Thursday, February 28, 2008

She & Him - Volume One

For those of you who don't know, She & Him is a new band, comprised of indie-folkster M. Ward and actress/singer Zooey Deschanel. You will, of course, remember Zooey from her roles in Almost Famous, Elf, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and many other movies. You may remember M. Ward from his solo work, most notably Transistor Radio and Post-War. Zooey trotted out her pipes for a scene in Elf, while M. Ward has been making lo-fi, folkish-rock for a number of years now. It was only a matter of time before they put out an album. it is. There are some twists and turns along the way, but this album sounds pretty close to how I imagined it would.
Zooey has the perfect voice for the overall "old feel" of this album. They run through some different styles, and all of them work. We have country ("Got Me"), lounge-jazz ("Take it Back"), vocal piano-pop ("Sentimental Heart"), pop-rock ("Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?"), gospel ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"), and even a bit of doo wop ("I Was Made for You").
The song selection is comprised of songs that Zooey wrote, combined with a couple of covers ("I Should Have Known Better", "You Really Gotta a Hold On Me").
The production and instrumentation of M. Ward couldn't be better. The music, combined with Zooey's voice, make this album sound like a classic; like it was recorded 50 years ago. I've never been a huge fan of M. Ward, but he really hit the nail on the head with the arrangements here.
There are a couple of things I'm not crazy about. I'm not a big fan of the song "Black Hole". It's not too as it goes on, but the beginning just sounds a bit off. Also, whenever M. Ward opens his mouth to sing (which only happens twice on the album), I just wish he had kept it closed. I know a lot of people love his voice, but I'm not one of those people. I don't hate it, it just seems a bit out of place on this album.
Whenever an actress decides they want to be a singer, there is always a bit of a question of whether they can pull it off or not. Well, Zooey pulls it off to perfection here, and she found a fantastic musical partner in M. Ward. Here's to hoping that Volume One is just the beginning.
Favorite Songs: "Sentimental Heart", "Change is Hard", "I Was Made for You", "Sweet Darlin'"
Rating: 9.0
Check out their website
(Have I regained your faith, Matthew?)

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Fine Frenzy - One Cell in the Sea

I realize that I missed the boat on her when this album came out. I should have listened to this a long time ago.
I fell in love with this album from the very first time I've heard it. When this happens, I know that I'm usually in for a letdown at some point. If I love an album immediately, I usually get sick of it by the sixth listen. I don't want it to happen this way, but it normally does.
Initially, I was struck by the quality (and clarity) of Alison Sudol's voice. It is no secret that I am a sucker for "chick singers", but I had no idea what to expect of this album before I heard it. Sudol has an absolutely amazing voice; it can be soft and sweet or huge and powerful, yet she never loses the clarity of her voice.
After overcoming my initial awe of her voice (which took at least four listens), I began to settle into the album and pay attention to some of the other elements. I enjoy the music, but there's really nothing special in the majority of the songs. There are some gorgeous arrangements on the songs, but, for the most part, the music doesn't really stand out. It's not bad, it's just kind of "there". There's not a whole lot in the music that jumped out at me. Her influences seem to range from artists like Sarah McLachlan to Coldplay and Eisley, even though she cites Radiohead and Sigur Ros as major influences.
Then I started to listen to her lyrics. A lot of them revolve around the theme of lost love. Some of them are great, and some of them are just kind of so-so. Again, they're not bad, but some of them come off as kind of cheesy or childish. Granted, she's only 23, but it sometimes sounds like she's in high school. This is definitely not true on every track on the album, but a lyric pops up every now and then that just made me want to shake my head.
I can overlook the lack of creative music. The beauty of some of her arrangements more than make up for a slight lack of creativity. And, since the bad lyrics only pop up every now and then, I can overlook those, too. I can overlook these because her voice more than makes up for any slight misstep she may have taken. The beauty of this album outweighs her missteps by a wide margin.
I love it from the first time I heard it. I have cooled on it slightly, but I still can't tear myself away from this album. I listen to this album at least once a day, and I still have not gotten sick of it.
Chalk up a win for Alison Sudol.

Rating: 8.5

Favorite Songs: "Almost Lover", "Ashes and Wine"

Check out her website here.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Chris Walla - Field Manual

Having been a Death Cab for Cutie fan for around 7 years, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Chris Walla. He has a great ear for music, which is evident on Death Cab's albums, as well as the other albums that he has produced (Nada Surf, Rocky Votolato, The Long Winters, etc.). And, even though I don't like The Decemberists, I can admit that he did a good job with the production of The Crane Wife.
When I heard that he would be releasing a solo album, I was naturally excited. "Now I can see what he can do without Ben Gibbard."
Well, as it turns out, without Ben Gibbard, he turned into...well...Ben Gibbard. There's not a whole lot musically on this album that wouldn't fit in perfectly on a Death Cab album. Going further than that, his voice sounds almost exactly like Ben Gibbard (I had to check the credits to make sure that it wasn't Ben Gibbard).
None of these things are bad, but those things certainly don't help to give this album a distinctive sound. In fact, the majority of the album sounds like a collection of Death Cab b-sides. And those songs that don't sound like Death Cab b-sides? They sound like Nada Surf b-sides.
It's beginning to sound like I hate the album, but that's not accurate. After 4 listens, I started to come around to it. Once I knew that I wasn't going to find anything "new" on this album, it started to settle in, and I started to like it.
Do I love it? I don't. But there are a number of great songs on here. It starts out a bit slow with "Two-Fifty" (it sounds like he's trying to make it sound extremely important), but it gets noticeably better after that (with the exception of "Archer V. Light"...far and away the worst song on the album).
There are times on the album where it feels like he's trying too hard with his lyrics. Line's like "I don't need to see but I need a vision" (from "A Bird is a Song") make me cringe. There are also a number of political statements on the album, but none of them really seem to stick. I don't hear an urgency or passion in his voice that makes me believe that he really means it. When Dylan makes a political statement in music, I sit up and listen; when Chris Walla does it, it just sort of annoys me.
All in all, a pretty good album. It's not fantastic, but it's not terrible either. I will say that it's slightly better than good.

Rating: 6.5

Favorite Songs: " Geometry & C", "Everybody On", "It's Unsustainable"

Check out his website