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

Friday, July 29, 2011

CD review - Boston Spaceships, Let It Beard (2011)

Remarkably cohesive double album encompasses classic psychedelia, prog rock, and trademark GBV sounds

If Robert Pollard sleeps, he must take catnaps between takes in the studio. This year, Pollard has already released Lord of the Birdcage as a solo album (review here), The New Theory of Everything (with Mars Classroom), Waving at the Astronauts (with LifeGuards), and Space City Kicks (another solo album). Now, he's releasing a double album with Boston Spaceships, Let It Beard.

Prolific as he is, Pollard continues to surprise his audience with interesting, engaging songs. I can't imagine another artist who can release so much material on a regular basis and still seem relevant. Some of the 26 tracks on Let It Beard are short enough to feel like teases, like Juggernaut vs. Monolith, Toppings Take the Cake, or Pincusion. But each of these brief songs (the longest is 1:15) are full songs filled with driving, garage rock energy that compares well to the longer tracks on the album.

The first three tracks give a taste of the rest of the album. Blind 20-20 starts with a Robert Fripp/King Crimson, old school progressive rock sound. The song hits a wall and drops into a loose interlude, then falls into a Robyn Hitchcock tinged psychedelic folk. Juggernaut vs. Monolith, mentioned above, covers the lo-fi, punky garage rock angle for the the album. Then Tourist UFO hits the classic Guided By Voices sound.

Let It Beard delivers on these samples with many great songs and a remarkably cohesive sound. Much of the credit for the flow of the album lies with band member Chris Slusarenko, who started the project with 40 of Pollards acoustic demos. He and Pollard settled on the songs to keep and Slusarenko worked them out and effectively managed production for the album. Drummer John Moen rounds out the group and many guests, like Colin Newman, J Mascis, and Mitch Mitchell, added their imprints to the album.

With so many gems, it's hard to pick a few to talk about, but three stood out for me. The title track is a little mini-epic. It starts out like a classic rocker, warm with distorted guitar and a simple vocal repetition that kicks into a a sound like Robyn Hitchcock playing Rolling Stones' covers. It slides into a Bowie style groove for a while. A guitar steps out to make its assertion, which drives the song into a throbbing Who style rocker, with shades of Long Live Rock and Baba O'Riley. It's a wonderful and unselfconscious journey.

I also loved the driving sound of You Just Can't Tell. The verse vocals are like Brian Eno's Third Uncle, with a steady, staccato run of syllables. The tension builds relentlessly as more details are layered into place. The uneasy ending leaves things at loose ends, but fits perfectly into the chiming pop sound of the following track, Chevy Marigold.

Rounding out my favorites is Tabby and Lucy, which wraps up a Mott the Hoople verse with a classic GBV chorus. The result is some of the finest outsider pop ever made. Low level feedback, shimmery tones, and other sonic textures turn the simple pop structure into something more meaningful. In an ideal world, all pop would be this engaging. "Something to know, something to say, something to take my blues away."

The sprawling extent calls for something unusual, but session strength. I once brewed a refreshing ginger cherry beer that would be perfect to accompany Let It Beard.

Check out Pollard's teaser trailer for the album on YouTube.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CD review - Portugal. The Man, In the Mountain, In the Cloud (2011)

Psychedelic soul cuts loose for Portugal. The Man's major label release

It's always a concern when a beloved fringe band makes its deal with the Devil and signs on with a major label. Fans were worried when Portugal. The Man partnered with Atlantic, but from the opening seconds of So American, my doubts evaporated. The production throughout In the Mountain, In the Cloud reflects a studio budget, while the writing and song selection are clearly under the band's control, which is the ideal. The album still doesn't resolve the conflict between PTB's live shows and recorded work, though, because the songs miss out on the free form arrangements that the band delivers on stage.

In the Mountain, In the Cloud mixes old and new sounds. PTB continues to explore some of David Bowie's sound, but this album is more focused on Young Americans, extending Bowie's homage to American soul into psychedelia. They add a Supertramp flavor to the sound that seems new to me. These retro elements are there, but there's just as much Flaming Lips or My Morning Jacket, reflecting similar decisions that the modern bands make in mining these sounds.

The opening and closing tracks each polish a jam aesthetic into pop perfection. So American is tightly written; the lyrics aren't predictable, yet they seem inevitable:
He may not be born of this land
But he was born of this world
He was born of all the mothers
And the colors of our brothers
And the love that was started
You, by the one they call Jesus Christ
Who may not know no rock and roll
And there may not be a heaven
Or a place to which to send you
But you know in the end, there is a madness in us all...
So, who broke the rules?
The vocal flow is effortless. The song is layered with detail, the string backing in particular adds a nuanced touch. The song is incredibly efficient, yet maintains a looser Flaming Lips trippiness.

Sleep Forever is similarly balanced. The melodic elements are stated up front in a slightly Hendrixy run though and the song builds on this feel. Supertramp's Breakfast in America feels like an influence, but the cello backing is all Beatles. The solo opens up a jam where the string accompaniment is almost as strong as the guitar lines.

Got It All (This Can't Be Living Now), is another track that travels over the Flaming Lips' trails. The Beatlesque feel is rooted in a George Harrison style guitar riff and the beautiful string arrangement. It sets up a repetitious, psychedelic soul vibe.The opening line, "This can't be living now. If so, then show me how", sets the hook with a lyric that remains long after the song is over. "We've got it all, 'til the revolution comes" sounds defeatist, yet John Gourley's falsetto is almost joyous at the prospect.

It would be great if In the Mountain, In the Cloud could capture more of the band's live jam exploration, with less structured songs. But many bands never bridge that gap between their albums and their live sound. Portugal. The Man recognizes the strength of each milieu. The album creates an unselfconscious, pop feel, while their live arrangements are more improvisational.

Monday, July 25, 2011

CD review - Thurston Moore, Demolished Thoughts (2011)

Sonic Youth frontman continues acoustic exploration, finding exotic sounds

Sonic Youth has a distinctive approach to their noise driven sound. With alternate tunings and prepared instruments, they seem obsessed with odd instrumental harmonies and pulling new sounds from the chaotic edge of dissonance. Key founder, Thurston Moore is central to that exploration and much of his work outside of Sonic Youth has pushed the borders of experimental noise rock.

Moore's last solo album, Trees Outside the Academy, broke the pattern to wander into more acoustic realms, especially on songs like Silver Blue. Demolished Thoughts continues that trajectory into a softer sound, based on acoustic guitar accompanied by strings, harp, bass, and the occasional horns. The guitar parts still connect to Sonic Youth, expanding on some of the guitar from the opening section of Massage the History (The Eternal, review here), for example.

The songs on Demolished Thoughts feel thoughtful, but sometimes unsettled. The introspective mood is prone to drift into slightly darker spaces, not so much threatening, but shadowed and probing.

Most of the songs rely solely on percussive guitar or bass, leaving out the drums completely (Benediction is the exception). This organic, flowing sound sets up some intricate interplay between Moore's guitar and the backing instruments. Musically. Moore offers a twist on the acoustic jam vibe of bands like It's a Beautiful Day or some of Hot Tuna's work.

Blood Never Lies shows off that musical cooperation, featuring a chiming guitar paired with a violin line. The counterpoint harp fills and subtly buried bass combine with a sense of inevitability to mesh into an edgeless whole. Moore's guitar has a touch of John Fahey, whose acoustic polish is quite distant from Sonic Youth's normal fare. Moore's relaxed, breathy vocals add a dreamy veneer. The mood is soft and reflective with brief intimations of shadow.

Circulation is a closer relative to Thurston Moore's normal sound. The driving beat, accusatory tone, and dark, obscure lyrics all shape the sound of an acoustically arranged Sonic Youth song.
The perfect lights are backwards
Reflected cries
Needle hits black lacquer
Speakers forgive lies
I'm not running away
Circulation makes her crazy
She's my "here-to-stay"
She just came by to shoot you, baby
The percussive strumming covers the drum part. The guitar's alternate tuning sounds like sometime off a Velvet Underground song, but the cool harmonic structure builds a mountain of subtle tension. Soothing violin and spooky echoed harp contrast to create a moody complexity.

Each song sets its own stage, from the staccato, angular melody and hypnotic scales of Mina Loy to the whimsical lyrics filling out the reverie of Space. Demolished Thoughts serves as wonderful example of Thurston Moore's versatility. Tonally distant from Sonic Youth, his voice and aesthetic sense remain intriguing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

July Singles

July Singles

Time again for the monthly singles post. Here are a few things that blipped my radar this month, starting with one of my Seattle faves, Macklemore.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis - Wings

Ryan Lewis and Macklemore
Photo credit: Greg Nissen

Macklemore is one of my favorite performers because his front and attitude balance perfectly with his earnest delivery. This makes him very entertaining, but his material is always solid. Search my blog for album and show reviews.

In recent years, the rapper has teamed up with producer/DJ Ryan Lewis. Lewis has been integral to polishing Macklemore's sound by creating musical accompaniments that extend the songs. His pacing on Wings is great. The simple, soulful piano sets up Macklemore's open delivery. Then the music builds tension as the vocals pick up intensity. Later, Lewis' strings evoke the emotions without getting schmaltzy.

The theme is a familiar one for Macklemore: a heartfelt connection to his something of his youth and his ambivalence between how the kid sees that thing and his grownup response. In this case, it's the Air Jordans that fueled his dreams and the baggage around them:
Look at me, look at me, I'm a cool kid
I'm an individual, yeah, but I'm part of a movement
A movement to only be a consumer, and I consumed it
They told me to just do it, I listened to what that Swoosh said
The lyrical flow shifts tempo and ranges from sentimental to indignant. Regardless of whether he connects with your youth, Wings sets you up for a big shot of empathy.

Cymbals Eat Guitars - Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name) (Lenses Alien, due out August 30)

On 2009's Why There Are Mountains, Cymbals Eat Guitars proved adept at merging Pavement style rock with Wilco style experimental production (review here). Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name) continues to deliver on this idea, setting up a medley effect.

The long track (eight and a half minutes) bounces through several modes but maintains coherence. The first section ties some angular Pavement guitar lines to a poppier indie rock groove. This transitions into a drifting interlude on a sea of chaos. Somewhere along the line, the chaotic noise engulfs the track, somewhere between psychedelia and experimentalism. Rifle Eyesight recovers with some jangled guitar lines to take us back to the indie rock roots. The song ends in a modern psychedelic haze.

Despite the length, Rifle Eyesight stays engaging and interesting. If this is representative, Lenses Alien should be an epic listen.

Veronica Falls - Come On Over (Veronica Falls, due out October 17)

Veronica Falls

With layers of low-fi simplicity, Veronica Falls creates a wall of sound like Phil Spector producing the Velvet Underground. Their shoegaze friendly song moves from comfortable to cheerfully excited, like spending a lazy afternoon with a lover and then getting a wild hair: adventure's afoot.

Come On Over is anchored in repetition, but the lack of lyrical depth creates an emotional conduit and evokes a happily reminiscent feel. All with a toe tapping beat. It works for me. Even after it's over, the mood and melody linger.

Veronica Falls has more tricks in their bag. Earlier singles Found Love In a Graveyard and Beachy Head offer their own flavors of shoegazy garage, hinting at darker brooding and surf sensibility. October's not too long to wait to see what else Veronica Falls has to offer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

CD review - Spirits of the Dead, The Grea God Pan (2011)

Marrying folk rock and progressive rock, Spirits of the Dead make their own rules

Norway's Spirits of the Dead raise more than just ghosts. On The Great God Pan!, the band threads a path between several eras and genres of rock music, ranging from folk rock to progressive rock. The trail wanders to take in psychedelia, classic rock, jazz, and art rock, too.

Despite the range of sounds, the 6 songs on The Great God Pan! have a smooth flow. Contrasting musical elements are complementary, as if to prove that they aren't so different after all. This often leads each song to be its own day trip journey. Here's a rundown of the tracks:

Starting with Mighty Mountain, the song fades in on an idyllic Yes or Hawkwind interlude. Merely by adding a crunchy guitar and bullhorned vocals, the sound shifts into something closer to Hey You from The Wall. The noisy intrusion sinks back into the swaying guitar figure. Halfway through the song, a harder beat coalesces, for a modern prog section reminiscent of Trail of the Dead.

Next up, Leaves of Last Year's Fall is my favorite track. The jazzy groove is based on 5/8 rhythm that throws in regular 6/8 measures. Think Dave Brubeck's Take Five merges with one of Traffic's jams. The acoustic chords, meandering electric lead, and busy melodic bass mesh together into smoothly interlocked flow. It's a beautifully balanced piece, but Spirits of the Dead can't resist twisting it further, with a bridge building into a trippy jam band style interlude. The heady sound gets chaotic, yet eventually resolves back into the earlier feel.

The acid rock intro to Pure as the Lotus is built from a distorted guitar line like L'America by the Doors. The eastern hypnotic melody has a snaky feel. This drops out as the vocals kick in. Somewhere between Argent and Deep Purple, the song has a classic '70s rock sound. The lyrics are evocative of the period's art rock:
Just formed from the sky, an elephant's eyes
The signs are in the sand
The darkness I've known will cover the sun
The falling of my soul
Pour me all your love (pure as the lotus)
It's an amalgam of psychedelia, classic rock, and art rock.

The title track fades into a jam already in progress. The sound is both old and new, merging indie folk with an early King Crimson art rock. The drum work is especially impressive, leading me to go back and relisten to the whole EP with a percussion-centric filter. The subtle beat, crossing a restless snare line over a steady kick, propels the song forward. (download from AOL Spinner)

The mood shifts again with Casting the Runes. A driving beat and stalking bass line support a dark, dreamy feel. The vocals are amplified whispers that recall Pink Floyd's Careful With That Axe, Eugene. The darkness collects and the song builds into a higher, nightmare energy before sinking back into a troubled sleep.

With Goldberry, the sleep relaxes again, releasing the tension. It's a perfect closer for The Great God Pan! The groove meshes Pink Floyd's Breathe with Neil Young's Down By The River...

I can't believe I just wrote that, but it's exactly what I hear.

The opening soft portions set up a Breathe feel that's not too far from the softer verses of Down By The River. The song shifts into a bridging section to transition into an assertive declaration like Down By The River's chorus. Goldberry's flow follows Young's song, as well, bouncing from gentle to forceful before building into an intense, tortured jam. Like a wave subsiding, the cathartic intensity eventually ebbs back to the loose open sound of the start.

Running a mere 34 minutes, The Great God Pan! crams in an album's worth of riveting music. Spirits of the Dead have set themselves a challenge for future releases. With no shortage of interesting musical ideas to draw on, I'll be keeping my ears open for them.

The Great God Pan! releases August 1.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Concert review - The Rosebuds with Other Lives

16 July 2011 (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)

I anticipated this show because I enjoyed Other Lives' Tamer Animals so much (review here). Other Lives have been touring with the Rosebuds. I'm not sure how they work out billing on the shows, but last night Other Lives opened the show. Other Lives pulled a larger crowd, but both bands had some dedicated fans at the bar.

There were some instrumental overlaps between the two bands, like the violin, but they came from radically different aesthetics. I'm not convinced it was a good pairing because the Rosebuds' simpler music didn't stand up to Other Lives' richer sound. Despite these differences, the bands got along very well and graciously encouraged the audience to support the other act. They even cross pollinated and sat in on each others set.

Other Lives
Tamer Animals is currently one of my favorite albums of the year. Its unique cinematic scope and orchestral depth offer worlds of detail to explore. I anticipated this show, because I wanted to see how they'd compromise the studio sound of the songs to bring them into a club setting.

Other Lives surprised my by recreating the rich sound and complexity in their live show. It was amazing to see 5 musicians build the songs, often pulling double or triple duty in a single song. It would be impressive enough to have a band member who played keys, guitar, violin, and trumpet, but in Other Lives, he sometimes played two instruments at the same time. And the rest of the band similarly pulled their weight.

The instrument changes gave the show a dynamic feel. Otherwise, their stage presence was fairly serious and focused. Frontman Jesse Tabish had a shy demeanor and often seemed embarrassed during his few times addressing the audience.

Other Lives opened with As I Lay My Head Down, recreating the thick echoed vocal sound and haunting string accompaniment. Despite the high stage volume, the sound was full of detail, although it was hard sometimes to map every element back to the specific musician. For 12 delivered the album version's open western sound with dark undercurrents, but it was harder to pull some of the details out of the mix.

The audience repaid the band's careful attention, immersing in the songs. Less rowdy than most club crowds, they gave the songs real attention, but still erupted when they finished. The band closed the set with a looser version of Weather, which built up an avalanche of sound and evoked an earlier period Radiohead vibe. The open echo of the final notes maintained the spell for just a moment before the crowd showed their appreciation.

Other Lives' ambitious effort to reproduce their lush studio sound was impressive. The visual excitement of tight timing and instrument swapping was an integral part of their live show. That said, the noisy club environment made it harder to appreciate the nuance of the songs. By all means, catch their show, but it's no substitute for getting a copy of Tamer Animals.

The Rosebuds
The Rosebuds are Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp, along with whichever drummer they're using at the time. Last night's show included a fourth member who played violin and bass. Although, Crisp and her keyboard sat center stage, Howard was the focus of the show, doing most of the lead vocals and driving the songs with his guitar.

Compared to Other Lives, the Rosebuds had a much simpler and more straightforward sound. Most of their songs were rooted in a retro '80s synth pop sound, but updated with some indie rock elements. The guitar was often so drenched in echo that it sounded like a keyboard, merging in with Crisp's keyboard lines. Backing vocals tended to long tonal harmonies. Bits of Duran Duran and Tears for Fears wafted through the songs, spreading a moody pop vibe.

Where Other Lives erected layers of rich complexity, the Rosebuds built basic grooves. With a more complementary opening act, those grooves would have been more interesting. The mix didn't help either, Crisp's vocals and the violin were both difficult to hear.

The live version of their new tune, Second Bird of Paradise, toned down its jazzy vibe with stronger reverb and keyboard washes. The music was a sharp contrast to their stage personas. Both Howard and Crisp connected as genuine and pleasant, offering simple warmth and cheeriness. While playing, though, their stage presence was static and their songs had a stylistic distance.

They broke that pattern near the end of their set. Stepping off the stage to go unplugged, they pulled the crowd in close for a sing along. This showed off more of their folky tendencies. This was the strongest part of their show; getting closer to the crowd and creating the audience participation was more in line with their personalities.

The Rosebuds will be opening for Bon Iver through the next leg of their tour.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Essay - The Sweet Taste of Darkness

Make a joyful noise. The world is full of cheery uplifting tunes. Flip the coin and find a multitude blues and songs full of emo moaning. Something for everyone. Maybe so, but the songs that have made a big impact on me are the dark ones that offer a less comfortable truth.

Not death metal's upside down morality or simplistic punk nihilism...rather a revealing glimpse at a world that isn't perfect. This set of songs have each triggered a recognition in me and changed my view in a way that opened me to the complexity of our real world.

If you share my taste for this kind of darkness, you probably have your own list, but here's mine.

The Velvet Underground - Heroin (The Velvet Underground and Nico)

I remember the first moment I heard this song in a mall record store. I was transfixed by the bare staccato strum of guitar and simple beat, but it was Lou Reed's helpless sense of confusion that connected with my seventeen year old brain: Yeah, and I guess, that I just don't know.

Listening to the words and realizing that it's a literal love song to heroin was delightfully shocking, but the music added another layer. The song breaths in increasing tempos of tension but always exhales a release. Each wave of the song builds organically until it reaches a frayed rush of jangled noise. The final resolution into the calming fade of mildly distorted guitar is a benediction.

More than just heroin, this is a song about obsession, confusion, brief satisfaction, and constant searching.

David Bowie - Sweet Thing/Candidate (Diamond Dogs)

This is a tightly choreographed section on Diamond Dogs. Sweet Thing has a lush, yet detached sound. Bowie stretches out on vocals, going from Thin White Duke to an almost operatic screech. There's an opiated irony in his delivery and the free format between the choruses contributes to the lazy feel. Bowie even gets coquettish: I'm glad that you're older than me/It makes me feel important and free.

The instrumental end of Sweet Thing slides into Candidate without a break. And the mood is shifts casually into tension and threat. The tempo picks up, drops the lushness, and adds more discordant moments. When Candidate references the same chorus lines, Bowie gives them a smirk. If Sweet Thing has a golden glow, then this song is cold, weak moonlight.

Neither song succeeds on its own, but together, they form a yin/yang: everything has a dark secret within.

Die Toten Hosen - Böser Wolf (Opium fürs Volk)

I debated including this since it's in German, but it's another song that made a big impression on me. The Toten Hosen came out of the German punk scene but, as this song shows, they've expanded musically quite a bit. True to their anti-establishment roots, the Toten Hosen have never played polite games and ignored uncomfortable truths, both social and political.

Böser Wolf is one of their more controversial songs. The title translates to "Big, Bad Wolf". The music starts with a simple, sweet chiming melody that underlies the entire song. Without listening to the lyrics, the music on the verses is pretty, but wistful. The chorus picks up some low strings and turns threatening. Throughout, Campino's voice effortlessly adds the right tension and sly innuendo.

Even without understanding the words, it's easy to pick up on the mood. The lyrics tell a heartbreaking story of child abuse. Couched in a child's perception, it's not explicit, but it strikes deeper because of that: She likes to paint pictures of herself and giant men in a dwarf world. She knows stories that she never tells. Most of them she's experienced herself. It's brutally effective because the mild detachment rings all the more true.

Tori Amos - God (Under the Pink)

Tori Amos has based an artistic career on confronting a world's injustice and placing it in the context of her own self examination. God takes her Creator to task for His shortcomings. God, sometimes you just don't come through.

Complimenting Him on his daisies and calling Him out for the evils in the world, Amos' tone is more condescension than bitterness. On the basis of the lyrics alone, this would merely serve as another atheist's complaint. But the music adds a subtext.

The song is built on a tightly syncopated, funky groove that rolls inexorably forward. At the same time, God is scattered with jangled, distorted guitars that sound like angry seagulls fighting for scraps. The contrasting parts showcase Amos' own ambivalence. Is she repressing her rage against the unfairness of an aloof God? Is she a little aghast at her own blasphemy? Or is it just the primitive snake brain buried within her psyche?

Umar Bin Hassan - Niggers Are Scared of Revolution (Be Bop or Be Dead)

Umar Bin Hassan has been a strong voice in the Last Poets, a band from the late '60s that was one of the roots of hip-hop. Like Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets combined poetry, music, and politics to create some great art. Niggers Are Scared of Revolution was originally released on the Last Poets eponymous first album. I prefer the version Hassan released on his solo album, Be Bop or Be Dead, in the mid-'90s. His flow is more expressive and it shows that he had not lost his indignation or his oratory abilities.

The song stridently calls out the Black community for getting distracted from political action. Hassan's preaching rhythm and repetition hammer home his point while slipping in sharp observation:
Niggers are actors, ooh niggers are actors
Niggers act like they're in a hurry to catch the first act of the Great White Hope
Niggers try to act like Malcolm did,
But when the White Man doesn't react toward them like he did Malcolm
Niggers won't act violently
Niggers act so cool and slick
Causing white people to say, "what makes them niggers act that way?"
Each verse riffs off a different initial phrase ("niggers are players...", "niggers shoot..."). Hassan's frustration builds, but in the last verse ("niggers are lovers"), he rejects any charge of self-directed race hatred. He loves the sinner but hates the sin.

This song is powerful because it confronts stereotypes and doesn't shy away from ugliness. Hassan's charged language and repetition bounces from cajoling to ranting to resignation, but keeps moving.

Michael Franti - Positive (Live from the Baobab)

Live From the Baobab is Michael Franti's live solo album. It covers a fair amount of material he's performed with his band,Spearhead, and offers a more intimate and immediate feel. Positive originally appeared on the Spearhead album, Home, but this version is starker.

Raw, spoken word poetry tells the story about a man in love, who's finally decided to get tested for HIV. Franti's flow captures the man's thoughts and experiences as he goes into the clinic and later has to wait for the results. "But how am I going to live my life if I am positive, is it going to be a negative?"

Worrying over risks taken and the scary implications of a positive result, Franti channels this mindset. Loops of thought circle around, unable to resolve in the waiting. Similarly, the song stays open ended, without the test result to exonerate or castigate the central figure. The lack of sentimentality, preachiness, or judgement keep Positive from becoming a cheap PSA.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

CD review - Paleo, Fruit of the Spirit (2011)

Challenging art, but worth the effort

Fruit of the Spirit, the latest album by Paleo (AKA David Strackany), is anything but easy listening. The indie folk foundation is pleasant enough, but a twisting vein of experimental sound keeps it from getting too comfortable.

The album's flow seems unfocused, varying in energy and tone while offering little narrative. Finally, Paleo's voice is a rough, challenging instrument: raspy and cracking, it often seems too weak to support the depth of his lyrics. Some listeners may give Fruit of the Spirit a brief listen and pass it by.

None of that captures the intriguing essence of this album. Even though a couple of tracks are particularly challenging, like Poet and Poet II, most of the songs are quite interesting. Paleo's sonic palette is full of subtle background sounds and unusual instrumental choices, like steel drums. He varies his pace from dirge to frentic percussion drive, but a sense of raw emotion and weariness pervades the tracks. That common theme is directly tied to Paleo's voice. His Dylanesque phrasing and breaking notes invite comparisons to the Violent Femmes. Like Gordon Gano, Paleo skirts the edge of breakdown as he sings.

Despite all of the contrary indicators mentioned above, I was hooked on the first track, Lighthouse. The steel drums set up an island folk bounce while the words paint a picture of Paleo's siren:
My friend, she turns to the shadowland of the darkest ocean floor
Every washed up fool in the dating pool
Finds himself washed up on her shore
Shine your light for me. Katie come around
The song feints an ending, setting up a jazzy Dan Hicks style bridge before returning back to the groove. Cool percussion and simple acoustic instruments create a living room house concert sound. Despite the metaphorical lyrics, the song feels honest.

A couple of tracks in, Pharoah jumps from an experimental start of random musical elements and crowd sounds into a simple, bare tune. Driven by a deliberate guitar and accompanied by light piano lines, the song's allegorical lyrics set up an aching plea:
Oh will I struggle? Oh will I hang from a good looking tie, for the rest of my life?
It's a stark contrast to Lighthouse, but it shares an emotional honesty.

Other songs draw a variety of comparisons: a Velvet Underground/Lou Reed writing style on Buddy Buddy, the Femmes' sound of Holly Would or Honey Be Reckless, or 13th Floor Elevators garage rock of In the Movies. Sure there are touchstone moments, but they don't indicate influences. They just represent a language to describe a unique sounding album

Mixed bag or not, Fruit of the Spirit is worth the effort, especially for jaded ears.

Monday, July 11, 2011

CD review - Grooms, Prom (2011)

Low-fi, cathartic album explores life at 17

Life at 17 is fraught. It's full of beauty, pain, confusion, joy, and anger. Grooms channel this melange on Prom, their latest album. From the opening track , Tiger Trees, the band sets up their high stakes ambivalence. Pretty slide guitar and thoughtful fingerpicked repetition is juxtaposed with an 8-bit rhythm beat. The song is dreamy, yet full of drama. Clean, simple elements clash with low-fi distortion.

If Janis Ian's At Seventeen offers a detached acceptance coming at the brink of adulthood, Grooms are more fully engaged on their Sonic Youth inspired title track. Starting with a looped echo artifact and throbbing bass, Prom sets a scene:
Seventeen is the whole world
In my room, the Smiths and girls
Phantom friends, their shadow shakes
The secret hallway, on audio tape
And I want to be friends with you...
The deliberately paced vocal recitation has an undercurrent of Paul Westerberg angst. The solo is a mainline of uncontrolled noise that seems to represent a response to all the pressures of adolescence.

Real adolescents aren't cardboard cutouts of hormones, stubbornness, and frustration; they have insights, weigh philosophical alternatives, and can have a sense of truth. too. Prom's mix of noise, punk energy, interesting musical progressions, and dynamics reflect a band that can contradict itself and still maintain some consistency.

The noisy tension on Prom and on tracks like Imagining the Bodies are balanced by moments of charming reverie, like Psychics' low washes of feedback-like sound. A low-fi, dark aesthetic permeates Prom, but still reveals a thoughtfully constructed set of songs. Listeners can surrender themselves to the cathartic flow or they can detach and probably miss the whole point. Choose wisely.

Friday, July 8, 2011

CD review - Woods, Sun and Shade (2011)

Dreamy indie folk captures a slice of the '60s and '70s

Woods actually capture a couple of slices. Their gentle folk rock sound recall bands like It's a Beautiful Day or the Flying Burrito Brothers. But they also sprinkle Sun and Shade with a couple of psychedelic jams that merge early Pink Floyd with Velvet Underground and Can.

On the surface, these two directions set up a cognitive dissonance. Both are enjoyable, but they don't quite mesh. But by the time White Out plays, Woods has bridged that gap. The percussion and bass driven groove builds up a trippy feel, while the dreamy, echoed vocals surprisingly ground the tune. The meandering result is a Grateful Dead sounding folk jam.

For a taste of the mid '60s folk rock, give a listen to Any Other Day. The big room reverb, the close harmonies, and chiming acoustic guitar conspire to recreate a 1966 Buffalo Springfield vibe. The effect is subverted by the charred edges of distorted guitar that sneak in the second half, but that balance is what makes Woods enchanting. The contrast between the upbeat, hopeful music and the pessimistic lyrics is another interesting quality:
I won't believe that it can't get worse
It's not impossible to see
To have and to hold for whatever that's worth
We won't be coming back
On the wilder side, Sun and Shade offers two extended jams, Out of the Eye and Sol y Sombre. Both are rich musical explorations of experimental space. Woods take the time to let the tracks develop naturally, which is very much like Pink Floyd's work on Saucerful of Secrets. On Out of the Eye, the hypnotic jam weaves between Floyd, Velvet Underground style discordance, and classic Krautrock. Sol y Sombre takes a Floyd-style space rock groove, built from a bass and percussion foundation and adds some sparse, meditative Jerry Garcia guitar lines.

Embrace the dichotomy that Sun and Shade offers, whether it's the dandelion wine or the subtly dosed Kool-Aid. Either taste will prove worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

CD review - Guano Apes, Bel Air (2011)

Hard rockers reunite to revive retro '80s sound

Guano Apes broke up 5 years ago and drifted in several directions. They've coalesced again and released Bel Air, not to pick up where they left off but to show us where they are today. While the German band's roots favored Euro metal, Bel Air fuses a hard rock drive with an '80s, post punk theatricality and modern pop aspirations.

This musical direction reflects lead singer Sandra Nasić's solo album The Signal (2007) the most, but it's also a natural outgrowth of Rain, from their first album, Proud Like a God.

Nasić's voice is the centerpiece. In contrast to Guano Ape's metal era, her vocals on Bel Air are unequivocally feminine, recalling Pat Benetar's husky strength. The opener, Sunday Lover, lays down a synth backed rock beat somewhere between Benetar and Missing Persons. The dynamics are well executed, with softer moments to emphasize the insistent drive.

This approach continues on Oh What a Night. Here, Nasić's voice combines with the modern rock drive to recall Heart's harder songs. The synth is lower in the mix, letting the guitars and solid drumming own the instrumental side.

The thrashier tracks on Bel Air hit my sweet spot. The edgy tension on She's a Killer's verses is sharpened by crunchy guitar throb and devil-may-care vocals. Tiger tosses away subtlety to pound out a punky, garage rock simplicity. All I Wanna Do starts with a pop sounding call to action before kicking off a Barracuda style punch.

Those songs aren't outliers on the album, but the overall sound favors a lush vocaled, post-rock sound integrated in with the hard rock. Guano Apes offer no irony, investing every note with theatrical intensity. Long-time fans might miss the solid metal drive from the past, but Bel Air is anything but soft. Vodka shooters all around.

Friday, July 1, 2011

CD review - Rubblebucket, Omega La La (2011)

Rubblebucket fills their latest, Omega La La, with cheery naiveté. Despite the heavy indie pop veneer, they have a healthy primitivism. This fills the album with a quirky outsider vibe that recalls the Sugarcubes. Sure, Kalmia Traver sounds nothing like Björk and Rubblebucket's sound is more anchored by a dance pop aesthetic. But they share a playfulness and ability to build a song out of the most prosaic beginnings. Like the Sugarcubes, part of the magic comes from the horns, which are more pronounced in Rubblebucket's sound.

Omega La La kicks off with Down in the Yards which sets a back and forth beat like a playground swing. Full of loopy bits, the layering never gets top heavy. The unison male/female pairing has a sing-song feel. The innocent, poppy sound revolves around that initial back and forth flow.

More on the squirrelly side, Came Out of a Lady juxtaposes bizarre lyrics against a solid pop drive. Traver's phrasing here is what triggered the Sugarcubes connection: the odd cadence reminded me of Einar Örn Benediktsson. Despite the misheard lyric ("You came out of a lady hole"), it's a redemptive pop number at its roots.

My favorite track was the darkest sounding track: Lifted/Weak Arms. With a longer running time, it has time to develop from the orchestral horn and bass beginning, moving from vaguely jazzy to more complex interactions. It's reflective and the vocals feel slightly detached. A counterpoint forms between the arpeggio guitar and bass and the looser horn grooves. The song evolves to let a beautiful, underwater keyboard slide into the guitar's place while an arty vocal delivery keeps the unmoored feel. This easy flowing vibe recalls the mellow Zappa sound of Outside Now (Joe's Garage (Actts II & III)). With a sudden flip, the tense threatening bridge kicks in with a King Crimson edge. It's a sharp change from the rest of the album, but Rubblebucket manages a fairly complex evolution in this song, maintaining continuity.

A more representative nice track is Breatherz (Young as Clouds), with its shimmer guitar and pop-soul horns. The vocals are strong and assertive, even as they flow with a looser rhythm. Here, Traver's voice sounds more like the B-52s. A subtle bass line complements the sequenced keys that drive the pop sound.

Omega La La is a promising offering. The pop quirkiness is both inside and outside at the same time. Turn it up and dance along with some homemade sangria (made with a tart red wine).

(Another taste: Silly Fathers, with its Tom Tom Club vibe)