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

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Recording review - Anywhere, Anywhere (2012)

World-wide psych-prog sounds make a spicy treat

Anywhere started as a collaboration between Christian Eric Beaulieu (Tryclops!, Liquid Indian) on guitar and Cedric Bixler-Zavela (At the DriveIn, the Mars Volta) on drums and vocals. Through fortuitous circumstance, legendary Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) joined in on bass. They rounded out the sound with vocals from Rachel Fannen (ex-Sleepy Sun) and extra guitar work from Toshi Kasai (Big Business).

Anywhere's overall feeling is hypnotic and obsessive, with psychedelic/progressive execution, but each song finds its own stylistic center. Beaulieu's experimentation with Indian raga forms the artistic vision and Bixler-Zavela's heavily syncopated drum work propels the music. Even though Watt came into this project later, his bass lines are the essential glue to tie the pieces together. I'm very familiar with Watt's work with the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, but his playing here is phenomenal.

The second track, Rosa Rugosa, starts with a down tempo backbeat. Between the relaxed rhythm and Fannen's haunting vocals, it reminds me of Dengue Fever's opiated jams. Wandering bits of melody lurk at the edges of this progressive psychedelia. The bridge interlude features some very nice acoustic guitar work before the tempo kicks up. The acoustic and the drums create an Indian flair while the electric guitar ties the jam back to rock. The bass pushes the song forward and the pressure climbs, wrenching loose wisps of vocals. The seven and a half minutes passes all too quickly.

This is where Anywhere shows its pacing. The assertive end of Rosa Rugosa yields to Khamsin's ambient tones. This sectional piece begins with a sound sculpture that acts as a call to meditation with swells of sound and chimes. Once the track transitions into a more traditional song structure, the bass and the drums create an OK Computer era Radiohead progressive feel. Bixler-Zavela's falsetto vocals fit that sound as well: "Tempted, I'm always tempted". Mike Watt's soothing bass counters the rhythmic punch and staccato guitar as it defines the feel of the descending run. Khamsin eventually falls into a sparser sound as the drums drive into heavily syncopated fills. The mix of sounds create a unique vibe. The jerky beat and instrumentation lean towards worldbeat, but with a higher rock energy. Anywhere's press refers to "Eastern acoustic punk" and that might be the best descriptor.

Those cross-cultural bridges continue with Dead Golden West. The foundation is a Western folk rock, but foreign aesthetics creep in. On its surface, it reminds me of retro British folk rock explorations, but the outside influences are stronger: it's like Bon Jovi's Wanted Dead or Alive meets Touré Kunda. Rachel Fannen's vocals are both ethereal and thickened with overdub, softening the track's edges.

Digging through the melange of sounds is like picking individual spices from a masala: retro hints of Gentle Giant, Renaissance, and Jefferson Airplane blend with sharper bits of King Crimson and the Mars Volta. The combined whole, though is just tasty.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

June singles

A fine selection for June with bits of pop and heady strangeness.

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra - Want It Back (from Theatre Is Evil, due September 2012)

Amanda Palmer is riding high with her million dollar Kickstarter success. While everybody is touting crowd-funding now, Palmer's relationship with her fans is the real key. That connection drove this kind of support to pre-pay for her new album. Palmer thanked her backers with a Brooklyn concert/party and she also sent out the album teaser Want It Back.

The heavy synth pop intro sets certain expectation, but they dissolve in the transition to a punchy new wave bounce. Staccato piano, solid bass, and a tight lyrical flow create a clever pop sound. It's impossible to hear without nodding along.

Kat McGivern - Facebook Official (from K@ndy Pop, due Summer 2012)

Kat McGivern

Kat McGivern's image seems sculpted into a perfect pop package with an indie rock edge. The look, the smooth vocals, and the tight pop arrangements are calculated to appeal. But McGivern's voice occasionally slips up and reveals a touch of rebellious insolence. And unlike the other pop princesses, McGivern has the instrumental chops and writing skills to add some depth to her image. Facebook Official is a cute contender for the summer pop hit, but some of her other originals show more personality. Give a listen at her ReverbNation site.

Yawn - Ganymede (from Happy Tears)

Ganymede has a dreamy psychedelic sheen. Reminiscent of the Beatles' Blue Jay Way, the lazy rhythmic sway is accented with sparkles of guitars. Yawn's gentle underwater groove supports the pretty vocal harmonies. Drift along and remember:
You shouldn't ever think too much
About the things that make you stay awake...
This happy sentiment seems to reflect the band's neo-hippy attitude about life in general. The whole Happy Tears EP can be downloaded from their site. Pull a copy and find a way to support this groovy band.

Bear in Heaven - Sinful Nature (from I Love You, It's Cool)

Bear in Heaven has been growing on me over the last couple of years. Their live show two years ago was a darkly intense mix of synth pop and post rock. Since then, I keep catching interesting snippets as they develop their sound. Sinful Nature showcases a heavy feel similar to that show, but Bear in Heaven has developed their ability to architect a song. The synthesizer groove sets an electronic vibe at the start, but this quickly moves into a thick psychedelic sound. Gloss over the vocals and it's a heady Krautrock trek, with a sense of foreboding. Listen to the lyrics and John Philpot's voice almost seems to come from within your own mind.

Yoonha Park's video is inspired by an acid trip viewing of Pretty Woman. The band wanted something "dark, feminine, trippy" and the video delivers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Recording review - Joe Jackson, The Duke (2012)

Jackson's loving irreverence for Ellington's classic tunes

Cover:The DukeJoe Jackson has been clear about his love of classic jazz. With Jumpin' Jive, he offered his tribute to Louis Jordan and other swing band writers. Night and Day seemed inspired by Cole Porter's work. Body and Soul celebrated a retro Latin and pop sound, both musically and in recording technique.

That brings us to Jackson's latest, The Duke, which takes on Duke Ellington. "I revere the Duke, but I didn't want to make a reverent album," says Joe Jackson. As his deeply personal liner notes present his perspective on this great American composer, Jackson makes the case that these eclectic interpretations of Ellington's work would be in keeping with the Duke's own approach.

Jackson's most surprising decision was to avoid the horns that Ellington is known for. He also found a number of impressive players to bring in newer influences, like Sharon Jones (the Dap Kings), stunt guitarist Steve Vai, and Ahmir ?uestLove Thompson (the Roots) among others.

The album opens with Isfahan. The moody start sets a simple, stripped down groove. Vai's '80s jazz fusion guitar, modern synth washes, and a lush piano sound make this a solid track, but the album really kicks into gear with the next track, Caravan.

Caravan has become such a jazz standard, that it's hard to find a new angle. Jackson does a great job, setting an Afrobeat percussion against a Jeff Beck style jazz fusion groove. The solid funky bass foundation, the tight drums, and the chanky rhythm guitar build steadily to create a tasty exotic tension. Susan Deyhim's vocals are beautiful, giving her Farsi lyrics a retro cabaret feel. The mix of modern and retro elements make this my favorite track on the album.

The other hot track is the medley of I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues/Do Nothin' 'Til You Hear From Me. Sharon Jones' confident blues singing is expressively soulful. Jackson's piano work is solid on the uptempo blues drive, especially on his solo. The transition to the moodier Do Nothin' features a stripped down sound and a sweet melodica run down of the head melody. This contrasting interlude sets up the return to the head. Jones sells the track, but Jackson does a great job as a blues player.

There are plenty of other interesting sounds and choices: the surprising overlap of Take The 'A' Train's lead over the changes for I'm Beginning To See the Light, the Elton John ballad sound of Mood Indigo, the string arrangement on I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good), and the dark ska vibe of The Mooche. The most controversial reinvention might be It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing). The basic chop rhythm guitar groove is accented with samples and synths. Jackson and Iggy Pop share vocal duties. Even though the core of the arrangement stays true to a big band sound, these additions will certainly raise some eyebrows.

But Ellington himself expanded on his own pieces later in his career and numerous artists covered them during his lifetime. Overall, Joe Jackson's personal interpretations of Ellington's tunes are worthy statements on their own. He may be pushing some boundaries, but his regard for the Master is never in doubt.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 6/25

A smattering of musical tastes this week...

27 June (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Thurston Moore

The Sonic Youth guitar player has some pretty cool solo material. More recently, he's been branching into more acoustic sounds, but he still has his experimental edge.

28 June (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
The English Beat

Dave Wakeling has resurrected his classic ska band, The English Beat. The band also plays material he wrote for General Public.

28 June (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Dark Star Orchestra

If you're not into ska on Thursday, maybe you're in a jam band mood. The Dark Star Orchestra offers one of the best Grateful Dead tributes you'll find.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Concert review - Ramona Falls with Deer or a Doe, Dan Craig

20 June 2012 (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)

Three good bands made the trip down from Ft. Collins worthwhile. I was especially interested in finding out how Ramona Falls layered sound would translate to a club like the Hi-Dive. It turns out the Brent Knopf's sister lives in the area and there was a strong contingent of local fans at the show. A good crowd makes a good show even better.

Local opener Dan Craig brought his new band out for their maiden voyage. They were all well rehearsed, though, as the setlist flowed smoothly and the arrangements sounded casual but tight.

They didn't burn much of their 22 minute set on patter and Craig's vocals tended towards a sleepy, introspective sound. Despite these shoegazer qualities, the band was engaged and comfortable. Although their sound centered on a psychedelic garage rock feel, the band never fell into a rut of meandering jams or sonic repetition.

The opening song had the simple psych vibe of Staus Quo's Pictures of Matchstick Men. Within a couple of songs, the sound had shifted to a folky, down tempo rock that sounded like late night radio, talking-to-the-walls music.

The playing was understated, but precise. The best moments were little unexpected gems, like the low feedback moan lurking behind a quieter song moment or the tightly twinned bass and lead guitar lines of the final song.

This Portland band is touring with Ramona Falls. Their indie rock groove had all the right elements: a solid, serious bass and drum foundation, vocals pushed out with a restrained intensity, great guitar textures, and a smattering of keyboard fill.

The chemistry between guitarist Aaron Miller and Cassie Neth showed in their vocals and staging. Miller stood sideways, facing Neth more than the audience. His jerky movements, awkward tension, and focus made him interesting to watch.

Neth, on the other hand stayed more buried in the music. Eyes shut, she seemed intent on hitting her parts perfectly. Her vocals were more assertive than her stage persona as she gave several of the songs an early Liz Phair vibe. The moments when the loosened control and danced along were the most endearing

Aside from Miller's sharp movements, the band stayed fairly static and self absorbed. The second guitarist wrapped himself around his guitar, while the bass and drums were more workmanlike: craftsmen casually building a strong rhythmic wall.

Listening to Ramona Falls recent album, Prophet (review), it's clear that the band spends a tremendous effort to create the perfect layering of subtle elements at the balance between pop and electro-prog. The sound shifts between lighter pop and heavier tones, but the sonic details are Brent Knopf's stock in trade.

Ramona Falls' transition from the studio to the stage was effective. The band members pulled double or triple duty, trading between instruments in the fairly intricate arrangements. But playing in a club forced a sacrifice of studio clarity and tonal depth. The band took that into account and seized the upside of the trade off to give the songs a heavier edge and deeper emotional investment.

I was glad that Ramona Falls preserved Prophet's sense of dynamics. The light percussive guitar on Russia backed Knopf's dreamy vocals, but the song built beyond the recorded version as drums emphasized a monster tom pounding. Ramona Falls' music has always conveyed the emotion of the lyrics better than Knopf's calm vocals and that was still true, but his physical response to the music countered any detachment. With each punch, Knopf pulled into himself then loosened to move the song forward.

The band hit most of the tracks from Prophet, opening the set with Bodies of Water. But they also played some favorite older tunes like Russia and Clover. At one point, drummer Paul Alcott announced, "This next song is arguably the best song we're going to play tonight," before the band launched into I Say Fever. With the music video projected behind the band, they evoked the same mix of sentimentality and tension. In addition to his keyboard work, Knopf strapped on a guitar to raise the necessary chaos to climax the song.

In all, the bigger arrangements favored the band's post-rock side. Songs like Sqorm blossomed into velvety darkness as the booming floor tom and heavy bass dominated the chorus. The visceral punch contrasted with Knopf's clearly enunciated vocals.

That balance between rational and emotional is the fulcrum point of Ramona Falls' recorded music. Even with a sharper edge, their set maintained that aesthetic.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Recording review - Big Bang, Diez tragos (2012)

Spanish hard rock expands into expressive post-rock

Barcelona rockers Big Bang filled their last album, Sin renuncia a la esperanza (review) with a hard rock sound, gilded with a metallic edge. Their latest album, Diez tragos, shifts towards post-rock arrangements and throws in some synthesizer, but keeps the metal flair. Most importantly, Big Bang maintains the knife edge dynamic between punchy grind and reflective wail.

No soy un ángel starts strung with restrained tension. The solid beat, twisty synth line and throbbing bass recall Rush at their progressive best. The verses stay sparse with occasional eruptions of guitar, but that sets up the chorus shift. The guitar lurches first and drags the rest of the band into a heavier uptempo section. Near the end, the chorus extends into a more driving beat to support an angular solo. The alternation creates a rich balance of restraint and expressiveness.

Big Bang's industrial sound reflects bits of Nine Inch Nails and other hard rocking bands. On Soy inmortal, the jerky chop rhythm and progression is a bit like Living Color covering the James Gang's Funk #49. It's a thick, riff driven song. The spastic grind beat sets up a tripping, singing solo that offers a taste of Jeff Beck dipped in metal.

My favorite track, though, was the moody Crucificame. The meandering female vocal start has a Moorish feel, but the music quickly drops that stark, mournful sound to set a stalking rhythm. A wicked bassline runs through the song like a thick, heavy chain. The discordant crunchy guitar has a taste of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir, but the effect is more Soundgarden. The song sections flip by quickly like a post-rock slide show.

Aside from their technical skills, Diez tragos stands out because of the thread of experimentalism running through the songs. Where their last album featured some Adrian Belew style stunt guitar, Big Bang has gotten more imaginative. Watery reflections of guitar behind Sufrir, hypnotic Arabic rhythms on Ver llorar desiertos, or the experimental sound collage of Franco is dead - the band's creative approaches rely on an extended sonic palette.

Diez tragos has a lot to offer, even if you can't follow the Spanish: music, emotion, and tone are universal.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Concert review - Ministry with Blackburner and Overcasters

It's always curious to see the strange mixes that come together for touring (e.g. B-52s opening for the Who). Evidently, Ministry decided that their new DefibrillaTour needed dubstep electronica duo Blackburner to properly prepare the audience. Like many in the crowd, I'm not sure that was the best pairing, but it did make for an interesting show.

I caught Overcasters when they opened for Sleepy Sun back in March. At that show, the drumming was amazing, but their lead guitar player overpowered the mix. Given that their web page had some great tracks, I was glad to get another chance to hear them.

This time, the mix was much better, delivering a Bauhaus swirl of doom. Thick walls of heartbeat bass and pounding drums sported a rich coat of feedback howl. Kurt Ottaway's echo-filled vocals presided over the top like a funerary rite.

Acid trails of guitar distortion were balanced by Joy Division bass drone to hit the sweet spot that Overcasters missed at the Sleepy Sun show. John Nichols proved that he could still summon the moans and shards of noise out of his lead guitar without denying the rest of the band.

The mix was more controlled, but Overcasters' stage presence still had a dynamic sense of abandon. Drummer Erin Tidwell would raise a stick in warning for the tom-punch to come. Ottaway crouched in on his guitar as if to shield it from the onlaught, only turn the hollow body into the amp to build the feedback higher.

The Ministry crowd might have wanted more shred or more metal grind, but they still respected Overcasters' satisfying guitar growl and solid drumming.

And now for something completely different. Blackburner's heavy dubstep style electronic jams had a lot of people shaking their heads. The bass heavy grind and dark spectacle formed a minor connection with Ministry, but that wasn't really common ground.

On their own merits, they had some good songs. The duo did some minor mixing on the fly, but they largely relied on preset tracks that they could shout over and tie in with the light show. They favored a hard edge dubstep mixed with rock samples and screeching techstep bleeps. Both Skyla Talon and K Kyle occasionally sported guitars, but it was hard to find anything guitar-like in the grinding sound of the mix.

Visually, it was a stunning show. The duo wore giant nightmare rabbit masks with light up eyes (and ears). Their fog machines ran through a limitless supply of fog fluid. While it was sometimes hard to actually see the stage, this formed a fine canvas the bright lights and lasers. With go-go dancers, shiny chaff balloons, and free tee shirt tosses, Blackburner didn't miss many gimmicks.

If it had been a Bassnectar show, this would have been crazy fun, but in this context, Blackburner were laughably excessive. It's funny how the wrong context can shift impressions.

Ministry kicked off the show with Ghouldiggers from their new album Relapse. The high energy punch kicked the audience in the gut as Al Jourgensen proved the refrain, "I'm not dead yet/No, no, no". The buzz saw bass lines, screaming vocals, and shredding guitars showed that Ministry could still summon their classic sound with their new material. They'd go on to play a number of other new tracks like 99 Percenters, but they also disinterred enough of their back catalog to satisfy the crowd, hitting tracks like N.W.O., Thieves, Just One Fix, and Senor Peligro.

Standing center stage, flanked by guitars, Jourgensen played ringmaster. He directed the mosh pit like an orchestra, encouraging the thrash to begin with each new song. He took in the audience's adoration and enthusiasm and reflected it back to the crowd with a bemused smile. Then he'd sneer and growl the next set of lyrics as he clung to the mic. The latest incarnation of Jourgensen's mic stand (by Kevin Largent) was appropriately flashy, adding to the band's stage show.

Ministry's sound was loud as hell, but the guitars stayed distinct. Mike Scaccia's playing was tight as he casually tore through the setlist. Sin Quirin took his share of leads and he made the effort to connect with the fans in the balcony. The two axemen nailed the speedy sweep of chunky rhythms and screaming leads.

Of course, much of the band's dark tone comes from bottom end rhythm section. Casey Orr's bass rumbled like heavy machinery as Aaron Rossi's relentless double kick drumwork propelled the songs forward.

The true gauge of Ministry's power was in the audience response. Bodies slamming, heads banging -- the crowd was very physical, with everybody feeling the thrashy energy and reacting.

The only off note was Jourgensen's distracted behavior. Supposedly clean now, Uncle Al seemed a bit befuddled at times. Between songs, he dropped back to the amp line to check the song cues from a big binder. Several times, it was clear that the songs included a prerecorded vocal track that Jourgensen added to. It wasn't lip synched, but when he was slow to hit the mic, it was pretty obvious. The worst moments were when he strapped on a guitar, almost as a prop -- he seemed confused about what he should do with it.

The band's energy and Jourgensen's charisma brushed the weaker moments aside, though. The crowd poured out into the street pumped with the after-show buzz.

More photos on my Flickr.

Front Range - Recommended shows, 6/18

From mainstream reggae stars to local band CD release parties, this week promises some great musical moments.

19 June (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Jimmy Cliff

From his acting and singing in The Harder They Come to his cover of Cat Stevens' Wild World, Jimmy Cliff is one of the few reggae stars to make a big mainstream impact. This is a great chance to catch a legendary performer as he comes through the Front Range.

19 June (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Cadence Weapon

I'm not that familiar with Japandroids, but for a drum/guitar duo, their big rock sound packs a surprising punk punch. I hear that their live shows are energetic. This time, though, my recommendation comes for Cadence Weapon. I recently reviewed his album, New Hope in Dirt City and I really enjoyed his lyrical flow. This Canadian pairing should be rewarding.

20 June (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Ramona Falls

This was another recent review. On Prophet, Ramona Falls offer an interesting blend of pop/electro pop veneer and progressive rock depth. I'm looking forward to seeing how Brent Knopf brings these songs to life.

22 June (Moe's Original Bar B Que, Englewood CO)
Blind Brilliance

I caught Blind Brilliance when they opened for Convalescents earlier this month. Their solid stage presence and tight power trio punk arrangements were a treat. This show is a CD release party. Check out the music and buy their new CD to support a strong young band.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Recording review - Eternal Summers, Correct Behavior (2012)

Classic new wave sound evokes 1982, with tight arrangements and striking vocals

Eternal Summers' EP Prisoner (review) was my introduction to the band last year. At the time, the duo's dream wave sound made an impression in a mere four songs. The new wave grooves coupled with Nicole Yun's ethereal vocals created an interesting mix. Her choppy guitar work meshed well with drummer Daniel Cundiff's tight beats.

But a lot has changed in the last year. The band has added a full time bass player (Jonathan Woods) and their new album, Correct Behavior has sidled closer to a classic new wave sound.

The thing I love about Correct Behavior is that it's a perfect page out of time. Their sound is unselfconscious, without being a ripoff or tribute. And yet they perfectly capture 1982 for me. Deborah Harry had inspired a new generation of post punk young women. Missing Persons, Berlin, Romeo Void...the radio was full of staccato guitars and striking feminine vocals. For me, 1982 is all about smoky clubs and intense new wave bands.

The opening track of Correct Behavior, Millions, has the slick sheen of new wave pop. Yun's lacquered vocals capture Terri Nunn's simple phrasing with dreamy detachment:
I've got to shake this shell
And break it into millions
But her guitar work is the standout element. The looped slices of rhythm guitar contrasts beautifully with the chaotic accents of ambient feedback and powerful riffs. The track has all the sparkle of Berlin's best work, but that touch of chaos is more modern.

That new wave sound anchors much of the album, from the Modern English sound of You Kill to the speedy Television beat of I Love You. While Yun's vocals occasionally hint at a hazier tone, Eternal Summers doesn't really reveal their dream pop side until the fifth track, It's Easy. The somewhat melodic bass line reaches for psychedelia but the guitar never gets enough echo or tremolo to let the track drift fully into head space. Nicole Yun's voice is wrapped in cotton wisp to form a thin veneer on top of the simple changes.

That ethereal sound makes a couple more appearances on the album, but Eternal Summers seem more interested in exploring post punk worlds. The welcome addition of the bass opens up a fuller band sound. Stripped down on Prisoner, the band seems to relish the luxury of having an extra member. Woods' bass on Good As You is subtle but powerful. He punches the beat with the guitar early on, but sometimes shifts to a loose twin of the vocals that makes the arrangement free fall a moment before settling back into the groove.

1982 was a good year for new wave. So is 2012.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

History Lesson - The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed (1969)

It was suggested that I visit some classic albums that provide lasting context for music that followed. Let It Bleed was the example raised. I plan to throw in one of these history lessons every month or so. Let me know what albums and/or bands should fit into this. Classic doesn't necessarily mean rooted in the '60s or '70s, though. I could imagine covering more recent works like Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea as well.

While the sprawl of Exile on Main Street has a special place in my musical pantheon, Let It Bleed is the better album. It chronicles the Stones in all their mixed up glory with defiant rock and roll, tributes to the classic blues, and sloppy country love. There's a sense of where the Rolling Stones came from as well as where they were heading.

But the power of Let It Bleed lies in the perfect bookend tracks opening and closing the album. Gimme Shelter captures the darkness of its times while You Can't Always Get What You Want offers a more uplifting (albeit pragmatic) message. 1969 was a mixed up time and the album confronts that head on.

The opening percussive guitar on Gimme Shelter sets up a sense of unreality as it fades in. The slinky percussion and the interplay between the two guitars hints at trouble. Mick immediately gets real:
Ooh a storm is threatenin'
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Ooh, yeah, I'm gonna fade away
Offering no comfort of denial, the song becomes more insistent. Mick's snippets of distorted harmonica are like heat driven mirages. Keith's solo syncopates against the rhythm guitar and bass, almost strutting his surrender to the thundering darkness. The raw power of Merry Clayton's voice transcends mere backing vocals, forcing the song into a duet with Jagger. The fade down into the rooted blues of Robert Johnson's Love In Vain provides a pause to carry on with the album.

By contrast, You Can't Always Get What You Want is a study in simplicity that even overcomes the overproduction inclusion of the London Bach Choir. The unadorned guitar and French horn set a pastoral calm. Mick's rueful vocals acknowledge that things don't always work out, but the first chorus kicks off a party jam mood. That transition turns the song into a slightly defiant celebration of settling. This is the perfect bridge between the '60s and what the '70s would become. It's accepted that You Can't Always Get What You Want is the Stones answer to the Beatles' Hey Jude, with building repetition and the orchestral touches with the choir. Maybe so, but the Beatles turned inward while Mick and the boys seemed more engaged in the world (and more approachable).

"It's Only Rock and Roll", but that's exactly what lies at the heart of the Rolling Stones and Let It Bleed. The music is deceptively simple. The Stones share the same solid beats that their contemporary British blues players had. But when Keith Richards lays down his open tuned, pedal tone riffs against that rhythm, it becomes more visceral and ballsy. Listen to his fills on Monkey Man or the bluesy mix of rhythm and fill on Live With Me. While Richards' style builds on Chuck Berry's foundation, he has a more instinctive sense of the groove.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Recording review - Delicate Steve, Positive Force (2012)

Delicate Steve's unique sound creates a happy hippy mood

Delicate Steve's new album Positive Force comes out next month. It's a solid follow up to his earlier release, Wondervisions. Guitarist Steve Marion continues his experimental compositions, this time capturing a retro, hippy optimism. It's cheery pop, yet earnestly heartfelt.

Like Wondervisions, the new album is largely instrumental. Backing vocals creep in, but Marion's guitar sings in the place of lead vocals. "Sings" is the operative word. Marion's guitar is fluid as it slides through his melodies. His phrasing often suggests a lyrical flow.

While Marion played all the instruments on Positive Force, the guitar is the centerpiece. His tone is unique. It's closest to Adrian Belew's synth guitar, but more geared towards wild pitch shifts. At times, his effects make it hard to identify as guitar.

The opening track, Ramona Reborn serves as the perfect introduction to Positive Force. The '60s psychedelic pop feel celebrates a George Harrison toned slide guitar. The theme promises redemption and all good things in their time as it repeats like the coda from Layla.

A couple of tracks later, Two Lovers' ambient beginning sets the space for acoustic lines to coalesce into a song. The relaxed pop rhythm loops languorously. The guitars here are much less processed, creating more natural vibe in comparison with the synth-like, frequency shifted guitar sound that Delicate Steve tends to favor. The backing vocals set up the Beach Boys harmonies on the following track, Big Time Receiver.

One of my favorite tracks, Afria Talks To You offers a hint of Led Zeppelin's Fool In The Rain in the intro. The percussion recalls Peter Gabriel's work, but I really like the simple, clean guitar line in the middle section. It's easy to imagine lyrics here but the impact is stronger letting the guitar sing instead.

Delicate Steve's compositions on Positive Force place more emphasis on pop oriented songs, even as his guitar work remains edgy and experimental. Sometimes, it takes on an insistent whine as the notes soar ever higher, but the album is still warm and inviting.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 6/11

There's some chance the Mishawaka shows will be canceled due to the High Park fire, northwest of Ft. Collins. Hopefully, they'll get things under control before any more houses or people are directly damaged.

15 Jun 2012 (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue CO)
7 Walkers featuring Bill Kreutzman
Pimps of Joytime

Bill Kreutzman has put together an amazing band that joins his Grateful Dead background with solid New Orleans funk. Grateful Dead lyricist has also contributed songs to 7 Walkers. This should be an amazing show, especially with The Pimps of Joytime opening. PoJT bring a veneration of old school funk masters and a modern angle with hip hop and Latin influences.

16 Jun 2012 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
17 Jun 2012 (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue CO)
Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson is a powerhouse guitar player with a droll, dark wit. From his early days with Fairport Convention, through his work with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, to his longtime solo work, Thompson has developed into a true player's player. His style is influenced by Celtic folk, skiffle music, jazz, and rock, but this has swirled together into a unique voice.

17 Jun 2012 (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)

Ministry are back together with a new album (Relapse). They're bringing their heavy industrial metal grind to Denver for a cathartic noise therapy session. The bit of new material I've heard fits well with the band's dark driving music. It's going to be a loud night!

Denver band, the Overcasters will be one of the opening acts. I haven't caught them since they opened for Sleepy Sun.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Recording review - Kelli Scarr, Dangling Teeth (2012)

Kelli Scarr is still hauntingly beautiful as she creates her own version of country

Sophomore albums are the bane of the recording industry. Band or performers spend years developing their sound and then use up their best material on their debut album. Then they're rushed into the studio to follow up. If their second effort doesn't click, the industry spits them out. There are plenty of performers who overcome, often with the help of the industry, but they're the lucky ones. The indie scene is a little kinder because there's less money at stake, but sophomore albums are often a muddle that doesn't deliver on the freshman hype.

Kelli Scarr defies that by taking the haunting indie folk sound she showcased in Piece (review) and migrating west. On its surface, Dangling Teeth is largely a country album with folk and rock moments. But Scarr's sparse, hand-joined arrangements, her retro-soaked, echoed voice, and her instinctive feel for late night solitude permeate the album. The pedal steel textures and heavier rhythms expand her style and her underlying strengths bloom into fuller expression.

In the stronger country moments, Scarr's voice evokes Emmy Lou Harris while the rest of the album reminds me of the Cowboy Junkies. But Kelli Scarr is no Margo Timmins wannabe. Instead, it's her sense of pacing that draws the comparison -- subtle timing that can suggest weariness, surrender, or languor depending on the context.

Take the moody sound of It Ain't Me. Tremolo guitar chords, echoed vocals, and a bluesy, single coil guitar line shimmer together in a lazy groove. Before Scarr starts singing, the feeling is introspective, but the lyrics quickly shift the song into a sense of checked anger and frustration. The chorus takes that inward energy and turns it towards its deserving target. Scarr's voice picks up some of Tori Amos' mocking tone in the second verse. The key, though, is the bridge that takes over the last third of the song. It channels an undercurrent of dark rage. Noisy, chaotic energy builds into a thunderhead, raising the question of whether the darkness will conquer.

The last track, I'll Always Wait, counters that mood. The atmospheric intro fades in and falls into a dreamy groove with a hesitant beat. Scarr's expressive voice lazily toys with the rhythm:
Lost days away
I wait and wait
Forgetting not
I found a place
She gives the song room to build. The chorus blooms into a new set of changes:
Please don't ever change
Oh, I am here and I will stay the same
Please don't ever change
Cause I will always wait...
Oh, I will wait for you
I love the way her soulful voice soars on that first "wait" with a hint of Great Gig In The Sky. The sweet, tasteful solo sets up the song's evolution, laying the groundwork for a shift from Pink Floyd's Breathe to Neil Young's Down By The River. The repetition of the chorus lyrics is becomes a desperate prayer.

Neither of those songs fall into the country feel that Scarr explores in the rest of the album. The first several tracks cover this well, from the country rock twang of You Could Be So Great to the traditional country shuffle of Our Joy. I especially enjoy the steel guitar drenched folk of Dangling Teeth, where the simple parts come together to create a sparse completeness. This reminds me of some of My Morning Jacket's slower material, especially how the rhythm guitar and steel offset each other.

Dangling Teeth is a worthy second album. As much as I enjoyed Piece, Kelli Scarr's musical development shows through. With genuine country sounds, she still keeps her essential style.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Random notes

At heart, I'm an old school album guy. About the only time I put my iPod into shuffle mode is when I can't decide what to listen to. Once something comes up that grabs my ear, I usually switch over and listen to the album. Still, I thought it would be interesting to turn on the shuffle and see what the music fates would deal me. Here's a random sampling from my collection (13143 songs right now).

Power - MC Paul Barman (Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud)

Cock Mobster was my introduction to the clever rapper MC Paul Barman and his album, Paullelujah!. It was a long wait for his follow up, Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud.

Like his earlier work, it's his rolling flow and quirky perspective that sells the song. Power's lyrics riff on Robert Greene's The 48 Laws of Power, but with rhymes:
Six: So, court attention at all costs
If people don't talk smack then you're a small boss
Fall across the lime light
And even when I'm wrong, I'm right.
Why fight?
You Can Leave Your Hat On - Randy Newman (Sail Away)

I've always preferred the original to Joe Cocker's cover version. Randy Newman evokes the dimly lit bedroom, with its peeling wall paper and a big man who knows exactly what he wants. The simpler arrangement of piano and vocal get to the personal heart of the song in a way that Cocker's slick R&B arrangement misses.

Burn - Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise (Blackwater Surprise)

Blackwater Surprise was the first album introducing blind street performer Robert Bradley. Paired with a younger band, the album is full of funky neo-soul anchored by Bradley's voice. The band is solid, with some good funky grooves, but Bradley's vocals are like well worn corduroy. Burn is a fairly representative track. Funky bass, bluesy guitar drive, and a nice horn arrangement all keep the tune rolling forward while Robert Bradley's vocals casually hit their mark.

Monday - Wilco (Being There)

A solid track from a strong album. Being There signaled Wilco's intention to move away from their alt-country roots. Monday lays down a retro Rolling Stones groove that lets Jeff Tweedy toss out a stream of conscious story song. Take out the horns and you can hear hints of the noisy rock that Jay Bennett would bring to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Poison Pushy - Stanton Moore (III)

Virtuoso drummer Stanton Moore is adept at blurring the lines between jazz, funk, and experimental. This track features Robert Walter's lush organ and Will Bernard's smooth, singing guitar. After laying down a bluesy funk groove, the tune slides into a beautiful interplay between these three strong voices as they dance around each other like gymnasts.

Epochs in Dmaj - Caspian (Tertia)

Such a contrast with Stanton Moore.. The soft beginning sets up a figure and then builds upon it. Like an underwater vista, the sound opens up with strings and echo before pixelating into the void. This track is really just an interlude between the majestic climax of Malacoda and the dense crush of Of Foam and Wave.

Manchmal Haben Frauen... - Die Ärzte (Runter mit den Spendierhosen)

Ah, I'm glad Die Ärzte came up. This German band bridges punk, pop punk, rock, and pop. Many of their tracks are as simple as the Ramones, but this one is more subtle and moody. Their lyrics are often clever (figuring them out pushed me to develop my German skills).

In this case, it's a story song about a sensitive new age guy sitting through a chauvinist lecture at the bar ("sometimes, women like a little spanking"). When he comes home to share his chagrin (and slight curiosity) with his girlfriend, she knees him in the crotch and tells him that guys like him always get what they deserve. German slapstick at its finest.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Recording review - Scott Lucas & the Married Men, Blood Half Moon (2012)

Thoughtful arrangements as the music ranges from alt-country to heavy rock jams

Scott Lucas was half of the alternative rock duo Local H, whose Bound For the Floor was a staple in 1996. Despite their bare bones drum and guitar line up, Local H's hard punching songs captured a perfect sense of undirected anger and frustration.

On Blood Half Moon, Lucas seems determined to push that history aside and make grown up music. Like Roger Clyne after the Refreshments, Lucas expands beyond his simple rock chops to bring in alt-country and Americana elements. He still has a straight-ahead rock sensibility and fuzzed out edges, but his backing band, the Married Men add a lot of sonic detail that Local H never mustered. In particular, the pervasive violin flavors the whole album.

Blood Half Moon opens with an epic piece, Lover, The Lullaby. The moody intro evokes Enrico Morricone's Western work with a drone organ and a reverbed guitar melody accompanied by a mournful whistle and touch of violin. After the first verse, the music kicks in with a vengeance. Crunched rhythm, pounding drums, and fluid violin drive the song forward with a Western/Americana feel, like The Ballad of Serenity from Firefly.

The bridge shatters that mood by punching into an acid rock jam complete with psychedelic guitar shred. Even here, the violin hangs in, adding a banshee wail. The music finally drops back to recap the main theme before calling it quits.

This resolution sets up the beautiful, sparse intro to Blood Half Moons. Its pensive expectancy showcases Lucas' surprisingly lush voice. The U2 influence is strong, from the echoed vocal to the subtle tonal textures.

Musical shifts like this, along with much more thoughtful arrangements make Blood Half Moon a huge departure from Local H. Later songs range further afield. Old Worries wanders into Beat Farmers' alt-country territory while Out of the Boat starts with a reworking of the theme from You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' (Righteous Brothers) but shows influences from the Indigo Girls and Roger Clyne.

While Scott Lucas uses his work with the Married Men to express some richer musical ideas, Local H is still active. They have a new album coming out soon, which I'm sure will hit their old sweet spot of cathartic and clever alt rock. My advice is to balance perspectives and get both albums.

Drop by the band's website to stream Blood Half Moons.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 6/4

Talk about a slow week. The only show that caught my eye this week was the MTHDS.

7 June (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)

I really enjoy the MTHDS mix of party time rock, ska, and hip hop. I'm not as certain about this show, which is a tribute to MCA (Adam Yauch). It should be interesting to hear the band do a set of Beastie Boys covers, but I won't make any promises. Kenetix will join them with a set of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Caveat Emptor.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Concert review - Convalescents with Arison Cain, Blind Brilliance, and White Flag Raised

1 June 2012 (Moe's Original Bar B Que, Englewood CO)

This show was a great example of the relationship between bands and their fan base. Three of the bands were local and each brought in their own crowds. Opening act White Flag Raised pulled the biggest crowd, packing the floor with enthusiastic friends. They were clearly in the honeymoon phase of their band's development. Blind Brilliance and Convalescents' audience seemed more established.

By contrast, touring band Arison Cain didn't draw a lot of people. They didn't tone down their playing, but it showed how tough it is to tour far from home.

White Flag Raised billed themselves as alternative rock, but this show emphasized their punk and garage sounds. They brought a number of originals, including the religiously themed Prodigal Son, but their covers elicited the biggest audience response. Their punk cover of Under the Sea, from Disney's The Little Mermaid, was a high energy romp for everyone's amusement. They got the strongest crowd reaction with their version of Weezer's Beverly Hills.

As a fairly young band, White Flag Raised is still developing their stage presence. Lanky Ben Weir acts as the focused front man as he plays his bass, letting guitarist Josh Smith provide the stage dynamics. I've gotten more of a sense of the band from their web presence than their show. Fortunately, their fans could feed back enough love to help the band keep their momentum.

It was a fun set, albeit a little rough. Punk is a fairly forgiving style, but they still needed to tighten their arrangements.

Blind Brilliance cuts straight to the core with the most classic of configurations, the power trio. They nail the clean polished sound of pop punk, but all the cathartic release of traditional punk rock.

Every band has their own presence, but this was a strong contrast to the opening act. Frontman Steven Zimmerman confidently punched his guitar parts, but also showed off his sense of humor and personality. In between vocal parts, he'd drop back to commune with the drummer or stare down the bass player.

As the band maintained their steady pace through their setlist, Max Points was a study in Brownian motion as he drifted around the stage with his bass. The visual dynamics combined with the full sound to produce a sonic wall worthy of a larger band. Patrick Milburn's drumming laid the framework for that wall. Head down, he pounded his kit with a heavy hand, but still fit in some great fills.

Blind Brilliance has a CD releasing later this month and their original music was all fairly strong. Still, their punk cover of I Just Can't Wait to be King from Disney's The Lion King proved to be a crowd pleaser. That would have been enough to win the audience, but the band's instinctive sense of showmanship came through when Zimmerman crossed the stage to push Points away from his mic so he could sing his line there.

Arison Cain caught a tough break when the audience evaporated before their set. Dead gigs like this are painful, but they're the true test of a band. It takes a lot to overcome the inertia and bring on the rock. Despite the empty room, Arison Cain played a powerful set. Their motto should have been "no crowd, but no surrender".

The band kept their own energy up with a loud stage volume that complemented their strong, hard rock sound. Even when they mixed in some country tinged rock and thoughtful guitar dynamics, the interludes passed back into driving rock. Many of the songs showed off Arison Cain's witty lyrics.

Frontman Arison Cain's website calls his band The Halfway Home Orchestra, but onstage he referred to the band using his own name. Either way, Cain's quirky personality came through. During the songs, he was brash and outgoing. He spent half his time rising up on tip toes just to maintain his forward momentum. Between songs, his patter was droll and self deprecating.

He was a quick thinker, too. Calling back to the earlier sets, he said, "Nobody told me this was a fucking Disney cover show. I had to figure it out on my own". Then he dove into an a capella version of A Whole New World from Disney's Aladdin, with some backing harmony from the bass player, Toby Noll.

Noll's bass drove much of the mix and he proved to be good foil for Cain's persona. Noll had some smart ass attitude, but his ready grin kept the mood light. Their stage presence balanced out drummer Tyler Townsend and second guitarist Shawn Van Brocklin who were more inwardly focused. Van Brocklin contributed more guitar texture and haze than straight lead.

I don't know whether it's characteristic, but the band tended to drag out the song endings, so people didn't have a clear signal to respond to the band before the next song started. It might have been a defensive move since there were so few us. They may not have wanted any pity, but they earned our respect.

Convalescents avoided Arison Cain's fate as their fans filtered in during the sound check. The solid turnout energized the band to hit the anthemic sound of their recordings. Recently, I've reviewed Convalescents' new album, Armageddon as well as their earlier incarnation as DB and the Catastrophe (review). The band matched the pace of the new album as they filled their set with material from both eras and challenged us all to keep up.

As on the record, frontman Dylan Busby's vocals often reached for a Billie Joe Armstrong feel, matched by the Green Day drive of the guitars. Leaning out at the audience, his vocals and guitar thrash anchored the band's sound. Lead guitarist Gideon Priegel laid down solid riffs; each one seemed carefully worked out to keep the songs zipping by. The guitars and vocals were muddy in the mix at Moe's, but Convalescents' playing proved to be every bit as tight as their recording.

As fine as Busby and Priegel were, the band's rhythm section was the real secret weapon.

Bassist Eric Lehman defined in-the-pocket playing. His melodic bass fills often added power to the chord changes. When he got to show off a little bit, like his John Entwistle style runs at the start of Broken, it was a treat.

But I was most impressed with drummer Ben Duncan. It's easy to overlook drummers in the back of the stage. As a guitarist, I often take drumming a little bit for granted. But no one could ignore Duncan. Technically, he was one of the fastest drummers I've heard. His kick work sounded like a double bass pedal and he could throw in double time fills or even rolls where a fast drummer would use a single strike. His technique stayed fully in service to the songs, though. The speedy fills and rolls stayed within the core rhythm, giving the drums a busy drive without falling into "drum solo mode" and obscuring the basic beat. Normally, I think "less is more", but now I know that more can be so much more.

The Convalescents' set was focused on the quality of their playing and their work showed. Without slipping into shoegazer introspection, their most joyous moments came when they knew they were nailing the song.

More photos on my Flickr.