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

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

CD review - Sagan Lane, Funambule (2011)

Sagan Lane pushes duo into duality on a host of levels. On Funambule, Marley Butler and Sarah Bilodeau stretch their tightrope across the chasm between electronic and acoustic, looped structure and ambient accent, and sweet folk ballad and electronic beat. Like most strong art, Sagan Lane is more interested in presentation than resolution. Listeners can decide for themselves which elements are ascendent.

Throughout Funambule, Bilodeau's voice is chameleon like, taking on the appropriate color for each piece, from Margo Timmons (Cowboy Junkies) to Suzanne Vega to Liz Phair. This flexibility gives the songs room to come into their own space. Similarly, the electronic sounds offer their own mix of moderate beats and ethereal shimmers.

The well named opener, Trip Under the Entrance, is an experimental piece that is dissociatively dreamy. When I was in school, we sat through anti-drug propaganda that tried to present the sensory disorientation of being high. Like their version of an acid trip, Trip Under the Entrance, has swells of sound, twitchy, punctuated beats, and lurches of incomprehensible vocals. This loopy, backmasked start forces the listener into the same choice of how to interpret all that follows and how pleasurable the experience will be.

The following track, Mikodeau, provides a balm to the first track. The soothing indie folk emphasizes the folk side with added mild, electronic texture. Halfway though, the song transitions more fully to the indie side, with a stripped down Liz Phair kind of vulnerable honesty.

The rest of the album proves just as eclectic. Transcience contrasts an electro pop beat with stately strings and a Suzanne Vega vocal. Another lengthy track, Script, holds long vocal tones over a tight punchy melodic loop. Despite erecting a set of looped elements, the overall sound is sparse. The end opens up into a lushly vocalized, ethereal sound that exaggerates the sonic space of the piece. Isolated Opposites pairs a laid back electro beat with a moody track. The beat balances the snaky bassline and the sway of the hypnotic vocal.

Funambule offers a set of choices. Which aspects of Sagan Lane's sound will appeal or repel? Which songs offer the deepest meanings? The album lays it out before you...sip on a tart, strong margarita while you ponder.

But remember, not deciding is itself a decision.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Concert review - Eric McFadden Trio with Imagine

26 June 2011 (Quixote's True Blue, Denver CO)

Quixote's True Blue is an extraordinary venue, festooned with stages. The main stage near the bar is expansive with a vast open floor for the audience. There's another, cozier stage in a courtyard that's perfect for more intimate performances. In the back, there's another decent sized, "members only" stage. With a more careful investigation, there might even be another stage or two tucked away.

The drawback to all of those spaces didn't become evident until later. After an impromptu bluegrass performance offstage outside, Imagine took the courtyard stage. About the time they wrapped up, Eric McFadden Trio started playing in the main bar room. Sometime during EMT's performance, though, people had to decide: walk away from the high energy drive of EMT or miss the incredible jams in Imagine's second set which has started up in the courtyard again.

Life is full of tough decisions. At least there wasn't a third amazing band playing in the back room.

Imagine is a low key super-group featuring Melvin Seals (Jerry Garcia Band), Ray White (Frank Zappa's band), and Garrett Sayers (the Motet). All three of these guys are masterful performers, but the other two players, drummer Daren Hahn and Jamie Mitchell on guitar, held their own in this jam band free for all.

Imagine kicked off their set with a loose, jazzy jam. Seals' organ skittered over the top, while Sayers' bass line laid down a fusion style drive and the drum fills threw in a bit of swing. After a couple of minutes, things took a Zappa-esque turn: a rising intensity dropped away into a more introspective groove and Jamie Mitchell's guitar meandered in counterpoint to the organ comping. Later in the extended exploration, Ray White's skat lines took us back into a jazz blues space.

Imagine filled their set with pleasant surprises. The first big one came with what seemed like an unrehearsed cover of Wilco's War on War. Mitchell quickly called out the changes and the rest of the band dove in. He started off the song fairly close to the original, but the groove started straying as the organ cut loose. The first righteous solo could have a filled a church. From that point, Imagine made the song their own. Melvin Seals' simple joy in playing infused the music with a infectious vibe that had us all reflecting his grin.

The band skipped all of the typical territorial posturing that super-groups often entail. Seals and White were secure in their experience, with nothing to prove, while the younger guys had the chops to stand up and follow their example. Ray White's self deprecating humor (he spent much of the set sitting down) and warm stage patter kept things light. But he still brought a soulful intensity and youthful energy to his singing.

Imagine tripped into more traditional jam band spaces on the Grateful Dead's Wharf Rat. The easy psychedelic groove flowed smoothly. Sayers captured that Phil Lesh bass style perfectly as Mitchell accented the jam with E-bow driven steel guitar and slide work.

The effortless jam showed off how these guys are incredibly tuned in each other's style, anticipating direction changes. At the same time, they brought their virtuoso skills into play, whether it was Sayers' patented vocally harmonized bass lines or Hahn's behind the beat funk chops on the snare.

Another wonderful surprise was a cover of Curtis Mayfield's Pusherman. White's jazzy initial start sounded like an off-the-cuff filler between songs. But then the band kicked in the groove as he finished the first verse, starting a tight soul-funk jam that capped the set.

Unfortunately, I missed Imagine's second set because I couldn't pull myself away from Eric McFadden Trio's burning set.

Eric McFadden Trio
I've seen the Eric McFadden Trio play for crowds of all sizes, from sparsely attended mid-week nights to hot, sweaty venues packed with people. EMT is always adept at pulling energy from their audience and even creating it themselves if they need to. They always seem to play harder than is humanly possible. While their CDs are full of great music, nothing proves their drive and intensity like a live show. Even though the great room wasn't threatening the fire code limits, the band had critical mass to work with during their extended set (at least two hours, non-stop).

Eric McFadden has racked up countless hours of stage time, touring with bands like P Funk, the Stockholm Syndrome, and Eric Burdon & the Animals. Toss in the myriad gigs playing with his trio and it's easy to see why he's so natural performing. Quixote's main stage gave him more space than some of the smaller clubs he's played, which enforced some distance from the audience. But that just gave McFadden room to stalk and gyrate as the music took him. During his leads, he often deserted the mike to assault the edge of the stage to connect with the crowd and spur them on.

As usual, the chemistry between McFadden and long time bass player, James Whiton, was the centerpiece of the show. The two often stage a head cutting jam, trading licks between Whiton's "upright death machine" and McFadden's overdriven acoustic. With the longer set, they worked that trick repeatedly, each time finding different ways to challenge one another. Paulo Baldi's drum work seemed instinctive as he adapted to each change in the groove.

Whiton looked a little tired at times, but never gave any quarter as he treated his electric standup bass like a weapon, spewing percussive strikes, staccato shards of bassline, and swirling howls of bowed strings. Despite looking like controlled chaos, his bass playing always meshed with Baldi's aggressive kick work and McFadden's fluid flail. That is EMT's magic: they fit together like a perfectly tuned hot rod; every tolerance calculated and then pushed.

The band played through a host of their familiar tunes, wrapping up the set with Miranda, which they always stretch out with side trips in the middle section. This time they used an old favorite, Baby, Please Don't Go, to extend the song. There were a couple of unfamiliar tunes scattered through the setlist, including at least one from McFadden's latest solo album, Bluebird On Fire.

Drummer Wally Ingram sat in as a special guest during Want Me To from Delicate Thing, showing off his tight tom playing. Near the end, McFadden brought up another guitarist who's name I didn't catch, but he covered 6-string duties while McFadden wrapped up the song.

Aside from Baby, Please Don't Go, EMT tossed out a few covers and teasers. The best cover of the night was a tie between Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile, Slight Return and Miles Davis' So What. Both songs hit the perfect balance between the original material and EMT's interpretation. The teasers are more of a joke from the band. They'll throw in a small reference to well known songs in the middle of their jams. My favorite was Whiton's foray into the Knack's My Sharona.

It was a late night of great music. My only regrets were missing Imagine's second set and the parking ticket I got because I didn't feed the meter when Monday rolled around at midnight.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, June 24, 2011

CD review - Anathema, We're Here Because We're Here (2011)

With roots in Gothic metal, Anathema shed that image (if not the name) and moved into a more progressive space. We're Here Because We're Here continues the band's exploration of post rock grandeur. Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) puts his occasional imprint on the music, but the album largely feels like Anathema has used the seven year hiatus to hone in on a clear direction. While We're Here Because We're Here is not really a concept album, the smooth flow between songs and the clear intent behind each track imbues the album with meaning.

And that meaning seems rooted in a spiritual positivism. In the spoken word piece Presence organ swells support the theme of searching and a philosophical revelation:
Life is not the opposite of Death
Death is the opposite of Birth
Life is eternal
The introspective groove is perfect to shut your eyes and sway slowly to the drag beat. Later, in Hindsight, the voiceover sets the hook, "intangible, eternal, without beginning nor end". The mildly psychedelic groove is supported by a richly evocative bass line and ringing guitars. It's a affirmation that resolves itself: "If you can love enough, you will be the happiest and most powerful person in the world."

Still for all that, it was the lead off song, Thin Air, that sold We're Here Because We're Here. The simple guitar line (later to be paired with a fuzzed reiteration) and kicking beat combine to vector off into Trail of Dead style prog. As the song unfurls into an expansive sonic wave, the simple starting motif remains in focus, gaining power. The transition into a looser bridge builds back into the groove that leads into the driven piano arpeggios of Summer Night Horizon.

The third track, Dreaming Light, shifts the feel of the album into a more reflective, mellow space. With a sound like wide open vistas, the piano and strings create a ballad vibe that persists through the next several tracks.

Aside from Thin Air, another standout moment comes with the firm return to a post rock feel in A Simple Mistake. Steven Wilson's hand is heavier here, but there are also elements of Yes and Synchronicity era Police. The song is formulaic as it flows through a predictable post rock structure: it leads off with an arpeggiated guitar with emphasis from the bass line, it drifts into a fuller sound, and builds into a crunchy intensity. For all of that, it's incredibly satisfying as the jam weaves in on itself until swelling to an emotional wail.

Anathema still has little bits of their down tempo Pink Floyd vibe tempered with touches of Radiohead, but plenty of fresh elements, including some nice tempo changes signal a sea change in the band's direction. The vocal interaction between Vincent Cavanagh and new member Lee Douglas are also a fine touch as her vocals add a new diversity to Anathema's sound.

Seven years is a long time to wait, but Anathema clearly used the time to polish their evolved sense of themselves. Sip an artisanal brandy and enjoy We're Here Because We're Here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June singles

More singles, more sounds!

Legoland Empire - Guard the Point

Guard the Point is the title track from a new 4 song EP from Legoland Empire. While the other tracks seem more experimental, this one caught my fancy. Its starts with a slight electronic sound, but quickly settles into a jazz fusion vibe. The loose collection of musicians from across the 'net channels a Jeff Beck style groove, albeit with fewer pyrotechnics. The organ work even reminds me a bit of Jan Hammer.

Like Beck, Legoland Empire builds their groove without descending into random noodling or cold technical braggadocio. Guard the Point is nice, atmospheric jam.

Listen/buy any of the tracks from Guard the Point on BandCamp.

Pursesnatchers - Wet Cement (A Pattern Language, due out July 19)

Pursesnatchers is centered around the husband and wife team of Doug Marvin (Dirty on Purpose) and Annie Hart (Au Revoir Simone). They've filled out their home recording sound with a full band. Next month, they'll be releasing their new album, A Pattern Language on Uninhabitable Mansions

The secret to Wet Cement's compelling sound is the blend of a tight musical foundation with the looser sound of low-fi guitar and casual vocals. The background echo trap of guitar both hazes out the corners of the track and coats the surface like a mid-range flannel treatment. And like well worn flannel, it's a comfortable sounding, low key song. In contrast, the other instruments provide a solid indie rock beat, a simple bass, and a clean keyboard line.

Download Wet Cement from Paste Magazine.

Ki: Theory - Holiday Heart

A big beat and a groovy indie keyboard line anchors Holiday Heart. It's a nicely executed pop song that builds up an impressive collection of layered details that gradually fill out the track to its edges. Ki: Theory's deft touch makes sure that these details mesh together with the basic groove without overwhelming the breathy flow of the song.

Ki:Theory (Joel Burleson) is known for his DJ and production work on remixes for Daft Punk and others. But he also records his own music, mixing electronic and indie rock elements. The single merges both his worlds, backing up Holiday Heart with a remix of UNKLE's Natural Selection.

CSS - Hits Me Like a Rock (from La Liberación, due Aug 22)

Brazil's CSS packs Hits Me Like a Rock with bouncy pop energy. The retro stylings of a disco beat and ABBA style pop bubble together with modern dance floor electro funk. That balance suits Hits Me Like a Rock for the club scene or pop radio. CSS's Brazilian roots show in the swing of the rhythm syncopation.

The beat and infectious bounce set this up to be a perfect track for remixing. Fortunately, the full single addresses this right out the gate with remixes by Dillon Francis and Mad Decent’s digital dance purveyors Depressed Buttons.

Trade your email address for a free download in the widget above.

Monday, June 20, 2011

CD review - Cassettes Won't Listen, EVINSPACEY (2011)

Electronic artist/producer Jason Drake, AKA Cassettes Won't Listen, elicited exactly the response he was looking for to promote his new album. After announcing that the new project's title would reference a famous actor's name, he was immediately hit with a cease and desist order. Net result: a new title: EVINSPACEY.

So, a great actor's reputation is somehow protected and Cassettes Won't Listen gets the desired PR. None of this makes any practical sense: the music isn't controversial and doesn't seem to directly reference Kevin Spacey (unless the line in Runtime was added after the court order: "You hide behind your fame, I stand behind my name, a blanket secret just to call you out"). This whole episode has less foundation than Drake's last cease and desist, a mashup of Ludacris and Guns N' Roses (Ludacris Democracy).

But enough hype, the bottom line is always the music. EVINSPACEY explores a rich melding of modern electro pop and retro synth wave grooves. Cassettes Won't Listen updates the old school electronic sound of Gary Numan, Kraftwork, and even Missing Persons, by balancing them against tight electro pop beats and more modern electronic elements like glitch and dub step. The songs vary in feel from the bobbing electro funk beat of Friendly Fire to the indie rock/synth wave groove of The Night Shines to a glitch step influenced The Echoes.

EVINSPACEY's first single, Perfect Day, bridges indie rock and electro pop. The bouncy rhythm and repetitive vocal line of the chorus fall together sweetly. The verses take the poppiest elements of the Flaming Lips and distill them into dreamy pop beauty. Repeated listening reveals subtle little touches: occasional back masked drum beats, tight high hat cymbal work, and low synth line meandering along the bottom of the track. The light feel of the track is a stark counterpoint to the video.

My favorite track, Stuck, hits a similar electro indie rock sound on the verses, but the other song section shifts into a hypnotic, trancy feel. The rhythm is complex and syncopated but the beat of the bass line sways more loosely.

The Night Shines is the best example of the hybrid electro synth wave sound. The staccato keyboard chop and low effect vocals set a moody tension. The sweeping LFO synth parts in the background and the emphasized beat in the chorus are more modern touches.

EVINSPACEY is full of great electronic grooves and a fresh feel to the mix. Like a shot of lime vodka, it's a riff on a classic idea. Try a taste and see if it works for you.

Friday, June 17, 2011

CD review - Vandelay Industries, Critter (2011)

The clever pop culture reference of Vandelay Industries' name is just enough out of date to indicate "irony". Refreshingly, the band offers a solid, sincere set of songs on their new EP, Critter. The sound is full of ringing guitars and firm, kick driven drum work. Walking a line between indie pop and pop punk, I'd add this to my favorite list of "snotty boys with guitars", except Vandelay Industries barely tries to pull off a sneer.

The EP is brief, with a mere four songs. Still, this showcases the band's pop foundation and solid playing. Effectively a professionally recorded demo, this taste leaves me ready for more.

Critter opens with the chiming guitar line of Joliet. Punchy rhythm guitars, a weaving keyboard line, and simple honest singing propel the song at a bouncy pace. They throw in a couple of breaks to drop the dynamic down for some emotional intensity. A couple of sweet touches in the arrangement include a weird stutter kick beat on the ends of the verses and the ending that slides in a surprise three part harmony on the last syllable:
It was tough
The worst one yet

And second chances are hard to get
The look on your face

You can never forget
On the day that he got out of Joliet
Golden Anchors & Crystal Sails has a driving indie rock feel, with bits of Weezer and Too Much Joy. The vocal trade offs are a nice touch, as are the tasteful guitar fills. It's an emotional coming of age song that proves deeper than the first listen suggests. Vandelay Industries manages to swirl together youthful naiveté, regret, and ragged pain into a storm of teenage feelings.

Riverside is full of folky earnestness. The lyrical phrasing is awkward at times, but the imagery and sincerity carry the song long enough to hit the satisfying guitar lead of the bridge. The line is suitably simple, but it kicks up the energy to keep the track from wallowing in sentiment.

Synesthesia starts with a great pop punk feel that slides into indie pop. It's catchy as hell. There's a mild bitterness, but the bouncy joy of the tune erodes any angst over the relationship problems in the lyrics. "And I'll go on, stabbing in the dark, aiming at your heart"? Well, maybe so, but the effect is more bluster than threat.

Synesthesia and Golden Anchors & Crystal Sails are the stronger songs on Critter, but the overall sound is fresh enough that I'll be keeping an eye out for this Ft. Collins band to play here or in Denver. Critter is available on iTunes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CD review - Other Lives, Tamer Animals (2011)

An opal is just a cloudy gem until the light exposes its beauty and depth. Other Lives' latest release, Tamer Animals, is a dusky jewel I almost missed. My first listen was during a workout and it made little impression. It wasn't until I played it again in a still room that I began to appreciate what the band accomplished. The sweeping, cinematic arrangements are utterly unique. Their reach has the scope of the Moody Blues, with a touch of Roxy Music's soulful diffidence.

The sound is orchestral and dreamy. Loopy elements bleed together. The flow from one song to another implies a kind of story to be teased out, moving from atmospheric to lush and evocative. It's deeply intensive yet restrained.

The first single, For 12, has a galloping rhythm that offers a sense of open western spaces, but it's tempered with a moody, dark undercurrent. The hand slap percussion meshes with the rich strings to meld folk elements into a cinematic score. The subtle piano touches are barely noticeable, yet add a perfect introspection.

Later, Desert's loose ambient opening settles into a sinuous, winding melody. The hypnotic feel tastes like Caravan as arranged by Ravel. The rhythm sets a well disguised trap, with lazy syncopation that sucks the listener into the opiated vibe of the song.

Other songs show different facets of Other Lives. From the soulful theatricality of the title track to the bluesy post rock modality of Dust Bowl III or the retro, slight psychedelia of Old Statues, Tamer Animals is full of interesting twists and glittering details.

(For 12 is currently available as a free download from the band's home page)

Monday, June 13, 2011

CD review - Reptar, Oblangle Fizz Y'all (2011)

By all accounts, Reptar puts on a great live show. Oblangle Fizz Y'all certainly adds to that impression. A party mood permeates the five track EP, with chaos and pop swirled together. In interviews, the band has a calculated goofiness which also shoots through the EP like Silly String. This is Reptar's strength and Achilles heel. They're quirky and funny, but not joky. That silliness would liven up a concert and doesn't wear out its welcome on a short EP, but it's less clear that a full length album would work. The quirkiness might wear thin.

Even though Reptar comes out of Athens, GA, they're more B-52s than REM. The music is a strange hybrid of boom boxy indie electro pop. On the first track, Blastoff, Reptar starts with a vaguely world beat influenced sound, but the main groove is more like J Geils Band. The overlapping background vocals continue the global pop sound underneath, but the bouncy indie pop fun of the foreground drives the track. The break slides into a stronger electro pop sound with intertwined guitars and keys. This jam section fades back into a reprise of the vocals with waves of synth wash.

Stuck in My ID keeps up the electro pop influence, but the flavor is completely different. It's a lot like a rework of Missing Person's Destination Unknown with the Edge grafting on a guitar line. It slides into more of a pop sound that feels like Talking Heads or Tom Tom Club.

Things slow down with Context Clues, which hits more of an Animal Collective vibe. The track is built on a loop orchestrated with ambient sounds. The complex base underlies a sweeping flow as layers accumulate with each repetition. By Rainbounce and Phonetics, the odd vocal delivery is not quite as interesting. The affected accent on Phonetics is particularly distracting. Fortunately, the music is still strong.

Oblangle Fizz Y'all is due to release next month. Reptar has also released a few other songs on 7" singles, including Cannabis Canyons and Houseboat Babies. They're touring with Art Brut right now and they'll be at Lollapalooza, so maybe you'll get a chance to see if the show lives up to the hype. I'm guessing they'll play an entertaining set.

Friday, June 10, 2011

CD review - The Indelicates, David Koresh Superstar (2011)

The Indelicates seem to have an affinity for provocation. Their latest album, David Koresh Superstar, had its roots in an earlier project: The Book of Job: The Musical. The actor playing Job joked, "What's next? Waco: The Musical?" and that planted the seed. Simon Indelicate and the band have captured the '70s rock musical sound of shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar to create a wonderfully shocking novelty...

Well, not quite.

Sure, the subject is audacious, but the songs themselves are solid and the story they tell is nuanced and interesting. This makes David Koresh Superstar a clever concept album masquerading as novelty fluff. Like any concept album, the effect is wasted if the CD is used for mere background listening.

The tale begins with Remember the Alamo, which evokes the mythology of the Alamo as a symbol of ideological freedom and martyrdom. The dark folk feel of the acoustic guitar underlies the clear vocals and forms the overture for the album.

The Road From Houston to Waco outlines the roots of Koresh's life encompassing both the formative events that shaped him and his religious delusions of grandeur. As David Koresh Superstar continues, it parallels Jesus Christ Superstar, building to the inevitable conflict. These parallels come as much from Koresh's biography as they do from the Indelicate's artistic license.

There are big differences between the two narratives, of course. Where Jesus in JCS is conflicted and human, Koresh is more arrogant and sure. I am Koresh illustrates this, showing Koresh's first overt step in creating the cult of personality that he tied to Jesus' path. David Koresh Superstar captures the complexity of the real story. Koresh is treated with the skepticism he deserves, but neither the ATF and the media are given a pass.

Beyond the storyline, the songs are well written, using a clear, direct voice to make the lyrics stand out. The music is also quite interesting, jumping from acoustic folk to layered instrumental to rock. A Book of the Seven Seals marries elements from Hair's The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In) and JSC's The Temple to create tense, allegorical reprise of the story.

The Indelicates best summarize Koresh's arc in A Single Thrown Grenade:
I will know for certain if He's up there
And I will know for certain if He's not
Either will be balm for this aching
For the things I want and haven't got
I'll know the scorching hearts of our evil
And I'll know the simple nature of my fear
I'll be a single thrown grenade into air so still
That the shockwave forms a perfect sphere
The quiet certainty of the words and the simple country folk music make a powerful pair. Likewise, the attention grabbing theme for this album and its serious execution take Kool-Aid and spin it into Bordeux.

Another single: Something's Goin' Down in Waco (on SoundCloud)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

CD review - Radical Dads, Mega Rama (2011)

When I included Radical Dads in last month's singles review, I put their album, Mega Rama on my list. The cheery guitar-fest of New Age Dinosaur was a joy and I wanted to see whether the album followed through on that sound. For the most part, Mega Rama does aim for the same sparkly indie pop/rock vibe, with shimmers of guitar and close-harmony, proclamatory vocals. Beyond that, though, Radical Dads stretch out from that home base to reach towards post punk. Those songs sometimes tone down the band's basic happy vibe, but never quite slide into darkness.

Alondra Rainbow Under Attack hits this post punk sound the strongest. With hints of the Cure and Bauhaus, the breathless vocals smooth out the angular, spiky guitar riffs. Other tracks make milder gestures towards that vibe, like Walking Wires. Here, the indie rock sound is swirled together with the new wave. An REM melody and Go Go's vocal parts meld with the thick guitar sound that defines Radical Dads.

It's not all loud, echoing guitars, though. The drumming is deceptively complex -- rhythmic elements come out on the third or fourth listen, adding depth. The slightly flattened, doubled vocal lines add a touch of naiveté. The last two tracks, Hurricane and Tide's Out, toy with dreamier, ambient elements.

As much as I enjoyed New Age Dinosaur, Hurricane turned out to be my favorite track. It starts with a slow, hypnotic build of sounds that finally coalesces into a song. The feel and vocal sound both recall Liz Phair, like Explain It To Me or Shatter (Exit in Guyville), complemented by richer guitar complexity. The half sleeping indie rock seems to close out:
This is the end of the late summer sun
It's heavy overhead but it might be nothing
Just a hurricane coming, hurricane coming, hurricane coming,
Here comes the end
But it's a false ending that sets up a minute or so of cathartic, noisy, Velvet Underground flail.

Tide's Out continues the Liz Phair vocal sound. A lone guitar riff starts but is subsumed in a cotton wool grind of guitars seasoned with bright sparks of sound. The repetition of the chorus, along with the spikier slur of jangled notes, has an obsessive sound. The tentative wail of feedback at the end resolves nothing, but it's not a failure. It just means that it's time to restart Mega Rama for another listen.

Mega Rama releases June 14.

Monday, June 6, 2011

CD review - Urge Overkill, Rock&Roll Submarine (2011)

Urge Overkill built a following back in the '90s that was both anchored and poisoned by their contribution to Pulp Fiction, a cover of Neil Diamond's Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon. By the late '90s, the band had crashed and burned. They recovered for a resurrection tour in 2004. Now they're back with their first CD in 16 years, Rock&Roll Submarine.

The title seems appropriate for Urge Overkill to figuratively rise from the depths again. But Rock&Roll Submarine is best appreciated when the past is ignored, which seems to match Urge Overkill's attitude. For better or worse, the album is straightforward, dropping most of their posing, irony, and "cleverness". While Urge Overkill's spunk was part of their appeal, the sincere sound of Rock&Roll Submarine makes up for the loss.

The album's hard rock edge is a love letter to the same retro riff-driven rock that Spinal Tap mocked: a hearty serving of Blue Öyster Cult with chunks of Spirit and Cheap Trick. They spice it up with flashes of more modern older bands. The first single, Effigy is a great example of the more contemporary side, with an opening riff from The Pursuit of Happiness (I'm an Adult Now) that gets repurposed into an '80s hard rock sound redolent of Bon Jovi. It's satisfyingly hard, with ragged guitar stabs and a constant splash of cymbal.

The bulk of the songs are more like the opener, Mason/Dixon or my favorite, Little Vice: riff heavy, the throaty roar of muscular guitars, dark harmonized vocals, and pounding drums. Rock&Roll Submarine is a trip back to Urge Overkill's roots. It's not all overdrive, though. Thought Balloon tones down the edge and Quiet Person loses it completely. The simple acoustic figure and a bare bones brushed snare on Quiet Person offer a scaffold for the band's signature paired vocals. It's clean and sincere.

The song Rock&Roll Submarine asks the question: "Do I have to spell it out again/This time with attitude?" Instead, Urge Overkill have jettisoned the attitude for the balls out simplicity of rock. Grab a non-ironic American Lager and give it a listen.

Friday, June 3, 2011

CD review - The Fierce and the Dead, If It Carries On Like This, We Are Moving to Morecambe (2011)

I've reviewed Matt Stevens' solo work before. His acoustic/experimental looping is jazzy and thoughtful. His current band, the Fierce and the Dead, takes Stevens' sound into a post-rock direction. The flow on If It Carries On Like This, We Are Moving to Morecambe slides from looser interludes to periods of intense focus. Usually from song to song, but occasionally it even waffles within a single track.

This collection of instrumentals evokes a sense of 3 a.m., whether it's peaceful solitude or uneasy sleeplessness. The ambient start of Flint rises to our attention like the sound of static from a television waking us up. Except the sound continues expanding to a noisy crescendo until the bass comes in to provide a structure that outlasts the noise. The bass and drums anchor the song while the guitar alternates between emotional shimmers of sound and cleaner jazz melody. Like several other tracks on If It Carries On Like This, the abstract arrangement is centered on the repeated bass line.

H.R. sets off a chain of King Crimson influenced tracks. The constantly climbing, angular guitar line is pure Robert Fripp. It builds tension before erupting into post rock flail. The next track, Hotel No. 6, resolves the tension into a softer pillow of sound, recalling Fripp and Eno's ambient works. But that's merely an interlude before the grinding Thrak-like sound of Landcrab.

My favorite track is 10x10. Following the album's formula, the bass and drums provide the basic foundation for the guitar to snap on a series of textures. Looping allows Stevens to lay on layers of interlocking parts. This repetitive groove proves quite versatile as the band even takes it into a glitchy electronic space. Even though the Fierce and the Dead's sound is in thrall to the guitar, 10x10 creates a keyboard-friendly zone.

If It Carries On Like This is a nice roller coaster ride. The album gives us plenty to think about in those early morning hours: thoughtful, then anxious; nostalgic but also cathartic. Each moment pondered on its own merits like a fine salty Islay scotch.

If It Carries On Like This, We Are Moving to Morecambe is currently available as a "pay what you will" download on Bandcamp.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

CD review - Sennen, Age of Denial (2010/2011)

Sennen is reaching out for the US market by officially releasing Age of Denial here this month. The album released in UK last year. Their blend of shoegaze, pop, and indie rock should push some familiar buttons for audiences over here.

Sennen's sound is polished, with smooth pop harmonies and a wonderful sense of dynamics. But their Achilles heel on Age of Denial is the bait and switch as they jump between personalities. The title track offers a first taste, which presents the band as progressive indie rockers. The relentless driving beat and rich collection of sonic textures promises an album to challenge Trail of Dead. The drum work is solid, but it constantly changes to support the different song sections. The vocals shift between whipsaw phrasing and close harmonies. Age of Denial as a whole is a finely constructed wall of sound, with good dynamics and a perfect balance of control and chaos. Pretty keyboard fills and strings coexist with cymbal splash static and flailing guitars.

If the rest of Age of Denial carried out this promise, I'd have a new favorite album of the year. The next track, With You, keeps up the energy, but the groove is uptempo shoegazer. By the third track, A Little High, all of the momentum of the first track has drained. The staccato guitar pop presents a pleasant recollection of Teenage Fan Club and the thicker sound of the bridge brings back some chaos, but it's a far different band than Age of Denial implies. Later songs will ride the shoegazer vibe into dreamy pop and gentler sounds.

On the edgier side, Sennen gestures again towards Teenage Fan Club on some of the tracks. The band also recalls Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on the dark tribal beat of S.O.S. The retro formulaic foundation supports a nice layer of looser jam. Can't See the Light takes that BRMC darkness and builds up a solid rocker. The bass and vocals are strong and smooth while the guitar injects chaos. The blend offers a touch of what the opening track promised. The jams build into a trancy groove.

All told, Sennen presents three different faces: the progressive indie rock band, the driving shoegazers, and the dreamy pop group. Depending on your tastes, that may prove wonderful or maddening. Across all the songs, the only constants are their sweet harmonies and their balance of smooth and rough sounds.

Sip on a gin and tonic followed by an amber ale chaser to balance your listening experience for Age of Denial.