(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Recording review - Mazes, Wooden Aquarium (2014)

Energetic buzz and saturated colo(u)rs

Just as LSD differs from peyote, psychedelic bands each offer their own kind of trip. Syd Barrett’s earnest naïveté is worlds away from Thee Oh Sees’ sweaty swirl of garage echo and grind, and neither has much in common with the exotic sound of Dengue Fever’s Khmer-flavored surf. On Wooden Aquarium, Mazes goes for an upbeat, energetic buzz. More ecstatic dance than disoriented drifting, they keep the rhythm tight, but they never let their motorik focus become oppressive. The band’s post-punk drive infuses most of these tunes with a nervous energy, but it’s a sweet, anticipatory feeling.

Wooden Aquariums sets the pace early on with the paired opening tracks, “Astigmatism” and “Salford.” A brief, distracted guitar riff tosses out a chain of notes before dissolving into an insistent groove piloted by a steady-handed drummer and a nodding, hypnotic bass line. The guitar locks into place and Jack Cooper’s lyrical flow catches the mood, with a rolling cadence and ornate phrasing: “Oh, I want to see but I don’t know why/ But my optic nerve would lie/ It fades and blurs at the edges.” “Astigmatism” streams forward, zipping through a delightful back-masked guitar solo before reaching its finish line and stumbling to a halt. But there’s no real respite as “Salford” rises from the ashes and resurrects the first song’s rhythm line. This time around, out of sync vocals push the feeling into a spacier direction. The loose singing and clockwork beat play off each other and culminate in a thrashy punk ending, implying that détente has ended and it’s time to come to blows.

Mazes takes that cheery, altered-perception vibe and finds different forms of expression to get there again and again. They branch out from the initial restless-leg new wave beat to explore Supertramp-inspired pop-psych ( “Explode Into Colo(u)rs”), sunlight dappled trails (“It Is What It Is”), and detached but fraught alt-rock (“Universal Me”). The change-ups keep Wooden Aquarium from devolving into a navel gazing exercise. Instead, the experience turns outward, embracing a world of experience where colors are super-saturated and vivid.

Even through rose-colored glasses, a few tunes shine a little brighter. “Vapour Trails” offers a particularly nice mix. The calculated pace of the verses, accented by angular guitar grind, suggests Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. This alternates with the looser bloom of the chorus, creating a balance between pensive thought and renewed resolution. The song is hardly sparse, but it has an innate simplicity, each part fulfilling its purpose without excess baggage or production trickery. Too often, heady groups get caught up in a “more is more” aesthetic, erecting rococo layers of detail to bedazzle the listener. Mazes rejects that formula, trusting that a mere pair of dependent guitar lines can create a sufficiently rich context. They avoid the sin of self-indulgence, refusing to surrender to fears that their tunes aren’t shiny enough.

If there’s a downside to this album, it’s that Mazes have assembled a motley mix of inspirations. Krautrock rubs elbows with Pavement and Guided By Voices, but even if the influences seem a bit obvious, the full impact carries the project. It comes back to the album’s pervasive upbeat feel. Each listen sets up the same openness and sense of conscious acceptance. The irony is that Mazes has every right to sound introspective on this record. Their recording sessions in upstate New York were snowed in, leaving them pretty well isolated as they pieced it together. Instead of succumbing to cabin fever, they launched out with a firm sense of direction.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Recording review - Rene Lopez, Love Has No Mercy (2014)

Feel the funk with mirror ball beats 

Rene Lopez continues spiraling in on his idealized target of electric Latin soul. His last release, Paint the Moon Gold,veered away from the funk to lurch toward R&B pop. On his new EP, Love Has No Mercy, '70s pop has given way to the hybridized disco funk of that same era. The album isn't a one trick pony, but Lopez is more dedicated to club-style rhythms on this release. The first half explores this borderland with a series of tracks that wrestle with co-dependence, love withheld, and unbalanced relationships."I Won't Love You Less" lies directly between the two genres. The sparse arrangement, the harmony vocals, and ringing keyboard fills are like the bright, spinning reflections of a mirror ball, while the crisp rhythm guitar suggests the chill nonchalance of Bowie's Thin White Duke and the steady, syncopated beat has a foot in both worlds. The choppy guitar bobs and weaves with nervous energy and Lopez's voice is strained to a falsetto whisper as he sings his unconditional love. His serene tone suggests that he's an ecstatic martyr to his chosen one's fickle whim: "You can lie and cheat and leave me cold / I won't love you less, I won't love you less / you can throw your stones and break my bones /I won't love you less, I won't love you less." From here, he wanders through electro-pop dance beats and Latin flavored disco before reaching my favorite track on the album.

The title tune is a duet with Carol C , and the two create a playful interaction that frames the song as a debate between the sexes. They share the chorus tagline, but the verses show how far apart they are. Drawn like moths to the flame, the two can only agree that, "Your love has no mercy, but I like it." After the break that summarizes the positions as, "Love-lust and love-love," Lopez takes a pseudo-rap turn,speak-singing his way through his lines with an expressive tone that maintains a nuanced tension. Meanwhile, the track is anchored by a snaking baseline and fenced in by stereophonic flickers of choppy guitar. Between the volley of vocal exchanges and the insistent dance beat, "Love Has No Mercy" is Lopez at his best.

From here, Lopez settles into a chain of solid funk pieces, with the fun attitude of "Lovegod", the Prince driven ''City Streets Are Dead Tonight", and the loopy electro funk of "Show Your Light". These are all strong, dance-friendly songs, but none of them follow a set formula. Even better,
Lopez adapts his singing style to each tune to flesh out the right character. Love Has No Mercy is another step towards perfecting his vision of electric Latin soul. The Latin element may be a bit restrained compared to earlier releases,but the music still calls you to surrender to the syncopation and dance.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Coming attractions - Backbeat Soundsytem

Do you feel lucky?

Trust is absolutely vital, especially when it comes to our culture-rich. We're in the middle of a golden age of music; there are hundreds of small independent labels and countless unaffiliated bands releasing albums and singles. That's the good news. The bad news is that it can be ridiculously hard to find know what's worth bothering with, given the overabundance of choices. That's where trust comes in. Maybe you've found critics or hipster outlets that you depend on to filter through it all. Aside from the set of artists I follow closely, there are a couple of independent record labels that have never steered me wrong.

Easy Star Records, home of the Easy Star All-Stars, is one of those. Aside from the All-Stars' reggae cover albums, which are exquisite, they produce a collection of strong artists like Passafire, The Green, and John Brown's Body. The latest addition is Backbeat Soundsystem, who demonstrate that strong rhythms and solid chank can thrive in the U.K. The band's label debut, Together Not Apart, has just released and Easy Star is sharing tracks from the new album.

Two of these, "Fighting Bull" and Hey Girl", offer two different sides of the band's skills. I like both, but "Fighting Bull" hits my sweet spot a little harder. The band lays down a funky reggae groove, with a marching bass throb and horn punch accents. The conscious lyrics are right up front, surfing the beat. The production mixes things up, with some light dub moments and synthesizer vamps. "Hey Girl" goes for a poppier feel, with a nice R&B vocal line, but still spices it up with some toasting flow. This time, the keys frost the edges of the tune with old-school tones that reach back some 40 years to the heady days of dance club funk.

If you dig feel-good reggae at all, Backbeat Soundsystem deserves a listen. Trust me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Recording review - Israel Nash, Israel Nash's Rain Plans (2014)

Retro roots, but real and original

The overused shorthand, “retro,” can mean that a group short on their own ideas has repackaged the past. Although Israel Nash Gripka’s country-rock/Americana infused music raises immediate comparisons to a host of classic folk-rock acts, Israel Nash’s Rain Plans is hardly a slavish (or lazy) re-creation of history. Instead, he’s applied a master craftsman’s aesthetic to expanding what might have started as simple singer-songwriter tunes. The resulting album features richly layered instrumentation that draws on acoustic and electric sounds, soft-diffusion reverb to cosset the mix and, above all, a worshipful appreciation for warm analog tone. Casual listeners may hear it as a pastiche of The Band or early Neil Young, but the details reveal Gripka’s original perspective, driven by some of the same values.

Rain Plans begins with “Woman at the Well”. While the initial intro recalls John Fogarty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, the melody on the first line comes straight from “The Weight” by The Band. Instead of pulling into Nazareth, he calls, “Swing low, Laura/ I’m up to no good.” The oblique lyrics that follow suggest a man reminiscing from the end of his life’s road, with the calm delivery and steady pace signaling an acceptance. The song’s familiar elements are on the surface, but the texture of the piece demonstrates Gripka’s unique voice. He uses acoustic guitar as a canvas for the overdriven guitar to splatter trails of warmly fuzzed fills. Meanwhile a thin haze of shimmering synth wash fills up the background. The last minute and a half or two become an extended fade, where the fog of distortion rises like an inevitable tide, obliterating everything. By the end, it owes as much to My Morning Jacket as it does to those earlier bands.

“Woman at the Well” is a fine start, providing a good lead-in for the distorted steel guitar on the country rock of “Through the Door”. The arrangement on this one is perfectly constructed, with each element seamlessly in place. The verses are country while the chorus has more of a blues rock feel. The balance is a little psychedelic. This intensifies as things get interesting about half way through the piece. It breaks down to a thoughtful interlude, centered on the simple repeated guitar riff from the verse. The other instruments layer in with each repetition, and once they’re all on board, the song restarts, but in a spacier mood that turns soulful and intense.

It’s not until “Who in Time” that the Neil Young spirit begins to infuse the album in earnest. The trippy intro groove has a twangy psychedelic feel, but the transition into the verse sets up a “Down by the River” sway, and then a touch of harmonica adds its contribution. The backing harmonies, along with the light pedal steel, cement the mood. Eventually, Gripka’s vocals slide into Young’s slightly nasal falsetto, first on occasional lines, and then more strongly on “Rain Plans” and “Iron of the Mountain”, finally hitting a peak on “Mansions”, which crosses Young’s “Southern Man” with “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Like a Hurricane.” But for all those allusions, Gripka’s song makes its own statement about hollow excess as it swells into a hypnotic swirl of crackling sparks of chaotic sound.

It’s easy to imagine these songs shrunk down to solo arrangements; Gripka’s voice and personality could handily carry them. Still, there’s a joy to soaking in the sound of a group as they pick up on each other’s nuanced playing, each finding the ideal addition. Bottom line, the real surprise is that Israel Nash Gripka hasn’t hit it bigger here in the U.S. We’re arriving late to this party; Rain Plans initially came out last year in Europe and is only now releasing in North America. It’s obvious to hear why he’s been embraced overseas. His sound is completely American in the best possible sense; its folk, blues and country rock sound are expansive but not excessive. Stick this one on repeat and play catch up with the rest of the world.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)