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Indie 500: The Rural Alberta Advantage, the Horrors, Peter Bjorn & John, Spoon, & More

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Indie 500: The Rural Alberta Advantage, the Horrors, Peter Bjorn & John, Spoon, & More

The Rural Alberta Advantage, Hometowns: Emo for the masses! I am, generally speaking, not crazy about yelpy kids singing things like “All these things will pass and the good ones will last” and “I never want to feel this again,” but The Rural Alberta Advantage are a very good band who’ve given my inner emo a reason to peek out; their craftsmanship and musical intelligence makes their endless teen summer a guiltlessly fun thing to soak in. I always hated Bright Eyes’ quavery self-indulgences, so I’ll take Nils Adenloff’s generic nasal attack (Neutral Milk Hotel’s 500th heir) any day as far as Saddle Creek stuff goes. Half of this is expert break-up stuff: “Don’t Haunt This Place” and “Sleep All Day” prove there’s nothing like a cello to make you feel especially justified in your lugubriousness. With no bass, the band gets its drive from drummer Paul Banwatt, who goes heavy on rapid high-hat attacks; whether aided by electronic beats (on opener “The Ballad Of The RAA”) or not, the kit’s got almost no dynamic range, just an artificially compressed range of forceful attack. (On “Drain The Blood,” Banwatt seems to be going so fast he might as well be aided by Tilly And The Wall’s tap dancers.) The band name’s no joke: there’s a pleasing geographical specificity to the lyrics, occasionally pulling them out of generic white 20something malaise and into the realm of melancholy Candian-ness (an acquired taste, but one well worth acquiring). Prime example: “Frank, AB” is a histrionic love ballad (“I’ll hold on to your touch ’til they find the bones of us” etc.), but it’s also from the perspective of two people buried in the Frank Landslide of 1903, so it’s indulgent without being overly indulgent. I dunno why liking this so much bothers me more than, say, the smooth sounds of Elizabeth And The Catapult (see below)—I fear reverting to my teen years, I guess—but I’m effectively sucked into the RAA’s sad, mopey (well-crafted!) world as long as this album lasts.

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Fol Chen, Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made: Most of the bands on Asthmatic Kitty tend to annoy me (it’s like Sufjan Stevens wants to apologize for being so accessible by restoring the spazzy balance on his label. But then there’s the slept-upon Fol Chen, who have yet to receive their moment in the Pitchfork spotlight. Fol Chen claim to sound like Prince, which actually means they sound a great deal like Of Montreal, with lots of crooning, high white voices attempting self-deprecating seduction over trebly drum loops over the usual deep kit. (There’s much to be written on the idea that of all the indie rock groups of the last decade, Of Montreal was one of the only ones to seriously be influenced by Prince and black music in general. Their influence may be further than anyone realizes.) Fol Chen’s biggest asset is knowing their way around a horn section, from the ominous opening plod of “The Believers” to the joyous trumpet solos on “The Idiot.” Those are probably the two best songs: With curious woodwinds peeking out from behind a glitchy loop and theatrical, performative vocals judiciously alternating whispers (“Maybe it’s all in my head”) and near-yelps (“By god we’re on out bended knees”) in rising paranoia, “The Believers” sounds appropriately spooky and cultish; you could rescore part of Donnie Darko to it no problem. On the opposite tonal end, “The Idiot” is a simple enough love song: “Everybody here thinks I’m an idiot / Everybody here is laughing at me / How can that be true when I’m in love with you?”

Fol Chen prefers to keep their names anonymous, but whoever they are, they do a flawless three-part artificial falsetto without sounding like ironic jackasses; they actually come off as sweet and lovelorn, for which props. Sometimes they can go too far in this surprisingly ambitious album: Most of “You And Your Sister In Jericho” is almost entirely instrumental, the horns slowly deferring a laconic two-note guitar motif not that far off from Morricone until the whole thing is eaten alive by an increasingly distorted drum loop. I wish the band didn’t have the most annoying press releases in the world, and sometimes they’re a little too reliant on cheap keyboard sounds (it’s certainly an aesthetic, but this music could easily be a little more expansive without losing impact), but yeah, they’re being slept on.

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The Horrors, Primary Colours: It’s my second-hand understanding that at their inception The Horrors were enamored of the more esoteric corners of garage rock—one Screaming Lord Sutch in particular—which I suppose makes their decision to ape Joy Division for their sophomore album a relatively more commercial move. Unlike most bands who risk this hard-to-disguise/hard-to-live-up-to influence, they’re actually quite good at it, although the resemblance is admittedly just in the doomy vocals and the flat, assaultive song structures, which seek to pummel you with a rhythm section (the drums are huge, reminiscent of Echo And The Bunnymen’s Porcupine glory days) rather than any actual hooks. The best (and totally unrepresentative) track is “I Only Think Of You,” a seven-minute drone which uses a wavery cello (I think) playing two thirds an octave apart as the surprisingly sturdy base for the entire running time; it’s being run through god knows what, and between the natural bending and bowing (this is some sensitive playing) and techno frills, it’s hypnotic. It’s got more single-minded focus and discipline than anything else here. Opener “Mirror’s Image” opens with gushy, warm Moby synths and a strict metronomic timebeat, adding some higher spangles and church bells, eventually threatening to briefly turn into a techno song before morphing—a minute and a half in—into a more traditional, if well done, shoegazer assault. The guitars are going crazy, whatever pedals they’re hooked up to causing the dynamics to shift up and down in sudden shifts that are anything but linear. The vocalist is enough of an idiot to want to go by the name Farris Rotter and sing things like “Walk on into the night” for the chorus (get your hoodie out! Pull it over your head!), but the music’s so forceful and well-executed it’s hard to complain. Fun stuff, though the buzz doesn’t survive too many listens, but fourteen times more interesting than whatever the Arctic Monkeys are up to.

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Peter Bjorn & John, Living Thing: While it’s generally misguided and stupid when a band is so freaked out by mainstream success they feel the need to alienate everyone with their follow-up, I don’t think that’s precisely what’s happening with Living Thing. Sure, there’s no “Young Folks,” but this is a fine, itchy but catchily abrasive album whose component parts generally work, if only occasionally sparkle. “Living Thing” itself may be a snide rejoinder to ELO’s song—they cop the “it’s a living thing, it’s a terrible thing to lose” line while sounding far upbeat about it—but the sliding, Looney Tunes bass-line that stands in for the hook works fine, as do the trap-drums. The album doesn’t really hit its stride til a three-song stretch near the end. “Lay It Down”’s cheerfully bitchy chorus is “Hey, shut the fuck up boy / You are starting to piss me off” over the barest of percussive elements and buzzy-bee synths (this album’s allergy to traditional drums is just one of the unobtrusive ways they’re stretching); “Stay This Way” is the only thing on here that’s actually a sincere ballad, and quite a good one at that; “Blue Period Picasso” takes its titular I Am Lonely metaphor and runs with it way further than you’d think possible (in the middle of a hallway in Barcelona! The other paintings don’t understand me!), turning a potentially ruinous gimmick into a terrific, sustainable 4-minute metaphor. A curio, but not a step backwards, just sideways.

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Elizabeth and the Catapult, Taller Children: An exceptionally assured and solid debut, strictly for middlebrows. (No Pitchfork review or mentions probably ever, but NPR is all up on it; that should tell you everything you need to know.) Elizabeth Ziman’s voice has been pegged as “jazzy” by some writers, who then lazily describe the music itself as “jazzy,” which is obviously stupid. (You might just as well call them a bossa nova tribute band, since “Right Next To You”’s opening thirty seconds of acoustic guitar trend that way.) It’d be much fairer to say this is the best Aimee Mann album since Bachelor No. 2, certainly a better Mann album than anything she’s done herself from The Forgotten Arm onwards. Ziman’s voice is a little louder and less calm, but the resemblance is still pretty eerie; as my friend Jason Overbeck points out, even the guitars on “Rainiest Day Of Summer” (i.e., how I sulk this season) sound like Jon Brion. Undoubtedly some credit for the album has to go to producer Mike Mogis, who’s got a way with tasteful (but not boring; I don’t mean “tasteful” pejoratively, which seems to be its default association in the post-Bosley Crowther world) strings, keyboards et al. applied in all the right contrapuntal places rather than as lazy “warm” sounds. Learning something from his time with Tilly And The Wall, Mogis gives the cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” an intro somewhere between tap-dancing and trap drums. The band themselves are no slouches in the bummed-out category; “Apathy” earns its title. (There’s arguably too many ballads on here, though I enjoy all of them.) By contrast, “Race You” is the bounciest song here, and I like it too, but it’s undeniably probably a little too peppy and annoying for most people. It’s when Elizabeth get the bouncy to pissy ratio right that they’re really onto something fresh, as on opener “Momma’s Man” (spritely as it gets, but with Ziman telling the dude not to expect to be mothered in bed) or “The Hang Up,” where she explains she’d rather be doing anything than spending another day in her dead-end relationship. So yeah, if the word “tasteful” doesn’t bother you, you should probably be listening to this. You know who you are.

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Spoon, Got Nuffin: Not many bands can make a three-tracks-plus-remix EP an event, but hey: New Spoon! Sounding like they’ve learned absolutely nothing this decade, Britt Daniel & co. regress to their old days as a minimalist combo for whom every overdub was anathema. Grimy, rockin’-but-not-necessarily-fun exercises are the order of the day here; Britt Daniel seems pissed off, and both “Got Nuffin” and “Stroke Their Brains” grind it out in minor keys, sounding less accommodating than ever. My friend Andrew Unterberger has made reference to their gradual mastery of “songcraft…so immaculate” that it’s “almost creepy in its claustrophobic perfectionism,” and I guess Daniel’s been feeling the strain. From the title on down, everything indicates a band blowing off steam before buckling down once more to the hard work of perfect pop writing. Between the two rockers is “Tweakers,” which has zero precedent in Spoon’s back catalogue: 3+ minutes of dicked-around-with drums and slight keyboard notes looping around on each other. On the one hand, it makes sense: Jim Eno’s minimalist drumming and the band’s careful attention to the negative spaces in their songs makes them one of the smarter rhythmically-oriented bands around. Still, it’s undeniably kind of slight and unexceptional, of virtually no interest to anyone except as an insight into a band stretching for something it can probably never reach. (The remix sounds like bad Beck, c. 1993.)

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.