Album Review: Sun Kil Moon – Universal Themes (2015, Caldo Verde)

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It’s an age old question: can you separate the artist from their art?

In many cases, we are able to sort of look the other way, ignoring an artist’s behaviour if we like the art enough.  But with a songwriter like Mark Kozelek, whose work has taken on more and more of an autobiographical, confessional tone at the same time that his public persona has become progressively more obnoxious and well, troll-like, is it really that easy to separate him from his work?

Universal Themes, Kozelek’s latest under the Sun Kil Moon moniker was just released this week, but that’s not the big story surrounding Sun Kil Moon. Instead, we’re facing yet another story about Kozelek’s bad behaviour, yet another thing that makes it hard to like the guy. But I’ll try to set all of that aside and just focus on the album, specifically the question of whether Kozelek’s music is worth putting up with his increasingly crusty public persona. The answer is yes and no. Probably mostly no.

The album is a bit of a hit and miss affair, reaching some impressive heights at it’s best moments (see “With a Sort of Grace I Walked to the Bathroom to Cry”) but it doesn’t always hit the mark. Case in point: opener “The Possum,” which almost sounds like a parody of a Mark Kozelek song with it’s rambling story of going to a Godflesh show and some spoken word stuff at the end which comes off a tad hokey. Yet later in the album, the spoken word segment on “Garden Of Lavender,” with it’s mentions of Shepherd’s Bush, the Westfield Mall, and Neil Halstead comes across as rather charming and stands up there with some of the best of Kozelek’s recent turn to slice of life style songwriting.

Ultimately, Universal Themes is a decent album, though it pales in comparison to Benji or some of his past works, and frankly, even the best album he’s ever written wouldn’t really excuse his increasingly tiresome misanthropy. It’s fitting in a way that the album cover depicts a payphone because, just like that medium of communication, Kozelek sometimes seems on the verge of making himself somewhat obsolete. Sorry, Mark, I guess I’m more like those guys you sang about  in “Cry Me a River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues:”

“It’s 2012 but I like the ones from 1992.”

Album Review: The Elwins – Play For Keeps (2015, Hidden Pony Records)

Posted on by Celeste in Albums | 1 Comment

The Elwins - Play For Keeps ART

A week ago I gave The Elwins’ upcoming album Play for Keeps a listen, and right off the bat I liked it, but I felt too lazy to write a review. Today, a week later, I was browsing through my music library and saw that I had played the album through in its entirety … 22 times. I’ve listened to this album 3 times per day for the past week. Time to put pen to paper.

On the surface everything about the Elwins’ second studio album is whimsical, light, and fizzy, from the colorful building blocks on the album cover (which read all the way through says “The Elwins Play For Keeps” – Baller) to the first bouncing beats of “Bubble.” The fivesome from Ontario produce indie pop that brings to mind Pop Rocks and Coke: crunchy, sweet, sizzling with good humor and fun, and crackling wickedly with energy.

But like any semi-explosive concoction, there’s an element of complex and dark inner workings to the tracks. While the Elwins produce a form of breezy, infectious pop with ease, it’s layered over an underlying current of darker questions and revelations, and it’s this pairing of light and dark that makes the music stick with you.

The album kicks off with “Bubble,” an effervescent tribute to love, but love that takes you too high too fast, Icarus style: “You fill me up, I fly away/you get me high, I feel the rays/I know I’ll pop, I know I’ll fall/but in this flash, I’ve got it all.” With its deceptively summery beat and addictive rolling gait, the song sends you headlong into the album with abandon.

And abandon is a necessary component if you’re listening to the album – this is not background music. As much as the tracks may have a darker side to them, it never obscures the fun of the music – in fact it enhances it. Spilling over with vibrant and hooky guitar, the tracks are nothing if not catchy. Every time I listen to track 5 of this album “Bringing Out The Shoulders” no matter where I am, in public or private, I have to give a back and forth hair whip at 0:34 to the beat drop that comes along with the question “how much longer/will I have to wander?”. Track 4 “So Down Low” also plays into the breezy but dark theme, with the band explaining that it’s about trying to do the right thing, but ultimately failing and knowing that you’re failing.

Much like the shining star in the last track, or the bubble floating into the sun on the first track, at under 40 minutes Play for Keeps is a short but brightly burning thing of beauty. The album drops February 24th on Hidden Pony Records. Give it a listen. Or 22.

Standout tracks: “Bubble”, “So Down Low”, “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over”, “Bringing Out The Shoulders”, “Is there Something?”

Album Review: Robyn Hitchcock – The Man Upstairs (2014, Yep Roc)

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Just call it Old Man Week here at the Panic Manual. This week has seen live reviews of Tom Petty and April Wine along with Ricky’s reminscences of mail order music clubs and ’90s Canrock footnote Zuckerbaby, so in keeping with that vague theme (it’s like Shark Week, but with grey hair and guitars), let’s take a look at the latest release from another veteran performer, Robyn Hitchcock.

For The Man Upstairs, Hitchcock partnered up with famed producer Joe Boyd, known for his work with Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, and Nick Drake among many others and in some ways it shares the spirit and the sound of those records. As they began working together, Boyd suggested a “Judy Collins” album, referring to the folk singer’s tendency to feature a mix of originals and covers of both well known and lesser known songs on her 60s and 70s records.  Instead of an album full of Dylan, Lightfoot and Phil Ochs songs, however, Hitchcock tries his hand at songs from the like of Grant Lee Phillips, Roxy Music and The Doors. Of the covers, opening track “The Ghost In You” is the highlight with Hitchcock wringing some real pathos out of the Psychedelic Furs’ 1984 hit and transforming it into a beautiful ballad. He follows that up with “San Francisco Patrol,” the strongest song of the entire collection with it’s memorable refrain of “I can’t take my eyes off you.”

Sure, I may joke about the fact that we’ve covered mostly music by “old men” this week, but The Man Upstairs, the product of a musician who’s been playing and recording since the ’70s and a producer with an even longer tenure, is evidence of a still vital and compelling artist.

Album Review: Prism – Prism (1977, GRT Records)

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When I found out that Ricky would be doing a full track by track review of Prism, I got a little excited – finally, Panic Manual is writing about some real music and giving 70s/80s Canadian rockers Prism their due.  Way to go, you spaceship superstars!

Then I realized that the Prism album that the internet’s been all aflutter about was in fact the new Katy Perry album.  WTF?  People are still talking about Katy Perry?  I mean, I liked “Hot And Cold” just fine, but let’s move on people.  And of course by move on, I mean take an in depth look at a 36 year old album.  Let’s break it down:

Spaceship Superstar 

The album opens with the synth bleeps and bloops of what would come to be the band’s signature track. It’s a pretty groovin’ little number, a synth enhanced rocker with great lyrical gems such as “Every night is a different flight to a different galaxy/Do a sold-out show, then I hit the road in my starship limousine” and lines about “a solar-powered laser beam guitar.” Come to think of it, those lyrics wouldn’t necesarily be out of place in a Katy Perry song. If you don’t just want to take my word for it about this song though, take the word of those who know: the Youtube commenters. Yes, Youtube comments, where the truest music criticism lives:

“There’s just something that seperates Canadian rock from American rock… IMO old Canadian bands are much more relaxing to listen to, sitting outside on a hot day smoking some herb listening to April Wine, the Guess Who, etc, etc.. is the best” – spidersilva420

“im 13 and i love this song and older artists” – GoBro or GoHome

“Nobody gives a fuck” – Nathan Hines (in reply to GoBro or GoHome)

Open Soul Surgery

This song sounds like Axl Rose fronting Foghat.  Which is awesome, obviously.

It’s Over

A soaring soft rock power ballad. You can never get enough of those. I’m sure this one must have killed at those ’70s high school dances.

And Prism’s past life as a jazz rock band rears it’s head as the horns come in here.  Though if I had to choose between songs called “Freewill” written by Canadian bands, I’m sorry, Prism, but Rush takes it.

Take Me To The Kaptin
Every rock band worth it’s salt has to have at least one song with a purposely misspelled word in the title if not an album title or the bands name itself.  Like “Cum On Feel The Noize” or Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Again).”  Or The Beatles.  We will not speak of Korn though.  We will never speak of Korn, no.

The band gets all deep and poetic and historical with a song about Russia.

More lyrical brilliance as they rhyme “Amelia” with “I can feel ya.”  You may think I’m joking here but I’m not.  Well, not entirely anyways.

You’d think the band might want to separate the songs with girl’s names as titles so they’re not all lumped together, but whatever.

I Ain’t Lookin’ Anymore
The opening riff of this is dangerously close to the opening of BTO’s “Let It Ride.”  More sweet horn parts in this one.  I ain’t writin’ anymore.

Overall, this is a pretty sweet, perhaps underappreciated gem in the Canrock cannon.  Worth a listen if you can find it in a dollar bin somewhere.  Or, y’know, if you have the internet.  Stay tuned for the inevitable reviews of Ian Thomas, Chilliwack, and Michel Pagliaro.