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

Friday, September 30, 2011

CD review - Sills & Smith, Uncertain Vista (2011)

Split personality: we will, we will rock/folk you!

Uncertain Vista sprawls for 60 minutes and 21 songs, allowing enough room for the two or three bands playing to each show off their signature sounds. Of the collection, I prefer the indie rock centered band the most, but the musicianship is strong across the board. Of course, it's not a collection of bands, it's just the split personalities of Sills and Smith, jumping between indie/alt rock and Americana (Canadian style)/folk.

This dichotomy would have worked better if they had split the album accordingly, but the songs jump from sound to sound, sometimes disconcertingly. When the appropriately named Ominous fades down from its dark. chaotic tension into the delicate slide intro of Water, it's hard to shake the dissonance.

Despite the roller coaster sequencing, there is a streak of continuity on Uncertain Vista tied to the lead vocal sound, the balanced song arrangements, tight harmonies, and the exceptional bass work.

The first three songs start out on the indie rock side, with A Writer's Retreat creating some beautiful music. The see saw rhythmic start features some harmonic note textures that contrast nicely with the wide open flow of the chorus. The electric guitar is wonderful, creating a counterpoint of sounds that balance the structured arrangement of the other instruments. Similarly, on Inside/Outside, the electric guitar adds character, largely by being less anchored to the Police-like main guitar figure.

Spiraling Down's shift to a more Americana feel is the first indication that Uncertain Vista was veering for other targets. The repetitive melody lines and swaying rhythm is pleasant and the lead has a nice Roger McGuinn feel. But it's out of step with the earlier songs.

Picking some favorite moments, Crux of the Matter is a strong alt-rocker with a power pop edge. The driving beat lays down a foundation for a John Entwistle bass line that melodically toys with the groove. The psychedelic guitar solo drifts through the break leaving little flecks of golden fuzz. On the folkier side, the aforementioned Water has a gentle folk rock vibe. The arrangement is simple, but allows enough room for the slide guitar accents in the spaces left by the hesitant acoustic guitar. The vocal harmonies are solid, matching the laid back feel. The imagery and lyrical flow is smoother here than some of the other songs.

It's good for a band to have an eclectic range of songs. Sills and Smith's musical talent and skill at arrangement shows off their versatility. With better song sequencing or judicious editing, Uncertain Vista would have been a stronger offering.

Drop by ReverbNation and give Sills and Smith a listen.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

September singles

This month, I offer three different musical paths into your head and gut.

Infected Mushroom - Pink Nightmares (release planned 2012)
Infected Mushroom

Psychedelic trance duo Infected Mushroom have been on my radar for a while after a tip from a friend and his son. Unfortunately, the band's last album, The Legend of the Black Shawarma, was two years ago. Last month, they dropped a first taste of a planned 2012 release, Pink Nightmares. Over the coming months they plan to release more tunes from the new album, but the densely layered hypnotical weave of Pink Nightmares offers a sense of where they might be headed.

The song starts off with glitchy trance groove with just a touch of break in the beat. Impersonal and mechanical, it builds a dark tension that matches the desperation of the vocals. The song opens into a dreamier, floating section that sets up a nice hyperactive reprise into the original glitch flavored groove. The accompanying video is very disturbing, with a plot line suggesting child abuse and karmic vengeance. It illustrates the song well, but Pink Nightmares stands just as well on its own.

I'm looking forward to the eventual album release.

Pujol - Stuff (from the upcoming EP, Nasty, Brutish, and Short)

The thrashing pound of Stuff hits a 1980 punk sweet spot. Simultaneously simplistic and richly layered, the 1:39 song bridges high energy, garage rock a la the Wipers and the bouncy new wave of XTC. Driving guitar, drums, and bass lock into the center, but an undercurrent of guitar fill sneaks into the right channel to challenge the track's foundation.

Appropriately ironic, the lyrics mock the consumerist underpinnings of any purist scene:
I must be consistent with what I believe in
Or I live a lie
Daniel Pujol has put out numerous projects, including Jack White's Third Man Records. His low-fi, fuzzed out sound fills a perfect visceral niche in my musical life. Simple rock and simple lyrics for complex times.

Nasty, Brutish, and Short is due out October 18 on Saddle Creek Records.

The Golden Awesome - A Thousand Nights and One Night (from the upcoming Autumn, releasing November 15)

The Golden Awesome - Autumn

The Golden Awesome create a balance somewhere between psychedelia, shoegaze, and dream pop. A Thousand Nights and One Night shows off their sound: thick and and throbbing, evoking strobe lights diffused through dense, smoky rooms. Unlike Pujol's fuzzy guitars, the Golden Awesome's edge is blunted and ragged as they echo through the song. The harmonized female vocals drift through the track, leaving reverb-scattered trails.

The band's sound is consistent through the several songs I heard. Like the ringing drive of a maxed out band playing in a small club, foggy with herbal smoke, the noise batters your ears at 2 am. Too tired to even nod in time to the music, you wearily smile and let the waves wash through you.

Autumn is due out November 15 from M'Lady's Records.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Concert review - Me and Heath

25 September 2011 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

Man, it must be awesome to be a rock star. Cruise into town with your crew, hang out at bars, and lay out some tunes for the adoring fans...earning big bucks along the way. Pretty much everybody who's ever toured is laughing cynically at this point. The guys in Me & Heath know the reality of cancelled gigs, long drives, odd venues, and small audiences. Sunday night at Hodi's Half Note was lightly attended, but that didn't keep the band from making the most of it and playing a couple of great sets.

It helped that they pulled some enthusiastic hometown fans. Front man TJ and guitarist Heath are both from Greeley. They moved out to Los Angeles, where they connected with the rest of the band. This tour through Loveland, Ft. Collins, and Denver is the first time they've made it back to Colorado in a few years. The band seemed happy to reconnect with old fans and meet some new ones. The show had good energy and the band spent most of their breaks out with the crowd.

With no opening act, Me & Heath played two full sets before wrapping up a little after midnight. Their music blended a number genres: laid back funky beats, soulful singing, strong indie rock grooves, and a little bit of rapping. With the exception of a small set of crowd pleaser covers, they focused on their original music, including the songs from their EP, 3X a Charm.

L.A. is a tough music scene and Me & Heath showed the kind of polish a band needs to compete there. TJ had a riveting stage personality as he played acoustic guitar and provided most of the vocals. He was in constant motion as he mugged for the crowd or threw himself fully into each song. His voice was a key part of their sound, with a touch of Michael Jackson soul and G. Love's funk. At the same time, his playing anchored the three guitar line up. He and Heath setup counter rhythm strums while Jaxon laid down lead. Other times, he let Heath and Jaxon both stretch out. Between songs, TJ came across as a class clown, generally keeping the mood light.

The rest of the band didn't surrender the stage to TJ, though. In particular, Jaxon's easy going banter meshed well with TJ and his lead work was solid with a little flash. The bass player, Nick, contrasted with other guys with his hair metal look and high attitude rock posing. But it added to the show and his bass playing was very strong, both up front on Wise Crack or supporting on Call Me Out. Aside from playing guitar, Heath laid down the occasional rap vocal. He had good flow and I'd like to hear them slip more of that into their mix.

Me and Heath had a sound that evoked Maroon 5, Dave Matthews Band, and even a bit of older Red Hot Chili Peppers, but the vocals were more rooted in the kind of tightly controlled, tense Michael Jackson soul. With a touch of rap to update the vibe, it was a good sound with enough room to fill out the two sets without getting stale.

More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, September 23, 2011

CD review - Opeth, Heritage (2011)

Opeth rejects metal roots for prog rock exploration

Opeth frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt has spoken about his mindset leading into Heritage: I don't think I could have written another metal Opeth record right now. I was done. I had saturated that style. With Watershed and Ghost Reveries, (it) was as good as it gets in that style. It was time to move on. And the new album has proven to be challenging to hardcore Opeth fans.

is much more keyboard focused than their earlier work and the music seems rooted in retro prog rock/art rock. While many of the songs retain the signature harmonic tension of classic Opeth, the death metal growled vocals are gone. These changes force the listener to decide whether to contrast it with "classic" Opeth or to judge the album on its own terms. While it's not a cultural touchstone like Dylan going electric, Heritage has proven to be Opeth's most polarizing release.

The album opens with the title cut, Heritage. It's a moody piano-centered piece that explores a simple melody. Understated and jazzy, it unwinds slowly, creating a thoughtful reverie. The progression features a nice pause that adds a touch of tension. When it comes around at 1:24, the song just hangs in space, defying gravity. It's a beautiful moment that sets the tone for the rest of the album.

Fitting with the dynamics of the album, Opeth follows this soft moment with something edgier. Rather than diving into metal, though, The Devil's Orchard is anchored in an early King Crimson sound. Steven Wilson's production work shows that he's been immersed in King Crimson's back catalog. The winding riffage and rhythmic drive set off a theatrical vocal. The opening section settles into a dynamic shift into a spooky instrumental segment. Where the older Opeth material would have focused on guitar, the keyboard shines instead. There are still plenty of guitar textures, but they're in a supporting role.

The rest of the album has plenty of interesting explorations, some of which click like I Feel the Dark's journey from thoughtful trippiness to harder edged post rock (some strong Camel moments). Others are less successful, like Famine's sound sculpture start that evolves into a series of shifts. This latter is promising, but the sections don't coalesce. The ambient start is overtaken by a rising percussion that sets a groove, but then the groove is abandoned for a tentative piano line. This in turn is overtaken by a frantic guitar riff that sets up a driving progressive rock groove reminiscent of Yes or Styx. The song continues to run through other changes before returning to the opening sound sculpture sound. Many of the parts sound interesting alone or even in contrast to another section, but the collection feels haphazard and unplanned.

Even if Heritage overreaches, Opeth should be commended for taking the risky step away from everyone's expectations. On it's own terms, the album largely succeeds. I'll leave it to the fanboys to argue about how Heritage fits into Opeth's larger body of work. I'll raise a goblet of smoky chipotle mead in their honor, though.

Monday, September 19, 2011

CD review - Various Artists, Reggae's Gone Country (2011)

Reggae covers classic country but plays it safe

Crazy cross-genre mashups used to be surprising, but now they're common. From Shockabilly covering Thelonious Monk on That's the Way I Feel Now to Pickin' on Led Zeppelin's bluegrass version of classic rock, almost everything's been done before. We're becoming so jaded that it's getting harder to even make an impression.

On the surface, Reggae's Gone Country looks like another novelty attempt to shock the public. Modern Jamaican singers covering classic country hits? Why not, we've had reggae-fied Radiohead. Despite seeming like a gimmick, this album is rooted in an enthusiastic vision. Cristy Barber, Vice President of Marketing and Promotions at VP Records, championed this idea to bridge two of her favorite musical worlds: the country music she grew up with and the reggae vibe she's immersed in with her record label.

The label makes their pitch that it's not as strange a match as it sounds. Both genres are rooted in regular people making a voice for their experience and the songs can range from relationships and loss to spiritual devotion. Additionally, country music is fairly popular in Jamaica, so the songs were already familiar to many of the artists. Barber, along with John Rich (Big & Rich), laid out a strategy: select the set of classic country songs, pair them up with modern reggae singers, lay down a solid backing track with a "dream team reggae band", and then add a veneer of country sound to sweeten the tracks.

For the most part the songs qualify as country classics, although I would have traded out the Statler Brothers' Flowers on the Wall for Hank Williams Sr. or Johnny Cash. Still, it's a solid starting point. I wasn't familiar with the reggae singers that Barber selected, but it seemed like a nice range of vocal styles.

Some of the songs, like George Strait's The Chair or Crazy naturally slipped into a reggae beat. Maybe it's because the cut time country beat is not so far from a chank. While that is part of the vision behind the album, those songs didn't stand out as strong new interpretations.

By contrast, Duane Stephenson's work on Eddie Rabbit's Suspicians emphasized the R&B feel of the song. The lazy groove has a loose jamming feel and Stephenson's phrasing is soulful. He occasionally uses falsetto to push the tune. Luciano's take on Jim Reeve's He'll Have to Go is another of the more interesting songs. Luciano's rich warm voice is smoother and cheerier than Reeve's deep baritone, but the looser delivery suits the song. The reggae arrangement stands out more strongly on this track, too.

It's clear, though, that Barber and the singers she's selected are too respectful of these classics to push any boundaries. This means that the songs are solid, but fairly predictable. Another weakness was the decision to paste in the pedal steel, fiddle, and banjo parts. Adding the country embellishments softened any impact of the reggae reimagining of the songs. For example, the steel and fiddle on He Stopped Loving Her Today pulled the song firmly back into country despite the chank beat. It's still a good song, just less interesting than it could have been.

Country fans will find plenty of touchstone moments to enjoy. Reggae fans might be disappointed that the reggae vibe wasn't given a freer hand.Link

Thursday, September 15, 2011

CD review - David Bromberg, Use Me (2011)

Friends help a classic player show his range

David Bromberg is one of America's greatest secret guitarists. While he hasn't achieved public superstardom, Bromberg is well known among blues/bluegrass aficionados and his fellow musicians. Comfortable on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar, he has been a prolific session player for a wide variety of players since the '60s. Musically, he's most rooted in the blues and American folk traditions, but these never box him in.

I've been a huge fan ever since I discovered his first album (David Bromberg) which included a collaboration with George Harrison (The Holdup). His playing and vocal phrasing enthralled me and he became one of my big influences on both guitar and singing. Use Me is Bromberg's latest album and it shows both how far and how short a distance he's come over the last four decades.

It's been a short trip, because his roots as a session side man are in full display and, like those recording sessions, the song always comes first for Bromberg. His playing has always been top notch and that continues on Use Me. At the same time, he's matured like a fine wine over the years, as he's developed the voice to rise above his well-spring genres. This makes him better at bridging the gap between traditional folk, blues, and country.

Beyond naming the album after the Bill Withers tune he covers, the conceit behind Use Me is that Bromberg partnered with a number of his friends, asking them to "use him". Each artist flavored a track within their own aesthetic, inviting Bromberg to step in and add his seasoning. The line up of famous performers is impressive: Levon Helm (the Band), John Hiatt, bluegrass master Tim O'Brien, Dr. John, Keb' Mo', Los Lobos, Widespread Panic, Linda Ronstadt, Vince Gill, and producers the Butcher Brothers (Phil and Joe Nicolo).

The range of styles from blues to funk to traditional folk give the album an eclectic feel, but together they form a mosaic of David Bromberg's work. Whether it's the Mexican folk waltz of The Long Goodbye or the funky groove of Old Neighborhood, each song offers a perspective on his playing. Old Neighborhood was particularly interesting as Bromberg trades licks with Jimmy Herring and Widespread Panic. Hearing him fit into the interplay of a jam band was a joy.

Bromberg's playing is always tasteful above all else. The bluesy country of Ride Out a Ways, with John Hiatt, shows off a perfect touch. Hiatt's playing is solid and hearing the guitar float above the blanket of organ creates a churchy moment. Bromberg's voice is weary but strong. I love his phrasing, as he can loosen up and drag out the lyrics, then slip in a tight package of words a couple of lines later. Elvis Costello has some similar tricks, but he never makes it sound as effortless as Bromberg.

Despite its moody funk, Dr. John's track, You Don't Wanna Make Me Mad has a loose feel. It's a great NOLA-inspired groove. The laid back bass and syncopated percussion drive the song with Bromberg's wicked slide guitar and Dr. John's piano filling out the sound. Bromberg's vocals are casual and he tosses off some great asides: "Everybody needs a little bit of space every now and then. And this is my now and this is my then." It's interesting to compare how Dr. John might have sung this to Bromberg's performance. Bromberg exaggerates the attitude, giving it a touch of humor.

By contrast, the track with Keb' Mo', Digging in the Deep Blue Sea, is dark and heavy. The looming bass and drums build a down and dirty framework, while the keyboards and guitar fill out the structure. Spooky keyboard swells flash from side to side, fine-tuning the tension. The reflective solo is less a centerpiece than an interlude in the song. The lyrics seem inspired by the BP oil spill, but look to the bigger picture of oil dependency. Never getting strident, the conflict is clear:
What are we gonna do about all the mess we made?
You can't run an 18-wheeler, child, on lemonade
David Bromberg is a timeless artist. Use Me's mix of older artists like Helm and Ronstadt with younger players like Keb' Mo' and Widespread Panic demonstrates the reach of Bromberg's career. Whether you're familiar with him or not, Use Me is a worthwhile new step in Bromberg's path.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Concert review - Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, Lydia Loveless, Stud Mushroom

9 September 2011 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Another strong show by Roger Clyne. Young openers, Stud Mushroom, made a good splash

It was an interesting line up Friday night. A young local band, Stud Mushroom, zipped through a ska flavored take on classic rock with some modern twists. Then country artist Lydia Loveless and her band came out and played their country rock set. Finally, Roger Clyne and Peacemakers brought their southwestern rock that bridges country, alt rock, and Americana. One of these bands was a less obvious fit for the night.

On the surface, you'd expect the local band to be the odd man out, but Stud Mushroom's enthusiasm fit well with the Peacemaker's life affirming message. Instead, Clyne's tour mate Lydia Loveless was the mismatch. All of the acts featured solid musical talent, but for stage presence and energy, Stud Mushroom and the Peacemakers were aligned.

Stud Mushroom
When I walked in and heard Stud Mushroom, I wasn't sure I was in the right club. The fresh-faced teens kicked off some shimmery indie pop that sounded great, but seemed an odd pairing with Roger Clyne's rootsier songs. It turns out that those first couple of tunes had been misleading. Most of their songs were hard rocking and funky with a heavy penchant for ska beats. That's still a stretch from the Peacemakers, but the band's positive energy outweighed any stylistic differences.

Stud Mushroom was having the time of their lives. They bounced from song to song and their joy reflected into the crowd. Guitarist Adam Petty stole the show, between his phenomenal playing and enthusiastic stage presence. From the sparkly indie pop start through riffing through Hendrix tunes, he had a good range of guitar sounds and a tasteful ear for fills. He sealed the deal during the couple of songs he played trumpet on. Dancing a bit, he was slightly self-conscious and mugged to the audience, but he couldn't contain himself. That provided a great spark for audience connection, which is where the band meshed perfectly with the Peacemakers style.

Petty stood out, but the rest of the band held their own technically. Drummer Jonah Green in particular was impressive. His fills powered the songs, with a lot of subtle syncopation that kept the rhythm section interesting and engaging. Good drumming takes a lot of focus. Drummers who can stay in time can still blow their job by getting too complex. When the fills threaten the sense of the basic beat, the song becomes a lost cause. It was great to hear a drummer that can develop rhythmic complexity without overwhelming the groove.

The other players were all great, too. This showed in the versatile arrangements that nailed their breaks, offered dynamics, and sailed through rhythmic changes. Despite their youthful appearance, Stud Mushroom played like a mature group of musicians with years of experience together.

A couple of the more interesting moments were a ska flavored take on Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and a cover of Project Hero's mashup of Immigrant Song and Bulls on Parade (Rage Against the Machine). Both songs had their surprises as the band poured themselves into interpreting the tunes.

Stud Mushroom's only weakness was needing a more dynamic stage presence to expand on that audience connection. Lead singer Austin Gloss should put some energy into building his stage persona to match his singing skills. That's a minor gripe though for a band that nailed their set.

(additional photos of Stud Mushroom from Brian Miller)

Lydia Loveless
Lydia Loveless started out her set with a classic country sound. With a strong voice sounding of Loretta Lynn, she and her tight backing band had my feet tapping. The guitar player and drummer shared a connection, reading each other's signals, and the standup bass player was dynamic, whipping his head to the beat. Loveless also contributed guitar, providing a good foundation rhythm to hold the songs together.

That first song, like several in the set were well-written and nicely arranged. Within a couple of songs, though, she lost that momentum. The moment might have been the break between the second and third songs. After a fifteen second pause, Loveless started strumming her guitar, but doesn't quite start the song. After another briefer pause, she finally spoke up. She thanked Roger Clyne for having them on the tour, but her voice was detached and disconnected. Combined with the moodier rock of the third song, it started building a wall between Loveless and the audience.

Lydia Loveless' bio talks about her roots in the Columbus, Ohio punk scene and maybe that's where her diffidence came from. Or maybe she was just nervous. Either way, she sounded like she was going through the motions and didn't really want to be there. A singer/songwriter like Loveless needs to make that linkage with the audience, because without it, it robs the songs of their spark.

Songs like Steve Earle (an amusing send up about him stalking her) and Crazy seemed well written. They could have contributed to a great set. The mix of straight country and country rock is great niche. Unfortunately, her performance dissuaded me from getting her album. Hopefully, Loveless will learn a bit from Clyne on this tour and grow as a performer.

Roger Clyne
Roger Clyne is one of the most dependable performers I know. I try to catch him whenever he's in town, to get another taste of the emotional sacrament he offers. Clyne's connection with his audience keeps getting deeper. With the crowd singing along with every number, he presides over his shows as much as performing.

Aside from the good vibrations, I love the yin and yang of the shows: the pace is always comfortable, feeling loose and unstructured, yet the band flows together as coordinated as a school of fish. Similarly, the emotional rawness of some of the songs, like Green and Dumb or Marie add depth to the thrashy joy of songs like I Do.

The setlist flowed in a way that proved the band's genius, whether planned or intuitive. The high energy bounce of Banditos was channeled into the intensity of Marie. After that, a brief check in with the audience created the space for the mood to turn more thoughtful with Your Name on a Grain of Rice.

It goes without saying that the rest of the Peacemakers contributed their share, both musically and psychically: Jim Dalton's constant grin as he effortlessly added the perfect guitar fills, PH Naffah's rock solid presence behind the drums, and Nick Scropos' energetic bass work all created the mood. While Roger Clyne is a wonderful solo entertainer, the Peacemakers give him the space to stretch out and take the songs further.

Throughout the set and eventual encore, Clyne accepted the love of the crowd, shared his gratitude, and reminded us all that we were a community. The encore closed with a solo acoustic version of Mekong, offering the perfect summation of the show: "Thank you for your time and here's to life".

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

CD review, Little Red, Midnight Remember (2010/2011)

Lush, dreamy and summery, crossing Roxy Music with the Beach Boys

Melbourne's Little Red released Midnight Remember last year in Australia, where it did fairly well on the charts. A streamlined version is releasing late next month in North America on True Panther records. They've remastered the Australian release, stripped out 4 tracks, and added one new one. I can't speak to the missing tracks, but the American release manages to strike a coherent mood while varying the sound of the individual songs.

Picture a hot, lazy summer afternoon. Napping in the shade, you feel a slight breeze. Maybe you even hear the clink of ice slowly melting in your drink. Eyes lightly shut, all is right in the world. Midnight Remember would serve as the perfect soundtrack.

Beach Boys harmonies fill out the vocals on almost every song, contributing to that sunny sound. At the same time, most of the songs have a distant, dream pop vibe that provides the space to appreciate that mood. There are plenty of sonic comparisons: the lush arrangements and rich vocals recall Roxy Music, while the emotional honesty evokes Vampire Weekend or a dozen similar bands.

Individual songs also stand out this way. Follow You There, starts out with a minimalist guitar and a simple solo voice. But the track builds and reaches for an epic, early U2-style arena sound. It's an uplifting moment that really succeeds because of Little Red's ability to manage the dynamics. By contrast, Chelsworth uses a harmonica and piano line to evoke Darkness-era Springsteen. At the same time, both of these songs combine the influences with more modern indie-rock elements to avoid sounding like a pastiche.

The big single is Rock It, a dance happy number locked into a bass line, a beat, and piano comping. Part The Hustle by Van McCoy, the retro disco vibe is catchy. A brief, seven second electronic bridge is the only modern touch. It's not bad, but it's not the most interesting song on Midnight Remember.

For my money, I'd pick All Mine for that honor. It also features a touch of Springsteen (a down tempo Tenth Avenue Freezeout), but the simple intro builds into something lush and rewarding. The longing in the vocal, "I tell myself it takes time but I keep waiting, I keep waiting" is palpable. The subtle swell of electric guitars just before they enter in force during the second chorus is perfect. Retro and timeless all at once, the music projects emotional need while still fitting into the lazy summer of the rest of the album.

Monday, September 5, 2011

CD review - Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Mirror Traffic (2011)

With less to prove, Stephen Malkmus takes a simpler tack

In many ways, Stephen Malkmus has used his backing band, the Jicks, to get the taste of Pavement out of his mouth. Over several releases, the Jicks have honed a complex, carefully constructed sound. Their music is quirky with interesting tempo changes and odd phrasing that contrasts sharply with Pavement's simpler focus.

While Mirror Traffic doesn't fully slide back into Pavement, Malkmus finally seems comfortable enough to let the music be simpler and more relaxed. Perhaps he's grown, but I'm sure that Beck's production influenced this change of heart. With a stronger focus on clear melodic lines and a toned down edginess, Mirror Traffic is the Jick's most accessible album to date. But plenty remains familiar, especially Malkmus' voice: the pauses, the almost autistic phrasing, and occasional falsetto.

Tracks like Spazz remain close to the Jicks' earlier material. It's a busy rocker, with some rhythmic change ups. The driving beat and guitar/vocal coordination cover familiar ground. Then the song breaks into a more outside sounding bridge, building on repetition, before abruptly returning to the main groove.

In contrast, Tune Grief could easily be a Pavement track, although it's got higher energy than Pavement could muster in their final work. Evoking late '70s rock (Cheap Trick, maybe) and a slight punk edge, it's a great indie rock driver: don't think too much, just feel the beat and the attitude. It's nice to hear an upbeat Stephen Malkmus thrashing in the moment.

They're not all hard rocking, though. The Jicks pull in some folky vibe with songs like No One Is (As I Are Be), Share the Red, and the dreamy Fall Away. The stripped down, blues groove on No One Is (As I Are Be) is restrained, but full of classic Malkmus perspective:
Unfortunate that none of us will get away spared
From the never-ending nightlife that we shared
I cannot even do one sit-up, sit-ups are so Bourgeoisie
I'm busy hanging out and spending your money
What does it mean?
Even horn accents and some pretty piano work just polish the tune rather complicate it. I'm not sure how intentional it was, but the horn lines close out the song with a call and response that echo The Hokey Pokey. Maybe that's what it's all about. This track also shows the heaviest influence of Beck's production.

The first single offered from Mirror Traffic is the radio-unfriendly Senator ("I know what the Senator wants, what the Senator wants is a blow job"). It's punchy, start and stop rock. The setup in the verse and chorus are strong and catchy, but the song sacrifices its focus in the middle section. The lyrics switch to a reflection of finding gigs and getting high. I still don't get the connection.

Packed with 15 songs, Mirror Traffic shows plenty of facets of good tunes and different sounds. Overall, the album may be poppier than earlier Jicks releases, but it shows that Stephen Malkmus can relax and not lose his wit or his voice.

Friday, September 2, 2011

CD review - Rusty Pacemaker, Blackness and White Light (2010)

Outsider metal flavored with doom and gloom

The world is full of interesting people. Take today's artist, Rusty Pacemaker. Despite his American sounding name, he's firmly rooted in Austria. Declaring himself a self-defined musician, his path to releasing Blackness and White Light included teaching himself to play guitar and bass, creating a home studio, and starting his own record label. While he acknowledges his love of bands like Black Sabbath and Viking Metal pioneer, Quorthon (Bathory), Pacemaker makes clear that his musical path has been focused on giving voice to his own songs.

Blackness and White Light's songs show off some of those influences, especially Black Sabbath. But the mix of classic metal, doom metal, and progressive rock elements come together in an original sound. Pacemaker is joined by a phenomenal drummer, Franz Löchinger. Many of the songs shift tempos and rhythms and, most of the time, Löchinger's playing sells it. Revolution's intro is much better for the busy syncopation contrasting against the guitar grind.

The percussion on the title song shows is another great example. The groove is laid back and moody like Sabbath's Planet Caravan. Pacemaker's whispered vocals add a detached tension. The song transitions into a section with acoustic guitar and chiming keys, while the drums provide a simple heartbeat. This open part builds into a bigger jam, with a post-rock electric guitar solo floating over the relaxed beat and simple guitar rhythm. It's almost Floydian.

My favorite track, though, was Amok. The haunting guitar intro resonates into a fuller sound. This evolves into an very early King Crimson style jam slightly reminiscent of I Talk To The Wind. The dreamy female vocals (Lady K) set up a call and response. Thoughtful guitar riffs herald a somewhat strained race into a faster paced section. Disquieting whispers lurk before the female vocals kick in again. After another speed up, the song finally crashes. The tempo changes could be smoother, but the overall effect is still catchy.

The rest of the Blackness and White Light ranges from the doom metal touches of My Last Goodbye and the modern metal of The Human Race to the moody psychedelia of Waiting For Tomorrow. Rusty Pacemaker presents his downbeat vision, which avoids easy classification and challenges the listener to commit to the ride. It's a journey off the beaten path, so there are some rough patches, but the terrain can be interesting.