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Counterpoint time! Since I am not very hip-hop knowledgeable, this is going to be a pretty short post.

I knew literally nothing about Dessa before listening to this album except that she is apparently from Milwaukee, and was/is in another group. And after listening to it, I still know approximately the same amount. Chris said in his review that she was/is a poet, which definitely makes sense given the lyrical nature of this album. Other than that, color me unenlightened.

This is the album. I do know that.

Big picture: this album was pretty good! Now I’ll tack a few qualifiers on there: as I said, I do not listen to hip hop with any kind of regularity at all, so I have almost nothing to seriously compare this album to, and for all I know it could be complete garbage in the eyes of those more familiar with the genre. I will also admit that I was not hanging on Dessa’s every lyric, and therefore probably missed some interesting ideas that are present on A Badly Broken Code. But here is what I did notice and enjoy:

The Beats– Compared to most of the hip-hop/rap I’ve heard, there were some pretty interesting beats on this album and overall the backgrounds of the songs felt a lot fuller and more interesting than what little else I have heard.

Some Of The Lyrics- This mostly means the lyrics I was paying attention to or that jumped out at me. Dessa’s poetic background came through there, and the verses were interesting both in terms of content and in terms of composition. One of my favorite things about rap in general is the analogies: in my (again, uninformed) opinion, the more interesting and unexpected the analogy, the “better” the rapper. A shallow scale, to be sure, but nevertheless.

Generally, the analogies are better than this one.

And here’s what I didn’t like so much.

Album Length- As Chris pointed out, I could have done without three or even four of the songs on this album, and for basically all the reasons he said. The album felt a little long and because of that it sacrificed a little bit of, I don’t know, punch, or something. At a certain point I began to think that I had heard some of the songs already, but no, it was just similarities becoming more apparent as the album length increased. I think it would have been a better move, especially on what I guess (according to Chris) is Dessa’s debut solo album, to keep the content a little less drawn-out.

Some Beats- Maybe it’s starting to become apparent, but I like a clear structure to my music. Sonic experimentation is fine and all, it’s just not really my thing, and so some of the tracks with more… unconventional beat structures didn’t really appeal to me (at all.) But again, that’s a taste thing.

So now I guess it’s time for…

Songs I Liked

“Children’s Work” – This is one of the ones I went back and listened to again and again, and it has the key ingredient for hip hop success: Interesting analogies!

“Mineshaft 2” – Original, I know, my two picks were also Chris’s. I have nothing to say about this song, except that I liked it. Not sure why.

Songs I Didn’t Like

“Dutch” – It got a little repetitive, frankly.

“Poor Atlas” – Not much here to excite me.

If You Liked It:

Not really sure what to recommend here… If you liked it for the lyrics, Cake is a good (although mostly completely unrelated) choice.

If You Didn’t:

Once again, lots of ways this could go… I’m gonna go ahead and suggest some post-rock! Get The American Dollar’s album The Technicolour Sleep.

So overall, I’d say the album was pretty good. Nothing really jumped out at me, like Chris said, and it’s definitely not the album (if such an album exists) that’s going to turn me on to rap and hip hop as a genre. But it wasn’t bad, and if you’re into the genre, you’ll probably get more out of it than I did.

When Brian and I did our “Top Ten Bands that are Dicks” list, we included two missteps. The first was the omission of John Mayer from this list. The second is the inclusion of Yeasayer. This video shows that they seem like pretty cool guys.

This week’s point-counter point review is of full-length debut of Doomtree’s Dessa, A Badly Broken Code. This was a pick that I hesitated to make for the joint-review because I know that Brian isn’t too keen on the hip-hop/rap front. Though I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert in this genre, I feel like I have a better than average knowledge of what’s going on, but my less enlightened colleague is largely ambivalent/ignorant of anything beyond Kanye’s newest. Zing!

A little background. Doomtree is a collective group under the Rhymesayers label out of Minneapolis. The idea is that it’s a lot of individual artists that collaborate and work with each other while still releasing their work under their own name. Doomtree does release some compilation albums, but most stuff comes out under the name of the artist who writes, etc. The most notable member of Doomtree is probably P.O.S., whose Never Better found its way onto several top albums of 2009 lists.

Dessa is a spoken word poet by trade but did some collaborating in Doomtree before releasing her False Hopes EP.  A Badly Broken Code is her first full length contribution…and is pretty damn good.

The focus of this music is most definitely the lyrical work. It becomes apparent very early that Dessa is no rhyming slouch, undoubtably due to her past as a poet. Her rapping has great flow, but it’s of a different sort than most – you can hear the smoother, subtler poetic influence in her work. The writing is also top notch, reflecting on a troubled past and her struggles as a woman in the midst of hip-hop culture

My father was a paper plane/my mother was a windswept tree/my little brother’s nearly twice my age/He taught me how to meditate, I taught him how to read

The beats and production are adequate – they aren’t anything that will jump out and stick in your ear or make you really take notice, but they certainly never annoyed me either. I like how the whole album is produced to really feature Dessa’s lyrical work – this is really the selling point here and it’s constantly being thrust and held at the forefront.

A Badly Broken Code is a large offering – 15 tracks – a fact that I’m not sure I’m ready to praise. There are a lot of tracks here that are good, but nothing to really remember. I feel like a slimmer debut of, say, 10 or 12 tracks would have cut out a lot of average material and allowed the album to really focus on the best Dessa had to offer. She’s in a unique situation, in that fans already have heard plenty of her on other albums and tracks, as well as her EP, but she has never held the spotlight for this long. I found myself appreciating her uniqueness less when she wasn’t providing a contrast to more aggressive male voices as she has done on several other Doomtree related albums.

All in all, I’m a pretty big fan of this album. It’s by no means Doomtree’s best offering, but certainly provides something unique on the hip-hop landscape. There aren’t a lot of female MCs to begin with, but Dessa’s unique style and poetic flow make her really stick out. Perhaps the more complex lyrics and style will have some appeal outside the usual hip-hop crowd and introduce more people to the great music coming out of Minneapolis (also home to Atmosphere, Brother Ali, and P.O.S.).

Tracks I Liked

“Mineshaft 2” – A sequel to a False Hopes EP track

“Children’s Work”

“Dutch”

These fell a little flat

“Dixon’s Girl”

“The Crow”

“Go Home”

If you liked Dessa, try…

Any of Brother Ali’s albums, BK-ONE’s Radio do Canibal

If this wasn’t your thing…

Sticking in Minneapolis, P.O.S. for something a little more aggressive with some punk influence or Atmosphere.

Welcome to another top ten list! This one is all about the albums that musically defined our high school experience. Let’s jump on in, shall we?

10. The Definitive Collection – The Alan Parsons Project (1997)

Alright, so if we’re being fair, nobody that wasn’t on the South Anchorage High School cross country ski team would associate this album in any way with high school, and even then the numbers are limited. But Chris and I were both pretty into it, and Chris and I are the ones writing this list. If you haven’t heard of Alan Parsons, he was the sound engineer on Dark Side of the Moon (you know, that one Pink Floyd album / overpopular T-shirt) and by all accounts, did an okay job with that. He’s the founder and namesake of this group. Actually, “project” is the right word because basically he just hired musicians to come in and play stuff on a song-by-song basis and gradually pieced together his glorious visions of albums from there. Anyway, this is good stuff, so take a listen to it.

9. Sawdust – The Killers (2007)

Another album that was not very well known, I’m guessing, but another album that Chris and Brian were pretty into. Mostly just a collection of B-sides and covers that the Killers did with some pretty impressive guest vocals (Lou Reed? Fuck yeah, Lou Reed) and some interesting song ideas that never got fleshed out into albums. I think if you had to pick an album as a soundtrack to November ’08, this would definitely be a strong contender.

8. Robbers & Cowards – Cold War Kids (2006)

Cold War Kids will always have something of a special place in my heart as they were one of the first “less mainstream” bands I really listened to in high school. I still remember when I first was recommended to listen to them – I was sitting in the recording studio at the Alaska Teen Media Institute working on a radio show and the director was playing the album. This is one of those albums I don’t listen to a lot, but whenever I do, I’m not disappointed. Their follow up, Loyalty to Loyalty was pretty disappointing, but that’s life I suppose. They also put on a pretty rockin’ live show.

7. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – Arctic Monkeys (2006)

As the old saying goes, everyone learns how to play guitar freshman year of high school, and this album was a great soundtrack for all those wannabes. “Easy yet interesting” is how I would describe it, and it helped that the lead singer/guitarist of Arctic Monkeys was like seventeen when this album came out. Pretty inspiring. And for all those non-guitar players (of which there were few) the album was catchy and loud and energetic and full of rebellious notions (i.e. prostitutes and partying) which are basically all the qualifications you need to appeal to high school freshmen.

6. Give Up – The Postal Service (2003)

In terms of high school adolescent angst and overwhelming emotion, I suppose Give Up is probably our generations Nevermind. Now I’m not comparing the artistic merit of these two albums, but just like Nirvana let to the grunge movement and lots of long haired, flannel wearing northwestern teens who didn’t give a fuck about “the man” or “the establishment” (this is usually a synonym for their parents and teachers), I would argue that Postal Service is the flagship of the late-wave emo/look how sad I am crowd. Speaking of which, I think it’s funny how disenfranchised teens in the 90s got angry, but in the 2000s they just got mopey and stupid looking. Give Up is the only album by Postal Service – a collaboration between Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and some guy who isn’t Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie.

5. Is This It – The Strokes (2001)

Ah, the Strokes. There is a soft spot in everyone’s heart for this band, and everyone under twenty five and over twelve knows the words to “Last Nite.” This album had everything! Loud guitar! Simple chord structure! Lyrics we could all relate to! And just a touch of what could be construed as emotional lyrics. Perfect. As a side note, I’m pretty sure every Battle of the Bands between 2003 and 2006 included a cover of “Someday” at some point, and no matter how terrible a cover it was, everyone in the crowd loved it, because the Strokes were awesome.

4. Wincing the Night Away – The Shins (2007)

The Shins got big in high school, thanks in large part to Zach Braff and Natalie Portman’s Garden State. If there’s one thing high schoolers are looking for, it’s slightly weird and inaccessible films about how everyone is weird and how dumb life it. Sounds almost like they made Give Up into a movie. Throw in some indie-film heartthrobs and you’ve got yourself a picture.

I had already heard the first two Shins albums (Oh Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow – both very good) but Wincing the Night Away was one of the first albums that kind of stopped me in my tracks and made me realize how much I like putting cool sounds in my ear. “Sea Legs” was definitely my favorite song for a while and this CD got some serious plays in my Koss boombox (yeah, we had iPods then…but I was so indie at this point I bought the CD).

Another cool part about this album, is that I have recently been listening to it again, and it’s still really awesome. I think it’s pretty cool that I know have different favorites off this album than I used to.

3. Hot Fuss – The Killers (2004)

God damn could the Killers write a catchy song, and that’s basically all that Hot Fuss was. I guarantee you that if you are even approximately my age, you have a secret love for this album. I think I know every single word to about four of the songs on it, which is an incredibly high percentage, all things considered. Nary a dance went by without everyone cheering as the opening chords of “Somebody Told Me” rang out across the darkened auditorium, and if you were a girl in high school and this was not on your iPod there was something wrong with you. The Killers were the energetic face of the exciting new direction American indie rock was taking in the early 2000’s and whether you cared about that or not, they could make your toes tap. Plus, I hear the lead singer is pretty dreamy.

2. Graduation – Kanye West (2007)

Kanye’s third (and really, one of his worst) release is so high on this list because of timing. This came out in the fall of our junior year, right when everyone was finally getting all that independence they yearned for. We were cool. We drove to school. We went off campus for lunch. We bought mainstream hip-hop albums and thought that made us awesome. I can remember a bunch of us driving to Best Buy after school one day to get this the day it came out.  Graduation might be one of the first albums that I really anticipated and counted down the days until it came out.

As an aside, this was the album that 50 Cent and Kanye had the record sales bet on. 50 lost. He said he wouldn’t make any more music, but that has been wrong. I think this makes 50 Cent kind of look like a dick.

1. Stadium Arcadium – Red Hot Chili Peppers (2006)

This album was important for a lot of us in high school. Stadium Arcadium is a pretty ambitious double album and marked the return of the Peppers after a fairly long hiatus since 2002’s By the Way.  When you’re as popular as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, four years is a damn long time to not put out any albums. Stadium was hyped because the Peppers were taking more creative control over the whole process, ensuring that it would sound more like it came from a band who wore socks over their uh…guitar necks.

Brian and I decided to put this as the #1 album of our high school years because it was everywhere. “Dani California” and later “Snow” were in constant radio rotation for even a year after the album came out. Buying this album is also literally the first thing I ever did with my driver’s license. That makes an impact on a guy. This being the first big album to come out after all of us started driving is probably a big part of why I remember it so well. It’s also not half bad.

Shortly after Brian and I published our list of Top Ten Bands You’d Think are Cool to Hang Out With, but are Actually Dicks this link from the tremendous A.V. Club came to my attention.

Please add John Mayer as “whatever number is higher than one” on that list.

When I asked Brian last Thursday what he wanted us both to review this week and he suggested Feral Harmonic I was actually kind of excited. Not because I really like Old Cranes or have any connection to this album – actually, I was excited for the complete opposite reason. I had never heard of Old Cranes nor Feral Harmonic – though I have heard of both cranes and harmonicas. So naturally I thought this would be an album of really mean waterfowl playing harmonica.

A back up member of Old Cranes

Boy was I disappointed – and not just because the band was made out of people.

There’s really nothing I actively dislike about Feral Harmonic so this won’t turn into a passive aggressive review of things I hate (cough, Brian reviewing Massive Attack, cough). The problem was, Old Cranes aren’t really doing anything I actively like that much either – I just can’t shake the feeling that what I’m listening to is just a worse version of other things I’ve listened to. If I can make a super irresponsible and obtuse metaphor, Feral Harmonic is what you’d get if Fleet Foxes took a bunch of coke, forgot to harmonize, and all had laryngitis. So not bad – but not good either.

My immediate impression upon first listen was, “Hey, this sounds a lot like an under-produced, noisier version of Neutral Milk Hotel.” Now I’m all for under-produced and noisy, after all, I do like Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah! but Old Cranes have applied these two adjective to a sort of mountain-folk-rock (excellent use of Pitchfork hyphen genre creation there) and I don’t like the results.

I agree with Brian that the energy is certainly there, but it’s just not being applied in a direction I really want it to go in. The sound of the vocals is pubescent – it’s stuck in the awkward stage between folk-rock clarity and more raw yelling. It’s clear, controlled yelling – basically, it’s Glenn Beck singing to you. I don’t want Glenn Beck to sing to me.

Maybe I’m coming off pretty harsh – Feral Harmonic isn’t an album I mind listening to, it’s just that I would never consciously decide to play it. I actually really like some of the things Old Cranes does instrumentally and found myself most enjoying the tracks that didn’t feature vocals. There is a really cool breakdown at the end of “Sweet,” but that just rolls into the plodding country/western guitar strumming of “Under,” and all of a sudden, there’s that voice again.

Lastly, and this may just be the mp3 I’m listening to, the production on this album is awful. The high-end sounds come off as really tinny and distorted to me – especially the symbol crashes (which happen more than once on the album). It’d be a great effect, if it didn’t end up sort of mushing all the top end frequencies together into this really obnoxious noise. But again, that may just be my copy of the mp3 files.

It’s safe to say Old Cranes’ Feral Harmonic didn’t do much for me. The combination of some things that I didn’t like along with nothing that I found redeeming enough to overcome these negative factors probably means this one is out of the rotation.

Tracks that were less Bleh

“Sweet” – I really like the instrumental part at the end

“Intro” – Kind of a weird choice, but it’s just another track with lots of cool guitars going on

Tracks that were extra Bleh

“Under” – Too much of a change of pace from “Sweet” and frankly just a little boring.

“Southern Radio” – Boring, overdone folk guitar part on top of lyrics that you can’t really understand.

If you like what they were getting at but want to find someone who does it better, Chris recommends

Fleet Foxes (both the self-titled and Sun Giant EP) and Sun, Sun, Sun by The Elected

If you thought this was irredeemably terrible Chris reccommends

Heartland by Owen Pallet (formerly Final Fantasy) – all the same complex instrumental parts but more cohesive with better vocal work.


I heard one song (“Little Bird Courage”) by Old Canes and really liked it, so I decided to go get the album and review it, and make Chris do the same. By the way, this is their second album, but it’s the first one of theirs I’ve heard, so I can’t really talk about how they’ve progressed or regressed creatively or any of that, sorry. Anyway, here we go!

The Breeders, god, what a terrible band...

Not sure what a feral harmonic would sound like. Maybe something like the Breeders.

First thing I noticed: Old Canes sound kind of like a lot of other music I’ve heard, but when I started trying to think of analogies for this review, I started drawing blanks. They take a bunch of distinct familiar elements (acoustic guitars, loud cymbals, foot-tapping energy…) and squish them together into something you could swear you’ve heard before, except you know you haven’t. It made for an interesting listening experience, and not interesting like Massive Attack was interesting (i.e. terrible.)

The next thing that hit me was how much energy was behind the songs and singing. The lead singer’s voice is very similar to Mr. E of Eels, but has none of his moping passivity, and seems to almost be yelling at several points in the album. Almost all of the tracks are things you find yourself moving some part of your body to. This is not to say that these are thumping, danceable Bravery-esque songs, but they definitely get you toe-tapping. The rhythm guitar is very rhythmical, and the percussion is very persuasive. The lyrics could be about anything, for all that they caught my attention, but the “rest” of the album was quite good.

The first time listening to the album, I was definitely into it, but nothing was really jumping out at me as songs that I would find myself humming along to later in the day (except of course “Little Bird Courage,” which I think will be stuck in my head for approximately eternity.) For better or for worse, this is basically the way things stayed through subsequent listens. Feral Harmonic feels orders of magnitude more cohesive than much else I’ve heard recently, but by the same token, nothing really caught my attention in any kind of special way. Old Canes maintain a pleasant level of energy and slight variation throughout the album, and there are definitely no songs on here that I would skip rather than listen to. But there’s also really nothing on here I would go out of my way to listen to if I wasn’t already listening to the rest of the album.

When you get this album and listen to it, be sure and keep your ears open for all the cool sounds that are incorporated throughout, sometimes subtly, other times less so. I’m pretty sure there’s trumpets, accordions, definitely a mandolin, probably tambourine… A pretty good variety that adds to the “uniqueness” of Old Canes’ sound. I enjoyed all the little layers that didn’t pop out the first time through that gradually sunk into my musical awareness. Neat stuff.

Tracks I Liked:

“Little Bird Courage” – I feel like this song is on a different level from the rest of the album. I think I said all I need to about it in the preceding paragraphs.

“Trust” – This is the only song on here whose lyrics had me paying attention, and it was kind of interesting. And as per the theme, the music of the song itself was interesting and attention-holding.

Tracks I Didn’t Like:

Nothing really comes to mind, like I said, but I guess I could have done without “Black Hill Chapel,” the outtro of sorts.

If You Liked This Album, Brian Recommends:

Leaves in the River by Sea Wolf, or The Ruminant Band by Fruit Bats

If You Didn’t Like This Album, Brian Recommends:

Too acoustic for you? Give Rogue Wave a try.

Bottom line, Feral Harmonic is nothing revolutionary or mind-boggling, but what it does, it does well, and I will definitely be keeping it in the listening rotation.