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

Monday, October 31, 2011

CD review - MUTEMATH, Odd Soul (2011)

Diverse sounds and stark contrasts, but rooted in soulful, old school rock
MUTEMATH may have some roots in Christian rock, but the band has made efforts to distance themselves from the segregated market niche that implies. On Odd Soul, the occasional lyric may reference spiritual matters, but the message is more about the music than the Good Word.

That musical message on Odd Soul is rooted in a contemporary interpretation of bluesy soul. While MUTEMATH hasn't abandoned all electronic elements here, the bulk of the album has a retro vibe and saturated, lo-fi vocals that beg for comparison to the Black Keys. But they're not so much derivative as mining some of the same influences.

What makes the album click is the diversity of sounds, even within a single song. Stark contrasts, like the grinding beat and updated Bad Company vibe of Odd Soul against the electro pop, artificial sound of All or Nothing, can be jarring. But the tracks generally feature enough sonic shift to provide a larger context.

The arrangements are well crafted to setting a solid mood while showing off the band's technical strengths. A short interlude like Sun Ray conveys a reflective, jazzy vibe, but attentive ears will appreciate Darren King's impressive drum work and how it balances against the slinky guitar line. Similarly, the warbling organ on Cavalries sets up a psychedelic soul groove. The opening bounces before sliding into a breakneck drive that suggests Edgar Winter's Frankenstein. Once again, the drums are phenomenal.

Blood Pressure, a great choice as one of Odd Soul's singles, features a stripped down start. Tightly wound, the verses sound a bit like Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus, but the chorus splits the song wide open. The dynamics create a delicious tension. This is begging for the drawn out jam of a live version.

The last three tracks orchestrate a perfect flow. Equals balances retro funk rock with a floating chorus before melting into the sprawling jam of Quarentine. Here, the funk riffs veer into prog rock territory and back before wrapping up with an electro-mechanical sound. This nerve rattling finish drags out before finally dropping into the reprieve of In No Time. It's gently comforting, but subtly builds into an hopeful anthem:
Where's your heart gone and where's your soul?
When did all of your faith go?
And where's that old spark, a failure stole?
Well, I'll bet we'll find it in no time at all
Spiritual, but not particularly preachy. MUTEMATH alludes to their origins and keeps moving forward.

Friday, October 28, 2011

October singles

It's time again to collect some music that caught my ear this month. Check out some funk, a couple of very different lo-fi retro songs, and some synth pop flavored rock. Pick your poison.

Greedy Cherry - No Excuse (from EP)

Bass player Michael Conrad recorded his EP under the band name Greedy Cherry. After graduating from the Berklee College of Music, he assembled a talented crew of musicians matched to each track of the project. Conrad took an experimental approach on the EP, jumping from style to style. The flow, especially on the first three tracks, is surprisingly coherent.

Lead off track No excuse was my favorite song from EP. The solid funk groove opens with a Temptations style bass line, but once it gets underway, it incorporates tasty guitar work and beautiful organ lines.

Funk often plays with a tight rhythm by slipping a little behind the beat, then catching up to create a kind of hang moment. Greedy Cherry extends this into a suspended hold. Check out the dub drop at 0:19. Everybody drops out except the keys for a full measure. As the organ holds a chord, the next 4 seconds float long enough to sound like a track glitch before slipping back in. It's all in the timing.

Bare Wires - Back on the Road (from Cheap Perfume)

I can't click through my inbox without tripping over yet another band strutting out their lo-fi, garage tone trying capture some retro cred. All too often, the band is just a muddy mess or, worse, they're somehow pretentiously sloppy. Yes, garage rock is lo-fi, reverbed, and twangy, but the real thing bottles lightning and can raise the hair on the back of your neck.

Oakland's Bare Wires understand this in their DNA. Not only do they hit that sweet fuzzy sonic spot, they get that live, all-at-once energy. Where their competition can sound right if the playback volume is high enough, Bare Wires sounds righteous at any volume.

Back on the Road starts out like the Animals with a dash of Who. The high tension beat and formal rhythm guitar evoke Roky Erickson - not when he's battling his demons, but when he's exultant. The hardest thing about listening is not picking up my guitar to play along.

Bare Wires just dropped their latest album, Cheap Perfume, on October 18 (Southpaw Records).

Mark Sultan - In Future Worlds (from the double release, Whatever/Whenever I Want)

Before you even watch the video, you owe it to yourself to read Mark Sultan's rant declaring war on rock 'n' roll. It's as heartfelt as any classic SubGenius rant, begging us to kill rock'n'roll to save it. This is how Sultan pulled me into his sphere. Reading about him, I figure he's some kind of snake-oil selling genius, but he's wormed his way into my brain.

In Future Worlds bridges garage psychedelia and doo-wop. Unlike Bare Wires, Sultan's version of the garage is anything but effortless. But the quirkiness is still compelling. The lyrics play with abstract imagery, and Sultan's voice shifts between intoned verses and the Del Shannon style chorus. Like the song itself, the video romps in joyful excess.

Continuing the complexity, Sultan has released two vinyl albums, What ever I Want and Whenever I Want, along with a compilation CD, Whatever/Whenever that pulls 7 tracks from each album.

The Gift - RGB (from Explode)

The Gift is a four piece band out of Portugal. They've made their mark back home, but now they're ready to grab some attention here in the States. Their latest album, Explode, released here last month and they had a quick cross country tour before heading down to Brazil.

RGB shows off their lush synth pop infused sound. The synthesizer riff and washes set the hook, but a solid rock beat kicks in to shift the feel from electronica to pop. The interlocking guitar lines and heavy drum work mesh smoothly with the synth underpinnings. Sónia Tavares' voice is strong, deep, and fluid.

Grab the free download and enjoy the Gift's polished sound.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Concert review - Anvil, with several openers

25 October 2011 (Casselman's Bar, Denver CO)

Most of the hard hitting shows I've seen have been in dives. The Anvil concert at Casselman's Bar proved that an upmarket ambiance doesn't stifle a gritty rock experience. The venue had a comfortable front bar and a concert hall in back. Sure, the candlelit tables at the back of the hall were out of place for a metal show, but the roomy stage, high ceilings, and clean sound were a treat.

Between the incoming snow forecast and a slow Tuesday night, the turnout didn't begin to fill the big open hall. Opeth playing at the Ogden probably didn't help, either. Still, the smaller crowd was enthusiastic for the packed line up. A total of four bands warmed up the crowd for Anvil. The variety among the acts meant that fans could enjoy several flavors of metal in short 25 minute sets.

Side Effect
Side Effect kicked off the show a little before 8pm. It's all a matter of taste, but they were my favorite of the four opening acts. Their sound meshed best with Anvil's, with a good mix of grinding rhythm and throbbing bass. Their stage energy fit well, too, with a mix of fun and metal pose.

The lanky lead singer draped himself around the stage: perching a leg on a monitor to lean into the crowd or stalking back and forth. He worked the crowd, egging us on and sharing his enthusiasm for the music. The bass player tried to grab his share of the spotlight, goofing around and flashing his Gene Simmons-like tongue. That didn't stop him from keeping a constant drive going.

The two guitarists had the standard split of rhythm and lead duties, but they were well coordinated. They covered some good twinned rhythm parts to fill out the sound and also paired up on lead once in while. The main lead player had plenty of flash and great tone, while the rhythm player had a more focused sound, even on his occasional leads. The dual guitar sound was a bit like Judas Priest. Rooted in a classic heavy metal sound, their progressions were interesting.

The drummer was hidden back in his cage, but laid down some great double kick rhythms. Side Effect played hard and focused but their stage vibe was relaxed and fun. That combination was a winner.

Elete took the stage with a strong visual presence. Paramilitary outfits and masks created a depersonalized stage presence. As the singer swaggered around the stage, the rest of the band focused on posing and projecting a strong, harsh attitude. It was a very theatrical vibe that matched the industrial metal sound of the music.

The band played along with a backing track of synthesizers and other electronic sounds. The dark grind of the music formed a setting for the singer's raspy voice and screamy punctuations.

Live keyboards would have helped, but aside from the masks and makeup, Elete needed more show. The high point was when the singer came out into the audience to hector the people lurking back at the tables and the rhythm guitar player lip synched to his vocals.

The Threatened
The Threatened dragged the audience back to classic heavy metal. The smooth vocal arrangements featured tight harmonies that pushed the sound to a more radio friendly direction. In stark contrast to Elete, the Threatened took the stage in their street clothes.

The opening song, Savior featured a strong, chunky rhythm and a great bass solo. Later, the guitarist switched to a seven string guitar to shred out. Aside from the vocals, several of the songs had an early AC/DC grind.

The best song of the set, though, was Lose Control, which burst out with a great drum riff. While the band's playing was great, the drum work took it over the top. The verses featured some strong tom work, but the kick drum rolls were incredible.

The Threatened had a decent stage presence, moving around a bit. They needed more visual spark and more audience engagement to stand out in this crowd of bands.

Pressure Point
Pressure Point knew all about visual spark. Rather than relying on their own charms, they brought in reinforcements. The show started out with a bit of theatre. A hot, bikini-clad babe walked the bass player onto the stage on a leash. Then another played roadie for the guitar player. The girls stayed on the stage to dance and act as eye candy. This explained Pressure Point's self-description as a rock a GOGO band.

The bass player actually looked like he was having fun, but the rest of the band kept more serious expressions most the time. The guitar player pulled out some strong chops and the drummer kept up an assault beat driving the songs.

In spite of the pretty dancers and solid playing, Pressure Point's focus was the political message of the lyrics. Front man Kirk Young rapped and ranted his way through the set, raging at the government and conspiracies. He was more of a demagogue at a rally than a metal band singer. The vibe was mostly libertarian with a touch of tea party mixed in. I'll admit that I was a little uncomfortable with the swastika in their logo.

The unrelated mix of media and message made the set feel like propaganda.

Before Anvil took the stage, the lurking crowd finally filtered forward, filling out the front of the stage for the first time. A stronger turnout would have been nice, but Anvil seemed pleased as punch to play for us. That attitude is a big part of what made Anvil! The Story of Anvil a successful documentary. It's clear that these guys truly love to play and perform. Their set showed off their strong personalities and featured a good balance between the theatrical and the music.

Drummer Robb Reiner spent the show hidden behind his immense kit, but he imposed his personality through his playing. The beats were heavy and in-time, but he never settled for simplistic. Instead he threw in constant fills and syncopation that provided a strong foundation for the guitar and bass. Late in the set, he finally got his chance for a real solo and was amazing. Double kick rolls and driving toms provided power, but his rhythmic change ups and dynamic shifts kept the solo interesting.

Bass player Glenn Five mostly maintained a serious look that wavered between disdain and maniacal, but every now and then he broke character and grinned at the crowd's enthusiasm. Even if his pose seemed aloof, his bass work was fully engaged. His spider fingers ran through the bottom end, then switched to a fist pound on the bass. Amazing chops, wicked stage persona, and charisma -- he had it all.

Guitar player Steve "Lips" Kudlow was the goofy counterpoint to Glen Five's attitude. Above all, his joyful stage presence made him seem boyish. He mugged for the crowd, taking every opportunity to strike a pose. His clowning had the perfect degree of self deprecation to invite the audience into his world. As the only one who really spoke, he provided the face of the band: a regular guy who's amazed to be doing what he loves.

At the same time, Lips' playing was always exactly what the song needed from precise chops to bombastic leads. Like his clown persona, his flashy moves added to the show. Whether he was controlling feedback with precision or talking into his guitar like a microphone, he provided a show to match the music. During the extended solo on Mothra, he pulled out a vibrator and used it to drive the pickups and then play slide guitar.

Anvil's sound was rooted in old school heavy metal. You could hear echoes of Black Sabbath and Motörhead, along with occasional flashes of Metallica. Most of all, it was just fun. They ended their set with a powerful version of Metal On Metal. After a brief encore of Running, the night was over all too soon. After Anvil!, Anvil was sometimes called the real Spinal Tap. Last night's concert proved that they were much more than that - warm hearted, hard playing, and ass kicking.

Many more photos on my Flickr

Monday, October 24, 2011

CD review - Pinkunoizu, Peep (2011)

More dreamlike than dreamy...how did I get here?

Pinkunoizu's EP, Peep, is not so much dreamy as dreamlike. The band manages to create and capture the sense of a free ranging subconsciousness throughout the course of the EP. Like any night's dreamscapes, Peep doesn't start out that strangely.

The fade-in intro of Time Is Like a Melody suggests a thousand other dreamy pop bands. The drifting vibe blends bubbling synths, washes, and a simple guitar strum. As the song finds its structure, this is where other dream pop bands would settle into the groove. But Pinkunoizu takes it further. Swirling around, they build a rich rhythmic complexity as the tune circles. Jarring shards of guitar are just as welcome as water drop kalimba tones.

These looping layers jumble together. When the song fades down into an a capella finish, the vocal stratas maintain the interwoven rhythms of the main song. A little outside the box for dream pop, Time Is a Melody serves as the first step down into dreamland.

The second track, Everything is Broken or Stolen, takes us further afield. It establishes a poly-rythmic groove as initial passing sounds give way to a meandering synth melody. There's a great moment where the trippy music drops out briefly to accent the beginning of the detached and disconnected vocal.

Soon, though, the song falls back into an instrumental exploration that starts collecting unrelated sounds over the main groove. After a number of twists, a new set of repetitive vocals comes in. It seems unclear how we've arrived here, but, as in a dream, we accept it. The theme mutates and is slowly overtaken by the earlier meandering keyboard line. Eventually, the track settles back into polyrythm before collapsing into a strange clockwork finish.

Now that we're deeply anchored in sleep, Pinkunoizu lays out the strangest track. Dairy Queen's ominous start -- a tone and a tolling beat -- sets up a feeling of powerlessness. Sounding like parts of The Wall, the song moves forward. But it opens up and shifts into a more reflective mood before dissolving into surrealism.

This is where Peep crosses into the seemingly random logic of dreamspace. Like the slow unwinding of the subconscious, the flow is not so clear. One moment slides into the next, but cause and effect seem suspended. This surrealistic meltdown proceeds until, out of the void, an element emerges.

The classic Irish folk song, Red is the Rose, provides a touchstone for this dream to latch onto like a lifeline. The melody becomes an organizing motif as the track becomes more song-like. As the psychedelic jam extends the theme, it's hard to remember just how we got here.

The end of the song is a confused awakening, The tatters of the last 22 and a half minutes slip through the fingers and any summary is elusive.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Essay: Musical feng shui

Whether you believe in feng shui or not, it's a useful concept to apply a set of rules to bring things into balance. Things like the balance of parts within a song, the flow of songs in a setlist or album, or even the emergent collective arising from the members of a band -- all of these can fit together or fall apart. Like feng shui may be used to improve an environment, I believe there are tools that can be applied to making better music.

Feng shui relies on a few basic ideas such as energy, polarity, and direction. In the musical setting, energy can be anything from an attitude (of a song or player) to tempo or dynamics. Polarity provides context for that energy: loud or soft? structured or chaotic? passive or aggressive? Finally, direction adds an element of relativity -- going from here to there -- that creates flow.

Just as feng shui builds rules upon these foundation concepts, we can invent rules for our musical world. One of the core rules I've internalized is cooperation and contrast. I came to understand this with my reggae band, Cool Runnings. There were seven of us playing and we each needed to create our place in the song.

Cooperation comes first: what can I play that fits together with another part to support it? This could be matching a rhythm or echoing a melodic line. By supporting another musical element, it validates my part. But cooperation is not enough. Without contrast, my duplication is pointless because it can't be heard. I need to add an element of contrast that justifies my part and helps create complexity. So, if I echo a melodic line, I can expand upon it. At a higher level, if everything else in the song is pure harmony or strongly structured, it might be appropriate to contrast that with controlled discord or a little chaos.

Another rule is to work for dynamic balance. A situation that shifts but holds together is more interesting for the players and for the audience. A static balance can be challenging to achieve, but ultimately it's less interesting because it can't offer the novelty that arises from disparate parts coming together without settling into predictable ruts.

This rule pushes me into band and jam situations, because it's harder to create a dynamic balance alone. Playing with other musicians not only forces me outside my comfort zone to become a better player, it also creates another musical context to display my playing in a new light.

The power of dynamic balance can be seen when comparing solo artists with the bands they arose from. A single solo album may be great, but the lone player doesn't often hit the heights they reached in their band. The Beatles' post-breakup work serves as a great example. A richly artistic solo career is often dependent on the musician partnering with the right people to maintain that dynamic balance. So, David Bowie has collaborated with Mick Ronson and Brian Eno. Likewise, Peter Gabriel has worked with a variety of strong producers like Bob Ezrin, Robert Fripp, and Daniel Lanois, as well as iconic musicians like Tony Levin.

Other rules I've used include dedication to the groove, which is about following flow rather than driving it, and swapping figure and ground as a technique for emphasizing elements with low dynamics. But like feng shui, the challenge isn't learning the rules, it's figuring out how to apply them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

CD review - Hugh Laurie, Let Them Talk (2011)

"House" shares his musical true love

I became a Hugh Laurie fan through British comedy. Even though his occasional musical numbers during A Bit of Fry and Laurie showed off his talent, his wit was always central. Part of the pleasure of watching Laurie in House is the cognitive dissonance of seeing him play a dramatic American, but this probably laid the groundwork to appreciate his work on Let Them Talk.

Rootsy tribute albums like Let Them Talk succeed or fail on the abilities of the artist. John Doe and Sadies' Country Club showed their love of classic country and they had the skill to sell the songs and give them relevance. On the other hand, Elvis Costello's attempt, Almost Blue, largely missed the mark. Hugh Laurie takes his shot at classic blues and jazz and largely succeeds, in part because of the solid musical help he brought along to the project.

As St. James Infirmary started with a solo piano, it seemed like a repositioning of the tune, especially when the cadenza built into a heavy weight, almost classical treatment. Laurie shifted to a straighter bluesy piano style, though and worked his way through the changes. The arrangement turned out impressively. The song runs through as an instrumental, taking it to conclusion. Then, the walking bass rises from fading piano to start the song over again, this time as a moodier jazz arrangement with vocals. The shift to a fuller sound -- horns, slide guitar, etc - supports the vocals nicely.

Laurie's voice is the only weak link. He holds a tune fairly well, but his vocals are strained and a little tight. With Fry and Laurie, he'd often affect a singing style to match the song and that sense of affectation permeates Let Them Talk. When guest singers step in, like Dr. John on After You're Gone, there's a fluidity that Laurie misses. That said, his love of the material shines through the project and his playing is superb.

One of my favorite tracks was the Professor Longhair classic, Tipitina. Laurie's piano intro is has some tasteful fills, but the song hits its stride when the funky groove gets underway. The instrument arrangement is loose, allowing for a mix of interaction between the players in the midst of the bluesy, New Orleans style chaos. Laurie's vocals are more relaxed here than some of the other tracks and the emphasis is more on the music anyway.

Another pleasant surprise was Tom Jones' soulful singing on Baby, Please Make a Change. Powerful and emotional, Jones' testifies over the gaunt arrangement. A mournful fiddle vies with a clarinet and slide guitar for "best solo" bragging rights. The shuffle picks up tempo to drive the song to its righteous conclusion. Amen.

Let Them Talk meshes nicely with Hugh Laurie's recent Great Performances appearance on PBS. In addition to sharing music from the album and some live sets, Laurie had the chance to talk about his discovery of the blues. The show and the album demonstrate the passion he brings to this music.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Concert review - Cymbals Eat Guitars with Hooray For Earth, A Mouthful of Thunder

15 October 2011 (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)

Cymbals Eat Guitars played the Hi-Dive a year and a half ago. At the time, I was amazed by their stage energy compared their album, Why There Are Mountains. Now they're making the rounds again after their latest release, Lenses Alien. Their touring support act, Hooray For Earth was a good fit with CEG's live sound. Local openers, A Mouthful of Thunder had a more mainstream indie rock sound, but they certainly did their part to warm up the crowd.

A Mouthful of Thunder
A Mouthful of Thunder's indie rock set led off with an earnest, poppy sound. Stephen Till worked hard to show how invested he is in his lyrics, keeping his focus turned inward. The band was tight, sticking together through all song shifts. In particular, their dynamic changes were a treat as they could create a stripped down sound to fit the earnest mood of the vocals; then they could slowly build that up into a thick, more aggressive vibe.

The bass player's harmony vocals filled out the vocal range and balanced well with some of Till's plaintive singing. I wish I knew his name, because he brought a great attitude to the stage. While all of the guys were very competent musicians, the bass player's spontaneous smiles and engagement injected some much needed personality to the act.

Till did a fine job of singing, often bringing a dreamy quality to the songs. I also liked their guitar player. He had a stiff, awkward stage presence, looking a bit like Clark Kent, but his solos and fills were precise and interesting.

The most interesting song of the set was centered on percussion. The guitar player took over the keys and the keyboard player switched to a standing tom. He and the drummer set up a call and response that anchored the song. Trading rhythmic lines and paradiddles, their foundation supported a folky indie rock groove with moody keys and then propelled the song into a more intense space.

Hooray For Earth
Kicking off with a synth driven electro pop sound, Hooray for Earth quickly added enough grind to sabotage any thoughts of dreamy bounce. Instead, the sound thickened with heavy overtones that bordered on mind control.

Just like the synth pop start that seemed like a feint, the group's appearance was deceiving, too. A typical indie rock line up: guitar and drums and one guy pulling double duty on bass and keys. But the sound was anything but typical. First of all, the guitar was much more synth-like, using an octaver, harmonizer, and sampling to build brain burrowing synth textures. The vocals are also heavily processed with the harmonizer. Together, they show a lot of Adrian Belew influence, especially some of the heavier King Crimson work.

This was tempered by Peter Gabriel style world-beat drumming. Emphasizing the kick drum over toms or snare, the beats melded with the ringing musical noise to create a hypnotic trance effect. With synth melting into looped guitar feedback or octaved guitar adding its own bass, Hooray for Earth had a surprisingly huge sound for a mere three piece band.

Despite the volume that treated my ear plugs with contempt, the effect of all this loud noise was not a cacophony. Instead, it channeled a cathartic intensity like an effective rolfing session. At the end of the set, I was drained, but satisfied.

Cymbals Eat Guitars
Cymbals Eat Guitars started off the set with Indiana from Why There Are Mountains. Where the album version builds an anticipatory cloud of sound to launch the dreamy vocal start, the live version developed more slowly. A scattering of opening guitar notes was overcome by a wave of discordant keyboard angst. Swells of sound rose and fell for a good minute and a half before Joe D'Agostino started the vocals, letting the mood fully permeate. The texture of sound and longing in those first words touched me just like Trail of Dead.

They followed this up with an emotionally raw version of Plainclothes. D'Agostino's face locked tight as he forced the vocals out. Where Hooray for Earth built a thick wall of sound, CEG laid out a shimmery curtain of sparkling elements. Subtle tones resonated and echoed, acting as a conduit to transfer the band's intensity to the audience.

It was easy to focus on D'Agostino as he twisted and spastically jerked, then held himself tight to squeeze out more lyrics. But the rest of the band each contribute their necessary elements, whether it's Matt Whipple's melodic bass work, Brian Hamilton's noise manipulation behind the keys, or Matthew Miller's tight dynamic control on drums. D'Agostino and his songs are the centerpiece, but they wouldn't work without the well organized work of the the others.

As noisy and overwhelming that CEG's sound could get, it was always a controlled chaos. Mission critical to the songs and the mood, the band would demonstrate this when they dropped the dynamics to give focus to a particular section or lyric. That intensity is like splicing high tension wires. After a full hour's set, Cymbals Eat Guitars left the stage, drained but triumphant.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, October 14, 2011

CD review - And the Giraffe, Something for Someone (2011)

Exploring a full palette of dreamy folk

College towns like Gainesville, Florida often foster great music scenes. Some hit it big like Tom Petty, Don Felder, Against Me!, and Less Than Jake, which all have roots in Gainesville. On the other side, I remember all the local bands I loved there during my college daze. When I found out that And the Giraffe came out of G'ville, I was psyched to hear what was coming out of today's local scene.

Something For Someone offers a moody mix of dream folk. The EP's six tracks maintain the kind of shimmery reverb haze that defines the genre, but And the Giraffe manage to evoke a wide range of feelings. This is rooted in subtleties of timing: a touch of rhythmic drag can shift the sense from expectation to fatalism.

And the Giraffe's sound is reminiscent of Gomez's more drifty tracks, largely because the vocals capture a piece of Ben Ottewell's tone. The first track, Underground Love hits this best of all. It's simple and floaty, with the guitar taking on a saturated tone against the swaying bass and stripped down drums. The raspy, velvet vocals capture a kind of weariness, but there's an undercurrent of satisfaction. The whispery background vocals give the whole tune the sense of an interior monologue.

This contrasts with the late summer night sound of 1055. Here the echoed guitar works against a steadier keyboard to create a sense of surrender: "And my God, I almost fell in love." Later on Magic 8, the feeling is anticipatory, waiting for some promised treat. The loping rhythm is light, but creates a dreamscape, with the sense of running down a hill to a wonderful future of possibility.

Although Something for Someone is short, I love that And the Giraffe have stretched out the boundaries of expression available within the dream folk sub-genre. The music is beautifully recorded and mixed, perfect for headphones. It would be great to hear what the band could do with a full length album.

Drop by Bandcamp to hear Something for Someone.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

CD review - Pink Skull, Psychic Welfare (2011)

Electro-pop grooves offer dance and dissonance

Julian Grefe and Justin Geller's Pink Skull follows a pattern of expansion with each of their album releases. Their last release, Endless Bummer added a band and they've added a couple more members for their latest album, Psychic Welfare.

The album is full of spacy, electronic grooves that toy with disco, techno, and house, but the foundation is a danceable electro-pop. Grefe adds his detached vocals to several of the songs, which is a shift from Pink Skull's earlier albums. When it clicks, like the distant, grey-eyed soul of Ayatollah, it's great. Overall, though, his voice left me longing for someone more dynamic to contrast with the steady beats.

There are several interesting songs scattered through the thirteen tracks, but several are shorter interludes. The shortest of these prove distracting, such as the free jazz sax of Two Bills. The longest interlude, the trancey Late Night Eggs, has some interesting ideas that deserve some longer attention.

Fitting with some of Psychic Welfare's themes of decay and ruin, the flow between the tracks doesn't aim for smoothness. On the other hand, the strong pop aesthetic on several of the songs adds its own contrast to the album's message. This leads to moments like Hot Bubblegum, which seems to parody disco, giving it a synth pop treatment. Verse lyrics seem to offer an assessment of society, but the chorus reduces it all to "Hot bubblegum, it's all over me."

The most listenable track is the blissful, tripping vibe of Mu. It takes a mild trance groove insto a stronger dance-space by merging in a synth pop bass line. This is the sort of direction that Late Night Eggs could have traveled. The steady beat and easy breaks all contribute to the smooth sound. Billy Dufala's embedded sax solo is a tasteful touch.

The single, Bee Nose (Put Yr Face On), begins with a dirty keyboard chord progression that sounds like King Crimson's early work.

Pink Skull - Bee Nose (Put Yr Face On) from RVNG Intl. on Vimeo.

Then, the electro-beat groove kicks in. This sets up a satisfying contrast between the lo-fi elements and the ringing synth lead line. By the end, the fidelity seems to decay, leading to a trippy ending.

Despite the dance beats, Psychic Welfare is more geared for home listening. On its own merits, it's a fairly decent album. The obvious improvement would have been a more coherent track flow. That might have hurt Pink Skull's artistic theme, but it would have given the album more head space.

Monday, October 10, 2011

CD review - Brian TV/Cold Coffee (2011)

A brain divided offers interesting musical perspectives

I covered Das Black Milk's Talk to Your Body last year, which featured an odd mix of post punk and lo-fi psychedelic sounds. Now two of the members have released a "split cassette" together with their respective side projects. Brian Emmert's Brian TV and Nathaniel Kane's Cold Coffee fit together like the two separated hemispheres of a brain. To some extent, they showcase their respective contributions to Das Black Milk's sound.

After listening to both of these EP length parts, it motivated me to pull out Talk to Your Body again, first for the context and then just for enjoyment.

The two projects are available on BandCamp (Brian TV/Cold Coffee)

Brian TV

Brian TV represents the right hemisphere of the project's musical brain. As such, it evokes a strong right brain response. On Automatic, the first track, I was instantly happy the moment the laid back beat kicked in. It spoke to some kind of subconscious escapist within me.

Automatic's groovy psychedelia sets up a carefree, lazy feel. The lyrics are simplistic a la Syd Barrett, but Brian TV is more musically structured. A chiming interlude rings in between the verses, emphasizing the heady vibe. This wasn't quite as produced as Tired Eyes from Das Black Milk, but it had a kind of simple purity.

This shows off Brian TV's musical approach, following an early psychedelic model. Emmert uses a pop foundation and then subverts it. Jiggly organ parts are paired with distorted guitars in a noisier version of Das Black Milk's typical sound.

Shifting mood, the next track shifts the mood. Chaingang Boogie has a stark arrangement of toms, bass, and a meandering organ line supporting a heavily reverbed vocal. It's not quite a Devo-style deconstruction, but it's close.

Back to psychedelia, Beverly Hills starts out as an uptempo garage psych rocker, but the breakdown bridge aspires to Pink Floyd trippiness -- check out the floaty organ and spacy lead. Then the beat reasserts itself into garage rock. The remaining tracks work the garage sound to perfection.

The beauty of garage psychedelia is that it's less polished than its rarified kin, allowing a deeper emotional response to the flow. Brian TV captures this beautifully.

Cold Coffee

In contrast, Cold Coffee appeals more to the left brain. The sounds are interesting and the tunes work at being artfully quirky. Kane's group emphasizes the other, new wave side of Das Black Milk's sound. It's like a lo-fi version of XTC crossed with Pere Ubu style experimentalism.

Opening track, Consolation Faces has some of XTC's early pop-oriented bounce with a twist, albeit with a mushier sound. The odd, angular melodic line in the chorus is a shout for attention, which is typical of Cold Coffee's songs.

Old Blood pushes the sound the furthest. A jerky beat, quirky singing, and chromatic lead noodling come together in something like Zappa's early Lumpy Gravy experiments or David Thomas' more outside work with Pere Ubu. This is anything but casual listening music, but the musical shifts are challenging and interesting.

Cold Coffee won't be everyone's cup of sushi, but it serves as shot of ginger to counter Brian TV's visceral trippiness. Follow the BandCamp links above and check out the music.

Friday, October 7, 2011

CD review - Gringo Star, Count Yer Lucky Stars (2011)

Thick layers of saturated sound are best at full volume

Context is key. After a cursory listen to Count Yer Lucky Stars, I mentally filed it away as lo-fi retro pop. It wasn't bad, but I didn't connect. I came back to it largely because I loved the band name, Gringo Star. This time, I kicked up the volume which made all the difference.

Count Yer Lucky Stars is designed for loud listening. At higher volume, the fully saturated tone resonates, drowning out any other voices competing for attention in your head. This exposes Gringo Star's psychedelic undertones. The hard stereo separation and lo-fi, garage band sound mesh perfectly with that intensity. Lo-fi doesn't mean sloppy; the band is tight as a drum head on their changes.

Count Yer Lucky Stars is chock full of retro elements, whether it's the reverb drenched tones of Mexican Coma, the the close harmonies on songs like Come Alive, or the doo-wop vibe of Jessica. But Gringo Star rises above retro obsession with their punchy attitude and complex sonic layers.

Title track, Count Yer Lucky Stars is rooted in a Yardbirds sound, even name checking For Your Love. Up tempo drums set up a rollicking two chord rhythm line, with guitars, keys, and bass. The double time pick up into the chorus sends the song hurtling at a frantic pace. It's a mod, mid-'60s rocker, but the solo kicks it loose into a headier space. The lo-fi mix and thick reverb reduce the backing parts to an ebb and flow between the two chords. Turn up the volume and details emerge from the mud, like the trippy Doors-style keyboards.

Shadow is another strong track. Elements of ska, retro pop harmonies, and garage sneer blend together in a swirling mass. The chorus is ushered in with muted guitar strums providing a rhythmic pick up. The bridge goes for an overtly psychedelic repetition. An archeologist could make a career out of excavating details from the layers of saturated sound. The last chorus fades down to set up the perfect contrast for the sparse power pop sound of the next track, You Want It.

Count Yer Lucky Stars has been ringing in my ears all day as a moderating influence for buzz kills like work, traffic, and chores. How lucky is that? Pick up the album when it releases on October 25. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to Gringo Star's show in Denver (10/20). I have no doubts that the band will deliver the songs with all the rattle and ring they need.

Listen to Count Yer Lucky Stars on AOL Spinner.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

CD review - Mekons, Ancient and Modern, 1911-2011 (2011)

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

The Mekons long ago grew past their punker roots to take on English folk, American country, and rock. Garnering a loyal fanbase and critical acclaim, the band has hung around the fringes for decades. Ancient and Modern, 1911-2011 is the band's latest release and it's ambitious in scope of style and time.

The songs wander through the eras, from the old-time, flapper sound of Geeshie, through the stately Kinks sound of I Fall Asleep, and into the Scary Monsters Bowie vibe of Calling All Demons. The century reference in the title also tries to bridge the gap from here to the end of England's Edwardian period.

The common theme seems to echo the lines from Yeats' The Second Coming:
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
Some of the songs make the assertion and others seem inclined to argue. This theme anchors the album and overlays the shifts in musical direction.

The first two tracks illustrate the two views. Ancient and Modern's opening song, Warm Summer Sun is a masterpiece. The hesitant, lazy rhythm at the start bears slight hints of disquiet from the violin strings in the deep corners as the lyrics offer a pastoral picture of calm:
The warm summer sun
At the end of the day

Before an evening that lasts forever

Gently sleeping on the soft green grass
Or riding out on a frosty morning
The free verse lyrics sound deceptively relaxed, given away by subtle hints of violin tension: secrets and traps are hidden. Then, the mood unravels and the lyrics turn dark:
I look out on corpses
Skeleton trees

An unimaginable Hell in front of my eyes
Warm Summer Sun succeeds because of the stark contrast between darkness and hazy light and because of the raw emotion it shares.

The following song, Space in Your Face, balances out the first track. It's a power pop rocker with a strong Guided By Voices vibe. You can hear the same influences of the Who pump up the energy. A wavering electronic thread adds a modern feel that keeps it from falling into retro pastiche. The feel is life affirming and anthemic even as the lyrics are more personal:
Like an actor plays a part
I'll make the world think light is dark
Or maybe just convince myself
I was tempted to believe
The two songs' combination of hesitance and assertion, despair and bluster, sum up the Ancient and Modern as well as our time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Interview: Joe D'Agostino (Cymbals Eat Guitars)

I got a chance to talk to Joe D'Agostino from Cymbals Eat Guitars while they were crossing Texas. I'll be catching them when the tour brings them to the Hi-Dive in Denver later this month. I'm excited because their show in 2010 was incredible, with a looser wildness that contrasted with their album at the time (Why There Are Mountains).

Jester: The new album, Lenses Alien, does a great job of capturing your live sound. How did you nail that loudness of your shows?

Joe: We were playing really loud. I had my guitar amp in an isolation room while we were recording together. Anytime anyone needed to walk through that room, I had to stop playing.

You played some of the songs from Lenses Alien during the 2010 tour as I recall.

Yeah, we had Tunguska, Plainclothes, Wavelengths, and Definite Darkness. Plainclothes and Wavelengths were about the same. The other two changed a lot. Especially Tunguska. There was a whole intro that we ended up cutting…this big acoustic intro. So it’s much more direct and poppy. It works better, I think.

That leads me to one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. How did you develop "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)"? It’s epic, there are so many sections.

That song took forever to finish. We labored over it for many months. There was always some sticking point, some part, some transitions that just didn’t work well. For me the whole thing coalesced when we decide to extend the noise, to really ride that out and make it very confrontational and exploratory. The rest of the song fell into place after that because we had our pop song section for the first minute and a half, then blown out Flaming Lips stuff right before the noise. The flow came after we were less guarded about the whole thing.

I think the first thing that we had for that song was the end section with the Spiritualized style sound. We sort of built it around that.

It reminded me of Trail of Dead, too

That’s a cool comparison. I love Source Tags and Codes and that first one, The Secret of Elena’s Tomb. They're a really good band. Epic, ambitious guitar music.

It's cool how they take psychedelic into a progressive space or vice versa.

We have the same kind of bombast. On our first first record, I guess I really had ambitions. We had a string section and horns -- a lot of orchestration. We kind of dropped that for this album but I think it's equally grand.

Plainclothes stretches out nicely, too.

Yeah. I love the end of that song -- the distorted loud speaker screaming. It's cool. That's one of my favorites on the album. It's kind of the centerpiece, almost.

There's some like a visceral howl kind of feel.

Yeah, definitely. That song has some of my favorite lyrics on the album, too. I'm really glad how it turned out.

I liked it, but I didn't fully understand it all.

I don't think anybody possibly should. It's about a number of different things. It's about a psychedelic drug experience and being scared of police officers and law. That kind of permeates every song.

It's got a stream of consciousness feel like Jack Kerouac.

That's cool.

Now that Lenses Alien is out, have you started thinking at all about new material?

No. We're not really working on anything while we're on the road. After we finish an album, I go into hibernation for 7 or 8 months. I don't pick up a pen or try to write anything on guitar unless it happens accidentally. We'll probably start writing again when we get an extended break from touring.

I know you guys have opened for the Flaming Lips. Who would your dream artist be to share the stage with?

That would have to be either Wilco or Sonic Youth. Getting on Wilco's tour or I would love to get on a Sonic Youth tour. It would also be cool to tour with Deerhunter.

Who's opening for you on this tour?

On this tour it's Hooray for Earth. They're very loud. Guitar heroics, but also really touchy, sugary melodies. They're a great band.