Review: Atmosphere: When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

Atmosphere doesn’t let a lot of grass grow under its feet, and since 2005′s You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having, the Minneapolis indie-rap duo has logged hundreds of shows, four more Sad Clown EPs, and a download-only album, Strictly Leakage. But studio albums usually offer a clearer statement of purpose, and on the new When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, Atmosphere casts its net wide. Musically, Lemons is lusher and more ruminative than the harder-hitting Imagine, with producer Ant calling on Atmosphere’s live backing band—plus guests, including Tom Waits (beatboxing!) and TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe—to flesh out the sound, enhancing his already-organic approach. That dovetails with Slug’s desire to broaden the scope of his incisive, insightful lyrics—the deluxe edition of the CD even includes a 40-page children’s story. He’s always been a storyteller, usually about his own life, but on Lemons, Slug stretches out more than ever, spinning sympathetic tales about downtrodden, messed-up people gamely getting by, from a harried single mother in “Dreamer” to a homeless man in “The Waitress” who knows his presence is a burden to the only person who acknowledges his humanity. Fatherhood is also a big motif (the album is dedicated “to all dads”), especially strong on the album-closing heartbreaker “In Her Music Box,” about a little girl whose innocence hasn’t been tarnished by her dad’s petty-criminal lifestyle—yet.

Originally published on April 28, 2008. Read the complete article.

Review: Billy Bragg, Mr. Love & Justice

There’s probably no more succinct way to describe English folk-punk Billy Bragg than with the title of his latest album, Mr. Love & Justice. His songwriting has always been marked by two major themes: outspoken leftist protest songs, and tender love songs, both seasoned with intelligence, wit, and simple compassion. In his younger days, Bragg favored a loud, distortion-heavy guitar as his sole accompaniment, which both fit his image as a lefty firebrand and helped strip his songs to their bare essence. Since 1988′s Workers Playtime, he’s embraced a gentler, warmer, and fuller sound that is still the dominant mode on Mr. Love & Justice, reflecting Bragg’s mellower nature. (There’s also a deluxe double-CD version of Love that features solo-electric takes on the songs, a mode that’s still an essential part of his live set.) Only his third album of new material in 12 years, Love finds Bragg standing on more solid ground than 2002′s uneven England, Half English. He captures Woody Guthrie’s puckish humor on “The Beach Is Free,” a breezy celebration of the pleasures in life that aren’t yet under corporate ownership, and he displays his gift for combining earnestness and melody on “Sing Their Souls Back Home.” While he doesn’t scale the heights he achieved on earlier albums, at least the mountains are visible from here.

Originally published on April 21, 2008. Read the complete article.

Review: Cloud Cult, Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)

The accidental death of Craig Minowa’s infant son in 2002 has understandably dominated his songwriting. It’s fair to say that the tragedy is the key to understanding his music, including Cloud Cult’s sixth disc, Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes). But he very rarely deals with it by being maudlin or excessively dark; rather than brooding, he deals with his grief by using it to explore more universal themes about the fragility and beauty of life, the importance of love, and finding peace amid devastation.

Ghosts—self-released on Minowa’s environmentally conscious label—finds the Minnesota band more vibrant and creative than ever, surpassing last year’s The Meaning Of 8 with even lusher orchestration that draws on classical, electronica, folk, and Flaming Lips-esque indie-rock. Though it’s an extended meditation on mortality that includes the declaration “There’s so much more to see in the darkest places,” Ghosts sounds surprisingly innocent and joyful; where The Polyphonic Spree’s optimism sometimes seems creepily facile, for Cloud Cult, it seems like hard-earned wisdom. At its highest points, it approaches transcendence, as on “When Water Comes To Life,” which turns a description of a child’s autopsy into a heartbreakingly lyrical statement of what’s left after we die: water, sand, and memories.

Originally published on April 7, 2008. Read the complete article.

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