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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November singles

Another small collection of interesting tones from a wide range of sources.

The Big Sleep - Ace (from Nature Experiments, coming in early 2012)

The initial chop of staccato guitars sounds almost synth-like. But then Ace quickly takes on a more standard indie rock feel, with a more metered guitar line laid across the chop rhythm. Strong female vocals maintain control even as the chorus' grinding guitars thrash in.

The Big Sleep may a fairly small band, but they know how to effectively layer contrasting guitar lines and control dynamics. From the measured repressed tension of the interlude after the first chorus to wailing builds that threaten to overwhelm the song, Ace is a melange of textures. Indie rock leans towards post rock.

Ace is available for download from The Big Sleep's Facebook page.

James Leg - Do How You Wanna (from Solitary Pleasure)

It was just another party that turned into a jam session in my friend's basement. We'd been wailing away on blues based jams for hours -- the smoke was thick, ears were ringing, and we were all in awe of the powerful groove we were creating. It was a experience captured only by our memories.

James Leg (AKA John Wesley Myers of Black Diamond Heavies) channels his own version on Do How You Wanna. It's a lo-fi blues deconstruction with a grinding rhythm and flailing lead. Like the best garage rock or old school blues, the visceral playing is anchored in the magic of a moment. Leg's battery acid vocals are part Captain Beefheart and part hard ass living.

Pick up a free download here.

Housse de Racket - Chateau (from Alesia)

At its heart, all synth pop aspires to a kind of French ideal. The aloof vocals that cushion a deep inner emotion, the smooth perfection of the music, and the mix of retro cool and modern fashion all conjure a Gallic sense. French duo Housse de Racket willingly show how it's done.

Chateau updates the classic synth pop sound by emphasizing the pop elements. Its dance beat anchors the song, so the slightly moody vine ultimately succumbs to the insistence of the rhythm. Still, the lush synthesizers dress up the beat in fine fashion.

The art house video for Chateau is a great match for the song: full of symbolic static shots, distant actors, and stylized action. Housse de Racket is touring the US next month.

Monday, November 28, 2011

CD review - Lateef the Truthspeaker, FireWire (2011)

Versatile rapper showcases his musical range

Lateef the Truthspeaker is most well known for his partnership with Lyrics Born and collaborations with artists like Fatboy Slim. His new solo album, FireWire offers a good sense of Lateef's creative breadth. His backing music comes from widely separated sectors of the musical map, from indie rock to standard soul beats. The focus is on his loose, conversational flow, but he's not afraid to throw down and sing or structure a verse-chorus style song.

That diversity makes FireWire an entertaining listen, but the production adds its own intrigue. Glitched, overlapping samples and electronic processing create a mix of old and new. The sounds are fresh, but the idea of a more studio focused hip hop album feels like a retro touch.

Take Oakland, for instance. The glitched R&B pop radio start sets a mood, but it quickly drifts into another space. The guitars and layering feel like indie rock, but there's a shimmery electro sheen that reveals the hybrid nature. The music, though, takes a back seat to the joyous celebration of Lateef's home town:
I come from the planet of Oakland
We got our own slang, own twang that's spoken
And it don't matter what race you are
Everybody pullin' strings like a bass guitar
The relaxed flow is easy to follow.

Compare that with the jazzy, Latin beat of Heckuvit. Its parts are layered as well, but the laid back vibe contrasts with the snappy lyrical delivery. Check out the flow on the chorus:
I make the melody move with a new alacrity
Doing what few can actually do,
I do with an elegance

I use the words with a nerve, it's almost absurd
And I'm told, if it's not for money
A purchase that it is irrelevant

But get that gallery out in front of an audience

Microphone in their palm
And they're small and out of their element

While I'm rockin' 'em, shockin' 'em with my talkin'

Ask me why I do it
Well, I do it for the heckuvit.
My favorite track, though, is Say What You Want, produced by DJ Shadow. The tight, spooky groove sets a lo-fi garage rock mood. The tension in the music supports the repressed anxiety of the lyrics, which spin out a story of hurt and vengeance. The verses are breathy as Lateef sings them and the hooky chorus is pop perfection.

Other tracks throw down some sonic surprises. Hardship Enterprise features a techno beat and a robotic guest vocal from Lyrics Born. Lateef also delivers some synth pop flavored new wave vibes, like We The People or Left Alone. Lateef's singing on Left Alone is solid, showing another tool in his versatile arsenal.

FireWire is a strong indication of Lateef the Truthspeaker's range. Check it out and find your own favorite sounds.

Friday, November 25, 2011

CD review - The Golden Awesome, Autumn (2011)

Yin-yang between noise rock and dream pop

Why do I find such bliss in noisy abandon? There's something about a thick blur of grinding sound that drowns out my daily concerns. It's cathartic, even as fuzzed out guitars seem to echo some of the static I repress in my brain.

Regardless of how I made this association -- was it that first golden moment when I was transfixed by the Velvet Underground's Heroin? -- it hints at the psychoactive nature of music.

On Autumn, The Golden Awesome are just that: awesome. I'm cossetted and comforted in a hazy blanket of noise. Ragged guitars weave a psychedelic tapestry, mediated by distant, close-harmony vocals. The yin-yang between the singing and the music permeates Autumn. Floating above the fray, the dreamy sweetness of the vocals complements the sonic flail with a soothing contrast.

I included A Thousand Nights and One Night in my September singles post. All of that is true for Autumn as a whole. The songs vary in tempo and feel, but the shifting balance pervades the tracks, providing a subtle power that mere noise rock or dream pop would lack.

One of my favorite tracks is Where To Begin. It melds Pink Floyd's Fearless with the Beatles' Blue Jay Way. The repeated Escher-like melody climbs briefly before resolving back where it began. I love the sense of moving forward while staying centered.

Autumn was released on November 15 on M'Lady's Records.

Monday, November 21, 2011

DVD review - The Other F Word (2011)

Punk rock parenthood is not so different than the normal kind

The Other F Word
is "fatherhood". Andrea Blaugrund Nevins' documentary took its inspiration from Jim Lindberg's 2007 book, Punk Rock Dad: No Rules, Just Real Life. Where Lindberg showcased his punk perspective on parenting, The Other F Word digs deeper into what fatherhood really means.

While the multitude of on-screen interviews with punk icons form a great hook, the heart of the documentary is more universal. Any parent watching this will recognize themselves. They'll think of their lifestyle before the kids and how they've reconciled their own formative years with the responsibilities of parenthood. They may not be covered with ink or be touring with the band, but they still have to balance their rebellious youth against their parental role and their job demands against time with the family. The difference may be more a matter of degree.

TOFW anchors itself to Jim Lindberg, shifting between his family time and touring with Pennywise. But other big names get plenty of screen time, too. Art Alexakis (Everclear), Fat Mike (NOFX), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Brett Gurewitz (Bad Religion) are among the crowd of men offering their own views and various strategies. Fat Mike talks about how he and his wife weren't going to let parenthood change them. On the other hand, Ron Reyes (Black Flag) dropped out completely from his old lifestyle.

The documentary hits four distinct themes. The first two are about the punk scene, both the early days and today. There's a spark in recapping the early days, with the dark side of losing friends offset by the powerful feeling these guys got from the music. That contrasts with the maturity of the scene today, where the bands are faced with what they need to do to make a living. The other two themes cover the parenting side. There's a common thread of their absent or disconnected fathers and wanting to do a better job. Finally, the guys talk more about their own experiences in being a father.

Along the way, there are a host of soundbites that nail the dichotomy of punk parenthood:
The dominatrixes on my arm? The one tied up with a ball gag? I don't know. How do you explain that to a four year old? - Fat Mike
I went to volunteer at the school one time. I went up to the school for something and had no idea that I was wearing a shirt that said "Fuck the police" on it. Like, I was just that clueless - Jack Grisham (TSOL)
But the emotional moments are the real feast here, like Flea's perspective on parental responsibility and his bond with his daughters - My kids gave me life...they gave me a reason - or Duane Peters (U.S. Bombs) talking about the loss of his son, Chess.

This love and connection bridges the differences between these punk dads and the rest of us parents. I dabbled with punk as a 20-something and I still play music out. I'm faced with same decisions about balancing work and time with my son. While a younger me couldn't have imagined being a dad, today my son is a fundamental part of who I am. I may try to be the "cool dad", but at the same time, I feel a responsibility to help my son become the man he deserves to be.
I'm raising my son the way I wish I'd been raised. Someone said to me the other day, "I wish you were my father" and I go "Me, too. I wish I was my father, too." - Art Alexakis
The Other F Word is playing in theaters this November and December.

Friday, November 18, 2011

CD review - Whiskey Blanket, No Object (2010)

Classical foundation takes Whiskey Blanket beyond classic hip hop

I was suckered by the novelty. That first time I saw Whiskey Blanket live, the gimmick of hip hop crossed with classical instruments pulled me in. Even so, the band had a spark that shined through the schtick. A little time with their album, Credible Forces, revealed Whiskey Blanket's wider range of influences and offered a sense of their potential.

On No Object, their sound is maturing. Their attention to the musical detail shows as the mix of original music, backing samples, and rap is more organic than before. The music side leans heavily towards laid back jazz grooves, blurring the lines between sample and original music. Some of the songs use spoken word elements to set up context or ambiance. DJ Steakhouse's scratching and beat production leave their mark but maintain plenty of open space. Sparse grooves like Joie De Vie's backing track provide an ideal setting for the lyrics.

Whiskey Blanket's complementary chemistry has grown stronger, too. The balance is effortless whether they split the song into larger sections like on Pound Boom or toss the lead like on Another Day Passes. The lyrical flow breezes along as the band moves between autobiographical themes and positive tip conscious rap.

No Object's restraint extends to the guest artist angle. The contributions are artistic and relevant. Elephant Revival's Bonnie Paine provides beautiful vocals and subtle musical elements. Fellow rapper Macklemore brings his unmistakable open style on Rule the Roost.
Whether it's long or we pack it in short sets
Who could be better to eradicate your stress
Than the four best and collaborative quartets
The Kings of Colorado and the Mack of the Northwest
Macklemore riffs on his original visits to Colorado and hooking up with Whiskey Blanket. The Latin horn backing on the track is sweet as they cover their shared experiences building a following here in Colorado.

No Object doesn't neglect the band's shared classical foundation. Ubiquitous Wavescape of the Re-upholstered Mind provides a cool musical interlude. The cello and violin work together through a couple of interesting motifs before the beat boxing pops in. In theory, the strings and rhythm should clash, but they mesh into a balanced hybrid.

My only regret is that I'm coming late to this party. No Object released last December and I missed it until recently. Check out Whiskey Blanket's unique sound and catch them live if you get the chance. The novelty might bring you in, but their show will keep you there.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

CD review - Jonathan Coulton, Artificial Heart (2011)

Bigger production emphasizes Coulton's strengths

I've been waiting for Artificial Heart with mixed feelings. The pre-release drop of Nemeses this summer maintained Jonathan Coulton's voice, but the full band sound was a big change. Until now, Coulton has largely been a solo acoustic performer. The larger arrangements on Artificial Heart bring out Coulton's strong pop underpinnings while keeping his skewed perspectives.

Many of the songs evoke a classic, old school power pop reminiscent of Joe Jackson or Marshall Crenshaw. The opening track, Sticking It To Myself, sets that tone. It's clever and fits for an artist making his break for a larger audience. Coulton acknowledges the changes with a nod and self deprecating wink in this power pop gem: "I'm the man now, and I'm sticking it to myself." It borders on my favorite "snotty boys with guitars" sound -- a tight arrangement featuring sneering vocals, horns, and perfect electric guitar fills.

Artificial Heart is full of these amusing moments. Another favorite is Je Suis Rick Springfield, which portrays a flustered Rick Springfield stuck in France among people who have no idea who he is. It's funny if you understand French, but the JoCo Wiki offers a translation for everyone to enjoy.

Coulton's poignant side also comes through on several songs. Artificial Heart sets up a metaphor (and excuse) for emotional disconnection, while Today With Your Wife sets up an ambiguous story of loss. This is especially effective with Coulton's soulful delivery and a solid piano arrangement. It feels like a Ben Folds track as it layers a casual surface with a deeper subtext. "You should have been there" - it could be about a widow, a neglected woman's affair, or maybe it's just an admonition to the subject of Artificial Heart.

Coulton has teamed up with some great artists on Artificial Heart. John Flansburgh (They Might Be Giants) produced the album and brought in some impressive guest singers. Suzanne Vega's vocal on Now I Am An Arsonist is achingly beautiful. Paired with a wistful guitar, it could have come out of Richard and Linda Thompson's back catalog.

Sara Quin (Tegan and Sara) covers Ellen McLain's vocal on Still Alive, Coulton's award winning closer to the game Portal. The theremin intro is an interesting addition, but it stays largely true to the feel of the earlier recording. The album also includes Want You Gone, Coulton's song from Portal 2.

Coulton has shared his fears about pushing his boundaries on Artificial Heart. And it's true that some classic JoCo fans may be disappointed at the fuller band sound, the guest vocals, or some sense that Coulton is selling out. But the album is a natural outgrowth of Jonathan Coulton's work. His songs blend humor and odd perspectives with real feelings and humanity. Artificial Heart's fancier production and extras don't mask or change that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

CD review - Thomas Neptune, Down To Earth (2011)

Rich production and a great pop voice

Thomas Neptune is riding a wave of hype and excitement based on winning the pop category in the 2011 John Lennon Songwriting Contest for his song, Unbreakable. The multi-instrumentalist is capitalizing on this springboard with four song EP, Down To Earth, that melds a singer/songwriter persona with a strong, pop oriented sound.

Down To Earth features lush, full arrangements that emphasize Neptune's pop aspirations. They're carefully constructed with delicate layers and subtle touches that never sound thick or busy. It's an extremely polished sound that puts Neptune's strong voice squarely in the center.

Like his contemporaries Bruno Mars or Jason Mraz, Neptune's sweet spot is a modern R&B soul sound. But his voice seems richer and warmer than either of those guys. He handles dynamics well, hitting a Bryan Adams rock sound then dropping to an intimate conversational level on The Good Times.

The songs themselves are fairly pop oriented, colored with an Americana vibe. The vocal drive and production are top notch, but it's early yet to see what kind of depth Neptune will bring to his music over time. Right now, songs like We're Beautiful show off his upbeat side:
Some are on their knees, praying to the East
Others wear a rosary

Your skin ain't quite like mine, in fact it's rather light
Why can't we all be colorblind


Been all around the world and one thing's sure

We're beautiful
It's a wonderful sentiment, but the lyrics are simplistic. It's no sin -- it's a catchy song and it should spawn some wonderful moments in live performance.

Give Down To Earth a listen and evaluate the hype. I expect we'll be hearing a lot more from Thomas Neptune.

Monday, November 7, 2011

CD review - The Wednesday Club, So Claw/Sour Crow (2011)

Double release supports short attention spans, but offers indie pop gems

When the Wednesday Club simultaneously released So Claw and Sour Crow, they intended the two albums to be appreciated separately. Reading between the lines, though, it's more likely that the three members had each written a folder full of songs and this reduced the number they'd need to cut. Despite their unwillingness to triage the material, the songs are all fairly solid, albeit short.

Stylistically, the twenty songs bounce around between a few distinct approaches. Their 80s new wave pop influenced songs play like brief homages to the Cure and Modern English. The pop psychedelic tracks might merit a tip of the hat to Guided By Voices, but the influence is less overt. Similarly, the edgier indie rock songs might evoke bands like Pavement, but that's more of a point of context than a direct reference.

Regardless of influences or style, the Wednesday Club is adept at creating idealized pop music that goes beyond being merely catchy and memorable. Their songs all have an aura of familiarity. It may just be the vagaries of my taste, but Sour Crow is a bit stronger.

Sour Crow's opening track, She Eats Brains, plays like Robyn Hitchcock and Pavement teamed up. The opening starts out like the Jam's That's Entertainment. Garage rock, new wave slickness, and punk energy are stirred together into a satisfying amalgam. The little guitar jam is all too short, but wonderful nonetheless.

This leads into Duet, whose intro and verses channel Modern English's I Melt With You, with lyrics reminiscent of the Cure's Friday I'm In Love. Bouncier than either of those two songs, the lyrics seem catchy but don't stand up to much scrutiny:
These sheets are canvases
On which I'll paint my thoughts

Though they are, they're all I've got
Until I put them in the washing machine...
It may be nonsensical, but it's foot tapping perfection.

The best example of the Wednesday Club's pop psychedelia is Rat Facts on the So Claw side. It start with a Velvet Undergrounds-style understated beginning. The mundane lyrics get subsumed by the building layers of sound that push the song into a headier space.

Cleansing the pop palate, The Punchening (So Claw) melds odd vocals to a Pavement oriented song structure. The vocal arrangment pairs half spoken lead lines with conversational "harmonies". Jerky rhythms transform hesitation into something more visceral.

The genre hopping song flow and shorter song lengths seem geared toward an ADHD audience. It might have been better to cut the songlist by a third and explore the remaining songs more fully. Still, despite the differences in writing style, the three members of the Wednesday Club muster plenty of enthusiasm for each others musical visions. That energy makes So Claw/Sour Crow worth checking out. Grab a free download here. I also recommend the lyrics sheet, which puts the songs into some kind of context.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Concert review - They Might Be Giants

3 November 2011 (Boulder Theatre, Boulder CO)

They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants (TMBG) are touring with two fresh albums. Earlier this year, they released Join Us and their new album, Album Raises New And Troubling Questions releases later this month. As they played material from both albums, the band suggested that Join Us is better, but Album makes up for it in quantity. That kind of low key, self deprecating humor set the mood for TMBG, who delivered the full package for the excited crowd: quirkiness, humor, sincerity, and exceptional musical talent.

After the first song wrapped up, TMBG thanked us for coming out, "We know you have your choice of ossified alternative rock bands, and we're happy that you chose to fly with us tonight." This was a special show on the tour. On the downside, opener Jonathan Coulton didn't join the tour for this show. Still, TMBG performed their full album, Flood, albeit in reverse order. The rationale was that the conceptual second side of the album shared their real emotions and feelings as a band.

The show was structured with a short set at the beginning followed by Flood. Finally, they tagged the show with a 20 minute encore split into two parts. This gave them a chance to share a mix of old and new material.

The stage set up was roomy, giving guitarist John Flansburgh plenty of room to move around, hauling his mike stand with him. John Linnel spent the bulk of his time anchored stage center at the keyboards. A projected backdrop adapted to the various songs.

The first section of the set had a number of wonderful moments, from a spirited vocal performance on Alphabet of Nations (Here Come the ABC's) to new track Cloisonné (Join Us) featuring John Linnel on bass clarinet. The audience participation piece, Battle For the Planet of the Apes, was a lot fun and proved to be a recurring theme. The crowd often reverted back to chanting, "APE! APE!" or "PEOPLE!" at random moments, eventually leading Flans to blurt, "Please! It was just part of the show. It was not supposed to be the whole show" with exasperation.

As TMBG wound their way back through the songs on Flood, they stayed true to the band's earlier personality, but changed the songs to take advantage of having a full band. So, Hot Cha had a nice, jazzy interlude and We Want a Rock had a stronger, anthemic feel. The peak of the set, though, was Istanbul (Not Constantinople), which featured a wonderful "Miller Time" intro by guitarist Dan Miller. He riffed off the melody to start, but soon took off into a jazz interlude with elements of George Benson and Allan Holdsworth before settling into a flamenco groove.

In typical eccentric fashion, TMBG threw a break between the two theoretical sides of Flood. It was a tribute to Don Kirshner's Rock Concert with a song by their sock puppet alter-egos, the Avatars of They (and a photo of Meg Ryan!). The band wrapped up this hysterical break with a solid cover of Free Ride before getting back to Flood.

The only negative for the show (aside from the missing Coulton) was the sloppy musical mix in the house. The sound was fairly muddy, with an over-dominant kick drum. Birdhouse In Your Soul suffered the most from the mix problems. Despite this, They Might Be Giants gave the crowd both what they wanted and deserved: a great mix of old and new songs, an full night's show, and quality entertainment. Keep an eye out for their visit near you.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

CD review - Beats Antique, Elektrafone (2011)

World-tronica band evolves their sound, but keeps their quirks

Elektrafone is an evolutionary step for Beats Antique. They haven't abandoned their idiosyncratic mix of live instruments and electronic grooves, but their latest emphasizes glitchy electronica more than their world beat vibe.

Does this shift signal a weakening in Beats Antique's character? The opening track, Cat Skillz, shows off the newer sound and emphatically counters any worries. Their unique vibe is evident from the start. The tag groove is anchored by a baritone sax and synths that set up a stalking rhythm: step, step...pause. This gets ornamented with a shimmering layer of electronic sounds. The beat is fairly straightforward, but the syncopation stays interesting. The central theme is reworked through several voicing change ups. Additional horns fill out the sound.

When Cat Skillz fades down and the wonky strings and off kilter beat of The Porch kick in, the last doubts fade away. The violin melody offers a reminder of the band's classic sound.

My favorite track was Uneven, which calls back to a more familiar world-tronica groove. Wisps of sound coalesce to start the track. The exotic strings create an Indian feel that plays against glitch and scratch parts along with traces of dub step bass. The moody mix of analog old world and modern digital sounds hits that perfect balance that Beats Antique mastered in their earlier releases.

Siren Song was another intriguing interlude. The atmospheric track has a pensive tension, starting from the piano that tolls the opening notes. The glitched elements are offset by the discordance of the 20th Century classical tonality. The mood is thick as the violin line devolves into a chaotic wildness, only to pop back into place. Glitchy creaks and other sounds fit together to create an eerie vibe. It's a wonderful programmatic piece that would be a great backdrop for some of Zoe Jakes' choreography.

Elektrafone's celebration of glitch still supports Beats Antique's special character. Even with fewer Mideastern beats, old fans will appreciate how the band continues to expand the genre of electronic music.

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