The best album you might never hear this year could very well be Arms’ Kids Aflame. Arms is the nom de plume of Brooklyn’s Todd Goldstein, a musician mostly known for being part of the Harlem Shakes, a band who has opened up for such luminaries as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the Walkmen, the Fiery Furnaces and Deerhoof. As lauded as Harlem Shakes may be, it is Goldstein’s work as Arms that could definitely put his name above the band’s. Goldstein’s debut album is the result of three years of writing and recording in various Brooklyn apartments, a task that must have been at times infuriating, but in the end makes for one of the most rewarding listening pleasures of the year.
There are certainly moments on Kids Aflame where Goldstein’s musical influences are worn heavily upon a tailored sleeve, but it’s his lyrics and vocal timbre that set him apart from any other act on the indie rock scene. After the fantastically titled instrumental introduction of “Sabretooth Typist,” we are flung headlong into the jangly and lyrically dense world of Arms with the track, “Whirring.” Goldstein sings, “Now’s the season for taking chances,” and this CD certainly is a big chance for the Harlem Shakes guitarist. With as much buzz as that band seems to be getting, it would be easy for him to just lay back and enjoy the upcoming spoils, but with Kids Aflame, Goldstein attempts to show that he still has something to prove.
With songs such as “Construction” and “Sad, Sad, Sad,” Goldstein does manage to prove something, that being he’s as complex and ornate a songsmith as Andrew Bird and Stephen Merritt, though without the Theremins and cellos. On the other hand, tracks like “Tiger Tamer” and “The Frozen Lake” rock like nobody’s business, all churning guitars and yearning vocals. The ukulele driven title track is a little gem, sweet and harmonious, highly intelligent and literate without a hint of pretension, making it a likely fan favorite.
But the true highlights of Kids Aflame start in the center and move toward the end. “Shitty Little Disco” is such a damn fine song that I found myself hard pressed to not hit the repeat button every time so that I could get through the rest of the record. Lying somewhere between the gothic, droning vocals of The Church and the glistening keys of New Order and Joy Division, “Shitty Little Disco” could be one of the most engaging songs of the year. “John the Escalator,” a title that simply HAS to be inspired by Depeche Mode’s “John the Revelator,” is another jaunty sing-along, this time in the style of Smiths-era British pop. “Eyeball” is somewhat the sister track to “Kids Aflame,” pared down to minimal instrumentation and centered on Goldstein’s lyrical prowess. Replacing the ukulele however, is a mandolin solo, somewhat reminiscent of Nicholas Cage’s “Pelagia’s Song” as Captain Corelli. “Pocket” is the most musically dense track on the album and one of the most memorable. With this track, one fully understands what a gifted songwriter we have in Goldstein.
2008 has been a somewhat sleepy affair in terms of recent powerhouse indie bands. We lay in the wake of a year with powerhouse albums by Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Spoon, LCD Soundsystem and Feist, with songs that were ubiquitous. Yet, out of this void came the unexpected, an indie singer songwriter with both teeth and tenderness, a man who goes by the name Arms. Kids Aflame is an incredibly strong debut, and one that really shouldn’t be the best album you HAVEN’T heard.
Magnetic Fields – Holiday
Andrew Bird – The Mysterious Production of Eggs
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin