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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Concert review - Akron/Family with Delicate Steve, Dovekins, and Bad Weather California

29 March 2011 (Marquis Theater, Denver CO)
What an odd collection of bands. There wasn't really a clear thread running through the acts. Denver openers Bad Weather California and Dovekins were like night and day: punk-minded garage rock and experimental indie folk. Similarly, while touring acts Delicate Steve and Akron/Family were both loud, their sound and stage presence were wildly divergent. Delicate Steve's songs were intricately constructed and somewhat introspective. Akron/Family's experimental noise-fest was more interactive.

The crowd was enthusiastic for all of the bands and the Marquis was a cozy venue with a good stage set up.

Bad Weather California
Bad Weather California opened with a shimmery indie groove. The heavily reverbed vocals added a strong retro vibe. That first song was an outlier; their other songs centered on a garage rock sound infused with a punk energy. The second song worked a Bo Diddley beat and the song devolved into an iconic basement jam feel. Psychedelic touches leaked in, especially with the wah wah slide sounds.

The line up was interesting. Frontman Chris Adolf focused on rhythm guitar, but also looped some parts, while Adam Baumeister played a mix of slide on an old Sears Silvertone and some straight steel guitar. The slide and steel work gave the band a unique spin. The bass and drums laid a solid foundation for the Bad Weather California's songs.

Adolf was adept at working the crowd, setting up call and response sections or eliciting crowd involvement. While the rest of the band lacked a strong stage presence, Adolf made up for it as he gyrated around, sometimes addressing the crowd directly and other times talking to his inner demons.

Tight energetic arrangements, an interesting psycho-garage sound, and a good visual show made Bad Weather California a strong opening act.

Dovekins proved to be the big surprise element for this show. In direct contrast to the volume, wail, and power of the other acts, Dovekins embraced an indie folk sound that meshed well with their sincere and joyous stage presence. They also had a touch of jam band, with interesting progressions and dynamics.

The first song stayed fairly grounded, begging the question of how they fit in this line up of bands. It became clear during the second song: the point of overlap proved to be their experimental approach with intricate and odd vocal arrangements. These vocal parts were consistently interesting, sometimes bizarre. They came from somewhere between modern choral treatments and vocal jazz stylings.

Dovekins' music was free form, yet often seemed precisely arranged. The drop outs and instrumental handoffs flowed smoothly. Their flavor of indie folk was rooted in some of the trippier jazz influenced sounds of retro San Francisco bands like It's a Beautiful Day. Imagine the flowing jazz groove of White Bird, but layered with tightly coordinated vocalizations that slide between words and sound, chaos and harmony.

The five musicians brought enough instruments along to field another band: stand up bass, clarinet, flute, mandolin, accordion, trombone, guitar, banjo, and drums. This made for a constantly shifting sound from song to song. Along the way, each one seemed to have a clear driver. For example, Laura Goldhamer's banjo and lead vocals (complete with funny voices) drove No Ability.

I'll be keeping an ear out for Dovekins in the future, to see what other surprises they'll provide.

Delicate Steve
I was looking forward to catching Delicate Steve after listening to his recent album, Wondervisions (review here). The album is experimental, with layers of guitar and solid percussion. It held the promise of a wilder live expression. The good news is that the band delivered a great set, with looser versions of the studio songs. The downside is that their set was absurdly short (only 20 minutes).

The set list included one of my favorite tracks, The Ballad of Speck and Pebble. The bouncy Paul Simon vibe was there, along with Steve Marion's distinctive guitar sound. The live version had a quicker tempo, but expanded on the guitar fills to draw it out longer.

Despite being primarily an instrumental band, Marion engaged the audience and the band was fairly expressive. They still hit the dynamic shifts from the studio, but their live sound was scaled up immensely. Delicate Steve hit a perfect balance of controlled chaos. Despite the brevity, it was a highly energetic set.

The drums were especially driving, providing a jungle beat. It's rare to see a standing drummer, but his work on the kick drum didn't seem to suffer and he also had enough drum pads and other toys to expand his basic kit. The keys were heavily chorused to sound like Brian May's guitar playing with Queen. Steve Marion's guitar setup included a host of toys, but his primary effect was a whammy pedal. Marion's control let him wail or dive in pitch in one section, then sweep the pitch to make his guitar sound like Adrian Belew's synth guitar.

With the short set, Delicate Steve left about the time they were hitting their stride. The crowd would have appreciated more.

What a schizophrenic set. Akron/Family would create a mood, only to sweep it away. The dynamics bounced from meditative soundscapes to cathartic rage, from ecstatic ritual to challenging post rock. The crowd was packed with fans, ready to take every change in stride. Personally, I'd have preferred a more consistent set. The constant flux seemed like a ploy to keep the audience off guard or a loss of creative vision.

Akron/Family's strength was their skill at playing with sonic textures. The set opened with subtle currents of sound rising from the deeps. Dreamy swells of guitar set a loose, free form. This grew into a thick wall of sound, driven by a pounding beat. It was reminiscent of Bear in Heavens more intense material. The mood shifts in this first song were wide, but flowed fairly smoothly.

Later, Akron/Family built ambient moments with faint bass rumble, feedback wails, and wordless vocalizations. This often collapsed into thick waves of indie rock distortion. The three musicians' palette also included a small collection of cheap keyboards, synth pads, and other electronic toys.

The darker side came out later in a piece that was set up as a guided meditation. After setting up the visualization of a beach and starting the audience swaying with the current, they slipped into a spacey jam. This suddenly dropped into jarring feedback layered with incoherent screams. Damn, they bulldozed my happy place. A trick like that is an interesting gimmick, but it gets old when it's used again and again. The irony is that this chaos turned out to be the start of So It Goes, their latest single. The recorded version is a more interesting track than their deconstruction.

In between the noise experiments, we had 6 minute drum circle/chanting ritual (with a host of guest percussionists), some Freelance Whales style indie rock, some acid-soaked post rock, and some jam band indulgence. Many interesting ideas, but without much context. The drum and percussion work was tight throughout and the vocal harmonies were often impressive.

If Akron/Family had embraced their noisier half, like Butthole Surfers, it would have been a great cathartic set. If they had toned down the noise, while keeping the stylistic mash up, it still might have worked. The jumble, though, lacked subtlety. The set was a step away from their recent album, Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT, relying more on shock than awe.

More photos on my Flickr.

Monday, March 28, 2011

March singles

March offers a range of singles again, from pop Americana to grooves to heavy grind. Here's a taste.

Matt Duke - Needle and Thread (from One Day Die)

Matt Duke's next album, One Day Die, is due to drop on March 29 on Ryko. Duke has a singer songwriter sound that recalls a brighter-eyed Ryan Adams. Needle and Thread starts with a confessional Americana vibe. The sweetened backing vocals in the chorus take the song into a poppier space. The lyrics are clever, the music is pretty, and Duke seems to be going for a more produced sound than some of his earlier work.

Catch Needle and Thread on Duke's Facebook page.

Eternal Summers - Safe at Home (from Silver)
The self-described dream punk duo wanted to reach back to the '90s when they made the video for Safe at Home. Hazy and simple, it's like a post punk deconstruction of Crimson and Clover crossed with Pink Floyd's Free Four. The simple guitar-drums-voice arrangement is sweet, but it's a disappointment that this languid interlude is so short.

The video for Safe at Home is on Gorilla vs. Bear.

Afrobeta - Nighttime (from Under the Streets, due out Summer 2011)

Offering a different take on what a strong duo can do, Miami's Afrobeta builds club-friendly dance grooves. Crisp vocals and tight beats set the mood along with a sine wave electronic bass line. Still, Nighttime's interesting structure transcends the "dance only" label. The verses stay fairly disco except for the catchy electronic bass, but the small bridge sections are the meat. They mix it up with break beats and a brief rap section.

Download Nighttime here and keep an ear out for Under the Streets later in the summer.

Art of Dying - Die Trying (from Vices and Virtues)

Resurrecting a heavy grunge sound, Art of Dying provides a driving, cathartic sound on their new single, Die Trying. The track's dynamics range from softer resignation at the verse openings to anthemic grinds, but Die Trying is mostly full of hard edges and Gothic tension.

iTunes has Die Trying as a free single right now or check out the video on Noisecreep.

Friday, March 25, 2011

CD review - Rebirth Brass Band, Rebirth of New Orleans (2011)

Rebirth Brass Band has a long rich history as ambassadors of New Orleans jazz. With 25+ years as icons on the scene, they continue to maintain a high profile, appearing on HBO'sTremé as well as countless concerts. Their latest album, Rebirth of New Orleans is officially releasing April 12 on Basin Street Records. The title says as much about who they are as it does the state of their home town. Rebirth Brass Band's music is full of life as they run through a mix of old Dixieland, bluesy jazz, and their patented brass funk grooves.

Like any brass band, the interplay between the tightly syncopated percussion section and the sassy horns is the heart of the music. The horns work like vocalists; the phrasing is like a rambunctious conversation. The players have an intuitive feel for their music, sliding from loose anarchy to tight coordination. Phil Frazier's tuba bass lines are incredible. They're deceptively simple, but a closer listen reveals the subtlety, harmony, and bounce. Derrick Tabb's snare work is also strong, anchoring the pulse of the album. The vocals are a little weak, but not to the point of distraction.

The album starts off with a Dixieland style oldie, Exactly Like You. Even though it's not really the style they're most known for, it's a good allusion to the tradition they come from. The beauty of the style is how the chaotic collection of horn parts magically weave together, completing each others phrases. The Louis Prima style vocal fits the feel perfectly and the snare breaks offer a hint of what's to come.

Right on its heels, the next track, I Like It Like That, sets up a tight, call and response brass funk groove. The tuba riff locks in with the rhythm section to lay out the foundation. They set the hook firmly before the spirited vocals kick in. The dance friendly feel and party vibe hits Rebirth's sweet spot. "Gimme some of that good, and none of that bad." Similarly, Do It Again takes a Saints' chant into a dark funky jam, with counterpoint horn stabs and another rich bass line.

The album also delivers some nice Latin beats on The Dilemma and Shrimp and Gumbo among others. This latter track gives the individual horn players room to show off a bit as each takes a few bars before the next one slides in: the trombone is overtaken by the trumpet before it falls in turn to the sax. The fluid runs complement each other; these guys smoothly finish each others musical thoughts. Feelin' Free, a joyous Jermaine Jackson cover gets the NOLA treatment with a more frantic pace and looser swing.

Rebirth of New Orleans showcases a band that's still in full stride.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CD review - Govinda, Universal On Switch (2011)

Despite having some strong musicians in the genre, America is hardly ground zero for electronic music. Listening to Universal On Switch, it's surprising that such a beautifully exotic blend of world music and electronic jams came out of Austin's Govinda. The band is the alter ego of producer and composer Shane O Madden, who partners with Yasmin and Mirabai to create rich dance/music performances.

The rich balance of acoustic and electronic sounds defines Govinda's unique blend. Shane O layers gypsy tinged violin over a mix of downtempo, trancestep, and ambient grooves. Some of the tracks feature warm, R&B style vocals and occasional glitching. Unmoored from any kind of e-purity, Universal On Switch is chameleon-like, aiming primarily for mood and feel. A host of Indian and Mideastern touches add to the alluring sound. This is fusion world-tronica.

The title track is awesome. The snaky, meandering melody clings to the steady beat, teasing between India and the Mideast. Electronic elements creep in, with glitchy vocals and bass grind creating a rich trance groove. The trance vibe shits into more of a dub step feel to change the energy. So much is going on that Universal On Switch seems much longer than its 5 minute run time.

Similarly, Hungry sets up an Indian trance groove that combines vocal riffing on an Indian rhythm exercise, traditional instruments, and electronic trappings. The fluid gypsy minor violin riffs meld with the jangly tension of the electro-beat. The mix of old and new - acoustic and electric - create a sense of novelty that carries through the whole track.

Universal On Switch also has some more pop friendly tracks. Angel Freezing sets up a slightly auto-tuned vocal drifting over an electro-pop beat and a kitchen sink of electronic tricks. Myself sets up a chill trance groove mashed up with an R&B vocal line.

Govinda is deft at mixing of disparate elements to create striking, cohesive songs. The underlying intent of Universal On Switch was to create a testament to Madden's late partner, Andrea Burden. Just like every person's life is a tapestry of differing elements and perspectives, this album offers varying facets over time. It's comfortable enough to carry as a background soundtrack, yet it stands up to focused listening as well. Like spiced chai with honey and rose water, subtle details continue to surprise me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

CD review - Cloud Nothings, Cloud Nothings (2011)

Pop punk rises from the ashes of True Punk (tm) in the hands of bands like Green Day that understand the punk energy, but are stronger musicians and better singers than their idols. Cloud Nothings are more Blink-182 than Green Day, but the sound comes out of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü tradition.

The self-titled debut album is a studio project from Dylan Baldi, although he's pulled together a touring band to bring the sound out to audiences. Cloud Nothings is fast paced as each track leaps forward to fill any gap left from the last one, creating a seamless flow. The low fi, hook-laden songs pound through the self absorbed themes of teen angst, compounded by the band's ridiculously young sounding vocals. From sneers to hoarse shouts to sweet falsetto backing lines, Cloud Nothings sound like Teen Boys, but the chops, Baldi's strong writing, and unselfconscious attitude demand to be taken seriously.

The playing is tight with much of the power centered in the rollicking melodic bass and dynamic drumming. The guitars carry their weight, but the songs are largely bass driven.

The tightest track, Nothing's Wrong, gives a misleading sense of the album. The cheery pop bounce, tied to a classic garage rock sound is smoother and brighter than the other tracks and the vocals feature more harmony work than the other songs. Still, the roller coaster pacing and beautiful drop out on the verse openings match the energy on the rest of Cloud Nothings.

But it's the Replacements drive of Rock ("You love me, but now we're all dead") and On the Radio that hit closest to the heart of Cloud Nothings aesthetic. The touch of Hüsker Dü in the initial grind of You're Not That Good At Anything extends the sound.

Cloud Nothings make rich, expressive music that isn't locked into a simple blues recipe. Baldi's pop sense and willingness to keep songs short enough to leave some enthusiasm on the table should help them find their audience. With the right exposure, they could follow Green Day's early career path. Does that mean they have an American Idiot in their future? Time will tell. I'll sip the Kool-Aid and believe.

Friday, March 18, 2011

CD review - Theophilus London, Lovers Holiday (2011)

Theophilus London's game seems to be more about style and attitude than the music itself. Of course, that's a fine strategy when you're aiming for pop stardom. London first generated interest with his underground mixtapes. Now, with his finger on the pop pulse, his latest EP, Lovers Holiday is the lead up to an eventual full length release this spring. The EP's 5 songs are all tied to the topic of love, which fits the Feb 14 release date.

Lovers Holiday is a demo style EP, intended to give a sense of London's range. The songs are primarily pop, but each one varies the flavor. London's default vocal approach is a lightly melodic rap technique that owes a bit to Kid Cudi. No single track jumps out as amazing, but they're all fairly interesting.

The EP leads off with Why Even Try, featuring Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara. Her part doesn't give her much room to assert her personality, though. The music is a sparse, dance club funk, reduced to to a beat a simple bass line, and chiming synth accents. The chorus fills out the sound a little more. "If you think you're special, you're probably not." The irony is that Theophilus London's whole existence is a refutation of this song's defeatist message. Despite the lyrical resignation, the song sounds catchy and upbeat.

The music slides smoothly into Strange Love, whose strong pop vibe channels Prince, minus The Artist's squealing vocals. London's slightly out of breath delivery provides a forced edge.

Girls, Girls $ has a Kid Cudi feel. The samples and fills are heavily layered, with plenty of mildly glitched parts. This serves as the sex track for the EP. The music feels like more a DJ mix than a basic recorded groove. London lays down a decent flow, but he rushes his lines to add excitement. This contrasts strongly with the more restrained Wine and Chocolate, which follows. That's recalls Prince, too, but the style is a melange of R&B, pop funk, and synth pop. The electronic touches make this my favorite track on Lovers Holiday.

The album wraps up with Flying Overseas, which contrasts a rap verse and an R&B, soulful chorus. The stripped down, moody, slowed groove sounds a little like MIA on the verses, but the sweet chorus vocals give the song a little more depth.

Theophilus London is trying find the perfect balance to achieve stardom. The elements are falling into place: dance oriented grooves, vocals that tease between rapping and singing, and a whirlpool of pop music stylings. At the same time, his image management is spot on for generating the requisite hype. A little more polish and a hint of artistic depth and he should be well on his way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

CD review - David Lowery. The Palace Guards (2011)

Why would David Lowery finally get around to making his first solo album? His singing and writing voice are central to his bands Cracker and the loosely resurrected Camper Van Beethoven. Couldn't he find room for his songs there? Lowery says he finally decided to stop forcing these songs, which never quite fit either band, and give them their own home.

Appropriately, The Palace Guards sounds like a cross between his two bands, with emphasis on a grown up Camper Van Beethoven sound. It has the same folk instrumentation touches (banjo, harmonica, fiddle, and slide guitar) that drift slightly out of sync with the traditional folk sound, but the beats are more laid back and the sentimentality is stronger. Lyrically, Lowery still shows off his sneering, smartass attitude along with a skewed matter-of-fact perspective.

The opening track, Raise 'em Up On Honey, has a folky mix of banjo, steel guitar, and harmonica that is immediately recognizable as Camper Van Beethoven, like a faster Sad Lovers Waltz. The straight ahead lyrics paint an idyllic picture of moving back to the mountains. By the second verse, he's already talking about giving his kids weapons training to prepare for the DEA snoops. In the last verse, he's mapped out his clan's place in the world:
Every fortnight or so, the Bible thumpers, they come around
They're worried 'bout the eternal souls of my daughters and my sons
Well they'll be fine, they'll move to the city, start black metal bands
Give it up and move back up the mountain again
Raise their little broods on mountain waters from glaciers blue
The eclectic jump to the title track is also CVB trick, although the song itself sounds like Lowery's version of Pavement. The stop and go rhythmic shifts mesh well with the non sequitur lyrics. This eases into a gentle, psychedelic, swaying groove for Deep Oblivion. It's sentimental and nostalgic with a soothing slide guitar line.

These first three songs vary so widely in sound and mood, but Lowery's voice and the underlying instrumentation provide a continuity that feels right. It's a blueprint that continues through the rest of the album. Each track hits a sweet spot, sounding familiar and brand new all at once. David Lowery's unreliable narrators on each song offer their shaky worldviews with all the charm they can muster. Whether it's the pathetic liar offering his ludicrous excuse in Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me or the gentle blarney/allegory of I Sold the Arabs the Moon, the songs are engaging and relaxed.

David Lowery's The Palace Guards is not a huge stylistic departure from his bands. Rather, it's a distillation of his sound with equal hints of moonshine and brandy.

Monday, March 14, 2011

CD review - Catie Brandt, Runaway Sun (2010)

A new artist needs to find her voice. Which style, techniques, and songs feel right are the clues for discovering her strengths. Combining these withe the artist's unique character and quirks can become a map to creating her performing persona.

Catie Brandt seems like she's in the middle of that process on Runaway Sun. She's cast her net wide, varying the moods, the genres, and instrumentation from song to song. Some tracks click, showing off a strength to be honed and polished. Other tracks miss the mark, either because the parts conflict or they don't work for her voice.

The dreamier, introspective tracks work best, supporting her voice and staying in her vocal range. The wistful Night and Day has a loos retro feel that recalls Mama Cass Elliot's gentle crooning.The bass line is too high in the mix, but it does stay in line with the soul of the song.

Rise Up creates a nice balance between the tension of the song and her warm, thoughtful voice. The sparse arrangement and steady bass line provide a scaffold for her singing to flow naturally. The lead climax dominates the end section, but the setup groove persists and supports it. This was the strongest track on Runaway Sun.

Someone For Me may not be as strong an overall track as Rise Up, but its jazzy chanteuse style fits Brandt's voice the best. She sounds comfortable meandering through the tune and the piano arrangement sets the right rhythm and phrasing.

On the other side of Runaway Sun's experiment are the tracks that don't gel. Emily is a nice song, with a strong, upbeat shuffle propelling it forward. But the instruments eventually bury Brandt's vocals. The busy arrangement, the overly loud lead, and the rushed vocals overwhelm the song's good points.

Hit The Ground Running, the first track, pushes Brandt's voice too hard. It sounds challenging for her to sing as she has trouble holding pitch. She does bring a sense of desperation to match the dire lyrics, but the bouncy rhythm and cheery instrumentation undercut the mood.

So, Runaway Sun is a mixed bag. Some of that might arise from the origins of the album. The liner notes are unclear: Brandt's name is on the front cover, but the inside credits Jon and Cate Minus 8 (Catie Brandt and Jon Irizarry). A band trying to find its balance might account for the shifting feel between the songs and the less clear focus on Brandt's strengths.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Concert review - John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours, with Lisa Bouchelle, Funkma$ter, and Judd Louis

11 March 2011 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

A beautiful spring evening and a great night of music. This was my first chance to catch John Popper's latest project, the Duskray Troubadours. The openers were an odd mix: Judd Louis and Funkma$ter on the local side and Lisa Bouchelle, who's on the national tour. Louis' rocking acoustic music fit well, as did Bouchelle's folk rock vibe. Funkma$ter's heavy technical looping work was a tougher match, though.

The crowd was thinner than I'd expected for a big name like John Popper. Maybe people are already getting started on Spring Break. Even though the band deserved a bigger audience and a chunk of Ft. Collins missed a hot show, those of us who did come out were richly rewarded.

Judd Louis
Judd Louis had a shy, folksy stage presence, but his playing was focused and confident. His handful of songs all came from folk or country tinged roots, but his heavily syncopated rhythm pounded them into more of a rock feel. The scarred face of his guitar attests to his strumming intensity.

He brought that same intensity to his singing. With a raspy edge like Ben Ottewell from Gomez, Louis screwed up his face and gave it everything he had. That also gave his set a taste of Dave Matthew's edge. His voice also had that same kind of confessional purging.

With every song so hard driving, there wasn't a lot of room for subtlety. Still, his set was heartfelt. He threw in a generous mix of harmonica, open tunings, and occasional bluegrass licks to keep things interesting.

Funkma$ter's other gig is playing percussion for Ft. Collins' Euforquestra. I haven't seen him since 2009, but last night's show was still centered on his looping setup. He had the same cockpit, surrounding himself with a drum kit, keyboards, guitar, and bass. This time, he didn't pull out the Latin percussion, but he laid down a strong mix of older covers. He continued to impress with his technical abilities to juggle the complexity of his gear while playing a host of instruments. He's gotten even better at tweaking his looped parts in and out of the mix or adding effects in.

In the last two years, his stage presence has improved. He made more effort to interact with the audience when he sang. Unfortunately, he was still too self absorbed during the loop building sections that started each song. He polished each layer, rolling through the changes four or more times before really checking in with the crowd. Creating the layers is the tradeoff for any looper based act, but Funkma$ter needs to figure out how to engage the crowd more during this part.

His best song of the night was a solo blues guitar number, a cover of Keb' Mo's Perpetual Blues Machine. Simple, with no layering, he showed off some nice blues licks and was tightly engaged in the song. Another crowd pleaser was his cover of the Doobie Brothers' Black Water. The complex vocal payoff for the loop layering seemed worth it.

Lisa Bouchelle
Lisa Bouchelle has been slowly building up a national audience. She met John Popper on the 2007 Blues Traveler tour. Lately, she's been opening for Meatloaf, Dennis DeYoung, and now Popper's Duskray Troubadours. Her latest album, Bleu Room With a Red Vase, includes a duet with Popper.

Walking out alone on the stage with her acoustic guitar, she looked the stereotype of the earnest singer/songwriter. The first song's folky start encouraged that, but she quickly picked up the emotional intensity and rhythm to jump into femme folk rock orbit, sounding like 4 Non Blondes. Bouchelle proved to be a talented vocal chameleon, moving from Linda Perry to Bonnie Tyler to Sheryl Crow to Melissa Etheridge. This wide palette of vocal sounds keeps her songs varied and interesting, as she bounces from sweet pop to bluesy rock.

The moods varied too, from the '70s folk rock of Heaven On Credit to the clever Refreshments vibe on Love Is Supposed To Be Fun. Her song, Kitchen, nailed Melissa Etheridge, but she also threw in a lot of cool vocal tricks to stake her own ground. American Dream Gone Wrong tight-roped a space between Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.

Bouchelle's warm stage presence, musical versatility, and talented songwriting made this a good set. The only drawback with her act was that she's so good at shifting roles and sounds from song to song that it was hard to get a line on the "real" Lisa Bouchelle: young, coquettish pop singer, weathered cynic, or old hand performer. That's small criticism, though.

John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours
There's an honor roll of virtuoso harmonica players that includes names like Delbert McClinton, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, and Little Walter. John Popper has earned his place on that list through his soulful feel and technical brilliance. With Blues Traveler, he showed off his mastery, cascading through blinding single note runs with absolute control and creating a hypnotic swirl of sound that blurred the lines between harmonica, organ, and aria. While he still plays with Blues Traveler, Popper has been getting excited about his latest band project, the Duskray Troubadours. The new group has opened things up for Popper: writing with different people, playing with more subtlety and dynamics, and focusing on fun.

The Duskray Troubadours had a looser, more jangly sound than Blues Traveler. Even when they covered BT songs like But Anyway, The Mountains Win Again, or Runaround, the jam was less pyrotechnic or frantic. While they sometimes broke out some funk, there was more emphasis on soulful grooves crossed with a touch of Southwestern rock. Despite the looser feel, the Duskray Troubadours are a well practiced group of talented players. Kevin Trainor's fills and occasional slide work meshed perfectly with Popper's harp. The backing vocals were always letter perfect.

It was clear to see why John Popper is so happy with this band. He was surrounded by friends, where the joking and camaraderie were woven into the band's DNA. He had the room to be a kid, knowing that it would all work out just fine.

One of my favorite tracks of the night was the haunting blues of Bereft. The drag beat gave it a BB King feel. Popper's soulful vocals slid from crooning to crunch. The harp solo was an organ wail waterfall of sound. Another high point was a high lonesome rocker, Jono Manson's Under the Stone, that drifted into Grateful Dead psychedelia (The Other One and other bits of Jerry).

The Duskray Troubadours played a nice long set (about 100 minutes). The encore brought Lisa Bouchelle up to play her collaboration with John Popper, Only The Tequila Talking, before wrapping up with Runaround.

Popper has praised the Duskray Troubadours for giving him the room to move beyond being the Yngwie Malmsteen of harmonica. But that didn't mean he took it easy. His jams were as astounding as ever. After a long night of the best harp playing I might ever hear, I dreamed of whirling solos..

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, March 11, 2011

CD review - Dropkick Murphys, Going Out In Style (2011)

Great live bands often have a problem capturing their on-stage energy in the studio. Dropkick Murphys absolutely kill in concert. They hit the stage in full assault and everyone in the house is quickly caught up. Even though it's challenging for a studio album to deliver that level of enthusiasm, Dropkick Murphys refuse to accept the common wisdom. Their latest CD, Going Out In Style, kicks off with a take-no-prisoners stance. It's not a live show, but the party atmosphere pervades the disc.

The drums roll in on Hang Em High and the chant begins. Bagpipes and thrashy guitars jockey for position for the charge in this battle hymn. The rollicking beat steamrolls through the track and the sing along chorus sets the mood as a drinking song in Valhalla. Full of macho posturing, the song takes on a spirited black humor.

This slides right into the title track, which satisfies the traditional form of the Irish wake song. The singer paints the picture of his own wake in loving detail. The frantic drive and attitude recall the Pogues at their best. Going Out of Style is full great imagery:
It's a neighborhood reunion, but now we'd get along
Van Morrison would be there and he'd sing me one last song
Somehow, just listening to this resurrects my own breath of Irish ancestry. Of course, it would probably do the same for a Tai Pei native.

Much like their live show, Dropkick Murphys evoke a raucous, party punk energy. They stir up the traditional instruments with rock swagger. Going Out of Style is a loose concept album, tagging the songs to a central character, Cornelius Larkin. The liner notes even feature his obituary, but Larkin is really just an everyman foil to anchor their unapologetic songs.

Of course, it wouldn't be true Irish without a descent or two into pathos. The mournful elegy of Cruel, the period poignancy of Broken Hymns, and the nostalgic love ballad, 1953, help balance the frantic pace of the other tracks. A couple of classics round out the set: a rocked out Buddy Holly style cover of Peg 'O My Heart (with Bruce Springsteen sharing the vocals) and a wired version of the traditional song, The Irish Rover.

In its heart, Going Out In Style asserts that everyday is St. Patrick's Day. Celebrate with Dropkick Murphys and have a pint of draught Guinness.

Pick up a copy from JSR Direct or Amazon.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

CD review - Dengue Fever, Cannibal Courtship (2011)

It's been a three year wait for a new album by Dengue Fever. The music on 2009's DVD documentary release, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, was mostly older material, leaving 2008's Venus on Earth as the last full album. The band has been developing their own unique character through a progression of releases, adding more original music and extending the retro Cambodian rock music that inspired them. Cannibal Courtship, due out April 19, features a maturing sound that's still true to their Khmer rock roots.

If you aren't already familiar with Cambodian rock, it's a cultural byproduct of the Viet Nam war. Cambodians assimilated American surf/garage/psychedelic rock and blended it into their own folk music to create an exotic, jangly mix of surf guitar with intriguing scales. Unfortunately, it was largely destroyed by Pol Pot in the mid '70s. Dengue Fever resurrected this music, adding in their own version of surf, jazz, and sense of pop. Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol's singing and personality provided the final necessary element to complete the band's sound.

Cannibal Courtship takes the familiar sonic features and throws in some R&B, funk, and ska. The ska sounds are the most striking. Listening to the sinister second wave ska grooves of Sister on the Radio or 2012 (Bury Our Heads) was a revelation that sent me digging through Dengue Fever's back catalog. I was surprised to hear these elements in earlier songs, too, like Ethanopium. The slinky, reverbed guitar riffs, the expressive bass lines, and winding organ sounds have been there all along. I love that the band turned me on to the links between surf rock and ska.

The album is full of great tracks; it's hard to just pick a few to talk about. Uku stands out, setting up a psychedelic Khmer groove that shifts into a dub style jam. The title track, Cannibal Courtship, shows off Dengue Fever's growth. The interplay between the cool repeated guitar riff and Nimol's voice is perfect. She sounds dreamy and desperate at the same time. The vibe shifts between laid back R&B and harder rock. It's a meditation, a celebration, and an arcane rite all in one.

The absolute best, though, is Durian Dowry, which sets up a snaky, psychedelic groove like a tripped out version of Pipeline by the Chantays. The noir surf rock vibe evolves through a progressive set of changes, giving the song a post-rock twist on Dengue Fever's classic sound. Senon Williams' bass playing is transcendent, weaving through the song and pulling the elements together into a forward drive.

Grab Cannibal Courtship when it comes out. Dengue Fever is a band that deserves more attention. Their exotic masala of styles piques the senses like my homebrewed fenugreek/ginger mead.

Previous reviews:
Venus on Earth
Sleepwalking Through the Mekong

Monday, March 7, 2011

CD review - Scattered Trees, Sympathy (2011)

Grief is a deeply personal process. Often, we find ourselves embarrassed in its presence. When Scattered Trees' front man, Nate Eiesland, lost his father, his response was to write his way through the loss. Sympathy is his emotional tribute. The sound is strikingly expressive; Eiesland's vocals are laid bare with raw vulnerability. For all that, it's surprisingly easy to take in. The songs are confessional and sincere. Scattered Trees have avoided the sins of mawkishness and self-indulgence to create a powerful album.

The individual songs are strong, but the flow between them is even stronger. Four Days Straight starts out softly but quickly shifts into an indie rocker with good dynamics. This drops into the sparse acoustic beginning of Sympathy, whose dreamy edges contrast nicely with the previous track. Five Minutes takes on a falsetton Trip Shakespeare groove and softly descends into the soft interlude of Where You Came From.

Sympathy has a range of musical sounds: bits of Wilco's Americana, Bright Eyes' folky simplicity, and Guster's indie rock spirit. The indie rock drive plays a big part in keeping the mood from becoming too heavy. Take, I Swear To God, which deals with the anger stage of Eiesland's grief. Its confrontational lyrics ("You're the only one that could have saved him, well you could've but you let him go") and driving beat turn his pain into a kind of affirmation.

My favorite track, though, is Love and Leave. The verses have that Jeff Tweedy directness. The bridge opens up into a lusher sound, with a huge cymbal wash. The emotional build out of the bridge into the "I'm crazy, I'm going crazy" section channels Trail of Dead's intensity to create a strong climax for the song.

Lyrically, the album talks of loss, leaving, and desertion. Many of the songs seem focused on romantic relationships at first, ignoring the context of Eiesland's father. That's part of why Sympathy is easy for us to hear and connect with. It lets us all relate to his feelings without embarrassment. In honor of Mr. Eiesland, I'll raise a toast of Pilsner Urquell, mildly bitter with some malt to balance.

Sympathy is scheduled to release April 5 on Rollcall Records/EMI.

Friday, March 4, 2011

CD review - La Sera, La Sera (2011)

In my dream, there was a warm, glowing radio. In addition to the standard volume and frequency knobs, this radio had two other knobs. One was labeled "year", the other "dimension". I tuned the year knob to somewhere in the mid-1960s. Then I twisted the dimension knob to the left a bit. As the music pushed through the static, I woke up...

La Sera's debut album sounds like 1965 or so, except for some of the guitar distortion, which enhances the emotional impact. The thick, echoed female vocals take on the density of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. The richly evocative music is draped in a low-fi haze. Guitars jangle and chime while the warm, simple bass lines soothe the soul. The lilting vocals are occasionally hard to discern, but La Sera is more about mood. Influenced by the heavy retro vibe, the songs hearken back to a simpler kind of innocence.

The album provokes a host of musical associations from tune to tune; one minute, it's the arrangements and choral harmonies of the Ronettes, then it's a more restrained version of the sound of The Velvet Underground & Nico. In between, you can hear the vocal meshing of the Mamas and the Papas (minus the Papas) or the track production values of the Cowboy Junkies (reverbed, with the vocals a little low in the mix). Throughout the album, the music stays rooted in an early '60s pop, leavened with a dollop of garage rock.

One of my favorite tracks is Lift Off, which sounds like a female Buddy Holly cover. Perfect simplicity with the only flaw being that it's too short. (The longest track doesn't quite hit 3 minutes.) Another great song is Devil Hearts Grow Gold (dig Har Mar Superstar as the devil). Some light slide guitar adds a subtle psychedelic fringe as the ethereal vocals fill the song with sunshine.

La Sera is a side project from Katy Goodman (Vivian Girls). Some of the garage rock feel of that band splashes onto La Sera and the bass work is (of course) similar, but La Sera is much slower and more reflective. La Sera came out last month. Sip some original Coca-Cola (with real sugar, not the corn syrup) and slide into that alternate dimension with La Sera's music.

Pick up La Sera here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

CD review - Dinosaur Bones, My Divider (2011)

Listening to a new band offers a different challenge than catching up with a familiar group. For me, there's a mix of gut vs. brain response. The gut feels the flutter of anticipation, the hope for something surprising and new, and the emotional response to the songs. On the intellectual side, it ranges from the OCD-driven need to pattern match, guessing at influences and identifying the musical styles to recognizing the quality of the writing and playing. Some bands satisfy purely on the gut level, (e.g. "snotty boys with guitars") while others blow me away with technique.

Dinosaur Bones' debut album, My Divider (due out March 8) piques both sides. The album shows off a bi-polar collection of songs, which bounce from introverted brooding to manic, extroverted thrashing. The surprise is that this flows fairly smoothly, without jarring. At the same time, Dinosaur Bones skips through a number of genres as they maintain a unified sound based on interesting chord progressions and open song arrangements. On the first listen, each song was a little surprise. Later visits solidified my appreciation for how they assembled the album.

My Divider starts off with a moody, British post-punk feel. Making Light and Sharks in the Sand each feature an emotional delivery and subtle guitar work that recall the Smiths. Even with languid lyrics about being unmoored or misunderstood, the mood is way too upbeat to compare directly with Morissey, but the inward focus is similar.

On the other side of the spectrum, Hunters takes a beginning section saturated with a low fi swarm of sound and punches it into a tight, alt-rocker. By turns post-punk and garage rock, it was a wake up call that contrasted with the more restrained start. Swirls of noise fill out the sonic space of the song.

From that point, My Divider freely mixes things up. The rockers hit my sweet spot more often, but the album's flow helped by setting them up. Strong tracks include the post-punk edge of Point Of Pride (great energy and dynamics), the lush bombast of Highwire Act, and the updated Clash chank of Royalty (with touches of The Guns of Brixton). Royalty is the first single, download it here.

My heart and my head both like My Divider. It's a strong debut and Dinosaur Bones shows promise for more musical depth as they mature. Even though the band is from Toronto, the strong British feel makes me crave a cask conditioned IPA.