Album Review: The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, “Midnight Sun”

Midnight Sun

Being a Beatle Kid is a decidedly double-edged sword. On the one hand, you start your musical career with name recognition the likes of which most artists—even the successful ones—can only dream of, giving you an instant audience. On the other hand, you stand perpetually in the shadow of the most popular, most influential, most beloved musicians of the twentieth century. Any success you achieve gets ascribed, prima facie, to your last name; and even then, you’re still not your dad, as every single reviewer is contractually obligated to point out.

When considering Sean Lennon’s band the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT), then, it would be easy to just draw comparisons to his iconic father. After all, with its blend of dreamy psychedelia, garage rock, and ornate folk-pop, Midnight Sun (2014), the latest effort from Lennon and long-term partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl, plants itself firmly in the late 1960s – an era when the Beatles’ influence was omnipresent and inescapable. To the extent that Midnight Sun recalls John, however, it’s mostly in his son’s unmistakably Lennon-esque voice. But if Tame Impala or Temples had made this record, reviewers would be talking more about Syd Barrett than the Beatles, more about the classic Nuggets compilation than “Nowhere Man.”


What distinguishes GOASTT from Tame Impala and their ilk is that, rather than merely aping the past, they reinvigorate it. Lennon and Kemp Muhl trade the current obsession with self-consciously retro, lo-fi production for a rich analog sound, keeping the grainy warmth without sacrificing fidelity. The musical invention on display on Midnight Sun likewise eclipses that of GOASTT’s contemporaries. “Last Call” is perhaps the standout track, leaping from bouncy chamber pop to Floydian slide guitar space-outs in the space of a (rainbow) bridge. Only the even more Floydian “Moth to a Flame” (it sounds for all the world like a Meddle outtake) challenges it for the Album Highlight crown. But even shorter efforts such as the calliope-tinged “Don’t Look Back Orpheus” or the unsettlingly catchy “Great Expectations” are brimming with trippy flourishes and unexpected hooks.

It’s not hard to figure where Sean gets his knack for experimentation; after all, it’s not as if his parents recorded an album of avant-garde noise and plastered their naked selves all over its cover or anything. But while Yoko Ono was and remains a remarkable artist, in this reviewer’s opinion, her particular, peculiar brand of musical artistry never meshed all that well with John’s (see: Double Fantasy). Sean and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, on the other hand, are much more compatible on record. I’m tempted to attribute the crunchy psych passages to Sean and the airy chamber folk to Kemp Muhl, but that have more to do with their respective vocal timbres and preconceived gender roles than anything else. Either way, they gel remarkably well – far from Sean following in John’s footsteps (or Paul’s for that matter) and simply dragging his girlfriend into the studio to sing with him, it’s clear that GOASTT is a genuine creative partnership.

As you can see, like every other music writer on the planet—like a “Moth to a Flame,” if you will—I am inexorably drawn to comparisons with John. Perhaps it just comes with the territory, what with Sean being a Beatle Kid and all. But if he were a complete unknown, if GOASTT were just another New York band with an intriguing name, Midnight Sun would still deserve to be heard on its own merits as one of the finest records to emerge from the recent psych revival.

8/10

Listen here. Buy it here.


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Album Review: Ian Anderson, “Homo Erraticus”

Homo Erraticus

When they go on tour these days, most artists of Ian Anderson’s age might slot in a couple of new songs into their act, but mostly keep to a standard-issue “greatest hits” setlist. Anderson, clever fellow that he is, however, got audiences on his most recent tour to sit through a full hour of new material, by the rather brilliant stratagem of writing an album-length sequel to Thick as a Brick (entitled, creatively, Thick as a Brick 2) and then performing the two records back-to-back. And you know what? It was a really good record – no match for the original, certainly, but without question some of the best music Anderson has made since the late 70s.

This year he’s at it again, offering a sequel to that sequel in the form of Homo Erraticus (2014) (and touring it, in toto, alongside a “Tull’s Greatest Hits” setlist, appropriately enough). The concept this time out—because there has to be a concept—is that these songs are based on a “dusty, unpublished manuscript, written by local amateur historian Ernest T. Parritt (1873-1928)” and “rediscovered” by none other than Gerald Bostock of Brick fame. It’s a pretty loose concept, but it does lend the album a sense of continuity and coherence, even as it affords Anderson the freedom to range across the entirety of British history, from pre-Roman times to the present and beyond.


Musically speaking, longtime JT devotees may bemoan Martin Barre’s absence; and it’s certainly true that even Homo Erraticus‘s rockers are decidedly more staid than the likes of “Aqualung” or “Locomotive Breath.” But the band does a bang-up job of recreating the sound and feel of classic Tull, handling pastoral British folk (“Heavy Metals”), syncopated 70s prog (“Tripudium Ad Bellum”), and riff-heavy hard rock (“Cold Dead Reckoning”) with equal aplomb. As concertgoers know, Anderson’s voice is pretty battered after decades of use and abuse, but he’s in good form here, trading vocals (as he does live) with his young counterpart Ryan O’Donnell. Moreover, his lyrics are as good or better than ever. For him, British history is not so much as an inevitable march of progress as a revue of human foibles and frailties – a fact altered little by future prospects of technological utopia and and interplanetary exploration.

As Anderson casts his eye back upon his homeland’s long and storied past, he invites his listeners to cast their eye upon his own musical history. Since the late 70s, he’s been something of a homo erraticus himself. But coming quick on the heels of the excellent Thick as a Brick 2, Homo Erraticus (the album that is) would seem to signal a late-career renaissance for Mr. Anderson. Let’s hope there are more old manuscripts collecting dust in his library – and that he’ll see fit to bring them into the light of day in the not-too-distant future.

8/10

Listen here. Buy it here.


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Track Spotlight: MIKA feat. Ariana Grande, “Popular Song”


I love Wicked (and get to see it a week from Saturday – YAY). I also love MIKA, though I haven’t really kept up with his career since “Grace Kelly” and Life in Cartoon Motion. But nobody told me that these two things had been combined in one sugar-sweet pop song. I mean, it’s a I-V-IV-I progression repeated over and over again – that’s about as basic as it gets. But with a title like “Popular Song,” there’s a sense that the simplicity is self-referential: “You were singing all the songs I don’t know/But now you’re in the front row/Because my song is popular.”

A song this infectious should’ve gotten higher than paltry 87 on the Billboard Hot 100. But hey, that’s popular music for you. Either way, I’ve probably played it 87 times today alone; because “All that you have to do/Is be true to you/And that’s all you really need to know.” Check it out.

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Album Review: The Family Crest, “Beneath the Brine”

Beneath the Brine

The first track on a record is terribly important. It can’t be so stunning that everything that follows seems like a disappointment in comparison, but it also has to be good enough that it pulls you into the album’s world, whets your appetite and leaves you wanting to spend the next forty-odd minutes with this artist. It’s not universally true, of course, but I’ve generally found that if an opener doesn’t grab me, the rest of the album isn’t likely to do much better.

The first thing we hear on the Family Crest’s Beneath the Brine (2014) is a sawing riff straight out Bach’s Cello Suites, cluing you in to the San Francisco collective’s symphonic aspirations. But things quickly go in a much more cinematic direction, as lush strings and angelic choirs surge up underneath singer Liam McCormick’s Nate Ruess-worthy vocal performance.

It’s a big, breathless introduction; and if the rest of the album does carve out some quiet space to breathe at times, the widescreen maximalism remains constant. Indeed,the Family Crest doesn’t really do “small scale” – it’s kind of hard when, in addition to drums, bass, guitar, and keys, your core ensemble features flute, tenor trombone, violin, and cello, not to speak of the more than 400 musical friends and collaborators who put in appearances on one track or another.


In short, there’s a lot going on here, in terms of scale and of style both, as the collective hops from Dave Brubeck jazz (“The Water’s Fine”) to 1930s swing (“Howl”) to high-stakes orchestral pop (“Love Don’t Go”). Thematically, oceanic imagery and relationship woes dominate the record, with much talk of being pulled under the waves and a preponderance of “I-You” dyads. As the record moves toward its conclusion, though, the mood lightens, so that by the time “Make Me a Boat” rolls around, McCormick can sing:

Make me a boat
And set me afloat
And carry me home
Find me a wave
That’s soft and safe
And made for me

Like most of the lyrics here, it’s painted in broad strokes; but anything more intimate or wordy wouldn’t work against such an expansive musical backdrop. Indeed, perhaps the highest compliment one can pay the Family Crest is that, even with a cast of literally hundreds, they never descend into self-indulgence. It’s big and bold and, yes, bombastic, but it’s hard to imagine these hugely melodic (and melodically huge) songs any other way. If the likes of the Divine Comedy or San Fermin set your heart a-flutter, you’ll find it well worth your time to dive Beneath the Brine for a while.

7.5/10

Listen here. Buy it here.


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Track Spotlight: Lady Gaga, “Applause”


This summer I’m head of the counseling staff at a church camp in the Black Hills, and part of my job is to design program for the high school camp. So this year I went with the theme “The Theology of Pop Music,” listening intentionally to pop music to uncover its spiritual themes (or lack thereof). Like, Top 40 pop music, the stuff “the kids are listening to these days.”

In order to make this project work, I’ve had to catch up a little on the charts over the past year or so. Which means that I’m a little late to the “Applause” train, seeing as how it was released last summer – I haven’t even heard “G.U.Y.” yet. And I don’t think “Applause” will necessarily make it into the Theology of Pop Music, though there are some interesting things going thematically. But still, I’m having a hard time arguing with that synth line on the chorus. Love her or hate her, the woman’s got a way with a hook.

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Track Spotlight: Tristam, “Till It’s Over”


ALL GLORY TO THE MONSTERCAT.

But really, the folks at Monstercat are supporting some of the very best EDM out there, and you it to yourself to spend a couple hours trawling their YouTube channel. If you care for EDM in the slightest, you will not be disappointed.

As for “Till It’s Over,” by 19-year-old (!) producer Tristam, revel in that main bell pad motif and the synthesized arpeggios, then behold as it bursts into full-on glitchy glory. Glitch-hop lives and dies on those drops, on the contrast between sweeping, melodic synth lines and, in the words of a friend, “breaks that sound like a malfunctioning fax machine.” By that criterion, Tristam is living it up with the best of them here. Check it out.

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Album Review: Broken Bells, “After the Disco”

After the Disco

“After the disco, all of the shine just faded away,” Shin-in-Chief James Mercer sings on the title track of After the Disco (2014), his second album under the banner of Broken Bells with hip-hop auteur Danger Mouse (Brian Burton). And certainly, much of the record sounds like it could’ve been made just in the wake of disco’s early 80s decline. The falsetto vocals on “Holding on For Life” are pure Bee Gees, but the musical backdrop, with its sampled drums and icy synthesizers, is much closer in spirit to Duran Duran; meanwhile, “The Changing Lights” calls to mind the Cars at their nerviest or the Talking Heads at their most melodic.

This is far from a mere genre exercise, however; the aforementioned “Holding on for Life” features a middle-eight straight out of the Beatles’ “Cry Baby Cry,” while “The Remains of Rock & Roll” summons the ghost of Oasis in their “Champagne Supernova” prime. It’s an interesting direction for Mercer, a songwriter who made his name with cryptically melodic indie guitar pop, but it yields some fine results. With a voice that distinctive, you never quite forget this is the man who sang “New Slang.” But he really gets to show off his range here, both vocally and stylistically.


For all its New Wave-isms, though, After the Disco is also state-of-the-2010s, as evidenced by the deeply felt presence of Danger Mouse. I want to love this guy, I really do. But this album leaves me every bit as ambivalent about Mr. Burton as every other album he’s produced. On the one hand, he’s an immensely talented arranger, populating his soundscapes with everything from synthesized horns to opulent strings to underwater guitars to celestial choirs, usually serving the song with aplomb and only rarely laying it on too thick. The problem is that, rather than allowing his imaginative arrangements to take center stage, Burton consistently obscures them behind a thick curtain of digital compression. Songs as different, in their raw sonics, as “Leave It Alone,” “The Angel & the Fool” and “The Remains of Rock & Roll” shouldn’t sound so flat and same-y. You end up wishing some of the shine would fade away and let these songs breathe.

Not unlike Portugal. the Man’s Evil Friends, however, Burton’s questionable engineering choices aren’t enough to shatter Broken Bells. On balance, I’d rather have seen a new Shins albumI’m not convinced that these songs wouldn’t have been improved by the full band treatment. But whatever Mercer might sing in “Perfect World,” we would do well, to paraphrase Voltaire, not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. And After the Disco is pretty good, an improvement in almost every way on the duo’s debut and a solid entry in both artists’ discographies

7/10

Buy it here.


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