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

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Commentary - Strange collaborations

Recently, I heard Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne talk about recording (and almost tripping) with Ke$ha and I started thinking about strange collaborations.

Visual Mashups Group Comment
Photo credit: QThomas Bower

This tickles the same neurons for me as odd covers (like Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme covering Black Hole Sun) or funky mashups. Taking two extremes and tying them together can lead to interesting new ideas. Whether an artist stretches into new territory or drags something back into their home base, the novelty can spark creativity.

Artistic collaborations add egos to the balance. Which artist will dominate? Or will they find a new common ground? When David Byrne and Brian Eno partnered for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Eno's experimentalism meshed with Byrne's rhythmic focus. Robert Plant and Alison Krause's Raising Sand pushed each performer to expand their styles.

On the other hand, Metallica's work with Lou Reed, Lulu, proved less successful. Collaboration doesn't always create good art, but it's still interesting.

This just whets my appetite. There are plenty of undiscovered collaborative opportunities. Imagine producer and musician Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) working with a guitarist like Richard Thompson. Thompson is an exceptional folk and jazz guitarist, but he has chaotic darkness that occasionally slips out (e.g. Easy There, Steady Now or Psycho Street). His work with experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser suggests that his voice could find a place in a post rock soundscape. Harness Thompson's playing to Steven Wilson's sense of tone and psychological texture and it could be incredible.

Reaching further out, ex-Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus could pair up with the Glitch Mob for an electronically infused indie rock. In my wildest dreams, I can imagine Animal Collective working with Kanye West. With a guest appearance by Roky Erickson.

I think I'm getting overheated. I'll throw it out for your comments - what musical partnership has the potential to be amazing?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Recording review - Cadence Weapon, Hope in Dirt City (2012)

Poet laureate's lyrical density features strong musical change ups

Cadence Weapon is a rapper with serious literary cred. Known as Rollie Pemberton in his native Edmonton, Alberta, he served two years as Poet Laureate of the town. His poetry is rooted in hip hop and his raps have a weighty lyrical density.

Words may be his strong suit, but his delivery demands some investment. Sometimes his flow is so casual, he's barely awake. Other times, his voice has a robotic affect. It's as if he wants his words to survive on their own merits, without relying on a strong vocal personality to sell them.

Despite the vocal idiosyncrasies, Hope in Dirt City is a strong album with several intriguing surprises. In Conditioning, the first single, a disjointed sample loop sets an interesting beat. The rhythm is steady, but with discordant undertones. After this intro, Cadence Weapon's rap starts over sparser backing.
I black out on a hundred miscues
Daddy issues
Around the corner from this
No, I'm not tryin' to diss you
But I look so strange, cause I weight train...
Initially, his vocal tone is completely disengaged, but he wakes up coming out of the chorus. The sudden energy hits hard as his vocals build into a raw soul proclamation.

I also keep coming back to Crash Course For the Ravers, which takes its title and chorus from David Bowie's Drive In Saturday. The electro-pop, disco bass beat drives the tune. A touch of new wave guitar ornaments the chorus. The relentless disco drive reeks of desperation and burnout mornings. Cadence Weapon uses that darkness to set the mood for his rundown of the club scene. Meshing his rap with David Bowie's lyrics produces an odd juxtaposition. Other than savoring Bowie's line as the title, I'm not sure about the connection but it works.

The songs on Hope in Dirt City visit a range of sounds, giving the album a rich feel. Small Deaths' jazzy ska backing contrasts with the heavy bass new wave behind Jukebox. Then Chevel falls back into a slow soul groove. But it all comes back to Cadence Weapon's tight lyrics:
All black, it's a lugubrious scene
Talk shit, it's all hubris to me
It's all humorous to me
The way they want to talk the rumors to me
But I had to see it get around, like a loop with the beat
You know I kick it to a roof, it's agreed
I'm just too raw
It's a solid mix. "Drinkin' Canadian Club in Canadian clubs"? I'll raise a glass.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 5/28

Some good choices this week, whether your tastes run to pop or something a little harder.

29 May (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)

Santigold just released a new album, Master of My Make Believe. Her modern pop sound incorporates electronic elements and solid beats. Whether she's mixing in electro-pop bounce or heavier dub step grinds, she's a performance oriented singer.

1 June (Moe's Bar B Que, Denver CO)

I recently reviewed Armageddon, the new album by Convalescents. Their punk pop energy and tight arrangements were great. If they can nail half of that on stage, this will be a great night full of thrashy fun.

3 June (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
Bad Weather California

I caught Bad Weather California last year and enjoyed their pyscho-garage energy and frontman Chris Adolf's stage presence. This should liven up a Sunday night to kick start the next week.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Recording review - Ramona Falls, Prophet (2012)

Smooth pop and darker electro-prog on a knife edge

Ramona Falls' new album, Prophet, presents a contrasting study of light and shadow. The brighter pop elements strongly evoke Death Cab For Cutie's directness, but with a stronger electro pop bent. In this spirit, ex-Menomena member Brent Knopf offers his lyrics unadorned by emotional baggage, despite their emotional content. As he sings on Bodies of Water, "I have to, have to, have to let go of total control." Maybe that surrender drops the stakes a little. Knopf's detachment also gives the poppier moments a bit of retro synth pop feel.

Balancing the smoother pop surfaces, Ramona Falls brings in an electronically enhanced post rock worthy of Muse. This perspective is more like Knopf's earlier work and it underlies the stronger moments on Prophet.

provides a shining example. The opening piano fades in, its orderly repetition asserting a calm surface. At the same time, though, a tense bass line sabotages the sense of comfort. The no nonsense vocals come in to maintain order: "So, saddle up, we've got miles to go..." But frayed tatters of guitar show how tenuous the hold is. The break hits with a sucker punch beat and harsh bass grind, but the vocals assert their control again. The pressure builds until the discordant shards of guitars finally rip loose and strip away the facade to reveal the inner tension and turmoil.

The moment fades and the surface returns. The opening piano line drops the energy to cross cut into the soft beginning of Proof, the next track:
Are we friends?
Are we more?
There's no proof
Pensive tracks like Divide By Zero and Sqworm add more depth to balance the pop tunes with great dynamics, layers of subtle sonic elements, and electro-prog aesthetics. But which sound is figure and which is ground? Even the pop oriented tracks are full of shiny detail and lush additions. It will be interesting to see where Knopf takes Ramona Falls beyond Prophet and which way he'll lean.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Recording review - Tenacious D, Rize of the Fenix (2012)

Going through the motions isn't enough to save the D

The short review (if you want to save some reading) is that Rize of the Fenix has a few decent songs and Tenacious D has expanded their musical approach beyond acoustic metal, but the comedy isn't up to par with their earlier work. In general, it feels like Kyle Gass and Jack Black are going through the motions -- occasionally it clicks but, too often, it misses.

I've been a fan of the D for years. Sure, the humor could be juvenile, but a fun, transgressive comedy flowed out of their balance of real love of metal and satire for the genre. Their first album, Tenacious D, was brilliantly funny and its skits have held up well to repeated listenings. JB and KG could milk a goofy idea like Inward Singing or expand on their characters with Friendship Test and commit so strongly, that the skits still get a chuckle.

Rize of the Fenix only has two skits and neither measures up to their earlier work. Classical Teacher starts out with promise as they discuss how to be the best band in the world. But this leads nowhere except for Black to pretend to be a kinky classical guitar teacher and then reveal himself to Kage.

That's still much better than Flutes and Trombones, which limps on like a failed improv exercise. If this was the best they could come up with, I'm not sure why they bothered. Weaker musical tracks like 39 don't help either. If JB had just improvised these lyrics onstage or in the rehearsal room, it might have been funny enough at the time, but leaving the track in its unpolished state seems like they couldn't be bothered. And Black's huskiest Neil Diamond impression isn't enough to sell it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of stronger tracks to carry the album and remind us what Tenacious D can do. The title cut and The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage catch us up on the Tenacious D mythos. Rize of the Fenix acknowledges the failure of The Pick of Destiny, but asserts that overcoming that obstacle was necessary to prove the band's mettle. The music is hard rocking. The tension builds in a section that borrows from the Who's 5:15 to resolve into soft acoustic sweetness. This trademark interlude give Black the room to worry about their fans if the D can't make it: namely that they'll have to laser off their Tenacious D tattoos. No one wants that on their conscience!

Later, The Ballad of Hollywood Jack and the Rage Kage lays out another version of the larger Tenacious D story. In this one, KG descends into jealous insanity while JB succeeds but loses his cred. The alt rock ballad never moves toward a harder metal crunch, but the flute solo adds a sweet layer of pathos. Fortunately, JB comes to his senses and saves KG (and thereby Tenacious D and the rest of us).

My favorite track is Roadie. Over a relentless beat like Bob Seger's Turn the Page, they resurrect Jack Black's roadie character from Brütal Legend and lionize the unseen masters that "make the rock go". The lyrical flow meshes with the beat:
Cause the rockers rock, but the roadies roll
Gotta take the mic, I guess I take control
Gotta get that shit up on that fucking stage

Because, the roadie knows what the roadie knows
And the roadie knows that he wears black clothes
And he hides off in the shadows of the stage
Jack Black's delivery is full of the over emoting self-importance that makes this a solid Tenacious D song.
I'm standing at the threshold of your dreams
Without me, there'd be no sound from those amps
Without me, there'd be no lights on the stage
But you don't applaud for me!
If the rest of Rize of the Fenix lived up to this moment, it would have been perfect.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 5/21

Another slower week, but still some good choices to justify getting out and about.

21 May (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Here We Go Magic

Luke Temple's Here We Go Magic drifts from heady retro psychedelia to dreamy pop. I haven't heard their latest, A Different Ship yet, but I did enjoy their last release, The January EP (review). Come out and let the reverberations bounce through your head.

25 May (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver)
Lee "Scratch" Perry

Lee "Scratch" Perry is one of reggae music's finest innovators and ambassadors. Rather than rest on his rich history with reggae music, Perry has continued to expand his musical horizons. This should be a unique show and a great chance to see a legend. Perry is in his 70s, but he's still getting around, touring the world.

27 May (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue Co)
Toad the Wet Sprocket
Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers

After breaking up in 1998, Toad the Wet Sprocket has been touring again in the last few years and even has a new album in the works. I haven't heard much about it, but I'll still recommend this show because the Mish is a great venue and Roger Clyne is opening for them.

You don't need my recommendation to catch Roger Clyne; his performances speak for himself, whether he's touring alone or with the Peacemakers. He makes it through here fairly often, but he and the Peacemakers are such a dependably strong act that see whenever I can.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Recording review - Simon Little, [un]plugged (2012)

Live looped improvisations from a master bass player

Simon Little plays his bass at the cusp of organic and electronic. The emphasis is on the human element with warm tone, natural phrasing, and a bit of finger squeak. But Little peers over the edge, using looping and occasionally mixing in more heavily processed tones to challenge his listeners.

The chemistry of live looping is inherently different than the interaction of a band. At its worst, the player can get so distracted by the technology and thinking ahead that the music loses its spark of creativity. But the best loopers seem to naturally sense how to set a foundation and evolve a piece into a complex, beautiful construction. Even as [un] plugged shows off Little's skilled looping, it's his rich sonic palette that allows the tunes to find their own musical spaces.

Little's jazz sensibility infuses the pieces, but a pervasive dreamy vibe, electronic sounds, and modal playing gesture towards some New Age influences as well. One of his more interesting decisions was to rely solely on a Breedlove acoustic bass. Like a cross between a standard acoustic guitar and an electric bass, this instrument has a unique tone and feel: a little thinner than an electric bass, but breathing with resonance.

The chill wash of tone with a slight tremolo starting frostbite was a good opening for the album, but it was the second track, into the out that really spoke to me. It starts out with a simple, sparse melody. The song gets underway with a tight rhythmic loop that sets a tabla-like beat. Little works through the melody, building a suspenseful mood that recalls In the Hall of the Mountain King. After working his theme, Little steps out into flashier playing. Speedy, treble toned riffs rattle and then the section is repeated in reverse, back masked notes sucked out of the air. Rather than stay locked in this mode, Little's improvisation roams further afield and finds a more peaceful resolution.

This is what I love so much about [un] plugged - the fluidity of the playing matches the elasticity of the pieces. Songs develop and find themselves far from where they began, but the transitions flow smoothly.

On repetition is a form of change, the song begins with a classical guitar style approach, but a simple line becomes a set of looped arpeggios that create a more staccato accompaniment. Parts are added, evolving the progression into an ambient loop. Little's frequency shifted bass flits in and out like a darting bird. The song ends with a more crystalline structure.

Looping aficionados can analyze and appreciate Little's skill, but his evocative instrumental music transcends the technology. Listen to [un] plugged below, then drop by Bandcamp where you can name your price for the download (₤5 or more).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

May singles

May brings a wild mix of tracks to check out.

Lego Lepricons - Well, I Don't Think So

The glitchy electronic clipping at the start of Well, I Don't Think So doesn't do much for me, but the languid vocals and paced piano come in and set a nice progressive mood. An underlying chaos rises slowly, hinting at a desperate internal tension. The assertive post-rock instrumental section contrasts the tentative beginnings. This little taste of Lego Lepricons makes me want to learn more about the Israeli post rock scene.

My only criticism of Well, I Don't Think So is that it needs a third act to cap it off.

Download the track here.

Melody's Echo Chamber - Crystallized

Cotton fluff is jammed into Crystallized's industrial electronica. Or maybe the factory grew until it invaded the peaceful rural meadows. Either way, Melody's Echo Chamber sets a dreamy indie pop track against a dirty electro beat and waits to see which prevails. The machine wins on technical points, but the dream pop guitars and Melody Prochet's wispy voice never admit defeat.

The Spring Standards - Only Skin (from the dual EPs yellow//gold)

The soft feel of worn cotton, a faint scent of warm baked crust, and the sparkled dust motes of a late summer day pervade Only Skin by The Spring Standards. The simple arrangement stands back to leave room for Heather Robb's sweet voice, but a closer listen reveals the small touches of guitar chime and organ chords. The Simon and Garfunkel harmonies reveal some of the roots behind this beautiful indie folk track.

But the Spring Standards aren't locked into a single style. Contrast Only Skin with the Cars influenced rock of Here We Go. I like a band that can deliver wistful sincerity and then get goofy and punch out a beat.

SoftSpot - The Cleansing Hour

SoftSpot "The Cleansing Hour" from Ryan Dickie on Vimeo.

The opiate haze of The Cleansing Hour breathes to a steady, hypnotic beat. Sarah Kinlaw's dreamy voice floats through the sway of the song, but still retains a core of steel. This has all the hallmarks of thick, psychedelic dream pop that SoftSpot showed on last year's NOUS EP (review). Ryan Dickie's video is artistically effective. Early on, he pairs foreboding visuals with the ethereal groove of the song. The changing flow of imagery captures the dreamlike sense of the track very well.

Little Ruckus - Creep Town (from We Love Evil)

I get a lot of musical referrals, but it's rare that I get this perfect blend of campy fun and off-kilter music. The homemade video opening of Creep Town delivers both. When a song starts out:
(Yeah!) Yeah.
We're in a bite gang
You know, a sandwich eating crew...
Where the hell can it go from there? And did he say "bite gang" or "bike gang"? Does it matter?

About the time they hit the synchronized dance moves behind "Hold up one moment/I need shades on for my weed eye", I've got a handle on the geek rap flow. But then it slides into an Adam Ant style dance-pop chorus and I'm lost again.

Bottom line: I don't know whether this is good, bad, ironic or sincere. I just know that it's amusing and the exact opposite of boring.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Recording review - Sills & Smith, No Way In No Way Out (2012)

A clearer musical vision and a richer execution

Sills & Smith's previous album, Uncertain Vista (review) suffered from multiple personality disorder, bouncing between folky and indie extremes. Their latest, No Way In No Way Out, settles into a more coherent offering of pop-heavy indie rock. Settling on a path hasn't stifled the band -- the songs still create a rich variety of moods and they've continued to develop their sound.This expansive musical approach opens up the songs for interesting arrangements and tasty guitar solos.

The opening track, Melancholy World starts with sharp punch. There's satisfying contrast between the uptempo music and the droning vocals on the verses. The tight bass line and new wave guitar riffs sell the song. The only weak spot are the repetitive lyrics:
Melancholy world,
Melancholy life
Melancholy soul
Melancholy heart
Pop music's power lies in repetition, but it needs to be balanced with contrasting sections. While it could be argued that the chorus mantra on Melancholy World captures a sense of depression, many of the songs rely too heavily on simplistic lyrical echoes.

Take Clouds, for example. The opening lines capture an interesting perspective:
Thinking of clouds, billowy pillows
Strato, nimbo, and cirro
Dreaming of clouds, suspended liquid
Of water or crystals of ice
It's quirky, with a touch of They Might Be Giants cool . But the chorus comes and the lyrics get trapped in a loop. The backing music has a beautiful, sleepy retro tremolo soaked reverb. The understated solo is perfect. If the chorus lyrics had more to say, this could have been a much stronger song.

Thematically, No Way In No Way Out tries to unite pop simplicity with feelings of pain, loss, and frustration. It's manages to avoid teen angst moping, but it seems like lyricist Frank Smith is working through some issues. It's interesting that the two strongest tracks veer away from the pop mindset.

Would It All Be Different? takes an epic, meandering journey. The opening vamp sets up a thoughtful mood. The freeform lyrics fit the open music. This transitions through a more inquisitive instrumental section, with simple layers of guitar, keys, and inchoate voices. Jonathan Edwards' open rhythm drum beat expands this into a stronger progressive section with a fluid exploratory guitar solo. There's a touch of '70s art rock aesthetic behind the song's flow, especially as it climaxes into a rich melodic bass line.

The title track stands out with an ambitious arrangement. In contrast with the other songs, No Way In No Way Out is more open and subtle. Like U2 toying with psychedelia, the tune is filled with sonic texture: chiming guitar, vocal washes, and a rising sense of chaos. A resolute simplicity stands against a tumultuous world...because it must.

Maybe that musical assertion is the answer to Smith's tension - acceptance in the face of losing options. In any case, it's enough of an uplift to leave a better impression.

In a final note, Sills & Smith should consider giving Jonathan Edwards full billing in the band name. His playing is exemplary and his production work is a vital element of the band's sound.

Drop by their Reverbnation page to hear some tracks from No Way In No Way Out.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 5/14

This week's shows seem to be all about the groove, whether it's setting a party vibe or nailing down the funk. The hard part will be choosing which ones to go to, given the overlaps.

17 May 2012 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
18 May 2012 (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Trampled By Turtles

Festival favorites, Trampled By Turtles are offering a couple of chances to catch their deeply rooted folk music as they pass through Colorado. The band brings an energy to their shows that proves that folk music is alive and well. Either venue will provide a great chance to watch them burn the strings.

17 May 2012 (Moe's Original Barbecue South, Denver CO)
The Veer Union

The Veer Union is touring behind their new album, Divide the Blackened Sky. Dark and hard driving, it's a solid set of material. The arrangements are tight, with a nice modern rock sound. I haven't made it to Moe's yet, but I'm going to try to get down there for this one.

18 May 2012 (Larimer Lounge, Denver)

Reptar has a great party band sound. I reviewed their EP Oblangle Fizz, Y'All last year and enjoyed their goofy energy. Their latest, Body Faucet, is a full length that promises all the quirk in twice the space.

18 May 2012 (Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, Denver CO)
Pimps of Joytime

Another band from my review archives. A friend turned me on to these funkmasters when he texted me from their set opening a Michael Franti show. These guys take their lessons from the classic masters. Mixing up heavy funk and booty shaking Latin rhythms, their live shows will make you dance off a good ten pounds or so.

19 May 2012 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
20 May 2012 (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellvue CO)
Keb' Mo'

Boulder Roots and Blues Summit has a hot weekend planned. Taj Mahal is celebrating his 70th birthday with a show at the Boulder Theater on Friday and then Keb' Mo' is playing Saturday night. Really, you can't go wrong with either show, so just catch both. I shouldn't have to tell anyone about this phenomenal performer, but Keb' Mo' is a national treasure. He's equally comfortable playing dirty funk or dropping back and delivering vulnerable soul.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Recording review - Alone at 3AM, Midwest Mess (2012)

Refreshingly direct Americana rock

Like broken in boots or comfortably worn jeans, Alone at 3AM fits my speakers like they've always lived there. After a host of bands trying to be different, just like everyone else, it's a comfort to relax into the familiar sounds of Midwest Mess. Call it country rock or Americana, Alone at 3AM's music carries the echoes of John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, and Bob Seger.

While the playing is tight and songwriting is solid, Max Fender's raw sandpaper vocals are the centerpiece. Rough but vulnerable, Fender's matter-of-fact delivery gives the songs room to breathe. On Weekends at the Cape, he takes a John Hiatt turn over a simple open verse. As the fill guitar adds its decoration to lead in to the chorus, the song picks up. In the vein of Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight, the lyrics are just trying to capture a moment of feeling:
You're just helpin' the stars to shine
You're just givin' that moon a show, so it can rise
Oh, tonight...
This transitions to the darker, steady pace of Grown an Ocean. With a more assertive rock sound, the music is more complex to support the ambivalent mood:
Down, down is where I am
Holdin' you just ain't enough
It's good enough for friends
Sarah Davis' backing vocals are a nice touch, but should have been a more forward in the mix.

The Americana rocker Burn This Town seems to reach towards Bruce Springsteen. Stronger keys or a horn might have tipped the balance. But even missing that mark, the solid arrangement and rhythm changes give drummer Chaz Stitler room to open up.

Between the easy flowing country-tinged rock style and simple production, Midwest Mess has a timeless sound. Despite feeling so familiar, it's never trite or lazy. Alone at 3AM have avoided irony, self indulgence, and heavily layered meaning to create an album grounded in a refreshingly direct honesty.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Commentary - Excuse me while I play this guy

André 3000/Jimi Hendrix
Photo credit: Getty Images

We want so much from our heroes. They catch our eyes and ears in the media spotlight and we want more. These days, the stars oblige with Twitter feeds and photo op outings for the paparazzi. But go back a few years and we could fall in love with someone and never get enough. Especially if an untimely death got in the way. Jimi, Janis, and Jim all left us hungry for more.

Celebrity bio-pics feed this hunger even as they consume it. Whether done for crass profit, historical revision, or true love, these films tap into a primal part of our psyche. It's a messy swirl of ego sublimation, idolatry, gossip hunger, and the need for neatly wrapped answers. We're not sure whether we want to see our idols as human or bigger than life.

I'm forced to confront all of this because André 3000 is set to play Jimi Hendrix in the upcoming biopic All Is By My Side. Hendrix has a mystique that hasn't been tarnished by any of the biographies or salvaged demo recordings. I'm torn between wanting to have that illusion of an omniscient sense of his life and being afraid that a poorly executed movie is going to pollute my ideal of Jimi Hendrix.

Look no further than Oliver Stone's The Doors to see how damaging a bad portrayal can be. Val Kilmer captured Jim Morrison's look and sound, but the story was a sloppy, simplistic mess. On the other hand a pre-meltdown Gary Busey did a serviceable job in The Buddy Holly story.

I like André 3000 as a performer and I'm sure he's taking on the role out of love and respect. I'm just not sure that's enough. Despite my doubts, though, I'm sure I'll go see it. Whether I'll bask or cringe, right now it makes me want to listen to Axis: Bold as Love yet again.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Recording review - Convalescents, Armageddon (2012)

Breakneck punk pop in perfect bite-sized chunks

Dylan Busby's DB and the Catastrophe has reformed as Convalescents after a topsy turvy year of line up changes. The name change signals clarity of vision rather than a major shift in direction. Where DB and the Catastrophe's Don't Look Back (review) allowed for distractions like ska horns and virtuoso bass lines, Convalescents keep the focus on the high energy pop punk foundation they've always had.

Armageddon keeps a relentless pace from start to finish. Not to deny Convalescents' originality and impressive execution, this could be considered the best Green Day album in years. If not quite another American Idiot, it is on par with 21st Century Breakdown. Before anyone takes that comparison as a dig, consider how many bands have aspired to Green Day's mantle and fallen pathetically short. It's not that Convalescents are aping Green Day (no more than Johnny Winter ripped off Muddy Waters). Instead, they're taking the inspiration and injecting their own energy and personality.

The opening tune, Scratch Scratch, set the tone right from the start. The lyrics offer the kind of socio-political commentary that latter period Green Day has settled into:
The press has taken over now
Their words of wisdom are mass controlling
They say the world's gone to hell
Panic surges, the neighborhood burns down
Busby's vocals aim for Billie Joe Armstrong and nail it. The wall of guitars chop through the tune at a breakneck pace, but there's still some room for some subtle walk-up fills here and there. The drumming is particularly impressive during the bridge as Ben Duncan lays down some thunderous low end rolls.

Armageddon does a good job of stirring the musical pot. The tracks flow together well, but Convalescents change up their progressions, giving each song a unique feel. Where Scratch Scratch runs at a steady frantic rate, Stay Pure crams a double-timed, Kinks-style set of chords to a thrash beat. Chunked palm mutes and speedy drum fills anchor the whipsaw feel of the song. True to the punk standard set by the Ramones and the Minutemen, the songs are short. This lets the band swing for the fences, packing each tune with sparks and thunder.

Punk is all about attitude, but too many bands seem to use punk as an excuse for sloppy playing. Convalescents capture the intensity and expressive emotion, but the clean production and spot on playing make Armageddon a great album.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows,5/7

A couple of recommendations for the coming week.

8 May 2012 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Brian Jonestown Massacre

Brian Jonestown Massacre is a constant musical surprise. Pastiche shifts into alternate history as Brian Jonestown Massacre delivers their psychedelic, alternative reality performance. Good show, whoever/whenever they are.

13 May 2012 (Boulder Theater, Boulder, CO)
Grandmothers of Invention

My favorite Zappa cover band is Project Object. But Grandmaothers of Invention has so many members hailing from ex-Zappa bands, that you're guaranteed a classic time. With Napolean Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler, and Don Preston, it can't be anything less than amazing.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Concert review - Portugal. The Man, with the Lonely Forest and the Epilogues

2 May, 2012 (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)

What a great night! And what a difference from last year's show. This time, Jägermeister sponsored Portugal. The Man's tour. Sponsorship is a great way for companies to support the arts. They pushed their brand with a host of tearaway posters, cute Jäger girls handing out swag, and the Jägermeister logo projected on the walls and ceiling. On the other hand, they clearly paid for an impressive stage lighting setup that added a lot to the show.

Along with the three bands, the show featured a DJ warming up the crowd and playing between sets. He wasn't bad, but it wasn't a good fit for this set of bands. Once or twice he managed mix in something the crowd recognized or liked. Otherwise, he was just a mild distraction.

Denver band, the Epilogues kicked off the show. Despite being added to the bill in the last week or so, they proved to be a good stylistic match to the touring lineup. Their heavy sound was a good preamble for Portugal. The Man.

While the rest of the band stayed fairly static, front man Chris Heckman provided an interesting contrast. His voice was taut with tension with a touch of nasal tone, but his body couldn't tolerate much repression. As the songs pounded out guitar thrash, he'd break away and dance between his mike and the keyboard player. With an expressive flail, he gave the Epilogues a bigger stage presence.

The songs ranged from slower grinds to thick grunge, while the vocals laid down an emo, confessional style. The band sparingly showed a good sense of dynamics. One song that pushed more of their boundaries started with eerie synth washes and a dirgelike groove before shifting into a grungy shoegaze sound. The dynamics came when they created a sweet interlude with ethereal tatters of feedback that broke up the heavier sections.

The Epilogues closed out their set with the one tune of theirs I knew, Hunting Season. Their live version ticked up the pace and featured a strong, busier drum part.

The Lonely Forest's last recording, Arrows (review), had a light, indie rock vibe. This didn't set them up as an obvious touring partner for Portugal. The Man. But heavy, throbbing bass and tight, busy drumming dominated their live sound. In fact, the boomy bass unbalanced the mix for the first couple of songs. But once the sound guy fixed the EQ, the deeper tone set the right feeling.

Like the Epilogues, the Lonely Forest stayed fairly static, except for band leader John Van Deusen. Mirroring Portugal. The Man's stage set up, Van Deusen led the songs from stage right instead of center. When he wasn't singing, his stage style showed punk roots: crouching tight as he played, then moshing into the bass player.

But back on the mike, his clean, open vocals revealed his vulnerable side. Van Deusen's singing on tunes like Turn Off This Song and Go Outside had Michael Stipe's sincerity and tone without slipping into a mumbled performance.

As their stage presence contrasted between static shoegazer focus and some punk energy slipping through, the Lonely Forest's earnest indie rock occasionally positioned them as a Portlandia house band. But their musical range kept them from sliding into parody. Dreamy beginnings led to crunchy majesty. Thunder dropped away, leaving a simple guitar line to carry forward. Throughout, Braydn Krueger's drumming added the perfect complexity.

The DJ finally packed his gear and cleared the stage. A jazzy recording played in the gap while the crowd grew restive in anticipation of Portugal. The Man's set. Where last year's tour cloaked the band in darkness, this year the stage was filled with light globes.

The band still effectively used darkness to keep focus on the music, but now the punctuations of light were grander as they supported the deeply psychedelic set. The songs flowed quickly, with the briefest of pauses to swap instruments or retune.

As the audience danced and sang along, John Gourley's falsetto vocals led the way. There were some nice surprises in store. A tribal rhythm kicked off the bluesy ritual of The Devil, which morphed into a trippy cover of Helter Skelter. The original's frantic energy was highly mutated into an acid soaked wall of sound as the orbs of light strobed colorfully along with the beat. Between the volume, the distorted grind, and the light show, it was like time traveling back to the old acid tests of the '60s.

The show favored tracks from last years In the Mountain, In the Cloud (review). The relaxed bounce of Floating (Time Isn't Working) split the difference between Beatlesque and sounding like a lost track from David Bowie's Young Americans. Gourley's solo was awesome as he started out soulful and built into an reverberating jam.

PTM also played a strong version of Chicago. This time Gourley's vocal sounded like Robert Plant presiding over a deranged hoe-down before the heavy thrash of the song kicked in.

After the set, with the crowd calling for an encore, bassist Zachary Carothers strolled out. After telling us how much they loved Denver, he seemed to realize the rest of the band was still AWOL. "These guys always do this me". Someone called for a bass solo and Carothers laughed, "I'm not going to fucking bass solo." The band came out rescued him as they kicked into Do You. Another song or two later, they closed out on Sleep Forever. As the song mutated into Hey Jude's refrain, the crowd swayed along.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Commentary - The media IS the message

What does music mean to you? Is it just audio wallpaper? Something to fill up the space, but hardly worth noticing? Maybe it's a tool to keep time during your workout or to create a wall to keep the other sonic distractions at bay.

Maybe only a few songs really reach you -- those tunes from your youth that can take you back or the emotion trigger of a shared song -- and the rest don't matter.

It seems like I've always had music playing in my head. My personal soundtrack varies from songs I've listened to recently, old favorite tunes that resonate with my mood, or sometimes a new idea for a song I hope will come together. I've been comforted by Miles Davis solos, cocooned by Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, and tortured by ear worms that won't go away (Mandy... curse you, Manilow).

Despite having a host of old favorites, I've never lost my interest in finding new music. There's a magic when some band comes out of nowhere and finds a home in my head. Whether it's the compelling noise lurking within Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the surprising blend of Dengue Fever's Khmer rock, or the Porcupine Tree's heavy intensity, I appreciate finding a new musical friend.

I started this blog to capture and share the albums I add to my collection and the shows I see, but I've stayed with it because it provides me with a window on a wide world of interesting music. Each new band I check out offers the chance that I'll find a spark of novelty. Some albums turn out to be old friends I hadn't met yet and sometimes a whole new world opens up.

I love music because it's a fundamental part of me. I write about music to share that deep connection. I get a payoff when I help a friend or reader discover a new band or rethink an old one.

So, what does music mean to you?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Recording review - White Rabbits, Milk Famous (2012)

Cathartic mix of repressed tension and dissociation

While much of the indie scene lies under Spoon's sonic shadow, White Rabbits have been inextricably linked to the band. Spoon frontman Britt Daniel produced White Rabbits' last album, It's Frightening. For Milk Famous, they brought in Spoon producer Mike McCarthy. But despite this umbilical connection, White Rabbits have grown into their own sound. Milk Famous has a coherent feel that's moved away from the atavistic beats of their last album while stepping deeper into darkness.

The album is full of repressed tension, that's barely reined in. The opening track, Heavy Metal sets the mood. The steady electro-funk beat is trance-like but there are shards of clashing noise that hint at a dissociative mental state. The post-rock vocals feign indifference, but the song's mental state is unbalanced. Like the sound of battling an addiction, the song just tries to maintain against an insistent compulsion.

Milk Famous offers a varied selection of tension, distraction, and disconnection. Reflecting our times, it's satisfyingly cathartic. Along the way, several tracks stand out. Hold It To The Fire evokes an older Radiohead vibe, with a sidling bass line challenged by a glitchy whining tone. I love how it develops into Beatlesque psychedelia. Are You Free sets a staccato post-punk groove to a mildly electronic beat, with nice repetitive guitar fills. Danny Come Inside pushes the post-punk feel into jam that's equal parts late Joy Division and early New Order. The bass drives the song relentlessly forward, but there's an undercurrent of a speed hangover.

After this exploration of suppressed angst, the final track contrasts like a refreshing sorbet. I Had It Coming surrenders the fight and sinks into acceptance. The sonic embellishments still intrude but now they're less threatening, like remnants of a Wilco session. The poppy vocals, choppy guitar, and sweet piano fills offer comfort and acknowledgement without denying the rest of the album.