If, twenty years and seven albums in to their tenure as a band, Nada Surf aren’t quite as youthful as they once were, they’ve retained a strong sense of connection to the music of their heyday atop the indie pop charts in the mid nineties. On The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, their latest full length recording for Barsuk, the songs’ lyrics may be more reflective, ruminating on the onset of middle age (“Clear Eye Clouded Mind” and “No Snow on the Mountain”) and casting a backward glance towards departed youth (“Teenage Dreams,” and see “When I Was Young” below). But there’s no bathetic nostalgia here. Rather, the band seems invigorated by the stocktakings. Guitars still crunch with elan, grooves are still propelled with taut energy, and hooks still buoy choruses aplenty. Indeed, the prevailing atmosphere is imbued with a similar zesty ebullience to that found in the power pop on Nada Surf’s earlier albums. Recapturing the enthusiasm of youth while retaining the wisdom of one’s middle years? Sounds like a formula for success, in power pop and in life in general.
Seattle musician Eric Elbogen is back with another LP of material, appearing as his Say Hi project on the Barsuk imprint. Once again, he plays most of the instruments himself, crafting adroit layers of keyboards, guitars, and percussion in arrangements that certainly have the potency of many a full band’s studio renditions.
But unlike some of his earlier songs, this time out the subject matter isn’t quite so light-hearted. The focus is often matters of the heart; in particular, the times when said matters involve unrequited love or desire from afar. Indeed, one can hear flashes of bitterness and regret in the singer-songwriter’s voice. It’s as if Elbogen is channeling early Elvis Costello’s frequent sneers and snarls into a highly distilled version of postmodern indie angst. This is particularly evident in his ballads. Based on the wrenching delivery the singer adopts in the alt-folk song “Bruises to Prove It,” one can certainly believe the title’s claim of Elbogen’s pain.
Still, all hope isn’t lost on Um, Uh Oh. “Devils” mounts a sultry, feisty, mid tempo groove. On the rollicking up tempo number “Take Ya’ Dancin,’” Elbogen drops the ironic stance and instead adopts a jaunty swagger and woos his intended like a rock star.
Syracuse, NY’s Ra Ra Riot is a chamber pop band in the most organic sense of the word. In addition to the usual rock instrumentation – guitar, bass, drums, & keyboards – they also include a violinist and cellist in their complement. While their debut The Rhumb Line demonstrated that RRR’s brand of chamber pop was able to summon both the delicacy of indie classical with the heft that rock requires, their latest recording, The Orchard, further synthesizes these various elements into a potent musical concoction.
Recorded near a peach orchard in Upstate New York (hence the album title), this recording documents a band just hitting its stride, in effusive polyglot fashion. Ra Ra Riot marries both lilting pastoral pop, as on the lovely “Keep it Quiet,” with supple rhythms. Indeed, the syncopated beats and pan-ethnic grooves that populate their leadoff single “Boy” would likely make Vampire Weekend jealous!
The title tune’s efficacious amalgam of minor-key string ostinati, soaring vocals, and a loping pop groove makes for a convenient snapshot of Ra Ra Riot’s music circa 2010: catchy, clever, multihued, and memorable.
Portland trio Menomena has long sounded much bigger than their numbers would suggest. Through the use of clever, often intricate arranging techniques, the multi-instrumentalist proclivities of two of them (what’s more – all three sing!), and a homemade program that helps cohere their hundreds of amassed loops, Menomena make art rock chock full of intensity and orchestral ambition.
Both these traits have been ramped up a notch on Mines. According to the band, this may, at least in part, be due to the record’s long gestation period; a time marked by internal strife, marital discord, and at least some consideration of disbanding. Unlike some groups in the throes of conflict, Menomena doesn’t try to hold this back from the music-making, instead permitting us a glimpse into the angst-laden and anger-driven excesses of the creative process; as well as its powers to allow both practitioners and listeners an eventual measure of catharsis.
Thus, the band remains as energetic, inquisitive, and creatively intricate as ever, but ups the ante in terms of visceral emotional impact. It might be worthwhile for the Menomena’s longterm health – both individually and as a creative unit – for them to avoid a repeat performance in favor of a little therapeutic intervention. But in the meantime, their angst makes Mines a heady listening experience.
Andrew Kenny’s outfit American Analog Set made the bedroom rock aesthetic an artful one; cultivating several lovely, homespun yet musically sophisticated releases. His latest project, the Wooden Birds, releases Magnolia, their debut LP, this week. In a more egalitarian arrangement, Kenny’s enlisted several collaborators, including songwriter Ola Podrida, film composer David Wingo, guitarist Leslie Sisson (who also played with AmAnSet), and drummer Michael Bell (Lymbic System).
The results retain some of the sonic signature of Kenny’s previous work; indeed, leadoff songs “False Alarm” and “The Other One” would be right at home on an AmAnSet release. “Bad” pits gritty strumming against angelic-hued vocals: a juxtaposition reminiscent of the vibe frequently found on releases by their label mates Death Cab for Cutie.
But generally speaking, the Wooden Birds skew a bit closer to the alt-folk genre. Devotees of Iron &Wine are apt to enjoy the part-singing accompanied by acoustic guitars on ballads such as the winsome “Quit You Once” and gently bluesy “Anna Paula;” Meanwhile, “Seven Seventeen” mixes the best of these folksy trappings with a honeyed hook and chorus that may well be the indie pop serenade of the summer.