Archive for the Review Category

Music Review: Actress – R.I.P (2012)

Posted in 2012, Music, Review with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2012 by liffeymusic

Many artists have multiple levels of depth — say, an easily noticeable coating of production gloss with a more edifying layer of songwriting beneath for those who choose to dwell longer.  In the case of Actress (aka Darren Cunningham, London-based producer and founder of the Werk Disks label) , these layers are separated by a rather daunting chasm; it’s quite easy to nod your head to the rigorous Maze, or the space-born Purple Splazsh (both from Splazsh, 2010), but neither are readily catchy enough to engrave themselves into a listener’s mind without their knowing consent.  There’s nothing so convoluted about the music that the inner workings can’t be sensed to some degree even by the uninitiated, but Splazsh intimidated with rigidly uniform beats, which were both a source of tactile immediacy and a stern palisade that blocked entry to the depths of the world within to many saunterers by.

R.I.P removes those bars in favor of a pane of glass, through which one might peer and from a distance observe a foreign plane of existence, one with ant-like order and business mindedness.  Sounds trickle, mesh and reflect, sometimes with strict purpose and sometimes seemingly at random, like the colors of a holographic picture which you can never quite seem to view from the perfect angle.  It’s by far his most abstract work, which oddly enough causes a rift in the expected structures in a way that allows for a shifted point of view and a deeper, more fascinating glimpse of Cunningham’s work as a whole.  This new-found transparency may be shocking to those accustomed to his old work, but it puts a new perspective on the multi-faceted world of engineering that he’s methodically revealed over the past few years.  This brings up a distinctive characteristic of Actress’s utopia — he never gives away whether he’s discovering it right along with us; if he is, he’s taking it all in as though he accepts this new residence with inhuman levels of contentedness.  As a result, we never feel that anything is underdeveloped or out of place.  This is how the music was found to be.

With the heavily techno-derived beats now largely eroded, what’s left are techno songs trapped in an ambient body.  You can clearly see the veins below the skin, but as Cunningham casts various lights upon the flesh, cools and warms scatter beneath the surface, abstracting all perception with a spellbinding effect that, when fully taken in, refuses the listener permission to look away.  This amoebic layer of flesh only occasionally thins enough for the club-ready beats to claw out, and even then they remain dripping in alien innards so thick, they defy such a utilitarian mindset.

New listeners might observe that these tracks don’t seem to have a destination or possess any story-like sense of progression.  Many of them simply fade in, relay an idea or image, and fade back out.  And that’s precisely the point.  They are not tales, and there is no agenda.  They are artifacts, fragmented viewports whose very existence indicate that there is a story to be uncovered, but will require of the listener careful-minded reconstruction.  They do not exist to move you.  You exist to project movement into them.

Does that makes this a masterpiece, as many might be eager to declare?  No — or at least, it’s not meant to be.  It’s simply the next step in a spiritual exercise for Cunningham, and for us, the third window into an electronic psyche that pulsates with a life as devoid of recognizable emotion as it is filled with soul-searching duty.  It doesn’t try to lead you anywhere, because it doesn’t even care that you’re there.  You might very easily walk away and remember only the fact that a novelty candy shop exists, or you may linger at the glass a while longer.  There’s an endlessly observable civilization carrying on inside.  Study it.  Absorb it.  Occupy it.

9.6/10

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Music Review: Solar Bears – She Was Colored In (2010)

Posted in 2010, Music, Review with tags on November 15, 2010 by liffeymusic

Irish electronica duo Solar Bears’ debut album, She Was Colored In is a genuine love letter to the masters of electronica that have come before it. Like many of its predecessors it is lush and icy, stressing a contrast between cold and warm, technology and nature. As far as it goes it can be considered a relative success. However, it falls short of being noteworthy when compared to its peers due to the fact that it is so admiring, but not necessarily fully understanding. Solar Bears are still in the learning process, mimicking the masters. That’s fine, and is to be expected, but as it stands now, their debut album doesn’t leave much of a mark.

She Was Colored In suffers from an overly sparse, sometimes jagged landscape, sounding like an awkward blend of Air, M83 and Black Moth Super Rainbow. I have no problem with minimal electronic music by any means, but Solar Bears fall short because they fail to make the genre their own. They lack both the confidence and the innovation that is essential in a genre where every note counts. With neither youthful daring or experienced proficiency driving their sound, the album washes over uneventfully. For those ready for yet another album full of sun-drenched synths and arpeggiating icicle melodies, it’s hard to imagine that Solar Bears won’t satisfy, but that’s only because they’re staying true to a well exercised formula.

I can’t say that Solar Bears make no effort to separate themselves. In a genre more likely to rely on dubstep, techno or glitch based beats, Solar Bears tend to flirt more with the rock side of things; they even feature occasionally distinctive lead guitar work. Thankfully, they typically don’t engage in the bombast of rock (with a few stagnant exceptions such as “Dolls”), choosing instead to respect the established restrained appeal of the vein of electronic music established by Aphex Twin and upheld today by modern electronic artists such as Pantha du Prince and Actress. The result is a respectable homage to the genre. This could be a negative or a positive depending on how you see things; if you’re happy to the tread the waters, then by all means give Solar Bears a try, but if you’d prefer to follow the current then there are certainly more impacting artists to invest in, in terms of both influence on the genre and the music itself.

I wanted to like this album a lot more than it paid off in the end. It sounds pleasant; too pleasant in fact, and all too familiar, causing it to feel worn out before you have had the chance to overplay it. The album unfortunately suffers from sounding like an inconsequential ripple on the far edge of a great splash. Solar Bears might have been able to stand next to the artists who caused he splash had they existed at the right time. I feel wrong saying that; after all, shouldn’t we judge the music alone for what it’s worth, regardless of the context of the times? Ideally yes, but Solar Bears sound too much like an afterthought, albeit a happy afterthought, to ignore the superiority and timeliness of their mentors.

Final Score: 66/100



Music Review: Menomena – Mines (2010)

Posted in 2010, Music, Review with tags , , , , on July 21, 2010 by liffeymusic

Menomena don’t exactly defy genre, but they draw influence from such a wide pool that it’s hard to compare them to any certain acts. They’re a rock band of course, but when you dash in all the little extra details and instruments, it becomes more and more difficult to pin down. This is true of Mines more than any past Menomena album, and as a result it’s their most satisfying and, I would expect, most enduring album yet.



The first thing that strikes me about Mines is the level of detail. Menomena have always been fine craftsman, but they take it to a new level here. As remarkable as the amount of detail is the quality of the production; I don’t know know that I’ve ever heard an album featuring so many layers of sounds without ever letting them smudge into each other. If you aren’t already sporting high-end headphones, this is the sort of album that will make you itch for a pair. It’s impossible to take in all the details with only a few listens, and the songwriting is the most challenging that Brent has offered yet. It’s not a difficult album to enjoy, but it undoubtedly has the highest payoff of any Menomena album thus far.



One negative result of the less accessible songwriting and deluge of details is that this album doesn’t deliver some of the straightforward hooks that the previous album, Friend and Foe, offered. There’s no “Wet and Rusting” here, nor are there any tracks to match the vicious “The Pelican.” This a little bit of a turn-off at first, and even though it’s pretty easy to get over this issue, it still would have been nice to have a couple songs that more emphatically establish themselves as single material. Also, despite the enormous level of activity on the album, there are a few brief areas, such as on the appropriately named “Sleeping Beauty,” that won’t vie for your attention if you’re not already offering it.



However, there is no need to worry that Mines is merely attempting to disguise hook inadequacy with studio tricks; this album has it’s own set of teeth. You probably won’t remember the vocal lines to “BOTE” at first, but the badass slide guitar and punctuated brass (which is way too easy to sing “ME-NO-ME-NA!” to) will echo in your brain long after the track has ended, and after the instrumental bombast has drawn you back for several more listens, the vocals begin to worm their way into the mix. Before you know it, you end up with a highly addictive track that is engaging on several levels. Menomena use this strategy throughout the album. You’ll probably repeat “TAOS” to sing along about not being the most cock-sure guy, but a barrage of big band layers will soon shift your attention, remaking it hard to choose whether to sing along or take it all in.


The music is never goofy, but it’s easy to tell that the band mates have a sense of humor and a willingness to indulge in quirks. Thankfully, they also have the intelligence to do so in ways that support the follow of the album and keep the listener fully engaged rather than for indulgence’s sake. The aforementioned “TAOS” and “BOTE” offer the highlights as far as volume goes, but there are plenty of well placed mood shifts. “Lunchmeat” and “Dirty Cartoons” share some of the minimal, post-punk tendencies of Friend and Foe, while “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy” and “INTIL” offer potent moments of tension, build-up and release that avoid the common pitfall of feeling inorganic and forced into being epic. “Five Little Rooms” touches back to a borderline ska element of Menomena’s past that is a bit more subdued for the most part on Mines.



Mines does a very admirable job of advancing Menomena’s sound to new territories both in terms of mood and technical proficiency without, for the most part, forgetting what made past albums endearing to so many. If I Am the Fun Blame Monster and Friend and Foe left room for questions, Mines should alleviate any doubt; this trio has managed to create and master a sound that is truly their own, and for that they undoubtedly deserve a new level of success.

Score: 8.8/10

Highlights: “TAOS”, “BOTE”, “Oh Pretty Boy, You’re Such a Big Boy”, “INTIL”

Music Review: Stars – The Five Ghosts (2010)

Posted in 2010, Music, Review with tags , , , , on July 15, 2010 by liffeymusic

Long time emotive devotees Stars are back with their follow-up to the consistently satisfying, if a bit too vapid, In Our Bedroom After the War. Although Bedroom wasn’t their most critically acclaimed effort, it found Stars in a pleasant groove that offered up several moments of gratifying potency, and in light of the more recent and excellent Sad Robots EP, Stars fans had reason to keep their hopes up for their fifth LP, The Five Ghosts.

Whether said fans are happy with The Five Ghosts will depend largely upon how committed they are to Stars’ creamy, soft-as-silk sound; as it turns out, a healthy dose of commitment will be required. In an age when synths are beginning to replace (if they haven’t already replaced) the guitar as the pop/rock building block instrument of choice, Stars’ increasing reliance on synths makes their already derivative brand of silky pop sound even less gripping. That is absolutely not to say that Stars cannot make a brilliant synth based song; for that you need look no further than Sad Robot EP’s “Going Going Gone [Live].” Unfortunately, inspired moments run far too sparse on The Five Ghosts, which stakes its life on fans being hungry for more of the same. To make matters worse, lead singers Amy Millan and Torque Campbell, who usually play off each other quite well, seem all too aware in their deliveries that this album is going through the motions.

There is a saving grace to be found in the fact that Stars make good filler, and none of these songs are particularly weak or out of place. Even the off-kilter “We Don’t Want Your Body” justifies itself with a peppy chorus featuring lines about cheap ecstasy and boughten sex. The album does feature its share of highlights, most clearly the soapy “Changes.” “Wasted Daylight” and “Fixed” are accessible picker-uppers that could’ve held their head high on any Stars album. Stars shyly poke at a few new ideas in the latter half of the album, and although none of them really take off, they’re engaging enough to save the album from becoming too sleepy. For the most part you have to be in this for the sound of the songs mores than the songs themselves, but I’d be remiss to give the impression that the album lacks any redeeming qualities.

The Five Ghosts is by no means a bad album. In fact, in the grand scheme of things its probably above average, with several songs that make it worth revisiting. However, when a band such as Stars offers plenty of moments of promise throughout their career but fails to bring it together in a complete statement, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed. If you haven’t tried Stars yet, The Five Ghosts will give you a perfectly adequate sampling of what they’re all about, but long time fans know that Stars are capable of much more than “adequate.”

Final Score: 6.8/10

Highlights: “Wasted Daylight”, “Fixed”, “Changes”

Music Review: The Black Keys – Brothers (2010)

Posted in 2010, Music, Review with tags on July 2, 2010 by liffeymusic

From the very get go, Brothers is all about the swagger and the strut.  It’s also about grime, kicking ass and letting your junk swing free.  You could practically reach out and knock the dirt right off of it, but of course you won’t want to; this is a sty you’ll want to roll around in like the swine, celebrate it like a child.  Make no mistake, The Black Keys are a grown up band who make grown up music, but they’ve made a record that’s mature enough to take a step back and rediscover what made the blues-rock genre so engaging in the first place.  It’s the brazen youthfulness without the naivete.  It’s a complete ownership that is wisely taken for granted.  It’s good, soft mud.

Don’t be fooled for a moment into thinking this is a boyish record; it’s got a nasty sex appeal, fueled in part by Dan Auerbach’s increased appreciation for R&B infused blues.  The unexpected falsetto on opener “Everlasting Light”, the immediately classic melodies of “Next Girl”, the rambunctious and infectious “Howlin’ for You”, indeed the general level of well rationed polish and funk; all contribute to a record that has universal appeal while staying admirably true to its roots.  The law is laid down from the outset.  There is a clear purpose to this album and it follows through with all the reckless authority of Electric Warrior meets Electric Mudd, but with a fresh level of conciseness that The Black Keys have always handled so well.

That said, the album is longer than one might expect from the sound of the opening tracks, and it’s easy to think that this album would benefit from trimming a track or two.  Individually judged however, it’s hard to bear the thought of just about any of these tracks not making the cut.  The slow numbers, “The Only One” and “Never Gonna Give You Up” are both stellar in their own rights and fit snugly into the flow of the almost flawlessly paced album.  Not every song is particularly eventful, take “The Go-Getter” or “I’m Not the One” for instance, but even those bear endearing marks on an album full of tracks that don’t need each other but sound great together.  Each track is a unique, finely crafted gear that works to move the entire unit forward.  Yes, the machine is a bit rickety.  Not every song is perfect.  But so many of them feel like they might be, and they operate with such unity that griping feels contrived.  Brothers is part punishment and part celebration; critique doesn’t fit into the equation.  Brothers is an album that’s easy to enjoy in the midst of its possible shortcomings.

The bottom line is, this is an extremely intelligent record that isn’t spoiled by self-awareness; it’s genuine without being niche.  Is it accidentally great?  Maybe.  The Black Keys don’t give a fuck.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

Final Score: 9.2/10

Highlights: Next Girl,  She’s Long Gone, Ten Cent Pistol,  Sinister Kid

Masic Review: OK Go – Of the Blue Colors of the Sky (2010)

Posted in 2010, Music, Review with tags on July 2, 2010 by liffeymusic

Blue Color of the Sky provides a look at a band in transition. It’s not always pretty, it’s often ill-advised, but at the same time it’s often promising and enjoyable for what it is. OK Go take a break from the traditional pop/rock setup and lean more heavily on 80s inspired synths, sometimes successfully, but moreso to the point that it becomes a crutch, dampening what should be a primarily high-voltage affair. The occasional dose of The Killers or Menomena gives it a kick that helps album highlights such as opener “WTF?” and “White Knuckles” deliver an unforgettable punch, but too often OK Go settles back into a too-easy-to-swallow systematic approach that will inevitably cause listeners to wonder why they’re listening to a washed out version of Prince. This is particularly true of a 3 song stretch (with the exception of “White Knuckles”) in the middle of the album that is capped off by “Last Leaf”, an acoustic ballad of cringe-indicing predictability that brings the album to a slow halt. “Back From Kathmandu” brings a sigh of relief in the form of a more energetic composition, while the last two tracks bring the album to a fairly uneventful but satisfying end.

With these negatives pointed out, it cannot be overlooked that when OK Go hits the balance between the various and obvious influences they’ve taken in since Oh No, they do so with poise. Lead single “WTF?” features a savory, slippery-as-soap Prince inspired melody with bursts of instrumental flourishes that capture the attention and will put smiles on plenty of faces. Anthems are not lacking, and songs such as “This too Shall Pass” and “Needing/Getting” are sure to provide the soundtrack for many-a-teen’s drive to school. “Skyscrapers” is a highly successful low tempo track, demonstrating perfectly how to slow things down on an album where things are not supposed to slow down. Despite the fact that there’s plenty on the album to question, there’s also undoubtedly plenty here to embrace for the pop perfection it aspires to be.

Of the Blue Color of the Sky is an admirable attempt to bridge the gap between mainstream anthems and indie-approved textures. Does it work? Yes, in the sense that it gets the job done. It more or less limps it way through the 13 tracks, occasionally looking up to grin at those who are gathered around to cheer it on, and even dares to flex its melodic muscle from time to time. However, for the remainder of it’s hobbled walk it focuses on the well-trodden ground directly before it, afraid to take any true risk or abandon it’s methodical step by step approach. It’s a bit like watching a young child begin to grow more confident in taking steps; it’s certainly nothing to aspire towards, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see. Sure, Blue Color of the Sky might not be particularly special, it might be unable to poke its head out from the shadows of its big brothers, but with an attempt this honest and promising it almost feels wrong to criticize.

Final Score – 7.2/10

Highlights: WTF, White Knuckles, Needing/Getting, Skyscrapers

Music Review: Muse – The Resistance (2009)

Posted in 2009, Music, Review on September 22, 2009 by liffeymusic

Muse, at it is already well documented, make superhero music.  Regardless of how seriously singer Matt Bellamy may take the conspiracy theory claims he’s now been making through Muse’s music since their 1999 dubut, Showbiz, Muse are not setting out for credibility, or to lay out any sort of plan to overthrow the wold leaders who are most assuredly plotting against us to… lead the world, or something.  Most of Muse’s audience doesn’t really know what Bellamy’s singing about, nor do they care; Muse knows how to get fists pumping, and to most, that’s all that really counts.

For this reason, it will be easy for many to forgive the undeniable cheesiness of The Resistance.  Accusations of Radiohead mimicry are now out the window; this time around, Muse have chosen to wear the likes of Queen on their sleeves, as is made almost painfully evident on “United States of Eurasia” (“Soon we will see that there can be only one United States of Eura… SIA!!”). To Muse’s credit, they’ve managed to inject enough unexpected influences here and there to keep listeners guessing.  “Undisclosed Desires” will immediately recall the sounds of Depeche Mode, while the piano based “I Belong To You” sounds as if a radioactive meteorite had taken out the Maroon 5 tour bus.

However, despite the unapologetic intentions of The Resistance, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that all the hype suggesting this would be the most overblown outing of Muse’s career was a bit misplaced.  For example, the roaring, ripping riffs which were so plentiful back on Origin of Symmetry and Absolution are now all but absent.  The first three tracks exist primarily to hook any new fans who may have first been lured by Black Holes and Revelations‘ two pop hits, “Starlight” and “Supermassive Black Hole”.  “Guiding Light” and “MK Ultra” can only be described as over the top, but they lack the dynamic diversity it would have taken to truly launch them off the moon.  There’s “Unnatural Selection”, but it borrows too heavily from Origin‘s “New Born”.  “United States of Eurasia” with it’s sweeping, Middle Eastern strings, and “I Belong to You” are really the only things here that outdo say, Mew, or any other like-minded space rock outfit in terms of bombastic scale.  It’s not often I ask this of a group, but Muse, next time could we have a little more… wankery?

On the album closing 3 song suite, Muse forfeit themselves completely to Bellamy’s whim, resulting in a trio of 4 minute orchestral songs that, of all things, seems pensive.  They go down tastily enough, but lack any kind of teeth; they sound good in the background, but background music is about as far as they go.  They never approach the heights of Muse’s guitar driven epics, and seem more concerned with sounding like good songs than actually being good songs.  One of the problems is length; with one minute meandering intros and outros to each piece, it doesn’t leave enough time for the song.  Given a little more breathing room, more devotion and risk taking from Bellamy in  both the song writing and structure departments, they might might have been career highlights rather than album highlights.  But Bellamy’s motive is certainly promising, and given that despite their shortcomings these last 3 songs are by far the highlight of the album, one can’t help but hope Muse will continue to explore classical writing and orchestral arrangements, only next time develop these elements into something that sounds less like Muse toying around and more like Muse taking over.  They’ve already been accused of ripping off Radiohead and Queen (albeit steroid injected rip offs).  Why stop now; it might be time to add Tchaikovsky to their list of blatantly obvious inspirations.

Despite this complaint, plenty of props must still be handed out.  The production, as expected, is flawless and beautiful; the album demands to be played at the highest volume bearable.  Matt’s songwriting remains consistent, although that will be could be considered apro or a con depending on who you ask.  And of course, the prospect of a new tour is absolutely mouth-watering.  Chalk it up to Muse, or to the lack of competition in a musical period dominated by auto tune, but either way they are undoubtedly one of the premier rock bands in the world, and they leave no room to argue otherwise with The Resistance.

Final Score: 8.2/10

Highlights: United States of Eurasia, I Belong to You, Exogenesis: Symphony Pt. 3: Redemption