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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Concert review - David Bromberg, with Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore

30 December 2011 (L2 Arts and Culture Center, Denver CO)
The L2 Arts and Culture Center proved to be the perfect intimate setting for this show. The 500 seat hall was sold out, drawing fans of traditional folk and blues music from across Colorado. After so many rowdier bar and arena shows, it was a nice change to enjoy a sit down concert experience. It was a contrast from the last time I saw David Bromberg at the Boulder Theatre. But while the crowd may not have been dancing, they were engaged.

Mollie O'Brien & Rich Moore

Folk duo Mollie O'Brien and Rich Moore opened the show. Moore's facile fingerstyle playing was impressive, as he slipped fill lines in with the chords and tossed in some bass as well. I love this style of solo guitar work. When a guitarist is as fluid as Moore, he can create a full, busy sound but still drop back to support the vocals.

While Moore provided the accompaniment, Mollie O'Brien covered the singing. Her voice is strong and soulful. When she drops to her deeper range, her tone has the same dark beauty as Linda Rondstadt. The setlist showcased how versatile her voice is. From jazzy folk to up tempo blues, O'Brien tailored her singing to the style perfectly.

I particularly enjoyed their cover of Richard Thompson's The Ghost of You Walks. The original version has a music-box quality. O'Brien and Moore's arrangement breathed more. Just as Linda Thompson changed the character of Richard Thompson's work, O'Brien's interpretation added a deeper emotional component. Moore's guitar was great as he added subtle fills to the ends of phrases. His backing harmony on the title line was perfect.

While the pair were comfortable on stage and had good patter, their stage presence was fairly static. It would have been nice to see them move around a bit more. The one up tempo blues song (the title might have been Every Night of the Week) kicked up the crowd energy, but otherwise, the vibe was more relaxed.

David Bromberg

It was a joy to see David Bromberg again. His albums, including the recent Use Me (review here), capture his tasteful playing and a sense of who he is. But on stage, Bromberg's personality shines, whether he's making a clever aside, ranting his way through an over-the-top song ending, or just radiating joy because he's in the middle of some great music. His comfortable style is fully in the moment and he can share that engagement with the audience.

The setlist meandered through bluegrass, traditional folk, and screaming blues. Bromberg alternated between playing acoustic and electric guitar, but his backing quartet also shifted instrumentation to back the songs appropriately. The opening song was an uptempo bluegrass/country tune that moved into an old-time music section that eventually featured a rollicking three way fiddle jam, with Bromberg pulling out his fiddle for the only time of the night.

The crowd was happy to follow along with Bromberg, savoring all the facets he showed. I'm more particular to his blues - hearing Bromberg testify as he wails out a guitar line is a special treat - but it's also great to see him work the band during the folk and bluegrass songs, goading them on to have as much fun as he is.

Introducing a section of songs from Use Me, Bromberg talked about the projec. The first song in the series was Blues Is Falling, which Tim O'Brien wrote and produced. Bromberg's comments about Tim O'Brien were classic:
It's really unfair that there are Tim O'Briens. Tim O'Brien can play beautiful guitar, mandolin, fiddle. Sing gorgeous tunes.Write beautiful songs and it's all as easy as breathing for him. If he wasn't so nice I could really learn to hate him.
Bromberg's backing quartet was exactly what you'd expect from one of the best side men in the business: talented players, able to adapt on the fly and make each song click. Still, the best moment of the show was with Bromberg alone. As he played some solo guitar, the intimate hall pulled even closer. During Delia, a classic folk blues number, the crowd was rapt as Bromberg played the fingerstyle lines and sang the tune. In between verses, he talked about the true life story of the song as he played his fills. A folk history lesson and beautiful tune, this was a special, bittersweet moment. The sweet singing guitar lines, the mournful lyrics ("she's all I've got, she's gone"), and the quiet reverent feel took the room back to its roots as a church.

With the rest of the band coming back on stage, Bromberg finished out a powerful set and two encores. Satisfied but never complacent, David Bromberg remains one of my favorite guitarists to see live.

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Favorite albums of 2011

It's time again to look back at the year's music and try to pick out the best. Even ignoring the odd biases of my personal taste, the whole idea is foolish. There are plenty well known bands that I didn't get to, so I can't include them. On top of that, I've listened to many new and upcoming bands that aren't really on anybody else's radar. Finally, I rarely review music that I don't care for at some level, so selecting a small handful is absurd. So call this my favorite albums of the year, not the best. They're all worth checking out, whether they're from a brand new group or a familiar band. Browse through my list and find something great.

Arbouretum - The Gathering

Arbouretum channels a classic rock sound, evoking bands like Bad Company. It's unselfconsciously retro, without a drop of irony or meta. On tracks like The White Bird, the casual psychedelia of meandering guitars against a throbbing melodic bass is sweetly hypnotic. The band captures the delicate balance between power and intricate intertwining parts, without the excesses that the early '70s could produce. As much as I enjoyed The Gathering on the first listen, it's been a great album to come back to over the year for casual listening.
(original review)

Dengue Fever - Cannibal Courtship

Dengue Fever finally released an album of new original music this year. Cannibal Courtship continues expanding the band's base sound, which is influenced by retro Khmer rock. Their core sound is still there on tracks like Cement Slippers, but Dengue Fever has mixed in ska, funk, and R&B. Lead singer Chhom Nimol is in fine form, whether summoning sultry appeal, dreamy desperation, or emotional aloofness. The rest of the band shines, too. Check out the psychedelic jam on Durian Dowry; Nimol's voice and Senon Williams' bass add oceans of depth to the track.
(original review)

Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die, but You Will

Such a heavy title, but Mogwai is just sharing their dry sense of humor. The album is full of restrained and reflective moments, as well as a strong inspiration of post punk synthesizers. But fans of the classic, post rock Mogwai will still find the cathartic waves of sound the band is known for. Death Rays offers a taste of both extremes. The title seems ironic as a softly building procession unwinds, but when a thick ragged guitar kicks in to represent the death rays, it all makes sense. The following track, San Pedro contrasts perfectly with a driving tension.
(original review)

Govinda - Universal On Switch

Like Beats Antique, Govinda blends world beat influenced grooves with electronic sounds. Or maybe it's electronic grooves with world beat sounds. Govinda meshes the two elements into an inseparable whole. The title cut to Universal On Switch anchors a flitting gypsy violin to a solid electronic beat. Indian shimmers, glitched vocal samples, and a grinding bass all fold together into a hypnotic trance vibe. The band also delivers some more pop oriented sounds, like the electro pop Angel Freezing.
(original review)

Other Lives - Tamer Animals

Orchestral and dreamy, Tamer Animals took a few listens to reveal its depth. My initial thought was that Other Lives had a good cinematic style, but it took time to appreciate the full sweep of the album. The band has a rich dynamic sense with extensive scope. Moving from atmospheric moodiness to lush fullness, Other Lives isn't locked into a single sound. The tracks progress through a series of moods, packed with evocative details that add subtlety and nuance. A sparse arrangement and echoing reverb set up a song like For 12 with its open western sense, but the strings and subdued piano establish the darkness of conflict and ambivalence.
(original review)

Spirits of the Dead - The Great God Pan

With songs that range from Hawkwind influenced wanderings (Mighty Mountain) to psychedelic jazz jams (Leaves of Last Year's Fall), Spirits of the Dead offer a rich spectrum of sounds. And that's just within the first two songs. Even within a song, the band might stir in acid rock, art rock, and loose improvisational playing. Despite any stylistic leaps, Spirits of the Dead effortlessly create a smooth flow throughout the album with well planned transitions. The percussion work in particular is impressive as it maintains the rhythmic thread while adapting fills to match the musical shifts.
(original review)

Callers - Life of Love

Does Life of Love even belong on this year's list? It came out in 2010, but I didn't review it until this January. It made such a strong impression that it seems unfair to disqualify Callers based on the release date. Sara Lucas' voice is strong and vibrant, with strains of Maria Muldauer, Phoebe Snow, and Grace Slick. Callers' music sounds loose and full of possibility. Ryan Seaton and Don Godwin's coordination on their arrangements is a thing of beauty. Subtle and open, but not thin or makeshift, from the gospel blues of their cover of Wire's Heartbeat to the muted psychedelic sparkle of Roll.
(original review)

The Golden Awesome - Autumn

The Golden Awesome are masters of dreamy noise pop. They temper the cathartic throb of distortion with their sweet harmonized vocals. This kind of juxtaposition is often interesting, but Autumn toys with the balance to show the world of variation possible, from the tense mechanism of Astronomy to the heady spiraling of Where to Begin. The noise drives away all distractions while the vocals soothe. Plenty of recent bands work the lo-fi end of this mix, but none of them capture the spark of joy heard on Autumn.
(original review)

Portugal. The Man - In the Mountain, In the Cloud

Portugal. The Man's major label debut hits the best of both worlds. The band has maintained artistic control, but this gave them a much better budget to work with and the production quality shows it. The sound is somewhere between Breakfast in America era Supertramp and David Bowie's Young Americans, but Portugal. The Man takes those retro elements and jams with them to create something new and trippier. Much like Flaming Lips or My Morning Jacket, PTM's studio work offers a hint of what the band can pull off on stage, but it stands well on its own.
(original review)

Paley & Francis - Paley & Francis

Reid Paley and Black Francis spent a couple of days writing music together, split up to write some lyrics, and then spent two brief days in the studio to record Paley & Francis. On that breakneck schedule, they could be forgiven if the album seemed slapdash. Instead, this collection of first takes has a raw power that comes from the stripped down arrangements and immediacy of fresh material. Both men approach the songs with firm confidence and blend their perspectives from song to song. Francis' songs evoke his work with the Pixies as well classic garage rock classics. Paley's voice is warm, but infuses his songs with ragged soul. The combination is excellent.
(original review)

Honorable mentions
Here are few honorable mentions - great albums that didn't quite make my 10 favorites.
That's still ignoring good albums by Lateef the Truthspeaker, Gomez, Whiskey Blanket, and others.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

CD review - Monte Pittman, Pain, Love, and Destiny (2011)

Sideman takes center stage and rocks out

Monte Pittman has built a reputation in the industry by working at the edges. Like many studio musicians and hired guns, he's popped up in a number of surprising places: as Madonna's touring guitarist, playing bass with industrial rockers, Prong, and adding some heavier touches to Adam Lambert's shows. Pittman released his first album, the acoustic centered The Deepest Dark, in 2009. Pain, Love, and Destiny follows that up with a meatier rock sound. Between the two extremes, Pittman is poised to garner more mainstream audience attention.

Pittman demonstrates his guitar chops throughout the album, but his emphasis is on the songs. Whether it's a hard rock ballad or an arena rock anthem, his song arrangements are centered on nailing the right rhythm and leading with vocals. Pittman's touring experience shines as he sings with showy conviction. His opener, About You, has a soft start, but it quickly builds into hard rock. The dynamic flow is impressive: he sells the power with layers of hard rocking guitar, but the electric guitar sometimes drops out to reveal the underlying acoustic backing. The pacing feels theatrical. Just listening to the sudden stop ending, I can see the stage lights cut to black.

The best track is (I Am) The Black Rabbit. Like a chameleon, the intro phases from acoustic to metal to progressive rock. The synth shimmer at the edges brings out the prog focus on the verses. The chorused vocals bring in a '70s art rock element, but the doom laden vibe is much more modern. Metal guitar touches pile up, building to a shred style metal solo backed by rhythm crunch. The build is great, but then Pittman drops the dynamic down to transition the mood to a more retro feel again. The spare, angular acoustic guitar that signals the return of the chorus reminds me of Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer). While the music is great, the strength of the track is how Pittman builds a story with a mix of threatening tension and revelation.

The weakest song, Burn Down the Garden, also shifts around but the effect is unfocused. It starts out like Chicago minus the horns, then jumps around in style. A touch of Brian May fill, a longer section like Santana's Evil Ways, then the tune drifts from shred to AC/DC grind and Red Rider openness (Lunatic Fringe) before decaying into chaos. There's plenty to enjoy along the way, but it doesn't hold together as well as the rest of the album.

While tracks like Keep Shining and Definitely are more typical of Pain, Love, and Destiny, the final track proves most memorable. Predetermined Destiny acts as an after-dinner mint for the album. Recapping one of the album's themes:
Destiny, just let it be
Nothing's certain, predetermined...
The song aims for John Lennon (Across the Universe), but the vocal sound evokes ELO's channeling of the Beatles. Regardless, the simplicity is a refreshing closer.

Listen to Pain, Love, and Destiny at Pittman's site.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

CD review - Null Paradox, The Onion and the Ants: Gertrude and Grace (2010)

Rich vocals and intriguing prog complexity

The first thing that jumps out on The Onion and the Ants: Gertrude and Grace is Crystal Sherry's strong, warm voice. She shifts from sweet honey to steel when the song needs to raise a harder edge. She blends Karen Carpenter's lushness with Annie Haslam's (Renaissance) smooth range and adds a touch of Ann Wilson's punchy delivery.

If Sherry's voice drives most of the songs, the tight, balanced arrangements give her the room to work with. On songs like Black and White, the pieces fall together to create a piquant complexity. Shards of guitar set the initial stage, then the rhythm joins in. The combination of the initial guitar riff (left), a hypnotic fill melody (right), and Sherry's voice (center) fit together in a rich hard rock quilt. Subtle shades of feedback and a stalking bass line color the mix.

Null Paradox is rooted a set of ideas that band leader Tom Libertiny is still exploring. Initially, the band was intended to realize a concept album based on his book idea: The Onion and the Ants. With songs representing chapters, the two projects have become intertwined, with the book expanding into a series. The first book is due out soon.

The album has a coherent sound, but without the hint from the band, it might be hard to extract a story line for the album. In their promotional material, Null Paradox presents the premise as a choice between the love of your life (orange) and your destiny (purple). That provides some context for the songs, like the frustration on Small or the pervasive conflict related in The Ministry. Having the book would offer another facet for enjoying the album, but the songs all stand well on their own merits.

Throughout The Onion and the Ants..., Null Paradox mines a wonderful mix of lush modern rock and rich progressive rock. The Cell was one of my favorite tracks. The opening is spare and orchestral. Sherry's voice is low and breathy. Then, the song slips into a progressive groove that reminds me a bit of Steven Wilson, because of how the arpeggiated guitar part plays against the bass line. As The Cell negotiates a number of musical sections, it maintains an intriguing sense of contrast between open and tight channels and organic flow pushing against mechanical drive.

The final track, Glass Desert, briefly evokes Tori Amos, with a whisper vocal and piano line. But the band defies expectation, carrying the track into a laid back bluesy space. A heavier interlude overwhelms the looser groove, but a closer listen shows the two parts coexisting. The horn solo (about 4 minutes in) adds its jazzy smoke.

Null Paradox may be a "concept band", but Tom Libertiny has added some interesting artistic voices to his ideas. Browse their web site for more info. The video section has some cool info about the progression of developing the songs.

Friday, December 23, 2011

CD review - Levi Kreis, Live @ Joe's Pub (2011)

Powerful, emotionally charged singing

Levi Kreis has built a loyal following for both his acting and singing. From launching his recording career via The Apprentice to his 2010 Tony Award for playing Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, Kreis has already garnered critical acclaim. Live @ Joe's Pub is a perfect showcase for his sincere and grounded persona. The ten songs (and four bits of stage banter) capture the audience interaction of a live show.

Between his emotional singing and confessional stories, Kreis invites the audience into his life, catching them up on who he is and how he got here. His self deprecating humor keeps the positive messages about personal authenticity (Vignette #2) from turning into a sermon.

Of course, Kreis' powerful gospel influenced voice still creates a churchy environment. He belts out songs like the stage actor he is, but maintains a lot of vibrato soul in his singing. His piano accompaniment is solid, but takes a backseat to the singing. While some songs like Left Over have a Billy Joel vibe, Kreis leans more toward Rufus Wainwright, especially on songs like The Reckoning. Regardless of those comparisons, Kreis' voice is stronger than either of them and his songs seem more heartfelt.

As a live album, Live @ Joe's Pub has decent sound, but the producer made a basic mistake with the mix. Given how powerful Kreis' voice is, it would have been better to drop it back about 10%. Also, the heavy reverb on his singing is gilding the lily. A song like Bonnie Raitt's I Can't Make You Love Me is moving enough on its own. A subtler hand would have preserved some of the emotional nuances.

The album closes out with a new song, Let It Go. Kreis builds up the the verses with staccato chords supporting a breathy lyric. Then, the chorus expands the passion as his voice breaks with feeling:
Let it go, let it all go
It's time to forgive now the one who matters the most
It's a good summary of the message Levi Kreis shares throughout Live @ Joe's Pub. His core fanbase will love the experience of a solid 45 minute live set presented on the album. Kreis should also pick up some new fans who are open to his emotionally charged singing and sincerity.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

CD review - The Jigsaw Seen, Winterland (2011)

Psychedelic flavored pop captures a larger sense of the season

I am not a fan of Christmas music - the withered sonic cliches that overstayed their welcome even in my childhood, the schmaltzy sentimentality - it all just rubs me the wrong way. If Winterland isn't a perfect antidote, it's still a breath of fresh air. The Jigsaw Seen keep up their trippy pop sound while visiting a number of holiday inspired themes.

Winterland works because the band captures a more honest sense of the season, for better and worse. The Jigsaw Seen's take on the holidays is ambivalent: hopeful for good things, but shaded with loss and the stark chill of the season. While the songs do share a sense of winter and Christmas, this isn't really a true concept album.

They open with What About Christmas, whose curmudgeonly narrator stews in his resentment over a relationship that's already over by May:
What about Christmas?
What about promises?

What about you and me?

What about the way you look,

When I look at you and no one sees?
The driving psychedelic groove supports some sweet Arabic minor key fills low in the mix. The rich sonic spread is full of complementary parts: the treble chime of acoustic guitars, the grind of electric guitar punches, and the serene vocals. It's a great start to the album.

As soon as Candy Cane started, I had a flashback to XTC. The guitar arrangements, harmonies, and the arch lyrics could be an outtake from Oranges and Lemons. Like XTC's bittersweet pop, Candy Cane lays out overtly bitter lyrics about the holidays against a pretty pop sound. Lines like, "Christmas morning, basic black/The grim reaper of yuletide cheer is back" are dark and clever, but lose some sting against the jangled bounce of the paired acoustic guitars. Or maybe the lines balance some of the sweetness of that sound.

The standout track on Winterland, though, is Snow Angels of Pigtown. The Jigsaw Seen has magically combined a lush R&B groove and trivial subject with wonderfully unexpected lyrical complexity. The sway of the music with its Motown inspired bass and guitar work proves to be the perfect setting for lines like:
Cataclysmic temperatures abound
Slush and powder form a gelid compound

Horizontal sprite stabs in the drift

Perfectly designed or sometimes makeshift

Ice phantoms make no sound

Inclement skies won't keep these spirits down
Every time I hear the track, I smile. "When mercury takes a dive / That is the time these flightless wonders thrive." What a wonderful ode to the snow angel. This is a seasonal spirit I can get behind.

The nicest thing about Winterland is that it will still be listenable in January.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December singles

Harrison Sanborn - Proxy M.O.S. (Other Lives - Black Tables)

Proxy M.O.S. from Harrison Sanborn on Vimeo.

Normally, I pick a few new songs that catch my ear for my monthly singles post. Black Tables is not that new, coming from Other Lives' 2009 self-titled album. But a reader tipped me to this short film, which I think is a nice interpretation of the song.

Other Lives bring a soundtrack quality to their songs, so it's not surprising that the music works so well here. Harrison Sanborn uses the song's moodiness and dynamics to good effect. He captures a dreamy sense without slipping into the visual cliche of soft focus fades. Instead, he builds a story line from a small set of clear elements, repeating them in shifted contexts to imply a deeper complexity.

Spectrals - Confetti (from Bad Penny)

Louis Jones conjures up a retro R&B dance floor, complete with tinsel and mirror ball on Confetti. The lo-fi bouncy pop is soaked in garage soul sound. Jones' voice is young and unjaded. Between the sonic smear of recording haze and his accent, Confetti is reminiscent of the Arctic Monkeys, but the lyrics are much sweeter.

Jones has released several cassettes under the Spectrals name. Despite the band name, his debut album Bad Penny is largely a solo project (his brother Will Jones plays drums). Single artist bands are very common, but, at their worst, these projects can sound overproduced or just sloppy. Confetti avoids those pitfalls and maintains a spark of life, wrapped in nostalgia.

Black Bananas - Rad Times (from Rad Times Xpress IV)

After Royal Trux dissolved, Jennifer Herrera recorded under her old band's abbreviation, RTX. Now she's promoting a new band name, Black Bananas. Rad Times manages to blend new wave funk and synth pop with more modern electronic sounds. It's densely packed with competing elements, like a radio tuned between two close stations.

Despite the muddle of component parts, the groove is compelling. I'll be curious to see how the rest of the album plays out.

Princess Superstar - Xmas Swagger

Princess Superstar breaks a handful of rap stereotypes. Despite being a white, Jewish, female rapper, what stands out is her attitude and sense of humor. She seems happy enough to let the purists worry about stuff like cultural appropriation while she clowns around with Kool Keith, Prince Paul, and others. Xmas Swagger is her holiday offering, but she's also got a new album (The New Evolution) coming out next year.

Xmas Swagger is classic Princess Superstar. The retro R&B groove sets a nice party vibe. The rapped verses don't show off as much of her speedy flow, but contrast nicely with her singing on the chorus. Above all, her humor comes through, especially in the song's punchline, tacked on to the last chorus:
I love Christmas and I love you.
I love Christmas everything
Except I'm mostly Jew
On that note, happy holidays to all.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Concert review - Garage a Trois

15 December 2011 (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)

Garage a Trois brought their mystery funk amalgam of jazz, rock, and semi-controlled noise to Ft. Collins for an audience of clued-in fans. Whether it was saxophonist Skerik grimacing in horror or Mike Dillon's seizure-like flailing on the vibes, the quartet's zany stage presence was visually engaging. But despite the silliness, the group was utterly focused on the music.

Listening to Garage a Trois was like watching a school of fish; functioning as a single unit, they darted in seemingly random directions. A lazy sweet harmony would suddenly veer into Ornette Coleman free jazz territory, with each player nailing the off-rhythm perfectly. Then the song might coalesce back into a Zappa-esque melody.

This coordination was strongest between Dillon and drummer Stanton Moore. With Dillon playing a snare, cymbal, and synth pad, the two could build a tightly controlled, drum corp sound. Unlike the drum corps I've heard, the two often zipped off into odd time signatures and very loosely structured riffs. They mirrored each others fills so tightly, it sounded like a single drummer.

Just like a school of fish, though, the band could also dissolve into their component elements. Garage a Trois used this chaos to create moments of tangled melody, forcing the audience to choose what to focus on. This anarchy gave each listener their own version of the music.

Each player emphasized his own persona: Skerik's melodramatic exaggeration, Moore's boyish enthusiasm, Dillon's manic intensity, and Marco Benevento's laid back joy. These archetypes framed the interactions during the night, from Dillon's savant attack on the vibes to Benevento's glee as he alluded to Rhapsody in Blue during a solo.

Skerik and Dillon both have a lot of electronic gear to run their instruments through, so the band wasn't tethered to a straight jazz combo sound. Benevento also had a small collection of synths to augment his keys. So, between the sax and keys, the band could evoke electric guitars for a more rock band sound. Their cover of Immigrant Song was particularly impressive.

Garage a Trois' musical intensity carried the show. They created such crazy complexity and made it look natural and effortless. It was a gift to catch them on such a hot night.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CD review - Kid Icarus, American Ghosts (2011)

Noise pop jams on a solid foundation of '80s new wave

American Ghosts' opening track, Hang Gliders quickly takes off in an exuberant wash of guitars and cymbals. Kid Icarus infuse the song with live performance energy. At the same time, the compressed mid-range mix takes me back to the lower budget sound of the DIY '80s, where lo-fi wasn't an aesthetic choice but a necessity. The band channels groups like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, who built a sound grounded in pure enthusiasm.

While, Kid Icarus has an instinctive feel for new wave flavored indie rock, they also have some more modern influences. The bare bones darkness in the verses of Wasteland Blues snowballs into a strong post-rock/noise pop groove, buoyed by a meandering guitar line. The middle section meltdown of Bicycle Spokes II slides into Trail of Dead territory. While I enjoy the retro feel of the earlier songs, these moments separate Kid Icarus from a cloying haze of nostalgia and offers a different sensibility to appreciate their sound.

Kid Icarus may just be another independent band reaching from the shadows, but American Ghosts proves that they deserve to ripple out of their Pennsylvania scene. You should check them out. With enough support, they might get the chance to tour Colorado so I can see them. I expect their live sound is phenomenal;-).

Monday, December 12, 2011

CD review - Meshell Ndegéocello, Weather (2011)

Dreamy intimacy with a soulful focus

Meshell Ndegéocello creates albums that fit the particular moment she's in. On Weather, she is floating through a set of restrained jazz/funk/soul grooves with late night night vibe. This isn't aimless drifting, it's just a sign of an artist comfortable in her own skin. Before anyone writes it off they should heed her warning on the final track: "Don't you take my kindness for weakness / Just cause I'm gentle doesn't mean I'm not strong".

The intimate mood starts off with the title track. It follows a lazy, retro Prince soul groove.
Ndegéocello whispers the lyrics in your ear as the dreamy backing music wraps the tune in a cottony haze. The feel intensifies on Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. The music is almost tentative as it lays out a Joan Armatrading style jazzy soul. It's stripped down to showcase Ndegéocello's rich voice.

It's good that the lyrics on these songs are immediate and connected. Otherwise, the music could feel dissociated and signal a kind of surrender. Take the minimalist Oysters. The piano accompaniment is moody and nostalgic. The vocals are breathy and restrained. But the lyrics have a bittersweet Jeff Tweedy depth:
Somebody wishin' on a shooting star
Shooting star streaming 'cross the sky
You know it's just a meteor, right?

People throwing pennies in a wishing well
Wishing well's gonna run dry
But I ain't gonna leave you tonight

Everybody talkin' 'bout changing the world
The world ain't ever gonna change
But you can always change it for me.
Weather is not all dream time and clouds. Dirty World shows a spark of of her bass mastery with a solid bass line reminiscent of Victor Wooten's work. The song takes a twisting turn into synth pop for the chorus. The contrast between the tight bass playing and the softer synth sound creates a piquant tension that Weather needed. The social commentary in the lyrics suits this tension perfectly.

My favorite track is Ndegéocello's cover of Leonard Cohen's Chelsea Hotel. The spare music staggers a bit under the emotional weight and her voice is warm and vibrant. When Ndegéocello drops into a conversational tone for a line, her wry tone adds the sound of truth to her voice.

Weather is emotionally deep and infused with a realness best softened by dreamy music. It's more about connection than technical fireworks. The pace may drag a bit for impatient listeners, but give it the time it deserves. Weather is best appreciated by candlelight where the nuances can weave their web.

Friday, December 9, 2011

CD review - Paley and Francis, Paley and Francis (2011)

The magic of raw immediacy

In-the-moment or artful construction? Musical trends bounce between the two, like garage rock vs. the Beatles. Punk follows art rock excesses only to coalesce into new wave structure. Each side of the coin has its strengths and flaws, which keeps the pendulum swinging. Paley & Francis emphatically favors raw immediacy over polished production.

Reid Paley and Black Francis (the Pixies) ripped through this project in a whirlwind, writing the music together over three afternoons, splitting the tunes to write lyrics separately, and then recording the ten songs in two days. This wasn't a cold collaboration, the two have worked together before and had a feel for what would click. Each of these tracks is a first take, with stripped down arrangements: bass, guitar, piano, and light percussion. Paley & Francis exhibits the power of simplicity. The songs are well written and true; the playing is tight with little ornamentation.

Paley and Francis each sing lead on their own lyrics, alternating tracks on the album. This creates a see-saw effect, moving from Francis' smoother voice to Paley's ragged soul. The first track, Curse, kicks off with a driving bassline like the Doors, but quickly reveals itself as a raw, garage rocker. There's a lot of the Pixies here, but the chorus owes a lot to Roky Erickson. Black Francis pulls out Lou Reed attitude and Iggy Pop snarl, while Reid Paley's backing adds the perfect hoarseness to sell the underlying anger of the song.

Paley's lead vocals have a warm and friendly sound somewhere between Tom Waits and Country Dick Montana (Beat Farmers). On Ugly Life, Paley's best song on the album, he favors Waits as he doesn't so much sing as declaim the lyrics. Francis' voice adds the sharp point to the tagline of the chorus. Ugly Life clicks because of the contrast between the wistful, nostalgic music and the lyrics, which offer up a resigned celebration of the downside. Tired but defiant, this could have been a Velvet Underground song, but Paley's delivery removes the irony Lou Reed would have given it.

The dark side of raw music is that it can be unlistenable - there's a lot of dreadful punk and sloppy blues out there. Sometimes a lack of technical ability is lauded as authenticity. Paley & Francis never allows for that possibility. Instead, they focus on the magic. This project was quickly, not hastily, assembled by a group of musicians at the top of their game.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

CD review - Emil & Friends, Lo & Behold (2011)

Dance pop sound matures to branch out into indie rock/pop

Emil & Friends have come a long way since last year's Downed Economy EP (review here). Emil Hewitt still shows his love for disco and dance pop on Lo & Behold, but he's expanded his diverse set of influences and improved his production. The new album is more polished to match Hewitt's matured sound. He's abandoned the retro, lo-fi '70s soul, but still manages to evoke the disco pop era on some of the tracks.

Where Downed Economy emphasized a stark electro disco vibe on its first track, Lo & Behold lays down a piano centered pop vibe. Flashback has a sweet Supertramp influence, especially on the keyboard intro, but it also evokes some of My Morning Jacket's flavor of retro pop. The lyrics pick up the story somewhere in the middle with little context, which creates a compelling itch:
On the flat screen television, when the cops come and break down the door
Reruns so analog, cross legged on the living room floor
As they step towards you with the handcuffs, to take you away
You flash back to the baby sitter turning it off, because it's rotting your brain
The song seems designed to keep you off balance. The laid back groove offers comfort even as the story triggers a cascade of questions. The music deconstructs as a heavy bass and beat grow more prominent creating their own flashback effect. A gratuitous, over-the-top guitar solo sets up a loose, floating outro. There's a flow, but it makes no sense. You're left with the sense that another time through might make it clearer. Still, with every listen, I smile and bop along. "Catchy" barely does it justice.

Emil & Friends call back to their earlier sound on tracks like C.U.P.I.D. and Rain Check. The relentless pop bounce of Rain Check sounds like an updated version of Prince's funk pop without the self-indulgence. The retro horn punches and modern electronic bass groove combine in a super-mutant pop. Where Downed Economy would have infused this song with a hazy, old time vibe, the sound here is clean and hip.

C.U.P.I.D. offers a slick electro disco feel, with grinding bass and processed vocals. Loaded with hooks, Emil slips in some great lines that the electro-pop synths might distract you from:
Warm and wet like a car wash cruisin'
Stronger than the stuff since you've be usin'
Sittin' on a car, just flappin' his wings
This little angel named C.U.P.I.D.
Lo & Behold is a great step forward for Emil & Friends. A better budget might account for the nicer production, but the band's writing and musical versatility have improved over the last year. Earlier, I warned off disco haters and and soul pop cynics. Now, even those listeners might find something to like.

For a taste, check out the electro disco of Crystal Ball (My Old Kentucky Blog) or the indie pop of Endless Waves (teaser on Vimeo).

Monday, December 5, 2011

CD review - The Bluffkins, Songs You've Never Heard Of (2011)

Young band delivers interesting indie rock

Songs You've Never Heard Of is a new EP by the Bluffkins, out of Palm Harbor, FL. They're a young band and that youth is apparent from the scattershot style of the EP's seven songs. But despite a couple of minor missteps, they have a great indie rock sound that's worth checking out.

The opening song, Eastbound and Down, starts slow, using a recording session artifact as an intro. But once the song gets underway, the classic rock vibe quickly takes hold. The layered guitar parts remind me of the Henry Clay People. Sam Francis' confessional vocals convey a strength beneath the basic melancholy of the song. The lyrics feature some nice turns of phrase:
Eastbound and down, going nowhere, I'm a teacher of class clowns
She's back in town, living happily, with no one else around
East bound and down, well I can't be lost if I was never found
First to fail, best of worst, I'm a king without a crown
"First to fail, best of worst," I wish had had written that.

The next track, Letters From Space, continues the retro feel, this time with a glam sound like Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter (one of Henry Clay People's bigger influences). This has a similar guitar structure as Eastbound, creating a thick, layered sound. Like many of the following songs, the lead vocals are doubled to fatten the mix. The drop out outro is beautiful with twinned guitar lines reaching out across an open musical space.

Cloud 9 changes up the sound to pick up some of the Guess Who's funky blues groove (No Sugar Tonight). The bass playing on this song, especially during the opening section, is perfect. There's a sweet moment at 1:56, where the verse starts with just the vocal and the bass. That's a punch they could have used more often.

From here, Songs You've Never Heard Of delivers a solid cover of John Mayer's Good Love Is On The Way, a chank beat flavored rocker, and a couple of good indie rock tracks. Of these, the closer, Jingo, is most interesting. A spoken intro (Winston Churchill) leads to a psychedelic rock drive.

Like any demo, Songs You've Never Heard Of shows off the Bluffkins' range. The writing and recording has matured compared to the music on their Reverbnation page, although Place I've Never Been is very catchy and Runaway (Kanye West) is an decent cover. Drop by iTunes and give the EP a listen; then buy a copy to encourage a young band bound for good things.

Thanks to Joseph G for turning me on to the Bluffkins.

Friday, December 2, 2011

CD review - Steven Wilson, Grace For Drowning (2011)

Few wasted moments and many wild rides on this progressive gem

Listening to Steven Wilson's production on Opeth's recent Heritage (review here), it is clear that his recent work remixing King Crimson's catalog has had an impact on his aesthetics. On Grace For Drowning, that effect is more pronounced. Wilson assertively turns away from Porcupine Tree's recent sound to revisit the band's early progressive and art rock roots.

With two discs, I'd say that Grace For Drowning sprawls across its 83 minute run-time -- except there's not much fat to trim. The songs are solid and form a coherent whole.

The music on the title cut is a surprise opening for disc 1. Centered on vocal harmony, the backing is a simple set of chords that remind me of a piano exercise. Harmonize vocals are a tool that Wilson uses liberally on Grace, both to create a human warmth and to add a hint of schizophrenia. The jazzy, compositional sound on Grace For Drowning immediately pushes away expectations of Porcupine Tree's normal prog flavor.

Sectarian, the following track, starts out with a guitar conversation, A plaintive acoustic rhythm and a prickly electric melody build a threatening vibe that blows up into a Discipline style darkness. When the vocals and horns kick in, it's revelatory. More twists and turns lie ahead though. While Sectarian isn't quite my favorite track, I love Wilson's artistry with dynamics. He lets the song breathe: controlled inhale and explosive exhale. The mood swings between the different sections show off Wilson's compositional chops.

The first disc closes out with Remainder the Black Dog. The mellow, reflective start sets up an angular piano motif, which builds tension as the other instruments come in. There's some beautiful mellotron work here that riffs against the motif in a freer jam. The theme takes on a Robert Fripp feel as it transitions to the guitar and bass. The pressure increases until the song erupts into wild flailing. Screaming notes whine over the speedy driver, but the track settles back into the jam. It's a wonderful, progressive roller coaster.

Disc two shows more of the King Crimson/early Porcupine Tree influence. Track One starts out with a forlorn opening vocal and a taste of I Talk To The Wind, but the song transitions through a brief manic section before turning darker. Like the amorphous flow of dream-time events, the song drifts in several directions. The darkness fades into a surprising guitar solo that evokes some of Jerry Garcia's moodier ramblings.

This sets up the epic length of Raiders II. The ponderous opening offers little hint of trip to come. Despite elements of Court of the Crimson King and 21st Century Schizoid Man, it's pure Steven Wilson. The dynamic shifts can be razor sharp, but still natural. When it drops from headlong rush to a meandering melody against a sparse backing, it's unpredictable but satisfying. Wilson's balance between openness and contraction, between direction and loose drifting, makes Raiders II the showpiece of Grace.

Aside from the retro prog foundation of the album, Grace For Drowning has more accessible sounds than Porcupine Tree's material, like the early Genesis style of Deform To Form a Star or the string and piano backed Pastcard. Hopefully, this will open Wilson up to some wider public appreciation. In turn, this could introduce progressive music to a greater audience.