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

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Year end wrap up

I started this blog in response to a good year of shows and CDs and this has been a great year of music and writing about it. It's hard to look back and pick highlights, but I'll take my shot and pick some shows and CDs that were especially good.

Thanks to my readers for their comments and recommendations and thanks to the musicians whose music I've enjoyed this year.

Concert highlights
Narrowing down the shows to a handful is hard. In no particular order, I'll offer the following:

Michael Franti (March, Aggie Theater, Ft Collins CO) was a party: high energy social awareness and a sincere performancs. "Everyone deserves music." Alan Vasquez as the opener was a good fit, too.

Easy Star All-Stars (March, Aggie Theater, Ft Collins CO) were another excellent show in March this year. Their reggae take on some classic rock music was incredible and not just a laugh. They played a lot of their Sgt Pepper's Lonely Dub Hearts Band material. Local band, Dub Skin, was a good match with a tight stage show and strong original material.

And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead (October, Bluebird Theater, Denver CO) was an unexpected surprise. I came out to see Russian rockers Mumiy Troll, who put on a fantastic performance. They were followed by the high energy thrash of Future of the Left. Then, I was blown away by Trail of Dead. They played a heady set of mind expanding progressive rock. Absolutely stunning.

John Doe and the Sadies (July, Lion's Lair, Denver CO) and opener Jill Sobule put on a fantastic show. Jill is such a talented songwriter and sincere performer, she just moves me. Then, X's John Doe came out and brought his own sincerity to some great classic country music.

Finally, any Roger Clyne show (May, Aggie Theater, Ft Collins CO) is sure to be a great show. He radiates positive energy whenever he plays, pulling the audience into his world of banditos and flawed heroes. This show was no exception. Openers, Dead Rock West, added an X/early REM vibe that meshed well.

CD highlights
It's equally hard to pick a small set of CDs from the pile of great music I've gotten this year. I've tried to limit this to CDs released this year, but still I'm leaving off some great music by Mumiy Troll, Navegante, and other wonderful bands. All five of the following CDs have stayed high in my rotation since I got them and I expect to be listening to them for years to come.

Follow the links to my reviews for more details.

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, The Century of Self. A brilliant prog rock concept album with a fair amount of youthful rage to keep things interesting. These songs all fit together into a theme of loss and change.

Eleni Mandell, Artificial Fire. Eleni's retro torch vocals match nicely with the dreamy, thoughtful feeling that permeates this album. It's very evocative and gives up more details with each listen.

Nneka, Concrete Jungle. Worlds collide: reggae, afro beat, and R&B. Silky vocals, but powerful.

Local Natives, Gorilla Manor. Wonderful musical elements to lock in your ears. Again, some progressive rock elements, but tempered by tight harmonies and a heavy bottom end.

Sonic Youth, The Eternal. Thrashing guitars, but the band has been maturing. This album channels a rich psychic zone of angst and edginess. All for your pleasure.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

CD review - And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, The Century of Self (2009)

I saw Trail of Dead earlier this year and was quite impressed. I don't often do a separate CD review when I've just covered the show, but, in this case, it's been overdue. The Century of Self has a classic concept album feel, where the songs all fit together into a greater whole. The album has a complex, rich theme. It deals with having no control over the fates and the loss that it entails, then covers the idea of moving past all of that -- and what effect your choices will have on the person you become. Maybe I'm reading more into this than I should, but it's a moving collection of songs. Don't get the wrong idea, though, This isn't a pity party. There's plenty of frustration and rage, all in service to the album as a whole.

Musically, it's quite interesting. There are two main thrusts. On the one hand, the songs mostly follow a progressive rock aesthetic, ignoring simple chord progressions and tight repetition. On the other hand, the vocals and instrumentation assert a punk/hard rock vibe that is emotional and cathartic. It's a bit like Green Day forming a supergroup with Jane's Addiction, playing Porcupine Tree material. There's also a strong element of Who's Next era Who, which seems to be a common prog rock influence.

The songs themselves are all fairly strong. Favorite standout moments include Bells of Creation, Pictures of an Only Child, and Ascending. Each has their own role and strengths.
The lyrics on Bells of Creation are beautiful; there's a sense of dawning opportunity. Musically, it's a bit like a slower version of Oceansize by Jane's Addiction, with a nice percussive groove and a huge sense of openness.

Pictures of an Only Child
is a deeply biographical song, sad with a sense of loss. They build the energy perfectly, dropping out to underscore the impact of the lyrics.

Finally, Ascending is amazing. The song is a hard rocker, with some of that Green Day feel. The vocals interlock and relate, but neither quite echoes or leads. What should be the background voice often precedes the narrative voice. Driving and bombastic, this song whipsaws the ears, but it's not noise...

Warm a little brandy by the fire and visit The Century of Self.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

CD review - My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (2008)

My introduction to My Morning Jacket was 2006's Okonokos, so I needed to catch up and hear what they've recorded since. Evil Urges has less Wilco and more Flaming Lips influences than Okonokos. It misses out on some of the epic trippiness of the live project, but that's as much due to the mix and the studio as it is the material. This is a solid album, even if it doesn't quite top the bar of the earlier work.

There are a couple of Beck-infused songs (Evil Urges and Highly Suspicious) that are interesting but a bit atypical. There are also several retro sections on the album. But, Evil Urges really hits its stride with I'm Amazed. This big arena rocker would be at home on Okonokos. The great harmony at the start of the vocals makes it sound like a live recording, too. I'm Amazed is a lot like Who's Next era Who -- Jim James' vocal has a bit of Roger Daltrey at its roots and the guitar lead is strong and rich even though it's fairly simple. This song also has a great build up.

Look at You ties back to My Morning Jacket's earlier alt country roots. Musically, it has a bit of the same Flaming Lips vibe that I've loved in their songs. This is a simple, sweet song. The effect is powerful: strong lyrics, smooth steel guitar accents, and clean harmonies. The words toy with a religious theme, but there's a purity here.

Give into your urges, get a fresh pour of Ska Brewing's Modus Hoperandi, and be refreshed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

CD review - Local Natives, Gorilla Manor (2009)

The opening notes of Wide Eyes, the first cut from Gorilla Manor, told me that I was home. Beautiful shimmery guitars, a deep meandering keyboard line, New Order style bass...everything fit together comfortably. When the vocals came in, the voices melded so seamlessly smooth, it was like honey. In that moment, Local Natives claimed a strong place in my musical rotation. Gorilla Manor is planned for release in February 2010, but their music is already making the rounds online at YouTube, LastFm, and Pitchfork.

Local Natives have a rich complex sound. They start with prog rock elements, tied to Massive Attack style bottom end and tight vocal harmonies. They sound like a grown up Trip Shakespeare crossed with a bit of Ryan Adams. The album is full of great songs, but the first single, Sun Hands, is the best. It starts out with a blues influenced guitar riff, but the layers build. The song rolls through several sections, building a tribal complexity that culminates in a psychedelic guitarfest before reprising the main groove again.

These two songs are not just lucky shots -- the rest of the material is strong, too: Airplanes, Camera Talk, and their cover of the Talking Heads' Warning Sign. This is a band to follow. After their success this year at SXSW, they're planning a spring tour to back the release of Gorilla Manor. Give them a listen, they're cognac smooth (a little Remy Martin Extra would be in order).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

CD review - Everybody is in the French Resistance...NOW!, Fixin' the Charts Volume 1 (2009)

Eddie Argos (Art Brut) and Dyan Valdés (The Blood Arm) have partnered on a side project, Everybody is in the French Resistance...NOW! The band's premise is based on writing response songs and Fixin' the Charts riffs on everyone from Kanye (Coal Digger) to the Archies ((I'm So) Waldo P Emerson Jones). The humor is broad but generally pretty amusing. The music has a sort of retro Brit feel, with tinges of Carnaby Street. It's so, so mod. Eddie proclaims the lyrics more than he sings them and Dyan add some nice backing vocals.

Billie's Genes is probably the strongest piece, written from the perspective of Michael Jackson's love child (Billie Jean). It kicks off with a keyboard-synth horn riff, then the beat comes in. It's a clever turnaround on the original: the kid is fairly glad not to have grown up as Michael Jackson's kid. Aside from the MJ context, this song works. The arrangement is smooth with tight backing vocals.

Think Twice (It's Not Alright) is another strong number, with it's needy version of Bob Dylan. The harpsichord keys riff off the original melody. This is truly the anti-Dylan.
Think and then think again
Before you say it's too late for us
Think and then think again
I don't believe your mind is fully made up.
The image of Dylan singing this one is hilarious.

There are plenty of other great targets here: Avril Lavigne, Martha Reeves, the aforementioned Kanye West, and Frank Sinatra. Sit down with a pint of lager and have a laugh.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

CD review - MC Paul Barman, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud (2009)

MC Paul Barman hasn't release a full album since 2002's Paullelujah!, which was a masterpiece of clever rhymes, arcane references, and crazy humor. To make up for the wait, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud has packed 22 songs into about an hour. It's a noble gesture, but not all of the material is top shelf. His stream of conscious style can be a little wearing, especially when he loses his thematic thread.

Barman has an East Coast approach to creating complex, rolling rhymes, but his delivery and subject matter are definitely all his own. A bit of a rap iconoclast, MC Paul Barman rarely tackles expectations head on. The albums starts out with Props, a call out against critics and rapper wannabes. Barman talks trash over a spare beat with a bit of detuned guitar throwing out a loose chain of notes. But the flow of his rap is key. He builds a rhyming chain of lines, all starting with "I came to collect...", like "I came to collect like crowds collect when I speak". This repetition culminates in a shot between the eyes:
Call it collect direct rather than roundabout
Before I spell it out for you, sound it out.
Boom. A strong beginning.

Another strong track is Drug Casual-T, which is effectively a personal intervention with a friend about their drug use. This stands out above a couple of other PSA type tracks (AIDS, Get Help, and maybe Circumcision Suite), in part because, after the solo, he throws in a response from his target. It's a bit of a straw man: don't be so self-righteous, you don't understand. But it's a surprise that keeps things interesting.

While Paullelujah! flirted with palindromes (in a section of Bleeding Brain Grow), Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud sets up a whole song as a double acrostic. The first letter of each word in a line spell another word (which is called out). Taking the first letter of each of these words, you get "MC Paul Barman". Obscure? Clever? Geeky? Sure, all of those are true. While I respect the effort, the end result is not particularly coherent.

My favorite line on the whole album is actually lifted from Ernie Kovacs: Television's a medium because it's neither rare nor well done. What makes it sweeter, is that the line comes in the song Sampling Law, which lyrically justifies the use of artistic sampling.

For deep fans of MC Paul Barman, you've drunk the Kool-Aid, go ahead and buy this. For newcomers, check out Paullelujah! and see if you acquire the taste. I'll have a little Kir Royale as you make up your minds.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Concert review - Eric McFadden Trio

13 December 2009 (Goat Soup and Whiskey Tavern, Keystone CO)
There's always more sound than three instruments should be making. Some of that is due to Eric's speed on the guitar, trilling through the gypsy minor scales he favors. There's also the layering of looped bass parts that James builds. And Jeff's tight syncopation on the drums. Or it might just be the shear volume of these three guys assaulting their instruments and creating barely controlled mayhem.

The Eric McFadden Trio brings so much pent up energy to the stage, every show is a cathartic release. Last night, their inspiration may have been the GPS leading them on a merry chase before getting them to Keystone. By the end of the night, none of that mattered anymore.

The show was split into two sets, with lots of material from their latest album, Delicate Thing. The first set also included not one, but two Tom Waits covers (Jockey Full of Bourbon and Tango 'Til They're Sore). The progression from One Bad Reason to Been So High and then to Catch a Liar was draining: constant driving beats and and thrashing guitar.

The second set shifted gears a bit, with a richer mix of styles and tempos. Eric riffed of a little bit of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, which turned into a gypsy/psychedelic exchange between the bass and guitar. This all served as an intro to Put It Down, which had a host of tossed off references including P-Funk's Flashlight and Nine Inch Nails' Head Like a Hole.

Eric played a bit more gypsy classical style guitar in this set and James stretched out some bass heavy jams, looping bowed lines with some walking parts. There were plenty of high energy jams, too, like The Rise of King George II and Miranda. The high point though was an extended version of Devil Moon, which slipped through several moods before coming back to the pensive starting sound.

I'm sure the Denver show was good, but Keystone rocked and they created some new EMT fans in the mountains. Pour me some George Dickel and lets kick out the jams...

More photos at my Flickr.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Concert review - The ReMINDers, Kinetix, the Flobots

10 December 2009 (Aggie THeater, Ft Collins CO)
I've said before that when it comes to rap, flow is everything. The rhythm of the rap needs to be dynamic, building and ebbing, avoiding monotony. The same thing is true about a show and this collection of Colorado bands at the Aggie was textbook. The show started off simple, with the ReMINDers laying out a traditional (and inspired) hip hop performance. Then, Kinetix kicked it up a notch, playing a solid rock/funk sound with rap and singing. The Flobots took that energy and harnessed it, laying out some progressive, conscious rap over a variety of musical styles. The progression felt natural. It was a fun night of consistently tight and interesting vocals.

The ReMINDers

The ReMINDers offered a standard hip hop lineup of a couple of rappers with a DJ providing the backing track. But as soon as they started, it was clear that they were something special. The two rappers are Queens born Aja Black and Big Samir from Brussels. They tossed the lead back and forth, almost casually, finishing each other's rhymes. Either one would be a strong performer, but together they had some great chemistry and incredible stage presence.

I didn't get their DJ's name. He mixed in a variety of musical styles, including reggae beats, funk grooves, and a bit of club style. He had a minimalist approach, mostly spinning the tracks with a little bit of mixing to match the rap.

Lyrically, they mostly laid out a conscious rap message, sounding a bit like the Fugees with a tip of the hat to early East Coast style like Run DMC. Occasionally, Aja sang, adding a generous dollop of soul. The high point, though, was Ill 4 Life, a braggadocio performed a cappella by Aja Black:
I got these anorexic pockets that are starvin' for dough
My brain's terminally ill, man, it's
dyin' to know
And in case you didn't know, I got a cancerous flow

It started small,
performin' in malls and talent shows
Serious malignant presence manifests and it grows

I got vertigo, I'm spinnin' out of control
My rhymes are klepto, always stealin' the show
My style is schizo and it don't even know

It switches up from time to time and I was on death row

Murdered a dozen MCs with sick swift quick blows
Smooth. I bought a copy of their album, ReCollect, which I'll review separately.

Kinetix hit the stage and played some rocking soul music to start out. Moving to a full band (keyboards, two guitars, bass, and drums) shifted the music, but since a fair amount of the vocals were rapped, there was a sense of continuity. Kinetix had a strong Living Color vibe: playing danceable hard rock with a funk undertone.

This was high energy music. The guys stalked around the stage as they played, punk band style. They worked the crowd and got everyone moving. As more people made it to the club, the vibe shifted into a party scene.

Eric Blumenfield and Adam Lufkin traded off on vocals, with nice tight arrangements. Instead of tossing the lead vocal back and forth, they focused on coordinated backup parts that emphasized the song. There was plenty of tasty, jam band style guitar lead, but the keys were the showpiece. The organ sound (not quite B-3) shifted from accents to full on lead; the electric piano threw in a different tone as needed.

Their crowd-pleaser was a cover of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. The tried, more or less, to nail the original sound and did a good job on the music. The harmonies weren't quite right but the crowd didn't really care. The main thing was how much fun everybody was having. They closed with People Start Hoppin', a jazzy funk jam.

The Flobots
The Flobots have been a major Denver act for several years, but in 2008, they leaped into the mainstream, making the rounds of several late night talk shows. Here in Ft. Collins, people lined up in the freezing weather, waiting to get in. This is the kind of fan dedication that propelled them to national attention.

The other driving force is their unique eclectic mix of influences: hip hop, hard rock, funk, and pseudo-classical/jazz. This latter is due to the influence of violist Mackenzie Roberts, who adds a perfect spice to this blend and separates them from the sea of rock/rap acts. That's not to make light of any of the other performers. During the show, guitarist Andy Guerrero bounced between steady rock or funk chops and added the perfect touches of tortured guitar chaos. Bass player Jesse Walker was an anchor. Kenny Ortiz kept the beat tight, but soulful. MCs Brer Rabbit and Jonny 5 each had their own strengths as rappers, taking different paths to the same flow groove. They demonstrated all of this, plus precision arrangements (and signalling), great backup vocals, stage choreography, and a politically aware lyric sensibility.

Speaking of which, their songs all stayed pretty close to a progressive political stance that was leftist without being simplistic. George Clinton might have said, "Free your mind and your ass will follow", but the Flobots worked on moving our asses, too. For all of the politics, though, this was no dour experience, but rather joy. All in all, think of Michael Franti with a different musical style.

The band played a mix of old and new material, including their biggest hit, Handlebars. Their live version really hit home emotionally. The shift between the innocent exultation at the start and the dark immorality later in the song was intense.

Stand Up, another classic Flobots tune, was a crowd favorite. Starting with an edgy viola riff, the song slowly added layers until the drums kicked into a rock beat. This evolved into more of a funk rock groove.
Stand up! We shall not be moved
Except by a child with no socks or shoes
If you got more to give then you've got to prove
Put your hands up and I'll copy you
New songs, like Cracks in the Surface and If I, were also strong. The upcoming album, Survival Story, should be a great one.

The Flobots closed with their version of Happy Together by the Turtles as the encore. While it started out fairly true to the original, they added their own rap interpretation section. The crowd sang along with them and, later, carried the tune out into the night.

It was a night for a good German bock: dark and a little heavy, but still rich and interesting.

More photos available on my Flickr.

Monday, December 7, 2009

CD review - Drug Rug, Paint the Fence Invisible (2009)

Sarah Cronin and Tommy Allen come together to form the idiosyncratic duo, Drug Rug, along with a little help from some friends. Paint the Fence Invisible, their sophomore effort, is the sort of album that requires real effort from the listener. The melodies and harmonies are off kilter and the songs don't follow a simple format. This is music that seems rooted in a dimension where Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators) is worshiped, a place where the Sugar Cubes are considered bland.

Vocal harmony is the key component of their sound. Sometimes they evoke a bit of a Fleetwood Mac or Mamas and Papas feel, mostly because of the male/female pairing and the way they've mixed the two vocal parts at about the same volume. So, neither voice is background, exactly. Another constant across these songs is strong retro aesthetic, based on a live room sound with plenty of reverb. The story is that the album was recorded in a haunted house; certainly, there's a sense of something to be exorcised.

Blue Moon starts with a simple guitar, then adds a spidery organ part that sounds like it belongs in 96 Tears. This one, along with Noah Rules, are what brought Roky Erickson to mind. It's the mix of keys, odd but simplistic guitar, and offbeat lyrics. Noah Rules takes it a step farther by filling the background with chaotic noise, flailing over the groove.

Shifting gears a bit, Hannah Please pulls out an Electric Light Orchestra riff with a hint of B-52's in the vocals. Normally, I'd compare this song with X, and it does have some of that raw emotion, but Cronin's voice is higher and wilder than Exene Cervenka's.

Throughout the album, Drug Rug has created layers of vocals and instrumental music that call for a most interesting pairing. Maybe a taste of absinthe is in order...

Further listening:
Roky Erickson:
You're Gonna Miss Me Baby (13th Floor Elevators)
Night of the Vampire

? and the Mysterians
96 Tears

Your Phone's Off the Hook

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

CD review - Maktub, Five (2009)

Seattle's Maktub has been around for a good thirteen years. While they've used that time to gain sophistication and extend their chops, they're still true to their roots as an R&B/soul band with a taste for funk. Five is their fifth album, available for a "pay what you think it's worth" price from their website. It's interesting to compare it with their first album, Subtle Ways (1999). One of the biggest areas of improvement is around their vocal arrangements. Subtle Ways was a good album, but it begged for backing vocals. Five adds a taste (there's still some more room) and also does some nice vocal sampling to bring out a more modern pop sensibility. The newer album also does a lot more with multi-tracking, which creates a richer listening experience.

Five spends most of its time in the pop/R&B/soul zone, with several songs that evoke Simply Red. Slippin' Away sounds a lot like Holding Back the Years, anchored with a smooth bass line and filled with keyboard parts. The distorted guitar lead adds an edgy rock vibe.

The stand out songs break this pattern, though. Strange World channels Prince's Sign O' The Times, withe a cool retro detuned guitar sound and tremolo. The groove is tight, with a touch of Jimi in the background fills. The utopian lyrics are full of nice imagery.

Seems Like Only Yesterday is the official guitar track of the album, with a talk box/AutoTune groove laying down the funk. It's too short, though, as the wailing guitar lead takes it out.

Finally, The Alchemist is a driving instrumental song that flirts with prog rock. The beat and the bass are up front, but there are layers of subtle details in the background that build the structure of the song. This is another one that would be better if they stretched out a little longer. The title is probably a reference to Paulo Coelho's novel, where they got their band name from.

All in all, a satisfying buffet of songs. Maybe it's the soul, but I'm thinking Brandy Alexanders are on the menu for this one.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Concert review - Jill Sobule, Erin McKeown

27 November 2009 (The Walnut Room, Denver CO)

This show promised something familiar and something new. Jill Sobule was here in July with John Doe and the Sadies, but I hadn't seen Erin McKeown before. It became clear that the two of them have developed a good tour chemistry.

The Walnut Room is an interesting venue. It has a normal bar with seating out front and a fairly intimate performance room in the back. With a scattering of tables and not much open space in front of the stage, a more raucous crowd wouldn't have fit. Last night, though, this wasn't a problem. The audience was enthusiastic, but fairly polite.

Jill Sobule

Jill and Erin kicked off the show together, singing a one-off theme song for Denver. It was a good start, reminding the crowd that Jill is a home town girl. Her set list ran through familiar paths, with several songs from California Years. As I've come to expect, Jill brought an uncompromising sincerity along with a slight vulnerability to her songs that built a strong connection to the audience.

Erin sat in on a few songs, adding a nice electric lead touch to Where is Bobbie Gentry? and a Riders on the Storm-influenced low-key organ backing for When My Ship Comes In. This last was probably my favorite song of the set. Jill was loose and funky with the rhythm; the song had a really fresh feel. Jill's friend, Eric Moon, also sat in on accordion for several songs -- another nice local touch.

In a lighter moment, Jill reworked her Kathie Lee song of a hidden lesbian relationship to take aim at Condoleezza Rice. This served as the perfect sweetness before her last song, Sonny Liston, which captured an aching sense of nostalgia and loss.

Erin McKeown
I recently reviewed Hundreds of Lions, McKeown's latest CD. It's a great listen, but how well would it translate to a stripped down solo performance? It turned out that the live energy and stage presence easily made up for the missing musical parts of a fuller band.

With no break between sets, Erin dove right into a sing-along version of Slung-Lo. Acting out the lines to teach the audience, McKeown was playful and fun. Then she shifted into an up tempo rockabilly vibe for Queen of Quiet. Then came the bluesy groove of The Taste of You, complete with the lead in story about living across from a strip club.

From song to song, including several from Hundreds of Lions, it was clear that the crowd knew the material well. The mood evolved throughout the set, but Erin's warm interactions with the audience were constant.

Jill Sobule returned the favor from her set and sat in on several songs. Their styles were so different, yet complementary. They ended with a huge encore of Neil Diamond's America, which had both women competing on who could channel Neil the best (I'd give it to Erin). The crowd joined in and closed out the night on a great show.

The Black and Tans I had were the perfect match for the music: two contrasting parts that fit well together.

Many more pictures at my Flickr.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

CD review - Apse, Climb Up (2009)

Apse has gone through a remarkable amount of change just to get here. Over the last 10 years, they've cycled members in and out and their sound has shifted, too. Aside from shorter songs on the new album compared to Spirit (their first album), Climb Up still mines some of that darker mood, but it also breaks things up, shifting from moodiness to anxious energy.

Musically, Apse owes a great debt to Joy Division and New Order, but they also pull in some Flaming Lips and Radiohead. Layered under all of that is a retro taste of King Crimson and Roxy Music. Sure, that's a lot of bands to compare with, but the songs really do bounce around. Robert Toher's vocals are loosely attached and evoke an edgy Marc Bolan (T. Rex).

There are some great elements here: wonderfully detailed textures, interesting syncopation, and a fair amount of psychedelia. But the overall effect is too scattershot. Climb Up is full of random shifts, like the pensive, deliberate slide of All Mine jumping into the progressive drive of Rook, Only the languid vocals maintain any cohesiveness. Later, Tropica builds a dream drenched collection of sonic layers, that build like a giant wave before drifting away and dissipating. It sets a wonderful mood, but it's torn apart by the sharp contrast of The Whip. This song takes a driving beat and a strong T. Rex feel and assembles them into a nicely packaged indie rock groove. It's not that any of these songs are bad, they just don't flow. Maybe, if they were reordered...

If the album doesn't quite satisfy, there are still bits to appreciate. The Joy Division/New Order post-punk vibe, strongest in 3.1, is a treat. The Age kicks off with a Brian Eno era Roxy Music feel and eventually slides into a trippy, Indian-tinged bit of rhythmic complexity. The affirming mood of The Return has a lot of neat little pieces that fit together in joyous tonal complexity.

So, Climb Up is a mixed bag. Sort of "rum and coke follows gin and tonic". It's worth a listen to see which parts you'll enjoy.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CD review - Erin McKeown, Hundreds of Lions (2009)

I'm looking forward to catching Erin McKeown in concert this coming Friday in Denver at the Walnut Room. She's touring with Jill Sobule, another of my favorite singer/songwriters. I hadn't really heard Erin before listening to Hundred of Lions, but I'm a fan now.

Her voice is intriguing: smoky and a little bit bruised. It reminds me a bit of Shirley Basie, Edie Brickell, and Eleni Mandell, depending on the song. McKeown tends sings a little off to the side of her subjects, providing a touch of distance. Several of the songs are borderline hypnotic, with repeated phrases and music that builds, layer by layer. The music meshes orchestral instruments with guitar and drums. There's a strong folk aesthetic, but it's tempered by jazz grooves and an indie rock sensibility.

There are several strong tracks, but All That Time You Missed is one of those hypnotic ones. It starts with a tone and an uptempo acoustic guitar and builds a moody groove. There's a satisfying contrast between slow components and faster ones: the woodwind tone and other slower tonal bits on the slower side pushing against the faster guitar and percussion. The percussion starts with simple drums but little bits of tech noise slide in as the complexity evolves. The chorus speaks to a universal theme of post breakup analysis:
And the easiest path to a broken heart is to keep moving
Could we have saved ourselves this walk by standing still?
This live version, stripped down to just the guitar and voice, doesn't really do it justice.

McKeown has talked about rejecting traditional genres for categories like "sunny day" or "car ride". The song, 28 starts out like a sunny walk, dappled with shadows. It's dreamy, with opaque lyrics that fit the music. Something about the melody of the bridge after the first lines makes me think of Riot Van, by the Arctic Monkeys, which just seems like an odd juxtaposition. Eventually, the song shifts into more of a simple, repetitive rocker before shifting back. I would have like more of that higher energy section, but the dynamic drop is nice, too.

There are plenty of sweet moments scattered throughout Hundreds of Lions -- the Celtic folk sound of You, Sailor (with its "I am a king/I am aching" dualism), The Lions' lush, "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" style retro groove, and the chanteuse-worthy Seamless which evokes Shirley Bassie singing Autumn Leaves.

Give Erin McKeown a listen. A 15 year old Dalwhinnie, sweet with heather should go well with the music.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Essay: The interconnected web

The OCD part of my nature makes me look for patterns and connection. That's actually a normal human trait. We categorize things to better understand them. It also gives us an instant context to communicate with each other. We tend to assume that everyone has categorized things in a roughly similar manner, but often forget to ask whether the category itself makes any sense.

Musical categories, for instance, seem inherently weak, especially when it comes to styles that are still evolving. That's largely because there are so few pure musical genres. Sure, with insulated groups, there's a sense of musical style sui generis, like Appalachian bluegrass or Swedish death metal. And yet, even these are tethered to roots that have spawned countless other styles. It's hard to find purity; there is no vacuum.

Over time, many stylistic labels become useless on their own: rock, jazz, world music...because the label represents a melange of vaguely related instances. We sense the relationship between two sounds, but can't really articulate the details. So we fall back to the general name. Rock has come a long way since the '50s, but even in the early days, elements from other styles, like country or blues, intruded. Like any hybrid, a given musical sound can be healthy, varied, and strong from taking pieces from numerous sources to create something unique.

For me, the most interesting music happens in those odd spaces between genres. That's why I love bands like Gogol Bordello, Camper Van Beethoven, Dengue Fever, Easy Star All-Stars, Nouvelle Vague, Whiskey Blanket, and Béla Fleck. Picking a genre in these cases seems pointless; it's better to list their antecedents. The music is vibrant and compelling, but the labels (e.g. jazz-bluegrass or gypsy punk) don't really make the grade.

Unfortunately some people get too hung up on labels. They can argue about whether something is "really punk/reggae/etc" and discount artistic value because it's not a pure enough example of something that was poorly defined in the first place. There are whole styles of music that I thought I didn't like, such as bluegrass or heavy metal. Eventually, though, I encountered examples of music I found I did like when I stopped worrying about the label. Occasionally, it even opened up my ears to the style in general. Now, I don't necessarily like everything I hear, but I can focus on what it is I don't like rather than automatically dismissing it.

So now, instead of satisfying my need for pattern and connection by sorting music into genres, I look for the patterns relating a given performer or song to other things I know. I can wonder which of those connections are real and which are just coincidence (or too removed to track). My head doesn't have a set of bins, it has a web.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

CD review - Dub Skin, No End in Time (2009)

I've reviewed Ft Collins' Dub Skin's live show, when they opened for the Easy Star All-Stars. This time, I gave a listen to their newest CD, No End In Time. Their live show was good, but they sound even better here. The conscious lyrics, the Burning Spear sound, and great bass and drums -- everything fits together just-so.

No End in Time grabbed my ear from the very start with the instrumental, Dubway Station. The spacious mix and moody ska groove sound like Ghost Town by the Specials. A simple keyboard chank and stepping bass line provide a nice grounding for all kinds of little fills and leads. When the song slips into double time around 2:40, things get a little trippy in a dub style.

It's easy to miss the point and reduce reggae to the chank beat. This mistakes anything with a similar reverse emphasis qualifies as "reggae". True reggae, though, is all about fitting together a collection of intricate parts which still fall together as a groove. On the surface, the music is simple. But, listening closely, you can hear the complexity of odd little percussion fills, the perfect background vocal parts, and tasty little keyboard parts.

Dub Skin understands this. Songs like Calm Before the Storm and Conquer Rome have a simple structure and are easy to listen to. The deeper immersion reveals the drummer's perfect fills kicking into the chorus and the odd bits of echoed keyboard and percussion decorating the corners of the tune. The guitar leads organically flow from the groove and seem less like an ego pose compared to a lot of rock music.

Another great track is Strongest Foundation, which brings back some of that ska sound. Repeated reverb-drenched guitar fills and echo saturated vocal parts mesh perfectly with the punchy drum sounds (especially the tom work). The song flows into a psychedelic dub jam that sets the mood without dragging on for too long.

I can't wait to catch Dub Skin live again. I'd love to hear some of these songs live. No End in Time is available for free download from their site. Check it out and if you like it, either catch them live or buy their debut release from digstation.com so they get paid.

Now, I'm thirsty for some home brewed ginger beer.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

CD review - Mojo Nixon, Whiskey Rebellion (2009)

Psycho-billy rocker Mojo Nixon is back from the dead (or at least the '90s), with a collection of recordings he found along with a couple of newer pieces. The songs are typical Mojo: over-the-top, simple rockabilly tunes with a heap of attitude on top. Taken as a whole, Whiskey Rebellion feels a little more haphazard than his earlier work because the instrumentation, arrangements, and recording quality vary wildly from song to some.

The world, according to Mojo, is split into the things he likes (Elvis, Kinky Friedman, America) and the larger group of things he hates (Dr Laura, his wife, asparagus, Don Henley, Judge Judy, small planes, drug testing). Mojo taps directly into his inner 13 year old (which is a bit more of a smart ass than his inner 8 year old) and vents forth. This is what he's always done and continues to do here. Once he gets started, nothing slows him down. If it weren't for his sins, he could have become one of those manic southern preachers, almost speaking in tongues he has so much to say.

The high point is clearly Just a Little Favor for the Kinkster, with Prisoner of the Tiki Room and Promised Land II as nearby peaks. Just a Little Favor has a stream of consciousness delivery that warns you that every live version will be different, even while the frantic rockabilly groove stays constant. Prisoner of the Tiki Room is Mojo's send up of Tom Waits. Finally, Promised Land II has enough autobiographical bits mixed in to sort of explain how he got where he is.

The screeds about Judge Judy, Dr. Laura, and urine testing seem fairly dated. And I understand that he wants to support his good friend Kinky Friedman, but reworking Elvis is Everywhere into a campaign song (Kinky is Everywhere) is a weak offering.

All in all, it's a mixed bag. As with all reviews, "if this is the sort of thing you like, you'll like this." I don't know if it's me or Mojo, but I'm not really feeling the magic this time, myself. I used to love Mojo back in the '80s and this doesn't live up that level.

The best link I found for listening was the Amazon site, so drop by and check him out.

Pour yourself some Pearl or PBR while you listen. Sure it's corny, but sometimes that's just what you want.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Concert review - Saul Williams and guests

8 November 2009 (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)

This show was part of the first national Afro-Punk tour, as an outgrowth of the Afro-Punk Festival in Brooklyn. Afro-Punk is a multicultural scene, giving a rallying point to outsider urban kids. The community fosters a punk attitude, where political expression, skate culture, and music all come together along with non-simplistic view about racial stereotypes and expectations. The tour continues from here out to California and up the coast.

Saul Williams is an excellent choice as headliner for this tour. His poetry and performance identify well with the Afro-Punk aesthetic and he's fairly well known nationally. Most the people I talked to before the show said that he was the main draw. They were ready to be moved by his words and his beat.

The night's entertainment split into two halves. The American Fangs and Earl Greyhound provided a more traditional rock band show, while CX KiDTRONiK with Tchaka Diallo and Saul Williams took more of a punk/rap approach.

DJ Musa
Denver turntable artist DJ Musa wove throughout the whole evening. He started the show, running an ongoing series of mixes, and also filled the time during the stage changes between acts. With a pair of digital Midi turntable controllers and a MacBook, he threw together some typical laptop grooves with some scratching. The mixes were not bad, with lots of the expected hip hop beats, but he also tossed in some punk and Nirvana to keep the crowd's ear. One particularly sweet transition was when he smoothly flowed from Public Enemy into Living Colour's Cult of Personality, which features a cool, off-beat guitar riff.

American Fangs
Houston's American Fangs started their set at top speed and never slowed down. The brownian motion on the stage set a punk mood, but the band is very polished and tight. The music was more of a thrashy hard rock. The frantic, restless vibe was a good start for the main attractions.

The songs were catchy enough. They sounded a bit like the Arctic Monkeys -- which is a great club sound. That was one hardworking drummer and their lead guitar player knew how to pose while he shredded. I've talked about "snotty boys with guitars", American Fangs are "angry boys with guitars".

During the set break, I talked to their singer, Gabriel. He said that they're enjoying the Afro-Punk Tour, but the drives can be pretty long -- they drove 22 hours to get to Boulder from New Orleans. After this tour, they're planning to record a new CD. Their last one, which they were selling for $5 at the show, had been recorded by their guitar player. Go to their site and listen to Le Kick, it's their contribution to the Afro-Punk sampler and it's a great rocker.

Earl Greyhound

Earl Greyhound is a trio out of Brooklyn. I kept counting and there were only three musicians every time -- but when I shut my eyes and listened, I'd come up with a bigger number. Their sound is thick, where the guitar shifts roles between fills, lead, and rhythm. Such a rich guitar tone: beautiful ringing guitar, fluid leads, and echo saturated psychedelic sound. The bass playing was smooth and melodic, featuring a light distortion and flange. Rounding out the sound, the drums were rich and syncopated, driving the beat, but never simplistic. The interplay of the male and female vocals reminded me of X, even if the music was completely different.

The first song of the set recalled Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, which set the tone for the rest of the set. The Led Zeppelin sounds persisted through a full set of epic songs, which featured some interesting chord progressions. Occasionally, they evoked more of a My Morning Jacket progressive rock sound. They played a new song that sounded like Pictures of Matchstick Men, with a droning vocal part echoed by the fill guitar. Sometimes, the bass and guitar twinned one another until they veered apart. This was hard rocking but complex music, in contrast to American Fangs.

I'm sorry that Earl Greyhound didn't have a CD for sale. I also would have liked to have talked with them after their set.

CX KiDTRONiK with Tchaka Diallo
And now for something completely different. When CX KiDTRONiK and Diallo hit the stage, it was a hostile takeover. They brought a low-fi musical approach, stripping things down to synth trigger beats and samples backing a mix of rap and punk vocals. At the same time, they created a visual spectacle, with sideshow antics and silly string. CX KiDTRONiK acted like he was in a manic Three Stooges movie, rolling on the ground and jumping up on his table full of gear. After a fairly short set, they closed with Shout, singing along with the old Isley Brothers record. That gave us a chance to catch our breath before Saul Williams

Saul Williams
Saul Williams had a backing band with guitar, keyboard basslines, and CX KiDTRONiK on synth percussion. He played a number of songs from his latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust. If you aren't familiar with Saul Williams, he performed in the movie Slam, doing spoken word/poetry. He pulled out stylistic elements of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. As Saul said in Sha-Clack-Clack (and performed at the show), he "is that nigger". The punk noise of the last set arose again, but this time in service to the words. He exhorted the audience, laid out political and racial identity philosophy/questions, and rocked the house.

The music may have been there for the words, but everyone pulled their weight. Genre jumping from punk to reggae chank, to hip hop beat, to Fishbone rock, Saul and his band raised the roof while raising consciousness. Another crowd pleaser was Convict Colony, off the new album. Later, he even covered U2's Sunday, Bloody Sunday in a punk version. His singing there may not have been the strongest, but he made the song his own. The last song of the set, with a descending line like Bela Lugosi's Dead, spiraled into chaos. Saul came back out for an encore of a couple of songs.

Driving home after this four hour show may have called for black coffee, but I'll recommend Kamikazes for the show itself.

More photos on my Flickr.