Trouble Will Find Me: The National’s Simple Beauty

June 10, 2013

The National’s delivers a heavy dose of familiarity with their sixth album Trouble Will Find Me. It’s unusual to encounter bands that have such levels of consistency in musical style, yet The National continues to create music in a style that doesn’t feel overused at this point. Between the slow, deep melodies of Matt Berninger’s voice and the mix of guitar and drums that accompany, it’s a familiar walk in the park, but a pleasant one at that.


But there’s something kind of different going on here.

The album exhibits that sense of confidence of a group in their second decade of existence. The sound is very controlled, sleek and often powerful in the little moments of rise and fall. In their past works, some of the arguments for the band being boring have seemed understandable on some level, but Trouble Will Find Me has some great kind of simple quality that holds the attention well.

It’s difficult to approach in a lot of ways. The lyrics are multilayered, bearing the familiar marks of Berninger’s darkness, along with questions of fame, fortune, and hope. “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” a song that deals with images of depression and perhaps suicide, delivers lines like ‘When they ask what do I see, I say bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me’ somehow come across hopeful and defiant against the crush of sadness found in other lines.

Being The National, there are going to be tracks that deal with heavy, dark tones and images. Songs like “I Should Live In Salt” and “Demons” focus on the pain of loss, though it is unclear to whom this sense of loss is directed at, whether it’s lost love or otherwise. Others like “This Is The Last Time” focus on images of unbalanced love, expertly worked into low swinging strings that leave the listener feeling listless and a sense of longing.

It often feels like Berninger is attempting to give explanations for his actions throughout the album, almost as though the album is his confessional. He admits his insecurities and fears in “Graceless”, one of the more powerful and comparatively upbeat songs of the album.

The National creates a better level of listenability with Trouble Will Find Me. Perhaps not on a level that will make fans of critics, but it does have a way of drawing the listener in, leaving you with a sense of understanding, even if it really doesn’t make sense straightaway. It’s easy on the ears, sounds pretty, and it’s a little bit complicated, just like we’re all used to with The National. – Jordan B. Frye, Contributing Editor @jordanbfrye

New Sounds and New Thoughts from Vampire Weekend

May 27, 2013

Vampire Weekend delivers yet again with the release of their third full-length album, Modern Vampires of the City. The album features heavy use of synthesizer, piano, and overdubbed vocals, in addition to their more familiar style, which in this case appears to have been pushed to the side in favor of experimentation. The result is an album filled with complex lyrics and a wide variety of often chaotic sounds. There is a marked level of maturity in the quality of the music, as well as in the content of the songs lyrically that makes Modern Vampires an excellent continuation of the band’s career.

The first track “Obvious Bicycle” sets the stage for the album, introducing the listening to the new sound with a mix of piano, African-styled drums, and vocals. The album quickly steps up with “Unbelievers,” a foot-tapping, fast-paced track reminiscent of Vampire Weekend’s self-titled pioneer album. The lyrical content of the track explores questions, or perhaps denials, of faith with lines like, “I’m not excited, but should I be,” setting up a theme of faith that reappears throughout the album.

The album picks up speed with “Diane Young,” a bouncy dance-rock jam filled with crashing drums, synth, and crooning vocals that reveal a rebellious spirit willing to “die young.” Soon following this, “Everlasting Arms” continues the ‘questions of faith’ theme from “Unbelievers.” Set to a backdrop of drums, guitar, and synth, Koenig’s lyrics play with the questions of where his own concept of faith lies, and whether a deity should be trusted, opening with the line ‘I trusted your counsel and came to ruin,’ but closing with the title words, ‘hold me in your everlasting arms.’

The questions of faith continue in “Ya Hey,” a track which arguably uses a play on the Hebrew name for God, Yahweh. The song itself is a beautiful high point for the album, despite the chipmunk-esqu voices chanting ‘ya hey’ throughout the song.


By this point in the album it’s clear that Koenig’s opinions of God and faith are as varied as the songs of the album.

The whole album isn’t dedicated entirely to Koenig’s questions of faith.  Other songs deal with familiar topics in music, such as the love story described in “Finger Back,” which bears an implied similarity to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The maturity of the album is revealed in its moments of depth, found in lyrics and in the sound of the music itself.

The songs individually might sound like they shouldn’t fit together, but as a whole they create a very interesting body of work. Modern Vampires of the City is imaginative and a very fitting addition to Vampire Weekend’s career so far. –Jordan B. Frye, Contributing Editor @jordanbfrye


Changing Times for Iron & Wine

May 18, 2013

It’s often hard for well-established musicians to find balance later in their careers. Sam Beam has left his minimalist roots far behind with Ghost on Ghost, his fifth full-length album as Iron & Wine, pulling from many often unexpected influences.

Songs like “The Desert Babbler” exhibit a melodic quality reminiscent of many long-gone musical styles, creating a pseudo 70’s funk-inspired sound that’s almost a little difficult to identify. It’s Iron & Wine, there’s no doubt about that, but the variety of the album poses a problem.

Artists at the point Iron & Wine reach are often accused of ‘betraying’ fans by skipping gears and moving on to a sound drastically different from what they are used to. It’s difficult to argue that Beam’s musical direction hasn’t taken a very drastic leap. The junkyard-rock of The Shepherd’s Dog was a wonderful break from his usual style, and Kiss Each Other Clean expanded the sound further.


At this point, the question is whether Iron & Wine should have stopped the expansion there.

Instead of the simple sounds of acoustic guitar from The Creek Drank the Cradle, Iron & Wine fills the space of Ghost on Ghost with a jazzy collision of horns, violin, keyboard, heavy drum use, and an occasional Doors-esque organ sound.  One of the only songs on the album that is easily recognizable as Iron & Wine, “Winter Prayers,” still features very little of the original guitar sound at all, relying on Sam’s voice almost entirely.

The album lacks a clear destination, like the radio-weary lite-rock it harkens back to, but there exists a saving grace in the end. “Lover’s Revolution,” the second-to-last track, begins slowly, plodding along, but eventually picks up tempo and flies headlong into a burst of jazz horn and drums. Unfortunately, this fades into “Baby Center Stage,” a slow dance ballad of piano and slide guitar that quickly becomes simple background music to the listener.

Ghost on Ghost is not a bad album, that’s not the point. It’s simply confusing and hard to get a real grasp of. There’s so much happening in and between songs that it’s easy to lose interest. It’s an easy listen, but not one that’s easy to pay attention to. The sound quality is great and the songs are all beautiful, but they unfortunately lack a necessary hook. –Jordan B. Frye, Contributing Editor

Dylan Struggles On

November 4, 2012

Possibly one of the most easily identifiable voices in the music world, Bob Dylan has created a legacy that will endure beyond his time on this earth, spanning over fifty years of songwriting. Dylan is to folk and blues what bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are to rock n’ roll: the unavoidable backbone of a broad and far-reaching sound. While he can often be viewed as a relic of a past generation, his music continues to hold a presence to this day.

Dylan can write music—that goes without saying. However, with the release of his most recent album Tempest it becomes apparent just how long Dylan has been doing all this. To put it simply, he sounds old, tired, and a little worn out. Some of the original fire that made him a legend from the start is lost and absent from the sound. His voice sounds more ragged than it ever has, bound by a rasp that makes his words sound more forced than anything.

The opening track “Duquesne Whistle” features a voice that is now reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. It’s tough to approach because while the sound isn’t bad, it also isn’t necessarily great. He abandons his initial vocal sound and returns to the more familiar sound for the remainder of the album, but there is still an edge to his voice that does feel forced.

Some of the content that makes his songs resonate with the hearts of average people is still present. “Pay In Blood” features lines like, “Come here, I’ll break your lousy head. Our nation must be saved and freed. You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?” The struggles we face every day, the adversity created by the people who lord themselves over us, those are the topics that often make a Dylan song a Dylan song. While it’s comforting to know that topical torch is still there, some of it lacks the subtlety and expert craftsmanship that he’s known for. Many of the lines feel plain and stripped-down.

Tempest isn’t a bad album. When I picked it up I listened to it the whole way through while driving out of Knoxville one night. It was fitting, and I enjoyed it. However, since then, I haven’t had much of an urge to pull it back out and listen to it more. There are good songs on here, it’s true, but as a whole, the album fails to live up to the standards that many have come to expect of a Bob Dylan album.  –Jordan Frye, Contributing Writer

Beige Like Folk: America Sings the Mumford Hymns

October 11, 2012

Late September 2012, the headphones blew up with bliss for a new ear-candy kiss. Listening to the new release since before dawn, I prayed over the computer keyboard and wrote on Facebook that I was drinking my Mumfords and listening to my morning coffee. The mixed-up metaphor did not require correction. Mumford and Sons make us all feel connection to a power greater than ourselves. The sophomore album Babel stands out in a season of great albums to sustain community, explain self, and maintain spirit.

That first week of Fall, I couldn’t walk anywhere on the college campus where I work without someone asking me about the new Mumford disc. The students were excited to share these epiphanies with me, knowing I was a veteran of five Mumford shows: two Bonnaroos, one Ryman, a Railroad Revival in New Orleans, and most recently, Gentlemen of the Road in Bristol. Stuck at the top of the charts as the best-selling record of the year, Babel brings the wild news that folk is once again the new pop and that these Brits are the best American band.

Recent drops by native sons Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, or Old Crow Medicine Show no- doubt dial-in to the same Americana revival at the intersection where folk meets rock and pop and country, but in some strange turn that’s similarly brought us Beatles, Stones, and U2, the United States of Listening Sensibility hinges on the rustic banjo sting of how an American idiom gets interpreted by inspired imports. When the pseudo-hobo train-hopping meets the prep-schooler’s chart-topping, the popular culture gets soaked in sepia-tinted photographs and earth-toned authenticity. Not dayglo but khaki, not shimmery sheen but olive green, not sky blue like jazz but Carhartt beige like folk. Plain but filled with platitude, not ashamed of gratitude.

A common conversation on Twitter and Facebook confirms the conviviality and convergence of our Mumford moment. Our ears and spirits reconnect as our souls get drenched in rocking banjos and redemptive blood. The Mumford mania soaks folks in biblical imagery, but an audience doesn’t mind spiking the communion grape juice or spicing the faith journey with ferocious f-bombs. Mumfords make postmodern hymns as dusty as Dylan but as dangerously contemporary as anything hip hop or techno could hope for.

The backlash against Babel has been thankfully confined to the crustiest snarks inside the rock critic intelligentsia whose cries of boring conservatism cannot put a dent in our boisterous sing-alongs, infectious memes circulating and myths percolating from campus dorm shaking to car stereo shouting. The record by no means condones or upholds the ubiquity of Babylon; rather, it humbly confronts the greed and the pride of walls that will either crumble of their own weight or be torn down by hands like ours.

The Mumford formula finds strength in weakness, finds voice in “grace and choice.” This isn’t Top 40 gospel; it’s the gospel gathering enough acoustic confidence to occupy the Top 40 with a holy cup of folkster fury. This isn’t the stuff of superficial sin cities but sinners confessing sins and setting out “to serve the Lord.” These whispers in the dark are screaming at dawn: this isn’t your only chance, but by gosh, the Mumfords suggest, don’t blow it. Forgive but don’t forget. Live and love for today. Don’t burn out or fade away.

For a pop culture perched atop imaginary towers of narcissism, Mumford and Sons offer a vigorous valley of profound patience for the people bred towards impatience and instant gratification.

Kneel. Wait. Touch the ground. Forgive. Tweak your head to touch your heart. This is holistic hootenanny for the fragmented and fractured. Sure, it’s not the return of the 70s “freak folk” as the Brit-crits blithely badger the sons of an evangelical revival, but this summer-camp altar-call is freaking phenomenal. The fans of psychedelic folk may look elsewhere; the mind-altering nature of God always makes the strictly secular cultural guardians uncomfortable.

As we surmise, an instant classic takes us by surprise. The 21st century update to “Freebird” is another “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” another arm-waving set from a quartet qualified to sing about Jesus and release cover songs by American 60s greats without them winking or us cringing.

Ghosts and hope, lovers and light, feet and knees, haste and wander: the poetry drips like a waterfall,  melts ice after a deep freeze, flips a switch to the turn the lights back on inside a cynical self, rips like a roatrip waiting for a thousand sunrises. Don’t confuse their earnest yearning with clobbering certainty, though, for these are songs for serving and learning, not turning or burning.

Lest people perceive this soaring universalism and spiritual populism as some kind of creepy uptight piety, it seems the band members themselves are hardly as serious as the songs. From a distance, it even looks like they are robust partiers sipping the strong stuff, even though this listener-fan-reviewer loves the fact that even the debut Sigh No More came out after I got sober. Never having heard the Mumfords while drunk serves me forever strong and singing along, a tall glass of cold water or mug of hot coffee for the sunniest of sainted and dry intoxications.

The rock n roll inside this folk revival insists to roll us and persists to save us. No sea of quiet or army of acoustic can hide the arena-worthy aspects, and frankly, the kids fighting to find tickets will find some peace when these gents offer shows in giant venues. Don’t believe any of the negative hype and remain a believer.

This album gives and gives and forgives, nothing shy of the soundtrack to your savory living, a constant reminder of hope’s fire and your heart’s desire. Nothing about Babel can be construed as a step backward, and even for those who claim they’re just treading water, they are treading water in a soul-thrilling river Jordan for the Facebook generation, where our ears get perpetually baptized and our fears have forever capsized. –Andrew William Smith, Editor



« Previous PageNext Page »