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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite reviewed albums of 2014

It's always a ridiculous challenge to name the best albums of the year. I contributed my top picks to Spectrum Culture this year and not one made their final list of 20. It's not that the other writers' tastes were questionable; plenty of those albums were quite powerful and groundbreaking. At the same time, my predilections aren't particularly beyond the pale. It's merely a matter of there being too many diverse albums for a group of critics to take them all in and really get to know the music.

To that end, I continue my tradition of counting down my favorite albums of the set that I reviewed here on Jester Jay Music. Don't get upset that St. Vincent or Against Me! aren't here—despite having strong releases, I didn't review them, so they weren't eligible.

#10 - Shonen Knife, Overdrive

Japanese punk legends Shonen Knife have been making drop-dead simple garage punk music for more than 30 years. Inspired by American bands like the Ramones but committed to their uniquely Japanese kawaii personas, they've create a solidly original sound. Their latest, Overdrive, finds them still kicking ass, belying the cute smiles or childlike lyrics. Some of the songs, like "Black Crow" or "Robots From Hell", delve into darker moods and leaven this strong, head-banging album, but all the songs are strong.
[Original review]

#9 - Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

Tori Amos may have gotten her start with pop music when she was kicked out of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, but she's buried that demon over the last couple of years with orchestrally oriented releases like Night of the Hunter (2011) and Gold Dust (2012). Unrepentant Geraldines sees her swinging back into pop, without losing any of the edge she's honed over the years. Amos hasn't gotten any younger and that's all to the good, especially on standout track, "16 Shades of Blue", which addresses ageism in the music industry even as it reflects a very modern production aesthetic.
[Original review]

#8 - Lonesome Shack, More Primitive

Plenty of bands have played the blues revival card and, even if it's not as popular as it once was, Lonesome Shack isn't making a radical artistic choice to draw on the rootsy power of the blues on the aptly named More Primitive. But more than just steeping themselves in the tradition, they seem to have an instinctive feel for organic rhythms that could care less about metronomes and restless vamps that never let the listener drift into ambivalence. Their raw palette is colored with visceral dabs of nervous tension, moody reveries, defiant snarls, and introspective memory.
[Original review]

#7 - Cymbals Eat GuitarsLOSE
Tragedy often acts as inspiration and LOSE is driven by Joe D'Agostino's grief at his friend's death. Rather than turning the album into a direct elegy, Cymbals Eat Guitars extends that idea into the larger theme of childhood's end. Losing friends and recognizing self-destructive behavior are just a couple of things we have to face as we grow up. Despite the emo potential, LOSE is neither self-pitying or self-indulgent. The band deals with all of the emotion in their inimitable fashion: cathartic waves of guitar crash, songs evolve into surprising directions, and dreamy, distracted interludes break up the heaviness.
[Original review]

#6 - Bike for Three, So Much Forever
Bike for Three pairs rapper Buck 65 with electronic producer Greetings From Tuskan (Joëlle Lê), but what makes the duo so strong is how they deconstruct the basic relationship between rapper and producer. Normal hip hop collaborations place the backing music and beats in a supporting role, to set the mood without overshadowing the emcee's personality. Bike for Three drops back to the definition of the word "collaboration". Lê and Buck 65 work together on these pieces to blur the lines: these tracks are electronic grooves with backing lyrical flow every bit as much as they're wicked raps with exotic vocals and textures.
[Original review]

#5 - Wax Fang, The Astronaut
Four years ago, Wax Fang created their stoner mind-trip, "The Astronaut: Part 1", a beautiful blend of Pink Floydian mutation crossed with neo-psychedelic exploration. This release uses that epic track as a jumping off point. While "Part 1" is long enough to count as its own concept album, they've built on the idea and taken the story off into some interesting directions, with darkness and doubt and a transcendent finish. The larger pieces are framed by shorter contrasting bits. Revisiting old ideas is a risky step, but Wax Fang takes on their earlier work and creates a richer, more nuanced project.
[Original review]

#4 - Megafauna, Maximalist
Megafauna takes the epigram, "Too much is never enough" to heart and delivers a visceral, hard-hitting mix of post-rock complexity, retro metallic darkness, and theatrical posturing. Bandleader Dani Neff anchors the songs not with her sweet vocal versatility—which can range from odd and vulnerable to ragged and stern—but through her monster guitar chops. She builds heavy riffs like the masters of classic rock, and effortlessly transitions into shred mode to push the songs over the top. All of that is impressive, but she and Megafauna make this list because they also know how to use dynamics and subtlety to make their punches hit that much harder.
[Original review]

#3 - Mazes, Wooden Aquarium
In contrast to Megafauna's Maximalist, Mazes asserts that less is more by making the most of the fairly simple production and getting the complexity from the wide ranging musical directions they take Wooden Aquarium. Fun house reflections of widely disparate bands like Pavement, Supertramp, and Guided By Voices populate the album, but Mazes asserts their own optimistic jangle that persists through everything from disorienting trippiness to driving Krautrock. The overarching sound is pop psychedelic goodness, but with a new wave twist.
[Original review]

#2 - Team Spirit, Killing Time
Lest year, Team Spirit self-titled EP debut made my list because of their perfect balance of thrashing pop punk excitement and tight twin-guitar riffing. It's been a long wait to get a full length release from the band and having seen them live several times in the interval, I honestly wasn't sure they could deliver both the wild excitement of their shows and a polished set of songs to compare with that first sample. I shouldn't have worried about it. Killing Time delivers the perfect mix of party time rock, entertaining humor, and punk swagger. More importantly, Team Spirit shows that they can play the fuck out their songs in the studio just as well as they do in concert.
[Original review]

# 1 - Sleepy Sun, Maui Tears
Ever since Rachel Fannan left Sleepy Sun in 2010, they've been leaping out into the great, noisy unknown of neo-psychedelia. While that reinvention may have been forced upon them, they've risen to the challenge and become a stronger band for it. Their last album, Spine Hits, demonstrated that they've become adept at harnessing the cathartic press of swirling feedback and thick brambles of guitar, but Maui Tears finds them showing off their dynamic chops as well. For all the noisy distortion and sonic saturation, they can still create nuanced moments, making the songs ripe for interpretation.
[Original review]

Friday, December 12, 2014

Recording review - ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, IX (2014)

A demanding muse powers the evocative flow

Insistent and obsessive, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead write and perform like they’re in the grip of a sometimes terrible muse. Words burst forth as if they can’t be contained. Deep swells of ringing guitar cascade down, almost overwhelming the mix. Dynamic drops to soft moments are less a respite than a chance for the storm to gather its strength anew. Their work has a sense of urgent immediacy that demands attention. Even when the vocals are almost washed away and the lyrics are hard to follow, the songs have an emotional heft. Their latest release, IX, finds the band with less of an overriding concept than The Century of Self (2009) or Tao of the Dead (2011), but a strong tide washes through it, promising catharsis. Last year’s Lost Songs saw the band focusing on tighter, more accessible pieces along political themes, but IX falls back to their core strength of revealing personal truths, giving their material a little more rope. Maintained the stripped down lineup and tighter arrangements of their last album, the new set provides an organic extension, the band flexing dynamics just like the good old days and expanding their sonic tapestry with deftly applied strings and keyboard textures.

Trail of Dead jumps right in with “The Doomsday Book”, leading with a few seconds of sustained chords before drums propel the song forward in a headlong rush. Guitars join in earnest with a ringing arena-worthy wash, and the slurring, emotive vocals are almost buried under the drone of driving syncopation and makeshift walls of guitar. They remain clear enough for listeners to follow the theme of loneliness, of facing challenges without someone who makes it worthwhile. This kind of stirring intensity is what the band does best, and this tune dispels any doubt that Trail of Dead has lost a step.

The playlist unwinds from the veiled threat behind the martial punk rhythm of “Jaded Apostles” to the uptempo post-rock palette of “Lie Without a Liar”. These songs contain oases of quiet moments, but the band finally takes a deep breath on “The Ghost Within”, the heart of the album. Moody and thoughtful, the song is permeated with a weariness that fits the lyrics, “There’s a curse upon your home/ There’s a sadness in this room.” The vocals may be worn down, but the song builds energy as it reaches the end of the verse. On the second pass through the changes, it heats up and uses repetition to draw out tension, before it finally builds into an inevitable boil with the accusatory lines, “And I want you to let go/ And I want you to come home.” The music is a rich haze of bitterness, regret and loss, along with a sense of the love that was. By the end it all slips away, and Conrad Keely repeats those lines with the sparsest accompaniment, lost and wistful.

Trail of Dead fills IX with their usual spectrum of genre blends: Green Day pop punk, indie rock posturing inspired by the Replacements, sculpted U2-like theatricality and other, less identifiable flashes of world beat and post-rock. More importantly, the crafted production is sparked to life by their raw emotion and ability to surrender themselves to the power of those feelings. It’s not perfect – “Lie Without a Liar” could benefit by stretching out and adding a new direction or two, and “How to Avoid Huge Ships” is more a musical interlude than a fully developed song. But the band has never offered perfection. Instead, it’s the adrenaline of soaring and diving, the evocative flow that drags the listener from peak to peak and the sense of more vivid colors and experiences. Their muse still feeds their compulsion, and we’re the luckier for it.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fresh single - Meatbodies, "Mountain"

Neo-psychedelia with a hit of a Adderall

One of the best things about punk music is that the short song format encourages a kind of focus, especially for the bass. A jazz bassist can meander along and surf the chord changes, but punk forces him to lock into the drive, ignoring all distraction. The dark throbbing insistence at the start of "Mountain" lives up to that ideal. When the drums and guitar kick in a dozen seconds later, it doesn't matter that they take us off into a neo-psychedelic groove, that bass has made it clear that this is serious shit and you'd better be buckled in. The vocals add a poppy lilt, but they float over the top without detracting from the murky grind.

Band leader Chad Ubovich has been out there working the sidelines of the garage rock scene for a while, playing with Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin among others. The Meatbodies' self-titled album is a respectable step into the spotlight for him. This track dips into thick tone of Black Sabbath and other classic acid-rockers, but sampling some of the others from the album, you can hear a great mix of trippy head music and over-driven garage rock. But that punk energy pervades the tracks and keeps them nice and taut. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Recording review - Jackson Browne, Standing in the Breach (2014)

Solid hooks can't quite fill the gap between the personal and the political

It’s taken six years but Jackson Browne is back again to refute both the critics and himself. On 2008’s Time the Conqueror, Browne was so immersed in his political message that he lost his connection to the emotional core that has driven his popularity. Worse, reviewers rightly bemoaned the album’s weaker musicality. On Standing in the Breach, Browne digs deep and resurrects the subtle but full arrangements, the rich melodic ideas and the well-crafted songwriting of his early albums. While about half the material carries forward the idealism and leftist politics he’s emphasized since the 1980s, he leavens that with a variety of life sketches that bring back the missing personal element. To a great extent, the album succeeds in delivering the classic Jackson Browne sound, in part because his voice is as strong and clear as it’s ever been. But nothing in this offering is as moving as “Song for Adam” or “From Silver Lake” from his solo debut. “Here” is the closest contender, with lyrics about loss and disconnection, but it only offers Zen comfort for the pain, rather than empathy or catharsis. Despite this, it’s still a very elegant little package. The music captures a sense of clarity and coming acceptance while the meditative vocal delivery bridges the divide between the music and pain in the lyrics. That complexity is the hallmark of Browne’s best work.

Browne begins the album with a peace offering to longtime followers, “The Birds of St. Mark”, which dates back to 1967, well before his solo career. This had only been released in a live piano version on 2005’s Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1, but this studio take settles into his original vision of the tune as a Byrds-style song. True to that, he’s picked up the tempo and his collaborator Greg Leisz fills the piece with Rickenbacker 12-string chiming worthy of Roger McGuinn. The track rolls out easily and the arrangement is quite polished. Those old fans will appreciate the gift and it does call back to the rich metaphorical lyrics of his earliest work. It’s a good song, but it feels a bit precious and dated. Written (appropriately) in the voice of a much younger man, it’s a bit out of place on Standing in the Breach. There’s an immaturity in the flowery language and allusion, using them as a shield against being seen as shallow or uncomplicated. It’s not clear if Browne is reaching back to his lost youth or merely reminding us of who he was. In either case, although it’s quite pretty, it doesn’t seem as engaged as his solo piano performance.

The album’s title offers its own multilayered message. The song, “Standing in the Breach”, is an affirmation, even as it recognizes the dire times we face, “Try to put our world together/ Standing in the breach.” But that phrase also touches on where Browne is trying to position himself, reaching out to both ends of his long career and proposing continuity between emotional meaning and social message. To his credit, he draws on both sides, but he rarely connects with the two on the same song. The closest he comes is on “The Long Way Around”, which ties a personal perspective to his commentary in an attempt to soften the preachiness. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but it still turns out to be one of the strongest tracks on the album. The low-key, sparse arrangement relies on a simple acoustic riff, a steady drum beat and the melodic bass work Browne has a penchant for. It’s a hopeful sound that contrasts with the litany of societal ills he identifies, shoehorning in pollution, greed, gun violence and ingratitude among the privileged. The vocals fit the music best, with a bouncy flow like “All Star” by Smashmouth and Browne lays down some tight lyrical turns. The track is filled out by reverse-gated guitar licks and sweet femme harmonies. Unfortunately, his message ends up a little muddled by the kitchen sink list and dated references like, “It’s hard to say which did more ill/ Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill,” but it’s catchy enough to gloss that over.

Flaws aside, Standing in the Breach is a big improvement on Time the Conqueror and it rekindles my appreciation for Browne as a writer and performer. While it doesn’t turn the clock back to the early 1970s and he can’t quite close the gap between his classic hits and later activism, the album shows that he can still turn a nice phrase and craft a solid hook.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)