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

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CD review - The Lonely Forest, The Lonely Forest (2010)

Lead singer John Van Deusen's voice wafts across the songs on The Lonely Forest EP like the ghost of Michael Stipe, but there's a core of clarity. Van Deusen wants to be understood and to reach the listener. He sounds earnest and humble on this small debut offering. At first hearing, the music is direct indie rock, but progressive art rock sounds are lurking around the edges, adding complexity.

The EP is bookended with two versions of Turn Off This Song and Go Outside. The opener is electric, with walls of jangly guitars, a melodic bass line, and a straight ahead drum part. The vocals are sincere and self effacing:
And guys in bands
With vintage shirts and hundred dollar pants
Often think we do what no one can
And see ourselves above the rest
When faced with truth
I realize that there is nothing I can do
I'm out of talent or gift to bring
That is greater than the orphan or the song she sings...

Turn off, turn off the song
Find someone to love
Turn off the song
You can listen to it later, go outside...
The acoustic version is a very similar arrangement, just a little sadder sounding. Having the pair of versions sends the message that the Lonely Forest just wants to have their own corner of the scene to play in.

Ramshackle House builds on top of an electronic whine/hum that gives this songlet an experimental feel. It serves as an intro to I Don't Want Live There, which could pass for an outtake from REM's Murmur. Lyrically, it's too direct to convince anyone that it's REM, but the sound is right on. The start is simple, but it slowly builds a sense of majesty.

My favorite track is Let It Go. The chord changes for the verse mirror Pink Floyd's Learning to Fly, but the real inspiration seems to be And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. The opening guitar sets an off beat rhythm that serves as a progressive foundation. The drum work is perfect, especially during the wave building bridge. This song shows the promise that the Lonely Forest has some interesting musical ideas to explore in the future.

A debut EP is effectively just a demo. This EP was produced by Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie) and serves as a tease for their upcoming album, Arrows (due in early 2011). For now, I'll pair this with a green tea, maybe with a touch of mint.

Monday, September 27, 2010

CD review - Alain Johannes, Spark (2010)

Albums can have a depth that goes beyond individual songs. Sometimes it comes from an underlying concept that ties the tunes together. Other times, it's the continuity and progression of musical elements that build a movement. On the surface, Spark falls into the concept album category, since it deals with Alain Johannes' loss of his musical and life partner, Natasha Schneider. But Spark is more compelling for its musical approach. Still, it's a bit counter intuitive because the album goes through wild mood swings from song to song. Rather than blunting its message or sabotaging its flow, these shifts create a roller coaster ride, where each song drags you into the next section.

Or maybe a better analogy is a great multi course meal. Each track balances the previous one and offers something new, as the album unfolds. The opener, Endless Eyes, starts off frenetically. Looped and layered guitars create a driving tension that the chorus can only slightly relieve. This ends with a small flourish, allowing the simple, retro sound of Return to You to cleanse the palate.

The courses continue: haunted (Speechless), reminiscent (Spider), barely controlled anxiety (Gentle Ghosts), and regret (Unfinished Plan). While each song contrasts, the order has been well crafted. Musically, Johannes shows a lot of depth as well. His vocals and rhythmic structure evoke Barenaked Ladies, but I can hear Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), and some of King Crimson's harmonic complexity.

Although Spark is of a piece, one track deserves special mention. Make Gods Jealous sounds like John Fahey drifting into an Indian raga sound. It's fast and exciting, with exotic harmonies. The extended instrumental introduction creates a hypnotic, expansive feel. The music is ecstatic, but the languid vocals are detached. The clash creates a tension to savor. This is one of my favorite songs of the year. Here's a live version.

Alain Johannes' musical career has tendrils that reach some very interesting corners. Early on, he played with Flea and Hillel Slovak before they became the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He started the indie rock band, Eleven, which led to playing with and producing Queens of the Stoneage. He's also worked with artists from Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) to Kelly Clarkson. More recently, he's toured with Them Crooked Vultures.

Spark is his solo debut. It reminds me of a complex metheglin (spiced honey wine), where a host of flavors clamor for attention while staying in balance.

Friday, September 24, 2010

CD review - Jack Jeffery, Passage to Agadir (2010)

Jack Jeffery promises a lot for his debut CD, Passage to Agadir. His press release name checks Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and Brian Eno among others before describing the album as "sequenced to transport the listener on a trip through ambient, psychedelic, electronic, acoustic, and folk rock soundscapes". Song by song, Jeffery delivers on some of the influences he names and he dishes up some well crafted songs.

On the other hand, because he covers so much music ground, Passage to Agadir doesn't flow so smoothly. The genre hopping track list juxtaposes the Kraftwerk electronic tribute of Auf Wiedersehen! against the Pink Floyd homage, Interstellar Echoes on the Dark Side, which is jarring. Cutting a few of these out (Whiskey Burns, Where's the Ambient Jam?, Acoustic Mojo, Auf Wiedersehen!, and Build It Up) would have made this a tighter album. Those are good songs, but they weaken the impact of Passage to Agadir.

The most pleasant surprise on the album was Interstellar Echoes on the Dark Side. As a huge Pink Floyd fan, I was nervous that it would either be a painful mashup or a mediocre facsimile. While there are elements of One of These Days and Welcome to the Machine scattered about, Interstellar Echoes stood on its own. Jeffery took the pieces (ringing washes of synth, a wail of guitar, and a solid groove) and gave it more of a sequenced, electronic vibe. This modernized the feel. The song evolves like a cyborg, organic touches on electron bones, before a surprising return to the start.

Acoustic Mojo has a blues based jam on a heavily flanged out acoustic guitar. The ringing chords at the end promise an interesting change of mood that isn't resolved. This feels like a sketch rather than a fully realized song, but the tease at the end adds an intriguing complexity. It's refreshing.

The trippy Mind Horizon is out there on YouTube, but the several others are on Jeffery's MySpace page, including another favorite track, the subtle psychedelia of You've Lost Tomorrow.

Passage to Agadir is available at the usual online spots (iTunes, Amazon, and CD Baby. On the whole, I'd recommend a Kasteel Brune (strong Belgian dark beer) while you listen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

CD review - Darlings, Warma (2010)

Warma begins with a short squeal of feedback and an immediate power pop march beat. Darlings set up an upbeat mood as they grind through Don't Be So Hard On Yourself. The bouncy lilt of the vocals contrast with the lyrics:
Cinnamon Girl (you got one thing on your mind)
I could watch you for hours
I could show you how to die, but I like you
Die, I could still show you
It's not quite as dark as it reads. The song comes across as supportive. I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean, but it works.

The Warma EP is a mere six tracks of garage punk heaven. The songs are thrashy and low-fi, with just the right touch of dirty distortion. Darlings make the music something special with their cheery, almost naive approach. What sells it is the vocal mix, a sense of Cracker with Nico. Peter Rynsky's vocal hits that sneery David Lowery sound, while Maura Lynch's voice has a lower tone. The two together evoke the harmonies of the Velvet Underground and Nico even if the mood is more optimistic.

My favorite track is Born Heavy, with its speedy tempo and angular guitar riff verse. The deadpan ironic delivery on the verses ("Put on my first tee shirt, dyed my hair black, let it grow down to the ground") balances the retro '60s sound (Herman's Hermits I'm Into Something Good) of the chorus.

So far, Darlings have released one song off the EP, Big Girl, which has more of an early Liz Phair sound.
Darlings - Big Girl (on PopMatters)

Give Darlings a listen. The cathartic wash of garage rock will satisfy. I'd recommend a simple American pale ale to complement the music.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Concert review - Zion I, with Whiskey Blanket, The Bayliens, The Food Chain, Jimmy Hands

17 September 2010 (Aggie Theatre, Ft Collins CO)
The Aggie does a good job with hop shows, usually creating an extravaganza. Friday night's show continued the tradition, putting a full line up of four rap groups, with DJ music before and between. Local DJ, Jimmy Hands warmed up the crowd and kept them hot between acts with occasional help from DJ True Justice (Bayliens) and a couple of other rappers. The mix of styles was balanced: plenty of variety but the crowd was into each of the acts.

Jimmy Hands
DJ Jimmy Hands started the show early, creating a series of mashups to get the crowd moving. These weren't "blow your mind" mixes, just some solid tracks to get people dancing and ready for the main acts. During the warmup, DJ True Justice from the Bayliens came out to help hype the audience. He kicked up the energy level, coaxing everyone to follow his guidance - cheers, call and response, hand waving - all of this created the "show" mindset.

This is one of the strengths of a hip hop show. By having a DJ work in between the other acts, the energy level never gets a chance to leak away. So the climax of one band's set drives the start of the next one.

Jimmy Hands didn't limit himself to straight hip hop mashups. He built some smooth tracks using some electronica and trip hop grooves. He also showed off his scratching skills.

The Food Chain
The Food Chain dominated the stage when they came out. Four MCs fronted a band including a live drummer and three keyboard players. The keyboard guys covered a lot of ground, laying down some beats, regular keyboard lines, and samples. This is a Denver super group, pulling in players from across the scene. Fitting for a collective, everyone got plenty of stage time and attention

The MCs rapped ensemble style, trading off lines and chiming in at the ends of each others' phrases. The feel was loose and organic: it could have been tighter, but the visual appeal counted for a lot. It also would have helped to have a better mix, bringing the vocals out more. Despite those quibbles, the main thing was the fun they were having on stage and sharing with us.

Lyrically, the songs shotgunned a range of styles from conscious rap to party time. Musically, they favored R&B style backing grooves, but they weren't locked into that. Some of their most effective songs combined sparse keyboard lines with a heavy drum beat. From song to song, the Food Chain delivered a mainstream rap feel.

There were two high points in their set. One was a drumming contest between one of the keyboards and the drums, with some smooth call and response. Shortly after this, Mo Heat laid down some rocking guitar lines on the keyboards. Deftly working the pitch wheel and riffing, he created a Steve Vai/Zappa-esque guitar sound: harmonized and slightly angular, it filled out The Food Chain's musical sound and contributed to a rich jam.

The Bayliens
The Bayliens had a three prong attack: MC and DJ True Justice, Spaceman Cell, and Enzyme Dynamite. The three guys created a party vibe during their set. This culminated in pulling a pack of girls onto the stage for the end of their set.

The Bayliens favored a more modern sound, mixing in some heavy electronic backing tracks and jamming off a mash up with Sweet Dreams (The Eurythmics). They all had good flow, laying down some Beastie Boys lyrical hand-offs and building up some serious rapid-fire delivery.

The band comes out of East Bay and they've achieved some attention already, with a radio hit, Bubble Gum. They tend to play for laughs rather than being too serious, which the was fine with the crowd. All of the Bayliens were strong working the stage. They stalked the stage front, inciting the audience to fuller participation. Tossing out CDs is an easy way to buy a crowd, but the Bayliens seemed even more interested in getting their music into more people's hands (and ears).

Whiskey Blanket
It's telling that a local band, Boulder's Whiskey Blanket, had the number two spot for the show.
In the 18 months since I last saw them, they've improved their performance chops and evolved a gimmicky musical approach into a unique experimental hip hop style.

From the first moment, it was clear something was unusual. MC Sloppy Joe started out playing the violin, looping a series of riffs to form the bones of the backing track. Later, MC Funny Biz beatboxed while he laid down some cello riffs. DJ Steakhouse had a more normal role, bouncing between setting the groove and stepping out front to join in the rapping. Even so, the backing tracks he set were fairly interesting, ranging from lazy jazz lines to Arabic grooves to flute jams.

The three guys are all incredibly well rehearsed and tightly choreographed. They smoothly stole lines from one another and ran through machine gun speed lyrics in unison. The three might have all been controlled by a single mind, but each expressed his own personality at the same time. The lyrical flow was easily the smoothest of any of the acts that night.

The set included several songs from their CD, Credible Forces, including Temptations, Credible Sources, and Make Believe. They also played at least one song from their upcoming CD,
No Object. Whiskey Blanket has the potential to reach a much wider audience. Keep an ear out for them.

Zion I
If Whiskey Blanket relied on cleverness and an entertaining show, Zion I's set was more about setting a mood and creating a group connection. The ritual began with DJ AmpLive coming out and laying electronic textures over a hip hop beat, creating a cross between a club feel and electro pop. AmpLive is a different kind of DJ/instrumentalist. Rather than scratching, he does more mixing and heavy electronic processing of base sounds. He manipulates and mutates a basic groove to tickle the ear as well as get the crowd dancing.

After a couple of songs, the other half of Zion I, MC Zumbi, came out. Codany Holiday supported the band by providing the hottest soul singing of the night. The songs often created a mash up between AmpLive's electronic grooves, Haliday's crooning, and Zumbi's solid rap. Zumbi stayed center stage and provided the focus for the mood they wanted to create. Sure, there was a sense of "party and have a good time", but that was tempered by more socially conscious raps and positive messages.

A perfect example of the balance was Antenna which started with a strong soul vocal testimony, which was overtaken by a club beat electronica feel. Zumbi's lyrics
Every breath is a prayer
We still livin'
World's still spinnin'
I'm still thanksgivin'
So what should I do?
When can I
Talk to you
Through my antenna?
It's bouncy, fun, and danceable, but there's still a good message in there.

Zion I played a number of their familiar songs, including Fingerpaint, The Bay, and Coastin'. This last didn't drop until the encore, but was worth the wait. Speaking of encore's, the encore started with Zion I coming back, but they invited all of the out of staters on stage to join. This gave the Bayliens and some other guests a chance to hit the stage again. This turned into a freestyle contest. Everyone gave their best shot, but Zumbi had the edge.

This was a long, late show covering a wide range of what hip hop can be. I need a 6 shot espresso just to keep up.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, September 17, 2010

CD review - Donavon Frankenreiter, Glow (2010)

Indie rock artist (and pro surfer) Donavon Frankenreiter doesn't worry, he's just happy. With a lazy, laid back, raspy voice somewhere between Macy Gray and Greg Brown, he infuses Glow with a warm, hazy feel. The music is catchy indie pop, with bluesy folk moments. Maybe it's his surfer vibe, but Frankenreiter's cheerful, foot-tapping music is open and inviting.

Glow favors reverbed, shimmery guitars mixed under acoustic instruments. Many of the songs are layered but not overly complex. With the musical bounce and his relaxed vocal delivery, it sounds a lot like Jason Mraz (I'm Yours, for instance). The title cut, Glow, is available on Frankenreiter's MySpace page. It's typical of most of the songs on the album: music that's well suited to a drowsy summer afternoon.

The mood varies occasionally, like the reflective Shadows or the wistful sound of Home. But it all comes back to the theme best summed up in All Right:
Don't worry 'bout a thing
Heaven knows what the day will bring
There's a big old sun, lighting up your sky
Burnin' off your blues, let the good light shine...
It's gonna be all right.
Glow is due out on October 5 on Donavon Frankenreiter's personal label, Liquid Tambourine Records. Pick it up and enjoy it with a sweet sparkling mead.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

CD review - The Posies, Blood/Candy (2010)

The Posies haven't strayed too far from their sonic past. On Blood/Candy (due out September 28), they're still writing clever indie rock/power pop songs that balance wordiness with interesting musical structure. This isn't a rehash, though. The Posies sound modern and relevant, recalling more recent acts like Guided By Voices or Fountains of Wayne.

A few tracks, like Accidental Architecture, move beyond power pop into uncharted territory. This one is experimental in an early '70s style. It bounces between dissonance and harmonious sections, occasionally lurching into an easy jazz vibe. On the other hand, For the Ashes is arty, dressing up like progressive rock. The tension of the verses breaks for a processional bridge. These songs are good but aren't typical of Blood/Candy.

Instead, most the tracks stay within the Posies' comfort zone. Even within their indie rock realm, though, there's a lot of tonal variety: So Caroline, with its Fountains of Wayne vocals, Licenses to Hide, which features Lisa Lobsinger of Broken Social Scene, and Notion 99, which could have come from a Smithereens album. These are all strong songs and they don't all melt together.

The pinnacle of Blood/Candy is She's Coming Down Again. It starts with some sinuous melodic bass work that's highlighted with piano frills. The song see saws between reflective verses and a strong power pop chorus, complete with retro vocal harmonies. The lyrical phrasing is as good as anything the Posies have ever done. The balance between short fast fragments and longer held words creates a flow where each line extends the last one, sometimes shifting the direction of the sentence. The lyrics paint the picture of a girl whose life has spun out of control:
There's no funeral
Just the usual
Gathering in a small town
You never heard of
You thought that you knew her
She never told you she was
Sooo far from home
But home was simply the last place
The last place that she was looking for
That was your mistake...
Blood/Candy should satisfy older Posies fans and attract some new ones. The clever lyrics, cool sonic textures, tight arrangements, and catchy tunes make this perfect for the car or the iPod. Pour an Arnold Palmer and enjoy the ride.

Monday, September 13, 2010

CD review - Call Me Lightning, When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free (2010)

Call Me Lightning took their name from a song by the Who and When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free provides their chance to channel the Who's energy and inspiration.

Their sound is immersed in early period Who, particularly A Quick One. They also throw in sonic references to Quadrophenia and other early albums. The intensity reaches for Live at Leeds with some success. The Who's rhythm section was the heart of their sound: Keith Moon's rambunctious drum attack paired with John Entwistle's structured, lead style bass lines provided a foundation for Pete Townshend's rhythmic flail.

Call Me Lightning understands this dynamic. The guitar is solid, the drums are hyper and booming, but it's the bass work that brings them closest to the Who's power trio musical sound.

The band leavens this Who-fest with a manic punk energy borrowed from Green Day and a vocal/lyrical approach like Too Much Joy. But, When I Am Dead... is no mere knock of of any of these bands. They bring an earnest honesty to their songs. Coupling this sincerity with a sense of reckless abandon, they seem unwilling to settle for any kind of skinny studio feel. This big sound helps make it a great album.

Called to the Throne hits like a tidal wave. The extended intro builds the expectations for the song. When the rolling drum work and busy bass line take off and the vocals come in, it's like crossing American Idiot with the angst of Quadrophenia.

Bronze Hell takes elements of A Quick One, While He's Away, specifically the "We have a remedy" section (along with a touch of Happy Jack). The lyrics mostly sound like Townshend's work, but the bridge has Too Much Joy's sardonic fatalism:
When I was born, a child
My father took me aside
My daddy said to me,
"My boy, you will not be
A man, until you fall in love...
And then you fuck it up"
The rest of When I Am Dead... is full of gems, from going-to-hell acceptance of the title track to the Jane's Addiction bounce of Old Cactus. Check out their MySpace page to hear a few of these. Call Me Lightning hits an interesting balance by giving themselves over to their inspiration without being a shadow copy or losing their sense of identity.

This is solid double IPA music: aggressive, cathartic, and satisfying.

Friday, September 10, 2010

CD review - The Pimps of Joytime, High Steppin' (2007)

Brooklyn must have an incredible music scene because so many great bands from there are going national lately (including my favorite, Earl Greyhound). The latest one I've heard is the Pimps of Joytime (PoJT). My friend Brent texted me from a Michael Franti show to tell me about them and a quick search delivered the party to my ears.

High Steppin' is a couple of years old, but I also got a chance to hear three new unreleased tracks that I'll talk about at the end of the review.

First of all, Brian J and the band have studied under the masters. You can hear the inspiration of Sly, Stevie, George, and Carlos from song by song. The PoJT are products of their generation, so the sound is updated a bit with some samples and rap. And although there's a hint of Prince's falsetto vocal style on High Steppin', they've got their own take on classic funk and soul. They like to toss in some Latin beats to keep it interesting and their jam band party feel makes them a joy to listen to. I really need to catch them live to get the full effect, I think.

High Steppin' kicks off with PJT's High Steppin', an old school album intro track. They use a looped set of spoken samples to set a beat, which the band formalizes. Scratching samples, funk guitar, and other instruments come in to built a groove.

With the intro out of the way, the album slides into it's strongest song. My Gold uses complex poly-rhythms and a repetitive guitar figure to set up an Afrobeat feel. The falsetto vocal adds a touch of Prince or Sly Stone. By the time the song hits the solo, it can't quite decide whether to be Afrobeat, funk, soul, or psychedelic jam. It's all of those things together, swirling in a hypnotic stew. The PoJT effortlessly slide between genres, while maintaining the African foundation. This version is just under four minutes, but it's easy to imagine a 10 or 15 minute live version.

Another strong track is Bonita, which takes a Santana style groove and kicks it into modern Latin dance pop territory. The percussion and horn stabs are note perfect. While the guitar is keeping, it doesn't dominate the way Santana would, which gives the piano and horns more room to run.

The rest of album is pretty tight, from the Stevie Wonder feel of She-Do to the P-Funk keys and horns of Workin' All The Time. There are three tracks that seem out of place: the toasting DJ and solid reggae of Tea Time, the early '60s revival ballad of We Can Find a Way, and the odd mish mash of Hey, Mr. J. The first two aren't too jarring but the last one bounces between new wave, soul, Adrian Belew style pop, and a Latin section. It's the only distraction from a finely crafted album.

So, if that's the Pimps of Joytime from 3 years ago, how are they now? There are three unreleased tracks all available on their MySpace page. Janxta Funk is a hopping party funk groove, with a tight, P-Funk, Up For the Down Stroke feel. It's very danceable. Blues Wit You hits that Santana space again (think Oye Como Va), with some great lyrical flow. There's a lot going on in the underbrush: free floating, jazzy flute and solid bass licks. Finally, Pimpin' Music starts with a scratched loop, club beat intro and delivers another booty shake, sounding like classic soul dressed up for the disco.

The Pimps of Joytime are a great funk/soul band. They seem to bounce between the East and West coast, so catch them live if you can. In the meantime, grab High Steppin' from ITunes or Amazon. I'll toast Brent with an Anchor Liberty for turning me on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

CD review - Juliette Commagere, The Procession (2010)

For all of its pop touches, The Procession is a surprisingly deep album. Juliette Commagere melds pop, new wave, and electronic elements with subtle, slightly dark lyrics. She also meddles with formulaic pop structure to create a sense of orchestration. Through all of the this, Commagere's voice is the anchor. Her clear enunciation and smooth tone suggest training. She sings deliberately, without surrendering to emotion or losing herself in the song. She's not cold, though. Sometimes, you can hear a knowing wink or a breathy joy. Impact shares that joy against a bouncy Blondie-style pop beat, serving as one of the cheery moments on the album.

But it's songs like Hovering in the Wings that show off Commagere's complexity. The simple piano intro sets the hook. Then the music veers between new wave verses filled with tightly reined tension and a chorus that casually surrenders concern and control. The lyrics are oblique and conflicting, alluding to some kind of inner demon. Here's the second verse and chorus:
I let it hunt for me harvesting my dreams
(It's down, down where you want to go)
Tangled in a jumble of my needs
(It's down, down where the water flows)
Buying a way, I try to break
From a corner of the bedroom
I can hear it breathe, hovering in the wings
Every time that I turn around,
Red, gold, up and come out - the light is changing
And all my fears are taking form
Move right in and make yourselves at home
It's comforting to be alone - laughing while the light is changing
Until you follow the words, the chorus sounds cheery, but the lyrics show she's giving in to the darkness of the verse. Commagere's voice also shifts with the mood, going from a darker version of Blondie to a lush Karen Carpenter on the chorus. The arrangement is masterful, with the verse coming to a precipice and falling suddenly into the release of the chorus.

The title cut, The Procession, shows a different flavor of complexity. Here, the opening is soft, creating a sense of open space. Sparse parts slowly fit together in layers. After the chorus, a fluid keyboard line like a slide guitar signals an uptempo shift to a more majestic sound. This deflates slightly as it returns to the chorus.

As a whole, The Procession has an interesting arrangement as well. The songs progress from pop oriented, keyboard tunes to more complex and harder-to-classify tracks, and last few songs are more experimental, with some forays into electronic pop. This makes The Procession an engaging listening experience with some surprises. Think cinnamon spiced coffee.

Monday, September 6, 2010

CD review - Dive Index, The Surface We Divide (2010)

Dive Index is a creative outlet for producer Will Thomas. The Surface We Divide is the second album he's released under this name (Mid/Air is the first). Thomas is active in the electronic music scene as a composer and producer. The Dive Index albums are developed through a directed collaborative process: Thomas pulls together a set of musical ideas, which he sends out to a set of vocalists. This time, the singers included Joseph Arthur, Cat Martino, Mark Gardener (Ride), and Patrick Cooper. Through email and file exchanges, parts are developed and Thomas assembles the pieces with instrumental tracks.

The committee style approach succeeds because Will Thomas has a good ear as he pulls the vocal contributions into his musical web. These vocal parts are key to The Surface We Divide, from the call and response setup of Blind and Closed or the emotional depth on Puppet Spinning.

Dive Index blurs genre somewhere between dream pop, shoegaze, and indie pop, with emphasis on dreamy vocal processing. The integration of analog instruments (acoustic guitar, bass, cello, and drums) with the electronic sounds of drum machines, synths, and keyboards is very interesting. The two sides complement each other; organic breath meets rich tonal soundscapes.

Interesting rhythms fall out of the looping arrangements. The music uses repetition to build a variety of moods from tension to obsession to meditation. A couple of songs (Blink and Answers) even build a gamelan effect through Thomas' layering technique.

The lead off track, Cut, is a laid back groove centered on harmonized falsetto soulful vocals. The singing reminds me of Long Train Running (Doobie Brothers). The electronic underpinnings and looped parts create a richly layered sound. The song is dreamy and distant, with a sense of surrender packed under cotton. Listen past the rhythmic complexity and make sure to catch the bass work and subtle organ fills.

Looping can create some intriguing beats as parts play against one another. Agatha uses looping to create complexity out of a few easy parts and tonal textures. The lyrics are simple and the vocals are more immediate, but the vocal repetition lets the voice become another instrumental element ("We were waiting for a bomb to fall...").

The Surface We Divide is a satisfying experience of an album. Pour a glass of Brunello Di Montalcino and savor them both.

Friday, September 3, 2010

CD review - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, History of Modern (2010)

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) is back, with their first studio album in 14 years. Best of all, they've dodged the sad fate of so many band reunions. They still remember what made their music memorable and they sound fresh even as they reach towards the feel of their earlier years. Many of these tracks have been in the works over recent years, so it's especially gratifying that History of Modern is seeing official release (20 September in the UK and 28 September in the US).

Many of the songs evoke OMD's old school synth pop sound, especially songs like Sister Marie Says and Green. Still, the band fuses in more modern club beats and electronica into several tracks. Pulse is a good example of this, along with the R&B infused sound of Sometimes, which features singer Jennifer John.

The album leads off with a catchy track, New Babies: New Toys, which sounds like retro post punk. But the following tune really sealed the deal. The first single, If You Want It, hits that classic OMD sound. The soulful repetition of the chorus is backed with shimmers of synth fills and a rich tonal wash. That chorus has a deeply triumphant feel that I came back to repeatedly.

RFWK is another favorite track. The staccato chop of the intro sets up a higher pitch electronic riff. The verses are clean as the music drops back to mostly drums and vocals, although washes fade in and the synth fill comes back. It's got a reflective feel, but the vocals bring in enough taut, emotional tension to contrast with the cooler musical feel.

The US release includes one extra track, Save Me, which mashes up the vocals from Aretha Franklin's Save Me with music from OMD's Messages (1980). This is the perfect after dinner mint to close out History of Modern. Complement it with a bottle of Lefthand's Good Juju ginger beer.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

CD review - Emily Shirley, Tiny Truths (2010)

Sometimes, an EP is the perfect size. An artist accomplishes her goal in a small handful of songs and it's enough. There are no second rate songs thrown in to fill out the album: perfect artistic focus. Heck, some artists just release singles as they record them. On Tiny Truths, Emily Shirley has created her latest demo. It's a loose collection of songs designed to show her range and every song is strong. Consequently, it's a great listen, but it's frustrating because it's too short. I want to hear more of what Shirley has to offer beyond these five songs.

Like many female singer-songwriters, Shirley's strong voice is the focus. It's all too easy to look for signs of Tori Amos or Suzanne Vega - you could find traces here - but Emily Shirley is closer to Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde). Some of that is due to the material and well planned (and well executed) arrangements.

The high point is Taking the Sun. At one level, it's a breakup song, but there's a depth beyond the obvious interpretation. It starts out sparse and open. After this intro, it takes on a degree of strain and the music builds. Then it hits a chorus that sends shivers:
I'm taking the sun and you can't have it back
I'm taking the moon and I will paint it black
Her voice is calm and a little sad that it's come to this. There's a powerful psychic energy buried in this song that comes out as the guitars throw a little bit of distortion against the wistful sound of Shirley's voice. Taking the Sun is the song that evokes Concrete Blonde the strongest on Tiny Truths. Like the album, I wish the song lasted longer, just so I could wallow in it.

Later, Blueberry Song pulls off a Tom Waits sound, primarily with an arrangement that creates a carnival feel along with some interesting instrumentation. The mood here couldn't be more different from Taking the Sun, but it's also compelling and original. The solo version doesn't quite hit the same spot, but it's still good.

I'd love to see Emily Shirley break out of Austin and take on the world, if only so I can hear more of what she has to offer. Tiny Truths is available on Amazon, buy it here and help make that happen.

Now I'm longing for a Celis Grand Cru (from when Pierre was running things).