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

Monday, November 29, 2010

CD review - Valleys, Stoner (2010)

Band EPs often show a range of styles. The three songs on the Stoner EP by Valleys are each an amalgam of genres, but together they set a consistent tone. Despite some elements of post punk and indie rock, the main sound is a heady psycho-progressive rock. The clearest comparison would be And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, but that misses the contrasting calm moments that set up the catharsis.

The Cold Cold Skinny starts sparsely, with wind and deadened chimes. The verse comes in as a distant sort of post punk with ethereal vocals, a choppy rhythm drive, and some vague guitar fills. At the chorus, the music turns more progressive with fuzzed guitar riffing. The bridge builds on this prog sound, offering a faster, driving guitar riff and a thoughtful organ mixed underneath. All of this makes the first half of the song. From here, the song blooms into long melodic notes from a heavily compressed guitar and some glitchy underpinnings. It's a sudden relief of the first half's tension. With headphones and a darkened room, the whole effect is quite trippy.

Ordinary Dream (courtesy Pitchfork) sets up an indie pop groove: looped percussion and a pair of guitars with one playing a faster figure while a second entwines at about half the tempo. The vocals are dreamy and sweet. This makes the abrupt descent into overwhelming noise laden prog rock hit like a seizure. This section sounds strongly like Trail of Dead. The moment passes; the song effortlessly slips back into the original indie vibe. Despite the strange juxtaposition, that Tourette's tic of chaotic noise feels integral to the song.

Stoner wraps up with Ten Thousand Hours, which is the most overtly psychedelic of the three songs. Tentative noodling in the beginning backed by modulating swells of sound evoke a distracted, skewed mindset. The song gets underway with a progressive drive and a clear direction, but the quavering swells underneath imply that things aren't quite so simple. That sets up the next section with primal scream vocals and mellow accompaniment. It's sort of a Trail of Dead meets Pink Floyd. The music presents a mix of low fi and clean sounds. Feedbacking guitars are layered in with a clean full band sound (keys, guitar, bass, and drums). The noise grows in the mix. If the Ordinary Dream had a seizure, Ten Thousand Hours has a full breakdown.

Valleys' songs show a rich complexity. I like how they string together a collection of sounds and feels, creating a single mood shifting song. Ground yourself with a couple of shots of espresso and jump on board...

Friday, November 26, 2010

CD review - Kraddy, Labyrinth (2010)

"Led Zeppelin 3000". That's the inspiration that electronic wizard Kraddy used as he put together his new concept EP, Labyrinth. Appropriately, the sound is massive with intense bass. It stands in stark contrast to the milder electronic music I've reviewed in the last couple of weeks.

Kraddy, a founding member of the Glitch Mob, has been a driving force for a classic drum and bass sound. On Labyrinth, the music moves between a straight D&B, picking up an occasional dubstep feel. You can listen on ear buds, but the sub-bass grinds and booming kick drums are best heard out loud, where your body can feel the visceral punch of the sound.

The conceit behind Labyrinth is the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Kraddy intends each of the songs to fit into this myth. At the same time, he's said that he's using the theme of the labyrinth as a metaphor for personal growth and overcoming fear. The first single, No Comply, seems to map to Theseus deciding to stop the tribute of sacrificing youth to the Minotaur. It's an intense song, starting with a monster drum and bass and heavily distorted vocals. The grinding electronic lines also fuzz out along the edges. It moves beyond the initial plodding rhythm to take on a glitchy pseudo funk groove that's similar his old band's work. There's a nice dubstep drop out in the middle of the song that hangs for a moment before the weight of the groove settles back.

Let Go features a hip hop/toasting vocal along with the electronic groove. It serves as a good anchor point leading into my favorite track. Into the Labyrinth begins quietly, with a feel of impending doom. The tension and the music build with a tip of the hat to Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. There's a dubstep pause, then the grind begins. The bass is ponderous. The accompanying music takes the earlier threat and turns it into determination. After another pause, the music moves from determination to the stalking of the minotaur. But the threat still lingers in the background.

Labyrinth is a wonderfully trippy, intense bit of electronic groove. Is it Led Zeppelin 3000? Well, it's certainly heavy, whether metal or otherwise. Mikkeller's Beer Geek Breakfast, an imperial stout can handle the beat. Can you?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

CD review - Warm Ghost, Claws Overhead (2010)

Take a dreamy, low fi trip to the undersea world of Warm Ghost. The Brooklyn based duo is perfectly named -- the music on the Claws Overhead EP is dreamy, detached, and hard to focus on. It's dream pop with a synth pop spine.

Other electronic bands might create layers of sound, allowing complexity to arise from the interactions. In contrast, Warm Ghost defocuses a world of sonic elements into a fuzzy smear of sound. It's slow motion, underwater music that slips past the rational mind to touch the emotional. Their path is unique: more song focused than Brian Eno, less frantic than Pere Ubu, and not making a statement like U2. Still, the ambient quality, experimentalism, and lush sound evoke each of those acts.

The title cut sets the mood with a skewed take on synth pop. Heavily detuned notes and a looming bass synth work with the stead beat to build tension. The sound is thick and echoed. The vocal is detached. The music feels like the moments just before sleep comes: everything is distant, the edges are going dark, and a vague sense of paralysis.

Resignation Rights starts out like a cross between Julee Cruise (Floating from Twin Peaks) and Tears for Fears. The heavily processed vocals contribute to the thick smear of sound. So much is going on, but it's all jumbled together in a dreamy mix, like a grab bag of subconscious images. A low fi rasp grows throughout the course of the song. Then it continues into the next song, Open the Wormhole in Your Heart. Here, the lead vocal is a bit like Bono, but the wavery distorted notes are worlds away from U2.

Claws Overhead wraps up with the psychedelic So Sick of the Sun. It's a hazy shimmer, a billowing fog. The echoes refuse to decay, creating a Frippertronic wall of sound that is wispy thin as it enfolds the song. An acoustic guitar provides a basic rhythm that emphasizes the hypnotic clouds of echo. A good strong golden ale from Belgium is the right partner for this music.

Monday, November 22, 2010

CD review - Tahiti 80, Solitary Bizness (2010)

French band Tahiti 80 comes from the fuzzy borderlands of electro pop. They have all the standard electronic sounds, but their aesthetic emphasizes a retro pop flavor. The 5 tracks on the Solitary Bizness EP shows off some of their pop explorations. Throughout the album, though, the vocals are clean and breezy and the beats are light and steady.

The title cut lays a sing-song indie pop vocal over an electronic bass line. There's some layering, but nothing extreme. Instead, the focus is on the clear vocals and light touch harmonies. The basic electro pop groove takes on some boop/beep synthesizer sounds, especially in the dreamy instrumental end section.

Crack Up is poppy and bouncy. The heavily syncopated beat is driven with percussion sounds, giving this a cheerful feel, albeit full of nervous energy. It's a bit reminiscent of Devo, but much less ironic. This contrasts with A Night in the City, which has a stripped down verse and shimmery disco pop chorus. The verse features a Leonard Cohen style delivery, setting up a loosely structured story. Eventually the verse and chorus come together in an overlapped ending.

Keys to the City is back to Tahiti 80's core sound. It's got a retro feeling pop vocal that dates back to Bob Welch and backing synthesizers. It's simple, light, and poppy. The ending slides into a stronger synth pop groove.

Finally, Cool Down surprises with an acoustic guitar groove. The simple arrangement of the guitar and bass sets a mood, but it starts unraveling, with glitchy elements and other sounds creeping in. Eventually, it falls into an electronic dub groove. This and the title track were my two favorite cuts on the EP.

Solitary Bizness is a nice little diversion. It's a prelude for Tahiti 80's upcoming album, The Past, the Present & the Possible (due out in February 2011). For now, accent some ginger ale with some fresh ginger and listen along.

Friday, November 19, 2010

CD review - Girl Talk, All Day (2010)

Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis) is sorry for slowing down the internet with Monday's free online release of his fifth album, All Day. He's been working on the project in secret and released the album with no warning and little fanfare. But the word spread like wildfire. Soon enough, the mirror sites were set up to give Illegal Art, his label, a little breathing room. Like his other work, All Day is available for free download at here. If you appreciate his effort, you should drop a donation.

Girl Talk stands out on the mash up scene for his kitchen sink, manic mash up remixes. As impressive as his albums are, he's also known for mixing a great live show.

That live show approach comes through because All Day is more of a Club DJ style compared to straight up mash up artists. It focused on keeping people dancing in a party mood. The club crowd might be intrigued as they recognize individual samples or parts, but they appreciate the shorter sections that keep the groove from becoming a rut. Dance, share a nod with your friends when a familiar or surprising sample pops up, but don't waste time obsessing on the details.

On the other hand, All Day stands up to a focused ear as well. The sheer number of samples mixed in and out can be overwhelming...right up until a perfect storm blows in and grabs your ear. "Did I really hear...?" It might be the Ramones (Blitzkeig Bop) layered with the Doors (Waiting for the Sun) leading into Trini featuring Killer Mike (Look Back at Me). Or maybe it's Jadakiss (Who's Real) setting up Radiohead (Creep) melting under Ol' Dirty Bastard (Shimmy Shimmy Ya). The mesh of music and rap in that last combination are perfect. The flow is more like singing and then the ODB's rap sets up Radiohead's vocals.

Girl Talk's vision is that All Day should be treated as a single mega track. It's easy to see why -- the individual tracks mutate over time drifting far from their beginnings. For example, the first track, Oh No leads off with Black Sabbath's War Pigs and settles into a mash up with Ludakris' Move Bitch. This combo comes to an end around 2:12, with the new mash up section sounding like the start of a new song. This means you need to look at the iPod display to identify when the tracks transition.

Most mash up artists set their focus on a particular set of two or three songs to mix and then create a single mash up track that they'll title to indicate the songs they used (e.g. Blondie vs. the Doors Rapture Riders). Compared to that, Girl Talk has an interesting form of ADHD. His attention span is shorter, where each mash up set of songs last a brief while before they are tossed aside for something new. At the same time, he has a larger scope for chaining together a flow of continuous mashing.

He builds these mash up chains following a tight structure. He'll start with a couple of samples (call them A and B) , maybe using another beat underneath. Then, he'll drop out one sample (A) and substitute another (C, so the mix is B & C), shifting the whole feel. Sometimes, he'll switch back to the original set (A&B), but more likely, he'll drop the older remaining sample for something else that catches his ear (moving on with C & D).

Girl Talk must have an incredible music collection. The 370+ samples on All Day range from older classic rock (Black Sabbath, Cream, Doors) to modern rap (50 Cent, Ludakris, Kesha), with everything in between. For all the familiar samples from Ice Cube, Lady Gaga, or Miley Cyrus he'll throw in more obscure songs like Todies' Possum Kingdom.

This kind of complexity calls for a session beer, like Gordon Biersch's Schwarzbier: lighter in alcohol, but not flavor or color.

Thanks to Matt Z for the hip tip.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

CD review - We Are Trees, Boyfriend (2010)

It's tempting to dismiss We Are Trees' Boyfriend at first listening. James Nee's diffident vocals and the easy listening retro pop vibe don't inspire a fiery response. The music is rhythmic and reflective, but not particularly moody. The languor and the simple acoustic guitar central sound drift mildly into your ears. If you've relegated it to background music, then it serves as a kind of sonic wallpaper.

It's only when the songs are given proper attention that they yield their true value. The surface of laid back indie pop proves to be a veneer on top of richly subtle arrangements. Every element in the mix seems well thought out and perfectly in place. The rich dynamics and careful layering suggest more of an artistic approach than a pop musician's simplicity. My only critique is that the higher pitched vocal tone and reverby wash can make it difficult to pull out the words.

Sunrise Sunset starts with a steady acoustic strum and tight wordless background harmonies. But with the slowly building swell of a cymbal sound, the arrangement takes on depth. The metallic sound of the cymbal wash seems almost crystalline. The drums are low enough in the mix that the complex syncopation doesn't stand out at first, but this is also revealed on the deeper listening. Layers accrete: multiple string parts and polyrhythms. Where many bands would use a low fi mix to meld this all together, We Are Trees keeps the sonic clarity of all of these facets intact.

Persistent acoustic strums, relaxed vocal delivery, string melodies, interesting drum arrangements, and judicious use of reverb -- The other three tracks maintain the continuity of sonic elements, but each creates its own edifice from the parts. On Daniel, it transitions from hazy fog to reveal the sharper edged architecture of a staccato violin figure. Dear Chan Marshall shows off a heavy handed acoustic guitar chunk-chunk, with a bit of snaky strings drifting in and out. Final Round is more drowsy dreamy, with some nice cymbal work accenting the guitar.

Give Boyfriend a chance to soak in and your ears will be rewarded. The music is as deceptively simple as a fine K├Âlsch.

Monday, November 15, 2010

CD review - Shy Child, Liquid Love (2010)

Pete Cafarella (synth) and Nate Smith (drums) formed Shy Child to fuse progressive rock and electronic music. Their earlier albums maintained a strong rock aesthetic that anchored their electronic focus. Liquid Love has tossed that by the wayside to focus on a modern disco/electro funk/electronic pop sound. The arrangements are beat heavy and very busy. The layers of keyboards include shimmery arpeggios and choppy stabs. The falsetto vocals are relatively detached. The lyrics still aim higher than a lot of electronic dance bands, with some interesting lines and ideas. It's not bad, but it's nowhere near as interesting as their earlier work.

Late last year, Shy Child released Criss Cross to generate interest in Liquid Love. I wish the whole album were in this vein. The groove is somewhere between Kraftwerk and electro funk. There's a tight arpeggiatated synth that mutates occasionally over a grinding bass synthesizer line. Moody keyboard fills drop in and out. The whole track is crowded and trippy. The dynamics build up some strong transitions, so the seven plus minutes pass by quickly. This track compares favorably with some of LCD Soundsystem's songs. The only questionable decision is the chunk of phone interview audio inserted at the breakdown.

The other stand out track is Dark Destiny, which is a slower, synth pop ballad. It's a simple progression, with an encouraging vibe. Coming at the end of the album, it's like an arm around your shoulders looking back to better times and offering hope for the future.

I'll just nurse this bottle of Pilsner Urquell and see what the future brings...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Concert review - Macklemore, with Binary Star, Observatory, and Jimmy Hands

12 November 2010 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Ft. Collins' support for hip hop has been growing and paying off. The national acts coming through are consistently impressive and local acts are developing. Last night's show featured a range of performers that came from all over the stylistic world of hip hop. It was also a kind of victory lap for Seattle rapper Macklemore, who's found a second home base in Colorado.

Jimmy Hands
Jimmy Hands is on his way to being the house DJ at the Aggie Theatre. He's warmed up for several recent shows there. Having an active DJ filling the musical space before and between sets is a hallmark of hip hop culture. Last night, Hands took an old school approach in picking music to build up the crowd without making himself the center of the experience. He interacted with people, but he mostly kept the music flowing. His song transitions were smooth, with a touch of scratching or bounce mixing. Aside from playing some crowd pleasing rap songs, he also tossed in some wicked electronic grooves.

That's not to say that he didn't step up a bit, though. He sat in with Observatory in what seemed to be a largely unrehearsed backing role. The good-natured riffing during that set was loose and fun. Afterward, he laid out an impressive scratching demo.

Observatory
Observatory is a pair of rappers out of Denver. They took the stage and kept Jimmy Hands up as their DJ. The set started roughly, with some flail working out what he should be play. A less confident group would have been thrown by the confusion, but they rolled with it, teasing each other. This seemed to mesh well for their stage personas as smart asses. A little sarcasm and confrontational attitude set the tone and the audience responded. They challenged the crowd to bring up their energy, which was a good strategy for an opening act.

Both guys had some good lyrical flow. Their style seemed more East Coast, with some Beastie Boys vocal influences. The lyrical punches and hand offs were tight and entertaining. They kept the energy high, constantly trading sides of the stage, lunging out to the crowd, and dropping back. It was energetic, but also felt loose.

Later in the set, Observatory had vocalist David Ochoa (Ten Timers) sit in on a song or two, adding an R&B touch to their rap. The set was full of good material. They played one song, Polaroids, off their MySpace page that I recognized. It had a laid back groove but strong rhythmic flow. Observatory was a good opening act -- strong stage presence, plenty of attitude, and solid skills.

Binary Star
The name is even more appropriate now. Binary Star is back together after a 10 year break. One Be Lo and Senim Silla made their mark with the underground hit, Masters of the Universe. Sadly, they split up soon after, each pursuing solo careers. Now the two stars have reunited to capitalize on their old band and show how they've grown since then.

The crowd at the Aggie was already familiar with Masters of the Universe and they were more than happy to join in on the older songs, including the title cut, Wolfman Jack, and others. Binary Star rocked it in classic hip hop fashion. The backing grooves weren't surprising but they were always solid. Both guys could nail a strong rolling lyrical flow, sometimes sliding into some gangster attitude. The arrangements were fairly tight, except for the song endings. Too often, the rap ended and the DJ just chopped off the backing track. A little fade or more solid finish would have been better.

One thing for sure is that we could never forget their name. They had us chanting "Binary"-"Star" with them and with each other throughout the set. They judged the crowd well, though, because we didn't mind that at all. Audience participation was key. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we drove the tag line, "In jail, without the bail." This song was one of my favorites, setting an auto biographical tone. The peak of the show, though, was when Senim Silla cut loose with some radical fast flow. He deftly rolled through chains of words, with the speed of a Jamaican toaster, but in a more syncopated rhythm. DAMN!

Macklemore (with Ryan Lewis)
A prodigal son returns home as a king. Macklemore has played Colorado numerous times. A year and a half ago, I caught him opening for Whiskey Blanket at Hodi's Half Note. As he mentioned last night, there were 20 odd people a night there for those earlier shows. This time, he had a crowd of 400+ at the Aggie. These were serious fans. The audience adored him and in return, he loved us.

How has he made this kind of connection? Like other charismatic grass roots performers, it all comes down to his direct sincerity and openness. He's vulnerable, he shares his weaknesses, and he doesn't pretend to be what he's not. At the same time, he's strong and righteous and he sets a high standard: positive, straight edge, and radical honesty. He sums it up himself in Vipassana:
So I stare into this paper instead of sitting at a cubicle
Take all the ugly shit inside and try to make it beautiful
Use the cement from rock bottom and make it musical
So the people can relate to where I've been
Where I'm going, what I've seen, what I've heard
From the guts, fuck the glory
Just a person on a porch putting it all into recording
Many in my past and many that came before me
I just keep walking my path and blessed to share my story
In contrast to this kind of seriousness, though, he also has a sheer joy and exuberance at being on stage. He has a natural feel for the audience, whether it's having them sing along on Hold Your Head Up or getting a volunteer for the novelty song Stay At Home Dad. The mood shifts between humor, happiness, frantic energy, confessional revelations, and spiritual truths. Sometimes, Macklemore hits the same sweet spot as Michael Franti, with a sheen of positivity and syncopated delivery. His high school prom song, The End, has some Franti rhythms, a wistful feel, and even a sense of spirituality. The live horn solo was perfect.

That brings us to tour personnel. Macklemore had DJ/producer Ryan Lewis backing him, along with Andrew Joslyn (violin) and Owuor Arunga (trumpet). The live instruments were subtle but strong additions to the show, adding a touch of magic. Lewis has had a big influence on Macklemore's studio work, but he kept to a supporting role on stage.

The group closed on Macklemore's favorite encore pair: the campy And We Danced performed in the persona of Sir Raven Bowie and Irish Celebration. It was him the whole fucking time.

Many more photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

CD review - Friend Slash Lover, As American As Ones and Zeros (2010)

The truly clever have a good sense for how far to take things. It's easy to run the humor into the ground or bury the wit under a weight of excess. On As American As Ones and Zeros, Friend Slash Lover have struck the right level. The ambiguity of the band name (is that punctuation or a verb?) and intriguing titles catch the imagination. The songs deliver on this, with good music production and interesting lyrics. The primarily indie rock tunes occasionally drift towards progressive rock and there are enough arty touches to remind you that founder Josh Mintz has an art school pedigree. The arrangements are loosely structured, giving the songs a nice fluid feel.

The expressive vocals often push the songs into an emo orbit, perhaps making them fraught with deeper meaning than the lyrics can quite deliver. But rather than conflicting, this gives As American As Ones And Zeros a cathartic feel. The music supports this, with interesting tunings, good dynamics, and subtle tension.

Breaking Up starts out pretty, reflective, and restrained. The vocal is emotional and personal, meshing well with the lyrical theme of surrender. The repetitive rhythm guitar is accented by single notes swelling. The other contributing parts come in, until a wave of sound rises up and dominates. This takes the song into a different space that's like a less guitar focused version of My Morning Jacket.

The nice lyrical conceit of Where Have I Been All My Life is richly layered with ethereal sounds and back masked music. The flow of words meshes in perfectly:
Getting to know yourself is something you owe yourself, you know
Tell yourself to let go.
It's a pretty affirmation, where the emotional delivery feels sincere.

The weakest song, Disasteroid, suffers from trying too hard on the verse rhyme scheme:
We want our faster toys
And then we act annoyed
That we have half destroyed

Our little asteroid
It's a disaster, boy
That we'll have to avoid
Or be the last to enjoy
Our little asteroid
Even with these flaws, the song succeeds in developing tension into a stronger drive. The transition to a power pop sound on the chorus is also a nice touch.

"Money can't buy happiness...yet", but Friends Slash Lover envision the time when it can. A Rockstar energy drink (mango, anyone?) might be ironic enough for As American as Ones and Zeros.

Monday, November 8, 2010

CD review - The Glitch Mob, Drink the Sea (2010)

Like a lot of electronic music, Drink the Sea edges into your consciousness as a sort of soundtrack to whatever's going on around you. Soon enough, though, it starts to provoke mental images and moods. Like a video game, the experience is immersive, consuming, and surrealistic. The Glitch Mob use a number of tools to get these effects, but their strongest trick is the tidal feel to their arrangements. They instinctively achieve a balance of ebb and flow: retreating break downs punctuate the harder driving hooks.

All of the tracks are strong, but A Dream Within a Dream is a small sonic masterpiece. It suggests a narrative, with cinematic scenes. A garden sparkles with chirping synthesizer birds, then the scene cuts to action. Foot fall drums are on the move, suggesting a mission. Like the Matrix, there are slow motion freezes, where there's a chance to take in the surroundings before speeding back into mission mode. Another cut scene, this time to a new character: a woman moves sinuously. Like a cubist painting, her approach fragments and is repeated. Now, a moment of quite clarity and the opening garden is back. The POV is looking down from on high and the patterns become clearer before it dissolves back to the components of the mission and the mysterious woman...

Well, that's the movie in my mind. This is music that inspires very personal responses.

Between Two Points features singer Swan on vocals. It's moody and glitchy, with a Euro jazz feel. Swan's voice is reflective but playful. The sensual bass line swirls around the vocal, while the background is full of artifacts and cool sounds. A metaphorical geometry lesson? A drifting tease? Either way, it acts as an ebb between the giant robot groove of Fistful of Silence and the dance club electro of We Swarm.

With an album this evocative, it's hard to single out songs. And then the Glitch Mob drop a bomb for the last track. Starve the Ego, Feed the Soul hits my sweet spot. The intro is meditative and psychedelic. The chord pattern is set, the melody comes in and meanders effortlessly. An organ tone warbles its paisley contribution...then the beat drops and harnesses the flow. The electronic and glitchy elements start rising, but the drifting, trippy vibe persists. There's a holy repetition that builds a raga feel. Ultimately, the merging of electronic and organic sounds create a kind of satori.

Some audiences reject electronic music, blaming sterility and boredom. Drink the Sea is anything but sterile. The Glitch Mob has the bass heavy beats and techno vibe that's anchored in the dance club, but they transcend those roots to create a great listening experience. Rosewater feels like the dominant flavor that comes to mind - exotic, intense - maybe a Rosewater Rickey.

Friday, November 5, 2010

CD review - BJ Block and Dawn Pemberton, The Land of Make Believe (2010)

Guitarist BJ Block is back with a new album, The Land of Make Believe, recorded in collaboration with singer Dawn Pemberton. It's a departure from Block's last album, Glitterball. That project was instrumental, focused on jazz guitar and electronica grooves. The initial plan for this album was to make another collection of instrumental songs, with some background vocals. Block recruited fellow Vancouver musician Dawn Pemberton to help out. Soon, the project bloomed into a synergy of styles and writing together.

Often, a collaboration involves some degree of surrender: give up this, but add that. In this case, each of these artists maintains their core strengths in parallel. BJ Block's guitar work is smooth, jazzy, and precise. His production and layering are similarly clean. The songs seem to be a reasonable outgrowth from earlier songs like Mersey Beat. At the same time, singer Dawn Pemberton is well known in the Vancouver R&B, soul, and jazz scene. Her songwriting, vocal stylings, and party vibe approach are fundamental to The Land of Make Believe.

The opening notes of Just Be show off Block's distinctive guitar work. This was the first collaboration they worked on and Pemberton's lyrics and retro soul vocals are a natural fit. The lyrical message is reflective of the album as a whole, setting an upbeat, hopeful mood. Like much of the album, the music feels like a late '70s jazz R&B groove. Dawn Pemberton's vocal timbre is different, but the song feels like some of Joan Armatrading's earlier work.

The album hits its stride with the funk soul of You Happy? featuring a kid's voice sample (John John on Sesame Street). The groove is snapping, with a Steve Wonder feel, especially the ending section. The flow continues into a richer funk with Everybody's Party, which feels like Boxing Gandhis. The bass work is especially nice. Up and Down continues the good time and features my favorite guitar solo on the album.

The Land of Make Believe is a very enjoyable retro jazz soul treat. My only disappointment is how far I am from Vancouver, which means I probably won't get to hear any live performances from this well matched pair. The music calls for a clean taste: maybe a simple vodka tonic with a touch of lime.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Concert review - Tumbledown with Tin Horn Prayer, The Gromet, and Banners or Bandages

2 November 2010 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)

It was a normal Tuesday night in Denver. As expected, the crowd was fairly sparse when the show began, but picked up as the night progressed. Neither the crowd nor the bands were deterred by the limited attendance. The stage energy was fairly high and the audience was determined to make a party of it.

Banners or Bandages
Banners or Bandages followed the recent trend of solo acts performing under a band name. Singer/songwriter Sean K. seamlessly transitioned from a simple soundcheck into his set. With a low key stage presence, it took a moment to realize that he had started. Many of the songs in his short set were simple, retro folk rock with a Violent Femmes directness.

His vocals were emotional, adding an indie rock feel at times. Even though his pitch control was a little weak, his songs seemed heartfelt. He also had a decent sense of dynamics, making some interesting shifts of tempo and mood within some of the songs. This showed the strongest when he shifted between percussive strumming and softer melodic riffs.

The Gromet
I met Johnny, the drummer for the Gromet, before their set and he filled me in on their sound. He described their music as upbeat country rock and perfect roadtrip music. He also mentioned that their keyboard player is a relatively recent addition to the band. Their opening song made a believer out of me. I'm looking forward to catching them again and I'll be giving their CD a listen in the coming days.

That first song in their set was a full sounding, Wilco slice of Americana. They were focused and having fun, which added to their strong stage presence. As the set progressed, they showed off a good range of material. There were some mild country elements, but the Americana label fits better. They bounced around from George Harrison/Beatles influenced songs to a Traffic style groove to some screaming blues rock. Despite their retro foundations, they had a modern indie rock vibe, too. This was largely because of the jangled guitar riffs and vocal arrangements.

True to Johnny's word, the music was upbeat. The high point was a feel good '70s rock jam that evoked the end of Hey Jude. The chords even matched well enough. The keyboards added a rich dimension to the Gromet's sound. There were some very tight lines featuring the keyboards, guitar, and bass hitting a nice descending riff.

The blues rock closing section of the set started with a cover of Baby, Please Don't Go. It was tightly wound and edgy. The guitar powered through a psychedelic solo while the drums pounded like hammering in coffin nails. After that, the Gromet continued the blues jam, with guitarist Shea B jamming out on an electric lap steel. The final bit of chaotic dissociation served as a good lead in for Tin Horn Prayer.

Drop by the Gromet's Facebook page and give Roll Away a listen to hear them lay down a George Harrison vibe. Only To Drive shows off their Wilco influences.

Tin Horn Prayer
With a "take no prisoners" stance, Tin Horn Prayer occupied the stage like an invading army. They had a strong punk aesthetic, but it was tempered with some country and bluegrass elements. Surprisingly, the net effect was not particularly like the Beat Farmers, mainstays of the cow punk style. That's largely because Tin Horn Prayer favored a loud, layered, and busy sound. With up to three guitars playing at a time with mandolin or banjo accompaniment, there was a lot to focus on. Add the primal scream vocals (especially from banjo/mando player, Mike Herrera) and the effect was felt physically as much as it was heard.

In addition to the wall of sound, the band filled the stage with movement. The bass player stalked behind the front line, like a caged tiger pacing back and forth. The front four dropped back or loomed forward as the mood struck. The busy movement created a good energy that complemented the hard edge of the music.

At this volume, it could be hard to hear the lyrics clearly, but the dark humor of Crime Scene Cleanup Team was easy to follow. The music was a lot like the rocking country of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, but Tin Horn Prayer muddied the simplicity of the changes with a full spectrum of chaos. My favorite line of the night came in Scooter James' simple country rocker, which opened with something like, "My heart's too damn weary to raise this middle finger."

The songs weren't all noisefests, though. They also hit some grinding down tempo rockers (which benefited from the banjo and accordion textures) and some moody, hypnotic grooves. On their most bluegrass influenced tunes, they reminded me of Shane MacGowan and the Pogues.

Tumbledown
Tumbledown delivered exactly the performance I expected from the latest CD, Empty Bottle (review here). They ran through many of the songs off the CD, kicking up the tempo a bit but maintaining the tight coordination. Tumbledown was nowhere near as chaotic as Tin Horn Prayer, but their presence and energy were just as strong. The band didn't restrict the setlist to the CD, though. They kicked off with Butcher of San Antone (Mike Herrera's sneering vocals were spot on) and followed it with a roller coaster cover of the Beatles' I've Just Seen a Face.

Empty Bottle showcased a bit of the Beat Farmer's cowpunk energy and a similar kind of "snotty boys with guitars" sound as the Refreshments and this show hit a lot of similar notes. Like Roger Clyne, frontman Mike Herrera had a lot of charisma as he connected with the audience. He had a direct sincerity that shined through without being sappy. So, he could channel his enthusiasm over the music to hype up a Tuesday night crowd and get playful, bantering with the crowd about the relative quality of the drinks they gave him.

Off stage, he was just as approachable. I talked with him briefly before the show. When I asked about the differences in touring with Tumbledown versus MxPx, he was self-deprecating as he complained about the logistics of being the Tumbledown tour manager.

On stage, Herrera stayed in motion, creating an alt rock energy. With Herrera's strong stage presence, it would be easy to dismiss the rest of the band as just being along for the ride. But even though they weren't as talkative, they each contributed some flash to the show, with Marshall Trotland muscling his standup bass into the air and guitarist Jack Parker lunging forward to the edge of stage on his solos. Drummer Harley Trotland maintained a grueling pace throughout the set, still finding the time and energy to nail some nice fills.

The climax of the show was a cover of the Who's My Generation. Herrera took the mike into the front of the crowd and got us all dancing and singing along. The sense of joyous abandon, surrender to the beat, and unselfconscious fun was a fitting high point for the set and the show. The rest of the set was no let down, though, just an extension. A double Stoli on the rocks to Tumbledown, who gave us that gift.

More photos on my Flickr.

Monday, November 1, 2010

CD review - Women, Public Strain (2010)

Simple retro elements that hearken back to Syd Barrett collide with experimental noise. On Public Strain, each side carries the same artistic weight for Women. It's full of songs that speak with a direct simplicity while reveling in chaotic noise along the edges. Except, like an M.C. Escher drawing, the foreground and background switch and then the edges become the main focus.

Many critics have compared Women to the Velvet Underground and the Zombies. Sure, their embrace of noise elements seems reminiscent of John Cale and Lou Reed, but the early days of Barrett's Pink Floyd are also there. Flickers of David Bowie's Space Oddity come to mind as well. The combination, though, is most like a soft-focused Robyn Hitchcock.

The songs are emotionally evocative and setting the right mood is the key. Throughout the course of Public Strain, the bass and drums stay anchored in a traditional sound while the guitars are more fickle. One moment, they're providing a simple strum accompaniment; next, they're droning detuned squeals and whines. Behind all of the music, the distant strains of heavily echoed vocals settle like cobwebs.

The opening track, Can't You See, starts of with modulated noise and feedback. The noise is the foreground, while the bass line and reverbed vocals set the tonality in the background. Gradually, the music rises to compete with the noise before sinking back down.

The moods shift from track to track, like the noise. Women are effective at pulling together into musical sense when it suits them, whether it's progressive or retro psychedelia. Still, the chaos is never far, creeping in like tunnel vision.

One of the defining moments is the noise punk of Drag Open, which recalls Sonic Youth. The bass and drums are driving and the experimental guitar work give the song a flaking edge of desperation. The anxiety builds, then dissipates into a more thoughtful end section. The disconnect creates its own worrying tension.

The low fi, melting pot of order and chaos make Public Strain a thoroughly engaging album. It demands a bit of attention, but Women trade fair value for your time. Watch the once clear liquid cloud as you pour the absinthe over the sugar cube...