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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Recording review - The Soft Moon, Zeros (2012)

Darkwave updated with modern electronics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

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

Amos defines her artistic voice, cloaked in metaphor 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

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

A loose retrospective reveals the band's split personality

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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

Raging against apathy, an album for the times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Recording review - The Jigsaw Seen, Gifted (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Recording review - Akron, Voyage of Exploration (2012)

Akron's exotica suggests an alien art walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

November singles

From solid roots to heady washes of sound, enjoy November's singles.

Prezident Brown - "Teach the Youths Dem (Meditation)" (from I Sound is From Creation)

"Teach the Youths Dem (Meditation)" offers a sweet taste of roots reggae, from the solid one drop beat and snaking bassline to Brown's chanting delivery. Brown's conscious-style message encourages strength and discipline in response to the destructive forces around us. The chank, fills, and beat mesh calmly, grounding the track with an uplifting vibe. That's the power in classic reggae: acknowledging adversity, but retaining hope.

Even though this is the second single off the new album, I couldn't find a public link of it. Drop by Amazon and get a small taste.

DaVinci - "In My City" (from The Moena Lisa)

Straight outta Fillmore - San Francisco rapper DaVinci (AKA John DeVore) lays down a low key anthem to the whole Bay area, letting everyone represent. The chilled out electronica groove and mellow beat match DaVinci's easy delivery. His quiet, raspy voice flashes back to Tone Loc, but without the playfulness. The relaxed vibe keeps "In My Cty" from building up too much bluster.

The Moena Lisa is his followup to last year's debut, The Day the Turf Stood Still.

Neil Davidge - "Green and Blue" (from Halo 4 original soundtrack)

Soundtracks are one of the prominent sources of interesting modern orchestral music. While film scores can be quite amazing, it's a rarer to come across remarkable game soundtracks. "Green and Blue" is a wonderful composition that develops some strong ideas and retains a rich sense of dynamics. I wouldn't expect a game like Halo to offer this kind of depth.

Composer Neil Davidge (Massive Attack) did a fine job here of creating an epic sense of triumph, colored with losses and growth. The soundtrack is paired with a remix album, too, which brings in a number of respected electronica producers to expand on Davidge's themes.

Maus Haus - "No More Girls" (from Light Noise)

The droning undertone and gritty, low-fi production on "No More Girls" mash up electronica and  garage psych. The driving beat and repetitive lyrics set up a hypnotic Kraut rock vibe. The heavy echo pushes the track slightly underwater and the rippling surface distorts the tune into music that needs to be absorbed rather than interpreted.

Drop by their Bandcamp page to check out more music from Light Noise.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Recording review - El Ten Eleven, Transitions (2012)

Duo creates a rich sonic world, flowing like a set of evanescent thoughts

You can't turn around without tripping over hipster duos going for a full band sound. Bands like Best Coast and The Raveonettes produce albums with dense arrangements, but the live show experiences often simplify the sound or rely on touring musicians. In rare cases, a duo can match their studio work, but this is more common with electronic or DJ oriented groups. El Ten Eleven shatters those preconceptions.

With Kristian Dunn playing a double necked guitar/bass and Tim Fogarty on drums and electronic percussion, the band performs dynamic shows featuring live looping, heavily processed sounds, and a large stage presence. Their latest release, Transitions, is another strong album with an eclectic mix of post-rock, indie rock, atmospheric film score sounds, and electronica flavored grooves.

Listening to El Ten Eleven's music, it's easy to forget that that there aren't four or five players building these songs. The illusion of multiple musicians is driven by Dunn's remarkable technical ability. He simultaneously plays bass and guitar using a two handed tapping technique. The parts are repeatedly layered into loops until the track is dense with detail. These elements fit so smoothly that the music transcends the technology.  It would be easy to assume a lot of studio editing and overdubs, but Dunn's live performance delivers all of this combined with a dynamic, dancing stage presence.

Fogarty's contribution is equally vital. His rhythm picks up on the subtleties of Dunn's progressions, pulling in the right balance of cooperation and contrast. On "Thanks, Bill", the guitar sets a tick-tock, clockwork feel, which Fogerty emphasizes with a mechanical 16th note beat on the kick and then the high hat. Once the song gets moving, he layers in a slower beat that propels the song with the perfect snare hit. When the song opens up into a power chord punch, his bass drum rhythm is almost irregular, leaving plenty of holes in the beat to match the more expansive feel.

Transitions flows like a set of evanescent thoughts or daydreams. Ideas blossom, develop, and then lose focus as new musical elements overtake them. As instrumentals, the songs leave themselves wide open for interpretation. This is clearest on the title track. "Transitions" has a series of musical vignettes that balance between meandering exploration and purposeful direction. The full collection seems to reflect a creative process culminating in a sense of satisfaction. The first segment feels anticipatory. Dunn expands on that with a twinkling flicker of notes that sound almost electronic. Then a dirty, distorted bass note pushes through and recontextualizes the interlocking complexity as rock overture worthy of The Who. The next section is more reflective, as if it's assessing a set of options. E-Bowed swells of notes mesh with a post-rock bass line. Later sections create moods of quiet certainty, focused direction, surprised contrast, and inspiration. The song comes full circle as it revisits the first section, but with a new urgency that concludes the long track with wonderment and pride.

The other musical journeys on Transitions aren't as extended, but El Ten Eleven infuses them with a wide range of styles: "Yellow Bridges" crosses progressive rock with a bit of film score expansiveness while "No One Died This Time!" relies on a choppy bass line to create an exhilarating electronic vibe.

My favorite track was "Tiger Tiger", which starts out with a simple bass line cribbed from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" but slowed to an opiated tempo. This sparse intro is punctuated with a set of trippy guitar arpeggios, twisted with echo and flange effects. The main groove of the song has a King Crimson feel; a smooth guitar line snakes through the interlocking flicker of backing notes with psychedelic shimmers along the edges. Eventually the track is densely packed with details, creating an image of a wild, verdant jungle. Dunn's playing is very reminiscent of Adrian Belew's expressive guitar work.

Transitions' biggest weakness is the short 36 minute running time. But El Ten Eleven mitigates this with moments of quiet beauty, staggering complexity, and gut-grabbing power, sometimes all within the same track.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows 11/12

A couple of ska-oriented groups this week to enjoy, along with some other fine choices.

12 November(Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
B.B. King

I've said it before, B.B. King is a living legend. He was just here at the end of August with the Tedeschi Trucks Band and now he's back at the Boulder Theater. This intimate setting will provide the perfect venue to appreciate King's incredible blues. Even if you were at Red Rocks, drop by the Boulder Theater and soak it in.

15 November (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)

Party time band MTHDS are releasing a new CD, Pretty Deep. Their mix of rock, ska, and hip hop promises a good show (and a good album). Drop by the Hi-Dive for the CD release party and support a great regional band.

16 November (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)
Lauryn Hill

Nas and Lauryn Hill are partnered on the "Black Rage/Life is Good" tour. Hill has had some odd twists in her career since her time with The Fugees. Still, she's been a powerful and outspoken voice with strong convictions. She recently debuted her new song, "Black Rage".

Nas, meanwhile, has a new album out, Life is Good. A great rap lyricist, he will be sure to deliver some solid flow and knowledge. Pairing these two strong personalities makes this show a high point for hip hop in Denver this month.

18 November (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
The English Beat

One of the great 2Tone-era ska bands, The English Beat blended catchy arrangements with a strong, up tempo ska beat to create some great music. Their arrangement of Smoky Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" redefined that song as a ska classic. Their originals, like "Mirror in the Bathroom", "Hands Off, She's Mine", and "Save It For Later" were tight masterpieces. Last time I saw them, they still had the energy and spunk of their early days.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Recording review - Trey Anastasio, Traveler (2012)

Low risk - Anastasio suffers from 'missing band syndrome'

What is the sound of a single hand jamming? Some haters may loathe jam bands for the sin of meandering self-indulgence and mock their followers for too much stoner enthusiasm, but there's a lot of musical magic in the art of improvisation. The fans rightly appreciate those moments of the greater sum, where a kind of effortless communication guides the musical flow. Mike Gordon of Phish has talked about the exercises the band used in rehearsal to develop those skills and to prepare for shifting musical currents.

Within the context of Phish, Trey Anastasio brought a lot to the band. As he followed a song's evolution, his signature guitar work could suggest players like Frank Zappa and Carlos Santana or slip into classic rock simplicity. He was an energetic front man, too, supplying lead vocals and much of the band's patter.

Unfortunately, Anastasio's latest album, Traveler suffers from phantom band syndrome. Like feeling the pain from a missing limb, these songs miss much of the tension and risk taking that his former bandmates brought to bear. It's telling that one of the best tracks is a cover of Gorillaz' Clint Eastwood.

Anastasio's version takes the cut beat groove of the original and uses his guitar to emphasize the reggae vibe suggested by the moody rhythm. While he lazily sings the chorus, Jennifer Hartswick kills on the verse vocals. She's expressive and her flow has a different vibe than the Gorillaz version; Hartswick is soulful and fluid where Del Tha Funky Homosapien delivers his lines with a bopping stutter beat.

Aside from the cover and a couple of more Phish-like tracks, Anastasio seems content to settle into a laid back, slacker vibe and his band rarely rouses him. He's dreamy and a bit detached. Jumping far back in his solo career, his album Trey Anastasio had a couple of tracks in this vein -- Flock of Words and Drifting -- but overall, he was more inspired then to mix up his rhythms and stretch out stylistically.  On Traveler, songs like Let Me Lie and Architect are typical in taking a while to develop and never delivering much intensity.

To be fair, he and Phish always had a difficult time translating their stage energy to the studio context. Transitions that seemed natural in concert could seem contrived or heavy handed on record. Land of Nod breaks the pattern of lazy grooves to start with an interesting percussion exploration. This jumps into a snippet of melody that serves as the songs motif. Then the song segues through a series of vignettes, some of which return to the motif. Over the persistent syncopation, these changes vary from frantic to sparse, smooth to abrasive. There is an abrupt jump to a hypnotic interlude with the mantra, "I was asleep for so long." Ultimately, this is the kind of song that works better on stage, where the physical dynamics can augment the experience.

Scabbard and Traveler are the two classic Phish style tracks. Like Land of Nod, Scabbard sets up a series of short sections that run into one another, but this time the flow is smoother. Anastasio finally offers some more interesting guitar playing, laying down jazzy melodic lines twinned with the keys as well as some heavier lead work once the track locks into a steadier groove. It's good to hear his band open up more on this one, too.

Traveler has a moody funk groove. The drummer has some nice supporting fills that recall some of Jon Fishman's playing. The harmonies on the bridge fall into some of the old Phish patterns and we even get a taste of Anastasio's soaring guitar. And that's the strangest part of his phantom band syndrome: he seems to have lost interest in tearing up the fretboard.

It's natural for musicians to grow and move away from their roots. On its own merits, Traveler is not a bad album, but it's disappointing to hear Anastasio settle into a more comfortable, safer space.

(This review first appeared on SpectrumCulture) 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Recording review - Flying Lotus, Until The Quiet Comes (2012)

Mapping out new, unseen vistas from mystical dream space

Flying Lotus’ last album, Cosmogramma set a high water mark for experimental electronica, full of insectoid rustling rhythms and the disorienting sound of alien cyborg minds interpreting lost human dreams. On his latest, Until The Quiet Comes, FlyLo turns away from that tension and moves into a more mystical zone of consciousness without surrendering his musical center. The beats may not be as skritchy as before, but he continues to explore polyrhythmic expression with an avant-garde edge.

The new tracks are grounded in a rich electronic foundation, but they often toy with the trappings of jazz music and have a film score worthy feel. FlyLo uses ordinary techniques like synth washes, looped segments and grinding bass, but he regularly defies convention with odd combinations and surprising contexts. Trip hop, ‘70s easy listening, electro-pop, and Deustchrock motorik are all part of his vocabulary

On All In, he takes a deceptively simple drum beat and builds rhythmic complexity with busy melodic phrasing and stray bits of percussion. The song sets up a sweet contrast between the tight drum line and the shimmery washes of music. The loose waves fade down and dissipate to close out the track with Niki Randa’s ethereal vocal: “Was it not for us to claim?/ Win the game.” But rather than an ending, this is actually an early beginning to the next song, Getting There.

FlyLo continues to walk this softer path for the next couple of tracks, culminating in the dreamy free jazz sound of Heave(n). Then, on Tiny Tortures, he erects a complex beat with a collection of electronic and percussion sounds. Weird and dreamy, with an alien beat, this is the first song on the album that alludes to the sounds of Cosmogramma.

Later, the title track, Until The Quiet Comes, makes that link more explicit. A bit like the second half of Cosmogramma’s Zodiac Shit, the beat is assembled with layers of interlocking elements. Both give the rhythm a crisp, clear tone over a meandering bass. Until The Quiet Comes lays down a wicked blown speaker rumble on the low notes. Near the end of the track, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner plays a tight chromatic bass line that drives up the energy for the transition to the soft-focused sound of DMT Song.

FlyLo’s rhythmic experimentation may be his hallmark, but Until The Quiet Comes also features a grab bag of intriguing production choices. All The Secrets is cut and mutated, with a host of cool details to fixate on. The irregular beat is glitchy, punctuated with chirps and beeps. It’s backed with a deconstructed R&B vibe built from a piano sample that slowly fills out over repetition into a full melodic line. Just as you lock into the tranced out effect, it sidesteps into a brief looped break and then an 8-bit video game music feel, before drifting back home. Each step along the way covers a lot of ground but the transitions flow smoothly.

FlyLo does a decent job of importing the guest artists into his musical space. He starts off See Thru To U with a pop song structure. Erykah Badu’s vocal is simple, but blurred with a bit of echo. The syncopation stays constant, but the pop framework drifts away to leave a more free form jam that reminds me of Frank Zappa’s work on Outside Now (Joe’s Garage Acts II & III). Badu’s voice scats along with the jam. On the other hand, Thom Yorke’s contribution on Electric Candyman is quite a bit harder to recognize.

Hunger turned out to be my favorite track. It fades in with a cinematic mood enhanced by a touch of Pink Floyd psychedelia. Niki Randa’s echoed voice sounds like a phonograph playing in the fog. Sharp pinpricks of notes push through the languid washes of echo and synth. It’s hypnotic as Randa’s breathy voice puts an ominous spin on “I’ve hungered for you for far too long to stop now.” The music fades with a minute and a half still left: FlyLo has a penchant for fake endings and juxtaposing separate songlets in the same track. In this case, the second section is a short reflective interlude, but its experimental dream pop sound owes more of a debt to Radiohead than Pink Floyd.

Until The Quiet Comes is satisfying because it‘s packed with a variety of moods and sonic focal points. Its perspectives can enhance a sunny bicycle commute or the shadowy embrace of a dim room. Fans of FlyLo’s earlier work will still find the intricate polyrhythms and off-kilter mesh of jazz and electronica. New listeners can enjoy the smooth blend of analog and electronic instruments as well as the contrast between tight beats and loose melodic elements. Compared to Cosmogramma, it might seem too safe and approachable. But dropping some of that frantic pace leaves room for more open ended wandering. This can yield moments of dissociation, like on the first half of me Yesterday//Corded, or evocative moments like Hunger. It’s a worthwhile trade off between dense microcosms to marvel at and new, unseen vistas to map out.

(This review first appeared on SpectrumCulture)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Front Range - Recommended shows 11/5

The week after  Halloween is usually slow, but there are still a couple of good shows coming up.

6 November (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)

I'm not that familiar with Generationals. I tracked down a couple of their songs that had a pretty cool indie pop vibe. On the other hand, I have heard their opener, RACES and I'd recommend them. Races opened for El Ten Eleven (review) earlier this year. They filled the stage and combined to create some beautifully complex pop grooves with strong dynamics.

9 November (Moe's Original Bar B Que, Englewood CO)
The Dendrites

Here's another case where the opening act stands out. Convalescents play high energy pop punk and are one of the tightest bands I've seen in a while (review). They're opening for the Denver ska band, the Dendrites, who are also a strong band. It's been a while since I've seen them, but they have a phenomenal horn section and a great feel for 2 Tone era ska.

11 November (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
 VHS or Beta

This duo creates strong dance oriented grooves that are equally informed by disco electronica and retro synth pop.Last year's Diamonds and Death was their most recent album, but they've also been doing a number of remix projects on the side. Their music, though, is best enjoyed live. Rave on, Denver.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Recording review - Moon Duo, Circles (2012)

Uninspired jams never get off the ground

As a head music aficionado, I was ready to embrace Moon Duo’s trance oriented grooves before I heard a note. They come with San Francisco credibility and a reputation for spaced out, buzzing jams. The PR blurb quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson as an inspiration, “The eye is the first circle, the horizon which it forms is the second, and throughout nature, this primary figure is repeated without end.” The suggestion of interlocking scales and patterns happily set off the hippy detection center in my brain.

I am primed from a lifetime focused on psychedelia, listening to spacey Pink Floyd, the psychedelic pop of Strawberry Alarm Clock, and Krautrock like Can. Not so much a drug thing; it’s more about head space exploration. From rougher garage psych that suggests the ringing echo of close basement walls or trippy jam band wanderings that flow with the winds at an outdoor festival, I am ready to receive the message.

But the message on Circles proved hard to find. Listening to the album is more like a Craiglist missed connection. Guitarist Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips) and organist Sanae Yamada never quite find my sweet spot. Like Thee Oh Sees, Moon Duo is rooted in a warm, low-fi garage sound. But instead of lively mix of varied tempos, experimental trippiness and engagement, Moon Duo sets up droning jams delivered with diffidence.

 The Emerson quote suggests the more modern concept of fractals and that’s another way to consider Moon Duo’s music. Several tracks demonstrate the inverse power of fractal music where the smallest sample (like the first ten seconds) reveals all of the details contained within the whole. On I Can See, the track starts abruptly, waking up in the middle of an endlessly repetitive three chord mantra. The motorik drum beat is softened by a hint of Bauhaus synth wave crossed with the garage rock grind. The vocals don’t add any interesting details because they’ve been compressed into a muddy susurration. Where electronic trance music presents a kind of static surface with details modulating in the depths, I Can See is content to remain shallow and hide nothing. The meandering lead is the only relief.

If many of the tunes are thin on ideas, Moon Duo compounds the crime by repurposing riffs to fill nine tracks with around seven songs worth of material. The closing track, Rolling Out takes its groove from the opening song Sleepwalker. They slowed down the melodic line and tweaked the ornamentation, but they could have titled it Sleepwalker (Reprise). I prefer the slower song, because the lazy pace transforms the droning buzz into a hypnotic loop. In a similar case of reuse, Sparks is followed by Dance Pt. 3 and both grind their way through a line lifted from the 13th Floor Elevators. Dance Pt. 3 wipes off some of the dust and shifts the core frequency but stays locked on the same fundamental riff.

The most interesting tune is the title track, Circles, which shows off a brighter psych pop feel. Even with the persistent low-fi buzz, there’s more going on here: imagine Blue Cheer covering the Monkees. The vocals stand out in the mix, making it easier to pull some meaning. The guitar solo is almost crystalline compared to the rest of the album. Circles wouldn’t need to make the whole album like this, but if it offered more variation, there would have been more to like.

(This review first appeared on SpectrumCulture)