Vampire Weekend – Contra

January 31, 2010

A band’s sophomore album is extremely important – listeners always hope to hear development in a group since their first release and hopefully not familiar sounding songs. While a killer first album is what gets people interested at first, a band’s second album is what really determines their future.

Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut was clean, refreshing, and successful. It wasn’t a life changing album for most, but the Afro-beat influence and use of strings, along with respectable song structure, and most of all, catchiness, attracted many. That being said, it seemed as if they were holding back at times, making a great but safe album with few risks – which is acceptable for a new band. The question was would they be able to top the pleasant album that won over so many?

Contra, Vampire Weekend’s highly anticipated follow-up record, introduces listeners to a completely new side of them. There’s more to this one than a purely enjoyable sound, as the band took a lot of risks and improved upon their song writing abilities tremendously with this ten track album. Processed sounds meet genuine sounds and the contrast between them is what makes Contra so interesting, along with the combination of various genres that could not possibly be blended together as effectively by any other band. Koenig’s vocals are far more passionate than ever, and their lyrics force listeners to view them as people with typical and relatable problems. “I Think Ur A Contra” ends the album and stands out as the most soulful track the band has ever released, with lyrics such as, “Never pick sides, never choose between two, but I just wanted you, I just wanted you.”

Contra hit number one on Billboard’s 200 within the first week of its release, being the 12th independently distributed album ever to do so since 1991. Listeners who tried so hard to find flaws in Vampire Weekend the first time around will have a much more difficult time doing so with Contra.

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Hot Chip – One Life Stand

January 25, 2010

One Life Stand is a surprising release from Hot Chip after their last record – 2008’s Made in the Dark. While it was easy to love songs off of Made in the Dark as separate works, as an album, it was all over the place; they were trying to include far too many ideas in an hour’s worth of material. However, with One Life Stand, Hot Chip has created a cohesive album and experimented with a completely new sound. A proper metaphor for this record would be an astronaut’s course through outer space – a journey met with excitement beyond comprehension, fear, sadness, disbelief, and realization.

“Thieves in the Night” is the take off and eventual trip through the atmosphere, the hard bass drum fueling the listener’s growing anticipation. With sweet vocals, kind synthesized sounds, and partially distorted guitar, it sounds like polished 80s electronic pop, which can be said about most of the other songs, too.
This goes straight into the more confident “Hand Me Down Your Love.” We all knew there would be a good amount of piano on this Hot Chip album and get our first taste of it on track two. What’s even more shocking is the strings that come in, hardly noticeable at first, but eventually so evident, with beautiful melody and rich vibrato. For once, synthesized sounds do not play the main role in the music, as if you’re listening to a completely different band.

The surprises keep coming, as “I Feel Better” starts off with vocals tweaked with Auto-Tune – not the kind of Auto-Tune that can easily make one cringe, used in “secret” to roll over the imperfections of a voice, but instead just used to produce a different kind of sound. Real vocals come in, challenging the enhanced ones, making for a very unique track three. The mood of the album starts to become darker, but the songs still maintain a beat that’s easy to dance to.

“One Life Stand,” the title track, comes next. A version had been streamed on MySpace in December to give fans a taste of what the album would be like, but this version exceeds the demo in every way possible. Resonant bass and even a hint of steel drum all lead up to a pre-chorus longer than the original version’s, thus sounding much less awkward than it once was. With the chorus, it becomes clear why this track deserves to share a title with the album, as it’s fantastic.
After Made in the Dark, it feels strange to hear lyrics as tame and relatable as those of track five, “Brothers.” A soft beat and pleasant harmony, but nothing stands out with this song. However, its place in the album is necessary.

“Slush” begins with an arpeggiated “humana humana humana,” which fades into the background, but softly carries throughout the rest of the song, matched with simple piano – A melancholy ballad.
The mood lightens instrumentally with “Alley Cats,” a song that radiates good vibes and gets better and better with every listen. However, one must listen closely to the lyrics to notice the sadness of the song – “There’s no pain I don’t know” repeats several times, and it becomes obvious that it’s actually a song about loss. It is perhaps the best song on the album.

“We Have Love” sounds more like the “old” Hot Chip, but still darker, with unidentifiable sounds right at the start, and a consistent dance beat. More strings are snuck into this number as well, with clean bow re-takes nearly hidden beneath the busy atmosphere of the track. There’s an anxiety causing build-up with this one, and there’s no way to predict which path the album will take with the following last two tracks.
The outer space imagery returns with “Keep Quiet,” beginning to wrap up the album. It’s easy for one to let their mind wander off during this slowed down number – as it is not one of the more remarkable tracks – and be reawakened when the last track – “Take It In” – begins, signifying the trip back to Earth in the previously used space metaphor. Mellow vocals during the chorus accompany the best beat found throughout the album – it will undoubtedly be one of the more fun songs to be heard live on Hot Chip’s upcoming tour. It feels like a resolution has been reached on the last note.

One Life Stand is the necessary change in direction that Hot Chip needed. While the band easily could have stayed in their comfort zone and still have been loved by their fans, they took a risk and tried something new. Some fans may be confused by this drastically different album at first, but most will be extremely impressed.

Best of 2009

January 1, 2010

My list ended up changing tremendously by the last day of the year, but here it is!

Best Albums

1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
2. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
3. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
4. Portugal. The Man – The Satanic Satanist
5. Telefon Tel Aviv – Immolate Yourself
6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
7. The Antlers – Hospice
8. Jónsi & Alex – Rice Boy Sleeps
9. mewithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright
10. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
11. Mew – No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories the World is Grey I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away
12. Umphrey’s McGee – Mantis
13. Mumford & Songs – Sigh No More
14. Atlas Sound – Logos
15. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
16. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
17. Dan Deacon – Bromst
18. Rx Bandits – Mandala
19. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing
20. M. Ward – Hold Time
21. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band – Outer South
22. Dredg – The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion
23. Passion Pit – Manners
24. Taken By Trees – East Of Eden
25. Monsters of Folk – Self-Titled
26. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
27. The XX – XX
28. Boys Noize – Power
29. Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen
30. Fanfarlo – Reservoir
31. Rodrigo y Gabriela – 11:11
32. Owen – New Leaves
33. Muse – The Resistance
34. Sonic Youth – The Eternal
35. Kevin Devine – Brother’s Blood
36. Person L – The Positives
37. St. Vincent – Actor
38. Volcano Choir – Unmap
39. Bowerbirds – Upper Air
40. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
41. Brand New – Daisy
42. The Mercury Program – Chez Viking
43. Noah and the Whale – The First Days of Spring
44. Regina Spektor – Far
45. Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be
46. Girls – Album
47. WHY? – Eskimo Snow
48. The Appleseed Cast – Sagarmatha
49. The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
50. Gomez – A New Tide

Best EPs

1. Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind [EP]
2. Andrew Bird – iTunes Session – EP
3. Good Old War/Cast Spells – Split EP
4. Bon Iver – Blood Bank EP
5. Modest Mouse – No One’s First, and You’re Next

Best Soundtracks

1. Where the Wild Things Are
2. Away We Go
3. (500) Days of Summer
4. New Moon
5. Taking Woodstock

Best Album Artwork

1. Portugal. The Man – The Satanic Satanist
2. The Mars Volta – Octahedron
3. Muse – The Resistance
4. Dan Deacon – Bromst
5. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

Overall, it was a fantastic year for music. Hardly any let downs among the releases that I paid attention to. 2010’s looking pretty good, too.