The Strokes’ “Angles” Review

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The Strokes

“Angles”

March 2011; RCA Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

So far as I can tell The Strokes newest release is causing controversy, a rift, if you will, among fans and critics. Listeners that relished in the darkened, raw fascinations of the band’s previous works may not welcome Angles’ differences, but early critiques of The Strokes’ fourth studio album are praising their radical ingenuity and youthful willingness to change their winning formula without turning their backs on it altogether.

I have to side with my fellow critics on this one though. I haven’t been much of a Strokes fan in the past, and not because I can’t appreciate the shadowy places from which Casablancas’ creative springs flowed, but there just wasn’t more than one or two tracks for me to grab hold of. Angles however sprawls musically, but without feeling scattered, courses without overflowing, thaws without burning.

The first Strokes record written collaboratively as a band is happier than ever before; in fact, at times I would even call it positively bouncy. Highlights include kitschy opener “Machu Picchu,” which seems to serve as the bastard child of Muse and Hot Fuss-era Killers; new wavy “Two Kinds of Happiness” and its master guitar work; “Taken for a Fool,” which is the closest on Angles to old Strokes material; the Billy Joel-ish “Gratisfaction;” and the broad, beautiful “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight.”

The Strokes seem to be turning a corner and looking west into a summery, molten setting sun. It’s different than previous albums, but it’s worthwhile in its own right. Give Angles a chance.

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The Low Anthem’s “Smart Flesh” Review

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The Low Anthem

Smart Flesh

February 2011; Nonesuch Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

The Low Anthem is in my opinion one of the most overlooked bands in contemporary folk today. And what a travesty! The dreamy, rustic lo-fi Americana so characteristic of the Rhode Island trio is both pastoral and experimental. Instrumentation included jaw harp, musical saw, stylophone, oversized drum kits, and three antique pump organs that the band had found and restored. The exquisitely crafted refrains, the occasional achingly sparse arrangements, the sprawling, carefully laid tracks are uniquely charged with a glowing, ethereal quality that makes each song feel as if it is actually being played in a 19th century farmhouse by a few simple country citizens of frontier America and is merely being filtered into the present somehow.

Halcyon and lovely, “Apothecary Love” is as old-fashioned as it is ambrosial, a first listen find. “Boeing 737” is a personal favorite with its cacophonous ambience, a musical presence that can nearly be considered a supplementary instrument, a sonic background I later learned is a result of recording the album in an abandoned warehouse. The whirring, atmospheric “Matter of Time” is a mournful ballad of loneliness and mounting silence; the tenuous instrumental fraught with woodwinds “Wire” with its meticulous viscosity is a breath of vernal breeze on an otherwise autumnal album; and “Burn,” is a slender, ethereal tune that showcases the effortless and natural timbre of Ben Knox Miller’s vocals while remaining eerie, isolated, and cavernous.

I once read The Low Anthem described as “what Bob Dylan would have sounded like in the 1860s rather than the 1960s.” The phrase stuck with me, as does the music it’s describing. Give this one some time, and when listening, really study the notes; the subtleties on Smart Flesh are not to be missed.

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Katie Costello’s “Lamplight” Review

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Katie Costello

“Lamplight”

February 2011; Tiny Tiny Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

Katie Costello is an outrageously cute blonde girl, who just happens to also be a wellspring of blithe melodies and incredibly profound motifs. At the young age of fifteen Katie began to pursue her passion for music and started work on her debut. She self-released Kaleidoscope Machine at just seventeen, and even then, her original sound and old-timey vibe won her songs placements on shows like 90210, One Tree Hill, and Private Practice. When I read a press release comparing Katie’s music to that of A Fine Frenzy, Adele, and Regina Spektor, three of my all-time favorites, I knew I had to get my hands on her newest effort, Lamplight.

What I’ve discovered about the 20-year-old singer/songwriter is that she writes with the wit and phrasing of someone much older, more experienced, but her interpretation is that of youth, playful and rosy. On Lamplight, Costello addresses thematic elements that any teenage girl might be preoccupied with. In her quirky and insightful way, Katie sings about relationships with friends and boyfriends as well as the world around her and the people that populate it, exploring bigger pictures in order to better understand the nature of humanity. Fundamentally, Katie’s songs document the lovely foundations of a young poet’s reflection.

A sophomore album without true low points, Lamplight arcs finely over the course of about 48 minutes. The vibrant, sprightly “Cassette Tape” is an ebullient, roaming autobiography, a buoyant opener. “Ashes Ashes” hovers and wafts gently, wispy harmonies draping the tune like morning dew. Jaunty, electric “No Shelter” struts boldly, sporting the occasional vintage guitar riff and a dynamic beat.

Cool duet “Out Of Our Minds” features Greg Holden, enchanting piano accompaniment, a few sparse and breezy strings, and the bright-eyed words of a dreamer. “Old Owl” is a sleepy ode to the burden of wisdom, reminiscent of an early Ingrid Michaelson tune. “People: A Theory” is another lively melody laden with eccentricities and golden whimsy, a charming brand of songwriting perfected by British singer/songwriter Kate Nash. And “Stranger” feels like a great sigh, quietly closing the album with beauty and contentment, the way Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity” swirls and glides into silence.

Katie Costello is an oh-so-refreshing new perspective on the female folk pop scene, and her delicate collection of light, glittering melodies is not to be missed. Lamplight provides an ideal soundtrack as winter frosts melt in the warmth of the sun and spring blossoms push through to the surface at last.

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Adele’s “21” Review

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Adele

“21”

February 2011; Columbia Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

So, full disclosure: I love Adele. She’s beautiful and sharp and unbelievably talented. The girl won two Grammys for an album that she recorded while still a teenager. “Chasing Pavements” and her debut album 19 led Adele into international recognition as an authentic young voice expressing the bittersweet turbulence of adolescence awakening into adulthood.

But that was then. Sophomore release 21 speaks to new worlds opening at her feet, genre wise, shifting from R&B tinged with jazz to a full-blown amalgamation of blues, pop, and soul while remaining true to the British singer/songwriter’s signature style – that boldly ardent, wrenching voice of hers.

Thematically, 21 addresses a young woman’s mercurial ventures in love, darkly resonating and coolly evocative. The album permits tiny glimpses into the singer’s own heavy heart, forcing us to feel something – to relive ancient heartbreaks, to summon up past wrongs – pleading with us to wade back through our common woes. Adele writes from a more mature place and sings more passionately her own stories.

From the first moments, we hear might and confidence swelling in those lusty alto notes. Single “Rolling in the Deep” is a powerful and magnetic kick off to 21 that has Adele wailing about betrayal: “Think of me in the depths of your despair.” “Rumour Has It” maintains Adele’s robust new sound with sleek harmonies and swanky beats. The yearning, symphonic “Turning Tables” ebbs and surges like a midnight tide, silvery strings sweeping across an arcane melody.

The elegantly bleak imagery of “Set Fire to the Rain” allows the tune to billow and tumble, the music itself calling to mind a reckless downpour. “He Won’t Go” struts musically, recalling 70s-style R&B; Adele’s loose rhythm and casual vocals prove just how easy it is for the young singer/songwriter to croon her way through any heartbreak. “Take It All” blends jazzy piano with gospel flair, Adele’s vocals taking on a brisk quality, exuding chilly poise.

Brassy horns on “I’ll Be Waiting” stir in a dynamic beat that heats up like a fever. The richly dulcet “One and Only” is full-bodied and golden, a tune brimming with sweet, sweet soul. And Adele’s acoustic cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong” soothes like a slow, velvety, almost sensual ballad.

Adele’s 21 is her musical and emotional pièce de résistance and therefore should not be taken lightly. Where 19 was a tentative step into the spotlight, 21 is a voluptuous, retro-inspired collection of “look-at-me!” moments. Do not pass this one up.

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The Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow” Review

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The Civil Wars

“Barton Hollow”

February 2011; Sensibility Music LLC

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

The Civil Wars have sprouted from the ground like a slender vine, winding slowly at first and then shooting into the sunny mainstream through a series of fortunate accidents. Young duo though they may be, Joy Williams and John Paul White make a remarkable pair. Their dynamics are poised and expressive, and their voices meld exquisitely, as one might have thought only siblings’ might.

The duo’s customary guitar and violin instrumentation is occasionally accompanied by ethereal piano tones that act as lingering sprigs of fresh greenery among the folksy brambles that preoccupy the rest of the album. On the whole, Barton Hollow is a sinuous tribute to centuries past and melodies forgotten, saturated with captivating turns of phrase.

Opener “20 Years” billows and lopes, beginning the album with an almost whimsical guitar lick. “C’est la Mort” is a delicate, pleading tune, the American folk cousin to the tentative, graceful chords of European duo The Swell Season (of Once fame). The Civil Wars’ breakout hit “Poison and Wine” exudes desperation and heartache, wading through the melancholy with one recurring phrase: “Oh, I don’t love you, but I always will.”

“My Father’s Father” trots lightly, beads of sadness clinging to the tune like dew, manifested in an echoing slide guitar. Then, the title track roars in, blazing and flaring like an old-world forest fire; harmonies glow hotly as blistering strings flicker alongside their voices. The album’s lone instrumental, “The Violet Hour,” directly follows “Barton Hollow,” acting as water splashed across the flames, elegant and haunting.

“Girl with the Red Balloon” is a refreshingly minor track, an elegiac tale of love lost and a girl who is “always and never alone.” “Forget Me Not” washes over the listener like a summer rain – warm, gentle, cleansing; the tune is reminiscent of traditional country duets, steady and broad, made modern by a twinkling mandolin.

The Civil Wars can be proud of their extraordinarily rich debut. Barton Hollow musters the beginnings of a long, lovely road, and speaking personally, I’ll “walk miles and miles in my bare feet” if I have to.

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Amos Lee’s “Mission Bell” Review

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Amos Lee

“Mission Bell”

January 2011; Blue Note Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

Amos Lee, despite being a musician, a singer, a songwriter, and a performer, is one of those strong, silent types. With his thoroughly unpretentious attitude and totally recognizable voice, Lee floats through the music world with seemingly little effort other than pure and wide-ranging talent. Lee has made a name for himself as a gentle and organic addition to the modern American folk songbook, ranking among fellow songwriting pros Ray LaMontagne, Colin Hay, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, and Blue Note label mate Norah Jones.

With his newest release, Lee confirms his ability to mellow out any afternoon and ease any sorrow. Mission Bell is Lee’s fourth album and first since 2008’s Last Days at the Lodge, and this time, Lee has invited everyone from Willie Nelson to Lucinda Williams, Priscila Ahn to Pieta Brown to be guests on the album.

In the past, Lee’s musical style has encompassed folk, soul, and jazz, but Mission Bell branches out further still, exuding traditional country and gospel overtones and exploring nearly religious themes while maintaining his characteristically mild manner and fluently rich melodies.

Highlights of Mission Bell include the subtle, strolling rhythm of “Windows are Rolled Down,” and the quietly radiant “Violin,” featuring Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, that washes over the listener with a warm, salty spray. The shadowy, minor “Out of the Cold” breathes a darker aspect of Lee’s tonality into the album with lyrics like, “Looking at the pictures up on the shelf/He feels a mere shadow of himself/22 years, still he feels so old/It takes a lot of lovin’ comin’ out of the cold.”

The soulful, rumbling “Jesus” is a dense and bluesy electric number that has Lee all but howling as the guitars buzz and the beat swaggers. Acoustically traditional “Cup of Sorrow” belongs in a mossy old whitewashed Baptist church; it drones like a quaint country hymn, complete with sweetly warbling organ, gospel-y chorus, and pleas for wisdom. And “Clear Blue Eyes” with Lucinda Williams is a folksy duet that swoons and wanders forlornly.

Amos Lee’s music drifts into a room the way a summer sun streams through a leafy canopy, light and golden and softly diffused. His melodies are understated and supple, soothing the listener and dusting off sounds of simpler days. Despite the slight diversion from what we’ve come to expect from Amos Lee, Mission Bell is a solid collection for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

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The Decemberists’ “The King is Dead” Review

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The Decemberists

“The King is Dead”

January 2011; Capitol Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

I’m pretty proud to be able to say I’ve been following The Decemberists and their musical endeavors for the majority of the band’s existence. Of the now six full-length albums they’ve produced, I’ve watched and waited for and loved five of them, discovering the Seattle sextet in my junior year of high school. The Decemberists’ efforts since then – the epic Picaresque in 2005, the major label debut The Crane Wife in 2006, 2009’s rock opera The Hazards of Love – have each been valiantly ambitious and wholly unique while keeping true to the band’s organic sound and colorful flair for the dramatic.

And the band’s most recent work is no exception. The King is Dead is a bold, tightly knit collection of smoothly woven, rustic tales of love and guilty consciences. This time though, The Decemberists are folksier and more effortless than ever, straying from their characteristically extravagant stylings for subtler, sleeker tunes. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and singer/songwriter Gillian Welch, both of whom are featured prominently throughout, seem to keep Colin Meloy and company tethered without stifling the band’s sensational themes or erudite prose.

Rollicking opener “Don’t Carry It All” maintains a familiar swagger, wild with harmonica and brazen violins, but “Calamity Song” settles into an easy, upbeat melody with something almost countrified lingering about the chorus. The sea shanty-ish “Rox in the Box” boasts a blustery, minor tonality, complete with a saucy accordion and darkly esoteric lines like, “Of dirt you’re made and to dirt you will return.”

The single, “Down By the Water,” is well chosen; The Decemberists have never been so radio-friendly as on this balmy, churning melody. And “This is Why We Fight” is a brawny and cavernous track, spinning brooding words into bravado: “And when we die, we will die/With our arms unbound/And this is why/This is why we fight.”

Today, The Decemberists are well seasoned and comfortable without sacrificing charisma or radiance. The King is Dead is perhaps little less fanfare than we have come to expect but remains well contrived, expertly accomplished, and stunningly felt. Bravo, Meloy; bravo.

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