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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

CD review - Julia Nunes, I Think You Know EP (2010)

Julia Nunes is the new kind of popular phenom. She built a following for her quirky ukulele based songs on YouTube, playing a mix original songs and interesting covers. This attention eventually scored her a chance to tour and open for Ben Folds. She hasn't let it go to her head, though. She's still a full time student in college and she still responds directly to her fans regardless of how strange the questions get.

I Think You Know is a new EP (due out Feb 2), with 5 songs. Like most EPs, it covers a range of material, without a strong musical theme. It's short enough, that I'll run down the tracklist.

First up is August. This is an older folky song. This is the sound and feel of a new, fresh love. The simple guitar arrangement is pretty and little details are added in. The harmonies are sweet.

Comatose radically shifts the mood. The choppy beat is anxious, which fits the disjoint nature of the lyrics. It's not clear whether this is about the fear of love or something darker. A little bit of studio talk tacked onto the end punctures the seriousness.

The bass and drums provide a perfect bed for the indie folk sound of Grown a Pair. It's a reflective piece. The lyrics start out wanting to be cared for, then slide into paranoia. This "push me-pull you" theme flows smoothly. This is one of the best songs here.

I Think You Know returns to the simpler folky sound. With a theme of moving beyond a relationship, the intensity builds, but the lyrics don't quite live up to the emotional weight of the vocals. There's a lot left unsaid here. The bridge is particularly sweet, when the arrangements falls back to vocals and ukulele.

Through the Floorboards should have been a Barenaked Ladies song. It has the rhythm, the instrumentation, the lyrics, and the vocal delivery. It's a tight arrangement, with some nice musical sections. The chorus loosens up the driving beat, leading into a great sonic opening with retro shifting harmonies. Then, it drops suddenly into the next verse:
I don't mind burning bridges
To the bitches I used to live with
But I'm all about forgiveness
So I'll take this tape and run

Unwinding yards
To mend these shattered hearts
Doing circles round the shifting ground
That's tearing us apart

I don't get what changed
But you're not the same
I doubt I'll ever get the chance to explain, given the circumstance

I kind of feel you through the floorboards...
Every time I listen to I Think You Know, this is the song that sticks in my ear.

Even with the darker moments, this a cool mint tea collection of songs.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Concert review - Dualistics, Brazos, White Denim

27 January 2010 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
The lighting wasn't so great for photos, but it was a full night of music that was well worth the drive home in the snow. White Denim was the headliner, with fellow Austin band Brazos, and local openers, Dualistics.

Dualistics describe themselves as progressive pop, which is as good a name for it as anything. Their sound ranged from the progressive drive of Trail of Dead to the vintage alt rock sneer of the Replacements, with an oil slick of Wilco flashing through at times.

Guitar player Tyler Despres hunched over during the more tortured bits of thrash, but always rose back to the mike. He and fellow guitarist Charley Hine played some cool paired guitar parts that blended a jangly discordance of sound. Their stage energy is intense and they put on a fun show. The rhythm section was tight, as the band flowed through their set.

The band has a great sense of dynamics, with low bits jumping into loud, grungy guitar riffs. Nowhere was this clearer than the high point of the show: the U2 influenced Pure Sorcery, with little sampled bits of guitar (hardly enough to be full looping). Following this with the more thoughtful Taking the Time accomplished the same dynamic shift at a set level. This was also a strong song, with some beautiful cymbal work supporting layers of guitar fragments.

Dualistics were a great opener for White Denim, but nine songs or so wasn't nearly enough. I'll need to catch them again when they're headlining their own show. In the meantime, I'm listening to their eponymous six song EP.

Like their friends White Denim, Brazos comes out of Austin. Sonically, they're worlds apart. Guitarist and frontman Martin Crane has a muted, mid-rangey guitar tone. His vocals are often dreamy or diffident. The show started with a solo guitar playing a simple chord, shifting a couple of notes. Crane's voice, a blend of Kurt Cobain singing with a sort of Rickie Lee Jones distance, riffed through the lyrics. The room was receptive to the shift in energy, but it was jarring.

Crane's new indie folk sound is backed by an incredibly tight rhythm section. When they joined in to finish the first song, everyone woke up. These guys provide a syncopated structure to support the looser guitar and vocals. Like Dualistics, they have a good sense of dynamics. Drummer Andy Beaudoin has some wonderful phrasing, often using a maraca in his right hand rather than a drumstick. Bass player Paul Price throbs a steady drive of bottom end.

The music didn't click for me in this context, though the energy on the last couple of songs were much better.

White Denim
The bar drops across your lap and, with a sudden turn, you see the drop ahead of you...much like a ride on a roller coaster from some warped nearby dimension, we were committed. Turn after turn, climbs and falls. White Denim kicked off their set with a subtle looped guitar that built an intricate layering that was subsumed in a moment by the band rocking out as one. This turned into some 40 odd minutes song after song strung together in one ass-kicking loop-the-loop ride through their acid and soul drenched world.

When a break in the music finally came, the audience needed it as much as the band. There was no time to savor it, though, as they started playing again immediately. The songs flowed together, with the band playing like a flock of birds: shifting tempo and style while staying in formation. Most of these changes have to be worked out in advance, as they would veer off together on a dime, but it all felt perfectly natural. This flow gave the set a bit of jam band feel, but the music was firmly hard rock/psychedelia. Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith riffs rubbed elbows with Steppenwolf drive and Hendrix wail.

White Denim ran through many of the songs from their latest album, Fits, including the trippy All Consolation and their single, I Start to Run. The live versions were looser, but much faster and louder. One surprise was that Synchn, a decent song on the album became a masterpiece of moody pain.

The balance between these three players was exquisite. James Petralli built tight layers of looped guitar and then shredded over them with gleeful abandon. Steve Terebecki was incredible as he managed to channel John Paul Jones crossed with John Entwistle. Josh Block covered the basic beat necessities, but he filled out the spaces with tasteful, decorative touches. There was always a lot going on, but the three managed to showcase everyone's talents.

At the end of the night, we walked out: tired, drained, exhilarated. If only there had been a good coffee stout on tap, that would have been perfect. Catch White Denim on their next pass through your town.

More photos at my Flickr.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CD Review - The Mars Volta, Octahedron (2009)

No one will ever accuse the Mars Volta of being lighthearted. They've built a catalog of dark, pessimistic, cynical albums. But they've been on my radar for a while because of their strong mix of hard rock and progressive rock. They're also well known for making concept albums.

cracks that mold a tiny bit by not having a cohesive theme. Musically, most of the songs follow a bit of a formula, starting out moody and mellow with elements of Pink Floyd-like psychedelia. But then they pick up into a harder rock or progressive rock approach. It's an uneven road, though, mostly because the lyrics don't connect as well as the music. There are high points like Since We've Been Wrong, which has some nice layered guitar parts and trappings of early King Crimson. Halo of Nembutals starts out mellow, with a Richard Wright keyboard sound that sounds straight off Dark Side of the Moon. It shifts into a busier progressive rock sound. In this case, the lyrics turn ugly and disturbing, for all the sense they make:
The night I begged you to come to me
The limp in your talk and the scent of your bleed

It's still not enough roulette to let you go

You covered your wounds in a bandage of sloth

The deeper the slur that rang from her laugh

And something tells me to keep it together

How could you turn your back on me?
I've summoned the stampede of infidel feet

For all I ever wanted is all you ever flaunted

Deviate by all means in name

Cause we all crawl in quicksand the same
Okay, so the nembutals kicked in. That would explain the depression and the loose coherency.

Cotopaxi continues the obscure lyric assault. The music perches somewhere between Led Zeppelin and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's frenetic but the lyrics miss the mark. Sometimes, it can be enough to have lyrics the flow phonetically (like a chunk of R.E.M.'s catalog). This didn't click, though.
I've got the weight of half of the world
You better keep on looking for me
I won't come home if you can't come home
Don't stop dragging the lake, don't stop dragging the lake

And up the hill go the last of my crumbs

We'll be lucky if we eat tonight

And up that hill go the last of my crumbs
That's when I'll magnify a hole
Luciforms also channels Pink Floyd at the start, shifting from a stretched out Us and Them into setting a Careful With That Axe, Eugene beat. The band kicks in to shatter that beat into an angular King Crimson chorus.

Sip on a greyhound (vodka and grapefruit juice) and enjoy the music, even if the lyrics obfuscate. You can still get the mood.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Concert review - The Jonestown Potion, Good Gravy

22 January 2010 (Aggie Theater, Ft. Collins CO)"Hey! You got modern jazz in my jam grass." It's rare to catch two such dissimilar bands on the same billing and even rarer that it works. Still, I always come back to my motto: Dedication to the groove. The groove was strong last night.

The Jonestown Potion
Simply put, the Jonestown Potion blew my mind. Their songs seemed to orbit Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and early King Crimson (Court of the Crimson King), but it was an eccentric orbit. For the most part, they avoided the standard 2-5-1 jazz progressions, opting for more chromatic changes. Eli Cagen's sax is central to the groove, but left plenty of room for the other players.

The partnership between guitarist Devin Morse and keyboard player Nathanial Marshall is an equally important element. On some songs, they set up a call and response, with twinned guitar and keyboard providing a springboard for the sax. When the guitar exuded a little distortion and wah, the jams evoked Zappa songs like Trouble Everyday and even some of the Joe's Garage material. When the keys got more reflective and the melodies were more outside, that was their King Crimson extreme.

In between, though, they nailed some sweet jams, from a Take 5 influenced groove to Ghost Burrito's progressive rock drive. There were lots of odd time signatures and surprises that kept the crowd engaged and dancing.

Drummer Vance Leggett nailed this down with tight syncopation. Dusty Ray's bass work occasionally evoked Phish's Mike Gordon. Even when they played some more standard modal jazz, the breaks slipped into other styles, like art rock, dance, or funk.

It was a pleasant surprise to see how well they pleased the Good Gravy crowd. Even though their music was quite different, their energy and sense of play meshed well. I picked up a copy of their CD, too. If it's anywhere near as good as their live show, I'll be reviewing it soon.

Good Gravy
Good Gravy's show last November impressed me with how much they had improved. In a mere two and a half months, they've beefed up their performance even more. Their sound has tightened up, even when they had guest musicians sitting in. Also, their stage presence was stronger, in part because they were interacting more with the audience during their jams. Ross (mandolin) and Jeremy (guitar) had great chemistry sharing front man duties.

Even though Good Gravy is still rooted in bluegrass, they stretched out in last night's show. The more rock and psychedelic jams served as a slight common ground with their openers. Much like their earlier shows, they slid into improvisational sections, but always slipped back to the root of the song cleanly and easily. The jam during Laughing at the River had some Phish-like elements and the crowd ate it up.

To The Mine layered in some Latin rhythm and drifted off into a great space jam, with some trippy guitar (E-bowed and echoed) and a cool percussion solo. The complexity built up along with the intensity. The audience danced with abandon. This was what live music is all about.

Another part of Good Gravy's development was the excellent light show. They had a guy in from Denver with a whole set of special lights who added a sheen of professionalism to the show. More importantly, though, was his skill at playing the lights to accentuate the music. This gave the jam sections more of a dance groove feel. I hope this is a permanent part of their stage show.

When the band took a break between sets, they had a DJ, Auditory Elements, throw down some beats. He kept the energy up for the second set, which exploded into full jam. They had some keys sitting in, which really opened up the sound, even allowing for some Ike and Tina Turner style build ups. The song transitions were smooth and the set flew by. Their encore, a cover of Free Ride, was a perfect topper for the night.

Last night called for an IPA or two. Some citrusy Cascade hops and a firm malt backbone -- fitting together like an evening of jazz grass.

More photos available at my Flickr.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CD review - Tom McRae, The Alphabet of Hurricanes (2010)

Tom McRae first appeared on the British music scene about a decade ago and has been gathering fans ever since. He has a melancholy, confessional sense that avoids self-indulgence and moaning. His latest album, The Alphabet of Hurricances, is due out in February or March of 2010 (sources differ). This served as my introduction, but I've combed through YouTube, looking up his earlier work. I must say, I'm impressed. The Alphabet of Hurricanes doesn't have a single off note. The klezmer inspired clarinet band instrumental, A Is For... is only odd bit, but it flows perfectly into the next song.

In fact, the first three songs form a perfect triptych. A Is For... acts as a bridge between what sounds like two pieces of the same story. Still Love You is moody with a sense of loss, which becomes so threatening in Won't Lie. There's an older aesthetic here and the use of strings to add tension is common theme, both here and throughout the album. Won't Lie has some wisps of Kate Bush's Never For Ever haunting the edges.

The album's sound evolves from here: the Leonard Cohen soaked sound of Summer of John Wayne, the Richard Thompson Celtic folk current of Told My Troubles To The River, the nostalgic Billy Bragg feel of American Spirit, the Peter Gabriel syncopation in Please, and the evocation of Springsteen Darkness on the Edge of Town in Fifteen Miles Downriver. These songs are all great, primarily because they rise above these facile comparisons to be something that is pure Tom McRae. Summer of John Wayne takes the Leonard Cohen style lyrics and vocals, along with a sense of smoke and darkness, and adds a dreamy touch of Ebow guitar. The whole creates a compelling, visceral feel. The descent as the vocals are buried in washes of music and noise resolves into a return to the clarity of the sparser chorus. This is a beautiful moment.

There aren't a lot of examples from The Alphabet of Hurricances floating around the net yet, but here are a couple. Out of the Walls has a sad, weary piano and desperate vocals. Can't Find You is a simple folk sound, where the echoed piano sometimes comes in and adds a vulnerable touch. These are fine songs, but they don't represent the whole of this album.

Get this when it comes out and listen in a dark room with a nice tawny port. Can I recommend the Sandeman 20 year?

Monday, January 18, 2010

CD review - Regina Spektor, Far (2009)

Regina Spektor is a quite interesting piano-based singer/songwriter with her own vocal style. She is usually direct, often playful, and occasionally coy. Her voice reflects Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, Bjork, and Tori Amos. The Tori Amos link seems most relevant for Far, given some of the edgier arrangements, but Spektor mines a brighter vein than Amos.

A great example of the contrast is on the first single, Laughing With, which could easily be a Tori Amos song. The piano arrangement is simple and clear. It's a song about irony: "No one laughs at God in a hospital...", "but God can be funny". It's really more about us humans than about God. If Amos had written this, the focus would have gone the other way.

Another cool song was Blue Lips, which has a nice collection of sections from simple to orchestral to pop. The vocals convey an emotional distance that matches the lyrics. It also has the best line of the album: "Blue - the most human color".

Machine features material recorded with David Byrne's art sound installation, "Playing the Building". The vibe is detached and slightly threatening; the ghost of Laurie Anderson hides in the background. It's very interesting, but it doesn't really fit the flow of the album. Especially coming right after the retro feel of Folding Chair.

This is symptomatic of the problem with Far: there are too many producers. Spektor worked with several great talents here, like Mike Elizondo and Jeff Lynne, and she wrote some good songs, but the album lacks a coherent feel or flow. This is easier to accept on a greatest hits album. Instead, the main consistency is her quirky voice, which is not enough to make Far stand up well against her earlier work.

This is best paired with an aromatic herbal tea, maybe something like a cardamom tisane.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

CD review - The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely (2008)

The Raconteurs effectively started out as Jack White's side project from the White Stripes. Lately, he's put more time in with them. Consolers of the Lonely tempers the low-fi White Stripes garage rock with some tighter drum work and more subtle musical complexity. Taken as a whole, it's still focused on an early '70s hard rock vibe, with a big debt to Led Zeppelin. The Page-Plant feel drenches many of these songs, with occasional flashes of early Queen, the Rolling Stones, and Styx. Compared to a group like White Denim, it's much cleaner and it's a more modern interpretation of these influences.

Top Yourself is great example of how the Raconteurs have a different balance than the White Stripes. It's got a jazzy blues intro and then a nice complexity of parts, with slide guitar, banjo, and some great cymbal work on the drums. It's still working that Led Zeppelin/English blues vein that White loves, but it's a lot more interesting sonically.

Similarly, These Stones Will Shout evokes the softer Zep songs, like Going To California. The first couple of verses are clean and sweet, with the focus on two guitar parts and the vocals. When the band comes in, things shift into more of a choppy rock beat. This takes on more of a Who feel, especially with the Keith Moon influenced drums.

The cover of Terry Reid's Rich Kid Blues digs deeper into Led Zeppelin back history. Terry Reid was Jimmy Page's first choice for a lead singer. Robert Plant ended up with the job when Reid passed on the offer. This cover is fairly close to the original, missing some of the looser vocal delivery. It's another bit of retro, with more Styx (The Grand Illusion) than Led Zeppelin. It's a great song, with some nice guitar work.

By contrast, Many Shades of Black is fairly weak. It's a bluesy number, dominated by horns. The verse has a bit of Queen or Aerosmith vibe. Only Jack White's flailing, incoherent lead keeps it from sounding like an outtake from one of Pink's albums. Frankly, she would have done a better job with it.

I haven't talked much about the country feel of songs like Pull This Blanket Off or Old Enough. They add another element to give the album an interesting flow.

Something about Consolers of the Lonely makes me think of gin, either gin and tonic or maybe a gimlet.

Monday, January 11, 2010

CD review - The Antlers, Hospice (2009)

Imagine a sound, actually just the echo of a sound. It decays a little into the background of other echoed sounds, but instead of fading away, it grows into an ethereal baseline of sound. Little bits of complexity sparkle, but it's hard to isolate any piece of that.

This is the soundtrack that the Antlers have created to support their concept album, Hospice. It's a painful personal-feeling story of a hospice worker caring for and falling in love with a terminal woman. It's a heavy subject, that deals with the stages of grief and feelings of self-recrimination. The music is detached and somewhat melancholy, befitting the theme. But there are other elements and moods that make it compelling and more than a simple downer.

Sylvia starts with a flangy, detuned synthesizer and heartbeat. The verses are low key with hard to discern lyrics. Then the chorus hits with a big wall of sound, filled with layer after layer, like the old Phil Spector sound. It's a little overwrought, but it hits hard.

This is followed by Atrophy, which contrasts sharply by being bleaker and more detached. The vocals quaver with frustration over the unfairness of trying to help and failing. There's a nice piano that is eventually buried under the wave of low level noise that builds like the pain of a migraine. This refines into a machinelike sound before resolving and reprising the last verse.
Someone, oh anyone, tell me how to stop this
She's screaming, expiring, and I'm her only witness.
This hits home as the theme of Hospice as a whole.

Two is my favorite track. The music is almost joyful, yet darkly weary, with the singer starting to come to grips with the woman's impending death. The lyrics here have a wonderful flow:
There's two people living in one small room
From your two half families tearing at you
Two ways to tell the story, no one worries
Two silver rings on our fingers in a hurry
Two people talking inside your brain
Two people believing that I'm the one to blame
Two different voices coming out of your mouth
While I'm too cold to care and too sick to shout

Eventually, the woman dies, and the singer has to deal with that, with the sense of being haunted by her and the knowledge that his live is going on. A powerful album.

Pour a glass of Pinot Grigio while you listen and let the wave of echoes rise over you.

Friday, January 8, 2010

CD review - White Denim, Fits (2009)

This seems to be my week for Austin bands. White Denim is a hard rocking Austin trio with a lot of tricks in their bag. Their last album, Fits, melds a number of genres into an unique cohesion. As a whole, the sound is quite retro, with a heavily reverbed vocal mix and a little fuzziness that contrasts sharply with the sterile studio sounds favored today. A number of the harder edged songs sound over saturated in gain, giving a tape distortion sound that you just don't hear that much anymore. Combined with the retro stylistic elements, it's situated firmly in the late '60s or early '70s. There a lot of hard rock, psychedelia, and a bit of blue eyed soul on this disc, with references to Steppenwolf, the Doors, and Al Kooper.

The album is split into two sections. The first section hits the acid rock groove hard, while the second emphasizes the soul vibe. It's a bit jarring when it switches, but there's still some crossover. There are no weak songs here. White Denim plays hard and delivers some great music.

All Consolation dredges up Pictures of Matchstick Men (Status Quo), with the thick layered vocal sound and trippy groove. The wailing wah-wah guitar is great, but the drum work is especially impressive. It's a spirited performance, with a lot of tight rolls and heavy cymbal work.

Say What You Want bridges the gap between a retro hard rock Steppenwolf sound and Superunknown-era Soundgarden. A driving beat with touch of feedback guitar, this pounds steadily and then slides into a more psychedelic mood. Melodic bass anchors a droning guitar, with bits of fake sitar and grungy noise. This is great head music and it would be even better live.

The peak of the rocking half is the moody, uptempo Mirrored and Reverse. The bass and keys evoke a strong Doors vibe. The vocals have been processed with echo, compression, and slight distortion to the point of being wispy. The fills are heady and inspired, featuring twinned guitar parts meandering around each other. The song drifts off into a fake ending before returning and building into a climax ending. I've listened to this a dozen times today and I'm not tired of it at all. It's also cool how it leads directly into the looser Jeff Buckley sound of Painting Yourself.

On the soulful section, most of the songs are sweeter, with no distortion, although still maintaining a snappy tempo. Everybody Somebody shifts back into the first half by bringing back the distorted guitars to thrash out a soul rock groove that reminded me of Sly Stone. Acid rock twinned guitar lines run through this, but it all fits together.

Then the mood shifts sharply with Regina Holding Hands. Folky acoustic guitar grounds a pretty arrangement. Something about the phrasing or the choppy acoustic rhythm reminds me of Jackie Blue by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. That lasts right until the chorus, which dives right into a My Morning Jacket sound: loose drums with interesting fills, soulful singing, and a similar approach for the electric guitar sound. White Denim has fused a couple of things together here into a seamless whole. The start doesn't foreshadow the ending, but the flow is natural.

White Denim is touring this month in the US. I plan to see them in Denver at the Larimer Lounge (1/27/10). Catch them if you get the chance.

What to recommend here? With two distinct sections and moods, maybe Kamikazes with a Bass ale chaser would work.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

CD review - Spoon - Kill The Moonlight (2002)

Slap-CHOP! Themes of alienation and how to cope inspire staccato power pop songs. On Kill the Moonlight, Austin's Spoon channels new wave/power pop bands like Wire through a more modern indie rock filter. The songs all have a touch of new wave emotional distance as they deal with helplessness, numbing distractions, and disaffection. The driving, choppy beats make it an interesting listen and keep it from slipping into some kind of emo sink.

Normally, production values don't stand out unless the band is going for a low-fi feel (e.g. some of Beck's early work) or heavily using a technology like AutoTune. The stripped down arrangements on Kill the Moonlight are engineered to emphasize a disconnection between the component parts. In particular, several songs have piano parts that sound photoshopped in. That said, there's a retro vibe here that's compelling.

There's an overwhelming Brit feel here, with many of the songs evoking groups like XTC (Something To Look Forward To), T. Rex (Someone Something, You Gotta Feel It), and Elvis Costello (All the Pretty Girls Go To The City). The saving grace is that it's a set of influences, not rip-offs.

All The Pretty Girls Go To The City is one of my favorite tracks. Aside from the saturation of Elvis Costello throughout the song, there's a wonderfully ominous piano that has some of the same threat as the guitar in Costello's Watching the Detectives. It's complemented by shards of echoey guitar. Although the lyrics are a bit ambiguous about these girls, the music is a walk down a rainy alley that acts as a warning.

Vittorio E stands out as unique on this album. The sound is nothing like the rest of the songs. A collection of recording studio artifacts coalesce into a song. It builds, surrounded by a haze of U2, with layers of elements accruing into a pearl of a song. It's pretty and smoother, without the relentless staccato beat of the other songs. There's still some of the same sonic distance, so the pieces don't mesh as smoothly as they could, but it's a fine after dinner mint of a song.

Enjoy a double shot of espresso while you listen to Kill the Moonlight.

Monday, January 4, 2010

CD review - The String Quartet Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd - This Sweet Home (2006)

For those who appreciate Southern Rock, there is a schism between fans of the Allman Brothers and fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I have always been an Allman Brothers fan: I respect Duane's slide work and loved the jazzy changes that the band could jam through. Lynyrd Skynyrd, though, always had more fans, with simpler songs and a better feel for the popular pulse. Maybe that's why I didn't care for them as much -- I had heard all of the songs far too many times: Sweet Home Alabama, Gimme Three Steps, and the major offender, Freebird. To be fair, they do have some decent tunes, they just don't come to mind as readily.

For the holidays, my siblings-in-law decided to torture er, bless me with this tribute album. To be fair, it was a gag gift, so I can't complain too much. Vitamin Records has developed a business (over 180 albums) recording string arrangement cover albums for a wide variety of artists and styles. Looking at their site, I saw their versions of Warren Zevon, Tool, and Slayer among others. I may well check out some of those in the future. As I started playing the disc, I hoped it might be as interesting as Kronos Quartet's Purple Haze.

The album leads off with Gimme Three Steps. Unfortunately, it was a straight, if slightly stiff, cover, with the violins playing fiddle licks. This song has especially weak lyrics, so an instrumental version was a slight improvement:
I was cuttin' the rug down at a place called The Jug With a girl named Linda Lou When, in walked a man with a gun in his hand And he was looking for you-know-who He said, "Hey there fellow with the hair colored yellow, What you tryin' to prove? Cause that's my woman there and I'm a man who cares And this might be all for you"
The opening line is contrived enough, but the fellow/yellow rhyme is just awkward.

Still, though, This Sweet Home did improve. One More Time is a pleasant enough arrangement that hints at a chamber music approach, but still stays fairly close to the original. A high point was their arrangement of Tuesday's Gone. The original is a decent sentimental song and this version thickens the treacle a bit, but the multi-part harmonies and cello/violin parts fit together nicely.

Comin' Home also worked well in this format, in part because Skynyrd had a more interesting melody and some good dynamics. The pizzicato intro echoes the original's guitars. The sparse first verse builds into a richer chorus. The beginning of the bridge takes on a more chamber music sound before descending into a closer cover of the guitar solos. The last verse builds up more of a fugue arrangement than the earlier verses. This piece stands well enough on its own, as well as being an interesting cover.

The liveliest song was an original , Gonna Fly Again Someday, which was inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd's music. The melody sounds quite familiar, but it works. It's more playful than the rest of the disc, which makes it more fun to listen to.

On the whole, this was an interesting album, which worked best when the violins didn't slip into fiddle riffs.

By the way, their version of Freebird was tolerable. I recommend some sour mash and a splash of white wine when you listen to This Sweet Home.

Friday, January 1, 2010

CD review - Disco Biscuits, Planet Anthem (2010)

The Disco Biscuits have spent the last decade and a half evolving their own style of trance fusion music. Infusing electronica elements into free form, jam oriented grooves, their live shows are a celebration of psycho-social ritual. They've been releasing bits of their upcoming album, Planet Anthem (due Feb 2010), as EPs. This has been touted as a shift in sound for the band, incorporating more hip hop beats into their sound. It actually goes further than that. As a whole, there's a pervasive club-scene, pop-friendly mindset, which is a bit new. But the core sound of the Biscuits is still strong, making Planet Anthem yet another trippy mind groove of a disc for their catalog. The new elements add a progressive rock feel to the proceedings.

On Time, Loose Change, and Konkrete were all released on the On Time EP, giving their fans a taste. On Time showcases the club beat element they've integrated into their sound, with it's throbbing, lock step beat and over processed vocals. Loose Change layers an electronica groove under a steady rock beat. Lyrically, it's largely a reworking of Pink Floyd's Money without being a cover. The psychedelic lead near the end incorporates some horribly abused guitar sounds before dropping back to a cleaner sound. Konkrete is fuses new and old for the band: a gamelan sound leads into a repeated guitar figure and a sort of MC 900 Foot Jesus vocal. This song's a treat with layers of bass, vocals, synth washes, scratching, and distorted guitar.

The EP songs were a good taste, but Planet Anthem has a lot more to offer. Rain Song is one of my favorites, starting out with a thoughtful intro of echoed keys before the beat kicks in. This wouldn't be out of place on a Massive Attack disc, with moody electronica, a strong vocal, and a tight beat. The dynamic flow makes this work. Tension builds and ebbs, preserving a balance. This one will be great to hear live.

Another favorite is The City. It's got a nice R&B groove with hints of disco. The vocals are half spoken, but the lyrics are cool:
Well, I thought I knew the future of the mountains in my range
If the future teaches anything, the past can never change
The lyrical idea is smooth: seeing the city's buildings as mountains and a contrast between connection to a place and its people with the distance that separates the people in the city.

Grab Planet Anthem when it comes out and kick back to the jams with a glass of Duchesse de Bourgogne. The Disco Biscuits will also be playing at the Fox Theater (Boulder CO) at the end of the month, giving us a chance to hear some of this material live. See you there!