Monday, May 25, 2009

Nathan Oliver - Cloud Animals

Nathan Oliver's self-titled release of 2007 was one of the year's most telling debut releases. Part pop classicist and part folkie, Oliver and his collaborators demonstrated a remarkably assured sense of arrangement over a 10 song set of restrained pop in the Jeff Mangum/Elliott Smith vein.

Their arrangement skills have only improved on Cloud Animals. Oliver downstrums Sebadoh style on the first two tracks "Icicles for Fingers" and "Under Lock and Key" while the rhythm section adopts a Tennessee Two gallop, both songs indicating what you're in for; to borrow a metaphor from Oliver's day job (which he must be sick of people doing by now), a balance of intrusive drilling and pleasant, numbing novocaine. Oliver's rock side surfaces a bit more here; "Icicles for Fingers" and "Red Panda" are full-blooded rockers, while even the sugar rush of "Playground Lies" is visited by some fucked up guitar that reminds you that its lyrics aren't really all that sweet. Conversely, "Red Panda" is tempered by a repeated organ interlude that temporarily transports it from its contemporary space into quaint, Shocking Blue territory.

There are missteps here and there. "A Dark History" is a strange marriage of unrealised love and accidental death. Oliver evoked a similar mood on his debut with his brilliant cover of Ace of Bases's "All That She Wants", but here it doesn't ring true. "How Small We Have Become" is based on a demo from Oliver's pre-debut days, and is a bit thin musically.

Missteps aside, Cloud Animals is an excellent release by a songwriter with a surprising early mastery of his craft.

Nathan Oliver performing State Lines Part 3 in his native North Carolina:

Cloud Animals

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Alela Diane - To Be Still

Alela Diane knows her limits and knows how to expand them. Her songwriting hasn't changed at a basic level, but knowing a third album of stripped down folk music just wouldn't cut it, she's hired some musical muscle to deliver some more elaborate arrangements. She now has the voice to carry such tunes, too; perhaps last year's Headless Heroes covers project forced her to approach her vocals in different ways, but in any case, a song such as "White As Diamonds" just wouldn't have worked two years ago.

Here's Alela in the "White As Diamonds" video. Purdy, ain't she?

Sex, War & Robots