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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Recording review - Mark Mulcahy, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You (2013)

Band versions of singer-songwriter material, but punctuated with perfect lyrical moments 

Mark Mulcahy and his band Miracle Legion made a small splash on the college rock scene back in the 1980s. They developed a small coterie of dedicated fans and opened for a number of well-known bands, but their most lasting ripple in the national consciousness was when they reformed as Polaris to do music for the 1990s Nickelodeon series “The Adventures of Pete & Pete”. After the show was canceled, Mulcahy continued as a solo artist, still opening for larger acts and releasing the occasional stripped down album. He patiently recorded his latest project, Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You, over the course of a year, with a rotating cast of friends backing him. Just like his Miracle Legion days, he still writes a very catchy tune, but these songs feel like they were intended to be solo singer/songwriter pieces. His ever-present acoustic guitar keeps one foot in that space even as the tracks are scaled up by his band buddies. The resulting album is almost a period piece, channeling early ‘90s indie rock and evoking artists like Dada and Michael Penn.

The first single, “She Makes the World Turn Backwards” (non-album version), is easily the album’s strongest track. While the title and chorus music rework various snippets of Roky Erickson’s garage psychedelia, the verses have a fatalistic desperation borrowed from Penn’s sophomore album, Free-for-All (1992). Mulcahy captures the same mix of acoustic guitar and bass decorated with tripped out electric guitar fills. His relaxed vocal phrasing also echoes Penn’s, with off-beat pauses that oddly emphasize particular words. The call-and-response section of the chorus, “Where does it hurt?/ Everywhere!,” is heavy-handed, but the piece is powerful enough to overcome the melodrama.

This collection of songs reflects the loosely directed flow of the recording sessions; each of the 11 tracks stands alone, without any real relationship to the others. This juxtaposes the strained surrealism of the Pavement-like “Let the Fireflies Fly Away” with the stripped down synthpop of “Bailing Out on Everything Again” and the Tom Petty Americana of “Poison Candy Heart”. Despite the odd transitions, Mulcahy consistently throws out lines that stick. Deceptively simple, it’s immensely satisfying to savor lines like, “Creeping toward the end/ Waiting on my man/ All I can do is what I do best/ And that’s taketh away” (“I Taketh Away”) and “You’re happiest when I’m not/ I can live with that” (“Poison Candy Heart”).

Sometimes, like on the Dylanesque “He’s a Magnet”, the initial lyrics promise more than the song can deliver, in this case opening with, “It all starts with the alphabet/ ‘A’ is for all I can get” before drifting into a mishmash of disjointed ideas, from Bible-readers to the cliché that “…weed will get you through times of no money.” But it’s a good-natured, drunkard’s walk and the closing assertion that “I’m positive we’re the ones that we’ve been waiting for” somehow wraps the song up with a non-Euclidean bow. On the other hand, “The Rabbit” is near perfect as it sketches out a tale of codependence, but for all his cynicism about his lover’s motivations and ambivalence about their dysfunctional relationship, Mulcahy tags the chorus with desperate longing.

Over the years, Mulcahy has collected a core of well-known supporters, like Thom Yorke, Dinosaur Jr. and Michael Stipe. They even pulled together a benefit/tribute album, Ciao My Shining Star (2009), to raise money for Mulcahy and his two daughters following his wife’s sudden death. His scattered fans will undoubtedly embrace Dear Mark J. Mulcahy, I Love You and its return to something more like Miracle Legion’s sound. Hopefully, the album will swell their ranks.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Front Range recommended shows - 7/29

Wednesday 31 July (Fiddler's Green Amphitheatre, Englewood CO)
Americanarama, featuring:
Bob Dylan
My Morning Jacket

"Americanarama" is a mouthful, but it's the kind of super-tour that needs a big name. The line up will certainly turn up a wide-ranging audience that should cross-pollinate the scattered fan bases. Elder statesman Bob Dylan has a recent album to draw on, along with rich vein of classic material, but Wilco and My Morning Jacket will probably offer more surprises.

Saturday, 3 August (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellview CO)
Indigo Girls

In 1988, America was firmly ensconced in a decade of image and style over substance. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers confidently strode onto the national scene as part of a burgeoning neo-folk movement. Their heartfelt writing, rich harmonies, and beautiful folk arrangements differentiated them from their peers, setting high expectations for the duo. Now, 25 years later, the pair are still making incredible music. Beauty Queen Sister (2011) still impressed the critics and satisfied their loyal fans.

Remember, everything sounds even better at the Mish!

Saturday, 3 August (Road 34, Ft. Collins CO)

My favorite pop punk band is back in town again. Whether I review the show or not, I plan to drop by because their sets are always high energy and I'm consistently amazed by their drummer's technical skill. If you like bands like Green Day, come check out a strong local band that can still bring the hunger to their performance.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book review - Sylvie Simmons, I'm Your Man (2012)

"The Life of Leonard Cohen" lovingly revealed

The world craves biographies of celebrities who died too young. We look for closure on open questions and missing details. The longer-lived stars, the survivors, only intrigue us if they fall into one of two categories: the enigmas and the outrageous. Leonard Cohen easily fits into the former group. Rather than tell his own story, he prefers to define himself through the ambiguity of his imperfect poems and songs. But Cohen belongs in the latter group as well, due to his nomadic romantic life and improbable ties to a host of wild characters like Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, and Phil Spector. For an introspective poet primarily aligned with folk music, part of his mystery is how he found himself in the midst of such influential musicians and cultural players. In her new book, Sylvie Simmons makes a credible effort at opening up the details of Cohen’s life and sharing plenty of entertaining tales along the way. It’s not an autobiography, but Simmons did have extraordinary access to Cohen which flavors the stories and blends his more recent memories with the records and recollections of others.

I’m Your Man captures the conflicting picture of a man who hides behind his poetry, yet exposes himself within the lines. Like most artists, he wants the power of his work to be recognized, but he has largely shrugged off personal recognition. An artist with a distinctly masculine, sometime chauvinistic perspective, the best known covers of his songs are sung by women (with the exception of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”). He’s a libertine, a free spirit, who longs for duty and the order of monastic life. He’s a devout Jew, adept with Christian symbolism and Buddhist practice. I've often thought that this inherent complexity forms the foundation of Cohen’s popular appeal. But Simmons makes an effective case that his charm and charisma are the real roots of his power. Even beyond his personal interactions, there is something in his work that operates subconsciously on his audience, finding a path for his carefully crafted lines to slip past any resistance to poetry and lodge in their minds. Similarly, despite being a reluctant performer, his deep, raw voice imparts a vulnerable sense of truth that fills a hole in each listener’s soul.

Simmons spends a fair amount of time examining Cohen’s youth and young adulthood. With the exception of the formative experience of his father’s illness and death, it’s remarkable how ordinary a young man he was. His family’s social standing in Montreal’s Jewish community was somewhat surprising, but I never would have guessed that he had an interest in country western music, performing with his band the Buckskin Boys. His relative popularity in school was also unexpected. On the other hand, his writing has often reflected his serious religious upbringing. The other common theme that comes out of this section of the book is his development as a rootless nomad. Starting as a teen wandering the late-night streets of Montreal, he later received a grant to travel the world, writing a novel. This led him to London, then to Greek island of Hydra, which would become a second home. Although Montreal and Hydra would be his two focal points, Cohen seemed to spend most of his time in hotel rooms around the world.

After laying that groundwork, I’m Your Man balances between three separate narrative arcs. The first follows the women in Cohen’s life, who formed a long chain of lovers and serious relationships: Annie Sherman, Marianne Ihlen, Suzanne Elrod (the mother of his children), Dominique Issermann, Rebecca De Mornay and Anjani Thomas. Scattered throughout the chapters are countless flings, both named and alluded to. In addition to these conquests, this path includes the special category of muses that he never really possessed, specifically Suzanne Vaillancourt née Verdal (who inspired “Suzanne”) and Warhol’s chanteuse protégé Nico.

The second thread in Cohen’s story follows his spiritual growth. While he has remained rooted in Judaism, as his poem “Not A Jew” defiantly makes clear, he has also leveraged the universal message within the language of Christianity, he’s dabbled in Scientology, and he found true peace studying Buddhism with his teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki (Roshi). Cohen’s dedication to Roshi led to a long stint as his guru’s personal assistant and a five year retreat to Roshi’s Mount Baldy Zen Center. The solitude and imposed order he found there provided a respite from a demanding world and eventually had a great positive impact on his lifelong struggle with depression.

The final narrative line follows the slow build and flow of Cohen’s career, first as a poet and novelist, then later as songwriter and performer. Simmons walks us through the decades as she fills the book with satisfying details about studio sessions and touring line-ups. The section on recording Death of a Ladies Man (1977) with Phil Spector is particularly interesting. The two men seemed to connect well at first, but foreshadowing later events, Spector became increasingly bizarre and threatening. As his personality dominated the project, Cohen’s songs were buried under Spector’s "Wall of Sound" production. But that’s just an interlude in the story, which leads towards the climax of Cohen’s career and the afterglow, where he’s enjoyed a popular resurgence in the wake of losing most of his assets to his manager embezzlement. Forced back on tour, Cohen has finally channeled his spiritual peace into his performance, letting him find a comfortable place on stage that he had never really known before.

While the book does reflect Cohen’s life journey, this redemptive ending feels too reductive for such a complex man. Simmons clearly loves Cohen and his work, but her bias lets her settle for this happy, easy conclusion. This is the real weakness of I’m Your Man: Simmons doesn't challenge her subject enough. After spending the book outlining his charisma, her omissions illustrate how charmed she was. In particular, she chose not to delve too deeply into his womanizing and she completely ignored the controversy of alleged sexual misconduct associated with Roshi. While the latter point is not directly part of Cohen’s story, it is significant, especially given his one-time role as Roshi’s assistant. Despite missing these opportunities, the book is not fatally flawed. The wealth of details and personal recollections from Cohen and his friends still make for an excellent read. It doesn't unlock all of his mysteries, but it does offer a good sense of a complex man.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Concert review: New York Rifles with Pep*Squad and Tarantula Tango

Saturday, 20 July 2013 (Road 34, Ft. Collins CO)

It's a small world. Jamie Gould, the bass player for New York Rifles, invited me to catch them at Road 34. It wasn't until we talked before the show that I found out this Portland band has a Ft. Collins connection. Drummer Nate James used to play with Sex Glove, a cool local band I haven't seen for four years (reviews).

This thrashy noise-punk group out of San Francisco coaxed a lot of volume and stage presence from a fairly stripped down setup and two musicians. Unlike a lot of duos, thy mixed it up, alternating the lineup between drums/bass and drums/keys. The band's Facebook profile talks about coming out of the basement party scene, which shows in the intimacy of their set.

Cade, the drummer, was the linchpin of the band's sound. His fills had a good sense of controlled flail, but stayed right on time, even as the arrangements grew chaotic. His partner, Caroline, switched between the bass and keyboards. The bass songs had a stronger punk vibe, while her keyboard playing often set out for more experimental and strange destinations.

By the time they got to their surf-party deconstruction ("Surf's Up"?), their sense of humor was in full gear and they were pushing boundaries. Kinky stream of consciousness interludes were punctuated by spasms of pounding noise rock, giving the tune a primitive performance art feel. To some extent, their set was geared towards seeing how harsh and random they could get while still having fun and nominally calling their act music. It was a small crowd of mostly fellow musicians, but Tarantula Tango held the stage well.

Pep*Squad set a low bar as they took the stage, "We're Pep*Squad and we're completely unprepared for this set." They immediately gave lie to this as they kicked into a smoking cover of The Rapture's "Echoes". Like a dimensional shift, the room immediately fell under their high-energy, danceable punk spell. This was limbic system fun at its finest: emotionally compelling and memorable.

They followed up with crazy medley of songs I never thought I'd hear together, starting off with U2's "With or Without You", passing through "Girls" by the Beastie Bous, and winding up with R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World." There was no doubt in my mind that they felt fine.

Pep*Squad effortlessly bounced from new wave attitude to Krautrock cool and all the while, the beat kept the dance floor hot. I particularly liked their lead singer, Brett. He was charismatic with a vocal range that could drop from a post-punk yip down to a rough growl. The band may have been completely unprepared, but they pulled a party out of somewhere for their set.

Well before their show, I dropped by New York Rifles' Soundcloud page to get a taste. I liked their noisy, driving rock sound. Their lead singer, Scott Young, had a distinctive reedy voice with equal measures of AC/DC's Bon Scot and Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys). If Pep*Squad was all fun and games, New York Rifles had more serious aims.

With a thick wall of distorted guitar, they tore into their set with punk psychedelic intensity. If I had ever wondered what Country Joe and the Fish might have sounded like as a hardcore band, now I had a decent idea. The trio cultivated a deep, dark sound, anchored by Gould's pounding gut-punch bass line. The drums did their part to kick up the aggro to support the wailing vocals. Even if Young never touched his guitar strings, it would have been a powerful rite of musical mayhem.

But he was all too happy to throw down doom-filled punk themes and howling feedback assaults, punctuated by sneering asides and hoarse hollers. His stage persona was hypnotic and dangerous as he threw himself into the music, singing wild-eyed. The band's  heavy, cathartic sound owed a big debt to countless hardcore bands, but New York Rifles stretched out from that base to incorporate a looser jam structure that fit well with their dynamic stage work.

The tight, punchy set was over all too soon, leaving just ringing ears and sweaty skin.

More photos on my Flickr.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Front Range recommended shows 7/22

It's always feast or famine. Last week I left a couple of choices off to keep the list at a manageable size. This week I only found one show (not counting Robert Earl Keen that I picked last week).

Wednesday, 24 July (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Robert Earl Keen

Americana icon Robert Earl Keen showed up in my list last week for his Mishawaka show. This week he's playing at the Boulder Theater. Stealing from last week's notes: Even if you're not sure you know his name, you can count on recognizing several of Keen's classic tunes. "The Road Goes On Forever" isn't just his most famous song, it's come to represent his long lasting connection with audiences all over America.

Wednesday, 24 July (ogden)
Adam Ant

War paint fashion and infectious rhythms were Adam Ant's stock in trade back in the heady days of the 1980s. After a number of mental-health related incidents, his career seemed largely over. But early this year, he finally released the album he's been promoting for the last three years, Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter. A lot of time has passed, but you can count on Ant putting on a great show, presumably laced with fine sense of humor and spectacle.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Recording review - The Cairo Gang, Tiny Rebels (2013)

A tribute to Summer of Love psychedelia

Rule 34 effectively says that anything can serve as a fetish for someone out there. While I don't really think that Emmett Kelly has a sexual hang up about Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, and the psychedelic music of 1966-68, Tiny Rebels certainly flaunts his obsession with a particular sound. The EP jangles with dueling 12-string guitars, drifts along with simple melodies, and communes with ringing vocal harmonies. Except for some of the lyrical turns, these songs are precisely tuned into the period like an episode of "Mad Men". Beyond just capturing the instrumentation and innocent expression of the time, there are small touches that add verisimilitude to the conceit: the residue of amp hum lingering after a fade out, light echoing room artifacts, and subtle moments of saturated audio tape clipping.

The Cairo Gang serves as Kelly's nom de band, with a rotating cast of musicians passing through to fill out his sound. He's used the name to release a small collection of albums and EPs, but the band's most visible moment has been backing Will Oldham (Bonnie "Prince" Billy) on The Wonder Show of the World (2010). That wasn't Kelly's first collaboration with Oldham, but the shared billing explicitly acknowledges his role in providing the music for Oldham's lyrics. Kelly's playing remains recognizable, but Tiny Rebels breaks from that project's stark, stripped down sound, crowding these six new songs with a multitude of details.

The title track kicks off the mini-album with a sense of ambiguity. At first, the repeated high E note sounds like a tuning exercise, but the band joins in and transforms it into an eighth note drone that centers the song. Despite the falsetto harmonies and ringing guitar, the trudging pace darkens the mood. At this point, the words still maintain a period sense of obscure omniscience:
Standing atop the summit
The downcast seem to be
Below us, tiny rebels
With makeshift loyalty
The psychedelic mood thickens with "Take Your Time", which begins with a musical tip of the hat to The Youngbloods' "Get Together". The counter-culture lyrics are spot on, "Don't just sit and listen to what you're told," but the solo is the real treat. Two guitars start out in parallel, but remain independent, each meandering along their own path through a crystalline hall of mirrors. They drift apart, then occasionally mesh again. Just like the lead on The Byrds' "Eight Miles High", there's a naïveté that later period psychedelia would shed.

It's not until "Shake Off" that the band starts to introduce lyrical anachronisms:
As if I don't really want to be useful and I
Don't fucking feel much like getting control of all the
Retarded bullshit I must be able to shake off
Shake off
The casual profanity and the glib reference to suicide on "Shivers" clash with the musical setting, but I think that Kelly is deliberately playing the modern sentiments against the loving retro execution to create a more interesting artistic effect. He may also want to consciously distinguish himself from more earnest tributes to the past. Either way, this contradiction favorably sways my opinion on the album. As much as I enjoy The Cairo Gang's obsessive recreation of the past, Tiny Rebels would be an empty shell without the contrast. Piercing the patchouli purity gives the album the spark of rebellion it needs.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Recording review - Sigur Rós, Kveikur (2013)

Powerful moments and industrial undertones, but still room for nuance

Members of Sigur Rós describe Kveikur as “more aggressive” than their earlier work and there are new sonic elements of industrial grinding and swells of chaotic noise, but they haven’t forgotten their ethereal roots. While the noisy touches may be compensation for the departure of multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson, they add an insistent tension that expands the group’s emotional range. That visceral connection is still the key to Sigur Rós’ success. They’ve always stood as an example that emotional openness can trump lyrical meaning. Whether in their native Icelandic or their self-invented “Hopelandic”, the band has largely resisted pandering to their English speaking fans. It’s paid off because Jón (Jónsi) Þór Birgisson’s expressive vocals transcend simple words to reach for grander truths, leaving the specific interpretation to the listener. The new album carries on the tradition with songs like “Isjaki” and its sense of rueful experience, as well as the hopeful reflection of “Stormur.” Older fans needn’t worry, though; despite the noise, there are enough soaring, open moments to prove that the band’s musical core remains whole.

The windy, crackling static at the start of “Brennisteinn” creates an expectant moment before the song lurches forward with rhythmic, body-blow punches. With a Pink Floyd melding of bass grind, howling guitar and Jónsi’s inspiring vocals, the song taps into an epic, post-rock power source. The rumbling percussion and rattling bass tones suggest a leviathan remorselessly crawling forth into the world. The roiling storm of sound showcases Sigur Rós’ new direction, but they deftly reconnect with their thoughtful side when the thunder bows out to leave a pensive, reflective interlude. Where Jónsi’s voice had settled into a lower register, now he sweeps into his bruised, falsetto range. The transition from tumultuous crescendo to the eye of a storm is reminiscent of My Morning Jacket. The pause is quickly overtaken by an insistent beat and psychedelic haze. The final section of the song slips away into a dreamy reverie with long tolling notes and noisy swells of intruding feedback.

“Brennisteinn” is a strong opening salvo for the album, immediately raising the question of whether the band would push on into more bombastic extremes or settle back into their normal comfort zone. They feint towards tradition as the second track, “Hrafntinna”, carries on the dreamy feel with loose jangles of percussion. These quickly coalesce into a moody progressive rock that blends Porcupine Tree and Radiohead. Clashing chimes and buzzing cymbals provide an industrial undertone. Sigur Rós take the song out on a warm, orchestral horn line. Dynamic shifts like this recur throughout Kveikur, offering a yin-yang energy; floating vocals tame the heavier sections while cathartic cacophony provides an edge during calmer pauses. While the band has always balanced soft moments with greater energy, the group’s embrace of chaotic texture accentuates the contrast.

If the opening song pushes forward with a confrontational energy, the title track holds the second half of the album together with a relentless, compelling power. Distant ship horns sound through the fog as grating factory sounds are looped into a rhythm. Jónsi’s initial vocals are like a spaced-out, bluesy, Icelandic cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”, mutated with reverse reverb and echo. Orri Páll Dýrason’s driving, tribal back-beats propel the hypnotic groove into something like Adrian Belew’s “Big Electric Cat”. The droning, heartfelt vocals hover over a thick, wooly sound. Swirls of noise wind through the percussion like smoke, accented with prickly rasps and whining guitar feedback. The song builds to a frothy climax; then it dissipates into an ambient freefall of bass-heavy resonance.

After the weight of “Kveikur”, Sigur Rós breaks the tension with crystalline perfection at the start of “Rafstraumer”. Despite its relative brevity, the song feels epic. Just shy of five minutes, it moves from simple clarity to driving rock and then builds into an emotive anthem before melting into soft introspection. This feeds into the barren spaciousness that starts “Bláþráður”, which makes its own trek from gentle assertion to an operatic bombast before fading back down to its austere opening. The album closes on a minimalist meditation as echoes shine through on the instrumental lullaby, “Var”. The querulous piano melody is a far cry from the assault of “Brennisteinn”, reminding everyone that the band still appreciates the nuanced moments that they’ve created in the past.

If any of Sigur Rós’ new clashing dissonance reflects personnel conflicts associated with Sveinsson leaving the band, then they’ve channeled that stress into a vibrant creative vision that reinvigorates their sound. There’s little on this album that could be relegated to background music, but it still delivers the emotional payload of their earlier material. Coming fairly quickly on the heels of their 2012 album Valtari, Kveikur reassures their audience that the band hasn’t lost momentum trying to regroup.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Front Range recommended shows - 7/15

Now the summer is heating up. Looking at the listings, I see a lot of great bands coming. I even had to leave a couple off (sorry, Weird Al).

Thursday, 18 July (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Son Volt

Americana darlings, Son Volt are still making the rounds, although they come a long way since their early days. The band rose from the ashes of Jay Farrar's partnership with Jeff Tweedy, Uncle Tupelo. Son Volt had its own breakup when Farrar decided to pursue a solo career. This latest incarnation of the band released an album, Honky Tonk, earlier this year that emphasizes their country sound. Come on out to hear some weeping pedal steel guitar, but expect a taste of the band's back catalog as well.

Friday, 19 July (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Global Dance Festival (featuring Beats Antique)

Sure, this is just the first day of three for Global Dance Festival at Red Rocks, but Friday includes world-tronica favorites, Beats Antique. More than just dance, this promises to be a full on spectacle with wild stage shows and great visuals propelled by hypnotic electronic rhythms. EOTO is also on the Friday night bill, with acts like Savoy, Griz, and Gramatik on the following two days.

Saturday, 20 July (Road 34, Ft. Collins CO)
New York Rifles

Like any polite visitors, New York Rifles reached out to me because they were dropping by my town. After listening to their raw, hard rocking music on Soundcloud, I knew I'd need to catch their show. I can hear shards of garage, punk, and modern psychedelic blues scattered throughout their songs, cemented by glorious distortion and driving bass lines.

Sunday, 21 July (Mishawaka Amphitheatre, Bellview CO)
Wednesday, 24 July (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Robert Earl Keen

Following up on the Americana theme, songwriter icon Robert Earl Keen has a couple of Colorado stops on his current tour. Even if you're not sure you know his name, you can count on recognizing several of Keen's classic tunes. "The Road Goes On Forever" isn't just his most famous song, it's come to represent his long lasting connection with audiences all over America. If you have a choice, catch the show at the Mish; the outdoor stage is a spectacular venue.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Recording review - Peace, In Love (2013)

Remember early '90s Brit-pop? You will.

Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Peace's Brit-pop influences may not quite reach such colossal heights, but the band certainly takes the boost and enjoys the view. The British music press has hyped the band as the Second Coming, but cynics could easily interpret them as a rehash of the past. Indeed, song by song on In Love, it's easy to pick out inspirations and appropriated parts that read like a recap of popular British bands dating back to the early 90s: Blur, The Stone Roses, The Cure, and Oasis, to name just a few. Jim Albiss, who produced The Arctic Monkey's stunning debut, also managed to infuse a fair amount of that album into this project. On paper, this makes In Love a sort of Frankenstein's Monster amalgam of scavenged parts, but, surprisingly, Peace lives up to their reputation and overcomes knee-jerk dismissal. It helps that their playing is solid and they fully commit to the material, but it's the strong pacing between the tracks that largely distracts listeners from picking the songs apart.

A particularly good example is the flow between "Lovesick" and "Float Forever". The cheery bounce of "Lovesick" essentially reworks The Cure's "Friday I'm In Love" with manic energy:
Stay awake or go to sleep
Trust me, Baby, I'm a creep
And I'm lovesick with you
It makes me so happy, my mascara runs just a little. But just as the emo pop becomes slightly cloying, the song throws in the towel and the reflective pop of "Float Forever" provides a palate cleansing antidote. The sparse arrangement at the opening creates a late night, confessional feel. It's every bit as false as "Lovesick", with vaguely philosophical lyrics, but the balance is sweet. The band's metaphors are a bit strained, but catchy enough to work:
Hold on to your headlight
They hold your skin to your bones
Fold in fear in the white lines
You know you float forever
You know we'll float forever in the tide
The song gradually builds into a rousing affirmation, before subsiding to reprise the first verse with a wistful feel. Then, rather than let the energy drag, they lay down a set of upbeat, indie funk tracks, starting with "Wraith".

The contrast between In Love and their live show is stark. I saw Peace last month with Team Spirit in Denver (review). In preparation, I listened to several of their tunes beforehand to get a sense of their sound. The gulf between the funky "Wraith" and their spacy cover of Binary Finary's "1998" (from their 2012 Delicious EP) made it hard to pigeonhole them and their setlist delivered on that eclecticism. While their performance was raucous and intense, the studio gives them the bandwidth to develop some more nuanced arrangements.

One of my favorites is "Follow Baby", which kicks off with a discordant psychedelic guitar riff and then retreats to the fringes with a halo of feedback to give Harry Koisser's diffident voice some room. Call it Brit-grunge, but subtle details hide in the shadows of the verses: wah wah chuck-a-chuck rhythms, tremolo arpeggios, and keyboard-like chimes. Later, on the Blur-flavored "Waste of Paint", Koisser and fellow guitarist Douglas Castle each take their own approach to rhythm and melody. The two guitar tracks sound completely independent, but their funk strums interlock before splitting apart into nicely contrasting fill lines.

All in all, I like In Love, but I can't quite say I love it. It succeeds as a well-crafted pop album, but after a few times through I find myself wanting a stronger personality to come through. In that way, I'm not sure they measure up to their Brit-pop idols. Hearing them channel Oasis channeling the Beatles doesn't really satisfy. Despite that, I'm not ready to give up on Peace. Their enthusiasm on "1998" suggests that they could still find a stronger voice of their own.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Recording review - Gold Panda, Half of Where You Live (2013)

Meditative travelogue wrapped in a bubble

Gold Panda’s Half Of Where You Live is a trance-inducing travelogue. This is his second full album after the well-received Lucky Shiner. He continues to mine the same Southeast Asian influences from his earlier work, but this time he extends them with the sonic imprints from other corners of his far-ranging touring experiences, including North and South America. Each track finds its own meditative flavor and sense of time or place. Synthesizer washes and jittery techno beats lay the foundation, but the album is spiced up with a wide variety of instruments from delicate chimes to marimba, as well as vocal and musical sampling. Unlike his remix projects over the last couple of years, this album works best when taken as a whole. A few songs muster enough personality to stand alone, like “Flinton” and “An English House”, but the whirlwind world tour feel of the collection makes a stronger statement than any single track.

“Flinton” rolls by with a lazy, glitchy R&B progression peppered with low-fi record pops. A hazy memory of a disco-soul summer night, maybe a reminiscence of a sweet first meeting on the dance floor, the song’s laid back tone soothes and savors the mood. Eventually, the edges unravel as the reverie slips away and the present reasserts itself. There’s similar sense of lassitude in “An English House”. The sonic collage intro offers the sole sense of urgency -- a windy night and a stranger comes seeking entry. After that, the song’s stutter-beat electro-pop offers a charming, off-kilter stroll towards some unnamed goal. Whispery swells and light chiming sounds blur the corners of the song, creating an ASMR effect. The fluting solo line and warm vocal fragment, “In this house…”, are calming even if the beat becomes a tad insistent.

While Gold Panda has infused these songs with interesting details, there’s a definite sense of distance between the music and its inspiration. It resonates with the idea of world travel, but from an observer’s perspective. On “Brazil”, the steady syncopation picks up a dripping rainforest rhythm. The pulsing electronic ornamentation changes constantly, like browsing a rich catalog of exotic animals and insects, but it’s not so much a direct experience of South America as it is a view from an insulated window. Elsewhere, “My Father In Hong Kong 1961” uses bells to evoke an Asian feel, but Gold Panda is channeling Mike Oldfield more than Chinese roots. The effect is hypnotic, but disengaged.

That disconnection makes it easy to dismiss Half Of Where You Live as musical wallpaper and it would serve that purpose well enough, whether as an exercise soundtrack or to kill distractions at the office. But Gold Panda’s music is actually designed for meditation, where his evocative palette can clarify thoughts and provide an intriguing perspective. His Zen approach isn’t concerned about the destination of a given piece; it focuses on the greater journey of the whole album. For a listener with receptive ears and mind, it can be the perfect recording to sink into. If that’s not you right now, you can still play it as light background music.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)