Stars: There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light [Album Review]

There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light
Last Gang Records [2017]


Who: Veteran indie pop band from Canada.

Sound: Indie pop with a heart and a head.

TFN Final Take: Stars is like a well-worn glove that is comfortable, reliable, but lacking in surprise or unpredictability. There is nothing wrong with that; they are still great at what they do. And what they do is construct a song, engage you, and give you space to reflect on what you’re hearing. My standout track is “Alone,” which has a chorus that stuck with me. The song takes its time to unfold and then slowly recedes into silence. “Real Thing” is another good one that throws an off-speed pitch for a chorus. Per usual, established fans will find a lot to like in the latest album and new fans will hopefully take advantage of Stars’ great catalog.

Stars Website
Stars Facebook
Last Gang Records

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

R.E.M.: Automatic For The People (25th Anniversary Edition) [Album Review]

Automatic For The People (25th Anniversary Edition)
Craft Recordings [2017]

headphone approved reissue

Fire Note Says: A masterpiece for all times!

Album Review: R.E.M.’s Automatic For the People is a masterpiece that gets a lot of love on its 25th anniversary. A live disc and 20 demos/outtakes accompany the original album. The extras are interesting and noteworthy; the live performances are nothing new for fans of the band but are still fun. The demos demonstrate R.E.M.’s process for song creation, which sheds light on how much of a team the band was. Everyone contributed, everyone took songwriting credits. This cohesion helped the band re-create their sound and diversify over 30 years.

R.E.M. means a lot to me. They helped me find new parts of myself that I never knew were there. And Automatic For The People was the first step in that process. R.E.M. is an authentic band. They were never the most technically gifted. Michael Stipe’s voice is by no means the strongest that music has ever seen; however, he can emit such a range of emotion that amazes me more and more as I grow older and listen to a lot of vocalists who don’t measure up in that regard. Any band that can release “Shiny Happy People” unironically is willing to take chances and to be genuine, no matter how uncool that is. R.E.M. was never anything but themselves.

I can still remember watching the video for “Everybody Hurts” the first time. I was aware of R.E.M. before then – I have memories of watching the video for “It’s The End of the World As We Know It” on Friday Night Videos. I wouldn’t have known what to do with myself with Youtube. “Stand” was cool, “Losing My Religion” was popular but I didn’t understand why. But “Everybody Hurts” struck the 14-year-old version of me to the core. The video was so striking. The subtitles; the traffic; the inclusivity. For a video that’s 25 years old it’s amazing the diversity of the characters that it contains.

The feelings I have as I listen to Automatic For The People are those of sadness and hope. There are pained characters throughout the album who are dealing with questions of mortality and loss. Of the cost of being genuine. Of how to make a difference when the system is stacked against you. I respect that there is no hiding from these difficulties, and R.E.M. pulls no punches. And that makes the album’s last three songs all the more impactful.

“Man On The Moon” celebrates a man who subverted social conventions. I can understand why Andy Kaufmann was so celebrated by the band. “Nightswimming” is so rich with nostalgia. Sometimes Stipe’s lyrics (and vocals) were so obtuse it made me wonder if they meant anything at all. Not so with this song. Stipe paints such a vivid picture with such clear vocals, he puts you right there with him. The arrangement, consisting of strings and piano, doesn’t sound like a rock band. And it doesn’t matter. My favorite line is the simple “Pining for the moon.” Just the delivery of that one line is perfect. It encompasses what R.E.M. does so well.

“Strength and courage overrides the privileged and weary eyes.” That line from the album closer “Find The River” shows audacity in the face of life not going our way. And that’s the theme for Automatic For The People. Life is challenging and wearisome and brilliant and heartbreaking. It comes to an end. We spend most of our lives trying to escape that reality. R.E.M. found a gentle way of encouraging us to grapple with our condition, hoping that it would lead to greater kindness and peace. It’s a message we’ll always need.

R.E.M. Website
R.E.M. Facebook
Craft Recordings

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

Girlpool: Powerplant [Album Review]

ANTI- [2017]


Fire Note Says: Girlpool comes and goes too quick!

Album Review: Girlpool is an LA band that consists of its two founding members, Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, plus a new drummer, Miles Wintner, for their sophomore album. Their debut came out two years ago, and with the addition of a drummer, the sound is very full on this effort. Girlpool falls into the folk punk genre, with soft, slow-burning songs that end as they hit their climax. Officially, there are 12 songs on Powerplant and the album is 29 minutes long. Guided by Voices fans should feel right at home here as the songs don’t overstay their welcome.

Tucker and Tividad have voices that seem to melt together. The jangle rock that provides the backdrop for most of the songs at times matches the vocals, and at others provides contrast. “Powerplant” manages to pull off both in the same song, with minor chords bouncing off the bittersweet vocals. The vocals are a neat trick that add another layer to the music.

Fans of 90s alternative rock will feel at home on Powerplant. Standout “Soup” sounds like an REM and Alice In Chains mashup. Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth are also clear influences. The unrelenting bass of “Soup” leads into an entrancing set of lyrics. That slowburner shifts to the grungier “She Goes By.” The balance in types of songs helps Girlpool defy being defined by a formula.

If it isn’t clear by now, a big part of appeal of Girlpool is the modern take on 90’s alternative rock. Rather than being a slave to that sound, though, the band manages to create a distinct personality around it. And it doesn’t hurt that the songs are well-executed without being too complicated. Bottom line, Powerplant is just a well-executed album that is a blast to listen to.

Key Tracks: “123” / “Soup”/ ”She Goes By”

Artists With Similar Fire: /Waxahatchee /Pity Sex /Sonic Youth

Girlpool Website
Girlpool Facebook

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

Wolf Alice: Visions Of A Life [Album Review]

Wolf Alice
Visions Of A Life
RCA Records [2017]

Fire Note Says: Wolf Alice stay strong on their sophomore album.

Album Review: Visions of a Life is Wolf Alice’s follow-up to their stellar 2015 debut, My Love Is Cool. The first album established the Brits as a rock band that could play many different styles surprisingly well. This album continues that theme and takes even more risks with sound. Those risks don’t pan out quite as well as before, but there are still a lot of great moments.

We get started with the anthemic “Heavenward.” This was a great choice for opener as it showcases two of Wolf Alice’s strengths: Ellie Roswell’s vocals and their accessibility. “Heavenward” is a song about celebrating a death, and it is indeed celebratory while having that twinge of heartbreak that comes with such losses. Wolf Alice could probably write an album full of these types of anthems but they’re not satisfied with staying put. They immediately transition from “Heavenward” to “Yuk Foo,” and the two are nothing alike. Wolf Alice goes full punk on “Yuk Foo,” and it should be clear what the track is about (or at least the feelings it’s meant to convey). While “Yuk Foo” was a bit much for me, the one-two punch impressed me a great deal.

Two other noteworthy tracks are “St. Purple & Green” and “Space & Time.” The former song didn’t make an immediate impression, but upon further listens revealed itself to be deep with a lot of moving parts. In that sense the track reminded me of vintage Smashing Pumpkins. That’s a compliment coming from me. “St. Purple & Green” may end up being the song I will come back to in a few years. “Space & Time” is a more straightforward pop song with hooks and earworms galore.

The high points of Visions of a Life don’t quite reach Wolf Alice’s previous peaks. And the appearance of Roswell’s whispered vocals (almost rapped) didn’t really grab me either. There is enough here to keep me optimistic about the band’s future, as they didn’t just run it back on their sophomore album. A band that is willing to take risks while having a solid musical foundation is very promising for the long run.

Key Tracks: “Heavenward” / “St. Purple & Green” / “Space & Time”

Artists With Similar Fire: Silversun Pickups / The Breeders / Foals

Wolf Alice Website
Wolf Alice Facebook
RCA Records

-Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

Alvvays: Antisocialites [Album Review]

Polyvinyl Records [2017]

Fire Note Says: Alvvays’s second album is an indie pop delight.

Album Review: Alvvays made a splash three years ago with their self-titled debut. Their jangle pop was both interesting and fun, and it produced a couple of solid singles. The question is: will Alvvays be able to revisit those heights on album #2, Antisocialites?

The Toronto band, fronted by Molly Rankin, comes out of the gate with the soaring “In Undertow.” It’s an auspicious start to the album while being a song that ironically portends the end of a relationship. Alvvays seem to quickly answer the challenge that a sophomore album tends to offer. The confection that is “Lollipop (Ode To Jim)” is another high point. As in, it’s a pop gem that also tells the story of using psychedelics with a crush. Everyone lands safely by song’s end, true to the tone of the song.

The surprising highlight of the LP is “Not My Baby.” It doesn’t knock you over the head with a guitar lick or vocal hook as it begins. Rankin’s voice, one of the band’s clear strengths, delivers words with an understated resoluteness that speaks to the embracing of freedom. The serious tone that invades the song gives it a weight that other tracks are missing. “Not My Baby”is Alvvays at its best.

Listening to Antisocialites, it sounds like Camera Obscura and Best Coast have passed on the torch of cheery-but-not-really jangle pop to Alvvays. Unfortunately, Alvvays doesn’t have the stamina to keep up the momentum on each track. It’s still a lot of fun and offers a warm, bright spot for those who wish to visit.

Key Tracks: “In Undertow” / “Not My Baby” / ”Lollipop (Ode To Jim)”

Artists With Similar Fire: Camera Obscura / Best Coast / Liz Phair

Alvvays Website
Alvvays Facebook
Polyvinyl Records

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

Cage The Elephant: Unpeeled [Album Review]

Cage The Elephant
RCA Records [2017]

Fire Note Says: A clever way to appreciate a consistent rock band.

Album Review: As someone who’s writing his third Cage The Elephant review, it surprises me how much I enjoyed Unpeeled. Let me explain: Each studio album for Cage The Elephant has varied in its highs and lows, but if you cherry pick the best tracks from each one, add a few interesting covers, and record it live, you get a damn good album. It’s a de facto greatest hits album for Cage The Elephant, and it’s well worth a listen. Even if you wouldn’t call yourself a fan of the band, you should give this one a chance.

Another reason for this album being such a pleasant surprise is that it is a perfectly recorded live album. My complaint for most live albums is that I can hear the crowd much better than the band. That is not the case here – you’re reminded from time to time that the fans are really into the performances but they’re never a distraction. All of the songs are recorded semi-acoustically (my term) with a strings accompaniment and added percussion. That percussion steals the show on “Sweetie Little Jean” as the thudding preceding “I want you back” punctuates the line more forcefully. The strings also add a little something extra to each song that make them feel fresh and alive.

Two of the covers on Unpeeled are Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” which has been released as a single, and Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush.” The former is a bubblegum pop gem that was previously unfamiliar to me. It’s catchy and simple, and it may even worm its way into your head. “Instant Crush” is reimagined as an alt-country burner that is so strange it works. Matt Schultz’s vocals are pushed to their limit (and past it, to be honest). Otherwise it’s the ideal for a cover; not a perfect re-creation and imbued with the essence of the cover band.

The only reason Unpeeled isn’t getting headphone-approved status is that most of the material has been released before. However, if you don’t have any Cage The Elephant albums or would like to get familiar with the band, this is a must listen. I have no doubt that I’ll be revisiting this album over the years.

Key Tracks: “Whole Wide World” / “Shake Me Down” / ”Come A Little Closer” / “Cigarette Daydreams”

Artists With Similar Fire: / Dan Auerbach / Portugal. The Man / Arctic Monkeys

Cage The Elephant Website
Cage The Elephant Facebook
RCA Records

-Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

Dude York: Sincerely [Album Review]

Dude York
Hardly Art Records [2017]


Who: Dude York is a three-piece band (Peter Richards, Claire England, Andrew Hall) from Seattle.

Sound: Power pop with a punk rock twist.

TFN Final Take: There is a lot to like with Dude York’s debut LP, Sincerely. Two elements really work: the band’s use of tempo to keep you off balance and the straightforward lyrics that are also relatable. The lyrics shine on album closer “Time’s Not On My Side,” a more reflective song than anything that precedes it. In terms of the pop sensibilities that mark the rest of the songs, “Life Worth Living Pt. 2” has both irresistible hooks and harmonies. Dude York also embraces the concept of the album with various interludes that break up the propulsive tracks. Holding the album back somewhat is a sense of familiarity with the sound and pace. Tweaking either of those could have led to a debut album that made more of an overall impression.

Dude York Website
Dude York Facebook
Hardly Art Records

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart: The Echo Of Pleasure [Album Review]

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
The Echo of Pleasure
Painbow Records [2017]


Who: Brainchild of Kip Berman and other touring members.

Sound: Indie pop heavily influenced by New Wave.

TFN Final Take: 2017 has been awesome for music fans. Many new and returning artists have put out influential stuff. It’s a shame that The Pains of Being Pure At Heart released their fourth album in this environment. Berman is a master of the sound he has honed for ten years – think of it as The Cure on Prozac. The songs on this album are catchy and inoffensive, but ultimately don’t add much to the existing oeuvre. With so many artists breaking ground in their words and sound this year, such stasis sticks out. While The Echo of Pleasure isn’t a must-listen for all, it will no doubt please fans and those who like their pop music with lots of guitar and synthesizers.

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart Website
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart Facebook

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

Haim: Something To Tell You [Album Review]

Something To Tell You
Columbia Records [2017]


Who: Trio of sisters from Los Angeles.

Sound: Guitar-heavy pop music.

TFN Final Take: There’s no doubt that Haim can construct an earworm; they have the talent to tap into the brain chemistry that creates pleasing sensations. This is most evident on the song “Kept Me Crying,” a drum-heavy number that is a nice-change-up on Something To Tell You. It’s a gem hidden in a lot of pop songs that tend to blend into one another. And those tend to resemble the tracks from Haim’s debut. And the similarities are not in only in song construction, but also in lyrical themes. In short, there’s a lot of romantic unrest on this album. I’m sure that sentiment/theme connects with other segments of the population, but it fell flat with me. Next time, it’d be great to hear more depth and evolution in both the sound of Haim and the lyrics they tackle.

Haim Website
Haim Facebook
Columbia Records

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

The War On Drugs: A Deeper Understanding [Album Review]

The War On Drugs
A Deeper Understanding
Atlantic Records [2017]


Fire Note Says: The War on Drugs creates an accessible yet sophisticated album.

Album Review: A Deeper Understanding is the War on Drugs fourth full-length album, and it is also their most accessible album. On previous efforts, Adam Granduciel’s vocals were a make or break proposition for me, and I’m happy to report that the vocals on A Deeper Understanding bring something to the table, rather than get in the way of enjoying the music.

There are a lot of influences on this album. It’s not news to compare The War on Drugs to Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young. The use of multiple instruments definitely harkened back to the E Street Band, but more the 80’s iteration rather than earlier Springsteen. In general, mid-80’s rock is what came to mind while listening. This specific combination of synthesizers and guitar brought back memories of listening to the radio in 1986. The radio rock of 1986 is not something many bands are revisiting these days, so there is also some novelty to the direction The War on Drugs is taking. It’s a pretty uncool type of music that sounds really cool in the hands of Granduciel.

And this is a cool album, with a few radio-ready songs but with no compromises. There are ten tracks that clock in at over an hour, which means an average of six minutes a song (math ftw!). Each one is accessible but also asks you to be patient with it as it builds. Album opener “Up All Night” is one such song. It’s piano/synth opening is propulsive, drawing you in, but Granduciel grows the song with additional layers. Because of the depth of the sound, this is an album that must be listened to with some attention and with quality speakers/headphones. The dreamy guitar solo flows right into percussion that hits you over and over. It’s a brilliant song that has something distinct to offer upon each listen.

“Pain” is another track that will immediately catch you, but the lyrics here are noteworthy. While Granduciel never beats you over the head with overwrought words, they clearly mean something to him and match the tone of each song. The tone of “Pain” is wistfulness and introspection; perhaps Granduciel is trying to find purpose and resolution in his own pain. All the while, the rhythm section keeps the song moving forward. It’s not overly complicated at first, but again, a guitar solo comes near the end and seems to say as much as the previous lyrics. That’s something special.

I tended to prefer the up-tempo tracks on A Deeper Understanding like “Holding On” and “Nothing To Find.” The quieter, slower tracks also have a lot of merit. That ability to bring balance to the album is what separates the good ones from the great ones. The War on Drugs are a great one.

Key Tracks: “Nothing To Find” / “Holding On” / ”Pain”

Artists With Similar Fire: Kurt Vile / Sharon van Etten / The National

The War On Drugs Website
The War On Drugs Facebook
Atlantic Records

– Reviewed by Matthew Heiner

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