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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

CD review - The Jonestown Potion, The Jonestown Potion (2009)

Capturing lightning? Earlier, the Jonestown Potion's live show blew my mind. How does their self-titled CD measure up? The jazz centric jam band mixes a tossed salad of styles and influences, both across the disc as well as within any given song. Those influences include Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Ozric Tentacles, and Miles Davis. At their roots, the Jonestown Potion are locked in on Davis' electric jazz fusion period. The other bits swirl by, waiting for some quick recognition, then drifting off. During their performance, this flowed naturally. While this often works on the album, too, some of the stylistic jumps feel a little rough and contrived. That shouldn't detract from this ambitious album, though.

The album is littered with clever titles that don't often provide much clue about the songs. So we have the short, Zappa-esque Beaux Flecks, the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer vibe of General Dogmeat, or Chocolate Warhead's tribute to Dave Brubeck's Take Five. This all reflects a band that doesn't take itself too seriously. Despite the meta-joke of the titles, the playing is all tight and focused.

A couple of tunes really stand out. Like most of their songs, Tumble Junky goes through a number of musical phases. It leads off with a bop groove into a Jeff Beck style song, sort of like Freeway Jam with a touch of horns from Zappa's Mothers of Invention. The bass line here is busy and rocking, I almost missed it because so much was going on around it, including some nice sax work. The changes, especially in the bop section are tight. After working the main theme, the song shifts phase again to grind down into a Charlie Hunter style slow blues jam. This gives Eli Cagen another chance to cut loose on a moodier sax solo. The organ solo during this section recalls Al Kooper's work on Super Session.

The moody and introspective Dancing Grannies also moves through its own set of stylistic hoops. It starts out with a laid back bass driven groove, backed by loose drumming in 7. That shifts time signature to a break section in 8. These parts alternate, with smooth transitions on the time change. There are some casual, noodling leads on keys and later guitar, while the horns throw in some nice texture. Maybe it's the interesting beat, but it reminds me of Brubeck again. After a couple of times around, it picks up some intensity, adding some fuzzed out guitar to the break. Back to the main theme, there's some easy call and response work between the strings and the horns. The song shifts into more of psychedelic rock jam ending.

Other notable tracks include Saint Jemima's Satanic Baby Shower, which mutates a rolling piano centered jazz jam into Ozric Tentacles style space psychedelia, Venetian Finger Trap, with its flip-flop mood swings, and Dish of Ants, which starts out experimental but settles into a straighter modal jazz sophistication.

Visit the Jonestown Potion's MySpace page to listen to a number of their songs.

My personal Jonestown potion would have to be my friend Kyle's "Mead For Mere Mortals", a Hatch chile infused sweet mead. Strange and challenging? Sure, but well worth the experience.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Concert review - Red Sparowes with Caspian and Fang Island

26 April 2010 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
It was an intense night of music that called for more heat than the mild spring weather outside. The three bands on the bill fit together fairly well, with enough stylistic similarities to satisfy the crowd. There wasn't a blues chord progression to be found.

All three acts had a trio of guitar players but each used them differently.

Fang Island

While Fang Island was pretty tight, they had the loosest feel of the night. They weren't completely instrumental like the other bands, but their vocals were mostly used as another instrument in the mix: chanting or a chorale approach rather than lyrical vehicles. They hit the stage with high energy, with bassist Michael Jacober's restless legs in constant spasm.

Their model for three guitars was very fluid, with the three swapping roles even within a song. A song might have a pair playing matching rhythm parts while the third played a melody, but that could evolve into twinned harmonized guitar parts washing over a prog-rock drive. The next song might feature a bagpipe drone chord against a normal chord progression and lead. That flexibility, with fluid changing of roles, defined their sound.

Fang Island's music had a kind naive joy swaddled within the high volume noise and this mood differentiated them from the other bands last night. From new songs like Daisy to older ones like S.S. Fort Jams, it was a smoking set.

There was no warning at the start...just some prerecorded sound that would underlay the whole set, then a swell of sound building. The first song was visceral build of throbbing sound. No hard edges except the snare strikes. Soon enough, though, Caspian would bury us under layers of raw channeled emotion.

The band had an intense stage presence. The beat forced them into bobbing, thrash punk style, but the music was purely prog/post rock. Their music was very tight, with a harmonic center and lots of dynamic shifts. The guitarist roles were more defined than Fang Island, with a lot of paired rhythms supporting leads influenced by U2's Edge. On the songs with twinned leads, Caspian often built a shimmery guitar wall that felt like being in a hall of mirrors with disorienting reflections.

For all of the guitar work, Caspian is really a drum driven band. Joe Vickers controls the dynamics, setting up the building tension. Similarly, the drums provided the foundation for the maelstrom of guitar. The smooth shifts between loud stormy playing and soft accents created an emotional core, which was evocative and often deeper than lyrics would have expressed. Prog rock or post rock, during this set, the labels didn't matter at all.

Red Sparowes
Where Caspian emoted, Red Sparowes were more inwardly focused. The music still reached for some of the same peaks, but there was a subtlety in how the elements came together. They were by turns pensive, ominous, and exultant. They gave a sense of improvisational jam, but it was clear that the set was structured. The changes, even when slow to evolve, were deliberate. This gave their show a slight detachment - in some ways they were the opposite of Caspian.

Red Sparowes used their three guitars to create textures, sometimes layering simple picking parts together. Other times, they started from anarchy and constructed order. The music had a taste of the progressive, especially in the drumming, but was more influenced by Pink Floyd psychedelia. In some ways, their set was like Ozric Tentacles, with less looped keyboard and stronger intention.

During the set, they projected a series of images on a backdrop adding a multi-media feel. While this didn't detract, I'm not sure that it added much. The sonic worlds that they created were engaging enough. Swirling, hypnotic, and resonant, the audience swayed along. There was a kind of ecstasy that ebbed and flowed with the intensity of the band. When they shifted configuration, to trade guitar and bass for keys and steel guitar, that added a new dimension to the trip.

Walking out into the cool night air, ears ringing, I thought back to the Gulden Draak Belgian strong dark ale I drank earlier in the evening: a rich complex beer that led off a great night of music...

More photos on my Flickr.

Monday, April 26, 2010

CD review - Deluka, Deluka EP (2010)

The cool thing about retro is that there's so much to choose from. Of course, many lesser bands fall into the trap of irrelevance. Deluka uses their 5 song EP to explore a series of synth pop oriented influences from the '80s, ranging from Duran Duran to Blondie. The quartet updates the sound with a modern dance pop sensibility. Despite the focus on synthesizers and tight beats, the guitar work is particularly interesting. Kris Kovaks and singer Ellie Innocenti have worked out some tight riffs that complement the songs and add some depth. There's clearly a love of new wave arrangements, but it's all in the service of making tight pop masterpieces.

The EP leads off with Cascade, a shimmery synth pop that hearkens back to the band, Berlin. Ellie Innocenti doesn't sound like Terri Nunn, but otherwise, they've captured that drive. It's got a danceable beat and the interlocking keyboard parts form a smooth simple groove.

The fade out on Cascade lulls the ear before the sharp start of OMFG. It's choppy, with some cool mutant guitar fills that were clearly influenced by Adrian Belew. It's rooted in a modern pop as it deconstructs a new wave backing track. Any of the more interesting pop femmes could have made this, but they wouldn't have had the same edge.

Angular guitar fills balance the tight groove in Finito. The guitar work on the bridge adds context for the earlier riffs. The song picks up tension leading into a contrasting chant: The boy, the girl. This builds into the root of Finito's irreconcilable differences: The boy won't give her a straight answer, the girl won't ask him a straight question. The vocals here evoke a touch of Debbie Harry.

Wake Me Up starts out like Duran Duran, but by the end of the chorus, it's exploring the same musical space that the Arctic Monkeys do with their dancier songs. The sequencing is clean and the production work (stuttering parts, selectively echoed phrasing) has a thoroughly contemporary feel.

Mixed Messages updates an old Missing Persons feel. There's a driving rock beat underneath the pop groove. The chiming keyboard accents blend perfectly. Innocenti has some nice vocal phrasing to keep things interesting and impart some mixed messages of her own.

Deluka's take on synth pop remains organic and interesting. These five songs were all fairly catchy. It will be really interesting to see how they would fill out a full album. Of course, albums are less important today as consumers shift to buying singles. So, maybe the EP is the right release vehicle to reach their audience. In any case, Deluka's EP is like a perfect Kir Royale: sweet and a little tart, with a drying complexity to balance.

Friday, April 23, 2010

CD review - Sean Bones, Rings (2009)

Rings is billed as indie-reggae, but Sean Bones is really taking more of a ska approach. It's a mix of early ska and 2-Tone era ska, rather than the more modern ska-rock. It's saturated with bouncy chanks, spooky organ riffs, and laid back bass lines. The vocals desert the ska vibe for an indie pop feel. Bones' voice is thinner than most ska singers, but he makes up for this by having some nice harmonies, sometimes reaching for a Beatlesque or ELO feel.

Merging the early ska penchant for appropriating other songs with a 2 Tone feel, Coco takes its verse straight from A Message To You Rudy, by the Specials. It's simple and poppy, although there is some interesting guitar abuse going on near the end. Bones brings in some George Harrison harmonies to fill out the sound.

One of the singles, Sugar in My Spoon, is a wonderfully tight number. It's a cross between rocksteady (the soulful vibe, the harmonies and vocal phrasing, and the funky organ riff) and 2 Tone era ska (the bubble chank going on the keys and the uptempo beat). The music is darker than some of the other songs on the disc, which adds some depth. The lyrics are fairly poppy, but the music is relentlessly driving. There's an interesting set of song sections and the ending is perfect.

This is immediately followed by Instigator, which is more firmly rocksteady. It's got a real Sly and Robbie vibe mixed with a little Wailers. The organ fills add some ska, too. There's a lot going on here, as the mood shifts through the different sections. There are also some horns sitting in, adding an English R&B feel. It's delightfully retro.

Really, there isn't a single bad song here. With hints of 2 Tone bands, some Wailers, and even the Police, it's a pleasant exploration of the ska influenced, chop beat music. I think a Juju Ginger Ale from Lefthand Brewing would be a nice accompaniment.

But wait! There's more...
As an addendum, Sean Bones has just released a new single, Rhumba Beat, which completely turns away from the ska vibe. The main part of the song is a funky indie rock exercise. With catchy bass and guitar parts. This devolves into a club beat/disco bridge, which manages to find its way back to the original groove. It's an interesting change of pace. I missed Sean Bones when he came through Colorado recently. I'll have to see him next time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

CD review - Flobots, Suvival Story (2010)

The Flobots continue their infiltration to be the conscience of the national consciousness, with a new album and matching tour. Survival Story continues their progressive political message, with songs like White Flag Warrior and Superhero, which make their point without getting shrill or boring. In fact, the human face they put on their songs probably opens a few minds. In a world of political polarization, it's nice to feel like you could have a conversation even if you disagree about a particular issue.

Musically, the Flobots vary from song to song, hitting a hard rock drive then a straighter hip-hop feel. The flow works because their vocal delivery and instrumentation stay consistently interesting.

My favorite track is one I remember from their December show, Good Soldier. It starts with the chorus which features some beautiful harmonies. This loose, comforting chorus balances the tension built in the verses, which paint a powerful image of individual struggle to make sense of the world. Mackenzie Roberts' viola work is a key element, weaving around the chorus and accenting the verses.

Another great track that nails the personal perspective is By the Time You Get This Message. It's a bass heavy driving tune that builds intensity over the course of five and a half minutes. When the guitars kick in with a jarring grind, it's like a splash of hot, bitter coffee. The lyrical/thematic balance is so appealing: each half presents the individual effort and experience of what it took to make their meeting. It's cinematic in scope, where neither subject really knows if they'll meet or how they'll be received.

So, Survival Story itself balances the political with the personal, satisfying on both counts. This is love, this is not treason. Well, yes...it's also good listening. This time, I'll suggest a good Scottish ale, like Oskar Blues' Old Chub. Rich, strong, and interesting.

Monday, April 19, 2010

CD review - Sleepy Sun, Fever (2010)

This review is a love letter to Sleepy Sun. I caught their live show last month and was impressed. But now, I've been listening to their album, Fever, over and over. I can't seem to take it off repeat. The arcing flow of the songs fits together just so, with dynamics that resonate with my mood and mind.

Much like their concert, the vocals are an axis for the songs to revolve around. Musically, they wander from one genre to the next without jarring. And the guitar work ranges from textured to intense.

But there are differences, too. Rachel Williams is still haunting and soulful, but on Fever, she also sounds sweet, playful, and breathy -- sort of Bjork crossed with Emmy Lou Harris (and a touch of Margo Timmins). Bret Constantino has a voice like worn corduroy, every bit as expressive as in the show.

Fever leads off with Marina, which starts out with an acid rock guitar line before settling into a lazy groove. Williams' voice is honey sweet. The layers of guitars are more subtle than the show, but more satisfying for that. The bridge section shifts the mood into a jungle beat of percussion before sliding back into the trippy groove again. It's a satisfying journey and a perfect beginning for the album.

Desert God, had a different feel than the live version. Sure, you could still imagine Jerry Garcia sitting in on the session, but the album version takes that idea and tweaks it to almost sound like a Gomez cover. Constantino even sounds a lot like Ben Ottewell in his tone and phrasing. More than that, the change leading into the second verse could easily be lifted from an early Gomez song. There are elements of Get Miles, Rie's Wagon, and Revolutionary Kind all hiding here. As the song drifts from section to section, it isn't a rip-off or even a tribute. It's more like Sleepy Sun is channeling the same musical signal.

The only misstep is Freedom Line. Despite the loose vocal rhythm, the mechanical drum groove doesn't fit the album. The sudden acid jam at the end is in character for the album, but doesn't really flow out of the song. That's a minor gripe because the closer, Sandstorm Woman, slips back into the pervasive lazy psychedelia of the album. A great set up for starting the whole thing over again.

Pour me a glass of the Reverend by Avery and I'll just let the music roll over me. Hugs and kisses to Sleepy Sun -- thanks for the jams. Fever is officially due for release on June 1 in North America (May 17 in Europe).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Concert review - The Booze, Earl Greyhound, OK Go

14 April 2010 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Some concert lineups will always be a mystery to me. Why did the B-52s lead off Joan Jett and the Who, back in 1982? Last night had me scratching my head again. Three bands, each with a different sound, historical feel, and musical statement. Fortunately, I handle cognitive dissonance well and enjoyed the show.

The Booze
First up, the Booze took us back to 1965 for a Merseybeat celebration. The music sounded like the Animals with a touch of the Yardbirds, while the bandmates each took a slightly different approach in crafting their retro fashion statements.

Left handed Randy Michael covered most of the lead guitar duties. Front man Chaz Tolliver brought a manic energy. In constant motion, he channeled Keith Relf of the Yardbirds, even playing a bit of harmonica. He also reached for some Mick Jagger strut.

The Booze slammed through their set, each song quickly leading into the next. This kind of polish also harkens back to the British Invasion era. Their grooves were right and period perfect. These guys are totally sincere about this; there's not a whiff of irony. Even though the crowd was young enough that their parents were too young to know the original inspirations, they could respect the energy and party mood that the Booze created.

Earl Greyhound
If the Booze hit the mid-'60s, then Earl Greyhound took us into the heavy sounds of late '60s/early '70s hard rock. The volume kicked up and things got really intense. Within a matter of seconds, the crunch of Sea of Japan drove all other music out of everyone's mind. This time, they had a bit more stage time compared to their spot on the Afro Punk tour. They used it wisely to pound through songs off the new album, Suspicious Package.

Live, they continue to have an incredibly rich, thick sound. Matt Whyte demonstrated that he's a master of guitar echo and feedback, manipulating his sound from a heady maelstrom to a wailing howl. Then, the music would crashing into a throbbing roar as he drove the rhythm. His stage presence is fairly inwardly focused, but he still made a good audience connection.

Kamara Thomas showed off her mastery as well, tearing up the bass and striking Jimi Hendrix poses as she nailed her breaks. Even while she amazed us with her playing, she'd throw her head back and raise a chill with her incredible voice.

It's hard to pick a favorite song of the night. Oye Vaya was spectacular, with nothing held back, but Shotgun edged it out. This version was looser and trippier, flowing with the moment, but it still built into a more aggressive piece, with Ricc Sheridan's drum work spurring the song into a full cathartic experience. His drums are physically imposing and even his fills feel like body blows. As good as their albums are, this is truly a band to catch live.

The full crowd filtered in during Earl Greyhound's set. While they enjoyed the mayhem, they were really here to catch the headliner. OK Go had enough equipment to set up to provide a nice pause before shifting gears again, this time into a contemporary take on '80s power pop. Their sound is catchy and mostly upbeat.

While the whole band did a fine job of playing, frontman Damien Kulash was really the star. He had a loose, conversational style to his banter that felt very casual. Whether he was thanking Denver for not mugging them (or killing them) or talking about sin and getting back to God ("I do shit you can't even imagine. I do shit I can't even imagine"), the audience basked in his attention. Hamming it up a bit, he often came across as a bit smug, but that stage persona fits him well and didn't hurt him with the crowd.

Much as their unique videos have garnered a lot of attention, OK Go's stage show was full of interesting elements, from a confetti cannon to the small video cameras feeding the backdrop screen on some songs. There was even a handbell version of What to Do. Sometimes, it was a much spectacle as it was a rock show.

OK Go played a good selection of past hits and new songs off Of the Blue Colour of the Sky. They led off with the older Invincible, which was quite a bit looser than the album version. That led right into the newer White Knuckles, which had the audience singing along. With every song, the crowd got more ecstatic. When Kulash came off the stage to play Last Leaf in the audience, that was almost too much. They also did one cover, of the Pixies' Debaser, with Kulash attempting to imitate Frank Black.

The set ended on a high note. Damien brought up a young guy from the audience who had posted a drum cover video on YouTube. While he added some drum work to the song, Damien coached the crowd on singing the bridge. It was a great set closer.

The encore added some more gimmicks, with special light up instruments (complete with frickin' lasers). At some level, it almost seemed like too much, but nobody in the theater was complaining.

As I mentioned, this was weird line up of acts, so there was no single drink for this show. Maybe a Tom Collins to start, followed by a Mackeson Stout, and finishing up with a Long Island ice tea. Not necessarily a drink menu I'd enjoy, but the concert was just fine.

Many more photos at my Flickr.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

CD review - The Depreciation Guild, Spirit Youth (2010)

Spirit Youth (due out May 18, Kanine Records) has a Phil Spector quality - it's thickly layered, reaching for that Wall of Sound. The vocals are breathy and processed, with all the instrumental parts compressed and stacked into the same sonic space, giving it a distant feel. While Spector focused on a sweet early rock and R&B vibe, the Depreciation Guild are more inspired by an '80s British post-punk, synth pop sound. Synth washes, keyboard fills, and shimmery guitars accumulate into a solid mass of detail that can become a little overwhelming.

Blue Lily leads off with tightly coordinated guitars layered together. The complex film of instruments add depth to a languorous pop vibe. While the basic idea is not so far from Depeche Mode or the like, the time shifts and beat changes at the bridge throw a prog rock curve that keeps it interesting.

The progressive rock feel gets stronger in the second half of the album. Tracks like Trace or White Moth have more interesting changes that merge a prog rock sound with a low-fi shoegazer pop. It's like My Bloody Valentine meets And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, albeit with a flattened intensity. That anti-depressant sense comes from the squashed sonic space and distant vocals.

I'll offer a round of vodka and lemonade while you listen.

Monday, April 12, 2010

CD review - White Rabbits, It's Frightening (2010)

With It's Frightening, White Rabbits have created music from the Heart of Darkness. The atavistic jungle beats, the constant tension, and an unsettling aura of noise are balanced by an indie Brit pop/post punk aesthetic. The closest comparison would be some of Wilco's darker work, but that doesn't really capture the feel. It's driving and primitive, but the languid vocals and subtle use of sound provide a cognitive dissonance. This is one of the most interesting albums I've heard lately.

A great example is Lionesse. The first minute or so is an interlude centered on a constant tone, with swelling noises and a piano playing a simple, stalking scale. A couple of small fragments of noise break the spell and the beat and bass add context to the piano scale. Now, it's more or a spy theme, with reverbed instruments and a steadily building anxiety. The few words are mostly a repeated phrase. When the song collapses at the end, it's almost a relief...and yet, I hit rewind at least twice to take the ride again.

Company I Keep emphasizes the Wilco vibe, with a Robyn Hitchcock vocal and lyrical approach. It's stripped down, with a misleading sparse feel. The misdirection is that all of these separate pieces drift together so easily to form a lazy beauty. Still, though, there's a steady syncopated beat underlying the song that prevents a full release of the album's pent up energy.

It's Frightening -- well, maybe so, but sometimes I love a good scare. A glass of smoky Schlenkerla Urbock will keep you company in the darkness.

Friday, April 9, 2010

CD review - Kidd Russell, Backyard Heroes (2010)

Kidd Russell is a relentless self-promoter. He's out there hyping his music, acting as his own publicist. Like any good salesman, he believes in his product, which seems especially sincere as he avoids any false modesty. His latest project, Backyard Heroes, is a scattershot collection of pieces. There are several nice moments and some good flow, but it lacks some coherency. In this time of singles, that may not matter as much.

Mostly, it's a party album, with a mix of rap and singing that remind me of Sugar Ray or maybe a bit like Smashmouth. This vibe covers the recent video single, E North Ave to the love tribute of She Feels Like Home. There are side trips from the basic groove -- the MC 900 Ft Jesus feel of Legendary and the heavy message of Dear Shooter.

Dear Shooter is the strongest song here. It's an anti-violence rap, starting with a gangbanger's young victim and progressing to a soldier with the enemy in his sights. This chain of examples is anchored with a poignant chorus:
I wrote you this letter the other night
For you to read before you take my life
My life, my life
Gotta get this off my chest
Before your bullet ends my breath
My breath, dead shooter
Focused on creating empathy between victim and perpetrator, it's a powerful approach. The lyrical flow is smooth, with well chosen backing music.

Kidd Russell has a good ear for music and laying out some catchy flow. I'd like to hear more stylistic focus, but Backyard Heroes is well worth checking out. Raise a tallboy to the band.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

CD review - Sade, Soldier of Love (2010)

Sade is back again after a long hiatus, with a new album, Soldier of Love. While her voice is still strong and silky smooth, the music has shifted with the times. There's less of a Latin jazz groove here and more emphasis on loops and beats. Even though Sade doesn't sound anything like Lauryn Hill, there's a Fugees sensibility in the arrangements and rhythms.

The first track, The Moon and the Sky, shows this perfectly. An acoustic guitar, a snaky lead line, and tiny bits of fill start out the song, then a beat kicks in and the music slips into an easy loop. The Fugees have used the same song flow before and the lead line is reminiscent of The Score. It's a cool and laid back groove.

While Soldier of Love was the first single, Babyfather is the second and it's the strongest track here. It's a simple arrangement, but Sade's expressive voice completely sells this story of budding love. The reggae-beat drums and bass provide the drive, with the acoustic guitar laying out some simple strums instead of a chank. There's something in the easy flow, the beat, and pretty backing vocal parts that locks this tune in my ear. The only odd bit is a bit of repeated lyric that sounded like: Your daddy knows, you're a fling, which contrasts with the whole theme of true love discovery. It turns out that the word "fling" was actually "flame". Still, that didn't really distract from enjoying this sweet R&B groove.

In sharp contrast, Bring Me Home is darker and haunting. It sounds a bit like Eric McFadden (Sorrow) or old Tom Waits, with a tight guitar arpeggio, a loose jazzy vocal, and an insistent beat. The mood is completely different, but it's just as satisfying to hear again and again. The backing vocals have the perfect light touch here, too.

All of this makes Soldier of Love worth the almost 10 year wait. Sade's voice and the band's playing fuse together well. Candlelight and hand warmed brandy will complete the mood.

Monday, April 5, 2010

CD review - Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain (2009)

Most of their fellow post-punkers have fallen by wayside or evolved newer sounds, but Echo and the Bunnymen have remained consistent and true. The Fountain could fit just about anywhere the band's 30 year discography. This gives the album a comfortable sound. The only real change is the slight aging of Ian McCulloch's voice, which adds a worldlier character. In some places, McCulloch even takes on a little Neil Diamond huskiness.

The songs are all smooth and polished, inviting easy comparisons with the Psychedelic Furs, U2, and Billy Idol. The first track, Think I Need It, Too, has a steady bass line and chiming guitar on the verses -- it sounds straight off a U2 track. The chorus is anthemic, with looser flowing guitar lines. The shimmering components slowly drift apart to mark the close of the song.

Drivetime sounds like Billy Idol covering Del Shannon's Runaway. The arrangement is compelling, with just enough contrast between the languid vocal delivery and the fast, steady beat. The drop out near the end is a great touch, as the song fades on reverb artifacts.

Following that, the closer, The Idolness of Gods, sounds like an Elvis Costello tune as arranged by Morrissey. More florid than most the other tracks, the lush arrangement suits the sardonic, metaphorical lyrics.

The Fountain is like a good session bitter - not surprising but no less enjoyable for that.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Concert review - Freelance Whales, Bear in Heaven, Cymbals Eat Guitars

1 April 2010 (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Things got off to a later start, but it was still a great time. It was close to a sold out show, with a heavy crowd packing the Hi Dive. Each of these bands had their own sound and style, but they were fairly complementary, so the fans of one band still enjoyed the others.

Freelance Whales
Freelance Whales specialize in a kind of shimmery indie pop. Their CD, Weathervanes, featured a folky fusion of acoustic and electronic sounds and playful vocals. Their live show delivered on their studio sound, capturing layers of musical and vocal complexity. At the same time, there was a looser feel that added a richness to the sound.

Lead vocalist Judah Dadone had an achier tone to his voice last night, but that just added some emotional depth that the band needed. His speedy vocal delivery on Hannah rivaled the CD version and the rest of the band's harmonies were strong. It was also nice to be able to hear bass player Doric Cellars voice stand out more than on Weathervanes.

The stage show was impressive, too, as most of the players swapped instruments to vary the arrangements from song to song. All the little touches were present, like the banjo, the harmonium, and xylophone. The tunes were all off the album, with Hannah and Generator^ 2nd Floor being especially nice.

Bear in Heaven
Things got darker when Bear in Heaven took the stage. Musically, things moved from lush indie folk to more of a progressive rock with elements of synth pop. Bear in Heaven kicked off their set with a pounding drum paired with a tight, throbbing bass. Normally a four piece, they're touring as a trio, which might have hurt their set. Although their playing was still strong.

Instrumentally, Bear in Heaven was impressive. Joe Stickney, the drummer, was incredible, speedily playing intricate fills that drive the songs forward. Adam Wills was quite adept at bass and guitar, laying down a heavy low end or the perfect stabs of vicious guitar. Frontman Jon Philpot switched between bass and synthesizer while providing all of the vocals. His bass work was solid and the synth parts went a long way towards enriching the sound. Philpot wasn't a bad singer, a bit thin and nasal, with elements of Billy Corgan or Perry Farrell. Unfortunately, the vocal mix was thin and low, so it was very hard to pick out any lyrics and the songs needed some backing vocals.

So, who did they sound like? Maybe a stripped down Porcupine Tree or vintage Jane's Addiction. Some of the keyboard work evoked the Talking Heads. None of these reference points capture the jam intensity and noise that Bear in Heaven bring to the stage, though.

Cymbals Eat Guitars
Guitars were indeed eaten and their metallic shreds rained down on the audience. On Why There are Mountains, Cymbals Eats Guitars sounded like Pavement meets Wilco. Their live show showcased plenty of Wilco noise manipulation, but shifted from Pavement to a rawer Replacements feel. Frontman Joseph Ferocious lived up to his nom d'stage, screwing up his face...no, his whole body... in pain or concentration as he flailed at the guitar. It was an awesome, high energy set that started with And the Hazy Sea. Rather than rehashing the recorded version, they opened up the arrangement to jam more. That was typical of all of the songs from Why There Are Mountains. They also played some other songs like Tunguska and a new one called Definite Darkness.

The dynamics from the record were here, though, but writ large. As the band shifted from a softer start to full on thrash in songs like Indianna, they took us on a roller coaster ride from song to song. It was occasionally hard to hear the keyboards, but the delay box artifacts and controlled feedback were all there.

Ferocious emphasized a Paul Westerberg vocal sound, but the Replacements vibe was more down to the effortless transition between simple pop oriented guitar to punky wail. This was strongest on their arrangement of Cold Spring, which was my favorite moment in the show. It still started out with the bluesy guitar and nice keyboard work. The spastic energy during the guitar solo was transcendent.

The loud wail of feedback guitar calls for an American barleywine, like Rogue's Old Crustacean, to steady the waves of noise and relax you for the ride.

More photos on my Flickr.