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CD Reviews

BY DI ARTS STAFF | FEBRUARY 17, 2009 7:40 AM

Two great EPs on one confused disc

Asobi Seksu: Hush
*** out of *****

The best way to think of Asobi Seksu’s third full-length effort Hush is as two EPs combined and called an album. While both are enjoyable, both are also weakened by the pairing.

The beginning of the album is the logical follow-up to band’s last CD Citrus. It emphasizes the propulsive shoe-gaze-influenced rock sounds that put Asobi Seksu at the forefront of the nu-gaze sound. This side culminates in the best song on Hush, “Sunshower.” The track is a swirling pop tune that deserves to be called “blissful” despite the liberal use of the term in shoe-gaze music reviews.
“Risky and Pretty,” the sixth song on the album, is a brief experiment with synthesizers and sounds nothing like previous Asobi Seksu. Starting with “Risky and Pretty,” Hush takes a dramatically different turn, focusing less on melodies and more on sonic landscapes. The sound veers toward Cocteau Twins/Slowdive inspired dream pop.

This is also where Hush becomes a difficult album, requiring careful listening at the risk of slipping by. The sound is subtle from a band that doesn’t typically focus on its softer side. The songs on the second half of Hush are all beautiful, and Asobi Seksu handles them well, particularly the epic “Glacially,” but the change is too sudden. The jarring effect is too harsh and leaves a bad first impression.

Ultimately, Hush should be looked at as two separate works for maximum enjoyment.

Jed’s Picks: “Sunshowers,” “Glacially,” and “Sing Tomorrow’s Praise”

— by Jed Miller

M. Ward comes back stronger than ever

M. Ward: Hold Time
***** out of *****

M. Ward, on his new album, Hold Time, has successfully created a disc that calls to mind Iggy Pop, Brian Wilson, and Pat Metheny, among others. How this all came together is the real joy of listening to the album.

M. Ward’s profile has significantly increased since his last CD, 2006’s Post-War. Last year, Ward collaborated with actress Zooey Deschanel under the name She & Him, and released Volume One. That album topped many “Best of” lists and moved M. Ward closer to the mainstream.

Working on She & Him has seemed to only pique interest in writing lush pop tunes, which Ward employs to great effect on Hold Time. “To Save Me” is the most obviously influenced by Volume One, with its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production, reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Hold Time isn’t overproduced though, with every sound adding to the whole without feeling too heavy for the load.

In Hold Time, M. Ward has made an album that feels cohesive but also all over the place. The album starts with “For Beginners,” a mellow Wurlitzer and guitar song guaranteed to get stuck in your head. Right after that, “Never Had Nobody Like You” is a convincing exercise in retro-rock.

Hold Time is just too cool. Ward is able to take Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” keep the retro guitars, and add an ethereal quality that makes it both haunting and grandiose.

The only clear misstep on the album is “Oh, Lonesome Me.” The song, originally by Don Gibson, is aiming for a bittersweet walk-home-from-the-bar vibe, but it never quite achieves the sadness of the lyrics. Even stretched to six minutes, the song never seems to find its way home.

Hold Time starts to lose a little bit of steam toward the end. The songs are closer to M. Ward’s folky past, and while they certainly aren’t bad, they are just not as interesting as the vibrant experimentalism of the beginning of the disc.

While only two months into 2009, M. Ward has set the bar impressively high with Hold Time, which will likely top many “Best of” lists come December.

Jed’s Picks: “For Beginners,” “Rave On,” “Never Had Nobody Like You,” and “Fisher of Men”

— by Jed Miller

To be bored

mp3 sample: Alela Diane

"White as Diamonds"

Alela Diane: To Be Still
** out of *****

Alela Diane clearly wants to perform at Lilith Fair. Unfortunately, her music is far too boring to warrant a revival.

To Be Still, the folksinger-songwriter’s sophomore effort, is just that — sophomoric. Though the wispy follow-up to her 2006 début succeeds in its ability to highlight the indie-Americana performer’s gentle nature, To Be Still proves that the artist still has some work to do in order to measure up to her industry peers.

To listen to Alela Diane is to think of how other indie artists could have sung her music better. Certainly She & Him could have contributed its signature spunk to add excitement to the redundant and stereotypically “folk” arrangements of “The Ocean,” “My Path,” and “Tatted Lace.” Cat Power would add some needed soul to Diane’s wishy-washy vocal delivery. And Jenny Lewis’ preference for blue notes would be a welcomed contribution to track after track of mind-numbing pleasantry found on To Be Still.

That being said, the album does showcase a sweet, pretty simplicity. Diane has a lovely and delicate voice made for the kind of feminine folk pioneered by Paula Cole, Jewel, and Sarah McLachlan. But as she currently stands, Diane — not her real last name — gets lost in a sea of monotony as her breathy voice threatens to float away with the next breeze.

In all, To Be Still is a collection of lackluster songs that are merely melodic at best. Though it’s true that “Age Old Blues” and “The Alder Trees” can stand alone as solid tracks made for college radio, To Be Still remains — as its moniker suggests — lifeless and totally unmoving.

Melea’s Picks: “Age Old Blues,” “The Alder Trees,” and “My Brambles”

— by Melea Andrys

A darkly poignant masterpiece

mp3 samples: William Elliott Whitmore

"Mutiny"

"Old Devils"

"There's Hope for You"

William Elliott Whitmore: Animals in the Dark
**** out of *****

The animals hiding in the darkened corners of William Elliott Whitmore’s latest release are malicious, captivating, and hauntingly beautiful.

The Rolling Stone should take note: The young Lee County farmer with a voice like a Marlboro-smokin’, whiskey-drinkin’ 100-year-old war veteran is an “Artist You Should Know,” and Animals in the Dark proves exactly why the Iowa native is the next big thing.

Whitmore has been a staple of the Iowa City music scene since his 2003 full-length début album, Hymns for the Hopeless. His self-described “rustic soul” sound combines Whitmore’s weathered blues vocals alongside sparse banjo and acoustic guitar accompaniments to create touching tributes to both environmental elements and the strength of the human spirit.

Animals in the Dark differs slightly from Whitmore’s previous efforts. The first album released through ANTI-Records, Animals in the Dark strays from Whitmore’s patented emotional ballad formula to also include astute observations on society’s dark political underbelly.

The tracks with the most overt commentary are the album’s best. “Mutiny,” the opening tune, is a rousing demand for rebellion set in call-and-response style, and the clear standout song, “Old Devils,” is a wicked gospel revival set to boil over a steadily rising tempo.

The remainder of the album incorporates Whitmore’s signature banjo strums and ecological metaphors with his newfound political mindset, creating a one-of-a-kind call to action that encourages self-examination and environmental awareness above anything else.

Though Whitmore’s balladeering may become routine after a while, Animals in the Dark is an evocative and moving song set. The masterful storyteller may be one of Iowa’s best kept secrets for now, but given the breathtaking content of and buzz surrounding Animals in the Dark, Whitmore is startlingly close to breaking into the national spotlight.

Melea’s Picks: “Old Devils,” “Mutiny,” “There’s Hope For You”

— by Melea Andrys


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