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Sonic Boom Reviews: Vampire Weekend, Ihsahn, Surfer Blood

The January album reviews unearth a crop of good records

Call me crazy, but as far as I’m concerned, as far as writing about music is concerned, this is a great time of year. With the old year behind us—along with all its best-of lists and accompanied detritus—I am able to start fresh, to see an empty canvas to be filled. I do not yet know 2010, do not know where it’s going or what it’s made of, so every album I hear now is shaping my year, creating its identity, providing its soundtrack. I start off the month—and thus the year—as I start off every month: with an installment of “Pirate Guide,” the “Sonic Boom” feature wherein I write short reviews of a handful of new records. And as the year develops, as the new albums stack up and become old albums, this will remain its epicenter, its starting line. And it’s a good place to start.

Vampire WeekendContra (XL)

How do you talk about Vampire Weekend without talking about all the baggage associated with Vampire Weekend? The hype, the expectations, the preconceptions? Effete Ivy League boys making inoffensive pop using elements of Afro-beat and indie rock? Blogger faves who survived the harsh and inevitable backlash and came out on top, whose songs are now featured in romantic comedies and Gossip Girl? How do you avoid talking about all that, and just talk about the music? Can you? Should you? I dunno. Personally, I was caught off guard by Vampire Weekend’s self-titled 2008 debut album, and I found much to love in its warm, generous, detailed songs, and even now—even after each of its tracks has been played well beyond the point of surprising me—I continue to enjoy the music. Because of all this, I want very much to love Contra, yet after countless listens crammed into a two-day period, I haven’t found a connection to the music. That’s not to say the music isn’t inviting—it is, in fact, as sweet and easygoing as a free Friday afternoon in late May—nor that the music isn’t good—because if you like Vampire Weekend (or Paul Simon’s Graceland, even more so this time around than last), the music is especially good: bright and polished and smart. But so far, nothing here captures me the way I was captured by “Oxford Comma” or “M79” or “Campus” or “Walcott” or “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”… I will continue to try and find that something, but till I do, I’m left wondering why I can’t find it, if it’s the music or me or something else, something between us that shouldn’t matter but somehow does. [7/10]


IhsahnAfter (Candlelight)

Norwegian metal composer Ihsahn is best known as frontman for symphonic black metal legends Emperor, whose 1994 release, In the Nightside Eclipse, is one of the genre’s three or four most important works. Even back then—at black metal’s most significant formative moment—Emperor sounded more musically confident and polished, and therefore accessible, than their counterparts (Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum), but now, more than a dozen albums and a decade and a half later, Ihsahn has moved beyond black metal to something far more adventurous, and more rewarding. The astonishing After belongs to no genre—even calling it metal seems reductive—and it explores new and diverse terrains throughout. Sometimes Ihsahn employs traditional black metal-style vocals (tight, high-pitched growls), sometimes a plaintive, textural croon; sometimes his guitar work is brutal and aggressive and harsh, sometimes fluid and gentle and warm. The most notable of the numerous unexpected artistic choices here is the use of saxophone, which occasionally recalls the extreme-metal work of free-jazz great John Zorn. But pointing out its disparate individual elements makes the album sound like a science project or an exercise in virtuoso wankery. Which it’s not. It’s an adventure, or a maze, or a feast, and every time I listen to it, it sounds weirder and wilder and better. [9/10]

Surfer Blood Astrocoast (Kanine)

I’ve been living with and listening to a copy of Astrocoast for months now. (Indeed, the band’s magnificent single “Swim [To Reach the End]” was one of my top 10 singles of 2009.) I’m not sure why the album is only now—finally—seeing the light of day, but I truly hope the long wait has allowed the band’s label to properly line up promotions and retail and whatever it is labels are supposed to do to get a band’s music heard. That is, assuming labels still do those things. Assuming labels still do anything. I certainly hope the lag time isn’t an indication that Surfer Blood are not a priority, because, well, based on this album, they should probably be superstars. To be fair, there is nothing new on Astrocoast—as I listen to it, I occasionally forget that I am not listening to one of the band’s many obvious forebears (The Shins, Weezer, Pavement, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses)—but Surfer Blood are so adept at synthesizing these influences that they rarely fail to improve upon them. Astrocoast is an enormous, confident album; it boasts an irrational surfeit of melody, a big, booming sound, and more pop hooks than 48 straight hours of Radio Disney. Its sensibilities are almost atavistic: How many indie bands today are so jubilant, so unguarded, so skilled at crafting choruses, and so willing to sing them so loud? [8/10]

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