Sunday

Who Killed Harry Houdini?

I’m from Barcelona is a Swedish mega group known for playful pop and magnetic melodies, so the title of their latest album, Who Killed Harry Houdini?, is perplexing. What does Emanuel Lundgren, the songwriter and leader of this 29-member troupe, have hiding up his sleeves?

Surprises are immediately exposed. The first track, “Andy,” reveals a ghostly choir and a girl-group melody. Pounding drums and spacious sounds dramatically envelop the song’s playful foundation. The obscure layers are coated with Lundgren’s encouraging lyrics: “We could need someone/Like you in our band/Andy/No auditions and you don’t/Have to pretend.” What would be the harm of a 30th band mate anyway?

These desires to be transported and these spacious sounds are constant throughout the album. Similar to the juxtaposition of surrealist and childish images on the album cover, the music combines abstract instrumentation and universal outlooks. “Headphones” illustrates this complexity. The music combines acoustic, electric and obscure sounds—classical and playful touches. The lyrics express these magical and transformational qualities of music: “They can take me/Anywhere I want/I put my headphones on/I put my headphones on.”

“Houdini” is the song that illustrates Harry Houdini’s role on this album. The mystery surrounding Houdini and his death adds to the mysticism of magic and trickery that he performed as an escapologist. Lundgren continues to frantically search for ways to elude reality in the way Houdini did. The electric guitar pushes the song’s pace as Lundgren presses his subject for solutions: “You’re like Houdini/No one else would believe/Me/You’re like Houdini/Use your powers to free me.” Lundgren yearns for illusion.

The last song on the album, “Rufus,” is the collective release of this abstract craving for escape. Band mates gather, searching for a highlighted path on which to comfortably be guided. It builds from timid softness to boisterous rock-and-roll with shaking electric guitars and jaunty handclaps. It feels like a voyage through time and space. At the end of it, Lundgren sounds exhausted. The last lines he utters are: “In my heart, In my heart/Still a kid.” Childhood is an escape, and it still reveals itself in his head.

Who Killed Harry Houdini? contains much of the youthful energy this colossal band created on their previous album, but I’m from Barcelona manages to harness and employ their power with deeper thoughts and stranger sounds. They enchant their listeners as Houdini fascinated his viewers: by combining the real with the surreal.

Tuesday

Beth Tacular

Bowerbirds, watercolors
(Inspired by a photo found at flickr.com)

In Ear Park

Daniel Rossen, singer, guitarist and songwriter of Grizzly Bear, rejoins his friend Fred Nicolaus in his other animal-tagged band, Department of Eagles. In Ear Park is the second album from this duo, and it pursues dreamy, distorted sounds surpassing much of Rossen’s previous work.

In Ear Park crafts a forest of dark, lush trees where birds’ songs echo and a single lamppost’s bulb burns clearly. The listener gets lost in the vast park, and the music grows more perplexing and exhilarating as the secret trail unfurls. 

The title track opens the album with a plainly plucked acoustic guitar, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s, but the instrumentation builds to impressive enormity. The faint piano and shaky voices swirl in the breezy melody that might be heard on an ancient merry-go-round.

“No One Does It Like You” is a sprawling, slightly spooky, bop. Rossen’s serene voice skims across layers of loud jangles and dings that sound as if toys and complex machines create them. It mixes organic sounds with artificial flourishes in a way that feels subconscious and whimsical.

Rossen and Nicolaus construct an especially playful sonic landscape in “Teenager.” A noisy piano meets disorderly drums, energetic handclaps and a horn section. The result is a song that could pound through muffled speakers at a carnival where kids stare at their contorted reflections in funhouse mirrors.

“Classical Records” also builds to a chaotic patter. The lyrics suggest the joys of the past that cannot be remembered or relived, especially in the lines “Do you listen to your classical records anymore/Or do you let them sleep in their sleeves while they weep?” The end of the song erupts with an alarming collision of noises, as if the attic collection of classical records and instruments is tired of resting on the shelves and violently escapes its captivity.

Department of Eagles construct and deconstruct their songs in a way that is experimental yet classical. Each song is built to an expansive intensity, and then it is broken down to meaningful sparseness. No song lacks complexity, but each song retains tranquility.

In Ear Park sounds as if Rossen and Nicolaus have transported their acoustic and electric instruments to the park’s bright lamppost, and they play without the need of a power cord. When it is all done, the voices continue to resonate and fireflies gently ease the listener out of the park and into the world. The effect of In Ear Park is contentment.

Acid Tongue

Acid Tongue is the provocative title of Jenny Lewis’ second solo album. The title and the album cover imply the grittier, more impulsive sound of this album compared to the glossier, more structured sounds found in her previous solo work and her work with band Rilo Kiley.

Jenny Lewis is praised for her angelic voice and emotive lyrics, making the bursts of classic, boisterous Southern rock found on this record surprising and sometimes strange. “The Next Messiah” includes bloody, trippy lyrics and a throbbing guitar line, similar to a ZZ Top Guitar Hero solo. A country romp erupts in “See Fernando” when knocking drumsticks meet buzzing guitars and Lewis introduces herself as a gal who is ready to “Pitch a tent, pop a top/Forget about what you ain’t got.” It feels like karaoke because Jenny alters her charming voice to mirror the song’s smoky atmosphere and party anthem lyrics.

Although the surges of Southern rock stand out because they are unexpected and sometimes forced, the touches of vintage Jenny Lewis are lovely and assertive. Her commanding lament, the prominent piano and the swelling strings in “Black Sand” bring new drama to her forlorn ballads. “Jack Killed Mom,” is a fascinating, finger-snapping song in which Lewis uses her gift for storytelling to start a troubled plot with a playful piano, draw a circle of thorny moral issues with fuming guitars, and end with a series of rocking, soul-gospel cries.

Lewis’ first solo project, Rabbit Fur Coat, includes the delicate backing vocal harmonies of the Watson Twins, so the choir of coarse male voices used on Acid Tongue is a big change for listeners. The title track is a highlight on this album because Lewis’ sensitive voice, gentle guitar and melancholic lyrics lead a group of male friends in an expression of a shared sentiment. Lewis claims, “I’m not looking for a cure/I’ve seen enough of my friends/in the depths of the God-sick blues.” The weariness sounds spontaneous and sincere.

While Lewis’ previous solo release sounds like a midday summer concert where girls with clear skin and long dresses would perform, Acid Tongue establishes a dark, humid club where a soulful, long-haired band could jam. This transition is a startling and confusing one in Jenny Lewis’ creative career, but it has moments of purity that are lovely.