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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Recording review - The Men, Open Your Heart (2012)

Garage punk rockers with a predilection for psychedelia

I first heard The Men when they released their Record Store Day single, A Minor (review). That track serves as a good intro to what this band does well. Over the course of eight minutes it builds an extended hypnotic trip that culminates in a harder edged heavy metal grind. That balance of soft and hard is the core of the band's musical approach.

Open Your Heart offers a cathartic session of low-fi garage rockers bordering on punk, stirred together with therapeutic waves of layered psychedelia. The playlist encourages a kind of clench-release, starting with the driving retro rock of Turn It Around. The thrashy energy and frantic pace hits like the Kinks on speed. The solo kicks off with a guitar tone stolen from the Guess Who. The song's second solo sets up an instrumental breakdown whose tom punches set up the heavier punk slap of the second track, Animal.

After the manic energy of these two tracks, The Men break their pace to explore their trippy side. The contrast between the opening tracks and Country Song is staggering. It's not just the tempo change, it's an aesthetic shift that creates a huge feeling of release. Country Song sounds like More era Pink Floyd jamming with Jerry Garcia. Like an outtake from the soundtrack to Zabriskie Point, sun glared steel guitar filtered through heat shimmers of tremolo fill out this desert bleached psychedelic jam. Repetitive and slow, it folds in layers of lethargic haze. The Men use a trick from A Minor and fade out into a new song to extend the track. This tacked-on segment is a minimalist whirling chord instead of A Minor's acid rock jam, but it's still interesting. The simple wash subsides into the looping meditation of Oscillation.

Open Your Heart then resets into higher energy music with Please Don't Go Away. This time around, they branch out into some interesting variations. Later, the title track channels the raw emotion and desperate need of Paul Westerberg and the Replacements. The guitar thrash and fill heavy drum work are insistent. The Men revisit that sound a couple of songs later on Cube. This time more of the raw punk flail and heavier guitar lead shine through the track.

The rhythm and flow of Open Your Heart create a contrasting consistency that intensifies the cathartic feel of the music. Like a sharp inhale paired with an extended exhale, there's a natural balance.

As an aside, A Minor is available as a bonus track if you buy Open Your Heart on iTunes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Commentary - Can't stop believin'

Last month, Kurt Andersen and Studio 360 had a feature of The Top 10 Songs We Never Want to Hear Again. This wasn't an attack on crappy music, but rather a take on decent songs that have been played so often that it's torture to hear them yet again. Songs like Pachelbel's Canon in D Major and Hotel California by the Eagles were there. Surprisingly, my own top picks of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Freebird or Derek and the Dominos' Layla were missing.

But what about the other side of that coin? What are the songs that should trigger an allergic response but still manage to get under our skins every single time? These songs get played constantly but still haven't worn out their welcome.

Here are my top five:

1) So What - Miles Davis
Just about every track on Kind of Blue is a classic. So What opens the album and is a special treat. Every time I play it, I'm struck by the absolute perfection of the phrasing. The slow build repeating the theme sets up my anticipation for the first solo. Davis starts in a conversational tone and then develops his initial ideas. The hand off to Coltrane is so natural; it's a blend of ballet and engineering.

Even the covers, like Eddie Jefferson's vocalese version, find plenty of rich ground to mine. The balanced arrangement and the inevitable flow make other jazz tracks like Dave Brubeck's Take Five seem clunky in comparison.

2) Willin' - Little Feat
Every folk jam I've joined seems to include Willin' and The Weight by The Band. Maybe it's because of the descending bassline (I'm a sucker for a descending bassline), but despite the hundreds of times I've played it and heard it, the warm steel guitar and sweet harmonies still touch an emotional truth for me. Unlike the free form narrative of The Weight, Little Feat's character study creates a clearer image. The harmonies on the chorus are pure and the lyrics hint at a host of stories.

3) The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Gil Scott-Heron
This song has become a cultural touchstone. Sampled and referenced by countless artists, Gil Scott-Heron's track serves as a proto-rap jam. Unlike bands like The Last Poets, Scott-Heron showed up on mainstream radar. There's magic in the contrast between the uncompromising spoken word message and its wicked jazz funk accompaniment. Maybe Hubert Laws' meandering flute and Ron Carter's funked out bassline opened a path for the song's message. In any case, Scott-Heron's lyrical flow and running riff of cultural allusions never gets old.

4) My Generation - The Who
The Who managed to milk this song for several generations of young fans. A party anthem in the mid-'60s, countless collections of fresh teens have connected with the track leading to a host of covers. It was less ironic than cynical when the band trotted it out again during their various farewell tours ('82, '89, '99, etc).

But the raw energy of the track presages punk rock and Roger Daltrey's stutter presents a universal sense of inarticulate youth. Pete Townshend tapped into the collective unconsciousness and captured the archetype of teen rebellion. Regardless of a regular place on the classic rock station playlists, its message remains meaningful and I still love to hear it.

5) Interstellar Overdrive - Pink Floyd
This one is a little more obscure. It came up again recently in this month's iPod shuffle reviews. Interstellar Overdrive was probably one of my first exposures to free style jam music. Maybe it's the fond memories I associate with it, but I still find interesting little nuances when I hear it again. I cannot guess the number of times I've listened to this track. If it's been overplayed, I have only myself to blame.

But compared to the the sea of self indulgent jam band songs, Interstellar Overdrive creates a robust structure that allows for rich musical complexity.

Which songs have found a place in your heart, where repetition is just another satisfying encounter? Drop me a note in the comments.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Recording review - Easy Star All-Stars, Easy Star's Thrillah (2012)

Inspired by the King of Pop, it's another classic reggae reinvention

As the house band for Easy Star records, the Easy Star All-Stars have made some great original music (review) and reinvented classic albums by Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and the Beatles. While reframing these great albums as reggae might seem like a gimmick, Michael Goldwasser and the All-Stars take the arrangements seriously and they have a knack for maintaining a respectful connection to the original.

I wasn't sure how to feel about their latest target, Michael Jackson's Thriller. I'm ambivalent about the King of Pop and it wasn't obvious that the reggae context would open up the songs. When I cued up Easy Star's Thrillah, it didn't seem like a big leap. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' featured a good ska influenced intro that might have signaled a radical departure. Instead, it almost immediately transitioned into a funky, Afrobeat groove. The arrangement felt like a small step from the original's horn line and the vocals weren't too far from Jackson's smooth, high tenor. But that subtle shift was significant. Easy Star's horns had a richer role and masked the slightly slower tempo.

Thriller's more soulful tracks seem more straightforward. The reggae beat on Baby, Be Mine doesn't get too far from Jackson's pop soul original. Similarly, Human Nature adds a more interesting horn and synth line along with the reggae beat, but the dreamy pop soul feel remains. The more radical transformations come on the bigger, high energy tracks.

Beat It served as a big rocker on Michael Jackson's Thriller. He used the speedy beat and punchy vocals to pump up the tension and express frustration at the inevitability of violence. The All-Stars turn that on its head. The drag tempo opens space for dubby echoes and a brooding darkness. The trippy solo breathes organically in direct contrast to Eddie Van Halen's fluid flurry of notes. Easy Star's cover emphasizes the frustration in the lyrics, especially Michael Rose's expressive vocal. By contrast, Jackson's original seems too blithe.

My favorite track by far is the title track, Thriller. While the band opens with similar spooky sound effects, this reggae version is anchored by a smoothly reworked bassline. It's a largely stripped down down with lots of room to appreciate the dub spaces, the moody bass, and haunting melodica fills. Like Beat It, this version drops the tempo to get a more laid back, dream groove that creates the perfect tension the song calls for. Every note sounds completely natural rather than a reinvention. DJ Spragga Benz's vocal on the spoken section is no substitute for Vincent Price, but it fits the arrangement well enough. The slower pace and extended jams drags the song out by another minute and a half. If this isn't enough, Close to Midnight, one of the extra tracks provides a 7 minute dub jam that catches the vibe of the All Stars' Pink Floyd dubs.

Listening through Thrillah reminded me how many huge hits were crammed into Thriller. Without being much of a Michael Jackson fan, I still knew every track. Easy Star's reggae treatment didn't put the original on a pedestal, but showed what an inspiration it could be.

So far, the band has only shared Billie Jean with Luciano on vocals. But their album teaser gives a taste of their cover of Thriller.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 8/27

It's a slower week this week, but some great music nevertheless.

30 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
BB King
Tedeschi Trucks Band

BB King is a living legend. Aside from being one the greatest living blues guitarist, he's a remarkably generous band leader, giving the rest of his band time to shine, too. He can fit more soul into a single vibrato note than a battalion of other guitarists.

Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks will be opening for King. Although they're a much younger generation than him, they clearly share his love of the blues. They're both phenomenal player themselves, so this will be a blistering hot night, regardless of the temperature.

31 August (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellview CO)
Keb' Mo'

Keb' Mo' is making up for a canceled show from this last May, when the Mish was closed by the High Park fire. His music comes straight from the heart, with dirty funk or vulnerable soul. It'll be a nice Friday evening up the canyon to kick back and catch the show.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Recording review - Naama Kates, The Unexamined Life (2012)

A unique aesthetic of theatrical vignettes, piano pop, and some deep retro sounds

It seems appropriate that Naama Kates' debut, The Unexamined Life is rooted in theatricality. I get the sense that her musical taste is thoroughly integrated with her background in acting. The album pulls a lot from early Kate Bush (like There Goes a Tenner) and Tori Amos' artier songs. But unlike most of the women influenced by Bush and Amos, Kates doesn't affect the twee vocal stylings. If anything, she has more of an edgy pop voice. It's really that mix of storytelling, theatrics, and piano accompaniment that begs the comparison. It wouldn't surprise me if Kates has a full length stage musical opus hiding somewhere in her portfolio.

For much of The Unexamined Life, she settles for songs that unfold like little vignettes, with stylistic shifts to indicate scene changes. Price of Company is a great example. It starts out as a moody, descending bass jazz-blues. The track establishes a standard song structure, but the feel and imagery suggest a video, perhaps with a rain splattered window and a glimpse of Kates pacing in her room. But the bridge shatters that mood with a manic energy. The frantic beat has an amphetamine soaked 1920s sound.

Those sonic shifts can be a touch unnerving, but plenty of the other tracks maintain more consistency. The opening track, Before You Lose It has a more conventional arrangement. The earnest piano beginning is one part John Lennon's Imagine and three parts Ben Folds. Kates voice has a feigned weariness. About the time the chorus should drop, the rest of the band kicks in. The relaxed beat supports the sparse lines of a singing slide guitar and a warm caress of string. The music conjures the feel of a stroll through the past, taking stock of chances lost and fine choices made. The lyrics don't fit the mood, though. This musical interlude mutes the impact of lines like "Wash that blood off your hands/Before you stain them". Turmoil coalesces in the tail end of the track, finally bringing the music in line with the lyrics. While it might have been better to hint at this earlier in the song, it a powerful finish.

Kates' piano work throughout The Unexamined Life is strong. Her playing hits its peak on кошмары, which lays down a nice retro Eastern European sound. She's accompanied by a small, rich orchestra that provides an ominous Tom Waits vibe. While the main piano line is fairly repetitive, Kates opens up during the chorus. Then, on the bridge, she improvises off the melody to slip a little outside.

Naama Kates has a unique aesthetic that stands out from the crowd. The Unexamined Life shows a fine musical range. Dropping by her site, I was surprised to see that she's done a set of Radiohead covers as well. Such an intriguing artist should do well if she can reach the right audience.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

History Lesson - Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)

A symposium on racial politics that still remains relevant

Like most of white America, my introduction to rap came from The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight. Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, and Blondie (Rapture) soon followed. The cadences and interlocking rhythmns were like a new kind of modern art. There were rules and influences I could only guess at. The lyrics were interesting, but not particularly deep or challenging.

Two bands turned that perception on its ear for me: N.W.A. and Public Enemy. N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton was like punk rock on steroids; their anger and contempt were barely contained. But if N.W.A. raged, Public Enemy seethed. I loved N.W.A.'s intensity, getting a vicarious thrill, but Public Enemy made me think.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back exposed me to an alternate universe, Having black friends and being liberal didn't count for much as Public Enemy presented their view of America. This wasn't my first taste of this message. I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man as a young adult. I had also heard Gil Scott-Heron's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. But It Takes a Nation of Millions... was more emotionally charged. The tension of the music and the authoritative sound of Chuck D's voice hit me like a roundhouse. The opening track Countdown to Armageddon references Scott-Heron's iconic line:
Peace. Armageddon? It been in effect. Go get a late pass. Step! This time around, the revolution will not be televised. Step! London, England? Consider yourselves warned!
But the rising sirens and crowd sounds summon a shot of adrenaline and it feels like a roller coaster ride about to start.

The rest of the album proceeds directly from that beginning: excitement, confrontation, and attitude. The first time I listened, I was primarily pinned between the rhythms of Chuck D's vocal strength and hype man Flavor Flav's bounce. Later listens would reveal the importance of Terminator X's DJ work and the Bomb Squad's production for adding depth to the tracks.

"Too black, too strong" - Bring the Noise bridges the gap between hyping the band and setting a context for their message. Chuck D name checks Louis Farrakhan and asserts a black nationalist perspective as he rushes through his rap. The quick tempo and dense production create a claustrophobic pressure. Terminator X's transform scratch beat and mechanical whine backing add to the tight tension on the track. Flav's hype work provides the only loose moments.

Flavor Flav gets his center stage moment on Cold Lampin' With Flavor. This free style track isn't as political as the other tracks, but Flav's stream of conscious rap has a steady flow and the production maintains the pressure cooker feel.

The black nationalist message gets heaviest on Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos. This track blew me away with its incendiary message advocating civil and uncivil disobedience. The premise is that Chuck D is thrown in jail as a conscientious objector:
Cold sweatin' as I dwell in my cell
How long has it been, they got me sittin' in the State Pen?
I gotta get out, but that thought was thought before
I contemplated a plan on the cell floor
Another fugitive on the run
Brother, brother like me begun
To be another one
Public Enemy servin' time, they do the line, y'all
They criticize me for some crime
Nevertheless, they could not understand
That I'm a black man
And I could never be a veteran
On the streets, the situation's unreal
I got a raw deal
So I'm lookin' for the steel
In contrast to all the anti-war songs of the '60s, Chuck D doesn't frame his protest as a peacenik.
Instead, he echoes Muhammad Ali's c.o. rationale, contemptuous of America's white roots. Even as the song's fantasy of a huge prison break builds, it's clear that this is his metaphor for all black Americans in our society. I had the epiphany that I could empathize with this plight, but I couldn't live it or dismiss it. The tightly looped piano sample and the relentless beat fit the song perfectly.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is a dual message album. For Public Enemy's African American audience, it's a call to action and an assertion of Black Identity. For the rest of us, it's a symposium on racial politics that still remains unresolved and relevant.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Recording review - Kinky, Sueño De La Maquina (2012)

Organic extends the mechanical: dreams of the machine with soul

Kinky's music comes from a remote borderland that doesn't even register arbitrary lines. The Mexican band's five members use live instruments to build on an electronic foundation. Their sound is a grab bag of electronica, rock and roll, Latin beats, and club-friendly mixes. Their predominantly Spanish lyrics regularly incorporate English phrases. But despite their mash-up aesthetic, Kinky isn't playing esoteric mind games, they're just channeling the sound they want.

The band recently released their fifth album, Sueño De La Maquina. Each track has a unique blend of elements, but the high energy jams offer a consistent mix of dance-happy grooves and interesting arrangements. The opening track Inmovil is a veritable smorgasbord all on its own. It starts with a moody synth-pop progression. The cool, laid back groove is relaxing and inviting. The vocals capture a sense of inevitability and acceptance.

Then...BOOM! Two minutes in, the track transforms into a dance club funk groove. The slinky bass riff twistss and throbs as subtle percussion fills crowd into the corners of the song. The chorus raises the stakes by kicking in a heady electro-pop vibe. After hitting the verse-chorus a couple of times, the band wraps up the song with a glitch heavy breakdown. This is a great introduction to the album; these transitions exemplify Kinky's genre hopping sound.

A couple of track later, they surprise me again on Negro Día. The track lays down a loop of grungy guitar noodle, then provides a heavy, programmed beat to hold it. The saw wave, zipper bass is wicked thick. The dreamy female chorus vocals have a hazy layer of echo. Mala Rodríguez's rap flow slides through the breakdown verse grooves. The track is a great mix of tension and release.

Kinky seems to delight in defying expectations. Their intense electronic base often sounds more organic as they rely less on looping than playing. They contrast that by processing their analog instruments sounds into something more machinelike, like Negro Día's guitar line.

My favorite track is Alma de Neón. The trippy groove of Despues Del After finishes and evaporates directly into the sinister grind of Alma de Neón, which is accented with a touch of Clash-like ska chank. The mainline of the track lays a ponderous club-beat electronica vibe. But the overall feel slides into something harder edged than electro pop: powerful electro-rock. Then the breakdown lays down a crazy quilt mix of glitch and Latin acoustic strings before diving back into the big beat.

I enjoy the mash-up aspect of Sueño De La Maquina, but the album's real strength is the balance of organic and mechanical. Kinky may dream of the machine, but it's a machine with soul.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 8/20

Another fine week of music with a couple of grandmasters coming through town.

23 August (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Maceo Parker

Legendary horn player Maceo Parker is bringing the funk to Cervantes this week. Parker's work with James Brown and George Clinton made his reputation as the premier funk sax player in the world. His solo career has continued to show what an incredible player he is. Don't miss this show!

24 August (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
25 August (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
Lyrics Born

Both in his solo work and with Latyrx (his partnership with Lateef the Truthspeaker), Lyrics Born has delivered smooth rapping hip hop on a soulful tip. His uptempo flows don't crack his chill, laid back groove. It's nice to see he'll make it to Ft. Collins again.

26 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt is touring with a new album, Slipstream. It's sure to be a wailing good time at this Red Rocks show. Raitt is one of the greatest living slide guitar players. Whether she's laying down a wicked slide run or singing the blues with her worn flannel vocals or both, her songs connect on a deep level.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Recording review - The Electric Mess, Falling Off The Face Of The Earth (2012)

Distorted and fuzzy, but never low-fi - garage psyche perfected

Many bands aspire to the retro haze of garage psychedelia, filling their tracks with a messy wall of guitar fuzz and driving beats. Emphasizing the garage side, they revel in the sloppy catharsis of low-fi sound.

But The Electric Mess achieve a perfected form of the genre. Lovingly engineered, Falling Off the Face of the Earth proves that garage psych credibility doesn't require low-fi sonic fuzzballs. Instead, the recording reveals every detail from Esther Crow's hoarse rasp and its tasty reverb placement to the hyper throb of Derek Davidson's twisting bass lines. The leads are smooth and balanced as they trade between the richly overdriven guitars, with their perfect vintage tone, and the trippy organ as it braids a heady chain of wheezing notes.

Esther Crow occasionally offers a sweet female vocal, but usually fronts the band with her drag alter ego, Chip Fontaine. With a cocky swagger, Fontaine's gruff voice alternates between sly innuendo, macho posing, and flirtatious teasing. Fontaine's persona reaches its peak on Nice Guys Finish Last, as he outlines his plan to turn into a cad to get the girl. Rough and ready, his attitude sells the songs.

The clarity of the mix doesn't tame the edge of The Electric Mess' sound. They draw on a host of classic influences: Soft Machine, the early Doors work, ? and the Mysterians, the 13th Floor elevators, and Velvet Underground all come to mind at various points on Falling Off the Face of the Earth. On I Didn't Miss You At All, Oweinma Biu's lead vocal sounds like Roky Erickson. The vocal arrangement pits his voice against Crow's and together, they create a whipsaw energy. The beat is steady as the guitars lay down an acid shred groove. The anarchy of Dan Crow's guitar solo is supported by Davidson's hard rocking, melodic bass.

On Tell Me Why, the tweedly organ line recalls ? and the Mysterians, but the beat is hyper intense. The Electric Mess creates a headlong rush punctuated by great slow-down moments that open up the song for a brief break before the breakneck pace is reasserted. Biu's keyboard solo drifts further out into space, dragging the rest of the band along. Fontaine channels his inner Elvis near the end of the track before the song's inevitable meltdown. This is three minutes of garage psyche perfection.

True to the genre's psychedelic roots, "The Girl With The Exploding Dress" is filled with trippy lyrics:
You've probably seen her before
On your favorite dancing floor
I won't mind if you take her hand
Just try to understand
She's got x-rays in her eyes
She's blinded lots of guys
If I were you I'd keep my glasses on
Craig Rogers' drumming is densely packed with fills as he propels the track forward. It's the kind of over-the-top playing that can only work when the whole band falls tightly together to hold the groove together. The Electric Mess makes it sound trivially easy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Random notes

Let's get random again, like we did last summer, Baby.

Interstellar Overdrive - Pink Floyd (Piper at the Gates of Dawn)

This is possibly my favorite Pink Floyd instrumental. The first time I heard that slipped-hand opening guitar chord followed by the throbbing repetition of bass and guitar setting up the motif, I got chills, waiting to see where it would take me. The opening section that just explores the main theme is plenty interesting. But the magic comes as the song develops into a free flowing jam. I had been playing guitar for four or five years when I heard this, but I couldn't conceive of how one creates this kind of loose energy that evolves from section to section, transforming the sound radically away from that start. Still, each part reverberates with the space theme to create a narrative feel. When the song eventually comes back to the original motif, it's a revelation.

Clap Your Hands - Greyhounds (¡No Mas!)

Years ago, I caught the Greyhounds when they opened for the Eric McFadden Trio. I liked them well enough to pick up their CD. After Interstellar Overdrive, the loose funky soul of Clap Your Hands is heavily grounded in a more human groove. The organ adds a retro touch that recalls old school bands like Sir Douglas Quintet. The choppy guitar repetition, drum syncopation, and testifying vocals slide together like a carefully constructed puzzle.

Randy Newman's "Theme From 'Sea Buiscuit'" - Paul and Storm (Opening Band)

Paul and Storm are a musical comedy duo that started with the a capella band DaVinci's Notebook. They've contributed a lot of songs to The Bob and Tom Show (among others) and they regularly tour with Jonathan Coulton. This particular track is one of a series of Randy Newman parodies on the album. The running joke is that all of Randy Newman's soundtrack songs sound more or less the same. The music is a great tip of the hat to Newman's Short People and the vocal parody is spot on. The idea of Randy Newman writing themes for Sea Biscuit, The Passion of the Christ, Scarface, and others is pretty funny. Especially since the tune is the same for each of these songs.

Reunion - Collective Soul (Collective Soul)

Collective Soul hit the mainstream with Shine and the rough demo album that spawned it (Hints, Allegations, and Things Left Unsaid). Their eponymous second album was a better produced follow up. Reunion has a sweet simplicity as the guitar line gradually accrues accompaniment from keys, backing vocals, and a rhythm section. It's a short track, but I like the sweet harmonies and reflective sound that provides a good soundtrack for a homecoming. The slide solo promises that everything is going to work out just fine.

Hot Meat - The Sugarcubes (Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!)

Ahh, Björk before her solo career. The Sugarcubes had such a cool, outsider vibe that I really enjoyed back in the late '80s. Björk and Einar Örn Benediktsson's chemistry in the Sugarcubes was like the B-52s filtered through warped, tinted glass. Hot Meat is a slower, vaguely country Western rework of Cold Sweat from their first album, Life's Too Good. After the post punk, heavy darkness of the original, this is a whimsical reinvention.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Recording review - See-I, See-I (2011)

Dub-style reggae/soul: the essence of the human condition

After catching See-I in concert recently, I was interested to hear more. Their modern blend of reggae, soul, funk, and rock stepped outside of straight reggae tradition, but the heavy grooves were truly righteous.

While their live show had a loose, party energy, their eponymous album See-I is more tightly arranged and stays closer to a reggae core sound. Head nodding, hypnotic dub grooves are a recurring theme throughout the album. The first half of the album hits like Muhammad Ali's left jab. Each of these tracks extends See-I's sonic footprint and gives a sense of the band's musical approach.

The opening track, Dangerous, announces, "This is the real See-I sound" before launching into a steady chank, threaded with dreamy background elements. See-I gives the song room to develop, folding in percussion, syncopated drum lines, and echoed fills. Much of the last minute is a stretched out dub section, but it's a natural extension of the song's basic essence.

The second track, Haterz 24/7 opens with a spoken preface:
Back in the days, they had the Hater of the Year award
Haterz Ball, man. 24/7, around the clock
That's how they did it
The reggae beat verges on ska as it's accented with afro-beat horns and a funky drum line. The vocals roll on relentlessly while the guitar fills remind me of the Talking Heads' worldbeat excursions. The uplifting spirit of the groove stands up to all incoming criticism. This is a perfect model of the strength of reggae music: "I am the lightning and the thunder".

If dub style reggae is See-I's comfort zone, soul is their home away from home. Soul Hit Man was a favorite song from the set and the album version cooks. Like several other tracks, we get a sampled intro:
"A man of the world. Could you please tell me what's your definition of soul?"
"My definition of soul is simple. I think soul is the essence of the human condition"
Soul Hit Man cooks, but Talkin' About Peace lays down a beautiful soul funk groove. Horns, tasty guitar fills, and a throbbing bass line set the mood. The toasting vocals on the chorus add the reggae touch in to provide the necessary continuity with the rest of See-I.

The second half of the album adds its own touches of worldwide rhythms and some hip hop sounds, but after the punch of the early tracks, this is just consolidation of See-I's musical ground.

Aside from their work with See-I, Rootz and Zeebo Steele are part of the loose family of contributors to Eric Hilton's Thievery Corporation. They met Hilton in Washington D.C., where they started See-I. Now the two entities are thoroughly cross pollinated, with the Steele brothers bringing an island lilt to Thievery Corporation and taking advantage of musicians like Rob Myers.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 8/13

This is a slower week after last week's fine selection. Even though it means we can catch our breath, there are still some cool shows to see.

17 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
18 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Pretty Lights

Pretty Lights (Derek Vincent Smith) is rooted here in Ft. Collins, but the band/record label is a worldwide phenomenon now. Thick with a rich selection of samples, genre mash-ups, and a rave aesthetic, the band's music is festival friendly. Red Rocks is a good venue to chill and enjoy the flow.

18 August (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Dread Zeppelin

What would Elvis do? More to the point, what would Tortelvis do? I mean aside from create the best reggae/Led Zeppelin cover band in the world? I'm not sure, either. But, having done that, I have to ask, hasn't he given us enough?

It's a goofy enough idea, but it works largely because of the musical magic. The songs just click into place.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Recording review - Friend Slash Lover, The Grey Area (2012)

Dynamic tension and rich arrangements drive this emotional album

On their last EP, As American As Ones and Zeros (review), Friend Slash Lover had a lighter feel with clever titles and some witty lines.

The new EP, The Grey Area explores the band's moody, emo side. They still casually drop some great lyrical lines, especially in S2PD HMN, but the songs have a darker undertone as they're weighed down with worry and loss. Despite the heavier feel, Friend Slash Lover still has a great sense of dynamics and rich arrangements.

The lightest tracks, The Grey Area and Carry Your Weight offer some pretty musical moments, but they're still shrouded in regret. The instrumentation on Carry Your Weight is especially nice. The electronic intro serves up a nice arpeggiated verse. Strings filter in as the bass line starts.
Up and away, that's how I am in my dreams
I'd stay awake, if it meant that I never had to
Sleep and pretend to be
Flying when I don't believe
The bridge brings a frisson of threat that expands the scope of the track, even as it builds in volume. The song structure doesn't worry about a standard verse chorus approach but still creates its own ebb and flow.

By contrast, S2PD HMN starts out dark and moody and retains that feel. The heavy staccato punch creates an immediate tension. I love the opening line:
I couldn't secure the rights to sing about love tonight.
So I've been forced to plagiarize...
There's still a strong sense of dynamic tension, but the stakes stay high. The title is a reference to frontman Josh Mintz's earlier stage name. The modern rock crescendo of the chorus, "I know just what you want: what everybody seems to want" is anthemic.

The Grey Area also includes a cover of XTC's Dear God. While the vocals are a fairly straight rendition of the original, the music's electronic elements and heavy bass beat update the track to modern aesthetics. It might have been interesting to push the arrangement further in that direction. It's amazing, though, how the song seems so much less controversial than it did back in 1986, despite the wider religio-cultural divide we have today.

Friend Slash Lover still indulge in overwrought, emotional vocals, tempered by thoughtful dynamics and subtle arrangements. The Grey Area may reflect more pressure, but the band still has a core of musical strength.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

August singles

Three completely different flavors of dance friendly music for your enjoyment.

The Wallflowers - Reboot the Mission (from Glad All Over, due October 2012)

It's been a long break between releases for Jakob Dylan's band, the Wallflowers. After big sales and heavy attention in the '90s, the band never seemed to match the popularity of their first two records.

The band is enthusiastic about the new songs, though. Reboot the Mission is the first single off their upcoming album, Glad All Over. The Wallflowers are showing a cool change in direction with this track. They partnered with Mick Jones, who brings a strong sense of his old band, Big Audio Dynamite. The ska tinged rock groove is plenty danceable. I hope the rest of the new album shows a similar kind of reinvention.

Drop by The Wallflowers' site to download your own copy.

Kinky - Despues Del After (from Sueño De La Maquina)

The steady funk bass groove is a wicked hook, baited with a counterpoint of guitar. Kinky's melding of electro-pop, funk, and hip hop on Despues Del After is infectiously fun. My Spanish is a little rusty, but the lyrical flow is ultra-smooth. The video is worth checking out, just to see the light suit guy work his popping moves.

Kinky is one of those bands that may have slipped your radar, but they've placed their songs in commercials, TV shows, and games for years. Their early track, Cornman was the first time I heard the band, but that was ten years ago. They're still going strong and creating compelling jams.

The Mynabirds - Disarm (from Generals)

The Mynabirds - Disarm from Saddle Creek on Vimeo.

Laura Burhenn and the Mynabirds have turned away from the sweet soulful grooves of What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, which may disappoint some of their fans. On Generals, the Mynabirds are making a political statement and reaching for a completely different sonic palette. Disarm is a bouncy synth-pop romp. Between the dance beat and Burhenn's voice, I keep hearing ABBA, but there's a stronger lyrical foundation. The black and white video is artsy and nicely edited.

Generals is Burhenn's counterpoint to Richard Avendon's portrait of The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution. That indignation may slip out more on some of the other tracks, but Disarm is more of an earnest entreaty.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Recording review - Buffalo Killers, Dig Sow, Love, Grow (2012)

Unselfconsciously retro, it's a rich throwback to the early '70s

The early '70s were a fertile hot zone. All the disparate musical shards of the hippie '60s -- folk, pop psychedelia, acid rock, and blues -- were starting to slide together into interesting combinations. Bands like Bad Company, the Band, and the James Gang created sounds that were anchored in rock yet soared into cool directions.

Buffalo Killers are throwbacks to that time. Dig, Sow, Love, Grow could have dropped in 1972 or '73 and it would have fit in just fine. Rather than reproducing the retro vibe of the era, Buffalo Killers seem utterly unselfconscious about their sound. The album has a melange of almost familiar sounds: the Led Zeppelin opening to Get It that slides into a bluesy rock jam, the 13th Floor Elevators garage psychedelia of Hey Girl, the lazy folky groove of The Band on Blood On Your Hands, or heavy Joe Walsh punch of Those Days. Lazy tempos give the heady guitar riffs plenty of room to meander.

Joe Walsh seems to be the strongest influence, pulling bits of James Gang funky jams and Barnstorm era rock to permeate several of the tracks. Buffalo Killers capture his rhythm guitar sound and even a bit of his voice. Brothers Andrew and Zachary Gabbard voices find their home base somewhere between Walsh's tone and Ozzie Osbourne's yowl.

Despite all the comfortable musical elements, Dig, Sow, Love, Grow feels more like cross-pollination than a derivative exercise. Each listen turns up a new favorite track. Early on, I was caught up by Get It. The simple staccato keyboard part offsets the warm overdriven guitar tone. The bluesy solo had a wicked tone that perfectly wrapped up the whole package.

Later, Farewell stood out. It starts with a beautiful descending line that balances the bass and guitar. This develops into a rich sound that drifts between delicate psychedelia and a thicker handed folk rock. It's a thoughtful song right up until the more discordant finish that signals a kind of emotional surrender.

Right now, I've dropped deeper into the garage psych with Mysun. The folky rhythm reminds me a little of Pink Floyd's Free Four. It's got a sunny, open feeling.

Buffalo Killers may have spent some time buried in their parent's music collections, but it was clearly time well spent.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows, 8/6

This week is one of the hottest of the summer, at least musically. There are plenty of great shows this week.

6 August (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Die Antwoord

South African rappers, Die Antwoord, celebrate their Zef culture with an outrageous flair. Trashy, foul-mouthed, and occasionally shocking, their act incorporates enough campy elements that it's not clear how seriously they take it all. They're certainly an acquired taste, but this should be a fun show.

8 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Jack White

Jack White's work with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather have demonstrated his full on commitment to playing and capturing the right sound. He's touring with his new solo album, Blunderbuss. Accompanied by two different bands, the Peacocks and Los Buzzardos, this should be a memorable performance. I hope you already got tickets because it's sold out.

9 August (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)
12 August (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Reverend Horton Heat

Psychobilly master, Reverend Horton Heat will make a couple of appearances here on the Front Range. His shows are high energy as he serves up country fried licks with a punk attitude.

10 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Thievery Corporation
Beats Antique

World-tronica fans unite! Electronic grooves, anchored by a world wide selection of rhythms and tonal scales will take over Red Rocks. Beats Antique is one of my favorite bands to see live. They're opening for the ever eclectic Thievery Corporation. I just recently saw See-I (review), who are supporting members of the band. Of all the Red Rocks shows this year, this should be the most amazing.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Concert review - Sister Carol (and Nakeeba Amaniyea) with Irie Still

3 August 2012 (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)

The crowd was pretty thin when Irie Still took the stage, even though they started a bit late. By the end of the set, things filled out nicely, though. DJ Uplifter offered some high volume, bass heavy reggae tracks between sets. The tunes were fine, but the sound didn't fit the vibe.

Sister Carol made it all better with her set -- two hours of her reggae medicine was exactly what we needed.

Frontman Ronny Noel was a natural performer. He had that gifted ability to draw the crowd's total attention with confidence but still leave room for the rest of the band to shine. That allowed Irie Still to maintain a balance that was fully dedicated to the music over individual personality. Even though Noel stood out, percussionist Ray Cruz also brought his own charisma to the stage, adding shout outs and whistle bursts to keep the energy strong.

The heartbeat of the band, the rhythm section, laid down a solid reggae drive. That trio of tight punchy drums, a grounding bass lifeline, and tastefully syncopated percussion were locked down into the deepest of pockets. Noel occasionally joined in with his djembe and added his beats.

The keys meshed in perfectly, whether weaving in a bubble chank or tossing in melody. The guitarist was good, but he tended to focus more on fills. Being low in the mix didn't help: even when he laid in a chank, it didn't pop like it should. His fills on the soca were stronger, though.

While Noel drove the lead vocals, Celena Otero provided some sweet harmonies and backing lines. She had a clean voice that showed some depth. Irie Still should get her singing more leads and developing a more active stage presence to broaden the band's energy.

The songs kept the crowd dancing. While the focus was on reggae, Irie Still tossed in some ska, dancehall, and soca grooves to stir the pot. I especially liked their darker, moodier cover of Get Up, Stand Up. This Denver band was a great opener for Sister Carol.

When I first heard Isis - "The Original Womb-Man" (review), I was drawn to Sister Carol's charisma and energy. Her woman-worship, conscious lyrics were strong and positive. But most of all, the music was tight and grounded in a roots style. Even though Isis is from 1999, I hoped she'd bring the same edge to her show at Cervantes. I just needed to remember the unofficial Jamaican motto, "Don't worry" -- Sister Carol has developed like a fine wine over the years.

Her voice was darker and richer, but she still brought in some of the sassy attitude of her younger days. Perhaps in honor of her earlier recording with the Hi Life Players, her backing band had the same name, although they seemed too young to have played with her back in 1984. Unlike Irie Still, the Hi Life Players were primarily there to provide the perfect setting for Sister Carol's larger than life presence. But that didn't stop them from showing off some phenomenal playing while they anchored the grooves. Soaking in the rhythms, it was easy to take them for granted as Sister Carol sang, but then they'd surprise us by standing out with a flashy fill, a soulful vocal line, or a pumping bass.

The Hi Life Players opened the set by themselves to warm up the crowd. Their four piece (drum, bass, keys, and guitar) had a full sound and their guitar player offered some strong vocals and good stage presence.

After their single song warmup, they brought out Sister Carol's daughter, Nakeeba Amaniyea, for a short, four song set. Like her mother, Amaniyea had a strong stage presence with a positive, joyful vibe. Her vocal sound was rooted in R&B, but she showed off her chops in several styles. On My Jamaica, the dramatic lighting set up a mellow, soulful start. As the song picked up strength, Amaniyea laid down a smooth flow of rap lyrics. On her newer single, Roots Rasta, the music had a faster ska beat and a dancehall energy. The high point of her set, though, was a freestyle rap. She laid down a nice East Coast cadence, but with some of Michael Franti's conscious flow.

After Amaniyea left the stage, Sister Carol took the stage like it was her home. Introduced as an empress, she was draped in a Rastafarian flag and her regal style showed. With her strong posture, her panther poise, and wicked sunglasses, she had the allure of Grace Jones.

The set kicked off with an uptempo version of For the Conquering Lion, which showcased Sister Carol's strong voice. It was a joy to see her work the stage, whether it was connecting with the crowd at the edge of the stage or projecting to the back of the room.

She hit lot of older songs, like my favorite Rasta Girl, as well a new tracks, including the crowd pleasing Medical Marijuana. It was particularly nice when she brought her daughter back out so they could perform together. Sister Carol tossed in her backing vocals while Nakeeba took the lead.

Over the years, she's clearly settled into her Mother Culture role. Even so, things never got too serious as her warm personality came through. She wrapped up the set with her iconic cover of Wild Thing, which gave the guitarist a chance to show that he could rock out. Then she settled in at the merch table to graciously greet her fans and sign autographs.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Commentary - Pussy power

For more or less the last dozen years, Vladimir Putin has been the leader of modern Russia. While his hold on power may remind many people of an older era of Soviet dictators, Putin seems to be looking West to the U.S. for his most recent political inspiration. Dedicated anti-Communist Richard Nixon seems to be his latest role model. Just as Nixon portrayed himself as a stable contrast to the hippie counterculture in his 1968 campaign, Putin consolidates his power based on improving Russia's economic stability.

And of course, both have responded to political protests with personal paranoia. Nixon used COINTELPRO against the Viet Nam protest movement and the hippies. And now, Putin is using the Russian Orthodox Church to strike out at the Russian feminist punk band, Pussy Riot. The rockers are as much about political theater as they are about music and they have a history of protest.

In February 2012, five members of the anonymous collective hi-jacked a church service to sing an anti-Putin prayer. They chose the church because of close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin.

This is what Putin seems scared of

To be fair, the stunt was offensive. The group commandeered the altar and parodied a liturgical song, referring to the Patriarch as a "bitch" and singing "shit, shit, shit of Lord God" while calling to Mother Mary to chase Putin out.

It's reasonable that Patriarch Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church are offended. But in what looks like a collaboration between the secular legal system and the Church's anger, three women who have been identified as part of the group have been charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and hostility", which is good for seven years in jail if they're convicted. This is a fairly heavy price for a relatively low-impact prank.

By all accounts, Pussy Riot has become a symbol, way out of proportion to the impact of their act. Even though the three women have apologized for offending sensibilities, they are becoming scape goats for the whole collection of political protesters that Putin hates.

I understand the frustration any leader has with political mockery and dissent. Even Nixon, who had the benefit of a fine Constitution that protects free speech, found it hard not to lash out at his tormenters. Putin can look to a long history of heavy State response and draw on it. But in this case, all he's doing is acknowledging the power of a bunch of smart-ass girls. It's not nearly as macho as taking down a tiger.

And in other news...
Courtney Love makes another desperate plea for attention, reminding Lana Del Rey that Nirvana''s Heart Shaped Box is all about her vagina. Even if that doesn't stop Del Rey from continuing to cover the song, it kind of kills it for the rest of us.