An aubade is a morning love song, a song of hope and joy that the new day brings for both the lover and the beloved. Fitting then that singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins borrows the concept of the aubade for his first album in five years. Recorded in multiple locations across the US, I Aubade ranges from lush psychedelia to scratchy lo-fi. In marked contrast to Perkins’s first two records, which utilized fairly standard rock instrumentation, the album features an expansive sonic pallet, from celeste and nylon string guitar to tabla and dulcimer. Normally shadowy and dark with his Cohenesque musings, Perkins’s lyrics take a more surreal bent here. “Hogus Pogus” is an optimistic tale about a man receiving a pig’s heart in a transplant; “& Eveline” is a Donovan-esque fairly tale with a bit less flower power optimism: (“Once more/ you make it through the night/ on the floor/ the sleeper’s open wide.”) Other experiments are not quite as successful: (“AM” sounds somewhat like what would happen if someone mashed up Sweetheart of The Rodeo era Byrds with Dixieland jazz and had a despairing Woody Guthrie pen the lyrics), and others are simply impenetrable (the downbeat folk-rock political lullaby “$2″). Not surprisingly, the most pleasant tracks on I Aubade are the simplest, including the flowing nylon string guitar and rumbling synth in the short instrumental ” Accidental Tourist (a white Huyano melody), and Perkins’s weary, pained vocals on the traveler’s ballad “Wheel In the Morning.” “I Came for Fire” showcases the best elements of the “old and “new” Elvis Perkins, as a simple acoustic blues track is haunted by Perkins’s half-whisper/half-warble. Flutes and synth rush in, creating a typhoon of sound so vast you’d think the devil had just tuned your guitar. “Oh to be somewhere/or be somebody else/Oh to have someone/all to myself.” Perkins croons on “All Today.” Those lines speak to the human heart beating under all of that haze and coded messages. There’s a warmth to these songs that’s less evident in his other work, and might not be readily picked up on a first listen, but becomes more and more apparent as you revisit each track and peel away the layers underneath.
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Erstwhile indie rockers Modest Mouse announced a new album recently, Strangers to Ourselves, and based on the first two singles- (the bring down the world party jam “Lampshades on Fire” and the folk-tinged “Coyotes”), I expected the album to be familiar territory for MM- with a few new sonic flourishes and an enhanced environmental awareness beneath Isaac Brock’s painfully cryptic lyrics. That what makes “The Ground Walks, with Time in A Box” such a pleasant surprise. The main riff (which sounds like a schizoid mutation of “Float On’s” classic progression filtered through Interpol’s post-punk revivalism), struts and starts as Brock cooly delivers some of his most delightfully misanthropic lyrics to date: (“The world’s an inventor/ we’re the dirtiest thing he’s thought about/ And we really don’t mind”). Florid imagery (“Trees drop colorful fruits/Directly into our mouths”) clashes with impenetrable strings of words (“Eyes vacuum up light/sound gets trapped by the mouth/What to do with the remainder/When the dents, the dents, get hammered out/ Then we’ll travel through time”). Jittery plucked strings and an in-your-face horn section keep the bombast flowing without letting it tip into overindulgence. All seems relatively sane until the chorus, where eerie harmonies slide into Brock’s ghost-like phase shifted vocal. After a couple more choral repetitions and two new verses, the track descends into controlled noise, with the guitar offering blasts of pitch-shifted chords, much like “Dramamine.” After that subsides, the horns threaten to blast off into full on mariachi mode. Synths and percussion take on a sort of wormhole-funk motif as the main riff returns, only to be punctuated by Brock’s warble and closed out with a melange of more percussion, steam pistons, and an electronic bit which sounds as if it’d work well in a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Our predecessor left this box and something’s clawing around/ I think it really wants out’ snarls Brock in the last verse of the song. What the hell? Let it loose! Modest Mouse are like Pandora’s Box, you never know quite what to expect from them, but one thing’s for sure. It’s going to be a pretty awesome ride.
In the eleven years since Seven Swans, Sufjan Stevens has worn many hats; from that of a literate, banjo strumming folkie to a cutting-edge man of mystery who sheathes his`introspection in walls of synths. Although I love to see Stevens playing twenty instruments on his records, and even indulging in the occasional 25 minute opus, deep down it’s a relief to see him return to his acoustic roots. On “No Shade In The Shadow of The Cross,” there are no anthemic choruses, orchestral swells, or blasts of noise. Just Stevens’s voice and a classical guitar, which glides along quite nicely as the singer-songwriter muses over his parents: (“like my mother/give wings to a stone”), combines natural imagery with personal reflection: (“I slept on my back/in the shade of the meadowlark/Like a champion, get drunk to get laid”), and occasionally slips in a vague motto: (“Give out to give in”). It’s vintage Stevens, in the mold of “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” but less celebratory and more uncertain. The harmonies are a bit much, and Stevens’s trademark half-whisper makes you wonder if he’s trying too hard to be sincere. Overall though, it works. Restraint isn’t something we’ve seen from Stevens recently. As this song proves, it still looks nice on him.