook that would bring me back to it over and over, unfortunately.
  5. Nameless, Faceless The opening single from the record, this was a bit of a different sound to bring us into this new era.  A crunchy, dissonantly descending guitar riff leads into a lightly upbeat ballad with sarcastic lyrics pointedly directed at every angry young man who chooses to take out their frustrations on women.  The chorus features vocals sunken deep into the mix, which get raspier and more strained as the choruses repeat, especially when performed live.  It’s a rather simple, repetitive song that harkens back to that early ’90s grunge sound that’s been flirted with a few times so far on this album.  It’s not a bad lead-off single, but it’s not my favorite either.  It does have the propensity to get stuck in my head though, so it’s got that going for it.
  6. I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch:  As the title implies, this short interlude is ferocious.  It’s noisy and conflicted, flipping between crashing chords, slimy guitars, and disjointed solos.  Basically, the twisted sequel to “Pedestrian at Best,” or if Courtney Barnett did a less energetic interpretation of Sleater-Kinney’s “Surface Envy.”  A killer track, for sure.
  7. Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack of Self Confidence:  Now this sounds like it came straight from her early works — the staccato dual chord that kicks it off, echoing the beginning of her song “David,” is all it takes for me to put myself back in that space.  The upbeat jumpy guitar through the verses is basically the sound of her debut album, so this song is an updated remix of the general Courtney Barnett essence.  Given the title, I wonder if that was a conscious choice.  Joining Courtney on this track are Kim Deal from the Pixies and her sister Kelley, providing layered backing vocals through the mantric choruses.   This one is also short, but sweet.  I like it.
  8. Help Your Self:  Groovy!  Solo drums lead off here, into a thick, undulating, multi-tracked guitar and bass riff.  Is that a cowbell I hear?  Vocals are clean and upfront in the mix.  The lead guitar, as has been common all record, treads into Carrie Brownstein territory once again.  Toward the end, it bursts into a shrieking, fuzzy solo, featuring the kind of clashing scales that are common on The Woods, while also reminding me a bit of latter-day Muse, if that’s possible.
  9. Walkin’ On Eggshells:  As I mentioned up top, this begins the set of two songs that I recall most liking at the show.  More than any other on the record, this captures the feel of her first EPs.  Backing vocals from the guys in the band make their first noticeable appearance on this album, along with a piano in accompaniment.  There’s a slight twang  in her guitar, creating an intentionally unpolished feeling.  Drums on the quarters during the chorus are classic Courtney.  I was right to have liked this song live — it’s chill, lovely, and an easy favorite.
  10. Sunday Roast:  According to Courtney at the show, she wrote this song when she was very young.  It, like the preceding track, is chill, but in an extremely polished, nebulous way.  The wide, floating reverb, heavy bass, and tom-laden drums immediately bring The National to mind; it’s melancholic with purpose.  I find myself liking the first half mainly because of my affinity for The National, but Courtney’s vocals too excel in this environment — this just makes me want the two to collaborate now.  As the second chorus comes in, the foggy shroud is blown wide open.  In its place are an extremely optimistic verse and happy guitars.  It’s a decently strong conclusion, even if I far preferred the first half of the track, and also considering that it fades out in the end.  As a whole, it’s solid.

It didn’t really take a lot for this new album to grow on me.  I had gone in with lowered expectations — I caught some mixed reviews before release, and the first three songs put out didn’t necessarily grab me the right way.  That said, the remaining tracks that fill out the album are pretty wonderful.  It works much better as a whole, and boy, if I could go back in time and see her again, having heard the album first, I would have appreciated it way the hell more.  What’s not so good is okay, and what’s good is great — despite some extra melancholy and ferocity compared to previous records, there’s still a ton of sunny vibes here to get me through the summer.

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Aural Impressions: Our Lady Peace, Somethingness

Six months ago, Our Lady Peace released their first long-form collection of music in over five years — four songs in an EP, a preview of a full album to come later.  After a brief wait, that full album is now here, adding five more songs to the four we’ve already heard.  The full album is also known as Somethingness, and it clocks in at just 33 minutes, which doesn’t seem like much given the nearly six year wait.  Now, I really liked at least half of the EP.  How does the rest of the album fare?  Let’s see.  My impressions of the previously released songs can be found in the EP post, linked below.

  1. Head Down:  We kick off with pounding drums, chock full of reverb, and a wordless falsetto hook.  The chord progression drops briefly into a minor mood, which is always welcome.  The vocals are buried a bit into the mix and a steady fuzzy bass drives the verse.  80s-style sharp synths punctuate the verse to add some color.  The chorus is rather unremarkable, with Maida’s strained belting not making any kind of notable impact on me.  The bass plods and guitars stay sheltered behind it.  A piano adds some texture to the latter half of the second verse, before we return to the basic bridge.  The bridge takes a interesting turn with a stuttering series of three half-step descending chords, radically changing the feel of the song for a brief moment.  It’s not a bad song, it’s just rather unmemorable.  Raine Maida’s obviously lost a step on the vocals, but at least he makes good use of falsetto here, and throughout the album.  Given how clear his falsetto is in comparison to his normal register, I don’t see why he wouldn’t use it even more.
  2. Nice to Meet You:  Easily my favourite of the Somethingness Vol. 1 EP, and perhaps my favourite OLP song since 2005.  See previous post for more.
  3. Ballad of a Poet:  Now hang on a second, a challenger appears!  The strength of this song lies in its restraint — it starts with a solo guitar playing an riff, along with blooping echo effects, and a crystal clear synth.  Madia’s soft vocals are up front and clean.  As the verse goes on, the bass and a kick drum add to a building mix, whose crescendo appears headed to a massive chorus, however it holds back and transitions back into a warmly moving verse.  The pre-chorus falsetto makes an awesome ethereal sound in an exceptionally grounded song.  The inevitable stadium-filling sound hits by the last chorus, but again, it’s not obnoxious or out of place; it earns its size over the course of the song.  We end as we began, with guitar, vocals, and synth.  I would say this might be my favourite song of the new five.  Right now it’s not quite good enough to top “Nice to Meet You,” but it’s different enough to perhaps pass it depending on my mood.
  4. Hiding Place For Hearts:  A good song!  See previous post for more.
  5. Drop Me In The Water:  I feel rather meh about this one.  See previous post for more.
  6. Missing Pieces:  Sliding electric guitar and clean acoustic chords here remind me a bit of George Harrison, but that’s about where the similarities end.  This is a slow, yet driven song with a twinge of sadness.  A plain synth starts to hum steadily in the atmosphere.  Vocal rustiness aside, this captures some of the trademark sharp gloom of early-mid OLP.  Silence in instrumentation is wielded effectively here as the heavy, hat-filled drums start and stop.  There’s another falsetto laden hook, yet I just cannot seem to tire of that sound.  Whatever’s gotten into the studio has certainly pushed this band back in the right direction.  This song just pushes on and on with interjections of guitar, bass meanders, and vocal flourishes, and I rather love it.  It feels modern, clean, and solid.  And, despite what I said about previous songs, I think I might actually rank this as the best of the full album.  It’s just really good.
  7. Falling Into Place:  It has its moments.  See previous post for more.
  8. Let Me Live Again:  Things feel different today.  Drop the vocals an octave, and this song (the verses, specifically, compared with “Val Jester“) would almost fit on an early The National record.  There’s a lot of space here in the verses, between a multi-tracked set of picked arpeggiated guitars, light drums, and extremely subdued vocals.  The choruses explode in a blast of light with strong falsetto vocals, fully overdubbed guitars, and crashing drums.  The first is short, but as the second verse concludes, the following full chorus sees us through to the end of the song, more or less.  There are chord changes that activate my frisson, albeit briefly.  The quick instrumental-ish bridge hides a great sequence of rolling bass riffs beneath its cacophonous vocal cries and guitar.  There’s something very 90s about this sound.  Not OLP 90s, but somewhere between alternative rock and grunge.  In fact, a couple of the chords created between the different guitar riffs match up nicely with the second half of Pearl Jam’s “Black,” to give you an example of where I’m coming from.
  9. Last Train:  We finish off this album with a tremolo guitar and space, for a moment.  A dissonant acoustic guitar jumps in and pushes us forward in a choppy rhythm.  Bass is steady and unforgiving as tremolo pops in and out throughout the background.  The chorus doesn’t get big, but merely changes the flavour with its shifting chords and clashing guitar intervals.  The way the vocals keep things moving reminds me a lot of the song “Skin The Rabbit” off the last Dispatch record.  On the other hand, the post-chorus falsetto chant reeks of Nirvana.  Like the titular train, this song just goes ever forward as it began; after a brief lull with a high-passed bridge, it concludes with another chorus.  I’m having flashbacks again to the 90s with this song, but I don’t really know why.  It doesn’t sound like anything OLP, and it certainly doesn’t go any farther with the aforementioned Nirvana comparison than a few discrete moments in the vocals.  I like it, though.

Even with the full record here, I don’t know what I can add to my already noted thoughts.  This is a worthy continuation of an EP that far exceeded (albeit, low) expectations.  Of these new five songs, only “Head Down” is one I would consider subpar, and even that isn’t remotely close to as bad as the worst songs the band had produced in the last decade were.  That said, I have yet to listen to the whole thing as a complete package.  With a reshuffled tracklisting, I cannot yet be sure if it really works as a whole cohesive work.  On their own though, these new songs represent the best collection Our Lady Peace has created since probably 2000.  There’s no overwhelming nostalgia here, though it has its shining moments — what there is is just a handful of great sounding rock songs.  If this sound continues to evolve, I will again be a happy OLP fan.

 

Aural Impressions: The National, Sleep Well Beast

At long last, the wait is over.  Ever since 2013, not long after the release of Trouble Will Find Me, I’ve been longing for a new album from The National.

Okay, that’s not quite true.  While, I didn’t really know about The National until 2012 (thank you, Game of Thrones!), I didn’t even listen to Trouble Will Find Me until my Cascadia adventure in 2013, and even then, I only listened to it once.  In retrospect, I don’t get it.  Today, The National is one of my absolute favorite bands, and they really really took their time weaving their way into my life.  It took me another four months after that to listen to Boxer, and still six more before I even sniffed their remaining albums.  Once they took root, though, they’ve held on tightly.  The National was my most listened to band of 2014.  They’ve slipped (pun not intended) a bit as time went on, though I did finally end up seeing the band live for the first time last year.  They were awesome — everything else around the concert sucked, but that’s neither here nor there.  They played six new songs, five of which are on the new release, Sleep Well Beast.  It would be yet another year and change before these songs finally came out of the studio, and I must say, Sleep Well Beast was worth the wait.  For a seventh studio album, it’s unbelievably good.  There are few bands who generate outstanding music so consistently and The National is up in rarefied air.  Without further ado, my impressions of this gorgeous new record:

  1. Nobody Else Will Be There:  A solemn opening track, this one sets the table for the album to come.  Already the sonic space is filled with new textures and shapes, electronic clicks and hums.  It’s suddenly broken by a heavy piano and the characteristic, heartfelt vocals of Matt Berninger.  Yep, it’s The National.  This song is reserved, melancholic, and slow — it reminds me of a winter night.  It takes major turns in the chorus and bridge, adding a bit of light to an otherwise grim, lonely sound.  If this is a sign of what’s to come, Sleep Well Beast is going to be an emotional ride.
  2. Day I Die:  Wham!  Quiet synth gives way to a raucous drum and twitchy, crashing guitar.  Here’s the explosive energy that occasionally dotted the band’s last few spectacular albums.  The instrumentation isn’t exceptionally complex, but the drumming is absurdly good.  It’s easily the lead sound of the song as well as its main driving force.  Oh hey, a reference to “Val Jester!”  Neat.  I’m also loving the use of piano throughout this album from what I’ve heard (singles & live tracks), which is always welcome.  As a whole, I think “Day I Die” is pretty good, if a bit repetitive.  I’m sure it will grow on me more.
  3. Walk It Back:  Of the new songs I’d heard live a year ago, this was the one that struck me the most immediately.  Lead by a choppy synth, piano chords, and a floaty guitar, I think it’s mainly the chord progression and lyrics that grabbed me.  Matt’s vocals are almost atonal in the beginning of the verses, staying in his trademark low baritone throughout.  It’s spacey and subdued, much like the opening track. “Walk It Back” doesn’t particularly build up very much, bringing in only slightly more intricate drums and guitar during the bridge.  There is a spoken monologue during this point, which is a curious choice; I’d almost rather listen to the backing instrumentation alone here, which is a low keyboard intertwined with guitar and steady bass.  The long outro feels almost like a new song, but it maintains the restraint of the first half.  It doesn’t sound like I remember, but that’s probably just my fault.  The National to me has always been about growing into their songs — why should this album be different?
  4. The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness:  The first single released to the world from Beast, “System” revealed a few new things about The National’s latest sound: the first thing we hear is a heavily processed set of female vocals, then another sharply crashing guitar, along with piano.  The bass is crispy.  Synths are ubiquitous.  It reminds me a little of EL VY for some reason.  When Matt’s vocals start to soar, the song really takes off in pursuit.  A crunchy guitar solo enters; a sound we hadn’t really heard before on National records, yet it doesn’t really seem out of place either.  So far the energy has been off and on for this record, and I have a feeling that’s going to continue.
  5. Born to Beg:  And we’re back to the downbeat, featuring another piano with blocky chords, soft vocals, and percussive bloops for structure.  The progression reminds me a little of “England,” while the vocal harmonies of the chorus add a broad, ethereal feel.  It’s kind of amazing how consistent this band is; this song, additional electronics aside, could fit at home on either High Violet or Trouble Will Find Me quite well.  It’s chill, and again somewhat mournful.  Not the most memorable song, but I like it.
  6. Turtleneck:  Immediately this song is a blast, with multi-layered guitars, upfront bass, and a chaotic drumbeat.  The low low vocals combined with machine-gun strumming are a treat.  There’s been an unleashing here; the guitars are out of control, the vocals are rough and agitated, and the production is unpolished, presumably intentionally.  It’s got a live feel, as well as a retro studio feel.   Another guitar solo comes in, this one reminiscent of psychedelic-era Beatles, and before you know it, it’s over.  I can’t tell if this song is amazing or completely out of place, or both.  It doesn’t match the aural aesthetic of the album at all; it’s almost like an angry sequel to “Mr. November” — from The National, it doesn’t get much heavier than this.
  7. Empire Line:  This was my least favorite song among those played at the concert last year.  I was wrong.  Very wrong.  Amidst deep echoing percussion arises a High Violet-sounding reverberating guitar.  A slow plodder, the vocals are the focal point here.  The chorus breaks the low-key noise of the verse with a distant piano. Live the piano is much more upfront and distracting; here it’s deployed much better.  Physical drums slowly grow to push the song ahead, while the sonic landscape widens with guitars, strings, and various effects.  Toward the end, it feels almost as if the instruments are being swallowed as deep bass growls, yet the vocals remain clear.  The production on this track is phenomenal.  It sounds great in the studio.
  8. I’ll Still Destroy You:  Sampled vocal synths and a lively set of clicks and hits kick us off here.  Hang on, we’ve got a marimba!  And an accordion-like pad.  Oh, I like the progression on this one.  The piano is in the background but adds a ton of momentum.  As the chorus hits, the instruments diversify to an amazing degree.  I’m not even sure what’s all here.  A mandolin?  The marimba returns.  The drums are tight and swift.  Suddenly, it’s wide open again, with only pads, subtle electronics, and whatever that mandolin-sounding instrument is, fluttering above.  The texture here is wonderful.  It almost feels like a closing track with its crescendo, brightness, and optimism.  Of course, the lyrics say otherwise, but this is The National, after all.  It closes with a maelstrom of swirling strings, insane drums, and uniform bass.  Wow.  Definitely a standout on an already solid album.
  9. Guilty Party:  Beginning with another assortment of electronic percussion and a glitchy effect track, this one quickly breaks into another mournful piano progression, one very similar to “Day I Die,” in fact.  There’s a soft, reverb-heavy vocal.  A guitar quietly wails in the background.  The bass rides high and clean.  Bryan comes in with a quick, stuttering acoustic, providing an energetic contrast to the slow, deliberate piano.  A couple of arpeggiating, poly-rhythmic guitars come in during the bridge, again very reminiscent of Radiohead amidst an otherwise very National-sounding scape.  The verse and chorus repeat several times, each subtly building upon the predecessors as they’re joined by various other instruments including a staccato brass, strings, and additional electronic effects.  It’s a long, repetitive song, yet somehow it doesn’t feel tiresome or boring.  In fact, it might just be my favorite off the album, but it’s among tough competition, especially the next track…
  10. Carin at the Liquor Store:  A slow, piano based track, filled with heavy, syncopated chords in a simple 3/4 rhythm, it’s somewhat reminiscent of “Pink Rabbits,” if optimistic.  Of the singles, this was the first one that grabbed me immediately, so much so that upon first listen I sat myself at the piano and learned it one chord at a time by ear.  The chorus adds some weighty bass and a simple, effective drum, while a distorted guitar fills up space during a brief, straightforward solo.  Like several others on the album, it’s slightly repetitive, however it ends way sooner than it feels like it should.  Beautifully simple, I adore this song and I want more of it.
  11. Dark Side of the Gym:  Driven by an electric piano and a 6/8 shuffling beat, this one has the unmistakable feel of a high-school slow dance from a time before I was born.  It’s also somewhat reminiscent of old-school National — I’m talking Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers style.  It’s upbeat with a tinge of sadness, a ton of warmth, and a rather fitting upward key change halfway through.  The chorus here uses a i-III-VII-IV chord progression, which, although common, is still one of my favorites.  Overall, this song isn’t my favorite, but there is definitely something magical about it.
  12. Sleep Well Beast:  Sped-up synths from “I’ll Still Destroy You” plus the electronic drums from “Guilty Party” kick us off on the closing track.  The piano staggers not unlike “Hard to Find,” the previous album’s closer. Atmospheric guitars screech quietly.  Matt mumbles, as if he just sang the whole album just now.  There are Reznor-like electronic flourishes and Radiohead-like heavy bloops.  Structure is somewhat lacking, made clearer only by Bryan’s tom-heavy percussion. It’s almost a noise-collage, with the vocals falling ever deeper into the background, making reference to previous songs as the music had already done.  Does that make this a concept album?  It’s a pretty bookend, making a neat thematic circle with “Nobody Else Will Be There.”  It’s so dense, though, I’m going to need to listen to this many many many more times in order to really get a feel for it.

And that’s kind of the story of the album.  Like every other release by The National, I listened to it once or twice, noted the standout songs, forgot the rest, and slept on it for too long (presumably).  Sleep Well Beast is absolutely beautiful, incredibly well produced, and moving.  It follows nicely in the footsteps of BoxerHigh Violet, and Trouble Will Find Me, finishing a remarkable decade of high quality music that makes its artistic departures slowly and deliberately.  Because of the aforementioned nature of The National, I don’t feel at all ready to rate this album among its predecessors; I like it better than High Violet at first listen, but that doesn’t mean much because High Violet is easily my least-listened to album among those three.  That one is still growing on me too.  Overall, the melancholic theme is consistent, the alternating between chill and energy is enough to keep attention, and the music, instrumentation, and melodies are gripping, though not immediately memorable.  That is to say, they’re in there, they just need to grow.  I’m sure they will; I’ll likely have this album on repeat for the rest of the year, especially in the winter.  Going to see The National again next month will certainly force me to take a few long listens of their music.  I can’t wait.