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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Favorite reviewed concerts of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorable mentions

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Favorite reviewed albums of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1 - Jonathan Segel, All Attractions

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

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Recording review - Porcupine Tree, Octane Twisted (2012)

Almost studio perfect, but fans are waiting for newer material

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

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

Secret soundtracks in the darkness

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

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

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

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

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

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

December Singles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Recording review - The Gromet, Barren (2012)

Colorado country rockers make retro tones their own

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Recording review - Brian Eno, Lux (2012)

Eno continues his ambient explorations, heading for the light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Random notes

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

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

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

"Get Ready" - Rare Earth (single)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

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

Delicately balanced dreamy folk

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

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

Revisiting and reworking in a traditional vein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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