Best Albums: Man Man, Arctic Monkeys, Balance and Composure, Obits, Cock & Swan, Tremor

This week’s best albums

– With its fifth album, quirk-rock quintet Man Man offers a “band reboot,” merging its Tom Waits-ian, trop-pop weirdness with Talking Heads inspirations, old-school soul, and other oddities.

Arctic Monkeys makes another surprise transition, this time with a slinky nightclub record that channels bluesy rock riffs from the ’70s.

Balance and Composure, among the new guard of indie-rock bands that actually rock, makes an advancement of musical and songwriting depth.

– Rick Froberg’s Obits, on its third LP, better balances its members’ blues, rock, psych, and world-music influences with the more familiar snarl of their post-hardcore precursors.

– Following a more acoustic LP, Seattle duo Cock & Swan crafts an album of washed-out ambience, breathy vocals, glitching syncopation, and pop nostalgia.

– Argentinian “folklorica” outfit Tremor utilizes human voice for the first time, offering a poppier blend of folk and electronica.

Honorable mentions

The Weeknd: Kiss Land (Republic)

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Tom Waits and Anton Corbijn release collaborative, limited-edition book for a Tin Pan retrospective

Tom Waits & Anton Corbijn: Waits/Corbijn ’77-’11 (Schirmer/Mosel, 5/8/13, $199.99, limited to 6600 copies)

Tom Waits is an arresting personality. Aurally, there aren’t many artists who can compare, with his mix of bluesy growl and circus barker defying definition, scoffing at imitation. Visually, he’s unique: all long face, penetrating eyes, and jauntily perched, pre-douchebag fedora. And looking back over his entire oeuvre, Anton Corbijn has been there to capture him.

An artist known for his haunting portraits of musicians and spectacular music videos, Corbijn has re-teamed with Waits to release a limited-edition volume of their work together. Waits/Corbijn ’77-’11 contains more than 200 images, from the first taken in Holland in 1977 to those taken by Waits himself in a “Curiosities” chapter. These are presented next to scribbles by Waits and alongside introductions by director Jim Jarmusch and music critic Robert Christgau. Check out some of the Waits/Corbijn collaboration below and then order yourself a copy of the book before they’re gone.

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Q&A: Aesthetic Apparatus distills beauty from poor choices

In a decade that will be characterized by staggering unemployment and one of the greatest recessions in recent history, it is refreshing to hear Aesthetic Apparatus’s story.  Forging a partnership based on a shared love of music, art, and design, Dan Ibarra and Michael Byzewski left their jobs at a Madison, Wisconsin, graphic-design firm in 2002 to do things their way.

Their creation — Aesthetic Apparatus — is a Minneapolis-based commercial art and printmaking studio that has designed everything from gallery art to logos for local pizza shops to concert posters for bands such as Cake and The Black Keys. Leaving a successful graphic-design studio to start something for themselves didn’t promise Ibarra and Byzewski immediate success, but it did set the stage for Aesthetic Apparatus to become modern-day purveyors of pop-culture cool.

Ibarra recently took some time to talk about Aesthetic Apparatus’s unique vision.

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Interview: Salem metalcore vets Converge send home the guests for an explosive new album

This content appears in ALARM #40. Subscribe here to get your copy!

Converge: All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph, 10/9/12)

“Sadness Comes Home”

Converge: “Sadness Comes Home”

Being one of the most consistently devastating and innovative hardcore bands on the planet doesn’t come easy. In fact, it requires countless hours of hard work, a highly disciplined work ethic, and a level of stamina that even the youngest punks in the game can’t always muster.

For nearly 20 years, Salem, Massachusetts-based metalcore titan Converge has continually pushed its intense sound to new and progressively head-spinning extremes, hammering out 90-second explosions of speed and energy on one track, while delving into a gut-wrenching mixture of emotion and melody the next. Though expectations are best left wide open when approaching a new album from the group, two things remain constant: it’ll never be half-assed, and it most certainly won’t be boring.

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ALARM’s 50 (+5) Favorite Songs of 2012

Last month ALARM presented its 50 favorite albums of 2012, an eclectic, rock-heavy selection of discs that were in steady rotation in our downtown-Chicago premises. Now, to give some love to tunes that were left out but that hold major water on their own, we have our 50 (+5) favorite songs of last year — singles, B-sides, EP standouts, soundtrack cuts, and more.

(Text by the ALARM crew. Presented in chronological order.)

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Review: Jesca Hoop’s The House That Jack Built

Jesca Hoop: The House That Jack BuiltJesca Hoop: The House That Jack Built (Bella Union, 6/26/12)

“Born To”

Jesca Hoop: “Born To”

Northern California-born signer/songwriter Jesca Hoop (a current resident of Manchester, England) has made quite the impression on people in high places. Garnering endorsements from the likes of Elbow’s Guy Garvey, Peter Gabriel, and Tom Waits (for whom she used to nanny, and who has described her music as being “like going swimming in a lake at night”), Hoop has established herself as well-crafted songstress who relies on her strong voice and pop sensibilities to impel her songs forward. But the support from her tried-and-true forebears isn’t unfounded; on her new album, The House That Jack Built, Hoop disinters the raw talent and musical vision to back up all the hype surrounding her.

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50 Unheralded Albums from 2011

In just one more trip around the sun, another swarm of immensely talented but under-recognized musicians has harnessed its collective talents and discharged its creations into the void. This list is but one fraction of those dedicated individuals — admittedly, based mostly in the Western world — who caught our ears with some serious jams.

For us, 2011 was another year of taking in as much as we could and sharing the best with you. Next year, however, will be a homecoming of sorts, a return to rock-‘n’-roll roots. We’ll soon be able to share the projects that we have in store — across multiple mediums — but for now, dig into this rock-focused list of must-own albums.

Presented in chronological order.

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Record Review: Tom Waits’ Bad as Me

Tom Waits: Bad as MeTom Waits: Bad as Me (Anti-, 10/25/11)

Tom Waits: “Bad as Me”

[audio:|titles=Tom Waits: “Bad as Me”]

Tom Waits is legend, larger than life. Few musicians are as cloaked in mythology. Yet his music has always been what music should be: comforting in places, jarring in others, pushing boundaries while always honoring the legacy of American songwriting. Bad as Me, Waits’ first studio album in seven years, is all of these things, continuing the direction that he established with Closing Time in 1973 and hammered into the ground with Swordfishtrombones a decade later.

At the time, Swordfishtrombones signified a new Waits, a man unafraid to be confronted. The confidence came in large part from his marriage to Kathleen Brennan. They’re still married, and Waits credits Brennan as his support, collaborator, and muse. Here, every track was written and produced by Brennan and Waits together. Those tracks oscillate between manic and maudlin, flip-flopping throughout the entire album. Where a Depression-era blues tune ends, a ballad begins. Waits’ voice is a freight train and then a frail leaf.

That voice, of course, is a wonder. Waits can sound like a woman down on her luck, a Mississippi blues man, a possessed mule, and an army of brokenhearted ogres. Every harsh word has been employed to make sense of the ragged clatter that emerges from Waits’ throat. It’s as if his voice has always been 60 years old and his body only now caught up.

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This Week’s Best Single: Colin Stetson’s Those Who Didn’t Run

Colin Stetson: Those Who Didn't RunColin Stetson: Those Who Didn’t Run (Constellation, 10/4/11)

Colin Stetson: “Those Who Didn’t Run” (excerpt)

Saxophonist Colin Stetson‘s distinctive reed work can be found in the music of Tom Waits, TV on the Radio, and Arcade Fire, among many others. His latest full-length solo album, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, was released in February of this year, and now he’s back with a 10-inch EP, Those Who Didn’t Run. Armed with bass and alto saxes and some advanced breathing techniques, Stetson creates heavy, droning horn sounds that are as post-rock as they are avant-garde jazz.

The two tracks on Those Who Didn’t Run were recorded in a single take and run just over 10 minutes apiece. Whereas the title track (excerpted above) is drawn in pulsating minimalist strokes, “The End of Your Suffering” rides an off-kilter, high-pitched riff throughout, with occasional aberrant flourishes. With such breadth of texture and pitch, it’s hard to believe that you’re hearing horns.

Following this release, Stetson will embark on a year-long tour as part of Bon Iver‘s live band.

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DeVotchKa: Gypsy-Fusion Quartet Hits the Big Time

A Mad and Faithful TellingDeVotchKa: A Mad and Faithful Telling (Anti-, 3/18/08)

When DeVotchKa landed a Grammy nomination for its contribution to the soundtrack of 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, it was a welcome vindication. The Denver-based quartet had been waging an uphill battle for recognition since the late ’90s, when bandleader Nick Urata (vocals, guitar, trumpet, piano, Theremin) put together the first version of the band with largely different personnel.

“It took a long time to find the right quartet,” Urata says from his Denver home, where a blizzard rages outside. “I was a sideman for my whole life, so at the beginning [of DeVotchKa] I was having such a good time doing my own songs with my own band, I let anyone who wanted to play join in. When we finished the first record (Supermelodrama, 2002), everyone was done with school and needed to move on. [Multi-instrumentalist] Tom Hagerman was one of them, but in the long run it was good. It forced me to find people who wanted to play for a living. Finding Jeanie [Schroder] and Shawn [King] is a long story, but eventually Tom came back and we convinced him to stay.”

Urata grew up near New York City in a large Italian family. “My grandfather was a musician and had a great influence on me,” he says. “I began studying trumpet at age eight and was exposed to music from all over the world. There was always talk of Gypsies in our bloodline. As I got older, I began to pine for those old-world sounds.”

It’s those old-world sounds that make DeVotchKa so unique and hard to define. The band is tagged with blurbs like “Gypsy mariachis playing funky boleros at a Greek taverna” or “Eastern Bloc cabaret rock,” but its blend of rock and world music is part of a burgeoning new style one could call global pop. DeVotchKa’s mash-up of American R&B, Gypsy, spaghetti western, Argentinean tango, surf guitar, odd Balkan back beats, and angular funk sounds eccentric and strangely familiar, even to those unfamiliar with the band’s myriad influences.

“Music-business people are always telling me there’s no place for [DeVotchKa],” Urata says. “But the fans are saying, ‘Give me more, and the wackier, the better.’ Almost every label in America turned us down. One of them, after a long courtship, walked away because we were too ethnic. Nine months later, right about the time they would have put our record out, we were featured in Spin as part of the hottest new trend in music.”

Undaunted, the band created its own label, Cicero Recordings, and followed up Supermelodrama with two more excellent recordings: Una Volta (2003) and How It Ends (2004). When the directors of Little Miss Sunshine put tracks from How It Ends on their soundtrack, it brought the band some well-deserved mainstream recognition, as did its one-off EP, Curse Your Little Heart, for independent label Ace Fu.

Enter Anti- Records, the adventurous LA label that’s home to Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Billy Bragg, and Nick Cave. “We were interested in Anti- because they have Tom Waits,” Hagerman says. “They finally came to a show and signed us.”

A Mad and Faithful Telling, DeVotchKa’s new album, is their most ambitious yet, featuring ten luxuriously produced tracks that brim with international rhythms, lush orchestrations, and Urata’s soulful croon. The band produced the album with Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Giant Sand), who also helped with Una Volta and How It Ends.

“Craig has great musical ideas and keeps us from hurting ourselves when we record,” Urata jokes. “He’s good at placing mics for maximum effect and coaching a good performance out of us.

“There was an urgency when we wrote and recorded the last two albums. This time we were more ambitious musically and little more relaxed. I felt like we could sit back and let this one be itself without trying to interfere with the creative process. We left a lot to chance, with more improvisation and input from the other members — more spontaneity. The last few I had mapped out before we recorded, due to financial constraints and lack of confidence.”

The tunes on A Mad And Faithful Telling are marked by a clear, clean mix that gives every instrument its own distinct voice. “Basso Profundo” begins the album with Latin-influenced spaghetti-western sounds before moving into a Russian Gypsy jam during the coda. The backing vocalists sing a merry wordless hook that instantly embeds itself into your brain, while Hagerman’s fiddle goes into overdrive, zooming through the mix like a hummingbird on nitroglycerine.

“For me, playing violin is the most potent musical expression.” Hagerman says. “Communicating an emotion through a wordless musical phrase is really powerful.” Hagerman also shines on “Comrade Z,” an instrumental rave-up that’s part Balkan brass, part Gypsy fiddle insanity, with a driving, irresistible bass line. “We tried to cram as many notes into the motif as possible,” Hagerman says of the tune’s frenetic pace. “It’s a tune we started a long time ago. The string quartet we use on that tune gave us more choices in orchestration. I like arrangements where the strings take over the melody or rhythms that are usually played on guitar.”

“The Clockwise Witness” showcases DeVotchKa’s growing confidence in the studio. Toy piano and staccato strings set up the rhythm while Urata’s guitar, Schroder’s bass, and King’s drums counter with a dance-rock groove.

“Tom came up with the toy-piano riff a couple of years ago,” Urata explains. “We played a different version of it on the road, but when it came time to record, Tom wrote an amazing arrangement for strings and oboe. The new arrangement has a strict metronomic beat and reminds me of the seconds of our lives ticking away. The lyrics ask, ‘Is there redemption in living the straight life, or should we just trample everyone in our way for immediate gratification?”

Another dark track is “Blessing in Disguise,” a military waltz with a lyric of lost love and regret, with a lot of swing in the drums and string charts despite the martial tempo. “I wrote this on my own,” Urata says. “I was having a terrible time writing and couldn’t find anything good for months, then it wrote itself all at once. I tried to explain that process in the lyrics. In those rare moments of clarity, you realize that losing love or facing death, although extremely painful, can lead to profound changes. I wanted it to be somewhere between a wedding and a funeral march, so we brought in marching band instruments and recorded it all live in the same big studio room.”

“Undone” sounds like Roy Orbison fronting a Gypsy band while singing the tango; “Strazzalo” employs an odd oompha waltz; “Transliterator” features rocking disjointed funk that sounds vaguely like the Talking Heads, one of Urata’s favorite bands during his youth.

A Mad And Faithful Telling takes its title from a line in Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, perhaps fitting because the lyrics Urata has crafted for the album are full of his usual concerns: mortality, lost or unattainable love, and the brevity of happiness. His vocals, which combine David Byrne’s uneasy yelp with Orbison’s powerful but restrained croon, often float free in the mix, adding another element of mystery to the music.

“I try to get across a mix of conventional wisdom and poetry, portraying emotional experiences with enough poetic license to make it interesting,” Urata says. “I like songs that are a little bit ambiguous. One day it means one thing, the next day it means something else, the way conversations you’ve had in the past can come back to you in a whole new context. The best stuff comes subconsciously; it has nothing to do with me. Once they’re finished, songs become their own entities that have nothing to do with you anymore. The vocal mix is dictated by what the song or that particular performance needs. Sometimes the band has to overpower the vocalist. I am a bit shy about putting the vocals way up front.”

Urata and DeVotchKa traveled a long road to achieve their current success, never compromising their sound or vision. Now that they’ve arrived, they find themselves lumped with other bands that are exploring Eastern European tonalities like Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello, part of a so-called “Gypsy wave.” It’s a pigeonhole that has mixed blessings.

“We have been type cast as a Gypsy band from the beginning,” Urata agrees. “In our case, it was a positive thing. As we got to know other like-minded bands like Gogol Bordello, we started telling people that Gypsy music has been going on for a long time, so where were you ten years ago? In fact, the Gypsy influence has been shaping music all over the world for hundreds of years. To say it’s some new anomaly is kind of laughable.”

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