John's Track of the Week: Meth, Ghost & Rae's "Our Dreams"

Song: Our Dreams
Artist: Meth, Ghost & Rae
Album: Wu-Massacre
Rating: 7.0

Creating an album for the fans isn't exactly a novel concept of late. Lil' Wayne would claim every mixtape to be such a gift, and let's face it, he's made quite a few of those. Yet, for artists like Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, not only is it abnormal, but nearly unheard of to leave the confines of their normally sprawling collections of gangsta hip-hop. So when the three artists announced they'd be releasing fan album Wu-Massacre under the Meth, Ghost & Rae monicker, one wouldn't be blamed for being somewhat surprised, and at least mildly excited.

For what Wu-Massacre lacks in production value (the group has said it was recorded on virtually no budget), it excels in how comfortably the three rappers gel together. Over two years removed from Wu-Tang's last effort (2007's 8 Diagrams), it's as if they never left the studio, with their rhymes as crisp and locked-in as ever, and each artist naturally conceding to the next whenever necessary. Though exemplified on many tracks, one of the most interesting representations is on "Our Dreams," which features Inspectah Deck and Sun God, as well as a looping sample from Michael Jackson's "We're Almost There." Playing off the psychedelic vibe and MJ's vocals, the rappers mingle flawlessly within its confines to create a smooth, cool hit. Check it out below.


Music Video Monday: Devendra Banhart's "Baby"

Track: Baby
Artist: Devendra Banhart
Album: What Will We Be
Year: 2010

The premise of Devendra Banhart's "Baby" video isn't exactly forthright, but we'll give it a whirl anyway. Basically, Banhart and his hipster pals (which include The Strokes' Fabrizio Moretti and MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden, among others) are just walking down the street when they're suddenly abducted by some sort of large cylinder. The cylinder then blasts off into space, where they arrive inside some odd pink planet of-sorts. Once there, they are surrounded by H.R. Puffinstuff-type cartoon characters, whom they interact with here and there. To top it all off, GZA is the king of this whole realm (totally makes sense), which he rules from his iPhone.

And that's the long and short of it. We never get an explanation for any of these actions-- especially GZA's appearance, which may only be because he's a Banhart fan. Yet, in a way, you don't really question the whole ridiculous affair. I, for one, stopped being surprised when the cartoons showed up, but maybe others felt differently. Either way, it's worth a look below.


Pre-Screening: Usher's Raymond v. Raymond

Album: Raymond v. Raymond
Artist: Usher
Label: LaFace
Rating: 5.5

Raymond v. Raymond, Usher's latest studio album, shows an artist at a serious crossroads both personally and professionally. As he recovers from his divorce with Tameka Foster, not only must he decide how he wants to cope with the situation behind closed doors, but also in his music (if at all). Herein lies the focus of Raymond v. Raymond, billed as an introspective and emotional album describing Usher's struggles and recovery. As a central concept of an R&B album, this would work perfectly, if executed properly. Unfortunately for Usher though, he is unable to channel his emotions into an entire record, so instead, we are left with two separate records for two separate moods-- with both jockeying for position inside Usher's head, and throughout the entirety of Raymond v. Raymond as well.

What's most surprising about the album is Usher's struggle for relevance, and his appearance of being out of place. In 2005, he was a worldwide superstar, fresh off of the platinum-selling Confessions. Whether laying down heartfelt R&B tunes, or energetic radio hits like "Yeah!" it appeared he could do no wrong. But here, that same artist can hardly find his bearings. Tracks like "So Many Girls" and "OMG" are supposed to be club bangers on par with the best of his past work, yet they fail miserably due to schizophrenic switches in subject matter (depressed, to player and back) and overly cliched lyrics. The worst case of this can be found on "She Don't Know," a track which is already forced and awkward enough before Ludacris's unfortunate appearance. Like everything else Luda touches, the song seems like it's stuck in 2004, and that effect begins to rub off on Usher and the rest of the album, too.

Beyond these major missteps, there are some bright spots as well. "Pro Lover" is one of the collection's best pieces, juxtaposing Usher's smooth vocals over a beat that sounds slightly borrowed from Dr. Dre's "Still D.R.E." (but all for the better). It's unfortunate that it takes until the eighth track for Usher to appear completely natural and honest, but the break from the cheesy womanizer we saw earlier is most welcome. Continuing in the more toned-down, heartfelt theme, "Foolin' Around" scores this album's version of "Burn" as Usher further opens up about his feelings surrounding the divorce. Between those two tracks, and 2009 single "Papers," it's obvious that this album could have ran completely on more unforced and honest R&B. The question is why didn't it?

As mentioned earlier, by the end of Raymond v. Raymond, we're really not sure which Usher we're getting a glimpse at-- the crux of the record's difficulties. One minute he's full of remorse, the next he's setting up threesomes at the club (the actual theme of the Nicki Minaj-featured "Lil Freak"). Perhaps if these two personalities had been broken down into two halves (i.e. Beyonce's I Am... Sasha Fierce), the message would have been more workable for listeners. But, instead we see a bipolar artist, still unsure of who he is and how he should deal with his life or career. For all of our sakes, we should hope he gets ahold of both soon. Music would hate to see someone this talented just fall off the map.

Best Track: "Pro Lover"

[Previously on Animal Noises: Most Prolific Artists of the Decade: #11-20]


Matt's Track of the Week: Joker's "Tron"

Song: Tron
Artist: Joker
Album: Tron (Single)
Rating: 8.0

Although as far as we can tell, this is completely unrelated to the upcoming Disney flick, looking at the single's artwork, one can assume it was at least inspired by it. Joker hasn't yet become a household name for many, but last year, he built quite a reputation for himself as a hit factory in House and Dub-Step scenes around the world. His debut album is expected sometime in the not so distant future, and if he makes anything even close to past hits like "Purple City" and "Digidesign", it won't be long before everyone his name is being thrown around with the likes of Daft Punk and Justice.

On "Tron", Joker showcases every play in his book to perfection. The synths are edgy, the mood is dark, and it has a nod-your-head hip-hop vibe that makes me almost certain that we'll be finding it on mixtapes later this year. This track is his first statement of the new year, and rightly a bold one. Check it out below.


John's Track of the Week: T.I.'s "I'm Back"

Song: I'm Back
Artist: T.I.
Album: I'm Back - Single
Rating: 8.0

This song isn't necessarily that new (it's been around for a couple weeks), but nonetheless warrants a discussion since we haven't yet delved into T.I.'s first comeback single. "I'm Back," T.I.'s initial foray back into the rap game after his yearlong incarceration for gun possession, is fairly self-explanatory. He was gone, now he's not, thus he's "back" as the song's title and main theme suggest. But it's not necessarily that simple.

The logic behind 2008's Paper Trail was to ensure T.I. wouldn't be forgotten by the mainstream public during his year away. Business-wise, it was a smart move. The best hip-hop album of 2008 (per this blog's opinion at least) provided people with a steady slew of guest stars, radio singles and tons of potential for repeat listens. Now, he's returned explaining to you what he's allowed to happen over the course of the past year (mostly begrudgingly), and with Paper Trail on your mind, you'll actually perk up your ears when he attempts to rectify the situation. With copious amounts of material, and a newfound chip on his shoulder to boot, chances are we'll be hearing a lot from T.I. prior to the formal release of his next studio effort on August 24. In the meantime, check out the single below.

[Previously on Animal Noises: Most Prolific Artists of the Decade: #1-10]


Music Video Monday: She & Him's "In the Sun"

Track: In the Sun
Artist: She & Him
Album: Volume Two
Year: 2010

Without going any further, you should know that the video for She & Him's "In the Sun" is incredibly hokey. That being said, it's that hokiness which makes the duo the charming, pseudo-throwback it is. Fittingly, this visual presentation takes place in a high school, supposedly circa the 1960s. If it weren't for the countless hallway song-and-dance numbers we've been subjected to over the years, from Grease to High School Musical, perhaps this one would resonate even more. Once again though, the fact that said concept is so tired somehow makes it more interesting when used by She & Him here.

The fact that Zooey Deschanel screams 1960s wherever she goes helps matters. While most female recording artists would look slightly out of place dressed in the more conservative school dresses and other outfits of the era, Deschanel fits in perfectly. The fact that she is an actress also pays big dividends as the song-and-dance never seems oversold. Instead, her leading a group of supposed teens in song just looks right, and M. Ward's persona as the artistic loner airs out just as well. Sometimes a video and a song are just a perfect fit. Check it out for yourself below.

[Previously on Animal Noises: Pre-Screening: She & Him's Volume Two]


Pre-Screening: She & Him's Volume Two

Album: Volume Two
Artist: She & Him
Label: Merge
Rating: 7.5

It's probable that She & Him will fail to ever break new ground. The M. Ward/Zooey Deschanel project will never test any other sound, mood or subject matter. Nor are they likely to release a record unless they’ve got some good material to work with. For better or for worse, you know exactly what you’re getting from them-- no more, no less. It can be comforting at times, especially in a sea of artists who change their stripes so often.

And yet, this seems to work perfectly for the duo. So long as Deschanel continues to lend her sultry, classic voice to Ward's instrumental stylings, this cycle could conceivably continue going on forever. Or at least for now, until the conclusion of their second album Volume Two.

There is very little difference from their previous effort when you first begin exploring Volume Two. What more can be accomplished with the aforementioned pieces? Still, the duo have actually managed to extrapolate their seemingly closed and confined sound into something even more polished and sentimental than the last record. Deschanel’s voice frolics with the hopes of young love. Her gushing persona as a young girl musing about boys is simply irresistible, from the bopping opener “Thieves,” to closer “If You Can’t Sleep.” The ladder of which may very well borrow most of its premise from Bing Crosby’s “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep),” but in a project like this, sometimes borrowing from classic tunes can be helpful and even encouraged in bits and pieces.

It’s that glowing charm that really carries Volume Two, even more so than its mostly-cheery predecessor. Of course, while increasingly extensive orchestration by Ward also lends to a much more grown-up and solid sound, one can’t help but notice Deschanel’s newfound fifth gear in the radiance department-- see "Lingering Still," amongst others for examples.

Amidst the breezy, open paths and winding, romantic roads we travel here, one problem does occur however. Repetition. For a large majority of the album, the two employ a pretty standard verse-chorus setup and three-minute runtime, with echoing Motown-style backing vocals for good measure. “Me and You,” “Sing,” “In the Sun”– you name it, the song will have those same elements. Besides some slight breaks such as “Home” and the aforementioned closer, many tracks can end up merging together. Since this wasn't the case on Volume One, we see it as the slightly unfortunate side effect to better production and maturity.

Still, it’s hard to fault She & Him for their songs appearing too similar to one another. Ward and Deschanel have never strived to be more than just a pleasant little pet project that (at times) resembled the 1960s, and that’s what Volume Two presented itself as. Such execution, even of their modest goals, can be appreciated and in this case, moderately celebrated. She & Him never try too hard, and it shows in how easy and pleasant an experience it is to listen to their music. Just take it for what it is, and chances are you'll enjoy what you hear.

Best Track: "Thieves" (via Pitchfork)


Matt's Track of the Week: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti "Round and Round"

Song: Round and Round
Artist: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Album: Round and Round (Single)
Rating: 7.0

There's an obsession in many circles of the indie music scene for bringing back the imagery of yesteryear. Whether it be implementing the use of analog synths, vintage amplifiers, or just a classic, thrift-shop wardrobe, it has become more than accepted, and in some cases, the norm to look far beyond your years. Personally, I think it can be comforting. Even if you weren't personally around for when the it was new, you still feel a connection to it, and sometimes it almost brings you back to a time that seems better than the one you're currently living in. "Round and Round" is an example of that. It's okay that it isn't the next big thing, because sometimes moving things backwards can strangely be a progression.

The first thing you notice when listening to "Round and Round" is precisely this aged-charm. This is something that Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti is known for, and is even considered a pioneer of (or as much a pioneer as someone trying to sound like older music could be), having done this since 2002. Granted, this song is slightly more polished than some of his older work, but it remains nonetheless true to form for what a fan would expect. Check it out below.


John's Track of the Week: Kisses' "Bermuda"

Song: Bermuda
Artist: Kisses
Album: The Heart of the Night Life
Rating: 7.0

Even though spring is nearly upon us, we're going to skip a season today and go straight to summer. Kisses' "Bermuda" provides all of the imagery of the beach and summer sun-- layering its breezy ocean vibe with a lo-fi pop feel. Through its bursts of bright and jovial energy, it's the type of track you can't help but bop your head along to, with a pair of shades and swimsuit on of course.

Though unsigned at current, it's doubtful Kisses will stay that way for much longer. Their sensibility for melody is extremely apparent here, and with that aforementioned seasonal change, perhaps the time is right for the L.A.-based group to be picked up. The single for "Bermuda" is due out soon, either via Transparent or Surround Sound, so with luck, a deal is in the works. Check it out for yourself below.


Music Video Monday: Yeasayer's "O.N.E"

Track: O.N.E
Artist: Yeasayer
Album: Odd Blood
Year: 2010

This video may make sense. Matching their eclectic, haphazard musical arrangements, the visual representation of Yeasayer's "O.N.E" is equally so. Among its many themes-- facial morphing, neon, warehouse raves and people either grabbed from NYC's underground club scene, or just generic Euro trash. Yet, all of this works out fairly well.

Overall, "O.N.E" is kind of reminiscent of one of our culture's many presentations of a dystopian future. Lights function as musical instruments, and means for bartering, while everything else is mostly in a dreary mess. It's an uncivilized society, at least by the standards we see in the video. The only spoken words are through the lyrics, so sadly these visual cues are the only things we have to surmise the plot. Unsurprisingly, we're left wondering what the hell just happened at the end-- not completely unlike parts of Odd Blood. Check it out below.

[Previously on Animal Noises: Pre-screening: Yeasayer's Odd Blood]


Weekly Top 10: SXSW Acts (Part 2)

With one of the country's largest festival events less than a week away, we figured this would be as good a time as any to feature some of our picks from our favorite artists in attendance down in Austin, TX. Today's playlist is only for artists who perform at SXSW on either Friday, March 19 or Saturday, March 20. So without further ado, check out this entertaining collection of great acts-- all of whom will be appearing at SXSW.

[Previously on Animal Noises: Weekly Top 10: SXSW Acts (Part 1)]

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Matt's Track of the Week: Drake's "Over"

Song: Over
Artist: Drake
Album: Thank Me Later
Rating: 8.0

At this point, everybody knows Drake. He's the fastest rising, young star in Hip-Hop, and a promising talent for the future of the genre as a whole. He has already had a handful of hits to his name without ever putting out a proper album, and his long-awaited debut full-length, Thank Me Later, is now just on the horizon. In the lead-up to what may very well be year two of Drake-mania, that album's first single has just hit airwaves, and the results are bold.

Like many of the other songs we've heard from Drake since he entered the mainstream consciousness, "Over" features his signature laid back singing style, partnered with larger than life orchestral arrangements on the hook. Where Drake changes things up is in the way he attacks once the beat drops. Here he seems more intense and more focused than ever before, assuring us that if we still have any doubts, they will soon be resolved, and that this is just a taste of what is in store. "Over" is a statement more than anything, and a fitting lead-off single for one of this year's most anticipated releases. Pitchfork has posted it for free download, so you can stream and/or grab it below.


John's Track of the Week: Gorillaz's "Superfast Jellyfish"

Song: Superfast Jellyfish
Artist: Gorillaz
Album: Plastic Beach
Rating: 7.0

For any other group, a track like this would be an album killer. With samples from a 1986 Swanson commercial and psychedelic tropical backing, the goofy song has all the makings of an experimental dud. However, since we're talking about Gorillaz here, not only does it succeed, but it manages to be one of the best tracks on Plastic Beach, their most recent endeavor that came out yesterday.

While the fictional band members, along with guests Gruff Rhys and De La Soul meander through the song, you can't help but get caught up in the subtle things going on around you. It's a lot to take in, between the references to carrots, electronic sampling and looping, along with a myriad of other sounds. But nonetheless, for Gorillaz this all makes sense. If the imagery band creator David Albarn was looking to convey was a matured, White Album-type collection of experimentation, both the track and album succeed in this regard. Check it out below.


Music Video Monday: Summer Camp's "Ghost Train"

Track: Ghost Train
Artist: Summer Camp
Album: Ghost Train 7"
Year: 2010

Simplicity, or at the least the appearance of it, seems to be the norm in 2010 thus far. Same goes for Summer Camp's "Ghost Train," a track that whistles with the breeze as it methodically floats through its progressions. Yet, the song still manages to capture the imagination. Maybe its the goofy nostalgia, corny 70s background, or even "Reading Rainbow" (the show, not the band) vibe it seems to give off that makes the song just so enthralling. But the wispy dream pop track nevertheless manages to capture all our your senses and never let go.

This effect is achieved tenfold on the video for "Ghost Train." Taking its footage from 1969's Last Summer, the images of young love and the joys of teen beach vacations touch a nerve with most viewers, and keep you attentive. It's a wonder we don't see techniques like this employed more often. But then again, it's probably not all that easy to gain the rights to non-indie films, so the dearth of videos like this one probably makes sense. If you'd like to purchase the single, you can look forward to it coming out in April, via Moshi Moshi. Both the video, and the track can be found below. Plus, check out the band's blog for all kinds of odd pieces of yesteryear.


New Crystal Antlers Tracks, "Little Sister" and "Dead Horses"

Most probably recall Long Beach's thrashing psych-noise rockers Crystal Antlers, either from last year's Tentacles or 2008's EP. Yet, the band we see here appears to be a different group-- almost entirely, from the sound of "Little Sister." Embracing more hooky, balanced pop sensibilities, the band plays to a Julian Casablancas croon, rather than the off-kilter, loud display fans are accustomed to. Even "Dead Horses," which utilizes much of their old attack, still seems to possess these lurking pop wishes. Melodic, and reserved for the most part, the songs are sure to surprise those who've heard the band at all during the past few years.

You can hear both tracks over at Crystal Antlers' website, and download them there as well, or through this widget the band's provided below (for the price of an email address). The "Little Sister/Dead Horses" 7" will be self-released on March 9.

[Previously on Animal Noises: Weekly Top 10: Los Angeles-Area Artists]

Pre-Screening: Broken Bells' Broken Bells

Album: Broken Bells
Artist: Broken Bells
Label: Sony
Rating: 7.0

Like most acts associated with the "supergroup" label, Broken Bells faced a daunting task as they prepared their first full-length album. The Shins' James Mercer and Gnarls Barkley's Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) are from highly different musical backgrounds, and obviously play to very different and distinct ends of the popular music spectrum. However, because of their collective admiration for each others respective work, this project-- a collaboration between bluesy electronic production and The Shins' light-hearted indie rock-- took place. The results, as can be surmised in most cases like this one, are mixed.

Broken Bells starts out on a collective roll, so to speak. First single, "The High Road" displays just how well Mercer's vocals can play off of Danger Mouse's soulful tones that echo away in the backdrop. In this track, the project appears as the perfect marriage. Both sides work together coherently in the shared space, and the track avoids doing too much. Next, "Vaporize" is more bluesy, but since it is more rock-based, it lends more toward The Shins' usual vibe. For the most part, it comes off as either a Shins b-side, or some highly adventurous demo. Either way, the song's relaxing, yet active mood is engaging, and encouraging for what follows, the breezy "Your Head Is On Fire." Electronic-based, and full of something resembling flower power, it goes from a floating beginning, to a shuffling and determined finish without much effort.

Unfortunately, however, the album just fails to deliver many other moments that compare to these opening track. Instead of the interesting, out-going songs we see in the onset, most of the remainder of the album is some of the same juxtapositions of indie sensibilities and electronic sounds. Simple verse-chorus-verse melodies plague slowed-down tracks like "Trap Doors," while closer "The Mall and Misery" attempts to use effects and minor chords to create some air of mystery around the whole project. By that point though, there is nothing left to be solved. You've already found out that this collaboration, like most in this vein, has its limitations.

Still, one can't get through the album without taking in Burton's lush soundscapes, which range from ambient to delicate and flighty, and beyond. "Mongrel Heart" is all about a quick-paced percussion part and hurried presence of auxiliary instrumentation, in a piece that possesses some surprising staying-power. The beginning of "October" seems to recreate the month in song, before falling into disinterest at Mercer's entrance. "Sailing to Nowhere" gives the apt feeling of sailing, as the strings- and piano-filled ballad breaks up the album at its midpoint, and pushes back the moment you begin to lose faith for at least another few minutes. If we must point out Broken Bells' weaknesses, Burton would not be the first place to look.

But if the project is to be considered for what it is-- a joint venture between Burton and Mercer-- then the whole, not just its parts must be knocked. The artists just seem to have too much faith in this sound. It's like when that whole rap-rock thing started in the 90s. A lot of people thought that it would be a cool collaboration of sounds, but didn't account for factors like tiring of the same overwrought breakdowns and subject matter, and of course, the limitations of the artists themselves (in that case, they were inhibited mightily by their lack of talent to begin with, unlike this group-- but I digress). So in that respect, maybe Broken Bells just saw too far into the future, and extrapolated the blues/electronic/indie collaboration out further than it could naturally go. It doesn't do much wrong in the model they presented, but beyond the first few tracks of the record, it really doesn't do much to keep you there either. Unfortunate, but true, nonetheless.

Best Track: "The High Road"