I wrote a few weeks ago about the sophomore slump related to The XX and how they managed to avoid it. Well, no band in recent history was due for a bigger sophomore slump than Mumford & Sons.
Unless you live under a rock, you heard “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man” from the first album, Sigh No More, everywhere. It became a double platinum selling album in the US and literally interest in folk music on a grand scale. And it reminded everyone that banjos are cool. Given all of that, it was pretty easy to see how the follow up album might be something less than what came before it.
I’m happy to report that Babel is really, really good. The band did not vary much from Sigh No More – it’s straight, hard-driving folk with banjos and acoustic guitars flying. It features many of the archetypes we fell in love with for the first album: rampaging, anthemic songs, lyrics steeped in spirituality and meaning, and a kind of exuberant intensity that is a joy to listen to.
If you were looking for something that showed the band stretching their creative chops, I expect that’s coming, but it’s not on this album. There is no experimentation here. I’ve heard some reviewers call this formulaic, but that’s not very fair. It’s clear from listening to both albums that this is what they do well; why not continue to do what you do well, at least for a follow-up album? There’s plenty of time for new musical directions. Kudos to Mumford & Sons for staying with their wheelhouse music.
Highly recommended; I love this as much as I loved Sigh No More and for the same reasons.
On a side note, not related to the Mumford album, this is going to be my last scheduled blog post for a while. I’m not sure how long, but with the pressures of real-life right now, writing this blog has become more of a chore than a joy, which is not what I wanted when I started writing it. I like writing and I like music, but right now, my time is simply consumed in other things.
I’m leaving the blog open but I will use Twitter primarily to post what I’m listening to. I may pop out occasionally and blog on an album that I couldn’t fit into 140 characters, but it won’t be on any regular schedule or timeframe. As always, thanks for coming along for the ride.
I am generally leery of the “sophomore slump”, where a band has a hugely successful first album and the second album never matches the quality and success of the first. There are two bands I’ve been praying can avoid the slump. One is Mumford & Sons, whose sophomore work came out today. The other is The XX, a band that came out of nowhere in 2010 with a style of music that was totally unique.
Their version of lo-fi guitar and bass with mumbled lyrics and a hyper-intense feel was a critical and commercial success. But there was a lot of discussion about their new work, because one member of the band released some tracks in the interim that had a real electronic bleeps-and-blips motif.
All fears about new album were answered emphatically. No slump, no bleeps. Coexist is a complete continuation of the debut album. It’s full of many of the same elements as the previous album: a downbeat feel, with minimal (mostly guitar and bass) instrumentation; lyrics that are hard to understand, but good, mostly about love and loss; and a quiet intensity that carries through the whole album. The one thing that differs from the debut is the lack of an upbeat single. While there are catchy tunes, there’s no song like “VCR” or “Islands” that you’ll be humming for days.
But The XX albums are way more about mood than anything else. This is an album that begs to be listened to at night or on a really cloudy day. It’s not gloomy per se, but it has that intense, low-key feel to it that paints a mood like very few albums I’ve heard.
Highly recommended. Put it on after the sun sets and enjoy.
It would be the easiest and laziest bit of writing I could do to simply say “This album is not as good as I and Love and You“. At some level, I think it’s true, but it’s a completely unfair and useless comparison to make. Because it’s clear to me from the very beginning that these are very different albums and are intended to be so. I and Love and You might be one of my favorite albums ever. I blogged about it last year and I like it more now than I did then. So, I went into The Carpenter with somewhat low expectations, not imagining that it could ever be as good.
But it’s a fantastic album. Musically, it is very different: the songs on The Carpenter are more traditional folk-Americana than the previous album. If you liked “Laundry Room”, “January Wedding”, and “Ill with Want”, you’ll love The Carpenter; it’s filled with tracks that have lazy banjos, simple instrumentation, and a rootsy feel that comes straight out of the band’s native North Carolina.
What is exactly like the previous album (and what sets them apart from other folk-Americana bands) is the songwriting. I’d put lyrics from an Avett album up against anyone. If you like your folk with real messages, about fatherhood, death, depression, love, and loss, then this album is for you. If you are a longtime Avett fan, think of an album full of songs like “Murder in the City” from The Second Gleam EP. (And you’ll also note another song with “Pretty Girl” in the title, marking about the 10th time the band has done that.)
So, don’t look for I and Love and You, part 2. Do look for a great album in the Americana tradition with great Avett-esque lyrics. Highly recommended.
Bobby Womack will likely be a familiar name to you. He has a long and storied career in R&B and gospel and has experienced a career resurgence, culminating in this new June release. The album is produced by Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, and Richard Russell, of XL Recordings. If you are confused about why Damon Albarn is producing this album, the answer is…. I have no idea. Womack did some guest vocals on the last Gorillaz record but Albarn is not known for his R&B chops. But he is known to be good at “getting a sound” and he got one here.
This is not an R&B album, per se. Womack does Bobby Womack things on it, like singing R&B melodies with a voice that has aged like fine wine, but the backdrop to this album, is essentially electronic. Really, really electronic. It does not sound like a Gorillaz album, even with Albarn’s influence, because it has more blips and fewer guitars than any Gorillaz record to date. The album this most reminded me is the self-titled James Blake album from 2010. It does not have the sleek intensity of the Blake record, but it is a string R&B vocal sitting on a bed of bleeps and keyboards that sounds strange, but somehow works.
It’s fair to call this an experimental album and where there are experiments, there are failures. Not every song works in this R&B-tronica format, but even the failures are not terrible. Although I do not enjoy traditional R&B at all, I found myself liking this album. I think the beats give those R&B vocals some structure that distinguishes it from a traditional R&B record. And 68-year-old Bobby Womack knocked the vocals out of the park with that beautiful, raspy tone of his.
3 stars = recommended for fans of the genre.
It dawns on me that during my hiatus, I missed reviewing an album from one of my favorite bands of all time.
To explain this album, you need to know about Volume One. In 2010, it had been over two years since Blame It on Gravity, which is officially my least favorite 97s release. That summer, the band announced a two album set from recordings done at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas. I admit I was a bit skeptical. I was afraid that the guys, no longer shaggy country-punks in their 20s, had lost their fastball.
Volume One dropped in October of that year and it was tremendous. I sang its praises here, if you’re interested.
Well, I didn’t think that TGTV2 could be as good as V1 and I was wrong. It’s a fantastic work that mirrors many parts of the first album. For example, the lead single “Perfume” is actually a continuation of the story told on “Dance Class” from V1. There are a number of similarities in songs from the two works, but not so much that you feel like you are listening to a rehash. And V2 features one of my new favorite 97s songs ever, the lead track, “Brown Haired Daughter”.
Some bands simply can’t transform as the years go by. You hear groups all the time who keep playing or reunite after 20 years and it sounds like their still trying to write the same songs they wrote and played in their youth. I’m pleased to say that the 97s have found this new world – of kids and wives and being in your 40s – quite to their liking. This is more mature music than “Timebomb”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as good in it’s own way. For that reason, I highly recommend to you both volumes of The Grand Theater. If you like the 97s, you won’t be disappointed.
My vacation last week included a vacation from Twitter and the blog also, but it gave me some time to listen to a few new releases I’ll share with you over the next few weeks.
If you like fuzzy, distorted guitars, noise pop in its purest form, and bands that really, really want to be a modernized form of British Invasion bands from the 60s, I have your winner. Ringo Deathstarr is an Austin-based band that specializes in rock that sounds old, but they have somehow managed to revive it in a way that does not sound dated. In fact, this particular album reminds me of a marriage between those 60s bands and more modern pop groups like Joy Division or The Jesus and Mary Chain.
I did not love this album. It’s quite good, but the sound of the band makes two things difficult for me. First, it’s hard to hear / understand the lyrics. The style of this sound almost insists that the vocalists mumble and while it’s clearer than just about every Rolling Stones song ever recorded, it’s still hard for me to follow all of the lyrics. Second, it’s often hard to find a melody in some of these tunes. It’s loud and hard and fuzzy and sometimes, all that stuff overshadows what seems to be pretty good music. But I know folks who love this sound so much and don’t have the same hang-ups about lyrics and melody that I do. So, consider yourself warned.
This is the second Beatles-drummer-parody-name band I’ve listened to this year (the other being Gringo Star, also highly recommended) and this is good stuff. If you like their style of music, Ringo Deathstarr bring all you all of the fuzzy distortion you want and then some.
Long road trips give a person plenty of time to listen to new music and I spent a chunk of my weekend listening to this fairly new album. Watson is a new darling amongst the indie blogger circuit, particularly our friends at NPR’s All Songs Considered. Watson was also a big hit at this year’s South by Southwest.
In spite of all the hype, this is fairly standard singer-songwriter stuff, with a deeper arrangement of instruments. Watson gets beyond the voice-and-a-guitar formula, but mostly with horns and interesting melodies. It’s definitely not early Iron and Wine, but neither is it Ryan Adams or any of the other really dynamic chameleon-like singer-songwriters who can do a lot of different things. I think this album is Watson’s stuff and he’s very good at it.
This most reminded me, musically, of Ray Lamontagne’s recent albums, although the voices are very different. While Lamontagne sounds like he’s been gargling with Sani-Flush, Watson has this shrill falsetto that soars above the music. It’s a really nice voice and the album has some great horn arrangements to go with his voice (if you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for good horns).
I didn’t love this anywhere near us much as the NPR guys did, but I didn’t hate it either. If you like Lamontagne or any of the singer-songwriter types, you’ll probably love this. If that’s not your normal cup of tea, skip this and grab the new Quiet Company album, which I blogged about a few weeks ago and have enjoyed more every time I’ve listened to it.