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7 Music Reviews

Atone, Un An (Autres Directions in Music)

Un An means "A Year", and the story goes that Atone, aka electronic musician Antoine Monzonis-Calvet, composed this music over a year's time, with each track relating to an important moment in his life. That might account both for the serious emotional tone of much of the music, and the schizophrenia. By that I don't mean that the music is harried or hectic, mad in any way - rather, the aural landscape is continually shifting in different directions, albeit gently, the way that each day in a year has its own feeling, though it shares much with the others. The tracks all flow together, but offer surprising variety as well. Atmosphere is key here, and the general tone that Atone creates with these slow, moody compositions is contemplative, somber. But these often more going on than first meets the ear - at the start the tone is peaceful upfront but wild underneath, with shifting rhythms, sometimes deep below the surface. There's times when Un An feels like the dramatic score to a film, there's times when it's delicate and almost playful, even, and there's time when it's close to silence, almost invisible like the faintest fog. Atone has a way of captivating through mood, but he also layers his tracks with details. Melodica is an important instrument, but my ear can't ignore the drums - they're arresting even when buried - or the ever-present piano. All of these holds together, though, into one unique sound; the style shifts, but still there's one overriding feeling, of determination maybe, or is that regret? It's an up and down feeling, like that of any year. - dave heaton

Boy Omega, The Black Tango (Riptide/Stereo Test Kit/Slight/Villa)

At first The Black Tango, the second album from Boy Omega, aka Martin Gustafsson, seems somewhere between the territory of Bright Eyes and Will Oldham - lots of raw emoting, but with a certain level of distance and poetry to it. That's not a bad place to be, but the more I listened, the more I realized as well how lush the music is, how much in feeling it emulates the album cover's nature scenes and glimpses of sunlight through the trees. It's sparse - his voice and the instruments shining through crisply, but it also has a soft, welcoming demeanor, with violins, mellotron, electronics, and various percussion coming together in layers of sound. Gustafsson also has a way with arresting lyrics, whether it's the sex/religion juxtapositions of the lovelorn "Blocks" near the album's start or the way the final song, "Nobody's Fault," turns dark imagery into something hopeful. Much of the album bears that feeling, of someone turning darkness into light, without erasing it. The lyrics are often mysterious, often harsh, while the music is gorgeous without being too awash in starry-eyed dreaminess. Its romance is wrapped up in hurt, as well it should be. - dave heaton

The Haircuts, Sorrow Is the Way to Love (Yellow Mica) and Up Up and Away With the Haircuts (Best Kept Secret)

Sorrow Is the Way to Love seems like a perfectly emblematic title for an album by the pop duo The Haircuts, whose music takes loneliness and heartbreak, and lends a sweetness to them. Steeped in the classic indie-pop sounds (Sarah Records, c86, etc.), The Haircuts present an album filled with pretty vocals (from Teresa Daniele), harmonies (the perfect way Daniele and Ryan Marquez sing together), and melodies, expressing acute feelings of sadness and confusion, though also hope. There's energy, breeziness, sincerity and expert pop songcraft throughout the album, from the opening instrumental theme through to the excellent cover of Belle and Sebastian's "The Gate," with plenty of great moments in between. There's a general story of feeling like you don't quite fit in that runs through the album, especially the middle portion, and who can't relate to that? And who can't relate to fantastic melodies, either? Also from the Haircuts is the equally enjoyable 6-song cassette Up Up and Away With the Haircuts. It opens with the flirtatious "It's Summer When I Am With You," includes a bouncy cover of Eric Trip's "Sand," and on the whole is direct, playful, melancholy and eminently lovable. dave heaton

Harper Lee, He Holds a Flame EP (Matinee)

At this point - after three fantastic albums of articulate, emotional melancholy-pop, not to mention the genetic legacy of the legendary Sarah Records band Brighter - it's getting redundant to write about how skilled the duo Harper Lee is at crafting songs. That almost goes without saying, it's like saying the earth is round. At the same time, listening to them you never forget it. They constantly impress...with melodies that linger, with beautifully composed moods, and with lyrics that perfectly, and artfully, capture a particular feeling, even a devastatingly sad one. The new He Holds a Flame EP is compelling again in all of these ways...though the tone isn't particularly sad. Or I should say, there's as much longing and wistfulness as ever, but it's more hopeful in tone. Instead of heartbreak being a period, it's more like a question mark, like 'maybe there's still a chance for us'? Keris Howard's opening line on the first song, the title song, is "I feel so good that we're still friends / though I know you care for him times ten." Wow, that's a bold statement, expressing the wish for love even in face of the facts. And that's the outlook of the EP - "Remember I'm still in love with you", as he sings later in that title song, or, as he sings during "I Could Be Wrong" (my vote for most infectious song here), "I promise I can change / I want you back." It's a rose-colored EP filled with romantic notions, but not without a realization of the hurt of life. And what's more, the musical style of the songs fits this tone just right - the melancholy sound they've perfected is still there, but it's also lighter, more hopeful, with keyboards and guitars played gently. The music has a daylight, things-are-getting-better aura that's positively inspiring, even when you can hear the tears starting to fall somewhere in the distance. - dave heaton

Headlights, Kill Them With Kindness (Polyvinyl)

I love surprise epics like this, albums that have so much more scope and depth than they appear to at first, and just keep continuing on as you listen, but without being dramatic about it. At the core of Headlights' sound is a whisper, someone singing softly to another someone, singing quietly about memories, places, love, daily life. Around that, though, is a layered, textured style of melodic rock. Guitars - occasionally wild but generally smooth - and keyboards meld together to form a continuous, lush, rolling backdrop over which they can sing their catchy, and pleasantly hushed melodies. The singers' voices are surprisingly stark for such dreamy soundscapes; their words and the feelings they express stand out. Yet the uniqueness of this album comes also through the small details, especially the love Headlights display for specific sounds, and their effects. This is most obvious on the more overtly experimental interludes between songs; the cascading/stuck sounds of "Struggle With Numbers" could be in a Steve Reich piece, while the sputtering harmonica of "The Midwest Is the Best" is a hip-hop track waiting to happen. Their songs themselves are more conventionally pop/rock, but this same approach is taken. Fuzzy guitars, crisp guitars, pristine piano, strings...so many fresh sounds build up to a whole, which is just as pleasing to the ear. Small pleasures build to a larger one: how appealing and rewarding Kill Them With Kindness is as an album. - dave heaton

Ivy League, London Bridges EP (TwentySeven)

The opening, title track to Ivy League's London Bridges EP presents the duo as making catchy, breezy pop music with guitars and synthesizers, with a lounge/bossa nova-lilt to it and an almost standard-issue 'indie-pop' cutesiness to it. It's a reminisce/celebration of radio and music very catchy, very pleasant, as are the other three tracks, though each has its own character. "P Is for Penelope" goes further into bossa-nova, but also eventually takes the guitar in a more wild, free direction; it also has a core of desperation to it, despite the swooning, romantic surface. "June" is a crisp, relaxed love song that almost doubles as a troubadour country song, or at least a Simon & Garfunkel number, especially when the two Alex Suarez and Ryland Blackinton sing together, to hand claps and guitar. And if Ivy League hasn't already claimed your attention by this point, the last song is a superb folk cover of the Arcade Fire's "Crown of Love," delivered in a spare, pristine way that gets to the song's heart efficiently, and wins yours over at the same time. dave heaton

Owen, Noodle (Girl in a Box)

"I like just sitting here / with the fan on" isn't the sort of attention-grabbing album-opening sentiment that's going to convince listeners this band has something important to say. But it's honest, right? Sitting around wasting time, reading a magazine article and drinking Coke: that's life. The lo-fi duo Owen makes music that reflects an everyday sort of nonchalance, as Noodle's opening track "I Like Just Sitting Here" makes clear. The album on the whole is musically driven by a similar state of low-key, a sort of "we're just messing around and seeing where it gets us" mentality. More specifically, the album feels like an attempt to emulate in mood a late-night off in the woods or desert somewhere, and to do so in an impressionistic, not especially precise manner. They sing in a hushed way, play keyboards and guitars the same, and in the process create a 13-song testament to idling that has quite a beautiful presence about it. Songs like the tearful "Spinning 'round the Sun" are riveting, both for the laidback tone and the heartfelt feelings expressed raw underneath, about love and heartbreak and so on. At the same time, there's a playfulness to this all, a lack of caring whether anyone thinks of them as artists. It's all kind of warped, sometimes rather jokey, purposefully strange, and fairly sloppy. And of course, they manage to stumble onto something quite special. dave heaton


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