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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

CD review - We Have Band, WHB (2010)

British trio We Have Band are like Janus. They look back to the keyboard focused new wave pop from the '80s and early '90s, but still look forward to more modern dance rock. Their debut release, WHB fuses this into a fine electro pop, worthy of obsessive repeat listens. I can hear a lot of Tears For Fears, a little New Order, and some Depeche Mode.

The unexpected treat of the CD is Buffet, a raga groove with a constant sense of unfolding. It's deliberate, hypnotic, and trippy, but not in an acid rock way. The mesh between the electro rock flow and the reverberating drone of electric guitar is perfect.

The dreamy repeat at the end of Buffet gets elbowed aside by the funky techno drive of Divisive, We Have Band's single. The tight, relentless beat drops out for a sparser verse start to open up a Duran Duran dance pop sound. The fluttering guitars hiding in the background provide the continuity from the previous song. None of the little scraps of influence (Duran Duran, Tom Tom Club, et al.) stick around long enough to lull the ear into passivity: We Have Band keeps their listeners fully engaged.

There are other great tracks, like the arty OH! or disco influenced Hear It In The Cans, but the closer, Hero Knows, is probably the most satisfying. It starts off with a Tears For Fears feel (quite a bit like Shout), but this gets buried under a loose sediment of fill sounds and rhythms. Eventually the song walks through a number of sections, picking up different moods. The arrangement occasionally overlays the pieces to create a deeper structure.

It might be a bit heavy, but We Have Band has a dark streak that sounds like a great match for Bell's Expedition Stout: black, sweet, and rich.

Monday, March 29, 2010

CD review - The Royal Chains, Bear Island EP (2010)

This new EP from the Royal Chains is a great reminder that music is supposed to be fun. They bring a sweet indie rock/pop vibe to a very listenable set of songs. Musically, the Bear Island EP hits a retro Cheap Trick vibe and a strong Replacements feel, along with a few other older bands. They're not earnest enough to be a tribute and they don't seem to be trying to prove anything. The Royal Chains are just sharing a few nice songs.

My favorite track, Lucy Takes the Dare, is a pretty love song. The lyrics are short enough to print here:
Actions are actual when truth is factual
Summer slips by as we swing through the lights
Pushing back the dawn as we draw out the nights
Ask that colleague her name, ask that colleague her name,
And she's taking the dare

Timing means everything if time means anything

Summer slips by as we swing through the lights
Pushing back the dawn as we draw out the nights
Ask that colleague her name, ask that colleague her name,
And she's taking the dare

Lucy takes the dare...

I like the one line verses and the clever turns of phrase. The bounce between ideas nails a certain youthful naivete. It evokes Trip Shakespeare's Lulu period music: well crafted, lush, and romantic.

Both of the above songs can be heard on their MySpace page.

Shifting gears, Wolf channels that Replacements vibe, with maybe a touch of Hüsker Dü. The overamped guitar, throbbing bass, low-fi groove come together for a loose, live sound. Lyrically, this has some of that Paul Westerberg fell, too.

The only odd note is the title cut, Bear Island, which has a folky, Neil Young feel. The vocals are echoed and distant. Sonically, it breaks the mood of the other songs. Changing up the song order might have helped.

A good simple beer, like a fine ESB, would complement the Royal Chains well. Fuller's on tap is what I'd recommend.

Friday, March 26, 2010

CD review - Scanners, Submarine (2010)

Cheeriness is for suckers. Scanners don't suffer, they luxuriate in their low key mood. It's not quite simple depression, but more of a sense of dissatisfaction and ennui. Submarine has a pervasive '80s synthpop veneer, with vocalist Sarah Daly drifting from Terri Nunn (Berlin) to Dale Bozzio (Missing Persons) to Deborah Harry.

At the same time, they've updated the synthpop aesthetic to include some more club oriented dance beats. Jesus Saves grafts a disco rhythm and tight repetitive fills onto a Berlin-style vocal and a New Order bass line. The upbeat groove contrasts with the resignation of the lyrics:
The weight of your ambition
Has worn the carpet thin
With no cure for your condition
So far under your skin

It's a shame, we all have a sell-by date
Shop where Jesus saves
It's a compelling combination.

My favorite track, though, is the single, Salvation. The staccato guitar drives the song forward against a moody vocal. When the drum beat comes in strong, it concentrates the intensity. There a deceptive simplicity here. It reminded me of some of Patti Smith's work off Easter, except Daly's voice is less expressive. This is music for late night driving - what are you running from? Listen to this too long and it might be the stalking singer of Salvation.
Dark eyes become divine
I need the love I crave
Your hands they burn like mine
I'll take you to my grave

The mood shift from Salvation to the following shimmery Beatles sound of Baby Blue is like a refreshing digestif.

While Baby Blue offers a little taste of Blondie, it's stronger in Sleepwalking. Here, the insistent beat and call-and-response vocals create a tension that opens up into a pretty Blondie pop feel. The drum beat stays steady, but a change in the instrumental backing and vocal tones go a long way to creating a more hopeful sound. The balance between the parts is more interesting than either part would be alone.

Scanners have made a well crafted album, but that might be its biggest flaw. The parts fit together so well, that there's not much spontaneity or expressiveness. Depending on the mood, Submarine may or may not satisfy. Mix the perfect G&T and give it a listen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Concert review - Morning Teleportation, Scout Niblett, Sleepy Sun

23 March 2010 (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Is it hard being a music fan? 60 miles and a blizzard between you and the music? You just do it. But, it's even harder for the touring musicians. Sleepy Sun asked the crowd for a place to crash for the night and all of the acts were probably thinking the drive to the next gig.

Braving the snow was worth it for us, I only hope the three bands last night felt the same. Despite the snow, the turnout was decent.`

Morning Teleportation
Playing a jam band mix of funk, indie rock, and a morsel of free jazz, Morning Teleportation started off the show. They had a great stage patience, with some theatrics that made them fun to watch. At the same time, they were sort of a stunt band -- they seemed to have a gimmick for each song. In one, it was a talk box; in another, they resorted to gratuitous sax for the horn punch intro. Their vocals were out there, too. Most of the time they talked between songs, it sounded like they were using some kind of funny voice. They also favored odd vocal arrangements, like weird harmonies, quavery tone (think Tommy Bolan), or football chanting.

Musically, they had a number of songs that seemed to join a number of smaller unconnected songs into a whole. It was very psychedelic and experimental, but often sounded like it was trying too hard. They were very tight on the harmonic and rhythmic shifts forced by this approach, though. The frenetic beats fit well with their party stage show. The drummer stayed on top of it all, with some tasty fills. The bass player was also standout.

I'd like to catch Morning Teleportation in another year or two and see if they can shrug off some of their stilted approach. They have some nice songs, like Boom Puma that I think will stand up over time.

Scout Niblett
It was quite the bill: the first act, the stage was packed, the second act was more minimalist. Scout Niblett played alone for the first couple of songs. Later, drummer Dan Wilson joined her, setting up a superficial comparison to the White Stripes. True, Niblett could play some heavily distorted guitar, but she's more of a grungy Pavement meets Liz Phair. She had a sweet and achy voice that seemed deeply emotional and revealing.

Her songs were largely sweet-and-sour. Her vocals might start out with a Rickie Lee Jones drawl over a sparse guitar. Then, as she triggered the overdrive tone on her Fender Jaguar, she'd almost wail in pain. Her lyrics were very evocative:
Sittin' on the banks of a glassy river
Mercury flew down to tell me a story

As he began it sounded familiar It starts with the sound of a lonely girl
- Scout Niblett, Hot To Death
This was over a Stephen Malkmus style chromatic progression that shifted back and forth into hard, noisy grunge.

My favorite song of the set, though, was Kiss, which is a sweet ballad with a edge of detuned suffering.
A kiss could've killed me, if it were not for the rain
A kiss could've killed me
, Baby, if it were not for the rain

And I had a feeling it was coming on

And I felt it coming
for so long
If I'm to be the fool then so it be
It was cathartic and satisfying like probing a toothache. It was one of the few songs that didn't rage into fuzz-fueled angst, but it was intense enough anyway.

Sleepy Sun
Sleepy Sun has no use for little boxes like "genre". They've got a retro feel, mixing acid blues, progressive rock, psychedelia, and vintage hard rock. There's an element of Fleetwood Mac and more modern Wilco in there, too. Any given song might bring an influence to mind, but, just as quickly, the song insisted that it be judged on its own merits.

The male-female vocal mix was a central part of their sound, . Bret Constantino and Rachel Williams played off each other effortlessly. Williams conjured up haunting and soulful sounds, while Constantino immersed himself, sometimes evoking an expressive Bono vibe.

The rest of the band is tight and focused. The guitar arrangements were especially cool. The two (sometimes three) guitars filled up the space and traded roles in a natural flow. There was plenty of blistering lead, but any given solo was relatively short before trading off, so Sleepy Sun avoided the pitfall of self-indulgence. With songs like Desert God, a Grateful Dead psychedelic groove had a moody start. One guitar played a meandering melody while the other layered in some noisy, floaty riffs. Eventually, as the ritual unfolded, the song picked up energy into Malkmus-grunge, then sliding into progressive rock.

Sleepy Sun finished playing way too early. I wanted the night to keep on going.

Lost Abbey's The Angel's Share is the perfect pairing for Sleepy Sun's show: barrel-aged, unique, and strong.

More photos on my Flickr.

Monday, March 22, 2010

CD review - Tiny Tide, The Wildheart EP (2009)

Tiny Tide is a pop band out of Cesena, Italy and their name is intended to be a poke at the pretentious "New Wave" label. Even so, The Wildheart EP kicks off with The Smiths and the Cure, which has a serious new wave sound straight from Bauhaus. Part of it is that Mark Zonda's voice reminds me a bit of Peter Murphy and the bass intro reminds me of Bela Lugosi. That mood lasts until the bridge, where a more modern pop aesthetic takes over until the verse comes around. It's got a tight groove and is a great start, albeit a bit different than anything else on the EP.

More typically, the songs remind me of Gruppo Sportivo, between Zonda's accented English and pop sensibility. He even sounds a bit like Hans Vandenburg. Needful Things has a sweet bass and piano accompaniment to a simple vocal (the live link skips the piano). While the intro has a touch of Billy Joel, the Gruppo Sportivo comparison is most apt. Take the piano from the intro to Sportivo's Armee Monika and the vocal from One Way Love and you're close. Still, even though Tiny Tide has a deep love of retro pop, the music isn't too cloying as they tend to cut it with a more modern use of noise and mild sampling.

Road to Fairies is another very pleasant song, built on a foundation of finger picked guitar. The smooth arpeggios, distant vocal, and tasteful strings come together to form a satisfying whole. It's a beautiful ballad. The touches of echoed keyboard hiding in the background add a little bit of musical depth that foreshadows the keyboard solo bridge.

Stylistically, The Wildheart EP avoids having a clear genre -- the unifying theme is a love of retro pop. Still, there are some interesting musical moments waiting for you here. Sample a Campari Negroni and let the Tiny Tide roll in.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Interview - Trainwreck

(Daryl Donald, John Shredman, Dennis St. Bernard, Boy Johnny)

Technology is frustrating. I was lucky enough to meet with Trainwreck before their Denver show for an interview. Unfortunately, my recording got trashed, so I don't have all the detail I'd like to have. Which is a shame, because it was a great conversation. Still, I can give you a sense of what we discussed and what the band is like.

First of all, they were a bit late getting in, but they still had plenty of time to get set up. Klip Calhoun (Kyle Gass) is more of a celebrity, so he wasn't there to load in; he came later when it was closer to show time. Still, it was fun to hang out with John Shredman (John Konesky), Boy Johnny (John Spiker), Daryl Donald (Jason Reed), and Dallas St. Bernard (Nate Rothacker). After they got their equipment in, we talked for a while before their sound check.

Denver is the last show on the tour, and the boys seemed a little road weary. While the band is ready for a break, they're lining up more dates starting in May. They're also planning to play a Tenacious D gig at Bonnaroo (June). This tour has gone fairly well. They had good crowds in the Midwest, but the South was a lot sparser, with only a dozen people showing up for one Alabama show. They blamed the low attendance on the economic slowdown.

Since humor is a key part of their music, I was curious to understand how much of their showis improvised vs. scripted. Daryl said that about half is more or less improvised, but that they reuse bits that work from previous gigs. While they're playing characters in Trainwreck, the roles are similar to their real personas. So, it's fairly natural to just riff in character. Daryl compared some of what Trainwreck does to Spinal Tap: that having some clear characters sets up a lot of the humor.

I asked about the use of flute in the band (Rock Boulder Mountain in particular). I joked about it being a bit of a phallic symbol. They brought up KG's long experience with the instrument, which he also played a bit in Tenacious D. We talked about the Jethro Tull angle that it added to their music. When I mentioned Jethro Tull's Grammy for heavy metal, Shredman pointed out that the flute is a very heavy metal instrument, that it was powerful and moving.

I asked about the song, TV Theme, wondering whether they had ever made a pilot or what the show might be about. Daryl immediately went into his pitch of a show like Jersey Shore meets Scooby Doo. It features the band, more or less playing themselves, traveling from town to town. Solving crimes. While they haven't quite sold the idea, they held open the possibility of self-producing something for the web that might act as more of a pilot. They riffed on the TV show during the concert as well.

I asked the group about their favorite songs. Boy Johnny and Dallas both picked The Drummer as their favorite song. Dallas said he really enjoyed getting the chance to step out from behind the drums and dance around a bit. He also likes seeing Boy Johnny switch to cover the drums while Daryl plays the bass. They talked about the inherently funny idea of a drummer's lament. Shredman and Dallas co-wrote the piece, starting the lyrical fragment of rhyming "drummer" and "bummer". Shredman said that many of their songs started out as lyrics, pointing out that it's easier to develop a humorous song with that approach. Shredman picked Brodeo as his current fave, but said he changes his mind all of the time.

Daryl's favorite song was Rock Boulder Mountain, which he developed based on his experience spending time in the mountains. He brought the rough sketch of the song to the band and they fleshed it out as a group. R.B.M. isn't quite as funny as some of the songs on the album (although the "glory hole" line was a bit amusing), which adds to the musical credibility of The Wreckoning.

I asked about Tim Blankenship and whether it was based on a real person. Daryl said that the song was based on several people, but they've met plenty of Tims since they wrote it, with people coming up and claiming that it fits them perfectly. They joked about keeping "Tim Blankenship" on their guest list, in case he really shows up.

In person, the guys of Trainwreck were really nice and laid back. They weren't quite as over the top or campy as they sometimes came across in other interviews, but they blamed that a bit on phone interviews getting a little wilder. I wish I could share a full transcript, because I'm sure I'm leaving bits out. Thanks to Daryl, Boy Johnny, Shredman, and Dallas for their time and cool attitude. They're a great group of guys I'd really enjoy hanging out with again.

See the show review here.

Me and Trainwreck

Friday, March 19, 2010

Concert review - Sweatpants in Public, Magic Cyclops, Trainwreck

18 March 2010 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
When I reviewed Trainwreck's album, The Wreckoning, I knew that they would give a live show worth catching. I was excited when I found out they were coming to Denver. The Larimer Lounge seems to pull in a number of interesting indie bands, but I was ready to get 'Wrecked. I didn't know the opening acts until we got there. Magic Cyclops was familiar, but I had never heard of Sweatpants in Public.

Sweatpants in Public
Bottom line, if South Park's Eric Cartman had a band, it would be Sweatpants in Public. Dave Harper's raspy vocal calls Cartman to mind, but the lyrical themes are what really hit the mark. Matter of fact and plain spoken, Sweatpants in Public tackle sex, drugs, and other adolescent obsessions with sophomoric humor and tight musical chops.

They kicked off with the...shall we say, anticipatory celebration of Penistown. By the time they got to the smooth rock groove of Porno Collection, my inner 14 year old was their biggest fan. This song graphically describes Harper's extensive porn collection and he offers to marry his girlfriend, if she'll only impose some order for him.

They moved onto other topics, like Marijuana Saved My Life and my personal favorite, Maury Povich Happens Everyday. They called their genre "Comfort rock", but the music bounced between country/southern rock to metal tinged punk. Near the end, they summed up their set perfectly:
You're a wonderful audience, but you couldn't have done it without us. You're welcome.
Sweatpants in Public were an excellent opener for Trainwreck. My only gripe is that they didn't have a CD available yet.

Magic Cyclops
Magic Cyclops, on the other hand, was not quite the right fit. He's still doing the same shock style performance art I saw last year with Har Mar Superstar. He did a shorter set this time, with many of the same songs. Early in the set, the crowd was with him, but low energy and some technical difficulties sapped his momentum.

The schtick didn't mesh musically or stylistically with the rock of Sweatpants in Public or Trainwreck. That said, I still enjoyed his opener, Rainbow of Pain, an ode to that time of the month. The big closing cover song this time, Stone Temple Pilot's Plush, wasn't as campy or funny as last time's Total Eclipse of the Heart.

The evening got off to a great start when I got to interview most of the guys in Trainwreck. This show was their last stop on this tour, so they could be forgiven for being a little tired...but they were wide awake when they hit the stage. Daryl Donald (Jason Reed) was an excellent front man. He had all kinds of funny moves that were a sort of an interpretive dance for whatever song they were playing at the time. In between songs, he posed and preened.The band was incredibly tight. John Shredman (John Konesky) is an amazing guitarist. We were a few feet away from stadium quality shredding. But that's typical of this band. All of them are master musicians who can flow through a tight set of changes and not even break a sweat.

They started out with T.W. Theme from their album, The Wreckoning. They went on to play many of the favorites, like Tim Blankenship, Rock Boulder Mountain, and Brodeo. Klip Calhoun (Kyle Gass) channeled his inner Ian Anderson to play some epic flute.

The setlist also included a few special cuts, like Tenacious D's Lee and Eastbound and Down (the Smokey and the Bandit Theme). Jerry Reed would have been proud of that last one.

While there were plenty of laughs during the main set (the hand gestures for Milk the Cobra were quite the treat), the encore was the most fun. They kicked off with a Chinese fire drill, letting Dallas St. Bernard (Nate Rothaker) to step out from behind his kit to sing The Drummer.

Boy Johnny (John Spiker) surrendered his bass to Daryl so he could cover the drums. The music still stayed just as tight as Dallas danced and sang his way through the song. Then, Boy Johnny took center stage as "American Idol's bubble winner" to sing Irene Cara's Flashdance...What a Feeling. They wrapped up with a speedy cover of AC/CD's Whole Lotta Rosie.
Trainwreck gave a great show. I'll raise a shot of Jack in tribute.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CD Review - Wakey! Wakey!, Almost Everything I Wish I'd Said The Last Time I Saw You (2010)

If the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, then Wakey!Wakey! has at least as many uses for lyrical repetition. Perhaps it's the iterative reassurance of Almost Everything ("It feels bad now, but it's gonna get better..") or the amused dwelling of Feral Love ("I bet you don't go crazy like you used to..."), maybe even the obsessive Car Crash ("At least you were thrown clear, cause I'm still stuck in here...").

It might even be repetition for the mere sake of sounding cool as in Square Peg Round Hole or the earnestness of Dance So Good. Over time, the echo becomes a little distracting, but the indie pop groove of Almost Everything I Wish I'd Said The Last Time I Saw You... is still engaging.

Dance So Good is a great example of where the lyrical repetition and music come together perfectly. It paints a picture of disintegrating relationship, a sense of what was there (and is now slipping away).
You're so beautiful...
So, tell me why we're talking when we dance so good...

This is a tight three minutes of ache, where no explanation will ever be enough. It takes me back to 17 years old, where the real world imploded what used to be a sweet thing. This conveys an emotional truth, well beyond clever lyrics.

The music is bright and open throughout the album. In some ways, there's a Celtic rock sensibility underlying the songs, maybe it's singer Michael Grubbs' accent or the way the lyrics echo. There's also a slight sense of Billy Joel buried somewhere within the songs, which have a singer/songwriter feel, despite the band adding their voices.

This is a perfect CD to mix with a nice Pinot Gris (King Estates?) - earthy, with hints of honey and citrus. "I hope you know it's a miracle, a miracle, a miracle..."

Monday, March 15, 2010

CD review - Follow the Train, Mercury (2010)

Follow the Train had already called it quits by the beginning of 2009. But Dennis Sheridan managed to resurrect a version of the band to record for Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and his Removador Records label. Mercury smoothly assembles an eclectic mix of songs into an interesting whole. The sound is a fairly unique take on indie rock, but the touchstone reference is Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker. Part of that is Sheridan's voice, which recalls David Lowery's tone and vocal style, but the scale is tipped by the intriguing collection of genres crashing together.

Movin exemplifies this mix. It starts slow and places a My Morning Jacket groove over a shuffle beat. Once the strings come in, we're back in Camper Van Beethoven territory. The vocals start out with a nice Americana-folk style. The guitar arrangement is sweet and flowing, but the real star here (and on much of the album) is the bass work. It's busy and melodic, especially once the spacey bridge section kicks in. Follow this link to get a copy from the record label.

There a touch of Cracker and Too Much Joy on 219, which has a cool reggae section. Speaking of which, Listen, mines the reggae undertone perfectly. There are two competing guitars, the calm slide and the jagged wail, laying down a psychedelic foundation, They're tied together with a moody bass line and laid back drum that nail a dub rhythm section; it just needs a chank. It never slips over that line, though, as the chorus is more of a ballad style. Intensity creeps and the modulated noise of the bridge escalates. Three or four listens in a row doesn't lessen the impact.

Despite the variations between the songs, Mercury's flow is seamless and balanced. Follow the Train came back from the dead to bring us this album. Repay the favor and check it out when it comes out later this month.

I'll raise a glass of Dogfish Head's Indian Brown Ale in tribute. The fusion of beer styles is a fitting tribute to Follow the Train.

Friday, March 12, 2010

CD review - Earl Greyhound, Suspicious Package (2010)

I got a taste of Earl Greyhound when they opened for Saul Williams on his Afro-Punk tour last fall. I wanted more...well, now it's here. Suspicious Package (due out April 13) is a rocking wonder of an album.

There are scads of retro touches and familiar sounding bits scattered throughout, but this is no Frankenstein creation. While not a concept album, there's a definite flow, from start to finish. The opening song, The Eyes of Cassandra, is split into two parts and starts with a late '60s jazz organ groove. Then it picks up a Latin beat before evolving into more of a psychedelic, art rock juggernaut. All of this in one cohesive song! Similarly, the last song, Misty Morning, builds from a mellow beginning to a Lenny Kravitz style soul, crashing into a classic jam band crescendo.

As good as those tunes seem, they're not quite the high point of this great album. That honor is split between Oye Vaya, which has gotten some early exposure, and Shotgun. Oye Vaya screams right out of the gate, nailing the target of Led Zeppelin (Immigrant Song) meets Heart (Barracuda). It rocks hard. Matt Whyte and Kamara Thomas' vocals are tightly intertwined. And Ricc Sheridan's drums flail over the top while locking in on the beat.

Shotgun kicks off like old Motorhead before building into more of a progressive rock space. Kamara Thomas pounds the hell out of her bass and brings the right level of vocal intensity to the lyrics:
I am nobody, nobody is who I am
I am a traveler on this land
And nothing, nothing, nothing remains

I am nobody, nobody is who I am
I am a traveler on this land
I am a wanderer on these sands
And I got down on my knees and pulled in my hands
And on the great wings of a great bird
I was carried to a temple, where I heard the word
The lyrics roll out like the tide, escalating every time it comes back to that "I am nobody, nobody is who I am". It's easy to get lost in the flow and just surf through the song.

As I mentioned, there are plenty of familiar teases like the Doobie Brothers' Taking It To The Streets in Black Sea Vacation and Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding in Bill Evans. But it never slides into pastiche. Instead, they blend these influences into the satisfying fullness of Suspicious Package. Pour a bottle of Stone Ruination IPA and raise a salute to serious rock.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Concert review - One eskimO, Gomez

8 March 2010 (Ogden Theater, Denver CO)

One eskimO
Kristian Leontiou seemed uncomfortable in his role as frontman for One eskimO. He appeared painfully shy, constantly turning from the audience and muttering the occasional "thank you" without making eye contact. Drummer Adam Falkner showed a little more energy, swinging his brushes or mallets, but was still relatively restrained. Guitarist Peter Rinaldi and bass player Jamie Sefton were completely engrossed in their own playing.

With stage presence a weakness, there were still some great strengths. The instrumentation and arrangements were quite interesting: Falkner used some boxes as percussion in addition to his normal drums, Sefton threw in some flugelhorn on some of the songs, and samples and loops were scattered throughout the set. This gave the dreamy, Brit pop/soul a unique flavor.

Another strength is that Leontiou's voice is strong, sounding somewhat like Peter Gabriel (especially in cooperation with the heavily syncopated R&B grooves) or Murray Head. When his accent came through, as it did on a couple of songs, you might even think of Phil Collins.

My favorite song was Simpleday. It starts out with a riff reminiscent of Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed), but the vocals sound more like the chorus of Allstar (Smashmouth). It's more subtle than either one, with nice falsetto backup vocals, the flugelhorn, and some shimmery synth washes. Taken together, it sounds like "standing out in the dark by yourself" music.

The crowd pleaser was their single, Kandi. The Candi Staton sample is layered in perfectly and the effect is hypnotically compelling, a dream indie soul feel. This is very strong. Many of the other songs work at mining this space, too, although not quite as effectively.

We heard a cover of Whippin' Piccadilly, a song off the first Gomez album, before the show started. It didn't sound like the cover artist spoke much English, but the Hawaiian feel of their version set a good mood. When the band came out into the faint haze of (medicinal?) marijuana smoke, Tom Gray quipped, "It smells nice in here" and they were off into Revolutionary Kind.

Their live album, Out West gives a good sense of their concert sound. The arrangements are a little looser than the studio versions and they tend to emphasize more of their psychedelic, jam side. The songs are all recognizable, but a little more interesting.

Throughout the night, they played material from their whole career, from Bring It On (Whippin' Piccadilly, Tijuana Lady) to last years A New Tide (Airstream Driver, Other Plans, etc). They even included some older odds and ends, like Machismo and Bring Your Lovin' Back Here.A strong part of Gomez' appeal is the mix of vocal sounds, from Ben Ottewell's world weary velvet rasp to Ian Ball's youthful idealist to Tom Gray's power pop perfection. Each voice brings the right personality to their lead songs and the others fall in behind it and support it well. Ottewell's voice on Tijuana Lady added the perfect emotional depth. They also did some interesting reverb processing on the vocals and drums to fill out the verses, then switching to a drier sound on the chorus. This hints at the other part of their allure: their ability to balance noisy psychedelia and a pop sensitivity.

The astonishing part of Gomez' live show was how smoothly they pushed through their setlist. They changed out guitars on almost every song, but handled this with the grace of a NASCAR pit crew, leaving no sense of waiting. Each change was planned and choreographed but it didn't feel stiff or over-rehearsed. The songs themselves felt loose and open, by contrast. They also nailed the audience connection part of the show, too. Other bands may perform so effortlessly, but they rarely show off with so many changes.

The whole show was great, but there were some pleasant surprises. Meet Me In the City had a nasty, deep down blues feel, like a ZZ Top track. They kept the tight harmony vocals of the studio version and dragged out the jam a bit, adding a great organ part. Girlshapedlovedrug was also strong. In the encore of How We Operate, the a capella start kicked into a harder vibe. The wah-wah solo, shimmery guitars, driving drum syncopation, and pacing bassline fit together perfectly.

It was an ideal night for a black and tan, made on the spot, with precise separation between the Bass and Guinness.

More photos available on my Flickr.

Monday, March 8, 2010

CD review - Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures (2009)

Every band has a focus. That's especially true in super groups like Them Crooked Vultures. One person often provides the basic direction, while the others add their voices. Josh Homme takes on that role for Them Crooked Vultures, largely by virtue of singing lead vocals and playing guitar. While John Paul Jones contributes several instruments beyond bass and Dave Grohl's drumming is quite interesting, it's more like they're extending a Queens of the Stone Age session.

Homme's vocals throughout Them Crooked Vultures recall a languid David Bowie circa Scary Monsters. Tossed out casually, they rob many of the lyrics of some of the sting, letting them under the skin that much easier.
Then she said, No one loves me & neither do I
You get what you give
I give goodbye
Aside from Bowie, Homme channels Jack Bruce's vocals on the Cream-y Scumbag Blues. Jones provides the appropriate bass work, but Josh Homme is no Eric Clapton on guitar. Still, it's got a great vibe.

The catchy Elephants has a Led Zeppelin style intro, but drives into more of a metal grunge feel, maybe QotSA meets Soundgarden. Jones' bass work is as epic as anything Zeppelin did and Grohl's drumming harks back Nirvana's rowdier moments. Like all of the best rock and roll, this sounds rough and casual.

My favorite track, though, is Bandoliers. There are some nice paired guitar lines, but the bass is what grabs the ear. It's busy and hypnotic -- Jones is inspired and isn't rehashing any old Led Zeppelin work here. There's some Cream here again, as well as a more progressive rock mindset. Many of the other songs point back at the players' earlier bands, but this is something unique to this group. The balance between an opiate groove and underlying tension is exquisite. "Prepare and take aim and fire"

There are other good moments, the Beck influenced Interlude With Ludes and Warsaw or the updated T Rex feel of Reptiles (featuring some John Paul Jones slide work). The band has promised more recording, so Them Crooked Vultures might not be a one-off super group.

I'll wait with bated breath and a whiskey sour highball.

Friday, March 5, 2010

CD review - Friendo, Cold Toads (2010)

"Friendo" -- the killer in No Country For Old Men, Anton Chigurh, uses the word. There are other parallels between Chigurh and this new band: a peculiar sense of off-ness and also a kind of intentional discordance. On Cold Toads (due out May 18 on Secretly Canadian), Friendo takes a deliberately primitive approach to harmony and fidelity. Some of this is certainly due to the musicians taking on new roles. Michael Wallace, the drummer with Women, plays guitar. Guitarist and bass player, Henry Hsieh, tackles drums. And it's not clear how long Nicole Greedy has been playing guitar. This "beginner's mind" leads to music that is unrefined, repetitive, and sometimes trancelike.

Despite the consistent, low-fi repetition, Cold Toads varies a bit across its nine songs. The first track, Counter/Time, has an early Camper Van Beethoven feel, with loose tuning and a chanting approach to singing. It's defocused and a bit hard to listen to.

Later songs, like Oversees and New Sibley take on more of a post punk feel, which is more to my taste. Oversees, in particular, has sections that sound almost like a raw tribute to Joy Division.

Friendo's music is like a strong shot of ouzo: uncompromising and not necessarily to everyone's taste. Give them a listen and see what you think. Yiamas ("γεια μας")!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

CD review - Cymbals Eat Guitars, Why There Are Mountains (2009)

Cymbals Eat Guitars aren't sure what they want to be when they grow up. On Why There Are Mountains, they're throwing a mix of influences and ideas into a blender. Caprice rules as they flit from one thing to another: one moment, it's Stephen Malkmus and Pavement; the next, they're looking to Wilco, or maybe something more progressive rock.

The lead off song, And the Hazy Sea, sets this stage. It kicks off like the climax of something by And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. Then it settles into indie alt-rock groove. The verse vocals kick in as an homage to Stephen Malkmus and Pavement. The song rolls out effortlessly, shifting mood and direction. We roll around a track: prog-rock noise to indie rock to thoughtful reflection and back again. The end devolves into decaying waves of feedback cacophony. This could be the only song on the album and I'd be happy.

But there's more...

Indiana starts with swells of sound, built until, in a moment stolen from Wilco (the end of Poor Places from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), the song truly begins. The vocals and chord changes invent a poppy incarnation of the Cure. Amazing.

Shorter songs split up the longer, epic pieces. The rapid shifts (both between and within songs) keep things interesting, although it probably drives some people crazy. The long, sweeping songs tend to handle the ambiguity the best. Give a listen to the Adrian Belew influenced guitar sound of Like Blood Does or the surprising scope of Share: It starts out simple and mellow, then it's buried beneath a wall of thundering, distorted guitars. Cathartic and straining at the leash, it finally feels like it's running down. But there's still more than a minute and a half left, so it drives into power pop to close it out. Of course.

It's hard to pick a suitable beverage for this one. All the odd mixes I can think of are much less palatable than this. How about a Belgian lambic, where the brewer's unique character is always a little bit of a surprise?

Cymbals Eat Guitars are touring with Freelance Whales and I'm excited to see them in Denver on April 1. I'll let you know how the live experience measures up.

Monday, March 1, 2010

CD review - Freelance Whales, Weathervanes (2010)

Weathervanes exudes a sense of sparkly light. Freelance Whales fuse acoustic instruments like banjo and harmonium with synth washes and glimmers of glockenspiel bells. The vocals are playful and upbeat, albeit a little distant and sometimes dissociated from the lyrical message. The harmonies are intricate and layered. This is poppy indie folk at its finest.

Hannah is centered on a fast flowing vocal that's almost a folk-rap. It fits together like puzzle box, satisfying and interesting. It builds in complexity and even develops a bit of Beatlesque floating groove at the very end.

Broken Horse starts out sounding like the Barenaked Ladies, with a bouncy acoustic guitar rhythm that can't quite shake off a dreamy drowse. But about halfway through, as the background vocals grow, it slides more into a Kate Bush space. The build of rolling repetition creates a relentless wave feel.

Weathervanes is due out on CD in the next month or so from Frenchkss Records, but you can download it now. White tea with local alfalfa honey would be a good match.

Also, Freelance Whales are on tour right now. They'll be appearing in Denver on April 1, with Cymbals Eat Guitars. Maybe I'll see you at that show...