Prairie Dog Vault

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cd reviews

Sad Castaway

Here’s your hum-along heartbreak

by Aidan Morgan

ISLANDS
A SLEEP & A FORGETTING
MERGE RECORDS

Rejoice, people. After a stint with his side project Mister Heavenly, Nick Thorburn is back with another Islands release - albeit one which may throw his fans for a bit of a loop. Forgoing the goofiness of earlier outings, A Sleep And A Forgetting is wracked with introspection, heartbreak and pain.

According to Thorburn, most of the tracks were recorded in one take over a period of 11 days, with little overdubbing or other studio fanciness. The results may not be Bon-Iver-in-a-cabin simplicity but there's an appealingly stripped-down feeling to this album.

The minimalistic approach extends to the songwriting, which Islands (and Unicorns) fans may find a bit of a hurdle at first. The abrupt shifts and inventive flourishes - practically a Thorburn trademark - are mostly absent here. If you've already heard the preview track "This Is Not a Song", with its mournful tone and washes of Hammond organ, that's a pretty good indication of what you're going to get.

But not all is lost on A Sleep And A Forgetting. Thorburn is at his best when he leans his bleakest lyrics against his jauntiest rhythms. The middle of the album holds up the entire structure with the two sublime tracks "Hallways" and "I Can't Feel My Face", in which the bones of his misery are fully exhumed - "I miss my wife/ I miss my best friend/ every night" - against tunes so catchy that you can't help but hum them compulsively. Thorburn could write a calypso opera about genocide and it would probably sell out.

A Sleep And A Forgetting comes out on Valentine's Day. Listen to it with someone you've lost.


LEONARD COHEN
OLD IDEAS
COLUMBIA

People never buy Leonard Cohen albums for themselves. They buy them for lovers or to make seduction mix tapes (and if you know what those are, then you are definitely in his demographic). Cohen or his people must know this, because the Old Ideas collector's package comes with a lithograph of a Cohen portrait of a nude woman (suitable for framing!). In short, Old Ideas can help you get laid. Also working in your romantic favour is the fact this is Cohen's best album since 1988's I'm Your Man.

On Old Ideas, Cohen's still exploring themes like religion, yearning and the libidinous joys. Given the retrospective title you'd expect him to stray into old clichés of regret, but this is more about spiritual resolution. The music and lyrics are as strong as his voice - which, by the way, is a big improvement over the half-octave baritone range that bogged down his last two CDs.

When I'm approaching 80 I can only hope I can still get a hard-on and write poetry like Leonard Cohen. Just in time for St. Valentine's Day, the poet/warrior/lover proves he can still get it up with the best of them. /Charles Atlas Sheppard


LANA DEL REY
BORN TO DIE
INTERSCOPE

I missed the Lana Del Rey Next-Big-Thing bandwagon. When I listened to Born To Die for the first time, I loved it. She has a husky voice like a 1960s B-movie femme fatale you want purring on your pillow. Alas, Del Rey is currently riding the fine line between hype and hatred. That's partly because self-styled artists like Del Rey offer much more to chew on than their manufactured pablum-pop counterparts. With Del Rey, critics can dissect music, lyrics, content and potential. There are no predictable house beats and her vocals aren't sliced through synthesizer software. Everything about her is real.

I see a fledgling artist operating on pure instinct. The production is unnecessarily complicated and overly-lush. Her lyrics draw upon Americana clichés. But that's how original artists like Springsteen and Rickie Lee Jones began their careers. That's why I'm still listening. /Charles Atlas Sheppard


CLOUD NOTHINGS
ATTACK ON MEMORY
CARPARK

My musical sugar tooth couldn't resist the self-titled album Cloud Nothings released last year: a pop record wrapped up in punk energy and inspiration. Mastermind Dylan Baldi played the guitars fast and practically into submission while singing about love and all that good rock stuff. Attack On Memory reads like a shot at his previous work. Take the track "No Sentiment", where the Cleveland native howls, "No nostalgia. No sentiment. We're over it now. We were over it then." Cloud Nothing's previous power pop has been replaced - demolished, actually - by a heavier, moodier guitar sound. It's an idiom that might tempt a guy like Steve Albini to record a band's sophomore album -- which he did, by the way. There's just a tinge of fury in Baldi's vocals and lyrics coupled with a new scope to his songwriting, like in the dynamic instrumental track "Separation", or "Wasted Days" - a huge song that ends with Baldi's adolescent-sounding screams.

Cloud Nothings has gone from catchy rock 'n' roll to music that seems hell-bent on tearing the former apart. /James Brotheridge


SHEARWATER
ANIMAL JOY
SUB POP

I picked this CD out of the pile because I liked the cover art. The front depicts the imposingly clawed forepaws of a predator like a wolf or cougar, while the back has an image of two leopards with cubs looking intently at the viewer. After unwrapping the CD, though, my enthusiasm waned when I scanned the band's instrument list: keyboards, electric guitar and "additional drums" I was okay with, but harp, clarinet, saxophone and something called a "celeste" set off a twee alert. Inspired by more great art inside (including shots of a pack of hyenas staring out the African savannah, and three capuchin-like monkeys scampering along a forest floor) I decided to forge ahead and listen to the album. After being blown away by Shearwater's lyrical (and oh so powerful) meditation on the animal instincts that still govern our existence, I did an Internet search and found that the band is based in Austin and is fronted by former Okkervil Riverite Jonathan Meiburg. Solid stuff. /Gregory Beatty