The Helio Sequence – Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)

helio.jpgBarely a month into 2008 and we already have a contender for the best record of the year. This is a soaring emotive affair filled with songs as ambitious as those of “War” era U2, and complete with an often oddly familiar sounding guitar riffs and vocals that almost allude to those of a much younger Bono. But having never seen the band live, it is hard to imagine how a two piece band can create songs at this scale. Unlike the other guitar and drum dominated duos like the White Stripes or Black Keys, The Helio Sequence creates complex song structures that remind you more of the shoegazing serenity of My Bloody Valentine, than they do of more stripped down and direct rock outfits. Like the great studio bands of the 70’s (Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, etc.), there is a purity and a clarity that seems refreshing in an age of electronica.

The ten songs on “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” begin with big rock anthems and end in the form of a quiet folky acoustic numbers akin to what you can hear sprinkled throughout the later career Replacements albums. The band is equally capable on both ends of the spectrum, capturing both the intimacy and emotion but making sure each carefully crafted song leaves enough room for easy joy. Like labelmates Band of Horses, this is a record for people who love melody and harmony, and appreciate bands who study the history of rock and continue to add to the legacy.
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Sun Kil Moon – April (Caldo Verde)

sun-kil.jpgThere are some voices so distinctive, so seductive that even though the basic pace and construct manages to stay the same album after album, the music always sounds new. Mark Kozalek (aka Sun Kil Moon, and former Red House Painter impresario) is one of those artists. His voice is deep and oddly flat, his songs are dark but somehow always emotive and epic seeming, and his lyrics smart, honest and poetic. He has been in films (“Almost Famous,””Shopgirl”), covered everyone from John Denver to AC/DC to Modest Mouse, and has created a legacy of creating some of the finest records of the past fifteen years.

“April,” his first original effort in five years, is an absolute jewel. The ten songs begin with the elegiac “Lost Verse” a ten minute pristinely patient jam highlighting Kozalek’s trademarked guitar strumming, and soulful croons. His songs are stories, mostly topical observations made by people that the singer knows, might know or might have observed. Like most of his House Painters or eponymous recordings, Kozalek’s music is slow and plodding, beautiful and glimmering but only if consumed in the right state of mind. But so many of these songs just seem to slowly rise up into something bigger, longer and louder than you would hav anticipated. “April” is a stripped down affair, but one that sparkles. Cameo’s from Will Oldham and and Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard add perfect little ornaments to the preciousness of another quiet classic.

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Mia Doi Todd – Gea (City Zen Records )

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Like a swatch cut from a cloth left behind by Nick Drake or the Fairport Convention, Mia Doi Todd’s sublime new album is that inevitable breeze blown in from the underappreciated British folk scene of the 70’s. There is a dark intensity that flows over the ten songs, and on the 10 minute epic opener “River of Life” Todd’s shimmering voice, think a darker Sandy Denny, sails patiently towards some kind of peaceful oasis hidden behind an uncanny “Pink Moon” era guitar shadow. This record is so eerily reminiscent that it is astounding to imagine it being written today.

Like the original brit-folk music that took a Volkswagen commercial twenty-five years later to revive, Todd’s art is so subtle and spare that it will hard for this to appear on today’s music radar directed by myspace and iTunes compasses. But the orchestral, often Baroque, intonations of “Gea” represents what I hope will be a rival in musical songwriting all but abandoned for electronic beats and studio bells and whistles.

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