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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Favorite reviewed concerts of 2012

Picking a set of favorite concerts is more subjective than picking a great album. The best band in the world might not qualify if the mood isn't right or the crowd isn't quite in line. Similarly, if the full bill of bands doesn't mesh, it detracts from the impact of the whole show. Each of these seven shows hit the mark, still resonating in my memory.

#7 - See-I with Atomga and DJ Jahstone
19 July, Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO

DJ Jahstone set a good reggae ambiance with his sets, ranging from rock steady to deeper dub. You may notice that Denver band Atomga made my list twice. Months after they opened for Seun Kuti, they had lost their singer, but not their impeccable arrangements or bouncy punch. This set leaned more towards funk to match the headliners.

See-I is a reggae outgrowth of Thievery Corporation's extended musical family. Rootz and Zeebo Steele had a dynamic one-two hip hop vocal style. The Steele brothers were masters of crowd interaction, adept at building up a big presence or dropping down to make a casual connection. Their band was similarly versatile, nailing down a solid one-drop beat and then shifting to a looser funk groove on the next song. Above all, See-I's tightly choreographed song transitions rolled through relentlessly, leaving us happily drained in the early hours of the morning. (full concert review)

#6 - Portugal. The Man with the Lonely Forest and the Epilogues
2 May, Ogden Theatre, Denver CO

Denver band, the Epilogues had a strong, heavy grind and vocal tension, but their dynamic sense made them a good match to Portugal. The Man. The Lonely Forest doubled down on their studio sound with a more powerful rhythm section full of throbbing bass. Their indie rock tunes leaned towards the progressive side with shifts from dreamy to majestic.

Portugal. The Man always puts on a good show, full of wailing guitar and deep psychedelic currents. This year's sponsored tour included a larger stage set, packed with light globes, strobes and lasers. While most of the setlist came from In the Mountain, In the Cloud, the band pulled in some older tracks and surprises. The peak was the tribal beat of "The Devil", which mutated into a tripped out "Helter Skelter" cover. It was a fine evening of reverberation and acid-soaked abandon. (full concert review)

#5 - Los Lobos with Muskateer Gripweed
8 March, Aggie Theatre, Ft Collins CO

Regional favorites Muskateer Gripweed opened with a high energy set of soulful southern rock and bluesy jams. Although their stage presence was flashier than Los Lobos' laid back attitude, the polished arrangements and tight syncopation tied in well.

Los Lobos got back to their roots with an acoustic set featuring a host of specialized instruments and traditional folk sounds. The band unified a fairly diverse audience into a rollicking block party. Old and young, Anglo and Latino, we all shared in the funky, feel-good vibe. (full concert review)

#4 - Dengue Fever with Secret Chiefs 3 and Action Friend
24 January, Bluebird Theatre, Denver CO

I missed much of Action Friend's set while I was interviewing Senon Williams and Ethan Holtzman from Dengue Fever. I caught enough to appreciate their stage show, but that's about it. Their overdriven sound seemed like an odd match for Dengue Fever, though. Trey Spruance and Secret Chiefs 3 were also a wild card element in this line up, with music that ranged from metallic post-rock to dreamy ambient explorations. Their world music influences reflected Arabic scales instead of Cambodian, but that did lay a common ground with Dengue Fever.

I've loved Dengue Fever ever since I discovered their Khmer flavored surf rock. The sinuous melodic lines, the rich psychedelia, and Chhom Nimol's achingly beautiful voice create a rich melange of details to appreciate. Moving from sweet ingenue to pop goddess, Nimol's stage presence provided the centerpiece for the band. Even so, she and the rest of the band kept everything in service to the songs and keeping the groove. (full concert review)

#3 - El Ten Eleven with Races and Wire Faces
2 February, Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO

El Ten Eleven and Races were the main draws for this show, but local band Wire Faces offered a spirited opening set, packed with new wave energy. Races kept the evening rolling, but the sonic shift to dreamy pop and indie rock was a change of pace. Their softer moments may have positioned them as a palate cleanser for the headliner, but their deeper musical complexity demonstrated how they earned that spot.

In comparison to Races' stage full of musicians, El Ten Eleven's duo initially seemed stripped down. But Kristian Dunn quickly put that to rest with a larger than life stage persona and a full band sound. Watching the duo whipsaw from close-formation progressive jams to loose-rhythm open grooves was transcendent. Each amazing technical feat was overshadowed by its rich musical expression. (full concert review)

#2 - Easy Star All Stars with Passafire
13 September, Fox Theatre, Boulder CO

Passafire opened the show, favoring jam band eclecticism integrated with the expected reggae beats. Their tight set and strong rhythmic focus complemented the Easy Star All-Stars' reggae/dub sound. Passafire not only made the anticipation for Easy Star's set bearable, we were happy to wait while we enjoyed their wide range of material.

The Easy Star All-Stars were touring behind their recent release, Easy Star's Thrillah. We got to hear most of Thrillah's songs, as well as their perfect reggae-infused covers of the Beatles, Radiohead, and Pink Floyd. Every moment during the set was perfectly framed, but the band was so fluid that it all seemed effortless. Reggae is inherently uplifting, but the party vibe was inspiring. (full concert review)

#1 - Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 with Atomga
29 March, Boulder Theater, Boulder CO
This was a show where all the stars aligned. The opening band, Atomga, offered a tight Afrobeat set with a solid horn section that got the crowd dancing and in the mood. Then Seun Kuti took the stage with his father's band, Egypt 80. Fela Kuti and Egypt 80 defined an era of Afrobeat jams. Seun Kuti gave us a taste of the band's peak, with a charismatic performance backed by tight arrangements and inspired solos. The rapport between the band and the audience reflected a perfect, ritualistic joy. (full concert review)

Honorable mentions

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Favorite reviewed albums of 2012

I would never claim to pick the best albums of 2012. Instead, I'll just share the music I've enjoyed most this year. That lets me off the hook for all the great albums I haven't reviewed yet. The other side of the equation is important, too. I review a lot of new bands, so it's a fair bet that some of these will be completely unfamiliar. Sifting through the albums I reviewed this year, I settled on a list of 10. Each of these albums clicked for me in, pulling me in for repeated listens even after the review was over. Browse the list and see what you think.

#10 - Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, There is a Bomb in Gilead
With this postcard from the Dirty South, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires offer up a fine serving of soulful blues, blistering country-fried rock, and gospel redemption. Every track is imbued with dedication and spirit. There is a Bomb in Gilead took me back to my hazy youth of Skynyrd and the Allmans, but their fresh, vibrant energy overpowered the idealized memories.  (original review)

#9 - Convalescents, Armageddon
I'm sure there are countless local bands with the same dedication to relentless rhythms and catchy tunes, but the Convalescents are the premier pop punkers in my neighborhood. Armageddon channels Green Day as well as other punk forebears, while developing their own sound and attitude. The band features tight arrangements and serious musical skills that carry over into their live performances. (original review)

#8 - The Electric Mess, Falling Off the Face of the Earth
The Electric Mess isn't local, but they deserve broader recognition. Fronted by Esther Crow as her drag alter ego, Chip Fontaine, the band pounds their way through a swirling psychedelic wail of fuzzed out guitars and growled vocals. Unlike their low-fi brethren, the Electric Mess builds a beautiful idealized retro sound that has the bandwidth to let every nuance ring forth. (original review)

#7 - Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes
Producer Flying Lotus expands beyond the tension of his recent experimental electronic grooves to take his polyrhythmic explorations into a jazzier zone. Deconstructed R&B jams and free jazz riffs offer a new context for FlyLo's impeccable sense of rhythm. With a finger on a chaotic pulse, Until the Quiet Comes sails through a multiverse of sonic moods. (original review)

# 6 - Simon Little, [un]plugged
Bassist Simon Little may not be a household name, but he's an active session player in London. On his solo album, [un]plugged, he takes his bass into a shadow zone between electronic and organic. Layered and processed sounds merge jazz and new age vibes into beautifully complex constructions that wander far from their stating points. Where some looping musicians get too enamored of their technology, Little deftly avoids that trap and develops his musical ideas into challenging compositions.  (original review)

#5 - Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Godspeed You! Black Emperor split up years ago. Even thought they eventually resurrected, fans have still been waiting years for new music. The band brings a couple of older tracks into the studio to form the backbone of Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, but the ragged tones and walls of guitar fuzz satisfy the craving. The evocative chaos shows that they haven't lost their touch at providing noisy catharsis. (original review)

#4 - El Ten Eleven, Transitions
El Ten Eleven blew me away with their live show. It was amazing to see how much sonic complexity Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty could create on stage with loops and processed instrument sounds while still pulling off the stage presence of a full band, too.  But without the distraction of performance, could their studio recording compete with other post rock instrumental acts? The answer is a resounding, "Yes!"  Transitions presents an eclectic face, with atmospheric soundscapes and intensely visceral rock earthiness. El Ten Eleven's rich sense of dynamics offers moments of quiet contemplation and majestic power. (original review)

#3 - Joe Jackson, The Duke
Joe Jackson takes his well-documented love of jazz music and shines a spotlight on bandleader and jazz master, Duke Ellington. Despite his dedication to Ellington, Jackson makes a concerted effort to provide some aesthetic distance from the original material and offer a fresh perspective on the work. From the Afrobeat infused "Caravan" to the ska-infused "The Mooche", Jackson surprises us with how far you can take Ellington's compositions and still maintain a link to the magic. (original review)

#2 - Anywhere, Anywhere
I toss Anywhere into my mix about once every month or so just to immerse myself into a hypnotic zone of trippiness. Anywhere mashes up psychedelia with progressive structures to create a sound that sits poised on the edge of possibility. Raga, ambient wandering, and worldbeat infused folk rock are all whistle steps along this long strange trip. (original review)

#1 - Jonathan Segel, All Attractions

Jonathan Segel is most well known for his work with Camper Van Beethoven. All Attractions features some of the same folk influences, but branches out into indie rock, psychedelia, and power pop. Segel's music never slips into predictability, with spacy wanderings finding their way to solid rock structure. His companion release, Apricot Jam, works the psychedelic angle a little more thoroughly, but both albums offer sparkly details to investigate and moody ambiance to savor. (original review)

Honorable mentions
If I had allowed myself more entries in my list, these albums would have been there. More fine music:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Recording review - Porcupine Tree, Octane Twisted (2012)

Almost studio perfect, but fans are waiting for newer material

Porcupine Tree’s roots as a solo project for Steven Wilson makes them more comfortable in the studio. As they’ve developed into a full band, they’ve preserved that tight, clean sound in their live shows. In large part, that’s due to Wilson’s obsessive focus on the details of the band’s performance. The new release, Octane Twisted, is a sprawling live double album. Disc one presents the title suite of The Incident (2009), recorded at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre on April 30, 2010 during their tour behind the album. The second disc features songs from the second set in Chicago as well as performances from their Royal Albert Hall show (10/14/2010).

This live recording of “The Incident” on Octane Twisted is almost studio perfect. This sets up a paradox. On the one hand, the concert doesn’t expand on the source material: trim out the small touches of stage patter and audience response and the songs would match the recorded versions fairly closely. With Porcupine Tree on hiatus and Wilson paying more attention to his solo work and other projects, it’s a poor substitute for a fresh studio album. Still, Octane Twisted showcases an amazing band breezing through a rich, orchestral collection of songs. These phenomenal musicians live up to Wilson’s attention to detail. Their technical skill transcends ego in the service of the flow and Wilson has carefully calculated the dynamic shifts to match his vision.

Porcupine Tree’s well-rehearsed approach makes them the antithesis of jam band improvisers, but the music still feels light and lively. “Time Flies” lyrically references the Beatles and Hendrix, but Wilson’s calm voice and the jangly guitar layered over a staccato rhythm feel more influenced by the head space of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Subtle keyboard washes suspend the tune. The transition from the galloping beat to a softer guitar pattern feels casually executed. The shift to introspection lets the tune drift aimlessly. The mood deepens and the first note of lead guitar impinges, signaling growing concerns. A syncopated drum beat develops to support a cathartic, swirling lead. Each section may have been worked out, but the flow is natural.

Wilson’s compositions balance grand, epic gestures with softer, thoughtful moments. “The Blind House,” see-saws between a grinding metallic groove and sparsely backed vocals. The lyrics are threatening and the heavy breaks give the song a psychic heft. This weight fits the larger theme behind “The Incident”, reflecting the human traumas behind impersonal news stories. The suite wraps up with “I Drive the Hearse”, which offers a delicate finish so the listener can decompress from the impact of the preceding tracks. The song meanders into a drawn out ending, allowing some of the tension to finally release.

The second disc contrasts the coordinated flow of disc one, pulling in songs from across the band’s catalog. They reach all the way back to 1995’s “Stars Die”. Porcupine Tree give themselves permission to loosen up the arrangements on this older material. The material from the Chicago show is solid, but the two longer tracks from the Royal Albert Hall concert deliver the peaks. The full length, extended version of “Even Less”, originally released on the compilation Recordings (2001), stretches into an epic journey. The first half’s pain and anger drifts into an ambient spaciness before coalescing back into a more intense bass-driven interlude that sets up a return to the main theme. The closing track is the moody “Arriving Somewhere but Not Here” from Deadwing (2005). Wilson’s breathy vocals insinuate unseen dangers as the music layers in a subtle sense of disquiet. The tempo and rhythmic power build to set up the metallic shred section that forms the heart of the song. The collapse into a jazzier guitar line offers a moment of relief before picking up the verse again. I love the dynamic progression: the thoughtful start begins the story until it erupts into a more visceral headbanging beat only to fall into the softer end section.

The contrast between the two halves of Octane Twisted offers a choice between the studio-style clarity of the first disc and the looser arrangements of the second. Either selection has its strengths, but unfortunately neither offers what fans really want, which is new material from Porcupine Tree.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Recording review - Umberto, Night Has a Thousand Screams (2012)

Secret soundtracks in the darkness

Matt Hill contributes bass and beats to progressive-psych band Expo ’70, but he has his own project on the side. As his alter ego, Umberto, Hill plays craftsman, sculpting idealized film scores for obscure old horror films. Night Has A Thousand Screams is his latest project, created for the Glasgow Music and Film Festival earlier this year. The Festival hyped Umberto’s appearance as a live soundtrack performance for a secret film. He chose a cult favorite slasher flick called Pieces (1982), by Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón, as his inspiration.

The album’s 10 tracks follow the flow of the movie, allowing the listener to absorb every menacing moment. The first track, “Boston, 1942” covers the opening scene with its back story for the film’s killer. A child is playing with a jigsaw puzzle. Chastised by his mother, he ends up murdering her. Umberto’s music sets an expectant vibe with chiming tubular bells against mysterious sweeping synth drones. A grinding bass line ratchets into the tune to represent the violence. Umberto uses electronic distortion, sirens, and the persistent chimes to create a sense of unreality paired with heavy action. These bells become one of the motifs throughout the score. The next tune, “Opening Credits”, establishes a couple of other recurring themes. One is a bass run that suggests the intro to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. This crops up during “The Investigation”, “The Waterbed”, and “Paralyzed”. It’s usually accompanied by an inexorable beat and shimmering keyboards.

Umberto’s soundtrack also relies on a lot of spooky underwater sounds that link several of the murders to the killer’s obsession with puzzles. Several of the tracks reference specific attack scenes in the film. The strongest of these is “The Pool”. It begins with the underwater theme, but picks up a stalking electronic beat. Initially, the music is simple, setting the scene of a young woman unaware of the coming threat. But the pressure builds as a heavier rhythm falls into place, until a sinister climbing melody line finally reveals the psychotic killer to his terrified victim. The track ends with the release of a grinding bass tone.

Night Has A Thousand Screams is a well designed film score. More than just an accompaniment to the action, it provides another medium to appreciate the story and feel of the movie. That live performance in Glasgow must have been a heady experience as Umberto’s trance grooves enhanced the suspense of Pieces. The music captures an ambiance of creepy tension, taking advantage of the same formula that horror films use to heighten the impact of violence. The songs begin with a calm setup, followed by the initial hint of threat that eventually builds. But like the best directors, Umberto breaks the flow occasionally to offset expectations, such as his slow-motion free fall section in “Paralyzed”. But the final strike is inevitable.

Even as Umberto aspires to soundtrack greatness, he has a slightly different perspective from most composers in this genre. Knowing that few listeners will get the full effect of pairing his music with the film, he’s structured his album for independent listening as well. Pieces vary in length from a bare minute for “Opening Titles” to the sprawling 10 minute “Paralyzed”. The longer tracks reuse the motifs of his musical lexicon, but they also work as standalone songs. Without the context of Pieces, listeners can still enjoy the music journeys, with trippy explorations, chill trance progressions and revelatory build ups.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

December Singles

Let's wrap up the year with an old friend and a small collection of newer bands.

They Might Be Giants - "Call You Mom" (from Nanobots, due March 2013)

They Might Be Giants are promising a lot with their upcoming album, Nanobots: namely a full serving of bass clarinet. Regardless of whether they have their pulse on the market demand,"Call You Mom" delivers that classic TMBG aesthetic. Quirky yet compelling, the lyrics follow a Freudian Slip 'n' Slide of Oedipal images. The solid retro rock music adds the perfect frantic energy.

FIDLAR - "Gimme Something" (from FIDLAR, due January 2013)

Speaking of retro, über-ironic FIDLAR brings a house party atmosphere laced with healthy sense of humor. Their video for "Gimme Something" claims, "Our friend found this video of us playing a couple years back. Back when cocaine was good for you." While the band pounds their way through the jangly rocker, the video splices footage of Credence Clearwater Revival (circa 1970) to match FIDLAR's track. It's a clever joke, but there's an ounce of truth as the band's guitar sound borrows a fair amount of Fogerty's tone.

Wax Idols - "Sound of a Void" (from Discipline & Desire, due March 2013)

We'll continue the retro run with a great, high energy post-punk jam on "Sound of a Void". The thick wave of rhythm guitar and bass packs the dynamic space as Hether Fortune's accusatory tone channels '80s angst amidst shards of angular fills. "Let's turn down the static world" -- Wax Idols build a delicious dark tension with echoes of Siouxsie Sioux and Romeo Void.

A. Chal - "Dirty Mouth" (from Ballroom Riots)

Back to the present - Our last single for the month is a tripped out electronic groove from A. Chal. He sets up "Dirty Mouth" with a sparse drum machine beat and shimmery washes of synth. The heart of the tune is a chopped and processed vocal line:
Dirty mouth and she just can't
Get it good to be on that
Daddy issues and cognac 
It's hard to tell if I got that second line right, but the moody chill of the mix implies that things probably won't end well. This is wonderfully evocative track, but it fades out way too soon to fully satisfy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Recording review - The Gromet, Barren (2012)

Colorado country rockers make retro tones their own

It's been two years since I last heard the Gromet when they opened for Tumbledown. The Golden, Colorado band has spent that time honing their sound as they play the Front Range and touring around the West. Last month, I caught their CD release show here in Ft. Collins and picked up a copy of their new album, Barren. I enjoyed their set, but I finally found the time to settle in and give the album a listen. While the band still plays a country rock/Americana mix, they've traded out Wilco influences for the folk rock feel of the Eagles and The Band.

The album name serves as fair warning that the Gromet has also matured their sound from their more direct, feel-good roots. While Barren is hardly moping, bringing some darker themes allows for a wider range of emotional nuances. The title track has a simple, folky sparseness with a clear acoustic guitar and sincere vocal. With a wistful sense of loss, "Barren" is reminiscent of "Where Do They Go" by the Beat Farmers.
Barren love shows its age
I'm wonderin' what you feel now
Barren love shows its age
The more you give, the more it takes
The only ornamentation is a poignant bit of melody worked in with the guitar chords. The track gains even more weight from the contrast with the previous track, "Whiskey and Pills", a soulful country rocker that would feel at home in the Marshall Tucker back catalog. The slightly hoarse lead vocals stand up well to the warmly distorted guitar tone. The lazy melody is familiar, wrapped in an aura of early '70s rock. The solo kicks in, accompanied by retro falsetto harmonies that shift the vibe from "Can't You See" to a twangy Rolling Stones sound. The repetition of the title line sets up a perfect sing-along tag to take the tune home. This has the hallmarks of a great live song and the band captures that energy here.

The Gromet proves adept at mining the Western rock space to tip their hats to a host of influences, from the rootsy John Hiatt Americana of "Skip Your Stone" to the folky tone of The Band on "Stalemate" and the Eagles flavored harmony vocals on "Empty Space". Despite the inspiring list of sonic references, the band manage to stake their own claim with catchy lyrics, boot tapping rhythms, and a clear, honest band persona.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Recording review - Brian Eno, Lux (2012)

Eno continues his ambient explorations, heading for the light

Brian Eno never fully settled in during his professional start with Roxy Music. While his brief tenure with the band proved to be the mainstream interlude of his career as a musician, it was his artistic vision that made him remarkably influential on popular music. Although his initial solo work focused on synthesizer-based pop, his aesthetic sensibility led him to develop studio skills and a unique sonic touch that eventually had him producing a number of artists including David Bowie, the Talking Heads, and U2. In parallel, he became enamored with aleatoric or indeterminate music, expanding on the creative application of random chance in composition and performance. By 1975’s Discreet Music, Eno’s flirtation with what he would call ambient music was fully underway.

Eno effectively introduced this experimental music to popular audiences because he bridged the two worlds. Fans who knew him through Roxy Music and his first couple of solo albums followed him to echo-driven explorations with Robert Fripp and several other art music projects. The step into stranger realms was not far off the path of Eno’s creative arc. The long quavers and echo-cushioned notes of the ambient genre embrace the idea of music that can be appreciated from intellectual and meditative perspectives as well as background sound. Listeners can all but ignore it, letting it flavor their sub-conscious mood. But given attention and focus, ambient music engages the pattern matching parts of our brains. The implied structures are elusive, but small sections suggest their own directions.

Which brings us to Eno's latest ambient offering, Lux. Originally intended to enhance an installation at the Great Gallery of the Palace of Venaria in Turin, Italy, the album is split into four 18-plus minute tracks. Each section has its own flavor, but the sense of spaciousness and possibility recall Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978). Similarly, it’s not so far from Austin Wintory’s sound design for the PS3 game flOw. A spacy openness is conveyed with slowly shifting foundation tones. Additional synth lines drop in and melt down into the shimmering ground. Individual piano keys drip into the mix, where they echo and linger.

Listening to “Lux 1” is like drifting in a float tank. The relaxing wash of sound is deeply meditative. The tonal parade is steady, but feels organically spaced and creates a hopeful sense that matures through the evolution of the track. Later, Eno creates a sense of depth by varying the relative volumes of successive note groups, pushing some towards the background while others step forward. As the foundation fades lower in pitch, the track turns more pensive. Near the end, some deeper string tones give the music a darker, more ominous feel.

“Lux 2” continues the push into tension and unease, moving away from the harmony that opened Lux and into chromatic discord. The track contrasts dark low notes with sharper timbre in the foreground. Guitar resonates, almost to the edge of feedback, then cuts out. Where “Lux 1” presents music that exists on its own plane, “Lux 2” sounds more overtly created, largely because Eno uses more acoustic instruments to build his textures.

The uneasiness persists into “Lux 3”, but transitions into curiosity. The layers of sound are denser as sequences overlap and slip past without quite interlocking. As the track becomes more thoughtful, there’s a sense of foreboding implied by a recurrent bass note theme. Despite a brief resolution into a more harmonious mood, the general sense of intrigue mixed with worry remains. “Lux 4” offers a taste of thoughtful evaluation, then resolves into a calm acceptance. The pace of incoming musical packages seems to slow back to the initial tempo and Eno’s conceptual flow achieves completion without ever overtly clarifying anything.

The key to ambient music and its interpretation is to understand the plasticity of the components. Shuffle the sections of Lux into a different order and the meaning would shift accordingly. This order follows a subtle path, but still delivers a coherent flow centered around the muted climax of tension during “Lux 2”. The bar for judging this genre is fairly low, in part because it’s just as easy to dismiss the music as trivial background noise as it is to respect narrative it cam evoke. Musical rating is always subjective, but even more so in this case. Interpreting this kind of music is challenging; each listener brings their own associations. For me, it paired well with a crisp fall afternoon, providing relaxation and meditative focus. Eno’s continuing exploration of ambient terrain remains interesting and engaging.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Random notes

It's always interesting to see what Gods of Shuffle put together. This time I sensed a Beatles theme running through a couple of the songs.

"You Can't Do That" - The Bobs (Songs for Tomorrow Morning)

Back in the '80s, long before the whole Glee thing built up a capella music into a big thing, there were the Bobs. Everybody in the band was named "Bob", like Gunnar "Bob" Madsen. Aside from their off-kilter originals, they arranged a host of covers. Their versions of "Psycho Killer" and "Purple Haze" are my favorites, but this Beatles cover is another strong version. The verses are fairly straight forward, with the band emphasizing a doo-wop groove. But the solo section features Janie "Bob" Scott riffing off the melody of "Within You Without You" before drifting into spacier realms.

"Get Ready" - Rare Earth (single)

Rare Earth stood out at Motown, in part because they were the biggest blue-eyed soul band out there. They stirred up funk, soul, and rock and had a number of hits in the early '70s: ""(I Know) I'm Losin' You", "Born to Wander", and "I Just Want to Celebrate". But their biggest hit was their cover of Smoky Robinson's classic, "Get Ready". A staple of their live shows, the album version took up a whole record side where 21+ minutes gave everyone in the band their chance to solo. The single version edits that down to a tight, three minute, radio-friendly gem. The tempo steamrolls over the pace of the original, with a solid rhythm section anchored by the instantly recognizable bass line.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" - The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

Ahh, the classics. The opening punch of the guitar riff, the orchestral embellishments, and the role-playing conceit -- it's a great piece of experimental music that blends a live rock sound with studio trickery, while offering a broad wink to the audience. It's hard for anyone today to hear it in historical context, so a lot of the revolutionary craziness is lost in translation. The weirdest aspect of having it turn up in my shuffle is the frustrating cut as the song sets up the flow to "With a Little Help From My Friends". Still, it brings a smile to my face.

"Revolverlution" - The Kleptones (From Detroit To J.A.)

I've covered the Kleptones, reviewing their amazing mashup album 24 Hours (review here). "Revolverlution" is less of a straight ahead mashup than a pastiche. It's a parody of Gil Scot-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", backed with music from Michael Jackson's "Ben". The vocals get Scot-Heron's cadence down as they twist his assertions:
The revolution will always come with fries
Because the revolution will be televised
 Producer Eric Kleptone manages to make a similar social commentary as his target material. His inclusion of Neo's closing monologue from The Matrix extends the point, but I'm still confused by the Italian version of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious".
"Tomorrow Never Knows" - 801 (801 Live)
Phil Manzanera's side project from Roxy Music was organized to cover a small number of live shows. With Brian Eno and a number of other progressive rock musicians, 801 pulled material from several members' back catalogs as well as a couple of interesting covers. Their version of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" shows a lot of Eno influence, but their jam on "Tomorrow Never Knows" takes a lesser known Beatles track into new territory. Synthesizers mutate the song away from some of its Indian roots, while maintaining the core psychedelic feel. Bill MacCormick's bass playing is phenomenal.

"Take Care of Yourself" - The Posies (Blood/Candy)

Finally, a more recent track. Compared to the other selections this time, 2010 is almost yesterday. The Posies deliver the alt-rock/power pop punch of their earlier material on "Take Care of Yourself", leaving little gap between their heyday of the late '90s and their new work. The loud-soft-loud shifts, sweet harmonies, and wordy lyrics all sound familiar. The drums stand out in particular: on the verses, Darius Minwalla leaves a couple of sweet holes that make the song stumble forward and the ending builds up just to collapse into resolution.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Recording review - The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth (2012)

Outsider stories of bad luck and poor choices are given a voice

John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats continue to conjure sympathetic connections to their outsider subjects. Darnielle gives these characters voice, with tones that are by turns resigned, challenging, or  occasionally defensive. While the stories dominate the songs on Transcendental Youth, the Mountain Goats continue to find the right simple backing to support the emotional feel of the narratives. One big change from previous albums is the addition of nuanced horn arrangements to several of the tracks, thanks to Matthew E. White. On earlier releases, the band has been labeled as folk rock, based on the central role of acoustic guitar, but the brass moves the band's sound further away from folk.

Transcendental Youth opens with a perfect message to match the title:
Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Find limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
 "Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator I)" was inspired by Amy Winehouse's demise, but serves as an epistle to all the wild youth. It's not entirely clear whether Darnielle's advice is sarcastic or just telling his targets what they need to hear, but the tagline, "Just stay alive" is certainly heartfelt. Jon Wurster's steady beat anchors the processional chord progression, giving the track a post punk vibe. The clever lyrics and catchy hooks make this most likely to be covered by a hundred sincere garage bands in the coming year.

After such an affirmation, the next track, "Lakeside View Apartments Suite" takes on a tunnel-vision darkness. Simple piano and vocal build a wall against any sentimentality is this case study of hopelessness and addiction. The chorus hints at Bruce Springsteen's "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City", but with a desperate edge. Everything is falling apart, feeding the tension: "And just before I leave, I throw up in the sink / One whole life recorded in disappearing ink." These two songs measure the range of material on Transcendental Youth, from the jaunty "The Diaz Brothers" to the moody surrender of "Night Light".

Like their earlier releases, individual lines stand out: "Long, black night, morning frost / I'm still here but all is lost" from "Cry for Judas" or "Hold my hopes underwater / Stand there and watch them drown" from "Until  I am Whole". These simple phrases suggest back tales of bad luck and poor choices, but Darnielle's voice gives them an acknowledgement if not a whitewashed character study.

The title cut serves as a refreshing appendix to the album. White's horn arrangement is lush and Wurster's rimshot rhythm locks the tune into a jazz feel that buoys Darnielle's lyrics. The poetic lines are grounded with gritty imagery: "Cedar smudge our headbands and take to the skies / Soar ever upwards on air gone black with flies." The music plays a stronger role here than anywhere else on the disc, suggesting that however bad it gets, they're prepared to deal with it and move on.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Recording review - And the Giraffe, Creature Collector (2012)

Delicately balanced dreamy folk

Last year, I reviewed And the Giraffe's EP, Something For Someone. I enjoyed their mellow exploration of dreamy folk space; each song created a different mood, finding its own niche. Their latest short-form release, Creature Collector, builds on that nuanced sound with richer production and a stronger contribution from the rhythm section. A perfect example is "Of the Moment", which starts with simple reverbed guitar figure. Robert Edmondson's melodic bass line comes in and adds focus to the quiet reflection. Gossamer shreds of electronic washes are barely perceptible. The breathy lyrics are brief and poetic:
Here I am, trapped in the embers
Of the moment
And the why
Darkness descends with a sharp contrast between prickly bass notes of doom and a rapid, panicked drum beat. This dissipates as the song wakes, driven by an experimental percussion jam. It's a lot to fit into three minutes, but the band effortlessly flows through this evolution.

And the Giraffe continues to evoke Gomez, with vocals reaching for Ben Ottewell's velvet rasp. "Find My Name in the Sun" floats forward, with a weary acceptance:
Does a loving feud have to be something more?
Will the rug muffle our yells?
Will the chipped paint ever dry?
Will the room keep closing in?
The detached vocals suggest a surrender at the loss of a relationship, holding none of the sting these lyrics suggest. The music remains unencumbered and light, despite some ornamentation. A soft banjo, synth washes, and other subtle sounds add detail, but find a delicate balance. The folky feel transitions into a rootless, atmospheric electronic shimmer for the bridge. This heralds a growing complexity, where complacence becomes anticipation, signaling an end to the grieving. Conflicting details layer together, but never feel chaotic because harmony still dominates.

The six songs on Creature Collector all seem to capture some degree of pain in their lyrics, but the music redeems them from any self-absorbed whining. It's hard to be melodramatic when the tunes remain stubbornly low key and perceptive. So, it's less Melanie's "Beautiful Sadness" and more Wilco's "Less Than You Think". In fact, the closing track, "Enough is Enough" seems to channel Jeff Tweedy's halting rhythm in its beginning section. The simple piano is sparse, emphasizing the lines by dropping back rather than dynamic punches. After this intro, the rest of the band comes in, kicking off a "Walk on the Wild Side" groove. Except for a touch of noodling electric piano early in this section, it's a perfect transition. The song closes with a fuller sound; distorted guitar and a saturated mix bury the track in another noisy Wilco touch.

Drop by And the Giraffe's Bandcamp page where you can name your price to download Creature Collector.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Recording review - Andrew Bird, Hands of Glory (2012)

Revisiting and reworking in a traditional vein

Andrew Bird is one of those intense musicians who merges classically trained technical chops, confident cross-genre improvisation and an intuitive feel for processing sounds through loopers and other toys. Whether whistling, singing, or playing violin or guitar, Bird effortlessly creates music of tasteful complexity. He’s also quite prolific. Like Prince or Robert Pollard, he seems to constantly record himself, releasing a range of studio and live albums, companion albums, and numerous singles. So far, his high level of quality hasn’t diluted his impact.

Earlier this year, he released Break It Yourself, performing a series of indie pop jams with his band. This album had a more relaxed feel than some of his solo material. His latest offering, Hands of Glory, is a follow-up/companion EP that roots itself in a simpler country folk sound. With a clearer vision, it’s much more consistent than Break It Yourself. While a couple of tunes were recorded in between tour dates, the bulk of the album came from looser acoustic jams, captured with a single microphone. This deliberate move back to folkier roots feels like he’s seeking comfort and a firmer foundation compared to some of his more experimental arrangements and equipment. The focus on cover songs and reworked versions adds to the feel of looking back more than forward.

Bird eases us into the album with the two studio pieces. Three White Horses begins with a meditative sparseness: a measured bass line, then the barest touch of cymbal and guitar. When Bird’s voice joins in to sing the first line, the warm reverb production lays a beautifully retro patina across the guitar line and vocals. This spare start sets a film noir mood. Then the second line blossoms as the backing harmonies splash color into the monochrome palette of the song. At its heart, it’s a simple indie folk song, but the heat shimmer of notes welling up add an ethereal touch. That smooth, haunting tone could be a slide guitar or the singing of a processed violin; either way, the spiritual touch matches the memento mori lyrical theme. “You will need somebody when you come to die.” The track builds into gospel intensity as the accompaniment grows wilder, but Bird’s voice and the acoustic guitar stay clean even as the thick haze of layered instrumentation crowds the other channel. The tune returns to simplicity to finish as a benediction.

The other studio track is a cover of When That Helicopter Comes. Where the Handsome Family’s original had a more traditional bluegrass/country rock sound, Bird speeds it up and polishes the edges down. Like Three White Horses, the slapback echo production on the vocals and guitar has an old school sound. He’s manipulated the chords on the refrain to briefly hint at a jazzy Western swing and his violin fills here have a wistful sophistication. But darkness is never too far and the apocalyptic lyrics inexorably spell out a modern vision of Revelations. The track ends with an echo feedback tone that suggests that the helicopter might be closer than we think.

After these two studio pieces, Hands of Glory transitions to a rawer, old time folk style. Long ago, radio and stage shows often featured bands sharing a single mic and many bluegrass groups today maintain the tradition. Each song becomes a dance as players step forward and back to adjust their place in the mix. Bird has used this technique during performances to create an intimate roots feel and it’s a natural fit for these songs. Another key element in the band’s approach is based on a history of less directed playing. They’ve have been having summer jam sessions for the last three years. They spend several days just relaxing and seeing where the songs take them. The first track of this section is a radical reworking of Alpa Consumer’s Spirograph. The indie pop original has none of the grace captured here. Bird’s version is clear and beautiful in its sadness. The verses remind me of Paul Simon or maybe Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You. The guitar work is fine in its subtlety: echoes, scratches and swells color in the emotional nuances of the song.

The next few songs are well executed, starting with a self-satisfied version of the old song, Railroad Bill. This is followed by the stately, stripped down Something Biblical and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You. While these are nice tunes, the next peak is Bird’s reinvention of his song Orpheo Looks Back from Break It Yourself. Orpheo jettisons the syncopated gypsy feel of the original, slowing it down to create a more reflective mood. The pacing and folky integrity give the lyrics more depth and color them with regret and experience.

Hands of Glory stays true to the idea of revisiting and reworking as it wraps up with the nine minute Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses, an instrumental version of the opening track. Fully acoustic, it deconstructs Three White Horses into constituent parts. The violin begins against the background sound of crickets; then the staccato chord progression comes in. Bird’s violin has a nostalgic feel. The wordless vocals are full of longing and the harmonies sweeten the sound as they echo the slide line from Three White Horses. A little over a third of the way through, the song transforms as the choppy chords fade to make room for chamber sound, lush with bowed strings and a delicate whistle. This evolves into a Phillip Glass minimalism before it closes on a reprise of the vocal section.

Bird comes back to these pieces, not to repair them or to correct a mistake, but to find another jumping off point and see where it leads. This constant seeking is one of his core tenets. In this case, as he digs through his own musical roots, he shows how common ground can yield beautiful results.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Recording review - Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (2012)

 Cleansing noise, organic chaos, and feedback drones herald a fine return

Godspeed You! Black Emperor slipped into indefinite hiatus back in 2003. Fans were heartened when they reunited in 2010 to curate and perform for All Tomorrow's Parties' Nightmare Before Christmas festival, but it's taken another couple of years to get a new album from the band. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! will certainly please their fan base, although some might mutter about the paucity of new new material. The album clocks in at a respectable 53 minutes on four tracks, but the two long tracks are older songs. "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire", formerly known as "Albanian" and "Gamelan" respectively, each run 20 minutes and contrast with the two shorter pieces, both in style and breadth.

"Mladic" opens with a tape loop ("'With his arms outstretched', 'with his arms outstretched'...") and swells of guitar. Sustained guitar, ornamented with violins in bagpipe drag, defines the ground floor of what will grow into a chaotic tower of ragged sonic textures. The noise swirls around, creating an eye of calm to cocoon all within the ringing headphone space. It promises, "submit to the fuzz-laden power and be cleansed." The circle tightens around a single note, with overtones creeping in and away. That tonal center modulates, tuning into a deeper frequency of the universe. The pocket is buffeted by springy pokes of guitar, but remains strong...

That's just the first three minutes. The track carries on to ride through tempo changes, percussive syncopation, and even something resembling a song. Along the way, the sonic tour visits the motor at the center of the world, imagines dimensions where Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music sits at the top of the pop charts, and samples an Eastern European alternative radio station featuring Dick Dale's live performance in Hell. This beautifully evocative chaos is exactly what  Godspeed You! Black Emperor built their reputation on.

"We Drift Like Worried Fire" presents another face. Here, the music acts as score backing a dream. Creaking timbers and drifting tones suggest a rudderless ship in the fog. When we find ourselves delivered onto a crystalline shore, faced with a maze of interlocking guitar lines, there's no choice but to move forward into the indie psyche groove. The paced melodic bass line under the choppy guitars and drums suggest a My Morning Jacket jam, full of transcendent hope. And when a darker tune rises into the cracks of the song and takes over, the creepy tension is still held at a distance by a trick of dream logic.

These epic journeys position the shorter tracks as mere interludes, where six and a half minutes seems like a short form for the band. Both "Their Helicopters Sing" and "Strung Like Lights at Thee Printemps Erable" are structured around gentler drones. "Strung Like Lights" offers some feedback-driven angst, but even that dissolves. These songs never coalesce like their larger siblings, but each explores an interesting set of textures. Recorded with smaller line-up and sparser instrumentation, they feel incomplete; their soft focused ambiance acts as a digestif for the longer pieces. 

Less overtly political than earlier releases, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! relies on subtle clues in the liner notes and song titles to allude to their causes. Whether you're familiar with the Maple Spring protests or not, embrace the noisy catharsis and appreciate that Godspeed You! Black Emperor is back.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Recording review - The Soft Moon, Zeros (2012)

Darkwave updated with modern electronics

Imagine an alternate reality where Factory Records didn’t implode in 1992 but instead carried their trademark sound forward to the present day, a timeline where the darkwave sounds of Joy Division, New Order and Bauhaus matured and incorporated modern electronic music. The Soft Moon recorded Zeros with more than half an ear listening to that world’s music.

These songs resonate with the purest sonic elements of that classic, mid-80s period. The stark, treble toned drum sounds are filtered through the same tight reverb that adds its own touch of distortion. The bass lines have the same gaunt, hollowed out tone. Luis Vasquez even catches a lot of the same retro synthesizer sounds. More than that, Vasquez seems tapped into a similar dark headspace where the staccato beat and choppy bass create a Gothic misery. Philistines may hear the echoes of that period’s pretentious excess, but The Soft Moon never wallows in gloomy self-indulgence.

Despite the obvious reverence that the band holds for that era, they add their own twists, such as applying a modern production aesthetic and blending in a touch of Motorik drive. On "Machines", the droning synth and looped drum machine are pure Krautrock, but the bass riff sounds like it was lifted from an early New Order track. In a contemporary move, The Soft Moon turns away from period simplicity and layers in a full assortment of synth accents with a sharply stereo mix. The vocals are processed and low, so the words can’t be discerned but the alienation comes through.

With a touch of Bauhaus flair, "Insides" sets up a strong contrast between a pensive, controlled surface and chaotic depths. It feels like spying on the mind of a stalker. The bass and beat are purposeful and threatening, but the suggestive vocals lurk like an inner voice and the sharp, repeated notes signal a barely repressed tension. As the synth adds some more piercing tones, it’s a tasty frisson of fear that draws the song closer to action.

It is good, though, that Zeros doesn’t dwell completely in the past. "Die Life" starts with a venomous synth stab that creates an immediate tension. This intro transitions into a mechanically percussive groove. When that drops back to make room for the threatening vocals, the bass and drums still sound darkwave, but the speedier tempo leans more towards urgency than gloom. Sandpaper scratches, whirring and grinding machinery and electrical pulses interlock to weave a modern electronic rhythm.

A few songs later, the band once again relies on a complex Motorik beat for "Want". But this time the band ties the steady drive to a choppy, electronic sounding bass and creates a hypnotic trance feel. Dueling stereo percussion riffs set up a drop out break that could have used more space, but like the song says, “I want it/ Can’t have it.” A droning note comes in and climbs steadily, preparing for a climax. The sudden end of the track resolves nothing.

Little thwarted expectations like that make Zeros a more interesting album. The Soft Moon uses the dark proto post punk and Krautrock to make a statement, but they’re talking to their peers, not the past. Or maybe they’re just connecting with a parallel universe.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

History lesson - Tori Amos, Under the Pink (1994)

Amos defines her artistic voice, cloaked in metaphor 

Tori Amos’ 1992 solo debut, Little Earthquakes, served as the first step in a revisionist negation of her beginnings with Y Kant Tori Read. That synth pop outfit offered occasional hints of how she might develop: Heart Attack at 23 has a sweet piano intro and features Amos’ expressive phrasing. But the band’s pop veneer was too thick and both the music and the band experience chafed. While Little Earthquakes offers more musical depth and expressiveness than Y Kant Tori Read, her second solo album, Under The Pink, is where Amos truly defines her artistic voice.

In particular, her piano steps forward, enveloped in richer, orchestral arrangements and she perfects an oblique writing style that hints at the stories behind the songs rather than telling them outright. Where Little Earthquakes’s "Me and a Gun" told a straight narrative with a powerful simplicity, the songs on Under The Pink are cloaked in metaphor, augmented by the music. On "Bells For Her", the dark, hollow sound creates a sense of doom and inevitability. The lyrics acknowledge this, “Can’t stop what’s coming/ Can’t stop what’s on its way,” but otherwise the thread of the story is hard to unravel. In interviews, Amos has said that the song refers to a break with a good friend that never healed. Rather than explain that overt message, the arrangement conveys the feelings behind the story with a brittle vocal and chiming tones that are vulnerable with regret.

This use of masking has become central to Amos’ writing style. On the one hand, her voice is deeply expressive and the songs feel like private gems of personal experience. But even as she confesses or exposes herself, she cloaks the revelation in metaphors that soften the focus on the details. It’s never clear whether this is to give the songs a broader stage or to distance herself from conflict or pain. Outsiders perceive that disconnect as a kind of shallowness. They dismiss her as a less experimental version of Kate Bush and it’s true that both women are singer/songwriters with a history of classical piano. But fans appreciate that Amos hasn’t shielded her internal perspectives as much as Bush. They find a sense of depth in the layers of metaphor. They surrender themselves to the emotional truth of the songs and accept that the lyrics may never deliver clarity.

Aside from developing her artistic voice, Under The Pink explores themes that confront gender role and religious expectations. This is another aspect that alienates some listeners. Amos takes a strong feminist position in her writing, but rather than becoming strident, she generally finds ways to surprise. So, on a song like "Baker Baker", she reverses the stereotypes. Instead of the man, she’s aloof and unable to commit and it’s costing her the relationship: “And he tells me I pushed him away/ That my heart’s been hard to find.” But even as she describes herself in that situation, her perspective is more nuanced. She’s torn and regretful about the loss even as she accepts the truth that she couldn’t have faked her way through that commitment. The track is overtly sentimental, with Amos’ tortured, emotional vocals and the orchestral accompaniment, but the song survives the schmaltz.

By contrast, "God" jolts the listener with casual blasphemy. Condescending to God, she compliments His daisies but scolds Him for His absence. The funky groove crosses Steve Miller’s "Fly Like an Eagle" with "One Thing Leads to Another" by the Fixx. Spiky shards of guitar chaos rip loose in the spaces around the choruses, like a guilty voice in Amos’ brain reacting to her heresy. This kind of feminist response to patriarchal Christianity becomes another common thread throughout her work. Unlike "Baker Baker", the risk isn’t about her feelings; it’s about making her disdain public.

Much like her first solo album, Under The Pink establishes a soft-loud dynamic shift, alternating from song to song. But even the softer tunes have their jarring moments. The first track, "Pretty Good Year", eases in gently. The delicate piano and Amos’ aching voice are wistful and the added strings increase the poignancy. Still, the piano hints at darkness every now and again by toying with the song’s key signature. Just as the tune seems to fade down to an open, twinkling piano line, angst spews out like a lanced wound: “What’s it gonna take,’til my baby’s all right?” This blindly grasping frustration is the heart of the song’s undercurrent of loss. Amos clearly chose her opening track carefully to lull the listener with pretty piano and strings only to disrupt complacency with that hot flash of tension. When the sweet sound returns, it can’t be fully trusted. This becomes Amos’ stage persona as well. Loose and flowing, attractive and talented, Amos nurtures hidden edges and darkness underneath which she allows to surface periodically for effect.

The theatricality and showiness carry the songs. Sometimes, the plot line becomes tenuous, like "Past The Mission", "The Wrong Band", or "Space Dog". But even then, lyrical phrases catch the ear and the musical mood is strong enough to gloss over any confusion. The breakout hit from the album, "Cornflake Girl", is proof that this kind of stream of conscious flow can connect. Listeners may not be sure what’s going on with cornflake and raisin girls, but they get the picture of cliques and betrayal.

Amos closes out the album with her most ambitious artistic statement, "Yes, Anastasia". She turns away from traditional pop music structure, developing the progression with rich musical ideas that reflect her time at Peabody Conservatory. Running nine and a half minutes, she has time to break the song into mini movements with solid dynamics. The story itself is stylized, loosely tied to Anastasia Romanov. Amos was apparently inspired by a vision spawned by food poisoning. Regardless of the trigger, her piano work swirls through crescendos and gentle pauses. Similarly, the emotion of the piece ebbs and flows, sometimes leaving Amos staring off in the distance, not quite sure how to move forward. Then a moment later, her voice is strong and knowing. The powerful orchestration shows Aaron Copland’s influence, but lightly applied. Ultimately, the piece is all about the expressiveness of a piano and a voice. "Yes, Anastasia" closes with Amos’ challenge to herself, “We’ll see how brave you are.”

Since Under The Pink, Amos has bravely tackled a wide range of projects, from gender-swapping cover songs (Strange Little Girls) to more recent work in orchestral settings (Night of Hunters and Gold Dust). But it’s this early step of her journey that seems most intriguing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Recording review - Story of the Sea, Story of the Sea (2012)

A loose retrospective reveals the band's split personality

There are two sides to every story. That may have been Story of the Sea's idea when they put together their eponymous double album this year. Not just two discs, Story of the Sea showcases two bands that seem almost unconnected. The band on disc one offers an introspective, post-rock set of instrumentals. Disc two presents a tight power pop outfit with laid back vocal attitude and crunchy guitars. Bass player John McEwan describes the album as "B-sides and extras" and the liner notes provide the provenance for each of the songs. Some of the material dates back ten years, while other tracks are new or have new parts added. This historical collection provides a sense of the Minneapolis band's style(s). Their instrumentals have stayed fairly consistent, but the second disc shows a wider spread, with the oldest tracks taking side trips into indie folk, punk, and grunge.

Of the two personalities on Story of the Sea, the post-rockers come across as stronger. The band has more of a chance to show off their chops and arrangement skills. On the shoegazer head-trip exploration, "E Major Tom", the repetitive guitar line against a droning E give the drummer room to play with syncopation. There's a gratifying dynamic balance when the song staggers from soft keyboards to ballsy guitar riffs and back.

The high point, though, is "Lumberjack". The staccato guitar and bass are quickly joined by interlocking guitar lines and reverbing ride cymbals, building a tumultuous feeling. The bass then takes charge to drive the song forward. This shift between deliberate progressive riffs and psychedelic fringes create a sense of possibilities and consideration. During a bridge-like interval, the arrangement builds excitement with a conversational approach as the instruments finish each others melodies, like twins or an old married couple. Ian Prince's drum work propels the track forward against the hypnotic jam in the other layers; he maintains the beat, but never repeats the same rhythmic pattern for two measures. I can hear the distinct influence of Trail of Dead in his playing.

The band's power pop side is interesting, but doesn't provide as many surprises. Songs like "Pine Tree" and "Better Off" are locked down into the groove, with polished arrangements. The throbbing bass and fuzzed guitars are more constrained than their post-rock alter egos, but that's what the style demands. The songs are catchy, with some nicely turned phrases. Take the philosophical "Better Off":
We chug a mug, hug a slug enough
You're every girl I know
In a moment, you'll be cellular and roaming
You went out Palamino
It's gonna chew through everything
It's gonna eat our brains
And with the static, it'll generate a force field
And love will save the day
And I'd say we're better off this way
The newest tracks, "Future Subterfuge" and "How Lucky", have the cleanest production and show the band moving towards a more open indie rock direction. "How Lucky" has emotional depth and stands out as the most personal sounding cut. The acoustic and electric guitar mesh sweetly and Adam Prince's vocal starts out lush but turns rough to reveal a beautiful sadness:
It goes on forever
This light I can't even see
But if it breaks through the atmosphere
I'll take it home for the night
You make do on not much
A mattress and empty room
But with this light and kaleidoscope
I'll make a mansion of diamonds
Yeah...How lucky we are to be
The restrained arrangement complements the poetic lyrics; every note captures the subtlety of the mood: gratitude laced with painful memories and loss.

These, then, are the stories of the sea: regret and resolution, wry observation, tumult and drive, and inner explorations. The album may be a loose collection of B-sides and extras, but it's cool to hear a less well known band put together their own retrospective.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recording review - ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Lost Songs (2012)

Raging against apathy, an album for the times

…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead are hard to pigeonhole. That’s true of many bands, but Trail of Dead makes it harder because they’re adept at juxtaposing hardcore punk thrash against melodic post rock jams, zooming from dense peaks of noisy assault to sparse sections of delicate psychedelia. Their more recent projects have been sculpted with a finely attuned sense of dynamics. Lost Songs still balances some soft with the loud, but it’s much less exploratory than Tao of the Dead or The Century of Self, their last two albums.

Instead of a heady mind trip or an evocative prog rock story, Lost Songs is a different flavor of concept album. Co-founder Conrad Keely has identified global politics and a reaction to apathy as the album’s themes. But rather than a disengaged, intellectual approach, Trail of Dead takes inspiration from bands like Fugazi and Public Enemy to focus on expressing strong emotional responses. Much of the album is steeped in righteous anger laced with an incoherent anguish. Reacting to an unjust world, they still have the resolve to face it down with punk rock intensity. Structurally, the music reflects a constant chaos under the surface, goading it to rise on a cathartic tide.

Lost Songs starts out heavy, catches its breath for a couple of songs, then builds to a climax with the punk punch of "Catatonic". While the album is front-loaded with fury and frustration, the band finishes out on a softer, optimistic tone that seems drained by the rage and exertion.

The first track, "Open Doors" quickly transforms from a percussion driven post-rock vibe into a frantic rush with thrashing drums and guitars. But the album really hits its stride with the next song, "Pinhole Cameras". The intro is a little off balanced, but the main groove is similar to "The Far Pavilions" from The Century of Self. It runs headlong with a persistent anxiety:
It makes me sorry
My pinhole camera
These photographs
Reveal no answers
The sonic space is packed; layers of guitar distortion and pounding drums threaten to bury the vocals. The bridge opens up the sound with a heavy bass line and some guitar shred. Then the tension breaks for an airy dynamic drop into a trippy dreaminess. A chorused and corroded guitar lays down a lead while the background is filled with ambient sounds of cymbal jangle and washes of guitar. The interlude passes and the last verse takes over to close the song.

The pace continues through the power punk/pop of "Up To Infinity", the dark pressure of "Opera Obscura", and the uptempo new wave of "Lost Songs". The first real relief comes with "Flower Card Games". The open, psychedelic looseness seems overdue, like a breath of cool air. The bass and simple guitar riff add a post punk moodiness that develops until it’s reminiscent of Jane’s Addiction’s sound on Nothing’s Shocking. Trail of Dead assembles the same kind of pensive bass groove, droning guitars, and echoed vocals that rise up to a near wail. This pause is short-lived, though, and the tempo picks up again after the last meandering notes fade away and the next track begins.

"Catatonic" tackles apathy head on:
I see dying in your palm
I see nothing in your eyes
I see torment in your past
I see boredom in your glass 
The sneering vocal recalls Green Day, along with the punk energy, but the music is richer with a background full of low grade chaos. The drums have the relentless drive of a twitching, restless leg. The bridge drops back to a simple guitar/drum line that’s eventually buried under a heap of noise. The angst and disdain remind me of Tommy’s "Smash the Mirror". The build up creates a sweet transition to the next track.

Where "Catatonic" tries to shock the listener out of apathy, "Awestruck" cajoles instead. The music kicks off with a mellow bass line. The droning vocal and lush guitars are a sharp contrast to the prickly walls of noise and heavy drumming throughout Lost Songs. The tone is cleaner and meditative. The chorus punches it up – “Get out!/ Get awestruck” – but the relative languor remains. As the song fills out, it climbs into an ecstatic indie rock naïveté. After the anger and anxiety, it’s a great palate cleanser.

While Lost Songs sacrifices some of the dynamic subtlety Trail of Dead often displays, it’s a powerful statement. In times like these, with unrest and threats around the world, it seems appropriate to rave and rage, even if we’re tempted into apathetic distraction.

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Recording review - The Jigsaw Seen, Gifted (2012)

Companion album to last years 'Winterland' takes a nomadic journey across genres

The Jigsaw Seen continue to be the best holiday band for people that hate holiday music. Their droll take on Christmas and thick, polyurethane-coated sense of irony form their appeal even as they undercut the effect. The band's versatile musical approach is their saving grace. Last year's Winterland (review) featured some fine indie pop draped with psychedelic tinsel, recalling XTC's quirky pop masterpieces. This year, Gifted references that sound but adds a strong folk rock sound as well as a wonderfully obscure David Bowie cover.

The new album was a direct outgrowth of the previous one. The original plan was to record a couple of bonus tracks to add to a reissue of Winterland. Instead, the band recorded a few extra tracks, maybe enough for an EP. One thing led to another and the project grew into a solid companion album.

Clever lines and lyrical ideas abound. At their weakest, the humor wears thin, such as "The More You Change", which blindly asserts the obvious, "The less you stay the same." On the other hand, "Christmas Ain't For Christians (Anymore)" pushes that boundary and comes out the other side. Its initial lines lay down some well turned phrases:
The old man took a turn 
For the worse in ICU
That's not a place I'd want to be, 
For all the good they do
The song juxtaposes the tropes of aged wisdom and philosophical dying words with the contradictory conceit of the title to create an absurdist parable. The folk rock backing has just enough self-indulgence to buoy lines like, "Schoolrooms ain't for thinkers and barrooms ain't for drinkers" and Dennis Davison's deadly serious delivery push the track into full on camp. The joke might have proven to be too heavy handed for the song to support, but the arrangement leavens the effect. The acoustic guitars are sweetly layered over a delicate mellotron figure in folky perfection.

"Open Up The Box Pandora" is another fine bit of playing. Grungy guitars thrash over a driving Bo Diddley beat and rolling bass line. Davison's lyrics don't offer a deeper allusion to the myth than mentioning Pandora and a box. Instead, the singer is anxious to see how his gift is received. But once again, the music carries the song with sprightly energy. Catchy moments like this make Gifted worthy of repeated listening.

The band's cover of "Sell Me a Coat" manages to capture a stronger sense of Bowie's sound than the original does. The song comes from Bowie's debut album, which offered a strange mix of styles. The Jigsaw Seen take the theatrical tune and add the kind of glam trappings that a later period Bowie might have brought to it. Davison's voice recalls Colin Moulding (XTC), but the arrangement owes more of a debt to Mott the Hoople.

While most of the songs on Gifted tie into the seasonal theme, it's less of a commentary on the holidays than Winterland. "Rise of the Snowflake Children" is merely the title phrase over a psychedelic interlude of droning guitars, for example. But the music seems to capture the flavor of winter, whether it's the pensive progressive rock of "Pretend It's Christmas", the dark Gordon Lightfoot folk of "Hag of the Barren Trees", or the retro '70s jazz vibe on "Couples Skate". This nomadic journey across genres reflects the band's organic approach to recording Gifted and marks the Jigsaw Seen as one of the most interesting group of musicians around.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Recording review - Akron, Voyage of Exploration (2012)

Akron's exotica suggests an alien art walk

Voyage of Exploration presents a fine collection of retro lounge/space music that imagines a much cooler future than our paltry dimension can offer. Like The Traditionalists, a branch of Secret Chiefs 3, Akron shares a love of classic exotica like Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Esquivel!. On the one hand, his sound is utterly 1964 retro, but it also has a timeless quality. These songs mix and match elements from Denny’s exotica, Joe Meek’s production on songs like Telstar, Ennio Morricone’s film scores and early Pink Floyd psychedelia to reveal the inherent stylistic connections they share.

The album opens with a spacy sound that overlays throbbing organic machinery with bits of grinding, tinkling glass. This motif returns repeatedly throughout Voyage of Exploration, like it’s the background sound of some bizarre museum where each song is a holographic display to be entered and explored.

The first installation in this alien art walk is the focused instrumental progression of "Picabu". This retro-hip lounge groove has a tightly syncopated foundation with a simple, repeating guitar line. Washes of synth flutter through like electro-magnetic curtains blowing in the wind. After an accent break of rhythmic breathing, echoplex artifacts hint at Denny’s wildlife sounds in the background. Then the song fades back into the motif as we move towards the next display.

Stepping ahead to "Tricorder", the song begins with a tribal percussion beat. The music initially sounds like an Italian soundtrack, perhaps a Spaghetti Western. But the electronic melody in the left channel wobbles and bubbles like an overheated liquid energy, giving the song a science fiction vibe. It eventually melts down into a strange, open cavern, where odd snippets of sound conjure the sense of small creatures lurking in the shadows. These sonic pictures are perhaps very personal, but Akron’s songs are very evocative that way. Each tonal component seems to represent some element of a greater story.

Another great example of this programmatic style of music comes later on "Memory Hole". The track features a pastiche of various fragments from Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn crossed with experimental Krautrock. The steady bass line at the start suggests a purpose or organizing principle. Burbling electronic tones zip by and create a sense of space along with a steady percussive tap. A steady staccato guitar strum provides a subconscious murmur as a keyboard line seems to be searching for something. Suddenly, a jarring electronic interference breaks the concentration. The bass and percussion reassert themselves, but now, they’ve internalized the distortion into the original principle.

Moments later, the distortion is traded out for yet another sound. Each new context for the bass line feels like an experimental repositioning of base idea. All along, the Krautrock repetition creates a hypnotic focus. Eventually, the bass line theme is abandoned as an ambient, swaying section takes over. Organic creaking suggests sails and ropes as a new meandering keyboard line wanders like a distraction from the earlier focus. But the original theme reasserts itself to finish the song.

Finally, as the stately, nostalgic "Funeral For Euclid" drifts out of focus, we find ourselves at the end of our tour. Linger in the museum atrium a moment and savor the sensations before returning to the mundane world. The exhibits in Voyage of Exploration will wait here for your next visit.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture.)