Review: Thunderball – 12 Mile High (ESL Music)

Another review for Blurt, this time of the crappy boutique hotel-ready electronica from Washington, D.C.’s Thunderball.

Thunderball’s new album for the Washington, D.C.-based label, ESL Music, is slickly produced musical ennui, but it’s not really the trio’s fault. This type of lounge-y, electronic-based “world” music is nice for boutique hotel lobbies, but what’s essentially upgraded elevator music just doesn’t interest or delight at all – not to mention the fact that it’s damn hard to dance to.

So what’s the problem? Maybe it’s Thunderball’s supposed range. The album opens with “Enter the Brahmin,” a sitar-infused breakbeat track that bobs along, never breaking midtempo. Jump forward a few tracks to “Dub Science,” and suddenly Thunderball is dipping into reggae and dub with guest vocalist Zeebo crooning about sinsemilla. Then, just to see if you’re paying attention, the group gives you “Low Down Weather,” which is essentially smooth jazz. Sigh. So it goes, and so goes what passes these days for metropolitan, erudite, electronic music.

Review: Anika – Anika (Stones Throw)

I like how Stones Throw is expanding. This new album by the singer Anika, backed by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is really excellent. Read my review for Blurt here.

Taken at its actual semantic worth, the term “minimal,” when applied to music, should imply something pretty easy to pull off. The reality, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth. So many bands try to make “minimal” music that is actually just uninspired, talentless, or lazy. The new self-titled album from a singer named Anika, however, manages to be minimal, exciting, and varied all at the same time.

Anika’s success is no doubt helped immensely by the production from Portishead member Geoff Barrow’s band, Beak>. It’s not hard to recognize the Portishead aesthetic here, especially on a song like “The End of the World,” featuring a scattered snare beat and descending bassline that sounds like something off of Dummy. The overall musical feeling here is downtown NYC sometime around the late ’70s and early ’80s, or perhaps The Clash’s experiments in disco and dub, or PIL’s early deconstructed punk rock. Whatever the case, Anika’s Nico-esque vocals, vaguely foreign accent intact, are appealing as she intones (you can’t really call what she does singing) over a bevy of… wait for it… minimal beats.

Covering Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” as a simple dub tune, just reverb-soaked snare hits and a thumping bassline, may not sound like such a good idea, but it works well for Anika and Beak>. Songs like “Sadness Hides The Sun” and the opening track, “Terry,” are, at their core, broken down folk songs. Anika’s simple vocal melody morosely drones over scattered instrumentation, creating something completely new out of conventions you may recognize. Minimal? Yes. Perhaps a bit cold? Sure, but the songs on this album are complex in their emotion and unique in their construction, and that makes this one shine in this nascent new year.

Review: Annie – Don’t Stop (Smalltown Supersound)

Norwegian electro-pop star Annie has a new album out this week. Eh. Read why here or below.

Annie’s new effort, Don’t Stop, is an album that you might want to like more than you actually do. The Norwegian songstress became something of an indie-electro-pop sensation [and semi-official Pitchfork pet rock – Ed.] on the strength of her debut, Anniemal, a charmer built upon hooky production filled with recognizable nods to the ‘80s. Don’t Stop, while employing a few nifty bells and whistles (like Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos playing guitar on the track “My Love is Better”), suffers from a lack of energy and innovation.

Annie’s hushed vocals sound best over a bouncing beat, as they lack the strength to shine on their own. That wasn’t a problem in the past on songs like “Heartbeat” and “Chewing Gum,” but tracks like the guitar-driven “Bad Times” don’t do her justice, fading into the nebulous ether of mediocre pop. The title track, on the other hand, is a perky bubble-tech vision of dance-floor bliss, Annie singing down a chromatic scale about kisses before hitting it off with a catchy chorus. “I Don’t Like Your Band” is another success, based on the strength of Paul Epworth-produced electro beat.

There are more introspective moments peppered throughout, such as “Marie Cherie,” a softly focused track that, according to the press release, is about an abused girl who commits suicide. Serious subject matter aside, these subdued interludes don’t hold a candle to the percussive tech-house of a track like “Songs Remind Me of You.” But again, you have to give credit where credit is due – it’s the production that elevates Annie’s relatively weak vocals. But hey, if Madonna could do it, why can’t Annie?

Review: Kid Sister – Ultraviolet (Downtown)

Kid Sister’s debut was shelved last year, but it’s finally out. This is club hip-hop, dance-rap, and I like it. Read why here or below.

How many times has Kid Sister’s debut album been delayed now? It sounds unbelievable, but it’s been about a year since Ultraviolet was supposed to have been released. There better be a damn good reason why she and her producers, including France’s Yuksek, the ubiquitous Lil’ Wayne, and longtime champion A-Trak, pushed this one back for so long. To be honest, having reviewed the original shelved album, it’s not immediately evident why. The track selection is different, and this new version plays more like a mixtape than a regular album, a nice touch. But, for the most part, the differences are probably more evident to Kid Sister herself than to the listener. But hey, an artist tweaks her work.

Ultraviolet is club hip-hop through and through, the bubbling, techno-influenced beats providing a perfect backdrop for Kid Sister’s playful, bouncing cadence and party rhymes. The album’s opening track, “Right Hand Hi,” encompasses this aesthetic perfectly. Euro-house keyboards provide an epic background for the sung chorus, before Miami bass and a syncopated kick drum find Kid Sister matching the sportive tone with her rapping. The same goes for “Big N Bad,” an early-morning Stockholm nightclub banger if you’ve ever heard one.

“Life on TV” is one of the album’s best songs, a holdover from the original track list, reaching levels of unadulterated exhilaration when Sister jubilantly shouts out phrases like “Peep game!” or “The bass, the bass, the treble, treble!” “Pro Nails,” another holdover featuring Kanye West, is a track you’ve probably heard if you’ve been tracking the album’s delay. But some of the new additions are key collaborations, including “Step,” featuring Estelle of “American Boy” fame (actually a substitution for another collaboration from the original), and “Daydreaming,” featuring Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo. David Banner’s guest spot from the original album, however, didn’t make the cut.

Ultraviolet is a fresh, inspired, silly, infectious, danceable hip-hop record. Its club leanings may make it a hard sell for hardcore hip-hop heads, but the masses, primed by Lady Gaga and M.I.A., may ultimately embrace Kid Sister’s dance-floor rap.

Review: Imaad Wasif – The Voidist

Sometime Yeah Yeah Yeahs member and solo artist Imaad Wasif’s latest, The Voidist, brings his classic rock traditionalism to the forefront. Read all about it here or below.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his indie rock pedigree, Imaad Wasif is something of a classic rock purist. From 2006-2007, he toured with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as an auxiliary guitar player, and he cut his teeth in the LA band alaska! and Palm Desert-based lowercase. The Voidist, however, his third solo album and first for Tee Pee, is everything these past and current projects aren’t.

It seems that Wasif’s heart lies in the big, traditional rock riffs and the folksy plucking of bands like Led Zeppelin and their ilk, as opposed to the dancey post-punk or lo-fi experimentation he has flirted with in other projects. An element of mysticism pervades his music, as it did on his last solo album, Strange Hexes, from the dreamy “Our Skulls” to the Olde English folksong meanderings of “Widow Wing.” These moments are nice, and showcase a confident singer/songwriter working in a medium and style that suits him well, but the traditionalism that he clings to isn’t always very exciting or inspiring. Songs like the pop-rock “Priestess,” that chug along at a brisk pace and are actually more conventional in some ways, fare better.

Over all, while one can’t argue with the conception and arrangement of Wasif’s work, there is nothing that stands out here. Perhaps that is not what he was going for. Perhaps his goal was simply to a make a no-frills rock and roll record with deft guitar playing and sweet singing that is removed from any trends or fads. In that, he has succeeded.

Review: Atlas Sound – Logos

Bradford Cox’s (Deerhunter) side project, Atlas Sound, just released a new album, Logos, on Kranky. Read my review here or below.

The subtleties between Bradford Cox’s two main musical outlets, Atlas Sound and Deerhunter, can be, well, subtle at times. In general, though, the former has been the testing ground for Cox’s experimental solo work, while the latter has consisted of his more rock-oriented (but still experimental) full band arrangements.

On the new Atlas Sound album, Logos, these lines are sometimes crossed and blurred. “Sheila,” for example, a droning but somehow poppy dirge, would feel right at home on the last Deerhunter record, as Cox intones, over and over, “We’ll die alone, together…” Over all, the new album has a more organic, cohesive, ensemble tone and construction than the previous Atlas Sound album, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel. Songs like the eight-minute long “Quick Canal,” featuring Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier on vocals, though, hearken back to that first record, as a whispering programmed drum track skips along under synthesizer waves and thumping bass. The same can be said for the ambient electronics of “Kid Klimax.”

But from the album’s acoustic/IDM opener, “The Light That Failed,” to the ‘60s pop-referencing collaboration with Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox, “Walkabout,” Logos is clearly an ambitious evolution in sound. Whether trading riffs with his fellow band members in Deerhunter or digging into the recesses of his mind with Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox continues to make fascinating and beautiful music.