Sound Affects: Music reviews and ratings

PopMatters.com

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Ha Ha Tonka: “Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South” (Bloodshot) (rating: 8 out of 10)

Ha Ha Tonka’s first album, 2007’s “Buckle in the Bible Belt,” was the kind people long for: catchy but dense, energetic but earnest, recalling albums that had come before but, somehow, still fresh. It helped, of course, that the music was good – urgent, country-tinged rock and roll from the Ozarks, with literate lyrics and layered, keening harmonies.

“Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South” is a distinctly different sort of album, an altogether more contemplative thing, moodier and less eager to please than its predecessor. Ha Ha Tonka has always thought the world was a dark and uncertain place; on its second album, the music reflects that view. The album – like the Ozarks, and the band’s home state of Missouri – is torn through by the shadow of the Civil War, and the conflict is the focus of the most violent subject matter here. “On to the sea, burn Athens to the ground!” Roberts sings on “The Horse in Motion,” a thunderous, loud, wailing thing.

But more affecting is the later “A Siege of Sorts” which, short as it is, reads more like poem than a rock song. There are straight-forward rockers here too, of course, and by and large they work well – particularly “The Outpouring” and “Walking on the Devil’s Backbone.” The number of conventional rock songs is low here, and so too is the number of duds – a relationship that, in the context of the album, seems very telling. – Kyle Deas

Future of the Left: “Travels with Myself and Another” (4AD) (rating: 7 out of 10)

Merely the existence of Future of the Left is cause for celebration. The disillusion of Mclusky, one of the great young rock bands going back in 2004, wasn’t only a big hit to the music world, but seemed like a crushing blow to the players.

Singer Andy Falkous took Mclusky drummer Jack Egglestone, added bassist Kelson Louis Matthias and formed Future of the Left. Their debut, “Curses,” was a shot in the arm both for the band and the listener, full of Falkous’s piss and vinegar and buzzing, heavy snarling rock songs.

Make no mistake, Mclusky is very much behind Falkous and Egglestone, and Future of the Left is an excellent, innovative band. And their sophomore disc, “Travels with Myself and Another,” isn’t just further proof of that. It outshines the debut in nearly every way, and shows the band building energy and blunt-force inertia as they go.

“Arming Eritrea” announces the album’s frenetic intentions right off the bat. It’s a no-holds-barred, grimy bit of speed rock that manages to be both contrarian and anthemic at the same time. Like the band’s raw sound, Falkous’s songs push at baser instincts – the hunger and lust and anger he figures is hidden under all our manners and starched collars. “Chin Music” is a recount of a bar fight, in all its depraved chaos, but Falkous’s narrator spends the song lamely justifying his poor behavior, deciding eventually that “I knew I couldn’t stop it,” and so he fought.

But whether or not you buy the treatises on human nature found in “Travels with Myself and Another,” Future of the Left are clever enough to know that their snarky lyrics go only as far as the rock they lay them on. And while the new album may not have the left-field angular tangents that we’ve seen from these guys before, it achieves a surprising consistency as it walks the line between the melodic and shattered. – Matthew Fiander

Miike Snow: “Miike Snow” (Downtown) (rating: 7 out of 10)

From the very first note, you know the band Miike Snow is Scandinavian. There’s something about the stuttering synthesizer pounding out a graciously major-key melody, with a hint of horns coming in, that is unmistakably Nordic.

There’s a long line of this winning, celebratory pop with a melancholic undercurrent, running at least from Abba all the way through A-ha, Bel Canto, and the Sugarcubes; to the Cardigans, Annie, and Royksopp. And that’s by no means an inclusive list. You can definitely add Miike Snow to the canon, though.

The band’s self-titled debut is one of the most interesting, fun and hummable pop albums of the past year. Miike Snow has a couple of aces up their sleeves. That’s right, contrary to appearances, it’s band, not a solo artist. The tightly-arranged, danceable, electronic tunes are created by Swedes Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg. You might know them as the production team Bloodshy & Avant. They are most famous for producing and co-writing Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

They’ve also done other tracks with Spears, Madonna and Kylie Minogue, among others. Yet you won’t hear any of these divas on “Miike Snow.” Nor is the album the kind of genre-spanning, guest vocalist-strewn mish-mash you might expect from a production team making a “proper album.”

Instead, Karlsson and Winnberg have focused their talent and energy on catchy-yet-intelligent and often challenging pop songs. And, crucially, they’ve hooked up with American lyricist/vocalist Andrew Wyatt. Not only do Wyatt’s words add a sharp lyricism to the beats, but his smooth, expressive, charismatic voice gives them soul.

“Miike Snow,” though not perfect, is one of those albums you’re thrilled to discover. An intelligent, satisfying, extremely listenable pop record, it’s simultaneously nothing you expected, and most everything you hoped for. – John Bergstrom

Todd Snider: “The Excitement Plan” (Yep Roc) (rating: 8 out of 10)

“Some of this trouble just finds me, most of this trouble I earn. How do you know when it’s too late to learn?” Wondering aloud, Todd Snider is often as profound as any long-suffering poet. His casual, off-the-cuff lyricism and his even less deliberate delivery – missed notes, drawling mumbles, barely-there production values – belie the wisdom below the surface. And with “The Excitement Plan” he has, without any fanfare, without any flash, solidified his place among the masters of the form.

“The Excitement Plan” offers a slight change in approach from his last few records in that a big time Grammy-winning producer got behind the helm and then, evidently, did very little. Don Was (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop) has here achieved a masterwork of intimacy. Playing to Snider’s considerable strengths at playful familiarity, Was keeps the flourishes to a minimum, pulling the vocals to the fore and dropping the rest back in the mix. Though the sidemen are illustrious (Jim Keltner and Greg Leisz) they aren’t here to show off, but rather to advance the man at the centre. It all works beautifully.

On the standout rock number “Bring ‘Em Home,” Snider reminds his listeners the troops want to come on back, too (his liner notes explain that “the song used to be about a kid who enlisted in the armed services to make a better life for his family just in time for a war to break out, but he’s getting old now”). Indeed, here is one of the few characters Snider has ever explored who is genuinely trapped by forces beyond his control; he got himself into the situation, but it’s up to us to help him along. So, let’s.

The record ends with the lazy swing of “Good Fortune,” a sweet little goodnight kiss about hope, love, and best wishes. Right back at you, Todd. You can come hang on my porch anytime. – Stuart Henderson

Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey: “Here and Now” (Bar/None) (rating: 6 out of 10)

Former dB’s bandmates Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey reunite here for the first time in 17 years. The Holsapple-Stamey magic is most evident on tracks like the opening number, a cover of Family’s “My Friend the Sun.” From its opening bars, the beauty of Holsapple and Stamey’s vocals is fully recognizable, and the song features several beautiful melodic turns.

Additionally, the dreamy summer psychedelics of “Santa Monica” and beautiful acoustic balladry of “Bird on the Wing” provide shining examples of why these two musicians work so well together and what they can achieve. Tracks like “Here and Now,” “Some of the Parts” and “Long Time Coming” fall into the category of musical moments that could only be forged through experience and maturity. Each of these tunes has something to say (whether subtly or explicitly) about what it is to experience “midlife” (as “Some of the Parts” refers to it) and/or what it means to reunite with an old friend.

Unfortunately, a few tracks here don’t benefit from the same mature ring that tunes like “Long Time Coming” do. Ironically, two of the most notable offenders (“Early in the Morning” and “Begin Again”) feature the playing of the great Branford Marsalis. Marsalis is fantastic as always, but the sax, in context of each song, has the effect of making the tracks seem eligible for immediate lite/smooth rock radio airplay across the country.

Despite these few missteps, “Here and Now” not only reminds listeners of Holsapple and Stamey’s past glories, but also provides enough excitement to suggest future glories as well. – Aarik Danielsen


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