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

Friday, April 29, 2011

CD review - Architecture in Helsinki, Moment Bends (2011)

Architecture in Helsinki continues to mature, moving further away from their more eclectic beginnings. On Moment Bends, the band throws themselves wholeheartedly into heavily dance oriented pop. The smooth mix of instruments include traditional pop guitar and bass, but electronic sounds dominate the tracks. The pop vibe is almost manic, but the lyrics occasionally add depth.

Between the disco dance beats and almost familiar riffs, the songs have a kind of retro veneer. Here's a bit of Katrina and the Waves, there's a touch of Bangles. It's not so overt as homage or rip off; it's more of a mindset.

There's a run of funk oriented songs in the middle of the album that provided my favorite bit of flow. That Beep, released earlier as a single, has a stripped down girly pop funk groove. This leads into a stiffer, sparse electro-funk groove on Denial Style, which sounds a bit like parts of Prince's Black Album. At first, Everything's Blue seems to break the mold, with an electronic intro cadenza. But then the funky, Michael Jackson inspired R&B pop kicks in.

Everything's Blue shows off Architecture in Helsinki's breadth of vision. The MJ style vocals of the initial verse fall away when the chorus slides into a short pop groove like Toto's Africa. The shift between these two sections is large but adeptly handled. The brief guitar pop bridge adds yet another flavor to this mix. The way these sections stream together is smooth and effortless.

The big single, Contact High, locks into the dance beat driven pop groove. The sparse electronic riffs and falsetto vocals create a fun feel for the verses. The catchy chorus bounces into indie pop. It's enjoyable fluff, but ultimately a bit sterile compared to some of the other tracks.

By contrast, W.O.W. ("Walking on water") offers beautiful pop perfection. I love the Kellie Sutherland's expressive vocals. With a touch of Enya layering, the R&B pop is simple and pretty. Sutherland's voice seems looser and richer than Cameron Bird's more heavily processed vocals.

Fans of the band's earliest work may grouse about the stripped down electro pop of Moment Bends, but it's an obvious refinement of the shimmery pop of songs like Do The Whirlwind (from 2005's In Case We Die). While Architecture in Helsinki has pared away much of their quirky instrumentation, the songs are catchy with some gems scattered about. Pick your favorite energy drink and groove along to the beat.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

CD review - Xray Eyeballs, Not Nothing (2011)

Xray Eyeballs are so garage that you can hear the lawnmower and gas can in the corner adding their own sympathetic vibrations. Their sludgy mix is thick with guitar fuzz and subway wall vocal echoes. Like Thee Oh Sees, Xray Eyeballs pound their way through low-fi garage rock. The standout difference is that they have an affinity for early '80s post punk riffs.

Front man O. J. San Felipe assembled the band out of fellow Golden Triangle bandmates, Carly Rabalais and Jay High, along with Rop Style and Allison Press. San Felipe has worked overtime on promotion, saturating the band's Brooklyn home with "Ghost Girl" design t-shirts and hyping a sexy/disturbing video for Not Nothing's lead off tune, Crystal.

Crystal starts out with a post punk groove that shoots straight to garage as soon as the guitar comes in, heavily tremoloed and echoed. The voodoo torture story line for the song (moral: don't snag any choice vinyl out of someone's hands at the record store) evokes the Cramps, although the underlying music is bouncier. In fact, despite the static infused sound, Xray Eyeballs sound fairly tight.

Things get more interesting on the second track, Nightwalkers, which leads off with a low-fi jangle steal of the main riff from Modern English's I Melt With You. Then, the guitar line from Egyptian Magician hits a similar 1982 vibe, albeit drenched in distortion. These post punk touches give the band the bulk of their character to stand out from other garage rock thrashers.

The singing is marginally clearer than fellow garage noisers like Thee Oh Sees, but the muddy, distant vocals is Not Nothing's weakest element. They're buried down too far in the mix, sometimes contributing little more than sneer. It's best to brush them away and focus on the pop beats, post punk riffs, and noisy guitar.

Monday, April 25, 2011

CD review - Zula, Crescent Intake Session (2011)

Zula's new EP, Crescent Intake Session, is a nice bridge between a late '80s indie rock sound and a more modern indie psychedelic pop groove.

The opener, Gallop, quickly abandons its misleading electronic intro for a choppy indie rock groove. It's catchy, with ironic hipster vocals and a head nodding beat. Chop out the intro and it would be perfect. Repetitively poppy with a new wave edge, this was the sample that hooked me for the rest of the album.

I'm glad because the next track turned out to be my favorite. Shift (live version here) emphasizes the new wave feel, sounding a bit like Tom Verlaine's old band, Television. The steady beat and jangly, slightly angular guitar riff playing against the bassline took me back. The various musical parts form an uneasy alliance that meshes surprisingly well. The cool intensity builds, taking on a mild black light psychedelic groove. As the instrumental section near the end evolves, it sounded like old Radiohead.

Crescent Intake Session has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Dub style breaks near the end give Grind Is A Shuttle character. Psychedelic mechanics provide spark on Is This Flow or Flood or Squeeze? The Timbuk3 funk of You and I drives relentlessly. The drumming is standout on all of the tracks. Zula's psychedelic aspect is often secondary to the song, largely tied to how they saturate the sonic space with vocals or swells of harmonic tone.

The EP's continuity lies in its modern new wave groove, but the songs themselves each standalone. Zula has gotten my attention, I'd like to see what they do with a full length release. So far, I like their G&T bite.

Friday, April 22, 2011

CD review - The Lonely Forest, Arrows (2011)

The Lonely Forest has followed up on last years self-titled EP (review here) with their new full length CD, Arrows. A couple of the songs were carryovers from the EP (alas, not my favorite track, Let It Go), but there's plenty of new material to explore.

Arrows picks up where The Lonely Forest EP left off. The clear, earnest vocals and interesting flavor of indie rock provide continuity. The band still shows a lot of the REM influence they shared on I Don't Want to Live There, which was one of the carryover songs. But they expand on that to offer glimpses of Dada, Dramarama, and others. In this longer format, John Van Deusen's vocals picked up a David Lowery vibe (Cracker), but the music still adds some interesting twists and turns that reflect the Lonely Forest's unique sound.

It's a strong collection of songs. I really liked the matched pair, (I am) the Love Skeptic and (I am) the Love Addict. The former has a Dramarama power pop edge, laying out its cynical message. The latter is an upbeat indie pop track. The steady slap beat of the drums carries the song forward. By the second verse, they've pulled in a Blues Traveler looseness. On the surface, it's simple but infectious. A closer listen reveals the subtlety: the chord changes are simple but the shifting song sections, cool dynamics, and surprising lyrical depth take the song to another level.

Tunnels is the closest that Arrows comes to the Trail of Dead progressive sound they showed briefly on Let It Go. The echoed intro sets up an interesting set of changes, that powers up nicely. The build throughout the track is great, letting the bass do much of the heavy lifting. It doesn't stray as far afield as Let It Go, but it shows that the Lonely Forest can shift their sound beyond their indie rock foundation.

The standout track, Two Notes and a Beat, is another one that stretches their sound. It has a groove somewhere between Joy Division and U2. The staccato guitar chop and vocals set up the former, but the soaring chime of chorused guitar is firmly based in the Edge's style. The relaxed flow of the song balances the choppy music nicely. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, but they're still satisfying:
All I really need is two notes and a beat
To sing to you my heart,
It's a great way to start
The music gives the appropriate meta backing to these words. The song hits at what I like most about the Lonely Forest: well planned music that feels loose and supports a sincere and clear lyrical message. It's like a well-made cider, which is nothing more than apple juice...but it's juice that's been tempered and clarified by fermentation to reveal the depth of its origins.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

CD review - Secret Cities, Strange Hearts (2011)

The retro tinged low-fi crowd has its separate camps: purists reproducing a particular era, garage bands epitomizing DIY simplicity, countless acts using the sound to scratch an aesthetic itch. Secret Cities has pitched their tent out in the far edges. They're closest to the purists, with a lounge/easy listening vibe. They capture an innocence perfectly in tune with their '60s feel. The sound is hazy and muted, like a lint wrapped cheap phono cartridge or a '66 Plymouth Valiant's AM radio

That blanket of fog makes listening to Strange Hearts almost like the memory of music rather than a direct experience. Despite the simple arrangements and easy listening feel, the production values give it a trippy feel even though this is not quite 'normal' psychedelia. It's also worth noting that the songwriting is very good and occasionally clever.

The opening track, Always Friends, nails the '60s pop song. The melody and reverbed drums are era-perfect. The balance of the uptempo beat and melancholy singing reflects so many songs from that time. On the first listen, the lyrics drift by, regretfully dealing with breakup and loss. It wasn't until a later listen that the subversiveness of the lyrics slipped through, taking a more modern attitude: "But I feel much better to know it was bad for you, too."

No Pressure folds girl group high harmonies into a proto-ska sound. It's a thick schmear of nostalgia, but so satisfying. Like the rest of the album, the parts balance just so. The flow from No Pressure into the lazy beat of Pebbles is effortless. This is another track with pleasantly surprising lyrics:
Pebbles, it's time to go home now.
The drag race is over.
You smashed up your car. And now
The dream is over.
There will be no wedding.
I begged you to stay home
Now look what you've done.
The story setup shows more depth than a casual listen might suggest.

Each track pushes today a little further away. Strange Hearts defines an alternate reality where Secret Cities should have influenced a slew of other bands 45 years ago. Serve up Grasshoppers all around to sink into this sweet time warp.

Monday, April 18, 2011

April Singles

It's time for another round up of singles to share. This time the offerings come from some older friends and newer bands on the scene.

My Morning Jacket - Circuital (from Circuital, due May 31)

This is the title track from My Morning Jacket's upcoming album. In the lead up, they've been releasing a number of live tracks from shows last year at New York's Terminal 5. They just released Circuital this last week. Drop by this link to get your own free copy.

Circuital feels like an extension of My Morning Jacket's traditional sound. Although the verses hint at Radiohead's Creep, the track would have been at home on Evil Urges or Z. The band is great at taking a simple repetitive groove and building it into an arena ready jam. Jim James' vocals imbue the track with deeper intent. It's satisfying how the song builds to its heights without appearing to have a clear inflection point.

Count on a review of Cicuital once I get a copy...

Stars in Coma - Magic Season (from Midnight Puzzle)
André Brorsson's Swedish indie pop band Stars in Coma is back with a new album (Midnight Puzzle) on Kingem Records. Like the band's earlier work, Magic Season marries a strong pop aesthetic to disco friendly keyboard strings. Brorsson's lyrics still have a personal confessional feel. The track stays fairly uptempo until the bridge, which leads the song into a more open space. Bits of '70s pop bounce around, giving the song a happy, reflective feel.

Download Magic Season here.

Gardens - Maze Time (from Gardens, available May 10)
The Gardens come out of Detroit and play a hard driving, punk tinted garage rock. Mazes serves as a good introduction: it's low-fi, high energy, with solid playing. The party atmosphere reminds me a bit of the B-52s. A lot of bands in this space seem to equate sloppy playing with real garage cred. Gardens demonstrate that laying down a solid foundation doesn't get in the way of thrashing through some good music.

Download Maze Time here.

Atari Teenage Riot - Blood in My Eyes (from the upcoming Is This Hyperreal?)
Atari Teenage Riot dropped off the radar some 10 years ago, but has recently come back together. ATR are no strangers to controversy or strong stated political positions. They've used their mix of hardcore and electronic music to attack Fascism and promote anarchy. Blood in My Eyes is aimed at human trafficking and exploited women. It's a serious message and in lesser hands, it could be whiny or preachy. They bring a furious punk energy that has fallen out of favor. The electronic wash is overtaken by crunchy guitar before the driving beat starts. Nic Endo's vocals are strong and angry.

I hear that they've brought in CX KIDTRONiK as their MC, which is a welcome addition. I've seen him onstage and he brings a chaotic energy that should fit in perfectly.

Blood in My Eyes is currently playing on ATR's home page. Drop by and give it a listen.

Friday, April 15, 2011

CD review - Art Brut, Beautiful! Tragic! (2011)

Frank Zappa asked the musical question, "Whatever happened to all the fun in the world?" Finally, Eddie Argos and Art Brut have answered on Brilliant! Tragic!: it was here all the time. Art Brut's new album walks a line between pop punk thrash and post punk cool while majoring in dead pan observational humor.

Argos' hoarse, choked off vocal style works perfectly on tracks like Clever Clever Jazz. Everyone who's ever played in a band (or suffered through having a friend do so) can appreciate this sardonic take on artistic endeavors. "I'm still nervous on the way to the bar. We rehearsed the set in the back of the car" leads into "I hope my friends will come tonight, so they can see what I'm really like" which collapses into "You could say 'amateur hour' but you'd be wrong. We play for 9 minutes. We go two songs." The energy is driving and the playing is tight, which plays strongly against the tongue in cheek chorus:
Clever clever jazz, man
I'm sorry that it doesn't sound it's planned
Clever clever jazz, man
Can't you see we're doing the best that we can?
Stop shouting, "play what you know"
And let us get on with the show
Clever clever jazz, man
We' re working in a genre you don't understand
The biggest problem with Brilliant! Tragic! is that almost every song stands out. Catchy tunes, amusing lyrics, and perfect pop arrangements dominate the album. It's the kind of writing that plays to their audience's sense of cleverness, with not-too-obscure cultural references, and musical cues (like referencing the Stones' Satisfaction on Lost Weekend). Even if you tune it out and play it as background music, the songs are infectious. It's not particularly subtle as Argos emphasizes his sneering schlemiel persona, but it's all about headbanging fun.

Whether it's the polished garage rock of Sexy Sometimes ("Everybody want's to feel sexy sometimes. I can make it happen with a voice like mine") or the indie wail of Martin Kemp Welch Five A-Side Football Rules!, Art Brut invests themselves fully into each track. The thrash-fest love letter of Axel Rose is my favorite song. The execution is brilliant...and the subject is a bit tragic. "Nobody understands me or even comes close. Who've I got in my corner? Axel Rose".

The irony gets thick, but Art Brut has timed out Brilliant! Tragic! so they don't overstay their welcome. Forty minutes is short compared to the sprawl of some albums these days, but the band crams a lot in that time. The songs all sound different, which some pop punk bands can't seem to manage. The shorter run time means that you can start it over sooner and hear it all again.

Brilliant! Tragic! is due out May 24. As a bonus, Art Brut also has a separate new track, Unprofessional Wrestling, available for free download. Slam some ironically named shots and dive on in.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CD review - The Brian St. John Quartet, Songs About Other People (2010)

The Brian St. John Quartet's Songs About Other People has a timeless feel. Wisps of late '60s jam and early '70s folk rock permeate these laid back tracks, alongside a modern indie rock sensibility. A good song gets your feet tapping, but a great one inspires you to sing along. BSJQ hit one of those moments early in the album with Velvet Floor Blues. The shuffle snare and sparse blues licks catch the ear before the track builds. Loudspeaker vocals and light horn touches come in to set the hook. By the chorus, it sounded like alt-traditionalists X had inherited some heavier blues influences. "Oh, she's gone. Gone, gone, gone..."

Moving forward, Renaissance Man starts out like a Blues Traveler tune, but with a strong folk rock vibe. The combination is typical of the album: modern and retro, catchy hooks with a more interesting instrumentation. The woodwinds add a lot to the arrangement. The Blues Traveler feel is even stronger on the jam fest of 87->95, although it's tempered with a touch of Rolling Stones. It's another relaxed, feel good song.

Every track has something intriguing: either an interesting blend of styles, exception playing (Randy Sabo has some wonderful bass lines), or choruses that lodge in your ear. Brian St. John's vocals are very restrained. He's a little hoarse and given to half whispering his lines sometimes, but his songwriting style favors that delivery.

The only questionable track is Townie Girl, which started out as my favorite song. The jazzy blues groove is sweet, the horns are moody perfection, and St. John's voice is squarely in his comfort zone. The first stumble is the mood-killing electric guitar solo. The volume jump, wailing tone, and contrasting reverb are jarring, like the guitar was sloppily punched in. If the entire track had built from that moment, it might have worked. Instead, the mood recovers somewhat with the following horn solo. Then there's a beautifully tentative, wistful piano fill (at about 4:40) that's short but elegant. The other poor decision was to overlay the extended instrumental section with storm sounds. The jazzy jam stands well on it's own; the sound effects add a slight cheese factor that make it hard to take seriously. This live version doesn't have the piano, but it does show how the song can shine.

Despite my gripes with Townie Girl, Songs About Other People is a good album. The lineup plays well together and the songwriting is solid. Like a good amber ale, there's plenty of flavor without attacking the palate.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Concert review - Beats Antiques, with the Tailor and Inspired Flight

8 April 2011 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Beats Antique drew a unique demographic along with crowd you'd expect in the electronic music scene. A host of exotically dressed women wafted through the house, swirling and dancing in preparation and homage. They were answering the siren call of dancer/producer Zoe Jakes, whose belly dancing and choreography is an integral part of every performance.

The opening acts, THE TAILOR and Inspired Flight, each fit with a facet of Beats Antique's sensibility, making for a fine show. It was also my 12 year old son's first concert. With a shout out from the stage from Inspired Flight (thanks, Gabe), the warm support of the crowd, and some incredible music, he had perhaps the best first concert ever. His response: "Epic!"

The tour was sponsored by the Sustainable Living Roadshow.

Inspired Flight
Like Beats Antiques, Inspired Flight served up a rich mix of live and prerecorded music. Their sound ranged from the DJ feel of straight mixes and mashups to more in-the-moment band music adorned with samples and beats. Their ability to shift the mood of a song from simple band accented mixes to full on jamming was impressive.

Inspired Flight exploited a huge sonic palette, with laptops, guitar, keyboards, various synths, kalimba, melodica and vocals. This gave them the tools to skip across genres. Laid back electronica, heavier club beats, and occasional grind covered the electronic side, but they also built some great indie jam grooves and hip hop tracks. Overall, they leaned towards a relaxed and moody vibe.

The laid back ambiance made for a swaying fluid set. One of my favorite moments started out with electronic percussion with keys that crossed a club sound with introspective ska. This built into a fluid mix of keys, samples, and organic parts. Gabe Lehner's (Chavez) laid out a tasteful Santana-esque guitar solo taking it to a climax.

Lehner was the most charismatic of the group as he danced around and stayed visually interesting. Whether he was lip synching to the rap samples or pumping his arm to the beat, he channeled his internal reaction to the music to the stage, building a connection with the audience. His guitar drove much of the band based grooves in the set, but oftentimes, he just used the guitar to contribute textures or fills to the mixes. His electronic parts were supportive, too.

By contrast, Eric Poline (OpenOptics) stayed seriously intent on his playing and didn't interact with the house as much. He jumped effortlessly from scratching to mixing to keyboards. His focus seemed to provide the foundation for the band's grooves. His kalimba fills also extended the electronic melodies in a unique way.

Singer Ashley Mazanec sat in on a few songs to fill out the sound. Her vocal style ranged from soulful to torch to dark pop, depending on what the song called for. Throughout, her voice was strong and expressive, standing up well to lead, but also meshing well with Gabe Lehner's voice. Their vocal swaps and harmonies were a pleasant surprise that really enhanced the set.

Aside from the ska based song I mentioned, my favorite track set a trippy loop that riffed off the Beatles' Happiness Is A Warm Gun. A simple ambient loop meshed nicely with the glitched vocal sample. I look forward to catching this San Diego band again sometime. I picked up their CD, We All Want to Fly, which should prove to be a good listen.

Opening acts are often a grab bag, sometimes showing nothing in common with the headliner. When THE TAILOR took the stage with his banjo, I figured it was another case of strange bedfellows. Like most people, I associate banjo with bluegrass, Deliverance, and "pickin' and grinnin'". Sure, Béla Fleck has pushed the instrument into jazz and classical, but that would also be an odd fit. of course, Beats Antique often uses a banjo as their lead melodic instrument and that proved to be linkage here.

THE TAILOR is a solo performer, Tarran Gabriel. From the beginning of his set, he focused on a bluesy context for his banjo playing. Later, he moved into more retro jazz and gypsy grooves. He used looped bass and rhythm tracks to support his occasionally processed banjo. The music was dark and evocative. The opening song was rooted in Delta blues, painting images of eerie bayous and voodoo rituals.

Gabriel's dreamily chanted vocals, interspersed with ghostly wails and moans set that mood. The sparse, reflective picking over a simple beat built an inevitable tension that added to the haunted feel. Later, he'd show off his other vocal skills: a capella vocal percussion and horn riffs, a breathy falsetto, and a bluesy growl.

Unlike many solo players, THE TAILOR maintained an intense stage presence. He was incredibly expressive as he twisted his body or sinuously gyrated to the music. His movements foreshadowed the belly dancing we'd see in Beats Antique's set. His stage persona was sometime weird and creepy as a giggle would slip out, but that was all part of a captivating performance.

Aside from the bluesy music, Gabriel also had a strong Tom Waits sound, both in his darkly ruminative songs and his appreciation for older retro music. Jazzy numbers mixed with some more gypsy melodies. At one point, he captured the feel of Tom Waits' Underground from Swordfishtrombones. The other surprise was learning that a bowed banjo can sound surprisingly like a violin.

THE TAILOR's set was a mood shift from the electronic jams of Inspired Flight and the world-tronica grooves of Beats Antique, but it just added to the exotica of the night. He thanked us for bearing with him and his strange music, but it was our pleasure.

Thanks also to THE TAILOR for sharing a copy of his CD, The Salt, which I may cover later.

Beats Antiques
In the studio, Beats Antique weaves as hypnotic blend of glitchy electronica and Mideastern harmonies. On stage, however, the choreography adds a performance art dimension that transforms the music into a trans-global ritual. The crowd swirled in anticipation before the set and once the band came out, everyone was on their feet dancing.

In the opening song, the band set the tone for the set. Zoe Jakes was seductive, dancing as she exultantly pounding her bass drum. She'd run to the edge of the stage, freeze, and hold a pose as beat of the song paused. Then the moment would pass and she'd play again with abandon.

Guest dancers filled out the choreography. During one song (I think it was Revival), a single dancer in white came out with someone hidden behind her. She danced as ostrich feather fans at her back throbbed with the music. Then she unfolded into three tightly coordinated dancers. The way the three moved expanded on and interpreted the music. The three women provided a strong and moving visualization of the song that captured its headiness.

But the influence went both ways as the music sometimes meandered and reflected the dance: the melody might move forward, then double back, turning on itself before opening again.The link between visual and audio was forged so tightly that they were inseparable.

Musically, Beats Antique blurred the lines with prerecorded elements meshing with live playing. Fitting the name, they played drum and percussion driven songs. Disparate live parts like banjo, violin, clarinet, and baritone sax all added their spice at one time or another. Keyboard washes and loops provided the harmonic framework and heavy bass grooves abounded.

Gypsy violin or klezmer colored clarinet might set the mood for a given piece, but the physicality of the beat and grind was ever present. David Satori's banjo playing was transcendent. His simple resonant tone daintily stepped over the changes, but then, with a little flange and echo, the banjo would take on a exotic sitar drone.

They hit a number of familiar tracks from Blind Threshold as well as 2008's Collide. There Ya Go was snaky and exotic with a richer electronic backing than I remembered. The music and show ended all too soon. As we walked out into the cool air, we carried the afterglow of Beats Antique's spicy stew of trippy, wired in world music. I'll have to agree with my son, "Epic!"

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, April 8, 2011

CD review - Eternal Summers, Prisoner (2011)

I shared a taste of Eternal Summers in my March Singles post, but they deserve another sample. The dream punk duo is releasing a new EP, Prisoner, in a couple of weeks on Forest Family/Kanine Records. The EP is a scant four songs, but they've also announced a scattershot of tour dates, including a West Coast sweep (see below).

The tracks on Prisoner are more lively than Safe at Home. Tight post punk grooves are flogged forward with thrashy guitars. The dreamy element comes from the girly ethereal pop vocals. Like sweet and sour or yin and yang, the complementary elements emphasize each others strengths. The choppy guitars and steady drumbeat seem poppier because of the nice simple harmonies. Similarly, the pretty, bouncy vocals pick up an edge from their post punk setting.

It's hard to remember sometimes that this is a duo. Nicole Yun's guitar lines are bass heavy and appropriately full sounding. The drive doesn't leave a lot of time to dwell on it, though; it just sounds like a stripped down band. Looking for comparisons, Eternal Summers sound most like early Liz Phair, maybe Glory (Exit From Guyville) or Dogs of L.A. (Whip Smart), but with less vocal spunk.

The verses in Cog lay down a straight pop vibe, but the staccato guitar on the chorus is where the song finds its feet. This leads well into the title cut, which cuts straight to the new wave vibe. The bass line is simple as sin, but just as compelling.

Child's Mind swirls in a power pop drive. Daniel Cundiff's drums are tight, setting a hectic pace. But there's still time to fit in some economical fills. Finally, the duo catches their breath with the lazy psychedelic start of Pure Affection. The vocals resonate in a dreamy haze as the guitar ebbs and swells. Imagine Julee Cruise singing for an indie rock outfit. Yun's voice is like sunlight glimmering through the trees. This sweet moment contrasts with the edgier rhythms of the other songs, but it's just as satisfying. Even without the choppy punch, Pure Affection has some strong dynamics as it teases with an indie pop bridge before subsiding back into the loose groove.

Catch Eternal Summers if you get the chance.

Eternal Summers tour info:
4/10 - Ottobar - Baltimore, MD *
4/11 - DC9 - Washington, DC *
4/15 - Record Release Party @ Glasslands - Brooklyn, NY %
4/16 - Cake Shop - New York, NY
5/18 - Beachland Tavern - Cleveland, OH $
5/19 - Magic Stick Lounge - Detroit, MI $
5/20 - Empty Bottle - Chicago, IL $
5/21 - 7th Street Entry - Minneapolis, MN $
5/22 - Aquarium - Fargo, ND $
5/24 - The Badlander - Missoula, MT $
5/25 - CRAFT House - Moscow, ID $
5/26 - Media Club - Vancouver, BC $
5/27 - Healthy Times Fun Club - Seattle, WA $
5/28 - East End - Portland, OR $
5/29 - San Francisco Popfest @ Hemlock - San Francisco, CA $
5/31 - Free Instore @ Origami (5pm) - Los Angeles, CA $
5/31 - Echo - Los Angeles, CA $
6/1 - Casbah - San Diego, CA $
6/4 - Chaos in Tejas - Austin, TX $
6/5 - Free Press Summer Fest - Houston, TX $
6/6 - The Saint - New Orleans, LA $
6/7 - The Nick - Birmingham, AL $
6/8 - The Earl - Atlanta, GA $
6/9 - The Milestone - Charlotte, NC $

* w/ Cloud Nothings
% w/ Dream Diary, Golden Dogs, and Lyonnais
$ w/ The Beets

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

CD review - Idiot Glee, Paddywhack (2011)

James Friley's solo band, Idiot Glee, channels a retro sense of innocent wonder. Paddywhack harkens back to doo wop and early '60s harmony but built on more modern technology like drum machines and looped keyboard lines. Friley has credited the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds as a pivotal influence. The home recorded feel and unselfconscious charm of Paddywhack serve as a homage to Brian Wilson, while the harmonies overtly reach for the Beach Boys.

The over saturated, low-fi finish and large room reverb emphasize the home grown feel, but they also support a sensibility that pure emotional expression needn't be polished to be beautiful. Friley's lead voice is competent without being showy. Still, the harmony arrangements are well thought out, adding depth to the songs while still emphasizing a kind of naïveté.

The a capella harmonies of I Want the Night to Stay are a great example. A step removed from straight doo wop, they evoke Under the Boardwalk and a hundred other tunes. The lyrics reflect the melancholy sense of isolation that I wallowed in at 15:
Is there anyone else awake?
Am I the only who believes in staying up late?
Through the night
It's alright
Friley's open character comes through in this song, as he connects with his inner Brian Wilson. Tooling around in his minivan is just another unassuming element of the video that fills out his whole aesthetic.

One of the more interesting tracks, though, is Trouble at the Dancehall, which starts with steady drum and cymbal, soon followed by long organ chords. It's like Pink Floyd's Careful With That Axe, Eugene at a faster tempo. That tense yet dreamy sense lasts right until the vocals kick in to completely shift the mood into an easy listening groove. That flip flop is the sonic equivalent of an optical illusion.

Other anachronistic moments on Paddywhack fall out of the keyboard looping artifacts, but none of this changes the inherent emotional purity of the music. Give Idiot Glee a chance to connect with your inner teenager.

Paddywhack is due out June 7 on Moshi Moshi.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Interview - Callers

Before the show, I sat down with Ryan Seaton (guitar) and Don Godwin (drums) from Callers. Sara Lucas couldn't join us because she was meeting with some old college friends. Ryan and Don were both very relaxed and comfortable to talk with. As a band, Callers is based strongly on mutual respect and communication. It's clear that this is just central to who they are as people as well as musicians.

We talked about their approach to live music, the chemistry of the band, and how they've developed their sound.

Jester: I really enjoy your music. You have a really unique approach, which is what intrigued me about getting a chance to talk with you.

Both: Thank you. Thanks.

The sound on Life of Love is so loose. You have this cool experimental feel. How is that on stage? Are the arrangements nailed down or are they also fairly open?

RS: We get a lot of "jazz" comments from people and I don't think that we're anything like that. We're not an improvisatory band. We have definite song structures laid out. We're not writing changes and playing verses and having people do whatever they want over them. But that being said, there's some wiggle room within the forms. We've been playing together long enough that, if we want to stretch something out, we can.

DG: We definitely craft our arrangements. In my mind, I spend a lot of time getting things very intricately dialed in. Then I find myself over tours, kind of trying to break away from that to keep it interesting for us...to keep it from being a static thing. We're all inspired by and influenced by all degrees of experimental composers and improvisatory music in general. We draw some of that into our compositional mindset.

I'm very interested to hear what some of your influences are.

RS: It's limitless. I grew up playing piano and then classical music on saxophone throughout college; studying really intensely. Sara grew up singing in blues and R&B clubs in St. Louis. Then in New Orleans, Don plays in a million brass bands. There's so much. It's a hard question to figure out...

DG: Right, we like good music. (both laugh)

On your cover of Heartbeat by Wire, you took a song with tightly controlled tension and turned it into something looser and dreamier. It reminded me of some of Henry Kaiser's deconstructions of popular songs.

DG: I wish I could say I knew him better. It makes me think of Eugene Chadbourne. He does some similar stuff. We take some stuff and recontextualize it in a way. Like I feel our treatment of Heartbeat recontextualizes the lyrics to make it more hopeful and celebratory as opposed to isolated.

RS: That song is a one chord and a four chord. The whole song. That's the ever-after, gospel amen cadence. That's gospel. And Sara, when she heard it, she immediately heard it that way. There was no real arranging it, we just decided we were going to cover it. There's two chords. And Don, through all of his brass band playing, you shout out a kind of feel to him and he'll play it. Then all I need to do is nail the bass underneath it and do whatever over the top. And Sara's in her own world, totally nailing it on her own.

Actually, that song is what blew the doors open for us to write Life of Love, the record. We just realized that we were capable of making this sound after our first release. So, we just kept that in our new palette of sounds.

So, have you all looked at doing other covers?

DG: We talk about it a lot.

RS: We play an old Marvelettes tune, Forever. That was actually the first song that Sara and I ever played together. (sings) "Darling forever, forever, you can call me names..."

I'm definitely a huge Wire fan, so it wasn't a hard for me to agree to cover Heartbeat.

DG: We've talked about covering some of our contemporaries, which is an awesome tradition that goes back to soul music. Like Otis Redding covering Rolling Stones songs. It's a great way to pay homage to your peers. We want to do that. If we had all the time in the world. We have lots of ideas, we have to prioritize...

Who have you thought about covering?

DG: There's a Brooklyn band called Here We Go Magic, who we've toured with. Ryan has collaborated with Luke Temple, the defacto leader of that band...

RS: We've also been listening to Tirez Tirez a lot lately. They're an old Mikel Rouse band from Kansas City/New York. That's not contemporary, but it's not Marvelettes.

DG: We'd also love to be a Captain Beefheart cover band (laughs)...if we had all the time in the world. I'm a fan of the middle period, like Bat Chain Puller, Clear Spot...

RS: You can write that down. We're all big fans of that stuff.

DG:..Even the more serious studio Beefheart.

How do you develop new material?

RS: Usually it's just the cell of an idea: Don will play a beat, I'll play a guitar part, or Sara will have a melody. And we'll kind of see how it feels under our fingers. Try it out in different time signatures, different tempos, and see where it might want to go and just let it breathe. Most of our stuff, we've kind of road tested. We've played a lot and then recorded. Although the last few tracks we recorded for Life of Love, we started doing more in-studio composition, more overdub composition. Then we'd relearn live versions later. We try to give each song time to develop, until it's ready.

DG: When we were first writing and recording for the album, it was like an EP. The label kind of pushed us to make it an LP. So we launched into this home demo/4 track approach to workshopping ideas. We had never done this before, but it pushed us into a new way of doing things that's more common in bands now.

Now we're able to record tidbits during sound checks and cut and paste demos together.

Ryan, I'm really interested in your work playing guitar and bass lines together, can you describe your setup?

RS: Thick strings, that's it. Down tunings, plugged into a Fender Twin with reverb on it. I just use heavy gauge guitar strings. I use a lot of tunings on stage in this set right now. The most out of standard tuning would be where everything's just tuned D, three octaves of D. The lowest I tune down to is B. With this set, I hardly play in standard tuning anymore. I usually have some 5ths or octaves down low, so I can easily access bass lines.

Sometimes, it depends where Sara starts singing. I figure out where I need to adjust tunings just to do it.

Do you adjust tunings on the fly or have multiple guitars?

DG: On the fly (laughs)

RS: Partially out of attachment, partially out of monetary restrictions.

It came out of playing with Sara and not having anyone else to play with. It just naturally evolved into doing that.

Don, we were talking about jazz earlier. Your drumming style really sounds like you have a jazz background: the openness to what you're doing...

DG: Well, I have a somewhat of a jazz background playing bass primarily. Most of my kit playing has been in sort of the DIY punk rock scene. Touring with hardcore punk bands and then with more experimental bands in New Orleans. I played horn in high school and in 2003, I started doing that again, which led me to New Orleans. I bring a jazz influence and I listen to a lot of jazz but I've never studied it or taken drum lessons.

I really love the way you leave room for the bass to cover the rhythm and how that gives you room to play little accent parts. The way you work together...

DG: Thanks, so much

RS: Sara and I heard Don play for the first time in New Orleans on kit. For both of us, a light went on and we realized we really would like to play with him. When we all ended up in Brooklyn, we had him come start playing. He would just look at a high hat for ten minutes and you could tell he was thinking about something. We weren't sure what. Then he would just touch it once and open up a whole other realm of ideas he had going on his mind. There was never overkill; there was always room for the other people playing.

DG: I was just trying to phrase around Sara.

With Sara's voice, I hear a lot of strong women singers like Phoebe Snow, Maria Muldaur, or even Grace Slick. Is that part of her background?

RS: She grew up singing in her community. Her mom sang. A lot of her peers sang. She just grew up in a really musical community in St. Louis and heard a lot of old soul. I agree with you, I kind of think her voice sounds like Phoebe Snow. She heard Phoebe Snow sometime after someone told her she sounded like her. We listened to it together and we were both like, "Oh. I can see that. Sure."

DG: What's funny is that Sara gets such a revolving door of comparisons...It's just interesting. She gets so many different comparisons that it makes me think that she just has her own unique voice.

It's interesting. A lot of Sara's influences are older, but she's also more in tune with contemporary music than anyone I know and I learn a lot from her.

How do the three of you push each other creatively?

RS: I don't know that we're pushing each other a lot. At this point, we're just really centered and communicating with each other. Feeding off ideas left and right.

DG: It's like cooking a meal together in a kitchen. It's really quick and intuitive. We all have trust and respect for each other.

RS: Totally.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Concert review - Wye Oak with Callers

2 April 2011 (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Sonically, Wye Oak and Callers have staked out different ground. But even though Wye Oak offers more raw energy and catharsis than Callers, both acts feature a heightened truth in their performances. The subtle intensity of Callers contrasts with Wye Oaks enthusiastic drive, but fans of either band can appreciate the dynamics and depth of the other.

The house was fairly sparse when Callers took the stage, but filled out well by the end of their set. With no local opening act, the music didn't start until a little after 10:30.

I've been excited to catch Callers since reviewing their latest album, Life of Love. I was curious to hear how they would translate their rich, yet subtle studio sound to the stage. Life of Love is dreamy and introspective, so the risk is that their stage presence might be too inwardly focused. They dispelled any fears of that with their first song, by showing that they could channel their internal, centered energy without slipping into a shoe gazer performance.

They led off with Fortune, the title cut off their 2008 debut album. The song starts with drums and a bass line that recall the tightly controlled tension of Talking Heads' Psycho Killer. But instead of David Byrne's overly tight, edgy vocals dialing things up, Sara Lucas' voice soothed and caressed.

Throughout their set, Callers exploited the contrasts in their music. Their subtle playing hinted at a deeper power under its surface. The loose flow of the music fell out of the tight coordination of their parts. Each musician brings a vital element.

Don Godwin's drum playing framed the space of the tunes. His tom and kick work were thoughtful and intuitive, keeping the beat without needing to play each one. This jazzy approach allowed every stroke to decorate the open feel of the songs.

Ryan Seaton provided both the bass lines and much of the guitar for the songs. Seaton's finger style technique was amazing: his left hand stretching to lay down arpeggios while keeping the bass line moving and his right hand flurrying across the strings to pick both. Despite the heavy technique, Seaton's nuanced playing seemed to reflect his internal grasp of the music's soul.

That soul took shape from Sara Lucas' singing. Sounding like a succession of strong women singers from the past, Lucas went from lazy Phoebe Snow to powerful Joan Armatrading moments to give the songs a special depth. She brought a well deserved confidence to her parts as she also added keys or guitar to some of the songs. Her guitar playing meshed well with Seaton, accenting and filling out the sound on songs like Glow.

Together, the three assembled an elaborate balance of pieces into an effortless whole. A world of sonic textures and a loose, natural rhythm were ever present.

Their live sound showcased an even richer sense of dynamic than their studio work. Their Wire cover, Heartbeat, had a strong foot tapping start and then set up a tremendous sweep from dreamy mantra to a swirling wall of beautiful dissonance and back.

I also had a chance to talk with the band before the show and find out how down to earth and interesting they were.

Wye Oak
Wye Oak was a strong draw in Denver. The front row of the crowd were dedicated fans who sang along with every song. Like Callers, Wye Oak built a complex sound that seemed far larger expected from just a couple of musicians. Drummer Andy Stack usually reserved his left hand to play keyboard based bass lines and accents while he covered the rest of his rhythm parts. Guitarist/singer Jenn Wasner had a large dynamic range and dissonant approach that sometimes sounded like a couple of guitar parts at once. Wasner's singing style was different than Sara Lucas', but there was a similar expressiveness that fit well with the Callers' set.

Dissonance was a key element of Wye Oak's sound. While some of the songs began with an indie folk feel, by the second verse or so the distortion kicked up into a thick wall of sound. But this stayed in service to the music: the point was never to shock but rather express the inner turmoil or conflict of the song. Importantly, it wasn't over used. Wye Oak had a good sense of dynamic that allowed for raw, cathartic purging and earnest, confessional singing. The over all balance was more post punk than indie folk.

Jenn Wasner brought a brash energy to her playing and a deep honesty to her singing. She had a great stage presence: not chewing through the scenery but creating an electric spark as she bounced to her guitar slashes. Fully immersed in every song, Wasner was a master at using droning echo-laden guitar to set the mood. Her voice was strong and a little dark as she shifted from wistful to aching to assertive. She reminded me a bit of Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders.

Andy Stack's versatility was astounding. With his left hand tied up playing keys, his other three limbs had to work extra hard on drums. His right foot worked the kick drum to cover some of the tom parts and his right hand covered cymbal and snare work. This wasn't quite the same as Rick Allen (the drummer from Def Leppard who lost his left arm) drumming approach, but it seemed similarly inspired by necessity. Stack was much more focused on playing rather than interacting with the crowd, but he and Wasner communicated well.

After Wye Oak's emotionally powerful show, I now plan to check out their studio work. They have a new album, Civilian, that came out last month.

It was a great couple of sets -- like a smoky scotch followed by brighter shot of rye whiskey.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, April 1, 2011

CD review - UNKLE, Only the Lonely (2011)

UNKLE has roots in trip-hop, but now the group is effectively a name for James Lavelle and his partners to produce collaborations with various alternative artists. Only the Lonely is a brief but exciting 5 song EP, featuring Nick Cave, Leila Moss (the Duke Spirit), Gavin Clark (Clayhill), and Rachel Fannen (Sleepy Sun). The April 4 release coordinates with an extended reissue of last year's Where Did The Night Fall. The new version is called Where Did The Night Fall – Another Night Out and features Only the Lonely and a host of other songs as a second disc.

Only The Lonely's music is a mix of electronically influenced post-punk dream pop. Psychedelia and synth pop melt into the thick stew of sound, too. Taken as a whole, there's a sense of moody desperation that kicks in on the very first track.

Take the Money and Run could be the soundtrack for a scene in a Guy Ritchie action flick like Snatch. The dark, droning foundation sets up a desperate energy while Nick Cave's vocal adds the perfect Gothic edge. There's a deconstructed blues vibe at the root, but the thrashy grind and Cave's detachment create a psychedelic intensity.

The tension continues in The Dog is Black. The rhythm drives the song relentlessly. Leila Moss evokes Siouxsie and the Banshees with her arch vocals. At the same time, the chorus sounds like a harder edged version of Running Up That Hill (Kate Bush). Moss's work with the Duke Spirit often hits this space, but the production is smoothed and layered, providing the right level of distance.

The moody instrumental title cut is a mildly psychedelic take on a synth pop jam. Updating a New Order sound, the beat is more uptempo and electric. Only the Lonely takes the time to develop, breathing between steady beat sections and looser, more resonant parts. There's also an ambient quality reminiscent of Brian Eno.

This leads well into the droning dreaminess of Wash the Love Away. Gavin Clark infuses the down tempo groove with languid Bono-style vocals. The rest of the music also fits the U2 mold. The backing vocals expands the sound into its own character.

The hazy dreaming continues on Sunday Song. Rachel Fannen's vocals sound like an up tempo Tori Amos, especially on the chorus. The music, though, maintains the electro post punk sound that pervades the rest of the EP. It's distant and introspective.

I love the way Only the Lonely takes such disparate collaborators and forges a consistent mood and sound. The EP's tension is wrapped in a sonic distance that gives it a soothing, meditative quality. Grab it from UNKLE's online store or spring for the full Where Did The Night Fall – Another Night Out reissue.