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

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)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fresh single: Jarabe de Palo, "Vecina"

Hoping that the summer never ends

The first taste of "Vecina" is rootsy and sincere. Calling the vibe "Americana" hardly seems appropriate for Barcelona's Jarabe de Palo, but this band has a great ear for setting up a simple rhythm and letting it flow. Imagine The Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" without Mick Jagger's pouty strut. The groove is as comfortable as a perfect pair of Levi's and well-worn boots. The organ and sax accompaniment provide soulful touches. This is a song that captures an end-of-summer feel that seems just right for a chilly Autumn day with damper weather.

The lyrics capitalize on that feel; after spending a summer admiring his beautiful neighbor as she soaks in the sun, lead singer Pau Donés finally works up the nerve to make his move: "Soy ese chico que ves desde tu jardín/ Solo quería algún día invitarte a salir." (tr. "I'm the guy you see from your garden/ I only wanted to ask you out someday") Don't let the voyeuristic story line color your impressions; "Vecina" is fairly innocent and wholesome, with more metaphor than sly innuendo.

Jarabe de Palo are on tour here in the US throughout October, wrapping up November 1 in San Francisco. If they pass through your town, immerse yourself in some continental Latin music. It's also worth checking out their latest release, Somos. In the meantime, I'll settle into the sunny sway of "Vecina" and, just like Donés sings, "Este verano que espero no tenga fin."