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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
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Album Reviews

Mason Pitzel
Published Monday December 22, 05:00 pm
Four albums we should’ve shed some light on so much sooner

Grouper

Ruins

Kranky

4.5

 

We done goofed.

That’s the simplest way to explain how Planet S left so many excellent records unreviewed this year. It’s ruining our sleep, our posture, our friendships and more, so we couldn’t let 2014 pass without finally paying these releases the attention they deserve.

Ruins (released in October) isn't a total shift away from Grouper’s (aka Liz Harris) previous work, but the songs themselves are rooted in departure. They came together on a sojourn to Portugal, where Harris took up an artist’s residency. She was left with a surplus of alone-time, which she spent working through some personal struggles and documenting that exploration through voice and piano. The results are suitably pensive –– again, not unlike her other Grouper records.

But this record differs in its skeletal structure. There’s little electronic treatment here; the ambiance is natural. The tail of each note is stretched as far as possible, but only by the pedal of the piano. The realism is heightened by the incidental noises Harris allows onto the record –– especially the errant (and now semi-famous) microwave beep that interrupts “Labyrinth”. The moment is antithetical to the carefully crafted sounds that Grouper is known for, but it’s a great indicator of her ability to create music that’s intimate, but not quite personal.

Ruins offers an emotional outlet for Harris, and a space for listeners to project their own emotions. “Made of Air” is an outlier here, a decade-old experiment that could have been lifted from 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. But the other tracks share the fragile acoustics of that house in Portugal, somewhere between inviting and merely empty. It’s best felt on the stunning “Holding”, where Harris’ triple-tracked vocals alternately comfort and dissuade, until the performance is consumed by a literal thunderstorm.

It’s hard to imagine that Grouper will continue making albums this plain or direct, but the slight diversion here is appreciated. No other album this year was as much of a two-way street.

 

 

Azealia Banks

Broke with Expensive Taste 

Prospect Park

4/5

 

Three years ago, Azealia Banks blew the doors off hip-hop with “212”, a foul-mouthed announcement of purpose and insane talent. Now, after a series of small releases, Twitter fights with other musicians and a season in hell with Interscope Records, Banks has finally come out with her first full-length record. Broke with Expensive Taste (released in November) is a messy, genre-defying tour de force, going from the confrontational blast “Yung Rapunxel” to the uber-stylish pop of “Chasing Time”. The inclusion of older material makes some of the album feel a bit dated, but the sheer weirdness of “Nude Beach a Go-Go” (a collaboration with Ariel Pink) and the effortless Spanish rap of “Gimme a Chance” show just how much Banks has grown since the filthy flow of “212”. /Aidan Morgan

 

 

Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham

Double Feature

4/5

 

There’s none of the Velvets-influenced guitar solos that defined Galaxie 500 and Luna Dean Wareham’s self-titled solo debut (released way back in March), and none of the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra-inspired dynamic male/female pop vocals from the Dean and Britta years. The focus instead is on Wareham the songwriter — a role he’s always been good at, but which was overshadowed by his excellent work as a stylist. Wareham’s understated, world-weary pop recalls Nick Lowe’s magnificent 2001 album The Convincer. “Beat the Devil”, “Love Is Not a Roof Against the Rain” and “Heartless People” are all superb down-tempo bummer pop, marked by Wareham’s nearly deadpan delivery. Which only makes “Holding Pattern” all the more enjoyable as it (ironically) breaks from the pattern, lets Wareham bust out the falsetto and offers up a glorious guitar solo. /Emmet Matheson

 

 

Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso

Dine Alone

4/5

 

For a few weeks, 2014 really insisted that I sit down and listen to “Coffee” by North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso. Not in any bad way, mind you, but in a “You really need to check this out” way: tons of podcasts I listened to, reviews I read and more all gushed with praise — and as I finally discovered, rightfully so. The song, and the record (which was released in May) as a whole, find greatness in the balance between singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn. Meath’s excellent voice feels like it would be well-suited to warm folk music, but here she’s matched with twiddly electronics and blunt-force synths. The effect feels as light as your favourite pop record, but the songs still have power and substance. /James Brotheridge

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