MUSIC REVIEWS: The Mars Volta, Bowerbirds, The Rural Alberta Advantage, God Help the Girl, The Veils

The Mars Volta
(Warner Brothers)

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Cedric Bixler Zapata, Mars Volta’s lyricist, proclaimed that Octahedron is their “acoustic album,” which is true in the sense that someone proclaims themselves a vegetarian even though they eat fish. But it’s the Mars Volta, so grandiose claims that don’t really hold up under scrutiny are par for the course.

That being said, this album is excellent. It opens up acoustically enough with the beautiful “Since We’ve Been Wrong” (which incidentally, makes sense! It’s about lost love!). Then along comes “Teflon” and blows the acoustic claim out of the water. The verse is soothing enough, but the chorus is raucous, and proves Cedric’s kidnap fetish is alive and well when he sings, “Let the wheels burn, stack the tires to the neck with the body inside.” It’s accomplice in hard rock on the album, “Cotopaxi” is another blow away, and features some great guitar work from Omar Rodriquez Lopez, with Thomas Pridgen wailing away on the drums as only he can.

Back to the softer side: “With Twilight as My Guide” is the most eerily beautiful song the band has done: a sonic and spiritual evolution from Francis the Mute’s “The Widow.” It’s another meditation on violence from Cedric with the chilling refrain, “The devil makes me dream like no other mortal dreams.” Halo of Nembutals” and “Desperate Graves” round out the album with some more dreamy tunes, and bring the nonsense lyrics sorely lacking from some of the other songs with gems such as, “They sent in the necrophiliacs, Carcinogen tar” and “Dressed in the slurs of bovine engines” respectively. Finishing out the album “Copernicus” gently lulls the listener into the next track, containing a favorite Mars Volta cliche” the obligatory jazz fusion jam the band has to include at least once on every album: “Luciforms.” Not that they don’t do it well, but it’s there.

I poke some fun at the band, but I love them, and this is one of their better efforts to date as they bring some coherence and easily defined, yet not dumbed down, meaning to the songs to go with their excellent musicianship.

Michael Adler

Upper Air
(Dead Oceans)

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A folk infused album, anchored by wonderfully strummed acoustic guitar, Bowerbirds present a pleasing soundscape inviting one to sway to beautifully wrought tunes. The harmony of included instruments is impressive as well, the guitar joined most often by piano, drum, and bass with occasional violin, accordion, or a second six string.

The tracks have a pleasingly even keel about them, being neither too fast nor too slow in tempo, but always driving forward and interesting. Following the lead acoustic, the other instruments act almost exclusively to lift up the vocals; a collection of wordy life stories painted in visual identifiers of nature and relationships among landscapes. The majority of tracks sport soft male singing supported by female vocals, though the group switches it up on a few tracks, allowing the smooth voice of their lady lead to shine through.

While the tempo changes often, the tracks have a lovely flowing sound and are happily toe tapping, creating a truly harmonious experience for the listener. Evoking the sweet aching of summer love, Upper Air has a lightness of touch to it’s music, the Bowerbirds sounding neither overly invasive nor imploringly desirous of needing to be heard; for listening to this album’s tracks is a pleasure in itself. Highly recommended for those interested in acoustic folk.

Kenneth Joachim

The Rural Alberta Advantage
(Saddle Creek)

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Hometowns is superbly painted indie rock styled neo-folk with lyrics elegantly attuned to that of misplacement, adoration and longing. Formed in 2005, The Rural Alberta Advantage is made up of Paul Banwatt, Amy Cole and Nils Edenloff. The lyrics are deeply emotive and the instrumentation ticks with a pulsating technique more prevalent in techno albums. Packaged perfectly and sonically tight, drums beat away, tambourines shake and keys seem placed with a heady machined perfection but this is not an electronic album, the Rural Alberta Advantage is a band. It does, however, operate on a higher echelon of musical craft. The drums alone are jarringly exciting. “The Dethbridge In Lethbridge” has a quickening drum pace and serious snares that move with crazy speed more suitable to heavy metal music thanks to drummer Paul Banwatt. The strained yet angst of flattened guitar chords assault the tempered vocals. The buoyancy of the background choral harmony gives this song a nice tug of celebration and disappointment. “The Air” has a subdued charm of swelling acoustic guitar and a nice residual percussive enchantment. Soft piano forms a careful melody to this love song. Hometowns, is an album developed out of Edenloff missing Northern and Central Alberta, Canada. Capturing all the familiarity of romanticism and loss, The Rural Alberta Advantage has created a landscape that never loses its beauty or appeal.

Chanda Jones

God Help the Girl
God Help the Girl

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Technically God Help the Girl is the soundtrack to a movie that hasn’t been made yet. Regardless, it still plays as a fully realized cohesive album. It’s quite a good one too. The music was written by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch and his stamp is all over it. Though he only contributes vocals to a few of the tracks, the lyrics and melodies are unmistakably his. The rest of the vocals are provided by people who responded to an open audition. The majority of the singing is done by Catherine Ireton who gives a great voice to the main character of Murdoch’s story. She sure sings like a pro and is believable as a melancholy Scottish lass in need of help. This could very well serve as a springboard for her future music career. Special props must also be given to Brittany Stallings for turning Belle & Sebastian’s “Funny Little Frog” into a soul jam and Asya of the band Smoosh for her excellent teenage delivery on “I Just Want Your Jeans.”

We’re going to have to wait to see if the film turns out to be any good. In the meantime though, we do have this perfectly enjoyable album which works as its own separate entity. It’s not exactly a new Belle & Sebastian album but it’s still pretty good and B&S fans will probably like it a lot. In fact, a lot of people will probably like it a lot.

Jonathan Zuckerman

The Veils
Sun Gangs
(Rough Trade)

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The Veils, in their third album have made something absolutely spectacular. The songs are sad and ancient sounding, like they were written for a love in a past life. Some make you feel like you are running around in a Clockwork Orange type world, while others make you want to cry. For much of it I picture myself sitting on the subway, surrounded by silent people, indifferent faces and blank stares, like one of those deep emotional montages in a movie where someone has an epiphany about humanity and the meaning of life and love. Yeah, this is that kind of music.

Beautiful and mystical, the lyrics are achingly sung, with ample amounts of grief, heartbreak and optimism that are woven together like an old patchwork blanket. The deep vocals are comforting in their cataclysmic like way and are overpowering; they sometimes hide the wonderful guitar riffs but not so much that I would say it ruins the album. Far from it actually. Because lead singer Finn Andrews’ voice sounds something like the late evening wind blowing your umbrella away, the impact of hearing him over the music makes you feel like you are constantly in a movie.

Each track has a little life of its own. The first song on the album, “Sit Down by the Fire,” is by far the most brilliant, mixing calls for love and tragic loss. “Killed By the Boom” is another standout, echoing Jack White and gothic metal. Put all together, this album has no overarching theme (that I could find) but rather just blends a whole lot of erotic, moody, and awesome together. This is not a dancing album; it’s about ambience and atmosphere, and done so well, I was quite thoroughly surprised. I more than highly recommend this album, for its undeniable relevance, yesterday, today, and in the future.


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