Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Land of Talk - Cloak and Cipher

By Jon Stone | @jwstone - August 25, 2010

In the mid 90s a little-known band called that dog. was touring as a Geffen label-mate with Weezer. I first saw them in that context and became, quite possibly, their biggest fan. They were eclectic and raw, especially on their eponymous release, but they also wrote beautiful pop songs with with soaring (if occasionally intentionally dissonant) three-part female vocal harmonies. They managed to mix dirty, post-punk guitars with bright pop melodies in ways that allowed a little more success with each subsequent release -- and just as they were at the height of that success, they vanished.

I have this bad habit of trying to find new substitutes for my old favorites. So, as I begin this review of Land of Talk’s new record Cloak and Cipher (which dropped yesterday) it is with the admission that when I heard the song “The Hate I Won’t Commit,” my favorite on the album, I thought: that dog! But, Land of Talk deserves more than to just be a nostalgic place-holder, especially for a band that up and left me hanging. A lot more.

Here are a few other admissions: I’m not really that into this year’s chillwave/dream pop/sun-bleached (whatever you want to call them) releases from the likes of Beach House and Best Coast, and (to further alienate myself from popular culture at large) after seeing Sleigh Bells at Pitchfork, I’m still scratching my head over their seemingly universal appeal. Really? A dude playing guitar riffs over canned beats and karaoke vocals? I digress. Land of Talk, however, seems related genre-wise to these other bands. So while thinking about reviewing Cloak and Cipher, I’ve been hung up on the implicit question I’ve been mulling over above: How can my love for Land of Talk's new release be justified against my not being blown over by Beach House and Best Coast?

So again (anticipating the flames), all I'm saying is that I'm not that into them and not that they're not good. Indeed, Beach House and Best Coast have managed on their records to do one thing very well. I understand their appeal. (To illustrate -- I just gave my wife a first sample of both bands and she said in perfect unironic seriousness --"It sounds like I'm at the Gap." Precisely.) But I think they suffer from the She & Him syndrome: decent songs, especially on their own, but fill an album with them and you're left without much sonic variety. Land of Talk offer that variety on Cloak and Cipher. We hear it in the instrumentation, in the dynamics, and, perhaps where it matters most, in the songwriting. It takes a few songs to build on Cloak and Cipher, but it starts in earnest four tracks in on “Swift Coin,” builds on the amazingly titled “Color Me Badd,” and by the time you get to that watershed track I mention above (“The Hate I Won’t Commit”), its clear that this is a band capable of making all kinds of noises, all of them good.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that a lot of it reminds me of my favorite female-led 90s records. I hear Kim and Kelly Deal’s influence on Cloak and Cipher and something else elusive… maybe Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine. Land of Talk also move in and out of territory covered by Beach House and Best Coast, but do it with more veracity and vigor. Most of all, this is a band that nurtures listener interest. I listen and want to know more: I get on the internet and read about them. I learn that Elizabeth Powell who leads the band is a member of Broken Social Scene (evidence of this crystallizes on Cloak and Cipher’s “Handburg, Noon” which sounds like it could have been on a BSS or Stars record). Not surprisingly, I also learn that members of Stars and Arcade Fire make appearances on the record. Also, Powell recently recovered from vocal-chord surgery, but you’d never know it. Her voice is clean and makes for a lovely contrast to the often crunchy guitars and rhythms.

To sum up, I like Land of Talk. I think they are better than Beach House or Best Coast because of reasons I mention above, but also because I'm on a bit of a search. I'm tired of bands that seem like fads. I want to invest. And I want records that give me a reason to invest. I want some kind of indication in what I hear of that potential equity. Cloak and Cipher is a small record, but I hear on it a band with that potential -- with that spark. Most importantly, I hear a band unlikely to vanish after a few years of fad success.

MySpace: Land of Talk
MP3: Land Of Talk – “Quarry Hymns”

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