Benjamin Gibbard – Former Lives


Genre: Rock / Indie Rock

Release Date: October 16, 2012

Record Label: Barsuk Records






At times it seems too simple to compartmentalize Ben Gibbard into convenient little chunks. He’s the deceptively venomous nice-guy, a figurehead of North West American indie rock, Zooey Deschanel’s (ex) husband and the a voice so sought to be mimicked he should be allowed to file for copyright to his vocal chords. In a certain light Gibbard can come across as almost a bit too ham-fisted, too sappy but that shy attitude attributed to many of Death Cab’s tunes are generally their backbone. While at times said spine retains the strength of a wet noodle -– for the most part this coyness is the band’s, and Gibbard’s greatest strength. This is why it is of little surprise that his recent solo effort comes across as slightly more than a Death Cab retread; though Gibbard is glancing back to The Photo AlbumTransatlanticism era which leaves Former Lives a serviceable submission to Ben’s cannon.

While not a rousing new look into Gibbard’s past lives, as he’s put it, nor a counter-point to his ode-to-Zooey in Death Cab’s Codes and Keys (2011) – his newest LP is still rife with daintily picked guitar strings, endearing turns of phrase and enough cheese to feed a few small villages. While this may initially read as cumbersome, Gibbard is a proven master with the stinkiest of Muenster. And while his thematic focus lyrically has not shifted too far from his general ebb-and-flow between “I love you so much!” and “where did we go so wrong?” Gibbard for the most part weaves enough clever threads together to fashion an engrossing yarn or two. “Around your heart you’ve tied a fishing line / You cast it out there just to see who’ll bite / cause you’re a hard, a hard one to know,” he sings on the lovely “Hard One To Know,” shooting par for the lyrical course, painting a vivid picture with simple clichés and inviting acoustic strums. Though as usual with almost anything Ben touches, the palpable emotion, vacuum sealed within the pre-packed tune keeps the flighty music grounded, giving us as listeners, something to grasp to. And what we’re clasping so tight is Gibbard’s own history.

It speaks volumes to the man as a lyricist that nearly twenty-years deep Gibbard is still able to sashay around the Gouda flowing from each pore as he sweats out a past relationship or insignificant fling. In fact he is so skilled that many would probably feel at a loss without all the emotional window-dressing; it has become senonemous with Gibbard’s work to a point I think he needs it. Former Lives could have by all accounts been a shot across the bow of a particularly famous ex-wife, unveiling what few inches left dark within Benjamin’s physche still exist. Instead rather than becoming caustic and broken by the emotional eruption surrounding him Gibbard farms his bygone lives in lieu of cultivating his own, personal, experiences for us to dissect. Which eventually turns out a decent enough crop for those still hooked to the saccachrinely sweet and mushy soft roots of Gibbard’s recent output. For those of us still waiting for the man to quit planting flowers and finally nurture a flowing Redwood once more may be left in want – thankfully Former Lives looks more a sapling than a budding daisy.



1. Shepherd’s Bush Lullaby
2. Dream Song
3. Teardrop Windows
4. Bigger Than Love
5. Lily
6. Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)
7. Duncan, Where Have You Gone?
8. Oh, Woe
9. A Hard One to Know
10. Lady Adelaide
11. Broken Yolk in Western Sky
12. I’m Building a Fire

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Menomena – Moms


Genre: Indie Rock / Alternative

Release Date: September 18, 2012

Record Label: Barsuk Records






“I’m nothing more than an animal / in search of another animal / to tame and claim as my own,” Justin Harris exclaims confidently desiring: “to be your one and only mate for life,” even as he’s “just like everybody else who’s tried.” This strangely unwavering sense of confidence through self-examination has perpetuated throughout the Portland band’s music since their inception. Whether it is the compositional programs they’ve created (Deeler, a looping system built by ex-member Brad Knopf), the consistent self-production of their records and with Moms, their continued high-quality of output even as one of their members departs. Menomena have routinely not given a fuck by repeatedly touching base with fans. An oxymoron this may seem in essence but truthfully they have remained a somewhat independent entity within rock music, seemingly with no aspirations to be anything different and beyond that, are almost overly warm to their listeners. Almost being the key word as Menomena will never be faulted for their openness, it is an aspect I am sure has endeared them to so many besides just myself and with Moms they have become all the more telling.

The band revealed earlier in the year to Pitchfork that following the general lack of communication and elongated strife that polluted Mines’ (2010) recording, Menomena would be constructing Moms in a more serene manner. Only in the process one can imagine as we find Harris and Seim in tandem once again, even as the record totes a fifty-fifty split of songwriting duties it is the ever present matriarchal theme that knits the record so tightly. Moms’ focus, for the most part, is on Seim’s loss of his mother at an early age and the upbringing of Harris following his erratic father’s departure. Strange as it is to see Menomena taking a swing at some form of thematic aesthetic, or at least a predetermined one, yet the two similar story-arcs grant Moms not only a common ground between its artists, but a weightiness to the music and a true sense of intimate revelation – this is the haughtiest Menomena record yet, but it is also undoubtedly the most personal.

“Now I’m a failure / cursed with male genitalia / a parasitic fuck / with no clue as to what men do / impossible to love,” Harris’ expresses on the exceptional “Pique” casting an intense beam upon his insecurities from growing up fatherless. Yet “Pique” by all accounts is one of Moms’ more invigorating affairs. And not in the emotionally cathartic sense (it is) but more so the track simply will cause toes to tap and lips to curl into a grin. With a driving drum beat courtesy of Seim posturing up a thick bass-line and a rumbling of synthesizers Harris continues: “You’re in my bones and you’re in my teeth / imperfect form from imperfect seeds / and in the end I know that I can never let go / cause pound for pound I know you’d let go of you and me.” Imperfect he says? Sure, I cannot argue there. But with Menomena it has always been about finding these sparkling melodies and righteous saxophone freak-outs deceptively drenched in a deep bassy-sweat and jazzy-drum beats. If this is Menomena as imperfection than I am sure I’m not alone in stating: keep it as shitty as you want to guys – you will not see me complaining.


1. Plumage
2. Capsule
3. Pique
4. Baton
5. Heavy Is As Heavy Does
6. Giftshoppe
7. Skintercourse
8. Tantalus
9. Don’t Mess With Latexas
10. One Horse

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Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful


Genre:Indie Rock

Release Date: April 17, 2012

Record Label: Barsuk Records





Before hearing Beware and Be Grateful about 5 times:

The most immediately noticeable trait of Maps & Atlases’ sophomore release is its inherent degree of simplicity. Whereas Perch Patchwork was stylistically all over the place, Beware and Be Grateful is much more confident in itself. It takes strides when it needs to, and basks in its own simplicity whenever it pleases. And the most important moments of the album are all indicative of the same ideas, a degree of consistency quite unheard of from the group thus far. The production work impresses, too, and fleshes out the group’s math-rock roots. So while the poppy demeanor of the songs leave the most immediate mark, the instrumental work is just as endearing but is more noticeable with a couple of listens. This is because the nonlinear guitar hooks and bouncy basslines occur alongside David Davison’s lovely croons, which are reminiscent of Justin Vernon gone baritone. And he knows he is talented, this confidence propelling him through potentially awkward lines with the utmost sincerity. This full-blooded quality about Beware and Be Grateful is exactly why it leaves a mark on the listener after a few listens, because with the youth of “Bugs” and the mystery of “Old & Gray” what isn’t memorable about this album? There’s nothing quite like a confident group with an agenda. And after all, I’m compelled to say that Maps & Atlases have a misleading title; it is evident that they need no help getting where they are going.

After hearing Beware and Be Grateful about 5 times:

Actually, scratch what I said earlier regarding the album having a very clear and meaningful direction, because the more that I listen to it the less this seems to be the case. The opening track is still fantastic; this will not change, no matter how many times I spin the album. But what does change is the whole record’s sincerity. Initially, tracks like “Winter” and “Fever” were genuine and fun, but now the overarching simplicity seems really feigned for the group. For instance, if we examine the structure of “Winter”, it becomes clear how disjunctive the song’s motive is when compared to how it is presented. It is one part after another, one simple verse into an even simpler chorus, and then rinse and repeat into more simplicity. The track comes across as too processed, uncomfortably sterile in the reflection of the unkempt self it was destined to be. If more liberties had been taken to give the song a bit of breathing room – I am picturing the freedom possessed by say a Bon Iver’s “The Woods” – then it would have come across as much more heartfelt. But this song and its accompanying disappointment illustrate how homogenized the record sounds in some parts, and there is an overarching feeling of disconnect between the listener and the band that seems to grow with every listen.

And finally, with a level head:

I found it helpful to include both opinions on this enigma of an album, simply because it is challenging to imagine it in other ways. What this reminds me of is that some albums age more starkly than others: some sink beneath the surface while others manage to rise above the tide. And this inability to stay afloat is what is most concerning about Beware and Be Grateful. Maps & Atlases sometimes seem to have forgotten how to effectively express their ideas; here specifically the biggest pitfall that they stumble into is putting too much faith in their calculated formula for poignancy. There are concise exceptions, of course, such as “Bugs” and “Be Three Years Old.”  Overall, though, the ideas come across as stale and unoriginal, done much more comfortably in the past. What we can decide on for sure is that the album title speaks for itself. It is easy enough to be grateful for the carefree bliss of Maps & Atlases’ latest outing, but what does it even mean in the end if we do not beware of its monotony?



1. “Old & Gray”
2. “Fever”
3. “Winter”
4. “Remote and Dark Years”
5. “Silver Self”
6. “Vampires”
7. “Be Three Years Old”
8. “Bugs”
9. “Old Ash”
10. “Important”

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