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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Recording review - Tweedy, Sukeraie (2014)

An oblique trip through an emotional minefield

Walk on, walk on/ With hope in your heart/ And you’ll never walk alone.” The old Rogers and Hammerstein classic made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers is a fitting summary of Sukierae. It started out as a solo project for Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but he brought in his son Spencer on drums and, rather than walk alone, the album is credited to the Tweedy surname. The father-son collaboration would normally be the defining narrative for Sukierae, but the moments of wistfulness, anguish and sadness scattered through these songs weigh heavier because of the recent death of Jeff Tweedy’s brother and his wife’s current battle with cancer. Despite the heaviness of those circumstances, the overall mood is not really melancholy. Tweedy delivers these tunes with his customary obliqueness. If you aren’t clued in to the back story, it’s easy to miss that subtext.

In any case, Tweedy the band does not walk alone; it carries the echoes of Jeff’s other bands, Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. While his voice is central to those groups, Sukierae could easily pass as another Wilco release. The first half is pleasantly unpredictable, with some interesting stylistic leaps. It’s fairly strong, although there is one awkward transition between the twisted headspace of “Diamond Light Pt. 1” and the front parlor folk start of “Wait for Love”. The second half offers a more consistent feel, meandering through Uncle Tupelo style Americana and early Wilco confessional pop-folk. The album features several great tunes, but, like many double length albums, it’s easy to see missed opportunities for pruning. Tracks like “Nobody Dies Anymore” and “Hazel” make little impression against the stronger songs on Sukierae.

Also, while Spencer is a talented drummer and his playing expresses his personality well, Jeff’s voice dominates the album. The best blending between the two is on the opening track, “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood”. The guitar thrashes discordantly and Spencer’s choppy beat is insistent, but it’s packed with nervous paradiddles and fills. The lyrics, “I don’t want to be so understood / Boring,” could serve as Jeff Tweedy’s career mission statement. A couple of songs later, on “Diamond Light Pt. 1,” Spencer makes another strong contribution. The tune launches into a dreamy psychedelic groove, propelled by tight polyrhythmic drum work and a taut bass vamp. When the vocals come in, they contrast sharply, with a lightly hazed detachment that’s oblivious to the rhythmic tension. Over the six minute sprawl, the piece evolves: opening into looser reveries, gaining light sonic acid-trail echoes, picking up sharper spikes of intensity reminiscent of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and finally melting away in a strange loop of ambient, ethereal sounds. Spencer’s drums are intimately tied to all of those changes, seeming to drive the shifting moods rather than following them.

On the more straightforward side, “Pigeons” is anchored by simple acoustic guitar work, eventually accompanied by bass and light washes of keys. The understated climax is a pretty, Beatlesque instrumental bridge. Meanwhile, Jeff’s lyrics are philosophical, reflecting a Zen clarity, “Let’s sing our songs for the pigeons/ As common as religion/ High on, high on Mt. Zion/ We are all dandelions.” He’s described this as a message to his younger self, and his tired delivery does sound a bit rueful of lessons hard-learned. The best lines on Sukierae, though, come on “New Moon,” with Tweedy capturing an ambivalence, perched between self-deprecation and hurt: “I’ve always been certain, nearly all of my life/ One day I’d be a burden and you would be my wife,” gives way to “Let me hang like a new moon/ Don’t treat me like a stranger anymore.” The swaying country-folk of the verses makes this a campfire song, accented by fiery sparks flying up to the sky, but the distorted electric guitar solo adds a bit of repressed anger, as he lets his frustration slip loose in a way that the vocal never admits. It stops and starts with a ragged tone, but is then brought to heel like a disobedient dog.

Sukierae feels its way through an emotional mine field without directly revealing too many Tweedy family truths. As always, Jeff Tweedy’s songs manage to be moving without necessarily showing how or whether he himself is moved, which has become a familiar unself-conscious pattern to his work over the years. Longtime fans won’t mind this and will find plenty to enjoy as the album revisits his earlier sounds like the notes for unwritten memoir : the Uncle Tupelo waltz of “Desert Bell”, the late night Being There feel of “Flowering”, the Woody Guthrie flavored “Fake Fur Coat”, or the sparse Yankee Hotel Foxtrot echo of “Where My Love”. While a more disciplined edit could trim this album to a cleanly cut gem, the excess is also part of Tweedy artistic approach, maybe because it helps him bury the details a little. In any case, however oblique, Jeff Tweedy does hold some hope in his heart and with help from his son, he’s not walking alone.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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.