Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Two Receivers: Dean & Britta's Back Numbers

This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham have been making dreamy music for a decade, and they sound like veterans on Back Numbers. Drawing upon their experiences in Galaxie 500 (Wareham), Belltower (Phillips) and Luna (both), as well as their first outing as a duo in L'Avventura, the duo offers polished pop at a comfortably unhurried pace. The album is predominately built around digital percussion and guitar washes, with Phillips and Wareham’s restrained, somewhat world-weary voices leading to a consistently mellow sound. That isn’t to say that the album is a snoozer, more that it creates a mood and rarely breaks it.

This formula isn’t going to appeal to everyone. During the band’s performance at the Bowery Ballroom during the CMJ Music Marathon, portions of the crowd were noticeably restless but there were just as many enthusiastic fans. Of course, the term enthusiastic is relative – in this case it was just a matter of clapping a little harder during breaks – and Dean & Britta aren’t likely to attract excessive displays of adoration in the Morrissey vein. Rather, a feeling of strong-but-subtle affection is probably the best they can hope for.

It’s not just that the music is introspective rather than anthemic, or simply soft instead of loud, although that does have an effect in a live setting. Rather, the group seeks to portray themselves in a detached manner, evident from the precise photographs in the packaging to the somewhat impersonal songwriting. Although the tracks that make up Back Numbers are clearly love songs, they’re washed out, favouring mood over direct meaning. It’s an approach that will have its detractors crying aloof, while supporters might hail them as dream pop’s answer to Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, with a pedigree to match. Fittingly, Back Numbers features a number of covers, and perhaps it’s because they’re singing other people’s words that some of the intensity is lost and the detachment amplified.

This isn’t to say they aren’t good, as Phillips provides some of the album’s more sublime moments. Lee Hazelwood’s "You Turned My Head Around" is one of these, containing the loudest dynamic on the album as Phillips breaks out of her well practiced purr in the rousing refrain, “And baaaaaby!” accompanied by a synth squelch. Unfortunately, this energy is quickly reeled in by overdubbing and more composed standard verses, but it’s gratifying because of its volume and the hope that around the corner there lies more dynamic shifts like it. Wareham’s nasal delivery is more of an acquired taste as it tilts between spoken lines and more melodic turns. Often, it’s most effective when it provides a backdrop, chipping in the backup vocal or playing off of Phillips’, as in the duet "Say Goodnight."

But Wareham gets in the last word on closer "Our Love Will Still Be There," which provides a glimpse into the timelessness that the duo seeks to create. “I’ll even love you if the world stops spinning ‘round,” he croons, and you’re inclined to believe him.

Phillips and Wareham epitomize longevity, and it’s admirable that they continue to make music after all these years. But their career has been based on a niche, as they seek to perfect an elusive brand of pop. Back Numbers isn’t a bad effort in the ongoing experiment, and it won’t disappoint the longtime fan, but it is unlikely to win over those that were previously uninterested.


MP3: Dean & Britta - Singer Sing
MySpace: Dean & Britta
Official Site: Dean & Britta

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reprise: The Pipettes' We Are The Pipettes

This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

For the uninitiated, The Pipettes might appear to be singing and dancing in the wrong decade – the group was even founded as an experiment by Robert Barry with the intention of reviving the 1960s girl group sound. Even the structure of The Pipettes defies contemporary standings, with three nicknamed girls – Rosay, Gwenno and RiotBecki – backed by an anonymous male band named the Cassette. Although this setup suggests insidious manufactured pop, many independent-minded publications have embraced, even championed, the group.

The key might just be those pop songs that make up their debut album, We Are The Pipettes. Although none of them run more than a few minutes, and most are about either “love or dancing,” as the group admitted themselves at a recent gig at New York’s Blender Theater, the execution is very appealing. Even without seeing the trio’s choreographed dance moves, there’s remarkable harmonizing throughout the album. Having three singers allows for both big, sweeping choruses and traded verses within a song, techniques the group use to great effect.

"We Are the Pipettes" serves as the group’s theme song, as the girls sing self-introductions. The line “We’re the prettiest girls you’ve ever met,” is subjective, but their confidence is backed by impressive vocals. Likewise “Pull Shapes” is a triumphant indicator for the rest of the album: “I just wanna move/I don’t care what this song’s about,” a fitting mantra when it’s unclear what the title means. These clearly self-deprecatory lyrics and the girl’s general bubblehead enthusiasm embellish the album’s bright, upbeat quality, courtesy of the Cassette’s lively drums and guitars – punctuated on this particular track by a violin.

Although the next track, "Why Did You Stay," doesn’t break the two minute mark, it slows things down, with Rosay taking over lead vocals. About halfway through, after the some back-and-forth lines, the other girls insist, “But he was so sweet.” The music disappears momentarily as Rosay replies, “Well, I’ll had just about enough of sweet.” It’s never established who “he” was, but again, the specifics are secondary to the dialogue, a back-and-forth style that works throughout the album. The latter characters, a schoolmate named "Judy" and a scholarly fellow who “knows all about the movement of the planets/But he don’t know how to move me” on "ABC" are rudimentary sketches. Combined with the brevity of the songs, it’s clear that the Pipettes won’t win people over with lyrics alone, but they don’t have to when they’re so relentlessly hooky.

Perhaps the most risqué of the tracks is the bluntly titled "Sex," but the girls make wonderfully tangential reference to the topic, quoting a guy that promises conversation but “Let’s stop with all the talking/Because there’s no need for any talking for what we’re about to do,” later making his case worse by saying, “Now please don’t take this the wrong way/But my ears are getting sore.” These conversational verses are complemented with the breathless chorus, “Just rest your pretty head,” and this two-pronged approach is hard to resist.

Overall, We Are The Pipettes will please those who appreciate female-fronted pop. Even those that aren’t enamored with the genre may find something to appreciate. The Pipettes aren’t in a band just because of their looks, and there’s real musical merit to their album, each girl demonstrating talent with their vocals. While it’s easy to dismiss something so apparently contrived, those that look beyond their prejudices will find something that’s quite authentic.


Some international versions of the album ship with these two bonus tracks, and the entire record sounds a bit different than the original UK version. It's definitely an incentive to give it another spin or hear it for the first time.

MP3: The Pipettes - Really That Bad
MP3: The Pipettes - Your Love For Me (Demo)
MySpace: The Pipettes
Official Site: The Pipettes

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Interlude: Tweecore

It was another Friday night at the Bowery Ballroom, and possibly my last concert in a concert-filled year. Things have winded down over the last few weeks, and with finals looming, that's probably for the best. Los Campesinos! was one of my discoveries over the summer, and after being unable to get into their Mercury Lounge show, it was really nice to see this date at the end of the year. I had the pleasure of interviewing the band right before things kicked off, and look for a feature soon. The openers were, as is often the case, unknown to me, but that's hardly a bad thing. Tom Vu was also there.

Johnny Foreigner
Birmingham, England trio Johnny Foreigner began things with a bang. Complementing ragged guitar and bass with yelps, the band played like a more concentrated Los Campes!, although perhaps without the pop sensibilities. Admitting that they didn't have material for a full forty minute set, the band bantered good natured with the crowd, talking poorly (but jokingly, we hope) of their hometown and kidding that the next song was a "power ballad)." The problem is, nothing in their catalog really resembles anything like that, and I'd like to see the band get a little more accessible without losing their characteristic chaos.

The Spinto Band

Delaware's the Spinto Band brought cheery - perhaps too cheery - power pop, saturated with sing-song choruses in which anywhere from two to four members sang. Despite the twinkly guitars, there was usually a solid undercurrent of drum and bass, given their vaguely twee sound a decent backbone. It was satisfying at first, but the samey songs got a bit tiresome. Unfortunately, their stage presence only exacerbated the experience. They talked nonsense about replacing words that rhymed with "spray" with "spray," and quite unnecessarily demonstrated how to do so. Not really the city to demonstrate this in, I'm afraid, and the rest of the crowd seemed pretty nonplussed. I'm pretty sure there's much fun to be had with this group, as evidenced by the big cheer went up during one of their songs, but I think I'll stick to the albums.

MySpace: The Spinto Band
Official Site: The Spinto Band

Los Campesinos!

The seven member strong Los Campesinos! filled the stage, and their songs filled the venue. Prior to the show, I was a bit worried that they wouldn't have enough material, and while the set lasted less than an hour, I think we all left feeling satisfied. Los Campes! have a sound that won't appeal to everyone; I wouldn't blame you if it just isn't your thing. But the band brings such a great enthusiasm to the stage, and that their songs, energetic to begin with, before as infectious as ever. There was a sizable crowd to the left that was really getting into it, not really moshing, but just hopping up and down. Ever so often I'd glance over, and there would always be at least a few people in motion, growing in number if the song was particularly lively.

Without diminishing the irreplaceable atmosphere of a live concert, I think that the crowd's reaction is as great a testament as any to the power of the internet. Correlating online buzz with a packed crowd isn't terribly unique; much of the venue selection is based on this calculation. But it's incredible that a band would go from MySpace to playing in front of crowds around the world in such a short time, and to their credit, they're all clearly very grateful for it. Singer Gareth was extremely humble and thankful, but his timidity in between songs didn't affect his energy, as he moved about the stage and eventually went into the audience. Harriet's violin playing was especially nice, as on record, giving their cacophony the perfect highlight. She also sang with keyboardist Aleks, providing some pretty harmonies that softened Gareth's more accented delivery. They've got a great dynamic, and I'm sure they'll be back next year to bigger and more excited crowds.

MP3: Los Campesinos! - Don't Tell Me To Do The Math(s)
MP3: Los Campesinos! - We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives
MySpace: Los Campesinos!
Official Site: Los Campesinos!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ghost In The Shell: Burial's Untrue

This review appears in this year's final Friday issue of Washington Square News.

The London electronic producer Burial released sophomore album Untrue to an overwhelmingly positive reaction, with a preliminary internet buzz and write-ups in prominent publications. It's an unexpected response to a record as difficult as Untrue, but one that's justified. While the album is far from immediate, it is full of strangely beautiful soundscapes.

After a brief introduction, "Archangel" begins the album with a bold statement, as a looped, painfully romantic voice confesses over a stuttering break beat. While the lyrics are simple ("Loving you/Couldn't be alone") and the percussion is mechanized, the song conveys real emotion.

The rest of the album expands on this template, filtering elegantly cathartic lines such as, "I envy you," "You lied" or "I can't take my eyes off you" through hazy atmospheric effects. Words aren't necessary on "Ghost Hardware," which is built around shimmering vocals that float above its steady clank of sound, the only solid element in the mix. The distortion clears on the latter half of "Shell of Light," as soulful singing provides a tranquil moment, but it's once again swallowed by the rest of the album's moodiness.

The result is an intensely nocturnal work that acts as a cohesive mood piece, divided into tracks as a formality. It's unnecessary that Burial reveal his true identity, as his music is impressive no matter what influenced its formation. Untrue is an unconventional album, but one that's starkly poignant.


Burial needs to tour, but he probably won't. Maybe take a page out of Daft Punk's book and dress up to hide your identity? Read some interviews at Hyperdub's blog and Blackdown.

MP3: Burial - Ghost Hardware
MP3: Burial - Shell of Light
MySpace: Burial
MySpace: Hyperdub
Official Site: Hyperdub

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Shout Out Loud: Yelle's Pop-Up

This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger, which also contains a fine piece on Tegan and Sara from Joe.

2007 has been a French electronic renaissance. With House godfathers Daft Punk playing in steel pyramids to huge crowds and newcomers Justice emblazoning their cross motif across the world, it’s apparent that the 4/4 beat is as popular as ever. The release of Brittany native Yelle’s Pop-Up seems perfectly timed, but it’s probably more of a coincidence than some sort of marketing ploy.

Yelle’s rise to prominence came about in a manner that’s become almost routine in a grassroots digital environment. After posting a vulgar song entitled "Short Dick Cuizi," which insults a member of the Parisian group TTC, onto MySpace and garnering thousands of plays, Yelle would eventually be signed by Source etc, a French division of EMI. That song would eventually become "Je Veux Te Voir," a song that borders on absurdity, with allusions to everything from Hummers to French Fries, but one that remains thoroughly entertaining.

The title itself (trans. "I Want to See You") reinforces the fact that Yelle is a singer, not an introverted pair of producers, and capable of injecting personality into each track. Instead of relying on obscure vocal samples or a rotating list of collaborators, Pop-Up is anchored by Yelle’s voice. The album is not merely another anonymous dance party soundtrack, but the work of a single singer, albeit one that doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Despite lyrics sung entirely in French, Pop-Up’s straightforward song titles provide even a rudimentary Francophile with a general impression of each track’s meaning, which is generally some reiteration of boys, girls and love. Those looking for deeply insightful songwriting should look elsewhere; it is apparent that the album’s resonance will come from its basslines, not its lyrics. Yelle’s mantra seems to be that sheer catchiness trumps subject matter, and she has the production to back it up.

"Ce Jeu" (This Game) begins the album on a pretty note, as Yelle sings winsomely over a recurring synth hook; "A Cause des Garçons" (Because of Boys) adds a snarling bass to the mix, and it’s unsurprising that the Parisian electronic label Kitsuné recently released a remix EP of the track. "Tristesse / Joie" (Sadness / Joy) begins in melancholy form, with a restrained, regular beat, but Yelle’s vocals eventually build to an anthemic chorus, courtesy of overdubbing. "Tu Es Beau" (You Are Beautiful) might be guilty of cliché, but its delicate arrangement and swooning effects are notable as one of the more emotional moments on the album.

Yelle seems comfortable in the role of chanteuse, and it’s unfortunate that the role isn’t fully explored throughout the album. But notions of sentimentality dissolve with Yelle’s breakthrough single "Je Veux Te Voir," which is as effective as ever in reminding the listener why she’s releasing an album at all. The song’s eviscerating synth lines and militant percussion fit well with Yelle’s chants, and the beat’s only interruption occurs when her voice is chopped up into sample sized pieces.

"Amour du Sol" (Love of the Ground) embraces sunny Europop, while closer “Jogging” is a cheerleader-style house track that, although fun, isn’t the most impressive finale. Still, it’s a fitting way to end an album that won’t appeal to everyone. Yelle is a solid pick for fans of singers with a healthy dose of the electronic, but it's unlikely that she'll persuade anyone who's wary of her style to embrace it.

Ultimately, Pop-Up is like a piece of multicolored candy: hardly nutritional, but definitely sweet.


MP3: Yelle - A Cause des Garçons
MP3: Yelle - Je Veux Te Voir
MySpace: Yelle
Official Site: Yelle
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