To see the last version of What I’m Hearing, click here.
While most of this update came from the last few months of 2008, I’m sure a lot of stuff here will be new to some people. But don’t worry, we’ve got some 2009 gems as well, despite the fact that we’re only a month in. If the January update is any indication, it’ll be a fantastic year for music. January’s new iPod music included 70 songs.
Au Revoir Simone, The Bird of Music: Using muted synths, drum machines and various melodic instruments, Au Revoir Simone fashions singer/songwriter tendencies with electro and pop sensibilities on this 2007 release. On some tracks this comes out in a restrained style, the melody gently picked out with bell chimes and a light keyboard as the backdrop for the slow and melancholy voices of Erika Forster, Annie Hart and Heather D’Angelo. Yet on others, ARS delves further into the dancehall of the ‘80s with energetic rifts and go-go adolescent lyrics. The group manages to package their music as cute and gentle without allowing either to become overbearing and washing out the musical talent of it all. It would be very easy for future releases (and as of May ’08 they ARS says they’re working on one) to go too far in one of these directions, but on the majority of this album they’ve managed to find the balance that brings back the happiness and nostalgia of the ‘80s while infusing it with a shoe-gazing aura. Don’t Sleep On: “Dark Halls,” “Fallen Snow” and “Stars.”
Friendly Fires, Friendly Fires: If their 11 track self-titled September 2008 release is any indication, Friendly Fires of England could easily become the big Indie/Electro/80s/Pop/Alt Rock/Shoegaze group of 2009, not to mention the next big thing from across the pond. Their self-titled debut explores a variety of genres and musical eras while never losing energy. The bass and drum driven power of the tracks incorporates steely guitars and more than a fair share of video game tics and flourishes. At the same time, Fires isn’t afraid to mix in hints of disco from time to time, which only serves to vibrantly flesh out and harmonize with the rock aspect of their sound. At times, their use of high-pitched electronic melodies becomes haunting and beautiful without ever feeling out of place. While “Jump in the Pool” goes a little too far into Talking Heads’ “Moonrock” sound, others pull in Prince dance funk with “On Board.” But Friendly Fires is clearly at their best when they’re feeling the music. On “Skeleton Boy” as he belts out, “I close my eyes on the dancefloor/and forget about you,” it’s hard not to close your eyes and feel the same. Don’t Sleep On: “Skeleton Boy,” “Strobe,” and “White Diamonds.”
Her Space Holiday, XOXO, Panda and the New Kid Revival: It would be easy for anyone familiar with Her Space Holiday’s dreary and downtempo electronic glitch to pick up XOXO and wonder who they sold their name and branding rights to. For all purposes, XOXO is a complete break from previous HSH work. Here, Bianchi trades his laptop for an acoustic guitar, his bedroom whisper for a sunny sidewalk whistle and all the trappings of a closet case “manic expressive” for the airy feeling of a guy that can’t get enough sunshine. While his music may have previously seemed depressed, the absolute incongruity of this album with the rest of his discography brings the idea of bi-polar closer to the diagnosis. But these characteristics do not make the album bad, just different (unless of course you only like Her Space Holiday for the depression.) On several, the sing-along quality becomes contagious. So if you’re into the computer digital dirges of the previous work, you may not enjoy XOXO, but for those interested in following an artist and comparing his more somber works to something more upbeat, this album provides a case study in musical technique transition. Don’t Sleep On: “The Boys and Girls,” “The Year in Review” and “Sleepy Tigers.”
The Offspring, Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace: On their most recent album, The Offspring don’t show any new tricks. Of course, having been around for close to two decades, expecting any sort of musical growth here would be missing the point. The Offspring are who they are and who they have always been, and that’s breakneck pace punk/alternative rockers with hard melodies backing Dexter Holland’s unmistakable primal yell. And saying that they’re the same as they always have been isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the album produces some strong tracks that could have easily fit themselves onto Smash or Ixnay on the Hombre. Some tracks are a stretch here, like “Fix You” and “Kristy, Are You Doing OK?” that draws on simply too much sap for an Offspring track. Indeed, it almost sounds like an Offspring interpretation of Green Day’s “Time of Your Life,” and other punk turned singer/songwriter tracks showing up on Live 105 recently. This album probably won’t bring in any new Offspring fans, but for long-time fans, it will provide some decent and consistent new material. Don’t Sleep On: “A Lot Like Me,” “Let’s Hear It For Rock Bottom,” and “Hammerhead.”
The Tones, Dreamtalk: While the Bay Area is known for producing stellar Hip-Hop acts (see Zion-i, Hiero), lately it seems like the quality of out-put is slowing. The most recent Bay Area hip-hop album I heard was E-40’s new one, The Ball Street Journal, and while I certainly recognize the contributions he has made over the years, it has to be one of the most uninspirational pieces of rap garbage I’ve heard in the last year. I mean just the song “Water” is enough to make any fan of the genre think about throwing their speakers out of a moving car. But what 40 lacked in creativity for the Bay, The Tones have brought back around in one very solid 2009 release, Dreamtalk. Through 15 tracks, the duo consisting of Retro and Suhn easily spin soulful and heartfelt lyrics over jazzy and lushly filled out beats. The use of jazz components as well as old samples creates an atmosphere where The Tones rap and sing their way gracefully through songs that sound almost timeless, belonging to neither the 70s funk era nor the ’00s sound of Common and Kanye’s more mellow tracks. Regardless of how you want to describe them or who you want to compare them to, Dreamtalk is a very solid album all the way through and poised to be one of the best hip-hop debuts of the year. Don’t Sleep On: “The Movemeant,” “No More” and “Fly Angel.”
And for anyone looking for a nice mix of world music and a great selection of Kinks’ tracks, check out The Darjeeling Limited soundtrack.