(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 Vald├ęs (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.