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

Monday, May 30, 2011

CD review - My Morning Jacket, Cicuital (2011)

If 2008's Evil Urges signaled a change of direction for My Morning Jacket, Cicuital continues the band's evolution through further regression. The buzz around Circuital has focused on the band reinvigorating themselves and getting back to their roots. But My Morning Jacket is not revisiting the sound of their earlier albums so much as mining a blend of retro sounds. True to their ambivalence to genre, the sounds on this album wander through soundtrack moments, psychedelic jams, and ballads. In addition to the classic tone, Jim James and the band fill Circuital with a soulful vibe.

The album gets off to a strong start with Victory Dance. The intro is a bit ambient with soundtrack horns providing drive and tension, but the song quickly slides into a Supertramp style mix of progressive and mild psychedelia. The open sense of space, from good sonic separation and a moderate reverb, fits well with the tension as the song builds. The break brings in a tribal beat and a sense of a ritual viewed in the distance. The song collapses back into ambient sounds and a perfect fade in for the title track.

For me, Circuital's peak is Holding on to Black Metal. The soulful horn pop is savagely retro and bluesy. The sinuous, meandering guitar/bass line sounds like a theme for some alternate James Bond movie. There's a lot going on here that contrasts yet meshes, even down to the falsetto vocals that slink through a surprising lyrical theme:
It's a darkness you can't deny,
But it don't belong in a grownup mind
Distortion finds its place in a youngster's eyes
Coming into life, you need its grind
But innocent boy, you gotta let it go
Or it will cross the permanent threshold
You know you gotta find it out in somethin' else good
Oh black metal, you're so misunderstood
Circuital romps through a series of styles: a low fi version of '70s pop (The Day is Coming), an acoustic ballad (Wonderful (The Way I Feel)), and even an acid rock tinged Who/Rolling Stones jam (First Light). The mix is unpredictable but My Morning Jacket plays it all with casual sincerity. I'll raise a glass of Belgian farmhouse ale in tribute: every sip tastes a little different.


Friday, May 27, 2011

CD review - My M.O., Bonfire (2011)

My M.O.'s music is like fusion cuisine: disparate traditions meld together to create a bridge between worlds. Like their music, the three women in the band come from different worlds: an Australian rapper, a Texas DJ, and a Jamaican guitarist. The combination on Bonfire is clearly pop oriented, but happy to borrow from electro, club beats, and rock.

The lead off track, Bonfire Man starts out with an indie pop feel. The sparse, contrasting guitar parts set a mood, but then the bass and the beat move it firmly into a club space. The vocal treatment adds its vote for the club. Despite all this, though, the shreds of distorted guitar and sweet keyboard riffs force the song into a middle ground. The net effect is an extremely catchy, dreamy pop gem. The segue into What I Want is nicely executed, taking a dreamy start that echoes a piece of Bonfire Man's lyric. This time the groove settles into electro pop crossed with modern pop.

My M.O. shows a lot of versatility: tight Electro funk on Paper Chase, trippy heavy bass groove on Rock Steady, a sort of electronic disco for Modus Operandi. Each track brings its own blend of dance oriented pop, but nothing obscures the continuity of My M.O.'s groove. Even the heavily glitched remix of Bonfire Man (Doctrations Remix) swirls solid percussion work with experimental headiness.

Aside from Bonfire Man, my favorite track is the R&B groove of Love Me Down (HNH Remix). The lead off harp riff, light dusting of electro, and world beat percussion come together in a delicate balance that perfectly supports the soulful singing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May singles

It's time for a new group of singles to share. This month's set includes modern Americana, danceable synth pop, an interesting cover, and some great lo-fi indie rock.

Dom Liberati - We Own the Night

Dom Liberati strikes a balance of modern rock and Americana on We Own the Night from his album, The Good Hurt. The track starts out with an Americana, singer-songwriter vibe, but the turnaround after the first verse sets up the song as the rock anthem it reaches for in the chorus. Vocally, Liberati reminds me of Bryan Adams. His writing style is more confessional but he has some of that same ability to imbue his lyrics with import.

Liberati breaks the standard front man mold since he's a bass player. The bass work on We Own the Night is solid but not showing off, which is a savvy move to connect with his audience more as a singer.

Swedish House Mafia - Save the World

This electronic group is delightfully unironic. They actually are a house band from Sweden. Okay, so "Mafia" is an exaggeration, but this group of DJ/producers have been loosely working together for several years. Last year, they released their first big album on Virgin/EMI under the name Swedish House Mafia, garnering lots of buzz and critical success. Save the World is the band's first release in 2011.

Save the World meshes a house beat with a synth pop groove. Swedish singer John Martin (Miike Snow) has a smooth voice that builds into an emotional plea. The electronic backing groove develops into a full sound that delivers some sweet club friendly breaks. The video is not what I would have visualized for this song, but it's certainly entertaining.

Émilie Simon - Smalltown Boy (from The Big Machine)

Smalltown Boy was Bronski Beat's biggest hit, back in the '80s. Now, French singer, Émilie Simon offers her cover of the synth pop classic. Staying true to the basic structure, Simon makes it over into moody ballad. Her down tempo piano arrangement is much more expressive as the rhythm varies slightly along with the dynamics. Her idiosyncratic voice is playful and girlish like Kate Bush's early material.

Bronski Beat's version perfectly fit its era. The sheen of synths, the staccato chop of the accompaniment, and the slight detachment of the falsetto vocals built up a dreamy feel. By contrast, Émilie Simon taps into the inherent sorrow of the song, without being overwhelmed by it.

Simon's Smalltown Boy is available for download from Filter.

Radical Dads - New Age Dinosaur (from Mega Rama, due in mid-June)

A wall of splashy indie rock guitars fills New Age Dinosaur with a loose, happy vibe. The trio is loosely linked to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: keyboard player/guitarist Robbie Guertin contributes drums and vocals for Radical Dads. While both bands have a kind of lyrical innocence, Radical Dads has a rockier edge and skips some of the dreamy vibe that CYHSY loves to include.

New Age Dinosaur is infectious. The lo-fi guitars are loud and sloppy, capturing a live sound that would ring through your ears and vibrate into the middle of your back. Even when it mellows in the bridge, feedback resonates and echoes through the track.

Get New Age Dinosaur from Bandcamp.

Monday, May 23, 2011

CD review - Smithereens, Smithereens 2011 (2011)

The Smithereens had a sweet classic sound back in the late '80s. As one of several tight bands playing alt rock power pop, they stood out based on their songwriting chops and tight harmonies around Pat DiNizio's crooning vocals. Listening to Smithereens 2011 makes me want to dig out my skinny ties and straight leg jeans all over again. Even though it's been 12 years since the band's full original release, the Smithereens have preserved their signature sound. If anything, they're even smoother and slicker in their arrangements.

During the 12 year wait, they've release a couple of cover projects, including their version of the Who's Tommy (2009), and a couple of Beatles tributes. Smithereens 2011 trades heavily on the Beatles side of their sound, as they reach for the same harmonies, lyrical economies, and jangly George Harrison guitar. While those influences are scattered across the album, One Look at You hits it the strongest . If it weren't for DiNizio's distinctive voice, I could almost mistake it for Badfinger. Severo Jornacion's bass line soars melodically through the track.

The lead off single, Sorry, could have come off any of the Smithereen's earlier albums. The crystalline power pop sound smoothly melds '60s mod rock with '80s alt. "I would like to say I'm sorry, but I won't" -- it captures the smirking attitude of the '80s. It's a good choice to reassure old fans that the band is true to its roots, but most of the album satisfies that goal.

Fortunately, even though the Smithereens are products of their initial era, it's a sound that translates well to a contemporary sound. Retro sounds are big now, so the scene has caught back up with bands like the Smithereens again. I'm glad that the band is asking people to accept them on their own terms, though. If they had reached out more to a modern sound by throwing in some glitchy electronics or precious lo-fi treatment, it would have seemed calculated and patronizing. Instead, the Smithereens are offering a gift to their longtime fans and potential new audience.

There are a couple songs that stood out from the baseline. Goodnight Goodbye seems to evoke a bit of fellow New Jerseyans, Bon Jovi (a touch of Wanted Dead or Alive). Viennese Hangover shows some of the Smithereens' Who style psychedelia. Both of these songs hit the classic Smithereens sound, but pushed the boundaries a bit.

Friday, May 20, 2011

CD review - Robert Pollard, Lord of the Birdcage (2011)

If anyone could challenge Prince for the title of Mr. Prolific, it would have to be Robert Pollard. Guided By Voices, a steady procession of solo albums, and numerous side projects like Boston Spaceships all contribute to a huge back catalog of music to delve through. Fortunately, Pollard is fairly consistent in the quality of his output, so new releases are worth the risk.

Lord of the Birdcage is a slight departure from form (but not quality), as Pollard has based this set of songs on various poems he's written. This gives the album a stronger lyrical foundation and pushes the song structure away from verse-chorus structure into a sectional approach.

The music, though, remains familiar to his GbV fans: a mix of prog and psychedelic tinged indie rock, post punk edge, and experimental assemblies. The blur of genres is a smokescreen. Pollard's true style is outsider pop music. He has an intuitive understanding of the structure of pop music, but there's an underlying disconnect. Like Syd Barrett, but sturdier and more musically talented. Or a more focused Robyn Hitchcock.

As long as I'm drawing comparisons, Lord of the Birdcage features a strong solo Pete Townshend vibe, captured by Pollard's voice and the Who influenced musical elements. Stir in a little early period David Bowie, a touch of Kraut rock, and Psychedelic Furs' post punk sound to complete the picture.

There are plenty of good songs to choose from, but the repetitive drive of Aspersion has great energy. The main groove reminds me of Do The Collapse, with prog rock scope and the jangling clash of guitars. The song is split by reflective discordant sections. The lyrics are intriguing:
On a day of No Saints
On No Thanks Day
Yours for the taking
No, I'm not faking
Selective phrasing has a new face
It's you
Holy Fire also starts out with a great lyrical tag: "Please believe it. There will be holy fire." But the lyric is not so much a threat as a sought after promise. The progressive/Kraut rock feel is meditative and a bit ambient.

The only song available right now is In A Circle (on Pitchfork), a pretty indie folk with a hint of paisley around the edges. It's a slower, thoughtful moment. Even though it builds beyond the initial acoustic start, it remains a casual musical stroll in an optimistic reverie.

Pollard bounces around on Lord of the Birdcage: Post punk on Dunce Codex, lo-fi indie rock on Garden Smarm, psychedelic on The Focus (Burning)... Throughout the album, Pollard's unique voice and the guitar work remain consistent and interesting. Lord of the Birdcage is officially releasing on June 7.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CD review - Here We Go Magic, The January EP (2011)

The six tracks on The January EP sidle off in their own directions, but Here We Go Magic infuses each of them with a layered hypnotic feel. Like a wine tasting, there are all kinds of subtleties to pick up on while recognizing the stylistic foundation driving their music.

The lead off song, Tulip dresses its version of the theme in a psychedelic mix of early Yes and Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd. The lo-fi aesthetic still holds enough detail to support the heavily layers, swirling, repetitive groove. The sharp beat adds a Krautrock feel. When I had The January EP on auto-repeat to soak it in, I smiled every time Tulip came on. The bouncy joy was infectious.

My other favorite track, Backwards Time also evoked Yes, albeit from later in their career. The driving rhythm, tight guitar riff and Luke Temple's voice all made the verses sound like a hyped up Owner of a Lonely Heart. It's catchy indie rock, but the busy arrangement, with strata of details bubbling through maintain the hypnotic motif of the project.

The other tunes take their own paths, from the uptempo dream pop of Hands in the Sky to the experimental sparseness of Hollywood. Here We Go Magic does a fine job of maintaining their artistic coherency through the twists and turns of The January EP. It's an interesting contrast: none of the songs cover the same ground, yet there is a kind fungibility, where the tracks can play in random order and still reveal something interesting.

The January EP came out a week or so ago on Secretly Canadian.

Monday, May 16, 2011

CD review - Easy Star All-Stars, First Light (2011)

Easy Star All-Stars got their start as the in-house studio band for Easy Star records. They grew beyond that modest role with 2003's Dub Side of the Moon. With that album, along with Radiodread, and Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band, they tackled mashup reggae covers of full albums by Pink Floyd, Radiohead (OK Computer), and the Beatles. While they've released some original tunes before, First Light is their first full album of original material.

As a shifting musical collective, personnel change from release to release (or from tour to tour), but Easy Star's Michael Goldwasser maintains a clear vision of the band's direction. On First Light, Goldwasser wrote or contributed on several of the tracks. Despite the variable lineup, the players remain familiar enough from previous releases to provide a good sense of consistency. In particular, Ras I Ray's bass playing is the backbone of the All-Stars' sound.

Easy Star's cover albums were impressive because they delivered well above their novelty value. The idea of a reggae cover of Sgt. Pepper is intriguing, but the execution was strong enough to raise the momentary question of whether She's Leaving Home's original time signature was in 2 or 3: the chop chank seemed so natural.

On First Light, the band puts the gimmicks behind them to show how solid a reggae band they are and to demonstrate the range of reggae styles they can deliver. The album throws out chunks of rock steady, toasting, and reggae soul. Easy Star All-Stars manage to evoke reggae greats like Black Uhuru, Sugar Minott, and the I Threes. The songs vary from the serious social commentary of Universal Law to the humor of One Likkle Draw to the slower chank grind of Easy Now Star.

While Menny More does a fine job with vocals, especially on I Won't Stop, the songs featuring Kirsty Rock and Joanne Williams hit a particularly sweet spot. Rock's voice on First Light (Ramblin' Fever) captures a retro R&B soul pop sound. Smooth as silk, she floats over the top, adding a veneer to the perfect horn lines and subtle guitar chank. In contrast, a pair of Williams' tunes, Break of Dawn and In The Light, offer the same song performed in two radically different styles: reggae and R&B. On either track, her voice is as rich as sweet hot chocolate, but I prefer the reggae groove of Break of Dawn, with its I-Threes backing vocals, bubbling keyboard, and tight horn fills.

The full line up of the Easy Star All-Stars on First Light includes a dozen musicians, but the album includes another nine guest players plus a number of featured artists. Junior Jazz and Daddy Lion Chandell's track One Likkle Draw is the stand out feature artist track. It spins out a story of a simple herb grower asking for a last hit before having his crop confiscated, but leads to the officer concluding that he should give the herb a try. It's amusing, but the bouncy beat and vocal trade offs make it a joy to hear.

Maybe the Easy Star All-Stars thought they needed to prove their pure reggae pedigree. If so, they've more than made their point. First Light encompasses a set of tunes that exemplify the pure spiritual joy that reggae music can evoke. I'll offer a couple of beverage pairings: a highball glass of fine Jamaican rum or a sharp ginger flavored beer.

Backtracks: * Easy Star All-Stars show review

Friday, May 13, 2011

Concert review - Portugal. The Man with Telekinesis and Unknown Mortal Orchestra

12 May 2011 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Ft. Collins welcomed an invasion from the Pacific Northwest. Portland's Portugal. The Man brought Telekenesis (from Seattle) and Unknown Mortal Orchestra (from Portland) to open for them. Despite sharing a regional background, each band offered their own flavor of show, from musical sound to on-stage experience. The Aggie's enthusiastic crowd embraced all the acts.

All three bands are playing Friday and Saturday at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, so if you missed the show, head to Denver to see them there.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Three piece Unknown Mortal Orchestra had a tight indie rock/experimental sound that belied their casual stage presence. They were stylistically variable, with some songs reflecting a pop vocal element, while the music was less focused. Sometimes garage rock oriented, other times they took on a looser, experimental approach.

In general, the band reminded me most of Pavement: throbbing bass and psychedelic guitar dissonance spread over a driving beat. Angular riffs and odd breaks kept things interesting. They also pulled out some Beck-style speedy, discordant funk and some vaguely jazzy interludes to break up their songs.

Visually, the band had a laid back feel -- they moved around a bit, but everybody kept to their own patch of stage. The guitarist's slap technique was original and eye catching. The drummer's clear, plexi kit had a cool look, as it was almost invisible.

I really enjoyed their set. It stayed engaging even as it kept me guessing. Unknown Mortal Orchestra had a full sound that seemed larger than a simple three piece group. They mentioned they have an album coming out in the next month or two. I'll be interested in hearing what their studio work is like.

If Unknown Mortal Orchestra had a stronger sound than their show, Telekinesis flipped that around. Another three piece, they had a phenomenal punk style stage presence. The bass player looked like he's studied Dee Dee Ramone. He'd hold defiant poses then pogo bounce or stalk the stage.

The guitar player also followed the punk tradition, albeit more like the Clash's Joe Strummer. He worked the crowd, coming out to the lip of the stage interacting directly. He was also the one to goad the audience into clapping along.

In a twist, the drummer was the lead singer, but that never interfered with his playing. With his hands and feet busy playing, he milked the most out of facial expressions and body language. All together, the band was a great visual show. On appearance alone, they drove the music forward and held the audience.

Telekinesis' music wasn't as edgy as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but their straightforward alt rock jams had a strong Replacements-style raw energy. Swells of feedback, solid busy bass lines, and kick-out-the-jams drumming all fell together in a tight mix. By turns punk, garage rock, indie, and pop punk, the music was fun and the memorable stage show took it over the top.

They had a few tricks as they worked in some false endings and sharp dynamics that started soft and suddenly drove into a hard rock pounding. One of my favorite songs in their set, Car Crash, showed off their dynamics, shifting from a indie rock to punk punch, then back for the turnarounds.

Portugal. The Man
Portugal. The Man started off their set with a video for Sleep Forever, from their upcoming album In the Mountain, In the Cloud. The relaxed jam and gradual build got the crowd hyped. Where Sleep Forever ends, the video continued, turning strange and foreboding and shifting into Got It All (This Can't Be Living Now). The 'punchline' to the video caught us all by surprise.

When the video wrapped up, fog poured over the stage and the band came out. A long swell of resonant guitar set a trippy mood before the drums kicked in and started a dark grinding beat. The set was full of retro sounding, heady rock jams. Coming from somewhere between My Morning Jacket and Flaming Lips on the compass, Portugal. The Man also evoked in some of Blue Öyster Cult's threatening darkness. The busy, snaking bass lines covered with meandering guitar distortion carried the evening.

John Gourley's falsetto vocals occasionally drifted towards Robert Plant, but usually reminded me more of John Lennon's work with the Plastic Ono Band, especially on the more Beatlesque grooves. His voice serves as an anchor as the songs swirl some soul, blues, funk, and even ska into their psycho-classic rock foundation.

The lighting was a vital factor in the show -- they never used the overhead spots for the entire set. There was floor lighting, a nice set of lasers in various colors, and strobes, so the band stayed mostly in the shadows. The light show effects added an acid test touch and kept the focus more on the music than the band. Gourley was pretty much the only visible player for much of the time. The lighting was cool, but made photography difficult.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

CD review - Garfunkel and Oates, All Over Your Face (2011)

Since you're reading this on the interwebs, you should already be familiar with the musical comedy duo of Garfunkel and Oates (Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci). You don't need me to tell you how funny they are; you've already seen their self-produced videos.

If Garfunkel and Oates aren't already on your radar, they should be: sweet voiced harmonies, folk guitar and ukulele, and two women who personify a clever naivete. Of course, their stage personas are the perfect delivery vehicle for their bawdy humor. Their earthy shtick cuts both ways. Plenty of people love them, but it makes them easy to dismiss. Hearing these cute voices say "fuck" or cheerfully refer to oral sex is an amusing gimmick, but the titillating shock value fades fairly quickly.

Garfunkel and Oates are polarizing like Sarah Silverman, because their comedy pushes people's buttons and the boundaries of taste. It's true, the deliberate vulgarity leads to plenty of cheap shot laughs, but there's a fine comedic sense driving them. Even though some may pan Garfunkel and Oates for crassness, the pair pull it off because their material is very funny.

Much of the humor is sex and relationship based, like You, Me, and Steve and Gay Boyfriend. Garfunkel and Oates use the frank simplicity of these songs to mock modern relationships and sex roles while hitting at deeper truths. But they also branch out into larger cultural topics with the guido-bashing This Party Took A Turn For the Douche and the medical marijuana sendup, Weed Card. The pro-gay marriage ballad, Sex With Ducks, takes on Pat Robertson's crazy rhetoric and embraces it.

Of course, mere jokes wear thin after a while, but musical comedy can have longer staying power. Jonathan Coulton's songs like Re: Your Brains remain just as fun even beyond the life of the basic joke. Like Coulton, Garfunkel and Oates have a knack for catchy tunes and good songwriting. With a poppy bounce, their folky arrangements become immediate ear worms. Pregnant Women Are Smug is a great example: well after appreciating lines like, "This zen world you're enjoying, makes you really annoying", the music will be rolling through your brain over and over.

The whimsical mix of clever, quirky humor that's sugar coated with nice musical framing reminds me of early Barenaked Ladies. They've polished the arrangements to move beyond the bare bones self-released versions, but All Over Your Face remains true to the band's simple musical vision.

With regular shows in L.A., periodic appearances on the late night circuit, making a pilot for HBO, and finally getting an album out, Garfunkel and Oates have garnered a lot of attention over the last couple of years. Go ahead and get an official copy of All Over Your Face to support them. Even though most of the tunes have made the rounds already, you'll still get a good laugh.

Monday, May 9, 2011

CD review - The Shivers, More (2011)

The Shivers offer up a fusion of indie folk and retro R&B, distilled though a singer/songwriter performance feel. Til now, the Shivers has been a band name that Keith Zarriello records under, but now he's partnered with keyboard player Jo Schornikow as a full fledged member. I haven't really heard much of Zarriello's earlier work, but More (releasing this week) is a strong collaboration of these two artists. Other musicians add their backing, but Zarriello's voice and Schornikow's wonderful organ work define the sound.

Keith Zarriello's voice is intriguing -- strongly accented and husky, it resonates perfectly with his lyrics like Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen. And Zarriello's lyrics casually toss out some striking images: "She gave to you a candy, and at the time it was so sweet, but alone in your apartment, now you feel your rotting teeth." Schornikow's piano accompaniment gilds the lines with a kind of wry shake of the head.

More is full of strong songs, but the flow between them occasionally misses the mark. Kisses, my favorite track, is a righteous early '60s evocation of soulful blues. The rich organ sets the era and the bluesy rasp of Zarriello's voice sells it. Opening with the line, "Give me your kisses, baby. I am just a rock and roll kid", the sparse arrangement will set your head to swaying and foot to tapping. "Give me your kisses, baby. I am an altar to your grave." This is perfect simplicity and Schornikow's treacly organ permeates the song like thick incense.

When this lagging blues beat fades into the driving pop sound of Used To Be, it's like a shock of cold water. With Neil Diamond colored vocals against a synth pop arrangement, it's not a bad song, but the contrast is too distracting. Similarly, the slow Leonard Cohen burn of Weapons For Quiet Wars (think Hallelujah) slides into the pop bounce of I Want You Back, weakening both songs.

Ignoring these flow problems, the songs are catchy and More stands up well to repeated listening. And it's easy enough to reorder the songs to solve the problem.

The album wraps up on another gem. The title track, More, stretches from a Jeff Buckley style emotional vocal to add some powerful punches. The song builds peak dynamics to balance the sparse and moody verses. Sit in a darkened room, splash a little bourbon over some crushed ice and get the shivers.

Friday, May 6, 2011

CD review - The Henry Clay People, This Is a Desert (2011)

Following up on last year's Somewhere On The Golden Coast, the Henry Clay People are dropping a new EP, This is a Desert. Spawned from a new recording session, it's a high energy, hard rocking extension of Somewhere. It also shows some signs of the band's maturation into new sounds.

Joey Siara and company have infused the five tracks on the EP with a tight live performance feel. From the first track, The Honey Love He Sells, they take off at full speed. The tune strikes their signature balance of punk energy and retro glam rock polish. It kickstarts This Is A Desert much like Nobody Taught Us To Quit set the tempo for Somewhere On The Golden Coast.

California Wildfire - Download and listen

California Wildfire features a nice twinned guitar intro. The classic rock groove features a haze of Cheap Trick aura, but the song rolls through a number of sections, each of which with their own mood. This gives the tune a nice dynamic between reminiscence and bravado:
There's a California wildfire burnin' through the hills tonight
And they're telling us to stay inside
But we've been stuck inside for the better part of our lives
And I just wanna watch something burn.
The Winter Song has a looser demo feel, with a chiming guitar and echoed vocals. The wash of distorted backing guitars and other sonic artifacts give it an experimental air. It's more of a stretch for the band, but it features the same earnest honesty that permeates the Henry Clay People's songs.

The Winter Song runs right into the start of This Is A Desert. Although the verses start out pretty tight, the looser guitar in the turnaround reflects the anarchy of the previous track. If these two songs offer a glimpse of new direction for the band, it is a wilder, less focused vibe. While I wouldn't trade this with their classic sound, This Is A Desert offers a good balance between the two approaches.

The EP wraps up with It Isn't The Waiting, which is squarely back in the band's home camp. The opening line, "Our time is for wastin', so let's get wasted away", offers a clever start to what turns out to be more philosophical tune. The guitars dominate as always, but there are some nice bass lines buried in the mix.

This Is A Desert reminds us that the Henry Clay People is still on the scene. They have a couple of dates in LA at The Satellite. I'm torn between wanting them to tour through Colorado again or cut another full length album. In the meantime, let's stay with rum and Coke, but add a splash of Kahlua.

- Review of Somewhere on the Golden Coast
- Review of Henry Clay People live with the Drive By Truckers
- Interview with Joey Siara

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Concert review - Mogwai with Errors

2 May 2011 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)

A fresh spring evening and a sold out show at the Bluebird, both were signs of the great night ahead. The diverse crowd had an anticipatory vibration as we all filed in and claimed our spaces. Typical for the Bluebird, it was a early start, with no local opening act.

Errors has strong ties to Mogwai. The Glaswegian quartet is signed to Mogwai's in-house label, Rock Action Records. They've opened for Mogwai numerous times in the last couple of years. This tour is special because their drummer, James Hamilton, is working double duty to play Mogwai's set as well to cover for Martin Bulloch's absence.

Both bands focus primarily on instrumental music, but there's not much overlap. Errors sound is rooted in heavily processed electronic loops and riffs. I've seen them described as "post electro", but I'm not sure what makes this "post". The songs are centered on keyboards and synths, accompanied by a hard driving live drum beat. Thick layers of intricate synth elements, sequenced and full of echo, form the foundation of their songs. The guitars primarily add texture. Oftentimes, they're as mutated through effects as the synthesizers.

Their setup was extensive, multiple synths and keys, a Macbook, a couple of guitars, a full drum kit, and countless stomp boxes (including several mounted on one of the keyboards). The playing was competent, but the guys' stage presence seemed shy and inexperienced. Stephen Livingstone did all the talking for the band, showing a little wry humor and sharing his amazement at Denver's famed Casa Bonita. James Hamilton, as befits the drummer, was the most active as he warmed up for his second set.

Errors' live version of their recent song, Magna Encarta, sounded like modern electro with classic synth pop aspirations. My favorite song was their psychedelic groove on Beards. It wasn't clear how much of the song was sequenced ahead of time, but the bass guitar and meandering guitars put those questions on the back burner.

The set closed out on a great electro jam with grinding bass and hard drumming. The headiness of this last song was a good send off to whet our appetites for Mogwai.

This tour has already faced a number of challenges. Visa problems led to canceling the first five dates and, as mentioned above, Martin Bulloch had to back out because of family issues. Mogwai doesn't seem like the easiest band to substitute for, but the Errors' James Hamilton did a great job covering for Bulloch. I'd have rather seen Mogwai complete, but Hamilton fit in smoothly.

Much of the setlist covered their recent album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (review here). Even though some old fans decried Hardcore's shift away from the cathartic wall of noise that Mogwai has embraced in the past, the band showed how intense these new songs could be.

The set started off with White Noise, the opening track of the album. This song is a great example of how Mogwai can create a sense of space and openness. On Hardcore, the song is reflective and meditative with a mild underlying glitch of distorted guitar, unfolding into rich detail. Live, the band used the more powerful stage volume to build the song into a consuming swirl of sound.

Later, I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead started off with a deliberate momentum that felt inevitable as it evolved. Like good classical music, it was structured but not stiff. There's a breathing flow that underlies the various motifs that may not be strictly improvised, but it's alive. It's emotionally evocative and raw all at once.

The encore led off with Auto Rock, which reiterated the same melodic hook, building in intensity. The progression was inescapable and obsessive, ratcheting up until it became a crashing wave of sound to strip us bare. Mogwai's music eroded our defensive protective shell, leaving our nerves exposed and overstimulated. This is what we came for.

More photos on my Flickr.

Monday, May 2, 2011

CD review - Gomez, Whatever's On Your Mind (2011)

Gomez' sound is anchored in conflict. The three singers (and four songwriters) each have their own strong voice and style that pull the band in different directions. This diversity is what makes it hard to pigeonhole Gomez into a genre other than the vaguely named "indie rock".

Over the years, they've pared back a bit from the wild mix of psychedelia, experimental, and alternative rock they used to spread into. Their last album, A New Tide, had some edgier moments like Win Park Slope, but overall the balance has been tipping towards a more pop oriented feel. On Whatever's On Your Mind, due out in June, Gomez continues that shift. The band's individual goals are more aligned, so the sound is smoother.

Don't mistake smoother or more pop for boring or less interesting, though. There is plenty of classic Gomez in the mix. The detailed arrangements, featuring interesting guitar parts along with strings and horns, play up the band's Beatlesque qualities. The first single, Options, shows all of this: a simple guitar strum and drumbeat accumulates horns, shimmery keys, and guitar fills. The vocals are smooth and a little ironic:
I could be the guy at the end of the street
High on caffeine
Ranting and raving, baby
And that's okay, at least I've got options
Or I could be the one that gives it all up
And move back to the parent's house
And live in the basement, baby
And that's okay, at least I've got options
But when Ben Ottewell's rougher voice joins in during the bridge, it opens up the song to a deeper emotional truth:
I never wanted to change you
I only wanted to share
No, I don't believe
I don't believe
It's starting over and over again
Over and over again
One of Gomez' distinctive elements is how they overlay different rhythmic syncoptaions. This creates more complex beats, but it also intensifies the musical elements as they merge and diverge. I Will Take You There does this with an interesting drum beat, repetitive guitar figures, and languid keys, giving the track has a loose funky vibe. The Place and the People uses the same technique to take a simple beat and guitar line layered with electronic sounds and other bits of fill to create a compelling experimental vibe.

Whatever's On Your Mind flows easily from song to song. The sweetest moment comes with Our Goodbye. Nestled between The Place and the People and the electro pop feel of Song in My Heart, Our Goodbye has a gentle processional feel. Ottewell's voice evokes some of Elton John's long ago, better works. The string accompaniment, soft dynamics, and perfect pop construction all play against the two songs that bookend it. This stripped down live version offers a taste...

Sure, I still miss the trippy groove of Get Miles, the ska punch of Get Myself Arrested, and island beats behind Revolutionary Kind. But I can pull up the early albums anytime. I want to see what Gomez is going to be when they grow up. With the band currently scattered across the US and Britain, they could have just drifted apart. I'm glad they're still finding inspiration together. I'd like to raise a glass of the Morland's Old Speckled Hen I last had back in '96: rich, malty, and flavorful.