January 31, 2010: Surfer Blood, Astro Coast

Astro Coast is the work of a very young band with a good ear for hooks but not a lot of personality. It’s got a lot of up-to-the-minute trendiness working for it— beach/ocean imagery, reverb slathered on everything to make it sound more lo-fi, even a brief foray into quasi-African rhythms— although none of those things really define Surfer Blood‘s sound. They’re mostly just a sturdy, old-fashioned guitar-centric pop band. A lot of people seem to want to compare them to Weezer, possibly out of a desire for a current-day Weezer that isn’t horrible, although the surfy moments could just as well been lifted from Pixies’ Bossanova. The singer has a pretty good voice, which combined with the album’s heavy reverb (and the occasional faux-British accent) makes him sound like the frontman of an 80s new wave band like Tears For Fears or Big Country or Comsat Angels. By which I mean they’d probably fit in well on the Real Genius soundtrack.

But for all of these generally positive associations, Astro Coast comes off as merely workmanlike. The performances feel sluggish, and while the songs are well-written, they’re also a bit generic. The only way I can understand Pitchfork’s choice to bestow their Best New Music status on them would be from the dual perspectives of nostalgia and potential: here’s a band that sounds like a throwback to 90’s indie-rock but with some contemporary production touches, and they may be a little green but they have the skills to be good at some point in the future. And that may be true. But that doesn’t change my feelings that Astro Coast is just a pumped-up demo from a band that hasn’t yet decided what it wants to be when it grows up.

January 17, 2010: Vampire Weekend, Contra

Since I first saw the title and cover art, I had been kinda secretly hoping that Contra would be a concept album about a Patty Hearst-like figure. Not like I would expect that Vampire Weekend would actually be up for that sort of narrative ambition, but upper-crust socialite turns leftist guerrilla seems like the perfect subject matter for them, no? Not to mention that, if they were to make any explicit mention of anything political, even barely, it would no doubt set off another crazy firestorm of quasi-controversy across the interwebs. Which of course would be awesome.

But sadly, no: no such surprises here. Contra is pretty much what you’d expect it to be. Because it’s a Vampire Weekend album, it’s full of gentle, peppy, tasteful, and ultimately harmless pop songs. And because it’s a follow-up to a successful debut, it tries a little too hard sometimes, which unfortunately works against the easygoing vibe that is the band’s strongest suit.

Weirdly enough, VW seem to want to play right into the hands of their detractors with Contra‘s opening tracks: “Horchata”‘s chorus is nice enough, but the structure of the song the surrounds it is disjointed, making those self-consciously clever rhymes stick out like a sore thumb. And is the point of “White Sky” to justify all of the constant annoying comparisons to Graceland? It was as if the band was saying, “Oh, you think that last album ripped off Graceland? Well, we’ll show you what it sounds like when we really try to rip off Graceland.”

Thankfully, apart from the occasional WTF moment (what’s up with the Autotune on “California English”? Is the end of “Run” supposed to have all those off-sounding harmonies?), the rest of Contra is pretty good. One can only hope that “Holiday” and “Cousins” represent the vanguard of fourth-wave ska— after all, who best to revive it than NYC hipsters? If not that, then perhaps the electro-tinged reggae of “Diplomat’s Son” might spark something. The increased presence of keyboard burbles and flourishes is generally welcome, although they do go overboard with “Giving Up The Gun”, which comes off as the kind of post-Postal Service moody techno-pop tailor-made for mall PAs, banking commercials, and middling teen-movie soundtracks. It’s a pretty naked crossover bid, the most radio-friendly (and least VW-like) song on the album.

Because its missteps are a little more egregious than on Vampire Weekend, Contra doesn’t hang together as an album quite so well. But that’s not such a crime these days, and anyway, VW seems more like a singles band that only happened to luck into a ridiculously solid first album. So as long as they keep churning out great singles (more “Cousins” and less “Horchata”, if you please), I’ll be happy.

January 13, 2010: The Monosyllabic Year in Music 2009

Here’s the mix I make every year around this time to try to distill my listening habits of the previous twelve months into some sort of singular experience. Download it here.

Boston Spaceships, “The Town That’s After Me” from The Planets Are Blasted
Averkiou, “The South Wall” from Throwing Sparks
Point Juncture, WA, “New Machine” from Heart to Elk
The Invisible Cities, “The Only Reason The Club Was Made” from Houses Shine Like Teeth
Here We Go Magic, “Tunnelvision” from Here We Go Magic
Washed Out, “Belong” from High Times
These Are Powers, “Glass Blocks” from All Aboard Future
Polvo, “Beggar’s Bowl” from In Prism
Teenage Cool Kids, “Speaking In Tongues” from Foreign Lands
Built to Spill, “Hindsight” from There Is No Enemy
The Hunches, “Not Invited” from Exit Dreams
Tune-Yards, “Hatari” from Bird-Brains
Sholi, “Dance for Hours” from Sholi
The Whitest Boy Alive, “Intentions” from Rules
Dirty Projectors, “Stillness Is The Move” from Bitte Orca
Real Estate, “Beach Comber” from Real Estate