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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

CD review - Cymbals Eat Guitars, Lenses Alien (2011)

Sophomore release paints a progressive, post-indie rock sonic landscape

Lenses Alien is an impressive follow up to 2009's Why There Are Mountains (review here). As on their debut, Cymbals Eat Guitars still restlessly shift directions, but the changes are more fluid and seem less capricious. The band continues to experiment with controlled chaos a la Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and to explore Trail of Dead style post rock. But now they've introduced more of the raw energy of their live sound.

That energy drives Lenses Alien forward musically, but the band seems to have a fatalistic air and the lyrics are more oblique. It can be hard to tease out the words, but they often allude to darker subjects. Plainclothes shows off the best and worse of this. The words bounce around in a stream of consciousness flow, from thoughtful:
I feel the ghost of all the parties still happening
Right on this very spot that I am standing
Kids are blissing in the spare room
Light years away
to the threatening:
It is initiation season
So watch out for the cars with no lights on
If you flash them they would swing around
Then follow you home

Along the way Cymbals Eat Guitars tease with phrases like "Dry mushrooms taste a lot like communion wafers". The music has detuned, dreamy moments as well as punk-worthy snarl and unfocused thrash. A lot is crammed into a brief four minutes or so but the music is more coherent than the lyrical flow.

Cymbals Eat Guitars offered a first taste of Lenses Alien last month. The epic leading track is called Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name). It sprawls through a mix of indie rock and psychedelic sections, split by a cathartic swirl of sound. That progressive feel permeates the other songs. The band leans more towards a sectional structure than simpler verse-chorus blocks.

Sometimes, a superficial listen tricks the ear that the band does slip in a chorus in songs like Keep Me Waiting. But, like a shark, the song moves constantly forward and doesn't find words worth repeating. The arrangement feels more standard in large part to the heavy Replacements influence. The track kicks off like it belongs on Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash. The thrashing guitars hit that Replacements sound and Joseph D'Agostino's voice even reaches toward Paul Westerberg. It doesn't matter whether it's a homage or just channeling from deeper currents.

Even if the lyrics often slide too far into beat poetry expressiveness, the musical vision always rescues the songs from self indulgence. Lenses Alien is messy, trippy, and an intriguing sonic landscape.

Monday, August 29, 2011

August singles

This month's singles cover some bigger named artists that I have a lot of respect for. Three very different musical directions, but all are quite talented entertainers.

Jonathan Coulton - Nemeses (Artificial Heart, due out Fall 2011)

Jonathan Coulton
Photo credit: Shervin Lainez

Jonathan Coulton has built an impressive following with his quirky takes on mad scientists, zombie office workers, and code monkeys. As a strong proponent of Creative Commons licensing, he has shared his way into his audience's heart. Most of his music is fundamentally simple: a man with a guitar (and perhaps a backing vocal or two). His tours, occasionally with musical comedians Paul and Storm, have emphasized that simple, direct style.

The new album promises some changes: guest vocalists, including Suzanne Vega, and a backing band. The first taste, Nemeses, premiered on Paste Magazine. Coulton is backed by a band and hands the lead vocal to John Roederick (The Long Winters). It's a surprising setp, but Coulton has reassured his fans that we'll get to hear plenty of his voice on the album.

It's also strange hearing his guitar slip into the full sounding pop arrangement. But the writing comes through and Coulton still hits his target zone where wistful melodies blend with odd perspectives. In Nemeses, the main character posits that his existence is based on his role as another man's nemesis. It's funny, touching, and a bit sad...it's Jonathan Coulton.

Pajama Club - These Are Conditions (Pajama Club, due out in September)

Neil Finn's Pajama Club

Pajama Club is Neil Finn's latest band vehicle. These Are Conditions shows off Finn's pop sensibility, recalling his time with Split Enz more than his work with Crowded House. The tightly restrained funk riff also owes a debt to Split Enz contemporaries, The Fixx. Finn updates the groove with some modern elements and adds a touch of club to the new wave vibe.

Pajama Club also includes Finn's wife, Sharon Finn, as well as songwriter Sean Donnely. Pajama Club's touring line up adds drummer Alana Skyring to fill out the sound. Drop by the band's website to get another Pajama Club track, From a Friend to a Friend. Keep an eye out for a Pajama Club album in September.

Tori Amos - Carry (from Night of the Hunters, due out September 20)

Tori Amos, Night of the Hunters

Tori Amos continues to extend her scope with her upcoming album, Night of the Hunters. Harking back to her classical roots, the Deutsche Grammophon project promises to be a modern song cycle, with inspiration from composers like Eric Satie and Frédéric Chopin. With orchestral backing and well known classical players, the albums seems like a challenge that her fans might find daunting.

But the first video, Carry, allays any fears. The organic, breathy flow of the song and Amos' expressive piano work put the song on familiar ground. Amos' lush voice yearns, but also comforts. The orchestral elements naturally complement the song, whether it's the string section lines or the touch of oboe. The mix is richer and more theatrical than pop but retains a song-like sense.

I'm looking forward to hearing more from Night of the Hunters.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

CD review - Rene Lopez, E.L.S. (2011)

Lopez moves from retro soul to a contemporary Latin sound

Rene Lopez' last album, People Are Just People (review here) served as a kind of homage to classic R&B and soul music. On his latest album, E.L.S., Lopez steps forward to claim his own voice. "Electric Latin Soul" is his new banner and the album largely lives up to that vision.

The title cut serves as Lopez' statement of purpose, marrying an electro-disco funk groove with Latin percussion beats. But it's the second track, I Flow, that really delivers on the Electric Latin sound. The vocals provide club braggadocio touting his rap skills as the backing track lays down the speedy beat the flow demands. The horns and rhythms make a compelling combination:
It took me twenty years to finally find my flow
Now that it's mine, I won't, I won't let go
Pickpocket man try to steal, steal my soul
I caught him red handed when my eyes were closed
(Here I go, here I go)
To the east (I flow), yeah it's big in Japan
To the west (I flow), in the California sand
To the north (I flow), in the Bronx, I was born
To the south (I flow), it's going on and on
The beat is club worthy, but the syncopation gives it life beyond the dance floor.

Despite the electro-dance elements, Lopez hasn't completely abandoned his earlier sound. The "soul" part of "Electric Latin Soul" gets a workout in tracks like Honey Got Some Love or Everything We Do. These tracks keep the clave rhythms and tight percussion, but still deliver a soulful message and vocal feel.

E.L.S. is packed with busier tracks than Lopez' previous work. As much as I enjoyed People Are Just People, the new album is exciting as Rene Lopez plays with sonic ideas. Not all of the experiments succeed (L2 the Boogaloo's electro Latin hip hop, for example), but Lopez commits to the exploration. He embraces his Puerto Rican roots while reaching for a more contemporary sound. Lopez is a talented multi-instrumentalist, so his next steps will indicate whether he plans bring the E.L.S. sound to maturity or mutate it further.

(The link above for I Flow is a live version. Follow this link to tweet about the album and get a copy of the album track)

Monday, August 22, 2011

CD review - Cloud Control, Bliss Release (2010/2011)

Rich retro harmonies fill out psychedelic folk sound

Australia's Cloud Control have built a big reputation back home and started making waves in Europe. Now their debut, Bliss Release, is due for release here in the US.

Cloud Control cover some of the same terrain as other indie folkish artists like Fleet Foxes or Arcade Fire: guitar jangle, a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, and a retro haze permeating their music. Cloud Control stakes their own claim by leaning more towards a psych folk vibe and building rich harmony arrangements. These harmonies are where the band truly shines.

The opening track, Meditation Song #2 (Why, Oh Why) is the perfect representative for the band's sound. The simple folky start with sweet harmonies sounds like the Mamas and the Papas. The easy acoustic sway is pretty, but then a low level guitar distortion adds a fill of notes. A moment later, that distortion moves in with acid rock intensity and drives the rest of the song. The psychedelic feel reorients the harmonies to classic psych folkers, The Association.

But the full musical sound never buries the harmonies. The male and female vocals meld, then exchange lines. The voices maintain a kind of sunshine openness that contrasts with the intensity of the music.

On the other hand, songs like Death Cloud prove that Cloud Control can play solid indie rock, too. The driving beat and staccato bassline are more modern. But once again, the harmonies add complexity and depth to the song. Despite the threatening title and lyrics, the sound is open and joyous.

Cloud Control breaks up the love-fest with songs like Ghost Story or My Fear #1. The moody chanting and repetitive drone on Ghost Story build a delightful tension, even as the chorus offers a quirky diversion:
We are the sole protectors
We are the soul collectors
We follow solar vectors
The music is full of rhythmic details. Despite these darker moments, Bliss Release is ultimately an affirming listen. The retro sunshine resonance lingers like a sip of Barenjager honey liqueur.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

CD review - Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (2011)

Outsider pop? Sunshine psychedelia? Low-fi sonic explorations

Earlier this year, I caught Unknown Mortal Orchestra when they opened for Portugal. The Man (review here). I enjoyed their live sound, which expanded on rock song structures by adding some odd scales, giving them an experimental feel. The guitar and bass playing reminded me of Pavement.

Their self-titled debut album shows flashes of those sounds, but the overall effect is far richer. Fundamentally, UMO builds a low-fi, retro psychedelia that offers glimpses of '60s pop, garage rock, and some early Zappa/Mothers style riffage. But each track is its own musical destination. The one constant is UMO's low-fi production, which sounds exactly like an AM radio in a 1968 Plymouth Valiant. That's not the most useful comparison today, of course. Instead, imagine eavesdropping on a stranger listening to the music on their phone. It's none of your business, but something about the strains of sound acts as a siren call, drawing your ear in.

Cramming the songs into this limited bandwidth creates some odd resonances that jangle in the ear. The tracks are cheery and bouncy, creating a sunshine psychedelic effect. The opening song, Ffunny Ffrends starts off with a laid back beat Pavement guitar riff (intro) that slides into a super saturated sound. Ruban Nielson's falsetto vocals evoke T Rex's Marc Bolan. The track offers the first sense of UMO as outsider pop musicians. The heavy reverb and clipped vocals jostle together, noisy but still a compelling listen.

UMO shift away from the retro pop sound on Nerve Damage! Bookended with oddly effected, jazzy riffs, the main track is firmly grounded in garage/psychedelic rock that takes on tinge of Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators. The quirky low-high vocal pairing is particularly interesting. The next song, Little Blu House, changes up the mix. It's sweet and trippy, with a Krautrock foundation groove. The sparse guitar loosely overlays the steady drive of the bass and drums, almost exorcising the thrash of Nerve Damage!

Contrasts like this fill Unknown Mortal Orchestra, which shows off how many heady flavors can be explored within UMO's constrained, low bandwidth sonic space. Retro ghosts of Yes, Zappa, and Syd Barrett dance with fractured shards of Beck and Stephen Malkmus. Serenely above it all, Unknown Mortal Orchestra calculates their next intriguing musical target.

Monday, August 15, 2011

CD review - Barry, Yawnin' In the Dawnin' (2011)

Folk rockers from New York make a solid debut

Barry is genuine. Barry is sincere and not afraid to be a little cornball. Barry is a folk rock band made up of three brothers. I've sat in with my brother's band and it sounded great. But it's hard to imagine adding a third brother and making a band work. Pat (guitar/harmonica), Ben (bass), and Brad (drums) Barry may secretly fight at home or even onstage, but on Yawnin' In the Dawnin', they smoothly mesh together to create a solid sound with some interesting songs.

Against a sea of low-fi, indie releases, it's refreshing to hear such a well made album. The arrangements and the engineering are top notch. The mixing is particularly fine: the vocals are always clear and the individual instruments stand out. Album production values are rarely worth mentioning: if the band isn't deliberately making an unaesthetic statement, most self-produced albums are merely competently engineered. Yawnin' In the Dawnin' sounds professionally produced.

Musically, Barry offers up a nice palette of sounds across the EP. Three Years in Carolina lays down a simple vibe that hearkens back to folk rock acts of the early '70s. With brothers singing, it's no surprise that the harmonies are sweet. But the two part (and occasional three part) vocals are smoothly arranged. The musical flow is effortless: a chorus slides right into a harmonica solo that hits a perfect up and down dynamic. Then that sets up a slower verse and chorus. The breaks and deceptively simple feel recall the Band's classic songs.

In stark contrast, Carnival(E) has a darker feel. The bass and cut-time beat hint at the carny sound without taking it as far as Tom Waits would. That leaves room for the rocker chorus, which sounds great against the verses. I love this track, but there was a weakness because the chorus and verses don't really tie together lyrically. The carnival theme in the verses:
Welcome to the carnival
the strong man lifts his weight while on a wire
And he breathes fire
Marvel at the acrobat, lion tamers, jugglers and a psychic
Come one, come all to see the show
seems too loosely related to the chorus:
Maybe I'm the fallen man,
The bearded, tattooed long-haired rambler
I'm a nomad
Maybe I'm the chosen Son
The one who walks alone and offers salvation
Maybe I'm no one
The music and the vocal expression gloss over the disconnect, but it still tweaks me a bit.

The other tracks are closer to Three Years in Carolina without rehashing the same musical ground, from the outlaw country of Love Something Too Much to the barroom autobiographical Drink One More. The songs are catchy and fresh. The band's attitude is also fresh and earnest, reflecting well on the name of their personal record label, 100% Records.

The only misstep is the goofy title track. Yawnin' In the Dawnin' is a brief a capella ditty somewhere between old time sing-along and barbershop. The press release explains that it's a morning wake up song their father would sing. That answers the question of why it's there, but it's still an acquired taste.

Give Barry a listen or drop by their Facebook page. I'll be interested to hear more of their music in the future.

Friday, August 12, 2011

CD review - Cut Off Your Hands, Hollow (2011)

Rooted in old school reverb and Smiths style post punk

Cut Off Your Hands seem like they've picked up their influences via long range osmosis. On Hollow, the New Zealand band evokes the Smiths and the Cure with their indie flavored post punk sound. They give it their own upbeat spin by dragging in some earlier sounds. The mix of up tempo rhythms and downbeat lyrics is less bipolar than "glad to be sad".

The Smiths element is largely based on some nice Johnny Marr style guitar arrangements and the thick sheen of reverb in the production, although I half think the title, Hollow, is a reference to the Smiths' Hatful of Hollow. Given some of the '60s pop aspects to the album, that wall of reverb could be more directly attributed to Phil Spector, who Johnny Marr also admired. The sound of a long, soft decay is like the band is trapped in amber or behind a glass wall. It creates a sense of distance, both sonic and emotional.

The shimmery guitar on Oh Hell rides the thick echoes much like some of Marr's work. The brief bits of sparkly notes on the bridge solo take me back. At the same time, the track has a more modern indie rock drum beat. The chorus falls back to a kind Supertramp-like lushness, filled out with harmony vocals.

On the other hand, frontman Nick Johnston's vocals are more Robert Smith than Morissey. Several of the songs bridge pop and post punk like the Cure's post Gothic phase. The opening track, You Should Do Better injects an uptempo, rolling snare beat, but it's not too far from Friday I'm In Love. The bass line is vintage Cure, as well. It's a strong start for Hollow. The lyrics and guitar hook are catchy without being fluff. As Johnston recounts his failings as a boyfriend, the beat moves on insistently.

Several tracks break the post punk pattern or at least extend it. The Beach Boys harmonies on By Your Side offer a retro sense of the '60s, filtered through Tom Petty chord changes.

Staying with the '60s vibe, Fooling No One kicks off with a strong Byrds feel: a driving beat and Roger McGuinn style guitar jangle. The thick reverb here takes on that Spector vibe, making the track sound ready for a vintage AM radio. The backing vocals are subtle but very interesting.

Despite the retro feel, this song offers the best sense of Cut Off Your Hand's voice. The pop sensibility and anthemic music are juxtaposed with resigned lyrics, settling into a hopeful middle ground. It fits in well with Hollow's consistent sound rooted in old school reverb and post punk.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

CD review - Big Bang, Sin renuncia a la esperanza (2010)

Spanish rockers mix up modern and alternative influences

Big Bang from Barcelona may share a name with bands from Norway and South Korea, but their sound is a unique mix of alternative and modern rock along with a metallic aftertaste. Hearing Sin renuncia a la esperanza, it's easy to imagine the band growing up on a weird mix of Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, and Frank Zappa veterans like Steve Vai and Mike Keneally. That Zappa-inspired modern rock is a fundamental part of Big Bang's iconic sound, but it's always leavened by a hard rock edge. It's a seamless transition that exercises both the inner headbanger and appreciation of what Zappa called "stunt guitar".

Take a song like Hay sueños: the initial groove is a jazzy laid back jam, rooted in an exercise of whammy bar guitar chords, a la Mike Keneally . The vocal is appropriately restrained, almost spoken. The bass accents add a nice counter rhythm. Then, with a short drum count, the song abandons the relaxed vibe and erupts into a Rage Against the Machine grind. A thick, throaty guitar tone drives the heavy metal sound of this section.

The beauty is in the effortless transition. That drum count and a touch of choppy guitar chord make it seem natural. Even better, Big Bang finishes out the heavy section and uses a stutter beat drum fill to take us back into the original groove. The see-saw shift between the sections creates a wonderful tension. During one of the softer sections, the band throws in a brilliant Vai style solo. Evocative and moody, the fine phrasing shows off technical chops ranging from speedy runs and whammy dives.

While each song finds its own path, that balance between these musical approaches is present on most the tracks. While the guitar parts emphasize the sonic differences, the strong drum and bass work are key to the transitions.

On No fue por error, the pattern is similar. Once again, the track starts off with a spiky, angular guitar, this time reminiscent of Adrian Belew's work. We get some lyrics, but the hard rock drive creeps in, with a sound like Head Like a Hole (Nine Inch Nails). The solo resurrects the Belew style guitar, complete with singing harmonics, whammy bar tricks, and bits of chaos. This slips into a funky bass line accompanied by a Latin percussion groove. Within a handful of measures, the song subsides back into the chorus grind. This time, instead of a see-saw, it's like a whirlwind tour.

The music on Sin renuncia a la esperanza is so impressive, that I don't mind the Spanish lyrics. I can follow occasional phrases and the lyrical flow is smooth, but I know I'm missing a facet of Big Bang's performance. Regardless, Big Bang is worth the listen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Concert review - Stockholm Syndrome with Sam Holt Band

5 August 2011 (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue CO)

The Mish is a favorite venue near Ft. Collins, Colorado. The unique ambiance comes from having a comfortable outdoor amphitheatre that's intimate and wide open, the Cache La Poudre River running past, and majestic canyon walls rising behind the stage. Almost every show turns into a party under the stars. Recently under new management, they've started running a bus shuttle into town to address the limited parking, so the show experience is bookended by the shuttle rides.

The trip up was filled with anticipation. Even though we were running late, everyone was laid back. When we arrived, we found that we had missed the beginning of the opening set, but it was still okay.

Similarly, the trip home was a gradual come down from the buzz of the show. People were wired moving to tired, but it was a spirited trip out of the canyon.

Sam Holt Band
The first challenge is nailing down the band's real name. Since we had missed the opening, I didn't hear their introduction. One person told me they were the Dyrty Byrds. The show listing for the following night's show at the Bluebird in Denver has Tori Pater Band opening. Sam Holt's Facebook page identifies them as the Sam Holt Band. Jambase has it as Sam Holt Band, so I'll go with that. The problem is that Holt and Pater have several interlocking projects so it can be hard for an outsider to distinguish them.

In any case, the band built their sound by standing on the Grateful Dead's shoulders. They blended a similar balance of rock, country, folk, and traditional sounds for their songs. Like modern jam bands, they extend the style by adding some structure to the song arrangements and by including more eclectic influences.

You can tell these guys play together a lot. The jams were tight and they looked like they were having a lot of fun. Reacting to each other's playing or making eye contact during their bluegrass tinged harmonies, their stage presence invited us into their circle. The band also had a great sense of dynamics, dropping the level and complexity to provide a break or stand out setting for some short solo moments.

Adam Stern's pedal steel was a strong part of the band's unique voice. Even the lead guitar fills seemed to echo a pedal tone sound. When Stern switched to electric guitar, he proved to be an impressive player there as well. Those songs with three guitars emphasized the band's southern rock sound.

The Sam Holt Band was a great opening act. They built the crowd energy and their sound complemented the headliner.

Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm Syndrome is centered around Jerry Joseph (the Jackmormons) and Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), so their jam band cred is well established. They rounded out the band with a line up of solid performers: Danny Louis (keys), Wally Ingram (drums), and Eric McFadden (guitar). The band has maintained a fairly stable roster and developed good chemistry that takes advantage of everybody's skills.

Jerry Joseph took the frontman role, driving most of the songs and singing lead. He was a charismatic player who engaged the audience. Rarely standing still, he seemed tightly wound. His energy balanced Dave Schools' more solid presence. Schools radiated a calm, centered joy on stage. Throughout the set, Schools' bass work was dependably strong, but the real surprise came when he'd occasionally cut loose and show off his amazing technical skills. Speedy runs and syncopated rhythms punctuated the rich low end harmonies he played. At the same time, his playing was also very emotional, like the ecstatic solo included in the intro jam leading into That Which Is Coming.

The set opened with soulful sound of Danny Louis' organ on Tight. Joseph had technical problems with his guitar for the first couple of song. Like a true professional, he stayed cool while the roadie was frantic. Schools' beatific smile graced it all. Louis' organ tone was a constant beautiful presence. Whether he was driving the groove (like on Tight) or just adding subtle touches, the keys were a vital element of Stockholm Syndrome's sound.

The band's cover of Couldn't Get It Right (Climax Blues Band) has been a crowd pleaser for a long time, with a tight funky beat and tasty fills. This live version kicked off with a Stevie Wonder Superstition vibe, before locking into its funked out rock drive.

Eric McFadden is a force of nature on stage with his own band, Eric McFadden Trio, but in Stockholm Syndrome, he reins in his stage presence to let Jerry Joseph take the lead role. That doesn't mean he's passive: he's fully engaged as he applies his monster skills to the songs. His intro to Bouncing Very Well was stunning. Full of classical runs and nuanced phrasing, McFadden calmed the crowd into silent respect for his beautiful playing before setting up the song's happy island groove. Once the audience recognized the song, they went wild.

Bouncing Very Well rolled through some nice dynamic shifts and great jams before the guitars left the stage, leaving Dave Schools to start his bass solo with a run of lightning staccato notes, accompanied by Louis and drummer Wally Ingram. After Schools ran through his rich, melodic solo, Ingram got his chance. Ingram is always a tasteful player. In this solo, he moved beyond the standard build it up/tear it down drum solo. Instead, the basic groove persisted and never devolved into percussion chaos. Cool side syncopation filled it out, but Ingram's use of space and silence was also unique.

Schools came out for the encore and said,
We were trying to decide whether you guys wanted happy rock or evil rock. We decided evil rock. This is what happens when you get evil.
This set up a grinding acid rock jam. Joseph's wah-wah guitar meandered through psychedelic realms leading into a rousing version of Road To Damascus. The song dragged out into around 20 minutes of jams, with swirling organ and trippy leads. Late in the song, Joseph slipped in a mash up of Jay Z's of 99 Problems and Led Zeppelin's Black Dog. It was an amazing end to a long, wonderful, jam-filled set.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, August 5, 2011

CD review - Fountains of Wayne, Sky Full of Holes (2011)

Pop masterpieces feature engaging stories and characters
Fountains of Wayne consistently deliver solid pop music. Sky Full of Holes, their fifth album, follows the band's regular formula of coupling a small set of thematic approaches with smoothly arranged, hook-laden pop music. While none of the songs is likely to rival Stacy's Mom for chart success, they're all fairly solid and interesting.

The key to Fountains of Wayne's success is their sly sense of humor, their interesting lyrical phrasing, and the way that most of their songs avoid musical cliches. Smoother and more accessible than Steely Dan, FoW's songs have a similarly distinctive East Coast vibe, albeit more power pop oriented.

The idealized Fountains of Wayne song elevates a prosaic subject, giving it unexpected attention. When the songs are about regular people, like a neurotic woman (The Summer Place) or a father (Action Hero), they are full of detail and reveal hidden inner monologues, quirkiness, or quiet desperation. Other times, the band takes a pedestrian topic, like a favorite pub (Radio Bar), and builds up a set of witty observations.

They also usually scatter in some oblique cultural commentary and some self-absorbed, first person relationship songs to spice up the flow. Sky Full of Holes hits these approaches as well.

The first two tracks turned out to be my favorites as they kicked off the more uptempo half of the album. The Summer Place is a power pop character study of a woman out of place in her adulthood. She's neurotic and depressed, but the music is declarative and cheery. Bored and disconnected, even her risk taking is somehow constrained:
She took a handful of mushrooms
That she bought from a surfer
She spent the night in a hospital room
So the doctors could observe her
At another level, though, the songs seems to be referring to the extended adolescence of many Americans.

The next track, Richie and Ruben, is another happy song about a quirky pair of losers and their various failed ventures. The details of their sketchy business decisions are amusing, but the real joke is that the singer is the sucker who's invested in them despite knowing them. The simple chord progression includes a couple of jazzy major sevenths and a tasteful fill guitar. Maybe it's the sardonic lyrics or Chris Collingwood's trademark casual delivery, but it's a catchy earworm.

Sky Full of Holes, like other FoW albums, doesn't stay in the comfortable space of jokes and irony. Shifting the mood, Cold Comfort Flowers is less direct. The verse lyrics are impressionistic, colored by darker pessimism:
Pink clouds, summer sorrow, oceanside swales
If you don't feel pretty with your face in the tide
Well, file your complaint in weary detail
And tell the little people you tried
The chorus is a pretty bit of harmonized Beatlesque psychedelia, implying a kind of acceptance. The mix of cynicism and acquiescence is another familiar combination from the band.

Sky Full of Holes
doesn't signal a change in FoW's musical direction, but the band still feels fresh and interesting. Ignoring industry trends towards a low-fi, DIY sound and heavy attitude, Fountains of Wayne continue to polish their understated pop gems.

(Here's another single from the album: Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CD review - Knowa Knowone, Sound Paintings (2011)

Bass and glitch go global
Knowa Knowone's Sound Paintings lays out an electronic vibe that bridges club space and head space -- feet tap while the mind expands. The EP features five main tracks along with the obligatory remixes. Bass and glitch are the favored sonic elements, but Knowone also stirs in dub step, occasional hip hop beats, and non-electronic parts to create a vibrant sound.

Even as the bass growls through each track, the songs tread their own paths for an engaging listen. Each has a starting direction and mood that set the theme for Knowone's exploration. Aside from the seasoning of different musical sounds, the tracks also vary the sonic density, from the sparse groove of The Quari to the fully fleshed Ra (the Sun).

Here's the quick rundown of the main tracks:
  • The Quari opens with a brief vocal that sounds like a Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. This vocal chanting wanders in and out, adding an exotic feel. The moody groove itself is very open, leaving lots of space. Teases of deep bass punctuate a bouncy beat, while languid Middle Eastern melody lines drift by like cigarette smoke. The overall feel evokes Two Tone era ska, world beat, and trippy electronica all at the same time. The Quari is a great lead off song that pulls jaded listeners in for more.
  • Naked on Acid changes the mood completely. A basic hip hop beat sets the rhythm, but the rest of the music is trippy bordering on a trance vibe. Dubby electronica threads a path between dub step and glitch. The heavy bass has a malevolent vibe while the higher synth lines imply a more detached feel. Ambient bits of sound add a heady element. The rhythmic parts on top of the foundation beat create a dancing elephant sort of feel. This lightens up during a dreamy, floating bridge section.
  • Let Me Tell You a Story lives up to its title: the flow between song sections creates a sense of progression, moving between sparse and layered moments. The glitchy, machinelike groove is built on a solid, laid back beat. Heavy bass undertones pulse while piano accents stand out on the quiet moments. It's not my favorite track, but it's still fairly strong.
  • Fire on the Roof is even stronger. Turntable scratches complements a driving glitch hop groove. The choppy jam is sprinkled with cool rap samples that slide in and out. The track cooks up an old vs. new feel that honors both. Retro scratching samples gain a sweet tension from the nasty electronic groove.
  • Ra (the Sun) veers into another unique mix. Sweetly harmonized string lines soothe against a throbbing bass as hip hop vocals weave into the mix. Organic meets electronic to create a cybernetic synergy. The lyrical flow is smooth, with a contrast between the rapped verses and the R&B tinged chorus vocals. The track is packed with details to tease out on repeated listens. One of the remixes is just an instrumental version of this track, which stands up well, but the vocals bring the song into focus and add meaning.
Speaking of remixes, I'm not generally an aficionado. Sound Paintings includes two real remixes aside from the instrumental version of Ra (the Sun). While they aren't bad, neither offers a stronger perspective on the original versions. That's okay though, the backbone tracks do a fine job of showing off what Knowa Knowone can do.

Monday, August 1, 2011

CD review - Pursesnatchers, A Pattern Language (2011)

Chameleon-like Pursesnatchers stretch out, but maintain shoegaze roots
I covered Pursesnatchers in my June singles review. They had released Wet Cement as a single and I liked the tight song structure that contrasted with looser vocals and low-fi guitar fills. Giving A Pattern Language a listen, I still like them, but for slightly different reasons. I still enjoy the balance of tight and loose elements, but I really like the way they use an indie rock foundation to explore other musical avenues.

Whether it's the choppy new wave guitar sound and throbbing bass on Forever Overhead or the 10,000 Maniacs guitar/Natalie Merchant vocal of Third Body Problem, Pursesnatchers make their musical allusions but maintain their own shoegaze sound. Tracks like the slow, dreamy meandering of Kissena Park or the drifty Lost in Lost Angeles seem closest to the band's inherent sound.

A favorite track was the U-2 drive of Mechanical Rabbits. The U-2 elements are all in place -- a steady bass line with an Edge-style guitar line that repeats independent of the chord changes. Unlike Bono, the vocals are tossed off with nonchalance:
Lightning doesn't strike, so much as connect things
Balances out the energy that's burning between things
The lyrics are philosophical yet personal in a way that Bono and company often bypass. The bridge shifts the song into another direction, dropping the tempo and tight beat into a looser indie interlude. It still slides back, but the break is key to Pursesnatchers' sound. At their heart, they have a more open, emotional sound, but they tend to constrain it to a tighter musical space.

Another favorite track is Baseball on the Radio (download on Filter), a wonderfully trippy jam. Like a Yo La Tengo groove, the song is centered on a rotating, hypnotic bass line and repeating guitars. The droning collection of sounds builds into a psychedelic collection of layers. Detached vocals offset the joyous exaltation of the music.

With Pursesnatchers, Doug Marvin (Dirty on Purpose) and Annie Hart (Au Revoir Simone) have built a recognizable sound. I'd like to hear more of Hart's vocals, which seem rare on A Pattern Language, but that's just a quibble.