This Week’s Best Albums: March 6, 2012


Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow choose ALARM’s favorite new releases for This Week’s Best Albums, an eclectic set of reviews presenting exceptional music.

Tim Fite: Ain't Ain't Ain'tTim Fite: Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t (Anti-)

Tim Fite: “We Are All Teenagers”

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To say that Tim Fite has spent eight years and ten albums single-handedly bridging rap and indie folk would make his career sound much too simple: Fite’s half-rapped, half-sung delivery has paired with a massive library of samples and an alternately cut-and-paste and acoustic aesthetic to craft something unparalleled.

For this final installment of his Ain’t trilogy on Anti- Records, Fite reinvents his own unconventional process. He’s still sampling, but gone are the cuts from bargain-bin records. Instead, they’re all from compositions by Fite and his friends, some of which have been rearranged or manipulated beyond recognition.

Though the non-Ain’t prequel to this album, Under the Table Tennis, dealt with arguably more “adult” topics — unemployment, the healthcare industry, the housing crisis — Ain’t Ain’t Ain’t finds Fite turning inward, reflecting on the heartbreak and joy of his teenage years. The album rues those awkward formative years and the insecurities that we’ll never overcome, but it gradually builds into an epic carpe-diem sentiment—reminding us about an age of freedom that we only experience once. Ironically, it might be his most mature release yet.

– Meaghann Korbel

Andrew Bird: Break it YourselfAndrew Bird: Break It Yourself (Mom+Pop)

Andrew Bird: “Give it Away”

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Album after album, few artists are able to maintain a distinct sound while pushing (and sometimes breaching) boundaries. Andrew Bird is one such artist, and his new album, Break it Yourself, melds together the Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist’s tried-and-true song-craft with his whimsical, idiosyncratic instrumentation.

The album marries Bird’s more straightforward songwriting, as heard on his previous few releases, with the progressive sounds of his 2010 instrumental release, Useless Creatures. All of the old staples are here (swooning violins, effervescent guitar lines, staccato intros, whistle solos, xylophone adornments, etc.), but the classically trained Bird is able to retool those instruments into a diverse range of sounds. “Give it Away” features distorted violin finger-picking to reinforce the melody; album opener “Desperation Breeds” showcases a violin lead that sounds more like a synthesizer than a stringed instrument; and “Lazy Projector” gets its start with a peculiar vocal melody that sounds like it was recorded underwater. All this and more lets Bird break out of his shell and harness his eccentricities.

From the animated “Danse Carribe” to the harrowing “Near Death Experience Experience,” Bird proves why he is such a token in music today, appealing to fans of multiple genres while staying true to his own sound. Though the album isn’t as immediately accessible as some of his past releases, the singer-songwriter is able to reel in listeners thanks to his knack for composition. With Break It Yourself, Bird never employs a one-size-fits-all mentality; rather, he continually tries new tricks and trades, making for a less straightforward but much more mesmerizing work than some past efforts.

– Michael Danaher

Every Time I Die: Ex LivesEvery Time I Die: Ex Lives (Epitaph)

Every Time I Die: “Underwater Bimbos from Space”

Since 2001, Buffalo’s Every Time I Die has cranked out chug-fueled hardcore on album after relentless album. With mathy and metallic elements and a touch of vocal melody, brothers Keith and Jordan Buckley and crew have remained consistent in their love of heavy riffs and staggered breakdowns.

Ex Lives is another 14 tracks of fiery riffage and throaty screams, each in digestible packages of 2-3 minutes (occasionally four). Little is out of the ordinary, outside of a quick banjo intro on “Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow” and a massive rock-‘n’-roll solo on “Revival Mode,” one of the album’s few songs that leans on Keith’s singing.

But don’t mistake consistency for complacency, as Ex Lives is far from going through the motions. After it blasts through three songs in eight minutes, “Typical Miracle” and “I Suck (Blood)” offer some of the album’s sickest riffs before that dueling banjo/guitar intro shifts gears. Ex Lives could have benefited from other changes in sound and style, particularly with three bonus tracks on the deluxe edition — but the fact remains that Jordan and fellow guitarist Andy Williams know how to do what they do (and do it well).

– Scott Morrow

The Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the SeaThe Magnetic Fields: Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)

The Magnetic Fields: “Andrew in Drag”

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Stephin Merritt must have sonar. Whether helming The Magnetic Fields or penning songs for films and musicals, he finds depth in even the shallowest of topics and creates meaning by exploring meaninglessness. The title of his new, self-produced album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, hints at this process as it summons daydreams about mermaids, pirates, and amorous octopi.

Synthesizers power this emotional bathysphere, recalling the sound that the band debuted on Distant Plastic Trees in 1991 and refined on 69 Love Songs in ’99. Hints of ’80s synth-pop pepper the recording as well, nodding to artists such as Gary Numan and earlier versions of the Merritt that fans know and love.

The album’s sonic textures aren’t entirely retro, however. Many of the electronic gadgets that shaped this disc didn’t exist in the ’90s, and after making three synth-less albums — i, Distortion, and Realism — the band was eager to test-drive the instruments that the past decade has spawned. The result is a vintage, back-to-the-future Magnetic Fields.

– Jessica Steinhoff

Floratone IIFloratone: II (Savoy Jazz)

Floratone: “Move”

It’s surprising how often production value is ignored when considering a record’s creative output. Though it’s a basic detail for careful listeners, it’s an impossible aspect to overlook in the case of Floratone. Featuring guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Matt Chamberlain (Critters Buggin), and producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine, Floratone returns with its second collaborative effort, showcasing four production-oriented talents.

Much like the ensemble’s debut, Floratone II presents a “something old, something new” collaborative process with Frisell and Chamberlain laying down musical motifs that are finished by accompaniments and tweaks from Townsend and Martine. Frisell’s signature guitar work is heard all over the record, best exemplified on the slow-aged “Snake, Rattle” and the Dixieland-inspired “Parade,” but the members greatly benefit from each other and carve out dynamic layers of grooves, rhythms, electronic ambience, and synth bursts.

If the project wasn’t virtuosic enough, guest spots from Ron Miles, Eyvind Kang, Mike Elizondo, and distinguished soundtrack composer and producer Jon Brion make sure that all grounds are covered. Floratone II is an effort that harbors originality from some of the best contemporary composers around, fusing bits and pieces of organic and electronic textures to craft an album that’s equally balanced on the past, present, and avant-garde.

– Michael Nolledo

Honorable Mentions

The Alchemist: Rapper’s Best Friend 2 (Decon)


Biipiigwan: Nibaak (Handshake Inc.)

Bowerbirds: The Clearing (Dead Oceans)

Ceremony: Zoo (Matador)

Elfin Saddle: Devastates (Constellation)

Good Old War: Come Back as Rain (Sargent House)

The Men: Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)

Jenny Scheinman: Mischief & Mayhem

Doug Stanhope: Before Turning the Gun on Himself (Roadrunner)

White Rabbits: Milk Famous (TBD)

Yellow Ostrich: Strange Land (Barsuk)