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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Favorite reviewed concerts of 2014

Albums are great, but the electric zing of a live show is unbeatable. There were a number of great choices -- sharing Kiss and Def Leppard with my son, a wild night with the always dependable Reel Big Fish -- but these were my top five for the year.

#5 - ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, with La Femme and others
3 April 2014 (Summit Music Hall, Denver CO)
115 Trail of Dead
La Femme's theatrical surf-wave opening was a nice appetizer, but the main course was Trail of Dead performing their classic Source Tags & Codes album in its entirety. Touring on a classic early album is usually, at best, a kind of parlor trick, where the band goes through the motions and trades on the audience's connection with a band and album locked deep in the past. Fortunately, Trail of Dead brought an immediacy to the material; even stripped of the studio production work, these songs were powerful and the band attacked them with enthusiasm, tapping into their own connections to the tunes and their younger selves. This was also my first show seeing the band in their more recent stripped down line-up, and I was impressed with the punch and their energy. Now, I'm just waiting for them to tour on their latest, IX.
(full review)

#4 - Dirty Dozen Brass Band / Pimps of Joytime
27 February 2014 (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
210 Dirty Dozen Brass Band
The old guard and young turks took turns leading off the shows on this tour, and Denver saw the Pimps of Joytime opening for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. PoJT always summon a frantic stage presence rooted in the funk, but this concert also featured some more dance oriented grooves to expand their range. Brian J's guitar work was tightly honed as per usual, but John Staten (drums) and David Bailis (bass/keys) carried the set.

The members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band may well be quite a bit older, but they had no problem following up on the PoJT's pace and doubling down. From nomadic free jazz noodling to wicked tight funk, the band delivered their songs with polished panache and fiery chops. They were completely true to their New Orleans roots, but they whipped out plenty of fun twists, from Kirk Joseph's mutated sousaphone effects to Roger Lewis' raunchy soul revue on "Dirty Old Man".
 (full review)

#3 - Zoë Keating
3 May 2014 (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
008 Zoë Keating
Zoë Keating's looped and layered cello work is stunning on her recordings, where she coaxes a host of surprising sounds from her instrument and effects and her musical vision is fully realized, but her live performance was amazing. All great musicians find a balance between phenomenal technique and the emotional depth, and Keating was especially impressive as she ranged from delicate motifs to stormy passion in her music, but still made it look natural, if not completely effortless. The crowd maintained a respectful formality, but Keating's humble stage presence bridged that gap and connected her to the audience. As an artist, she communicated her obsessive focus and revealed a little bit of the juggling she manages as she builds her loops, but her likable personality tied her to her fans.
(full review)

#2 - Megafauna with Instant Empire and others
19 June 2014 (Moon Room at Summit Music Hall, Denver CO)
080 Megafauna
Mediocre openers can ruin an otherwise great show and a strong headliner can sabotage the earlier acts on the bill. This show dodged both those bullets, perhaps because the local bands didn't overlap that much with Megafauna's powerful sound, but still featured strong lead personalities. Hillary Hand was the shyest of the lot, with a band that filled out her well-written singer-songwriter sound. Bear.'s Will Livingston played offered plenty of unpredictability, and the theatrical Scotty Saunders turned Instant Empire's ragtag outfit into a solid punk/new wave crew.

None of this prepared us for Dani Neff and Megafauna. They casually took the stage and proceeded to shock and awe the crowd with some of the most primal guitar rock I've heard in the last several years. They drew on classic rock, metal, and post-rock, but created an amalgam all their own. Neff's muscular guitar work was the centerpiece, but it was complemented by Zack Humphrey's tight drumming and rhythmic shifts along with Bryan Wright's riff-driven bass work. The songs varied across hybrid genres, making the set consistently novel. This show was even more impressive because all the bands were playing for a relatively empty house, but still giving it everything that the music deserved.
(full review)

#1 - Beats Antique with Blockhead and Itchy-O Marching Band
11 April 2014 (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)
077 Beats AntiqueBeats Antique regularly celebrates form and substance, with both in spades. Choreographer Zoe Jakes has always elevated their performances to Events rather than mere concerts, but their richly evocative world-tronica sound is equally important in creating the ritualistic rave mood. This show was tied to their recent album, A Thousand Faces, but the band's vision surpassed anything they had ever done before. After they finished the album, they took to Kickstarter and raised money to create this show, and every penny went towards making a spectacle worthy of a pop mega-star performing a Vegas show set-piece. Innumerable costume changes, state of the art lighting and video projection, and Jakes' mesmerizing choreography all came together to prove that nothing exceeds like excess.

Before the show started, the stage set was cluttered with boxy white blocks that would serve as screens for the elaborate video projection. Honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect, but this proved to be incredibly versatile. Each song had its setting and the collection of screens surrounded the band and dancers, immersing them into the scene. Even more importantly, the music held its own against the technology and enticed the audience into movement with hypnotic beats, visceral bass throb, and exotic melodies.
(full review)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite reviewed albums of 2014

It's always a ridiculous challenge to name the best albums of the year. I contributed my top picks to Spectrum Culture this year and not one made their final list of 20. It's not that the other writers' tastes were questionable; plenty of those albums were quite powerful and groundbreaking. At the same time, my predilections aren't particularly beyond the pale. It's merely a matter of there being too many diverse albums for a group of critics to take them all in and really get to know the music.

To that end, I continue my tradition of counting down my favorite albums of the set that I reviewed here on Jester Jay Music. Don't get upset that St. Vincent or Against Me! aren't here—despite having strong releases, I didn't review them, so they weren't eligible.

#10 - Shonen Knife, Overdrive

Japanese punk legends Shonen Knife have been making drop-dead simple garage punk music for more than 30 years. Inspired by American bands like the Ramones but committed to their uniquely Japanese kawaii personas, they've create a solidly original sound. Their latest, Overdrive, finds them still kicking ass, belying the cute smiles or childlike lyrics. Some of the songs, like "Black Crow" or "Robots From Hell", delve into darker moods and leaven this strong, head-banging album, but all the songs are strong.
[Original review]

#9 - Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

Tori Amos may have gotten her start with pop music when she was kicked out of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, but she's buried that demon over the last couple of years with orchestrally oriented releases like Night of the Hunter (2011) and Gold Dust (2012). Unrepentant Geraldines sees her swinging back into pop, without losing any of the edge she's honed over the years. Amos hasn't gotten any younger and that's all to the good, especially on standout track, "16 Shades of Blue", which addresses ageism in the music industry even as it reflects a very modern production aesthetic.
[Original review]

#8 - Lonesome Shack, More Primitive

Plenty of bands have played the blues revival card and, even if it's not as popular as it once was, Lonesome Shack isn't making a radical artistic choice to draw on the rootsy power of the blues on the aptly named More Primitive. But more than just steeping themselves in the tradition, they seem to have an instinctive feel for organic rhythms that could care less about metronomes and restless vamps that never let the listener drift into ambivalence. Their raw palette is colored with visceral dabs of nervous tension, moody reveries, defiant snarls, and introspective memory.
[Original review]

#7 - Cymbals Eat GuitarsLOSE
Tragedy often acts as inspiration and LOSE is driven by Joe D'Agostino's grief at his friend's death. Rather than turning the album into a direct elegy, Cymbals Eat Guitars extends that idea into the larger theme of childhood's end. Losing friends and recognizing self-destructive behavior are just a couple of things we have to face as we grow up. Despite the emo potential, LOSE is neither self-pitying or self-indulgent. The band deals with all of the emotion in their inimitable fashion: cathartic waves of guitar crash, songs evolve into surprising directions, and dreamy, distracted interludes break up the heaviness.
[Original review]

#6 - Bike for Three, So Much Forever
Bike for Three pairs rapper Buck 65 with electronic producer Greetings From Tuskan (Joëlle Lê), but what makes the duo so strong is how they deconstruct the basic relationship between rapper and producer. Normal hip hop collaborations place the backing music and beats in a supporting role, to set the mood without overshadowing the emcee's personality. Bike for Three drops back to the definition of the word "collaboration". Lê and Buck 65 work together on these pieces to blur the lines: these tracks are electronic grooves with backing lyrical flow every bit as much as they're wicked raps with exotic vocals and textures.
[Original review]

#5 - Wax Fang, The Astronaut
Four years ago, Wax Fang created their stoner mind-trip, "The Astronaut: Part 1", a beautiful blend of Pink Floydian mutation crossed with neo-psychedelic exploration. This release uses that epic track as a jumping off point. While "Part 1" is long enough to count as its own concept album, they've built on the idea and taken the story off into some interesting directions, with darkness and doubt and a transcendent finish. The larger pieces are framed by shorter contrasting bits. Revisiting old ideas is a risky step, but Wax Fang takes on their earlier work and creates a richer, more nuanced project.
[Original review]

#4 - Megafauna, Maximalist
Megafauna takes the epigram, "Too much is never enough" to heart and delivers a visceral, hard-hitting mix of post-rock complexity, retro metallic darkness, and theatrical posturing. Bandleader Dani Neff anchors the songs not with her sweet vocal versatility—which can range from odd and vulnerable to ragged and stern—but through her monster guitar chops. She builds heavy riffs like the masters of classic rock, and effortlessly transitions into shred mode to push the songs over the top. All of that is impressive, but she and Megafauna make this list because they also know how to use dynamics and subtlety to make their punches hit that much harder.
[Original review]

#3 - Mazes, Wooden Aquarium
In contrast to Megafauna's Maximalist, Mazes asserts that less is more by making the most of the fairly simple production and getting the complexity from the wide ranging musical directions they take Wooden Aquarium. Fun house reflections of widely disparate bands like Pavement, Supertramp, and Guided By Voices populate the album, but Mazes asserts their own optimistic jangle that persists through everything from disorienting trippiness to driving Krautrock. The overarching sound is pop psychedelic goodness, but with a new wave twist.
[Original review]

#2 - Team Spirit, Killing Time
Lest year, Team Spirit self-titled EP debut made my list because of their perfect balance of thrashing pop punk excitement and tight twin-guitar riffing. It's been a long wait to get a full length release from the band and having seen them live several times in the interval, I honestly wasn't sure they could deliver both the wild excitement of their shows and a polished set of songs to compare with that first sample. I shouldn't have worried about it. Killing Time delivers the perfect mix of party time rock, entertaining humor, and punk swagger. More importantly, Team Spirit shows that they can play the fuck out their songs in the studio just as well as they do in concert.
[Original review]

# 1 - Sleepy Sun, Maui Tears
Ever since Rachel Fannan left Sleepy Sun in 2010, they've been leaping out into the great, noisy unknown of neo-psychedelia. While that reinvention may have been forced upon them, they've risen to the challenge and become a stronger band for it. Their last album, Spine Hits, demonstrated that they've become adept at harnessing the cathartic press of swirling feedback and thick brambles of guitar, but Maui Tears finds them showing off their dynamic chops as well. For all the noisy distortion and sonic saturation, they can still create nuanced moments, making the songs ripe for interpretation.
[Original review]

Friday, December 12, 2014

Recording review - ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, IX (2014)

A demanding muse powers the evocative flow

Insistent and obsessive, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead write and perform like they’re in the grip of a sometimes terrible muse. Words burst forth as if they can’t be contained. Deep swells of ringing guitar cascade down, almost overwhelming the mix. Dynamic drops to soft moments are less a respite than a chance for the storm to gather its strength anew. Their work has a sense of urgent immediacy that demands attention. Even when the vocals are almost washed away and the lyrics are hard to follow, the songs have an emotional heft. Their latest release, IX, finds the band with less of an overriding concept than The Century of Self (2009) or Tao of the Dead (2011), but a strong tide washes through it, promising catharsis. Last year’s Lost Songs saw the band focusing on tighter, more accessible pieces along political themes, but IX falls back to their core strength of revealing personal truths, giving their material a little more rope. Maintained the stripped down lineup and tighter arrangements of their last album, the new set provides an organic extension, the band flexing dynamics just like the good old days and expanding their sonic tapestry with deftly applied strings and keyboard textures.

Trail of Dead jumps right in with “The Doomsday Book”, leading with a few seconds of sustained chords before drums propel the song forward in a headlong rush. Guitars join in earnest with a ringing arena-worthy wash, and the slurring, emotive vocals are almost buried under the drone of driving syncopation and makeshift walls of guitar. They remain clear enough for listeners to follow the theme of loneliness, of facing challenges without someone who makes it worthwhile. This kind of stirring intensity is what the band does best, and this tune dispels any doubt that Trail of Dead has lost a step.

The playlist unwinds from the veiled threat behind the martial punk rhythm of “Jaded Apostles” to the uptempo post-rock palette of “Lie Without a Liar”. These songs contain oases of quiet moments, but the band finally takes a deep breath on “The Ghost Within”, the heart of the album. Moody and thoughtful, the song is permeated with a weariness that fits the lyrics, “There’s a curse upon your home/ There’s a sadness in this room.” The vocals may be worn down, but the song builds energy as it reaches the end of the verse. On the second pass through the changes, it heats up and uses repetition to draw out tension, before it finally builds into an inevitable boil with the accusatory lines, “And I want you to let go/ And I want you to come home.” The music is a rich haze of bitterness, regret and loss, along with a sense of the love that was. By the end it all slips away, and Conrad Keely repeats those lines with the sparsest accompaniment, lost and wistful.

Trail of Dead fills IX with their usual spectrum of genre blends: Green Day pop punk, indie rock posturing inspired by the Replacements, sculpted U2-like theatricality and other, less identifiable flashes of world beat and post-rock. More importantly, the crafted production is sparked to life by their raw emotion and ability to surrender themselves to the power of those feelings. It’s not perfect – “Lie Without a Liar” could benefit by stretching out and adding a new direction or two, and “How to Avoid Huge Ships” is more a musical interlude than a fully developed song. But the band has never offered perfection. Instead, it’s the adrenaline of soaring and diving, the evocative flow that drags the listener from peak to peak and the sense of more vivid colors and experiences. Their muse still feeds their compulsion, and we’re the luckier for it.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fresh single - Meatbodies, "Mountain"

Neo-psychedelia with a hit of a Adderall

One of the best things about punk music is that the short song format encourages a kind of focus, especially for the bass. A jazz bassist can meander along and surf the chord changes, but punk forces him to lock into the drive, ignoring all distraction. The dark throbbing insistence at the start of "Mountain" lives up to that ideal. When the drums and guitar kick in a dozen seconds later, it doesn't matter that they take us off into a neo-psychedelic groove, that bass has made it clear that this is serious shit and you'd better be buckled in. The vocals add a poppy lilt, but they float over the top without detracting from the murky grind.

Band leader Chad Ubovich has been out there working the sidelines of the garage rock scene for a while, playing with Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin among others. The Meatbodies' self-titled album is a respectable step into the spotlight for him. This track dips into thick tone of Black Sabbath and other classic acid-rockers, but sampling some of the others from the album, you can hear a great mix of trippy head music and over-driven garage rock. But that punk energy pervades the tracks and keeps them nice and taut. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Recording review - Jackson Browne, Standing in the Breach (2014)

Solid hooks can't quite fill the gap between the personal and the political

It’s taken six years but Jackson Browne is back again to refute both the critics and himself. On 2008’s Time the Conqueror, Browne was so immersed in his political message that he lost his connection to the emotional core that has driven his popularity. Worse, reviewers rightly bemoaned the album’s weaker musicality. On Standing in the Breach, Browne digs deep and resurrects the subtle but full arrangements, the rich melodic ideas and the well-crafted songwriting of his early albums. While about half the material carries forward the idealism and leftist politics he’s emphasized since the 1980s, he leavens that with a variety of life sketches that bring back the missing personal element. To a great extent, the album succeeds in delivering the classic Jackson Browne sound, in part because his voice is as strong and clear as it’s ever been. But nothing in this offering is as moving as “Song for Adam” or “From Silver Lake” from his solo debut. “Here” is the closest contender, with lyrics about loss and disconnection, but it only offers Zen comfort for the pain, rather than empathy or catharsis. Despite this, it’s still a very elegant little package. The music captures a sense of clarity and coming acceptance while the meditative vocal delivery bridges the divide between the music and pain in the lyrics. That complexity is the hallmark of Browne’s best work.

Browne begins the album with a peace offering to longtime followers, “The Birds of St. Mark”, which dates back to 1967, well before his solo career. This had only been released in a live piano version on 2005’s Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1, but this studio take settles into his original vision of the tune as a Byrds-style song. True to that, he’s picked up the tempo and his collaborator Greg Leisz fills the piece with Rickenbacker 12-string chiming worthy of Roger McGuinn. The track rolls out easily and the arrangement is quite polished. Those old fans will appreciate the gift and it does call back to the rich metaphorical lyrics of his earliest work. It’s a good song, but it feels a bit precious and dated. Written (appropriately) in the voice of a much younger man, it’s a bit out of place on Standing in the Breach. There’s an immaturity in the flowery language and allusion, using them as a shield against being seen as shallow or uncomplicated. It’s not clear if Browne is reaching back to his lost youth or merely reminding us of who he was. In either case, although it’s quite pretty, it doesn’t seem as engaged as his solo piano performance.

The album’s title offers its own multilayered message. The song, “Standing in the Breach”, is an affirmation, even as it recognizes the dire times we face, “Try to put our world together/ Standing in the breach.” But that phrase also touches on where Browne is trying to position himself, reaching out to both ends of his long career and proposing continuity between emotional meaning and social message. To his credit, he draws on both sides, but he rarely connects with the two on the same song. The closest he comes is on “The Long Way Around”, which ties a personal perspective to his commentary in an attempt to soften the preachiness. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but it still turns out to be one of the strongest tracks on the album. The low-key, sparse arrangement relies on a simple acoustic riff, a steady drum beat and the melodic bass work Browne has a penchant for. It’s a hopeful sound that contrasts with the litany of societal ills he identifies, shoehorning in pollution, greed, gun violence and ingratitude among the privileged. The vocals fit the music best, with a bouncy flow like “All Star” by Smashmouth and Browne lays down some tight lyrical turns. The track is filled out by reverse-gated guitar licks and sweet femme harmonies. Unfortunately, his message ends up a little muddled by the kitchen sink list and dated references like, “It’s hard to say which did more ill/ Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill,” but it’s catchy enough to gloss that over.

Flaws aside, Standing in the Breach is a big improvement on Time the Conqueror and it rekindles my appreciation for Browne as a writer and performer. While it doesn’t turn the clock back to the early 1970s and he can’t quite close the gap between his classic hits and later activism, the album shows that he can still turn a nice phrase and craft a solid hook.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Recording review - Ought, More Than Any Other Day (2014)

Art punk intensity and choreographed primitivism

Ought was formed in the politically charged crucible of Montreal's "Maple Spring" with genetic material borrowed from David Byrne, David Thomas (Pere Ubu), and Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes). Exposed to the clashing drone of the Velvet Underground and new wave synthpop radiation, their sound solidified into a quirky, experimental space with a driving edge. More Than Any Other Day delivers their psychedelically intense art punk as a wake up call to the world.

They toss out a direct challenge with the jarring notes that open the first track, "Pleasant Heart". Those give way to clashing guitars that fill the bandwidth with contrasting splashes. Like  Byrne, Thomas, and Gano, Tim Beeler's voice defines his band's personality. Unpolished, utterly unguarded, and only loosely controlled, it quavers as he skirts the edge of melody. The initial tension remains constant as the piece evolves, and the uneasiness leaves the groove completely unsettled. The angular guitars and tripping rhythm get more involved, but the nervous vocals offer a new focal point. Eventually, the dense layering picks up enough complexity that there no hope of balance. Suddenly a chasm opens up, leaving a small void of breakdown before the linked loops are triggered all over again. It feels like a tribal rite crossed with some flavor of primal therapy as Beeler locks into repetition, "Say what and how we are." The song then staggers to a halt, leaving a reedy collection of droning keyboards, arrhythmic pings, and lazy bass tones that provide a chaotic interlude. This free jazz floating barely holds together as music and, glancing at the remaining time for the track, it's hard to guess where it might lead. Ought surprises us by bringing back the looping, rhythmic jumble from earlier, but now it's even more insistent. The chanting, "Say what and how we are," returns and is finally allowed to bring the song to a conclusion.

After that sprawling six minutes of overload, the hesitant beginning of "Today, More Than Any Other Day" feels like a respite, a gift from the band. This song is what first attracted me to this album, and it's even stronger in context. The random, detuned notes that melt and fall from the guitar provide an oasis of calm after the chaotic thrash of "Pleasant Heart". When the drag beat and diffident bass come in, they impose a loose and disjointed order that slowly coalesces into a moody, twanged groove, where the bass notes define the structure. The tempo slowly increases and Beeler dreamily repeats, "We're sinking deeper, we feel like..." The song begins to accelerate, though, and Beeler's repetition becomes unhinged as the guitar strum flails like Velvet Underground's "European Son". The song is halfway through, rest time is over, and the track finally finds its raison d'être as a manic affirmation. The flow from the initial amorphous noodling to the rapid-fire, slightly deranged title sloganeering is incredibly engaging. The track has the patience to grant ample time to the free form start, but then it carries out the culmination of its vision with a beautiful economy. Of course, the increasingly frantic pace can only lead to breakdown and the band eventually delivers on this as the song cartwheels to a stop.

The rest of the tracks on More Than Any Other Day go on to expand on these opening tunes, from the Television new wave chop of "The Weather Song" to the tamped down Talking Heads anxiety of "Around Again". The music always manages find the fulcrum point between stream of consciousness primitivism and neat choreography, while the lyrics often come from somewhere out in left field, whether it's the stark Zen koan anchoring  "Around Again" ("Why is it you can't stand in the sun, but you could stick your head into a bucket of water and breathe in deep?") or the frustrated confusion of "Gemini" ("I retain the right to have an end in sight/ I retain the right to be absolutely mystified"). The album holds together though, because they transcend their artful influences and find their own perspective. Plenty of other bands in their position fall prey to the temptations of distraction, nihilism, and stilted experimentalism, but Ought remains grounded and connected even as they deliver the unexpected.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Recording review - Thurston Moore, The Best Day (2014)

Meditative drones and thrashing dissonance - a return to electric form

In the beginning was not the word, but a drone: a tone to form the backdrop for all the sounds that followed. Some of those later voices may vie for attention, assert their individuality against the cosmic hum, but eventually they surrender and rejoin its embrace. The Best Day is a celebration of that drone and the rich textures that surround it. While Sonic Youth long used feedback and resonance to build cathartic walls of ecstatic noise, Thurston Moore distills that approach here to create a set of sonic meditations.

Amid the rich jangle of alternate tunings and ringing dissonance, it would be easy to imagine this as a new Sonic Youth album, to pretend that the band was back together. The Best Day breaks from Moore’s last couple of solo records where he explored cleaner acoustic guitar tones, and this project is certainly closer to Sonic Youth’s 2009 finale, The Eternal, than Moore’s Demolished Thoughts (2011). Even so, Moore isn’t trying to recreate the past or falling into old habits. More than just missing Kim Gordon’s distinctive voice and bass work, this music has a different intent. Where Sonic Youth harnessed chaos and cleansing discord for its own sake, Moore captures an idée fixe spawned from static and nervous energy and nurtures it until it transcends its roots. Just as the Velvet Underground painstakingly created their own musical language to convey their experiences —a burning itch, a seductive languor, or a glimpse of oblivion—Moore uses his guitar to search for the patterns that express his current mental space, with ideas like the acceptance of outside forces and the release of expectations. Sonic Youth fans have already trained themselves to surrender to the swirl, and they’ll find plenty to enjoy here, but The Best Day is ultimately more coherent and less nihilistic than the band’s classic material.

The first track, “Speak to the Wild”, invokes the album’s meditative mood with opening harmonic chimes that invite us to center ourselves. Then the song launches into the rhythmic two-cycle flow of the verse: strumming broken by brief pauses, the guitars providing the focusing breath. Moore’s terse lines have a Zen clarity (“Remove your rings/ And meet us near the fire/ Extinguish things/ Of earthly desire”) immediately followed by cryptic allusion (“The King has come to meet the band”). The guitars are arranged as foreground and background voices that are locked into near unison and the piece has plenty of open space to let them ring. The solo break is restrained, starting with simple phrases against a buzzing drone, and then it slides into a staccato meandering riff before locking into a crystalline Robert Fripp-style section. The intensity builds but finally collapses into a variation on the chimes from the start. Instead of signaling the end, the song kicks off all over again to remind us that time is a cycle and everything repeats.

As The Best Day develops, Moore varies the sonic palette, but the album maintains a taut drive that never allows for complacency. They aren’t all as meditative as the first couple of songs; the title track, for instance, leaps between a thrashy deconstruction of jug band music and a motorik, upbeat alt-rocker. But the shift in tone still isolates a clearly identified mood to settle into. While most of these tunes take their time to fully soak into the listener’s consciousness, there is one tight little morsel that doesn’t even reach three minutes. “Detonation” would have fit well on The Eternal, with sloganeering lyrics and a snappy new wave edge. The contrast between the jabbing verses and the accelerating instrumental spiral creates a strange sense of disconnection for such a short tune. While this fun bit of fluff easily fits into Moore’s oeuvre, it feels a bit out of place in this context. If nothing else, though, it provides a counterbalance that shows how well the rest of the album holds together.

If “Detonation” is the shallowest point, the peak is the seven-minute instrumental, “Grace Lake”. First, a fluttering sprinkle of notes proves that Moore’s acoustic experiments were worthwhile as they suggest the glint of sunlight on the lake surface. In counterpoint, a purposeful motif arises, giving the song direction. The band effortlessly navigates through a series of changes, accreting momentum and meaning along the way. Finally, they break through a barrier, moving the track into full-on psychedelia. The bass throbs, fractured delay-box echoes gurgle, and a guitar hangs on a single, modulating tone. As it swells into feedback whine and everything else slips away, it’s like we’re at the beginning of everything. This is Moore’s love song to the everlasting drone. Then the spell breaks and we’re back on the lake, but the memory of that tone lurks at the edges, like background radiation.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Recording review - The Melvins, Hold It In (2014)

Super group offers metallic crunch and twisted art noise

Some visitors are conscientious, happy to drop by and help with the chores, but they’d never overstay their welcome or be too forward. Others are more domineering, taking over the house and disrupting everything. On Hold It In, Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover of the Melvins invited Paul Leary and J.D. Pinkus of the Butthole Surfers to the party, and these guests moved in and joined the family. Rather than mere featured performers, Leary and Pinkus became equal collaborators on the album, which couples the Melvins’ characteristic metallic crunch gristle with the Surfers’ twisted art noise. That combination stays true to each band’s modus operandi while offering some very interesting surprises.

The super group eases into the partnership with “Bride of Crankenstein”, which has the Melvins taking the lead. The sludgy heavy metal opening sets up a steady methodical grind. The track is dedicated to a classic head-banging groove. Basso rhythm guitar provides a rough foundation for buzzsaw accent fills, while the background is choked with chaotic static. The bridge opens up the tune, beginning with a flickering electronic reference to Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” that ushers in a new harmonic progression. The song rips into these chords to soften the ground for a pair of guitar solos that show off Leary and Osborne’s different styles. First, Leary lets fly a burst of loose, double-stop bends that decay into sloppy chromatic flail, releasing some of the simmering tension of the piece. Osborne closes out the interlude with a brief but wicked run that starts out as a smooth wail before tightening into a sweet bit of shred.

Two songs later, we get a better sense of this four-headed beast with “Brass Cupcake”. At first, it’s just a crunchy rocker with an interesting vocal arrangement. Osborne gamely lays out the surrealistic, simplistic lyrics, while Leary periodically drops in to repeat whatever line just passed by with a scream, like a disturbed Greek chorus. Those intervals of echolalia are backed by distorted waves of guitar. The tune then falls into a low-fi Van Halen breakdown before moving into a strong, hard rock bridge. But the rock crumbles into a spacey, Alice-in-Wonderland ending, full of warped fragments. With no firm sense of transition, we find ourselves immersed in the following trippy track, “Barcelonian Horseshoe Pit”. Deep in avant-garde Butthole Surfer territory, we’re trapped in a disoriented fun house with weird tonal flashes which are mutated and chopped with back-mask. This ungrounded drift lasts for a solid two-plus minutes before coalescing somewhat into a dismal pseudo-song that takes its inspiration from Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. Amid drum solos, hazy confusion and bits of baleful guitar, the band tenders this as their soundtrack for when the nightmare monsters finally tear through and press themselves into our world. This song pairing shows how the two bands complement one other, a yin-yang of driving rock and amorphous experiment.

Like much of the Melvins’ back catalog, Hold It In may focus on heavy proto-grunge, but actually delivers a range of musical flavors. The band’s staying power owes a lot to their out of the box thinking. While Leary and Pinkus help that along here, there are other intriguing side steps, like the electro-pop feel of “You Can Make Me Wait”, the deconstructed garage glam of “Eyes On You”, and the zombie western twang of “I Get Along (Hollow Moon)”. One of the best is the meandering track, “The Bunk Up”. A stutter beat rhythm sets a nü-wave funky mood with an angular punch while the theatrical vocals are reminiscent of The Tubes’ more artsy work. That initial section gives way to an edgy perspective of an arena rock bridge. As that wraps up, rather than just falling back to the opening changes, the tune roams further afield with a mellow jam band groove, full of back-masked melodic musing. Eventually, the lazy flow finds its way back into the dark, with sneering vocals and a goth metal gait. There’s nothing predictable about it, but it truly satisfies.

Osborne has long idolized Leary for his playing and Hold It In is probably all he could have hoped for. In any case, it succeeds in showing how well the Melvins could integrate the Butthole Surfers’ avant-garde spin into their musical house. The album features a fair amount of redecorating and adjustment, but all time-shares should run this smooth.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Recording review - The Electric Mess, House on Fire (2014)

Vivid performances and smoldering personality will take you back
Browsing through retro-inspired rock band offerings is like picking your favorite movie franchise reboot. Occasionally, an album strikes a nerve, but nothing can really replace dropping the needle on The Velvet Underground and Nico, sinking back into thrashy joy of The Pretenders, or sampling the cream of late '60s psychedelic pop bands from Northern California on a Rhino collection. It's hard for younger bands to slide in deeply enough to get past the simple surface characteristics, and those that come closest to the elusive feel rarely have enough personality to be memorable. The Electric Mess beats those odds and adroitly covers the musical dive while lead singer Esther Crow and her drag alter ego, Chip Fontaine, provide the personality to close the deal. Their last album, Falling Off the Face of the Earth (review), was notable because the band's clear love of primitive rock came through in beautiful fidelity . On House on Fire, they capture the raw energy of the garage more strongly than ever, with emphasis on raw. Although these tracks never devolve into muddiness, the engineering isn't quite as crisp and nuanced as Falling. But The Electric Mess makes up for it by bringing a vivid spark to their performance that puts the listener right at the edge of the stage, looking up in wonder.

I've already talked about the lead single, "Better to be Lucky Than Good", with its Lou Reed characters and story line propelled by Patti Smith proto-punk. Fontaine's smoldering voice scratches like a warm woolen blanket, selling the song with jaded nonchalance. It's a strong piece to lead off the album, but it also turns out to be fairly representative. Its big finish barely leaves time to catch your breath before they launch into the tight power pop rock of the title track. This time, Dan Crow's guitar paces restlessly within a cage of organ fills and vocals. In constant motion, Crow occasionally lets it loose enough to wail or throw itself against the bars, but when the solo comes around, it's clear that he hasn't run out of ideas as tears his way across the fretboard.

Later, on "Get Me Outta the Country", Crow's guitar slips off the leash and romps its way to Shredsville. This would be a great tune to catch live, to feel the primitive rite intensity and just hang on for the ride. But even while the lead slips out into the weeds, the rock steady drum work and anchoring bass hold it together. The Electric Mess wraps up the tune with a fade-out ending, a technique that's fallen out fashion, but this captures the loose unwinding that a live version would expand upon.

Lead singer Esther Crow spends most of House on Fire in her Chip Fontaine drag persona, with his hoarse growl and macho attitude giving the songs an earthy grounding. On "She Got Fangs", Fontaine's rough huskiness is the focal point against the moody psychedelic sway. His tale of seductive entrapment and then becoming the hunter himself is a simple enough story, but his swagger recalls Van Morrison fronting Them on "Gloria". While he hits his strongest stride on the thrashy blues sprint of "Beat Skipping Heart", my favorite Fontaine moment is the campy and theatrical spoken word section on the "Leavin' Me Hangin'", where he calls out his quarry, "Girl, I wandered the streets looking for you. Saw a couple of your friends, all tarted up. They lied and said they didn't know where you were . Girl,you ain't no Queen of Sheba and I ain't no piece of liver. But you never deliver." It's another case that calls for the live experience to see how far he'd push it.

Esther Crow takes her first real break from Fontaine on "There's Nothing You Can Do", which features keyboard player Oweinama Biu on lead vocals while she drops into a supporting role. Biu summons a good sense of desperation that fits the mood of the piece and it's a nice change to hear the two of them singing together.

House on Fire wraps up with a little bit of a bait and switch. "Every Girl Deserves a Song" initially sounds like a wild instrumental coda to the previous tune, but the minute long vamping builds to a climax only to fall into a delightful Mod pop song. Esther Crow summons her inner Cher (a la "The Beat Goes On") and brings a touch of hippy girl soul to her singing. Her laid back vocals gloss over the jarring disconnect between the frantic intro and the opiated groove, providing a warm embrace of lotus-eating bliss. Her lyrics bridge Summer of Love pop and its hidden underground scene, "Why don't you bring some Percocets / To help me cool my jets / Why don't you bring an unapproachable vamp / Just to round up the tone of my amp." Dan Crow's wah-wah guitar and Biu's ringing organ tone complement the song with their own patchouli-scented textures. Along the way, the tune also conjures the perfect psychedelic descriptor in the phrase, "Fizzy Bacchanal", which is begging to become a band name at some point. After the amphetamine immediacy of the other tracks, this gentle letdown is a sweet closing note from whatever alternate past that The Electric Mess is channeling. Rather than conflict, it recharges the listener enough to tackle "Better to be Lucky Than Good" all over again to ride that tiger one more time.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Recording review - King Tuff, Black Moon Spell (2014)

Arch humor from a garage glam creepster

Here’s the pitch: We’ll raise T. Rex’s Marc Bolan from the dead and partner him up with the Cramps, then polish the act to create the perfect bubblegum pop band for a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon series. Call it “So King Tuff!” What makes the act so irresistible is that Kyle Thomas, King Tuff’s alter ego, has found an ideal balance point between tongue in cheek irony, lo-fi garage glam, and creep-show trappings. Thickly distorted guitars and pounding drums provide a battle-axe edge to Black Moon Spell that grounds his lilting vocals and occasional forays into psychedelic excess. Or maybe it’s the other way around and arch humor and goofy lyrics keep the walls of noisy rock jams from sinking into the sludge. Either way, the combination results in an intense but fun listening experience, where the songs themselves aren’t necessarily that impressive, but they’re thoroughly entertaining. For example, “Headbanger” follows its croaking, demonic intro with tight, eighth note chunks of guitar just to set up the poppy, teenage love song lyrics, “Me and you, we got a true connection/ I knew it when I saw your record collection.” A shared love of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest is the only sign King Tuff needs to recognize his soulmate. The smooth, pop hook chorus repetition, “Bang your little head,” is propelled by a metalloid guitar riff that summons a sweet tang of cognitive dissonance. It’s simultaneously fluffy and visceral, and it’s also completely silly. With lines like,”Shaking off our clothes on the grave, where rock and roll was buried/ Making out to ‘Make Me Shout,’ in the back of a cemetery,” it’s impossible to take it seriously. Except the music is so compelling…

Of course, King Tuff doesn’t jump straight to the punch line. Black Moon Spell opens with a run of less campy tracks. First, the title tune includes a solid instrumental section that establishes his hard rock credentials. Then he tosses out a low budget, entry level rocker and some acid-soaked garage psychedelia to soften the listeners so “Headbangers” will hit all the harder. That sensibility rescues the album from pure parody; King Tuff has the discipline to tone down the wink and nod for enough of the songs so that when he drops the subtlety, the listener is primed for it. It also helps that the oddball songs don’t follow a strict formula. On the one hand, “I Love You Ugly” sounds like a T. Rex interpretation of Tuff Darts’ “(Your Love Is Like) Nuclear Waste” that bleeds off all of the bile to leave behind a residue of simple non-judgmental love and left-handed compliments. By contrast, the raw rocker “Madness” leads with a ridiculous boast, “King Tuff is my name/ I got madness in my brain/ Pleased to meet ya/ I’m gonna eat ya/ Cause I’m batshit insane,” which turns out to be his idea of a pickup line.

While the humor forms the core of Black Moon Spell‘s attraction, the camouflage tunes have their appeal as well. Probably the best track on the album is “Black Holes In Stereo”, which cleverly repurposes record album spindle holes as a pathway to transcendence. The verses are wordy, backed with a poppy, up-tempo beat, but the chorus kicks it into overdrive with a single line mission statement, “There’s a black hole on your stereo/ And all you gotta do is go, go, go…” The echoed mayhem of that last word repeats like stars slipping away from a rocket hitting warp speed.

Near the end of the album, King Tuff loses some of his focus with a couple of sun-dappled psychedelic tunes that call back to his earlier releases, but don’t quite fit here, despite being quite pleasant. He also chose to close out the record with a straight ahead retro rocker rather than going for the laugh one last time. Regardless, the essentially weird mix on the album isn’t diminished by either of these decisions. If this were a cartoon, I’d be tuning in just to see where King Tuff would go next.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Recording review - Alain Johannes, Fragments & Wholes, Vol. 1 (2014)

Time-boxed creativity yields pearls of improvisation

Sometimes, it can be be excruciating to bring all the pieces together. Scattered and disjoint, they may not quite fit together into a coherent whole, but leave some out and some important facet is glossed over and missed. Fragments and Wholes, Volume 1, the latest solo project by multi-instrumentalist and producer Alain Johannes deals with this explicitly, drawing on roughed out sketches and nicely framed pieces alike. Where his 2010 release, Spark, sculpted the dynamic tension between genres and tone to create a beautiful love letter/eulogy to his late wife, Natasha Schneider, Fragments and Wholes sacrifices coherency in the interest of jump-starting creativity. Each of the 12 tracks rose out of small pearls of improvisation, fleshed out as much as possible in the short amount of time Johannes allowed himself to record the album. Like Jonathan Coulton’s Thing A Week series, the tight time constraint means that not every piece achieves the same impact, but the trade-off is that the momentum demands a quick, instinctive approach to writing and supports a feeling of immediacy.

Given Johannes’ work with Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and Eleven, along with his studio work with Chris Cornell and Soundgarden, it’s not surprising that several of these songs serve up some heavy drive and grungy darkness, but the twist is that he channels his other big influence, The Beatles, through a chain of psychedelic touchstones shared with Lenny Kravitz, Eric McFadden and Robyn Hitchcock. In fact, his vocals and arrangements often seem modeled on Kravitz, down to the DIY multi-track construction of auteur clones recording each instrumental nuance.

The first couple of tracks on Fragments and Wholes, “All the Way Down” and “Whispering Fields”, work that softer side with an airy folk-pop and a simple, late night acoustic moodiness. Like most of these tunes, they’re both relatively tiny morsels, but each packs a lot of flavor into the small space, with plenty of layers to support repeated listenings. While these two pieces show off Johannes’ lush side, he follows up with “Saturn Wheel”, which dives deeply into the shadows. Ending all too soon without real resolution, this is one of the “fragments”, but the brooding tension evokes Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” as interpreted by Soundgarden. The thick guitar and restless bass snake together, allowing glimpses of Dick Dale surf guitar fills to add some sinister glints. Even when the song slips into a dreamier interval, the relentless drive never sleeps. The solo is brief to help keep the song under three minutes, but it offers a hint of wicked depravity, barely contained within the pentagon that Johannes summoned it in.

In general, Johannes does a good job of filling out the smaller sketches, often creating miniaturized versions of the song ideas that trade off running time for packed plies of detail. Of these, the best may well be "Petal's Wish", which reminds me of Elvis Costello's classic jazz experiments blended with a taste of "Shipbuilding". Still, it’s the longer running tunes offer the most satisfaction. “Kaleidoscope” is a rich Beatlesque pastiche that manages to cross-pollinate elements of “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” with Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”. The reedy melodies meander against a solid drone. At the same time, Johannes is able to bridge his influences here, bringing in grungy processional feel borrowed from “Black Hole Sun” and then dipping deeper into darkness with the chorus. The vocals are detached and dreamy, but the music has an obsessive immediacy that made it my favorite track on the album. The dynamic drop for the close is just icing to seal the deal. Later, the four minute “Jack of Wands” offers a sense of Queens of the Stone Age trying to tap into the disquiet of Jethro Tull’s "Aqualung", The bridge slides into a Lennonesque disorientation and the lyrics remain oblique and poetic, leaving little more to grasp than the dark mood and the threatening sense of totality, "From stick to leaves."

Spark was one of my favorite albums back in 2010, and while Fragments and Wholes doesn't achieve the same heights, it's clear that Johannes is working to push his creativity to its limits. Time-boxing his work on this project forced him to make tough artistic decisions and live with them, and I think the experiment was a success.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Recording review - Megafauna, Maximalist (2014)

Languid vocals and razor-edged guitar in a powerhouse setting

Calm, slowly evolving musical mantras and crisp, fractal reflections: the minimalist music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass seeks transcendence rooted in an intellectual purity. From the urgently thrashing opening moments of the lead-off track, “Eggs”, Megafauna stakes out an antithetical position on Maximalist. The band rejects measured movement and icy clarity for a visceral punch and a swirling confusion of moods. They draw on a jumble of inspirations: the classic hard rock guitar of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple crosses swords with progressive complexity reminiscent of Trail of Dead and El Ten Eleven, while the vocals waver between Björk’s breathy oddness and Amanda Palmer’s theatrical insistence. Bandleader Dani Neff also has a rich tonal range that recalls Annie Haslam’s work with Renaissance. Her versatile voice is adept at veering from soft vulnerability to no-nonsense sternness. Regardless of whether she’s preserving her distance or coming on ragged and strong, Neff has a sweet girlish tone, but there’s nothing dreamy or vague about her guitar playing. This creates a delicious contrast between her languid vocals and razor-edged guitar work. Those hard rock riffs anchor the tunes and show off both her technical chops and how she controls the mood with dynamic shifts.

The songwriting on Maximalist is also top-notch. The tracks mutate and twist in interesting directions, rising above their initial perspectives. Take a tune like “Precious Blood”. It starts with a lazy, descending guitar line that paints a sense of midnight ruminations. The echoes on Neff’s voice become ghostly whispers to accompany her through the darkness. As she sings the line, “We are still waiting/ For something big,” it foreshadows the sharp punch of ringing guitar that follows. Driving power chords set up the next transition to a Black Sabbath inspired bit of flaming metallic melody. As this climbs into a heavier version of the chorus, it’s hard to recall the haunting feel at the start, but Megafauna flawlessly negotiates the dynamic drop to take us back there, this time ratcheting up the pressure. Neff’s solo is an evocative bit of shred that embodies a fight against inertia and an inevitable end. “Precious Blood” is a treat, not just for the balance between soft and loud, pensive steps and headlong rush, but also for the way Megafauna works together to encapsulate those swings into a narrative flow.

As front and center as Neff is to Megafauna’s sound, she couldn’t pull this off without the strong support she gets from her rhythm section. Like all power trios, they walk a fine line between backing the song and stepping forward to fill it out so the guitar can break loose. Greg Yancey’s bass lines fall into unison with Neff’s riffs to lock them into the pocket, but he also brings a thick thundering tone that stands in for rhythm guitar when that’s necessary. Zack Humphrey’s drumming is phenomenal. He’s fairly busy, with lots of syncopation and fills, rarely dropping into straight time. But where a lot of flash drummers lack an appreciation of nuance, Humphrey’s ear is impeccable and he can maintain the energy as he drops back to leave enough space for the vocals to step up.

Retro hard rock and metal form the foundation of Maximalist’s spirit -- listen to the “Immigrant Song” vibe on “Hug From a Robot” -- but their progressive side opens up many of these pieces for wider explorations and stranger sonic palettes. From the desperate angular guitar of “Haunted Factory” to the rich post-rock dissonance on “Chromatic Fantasy”, Megafauna expands well beyond mere head banging and impressive shred without slipping into self-indulgence. Maximalist lives up to its name, incorporating these wild musical gestures to create a bridging world where fans from all over can find something to love.

As an added treat, here's the video for the earlier release of "Precious Blood" on 2012's Surreal Estate:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Recording review - Tweedy, Sukeraie (2014)

An oblique trip through an emotional minefield

Walk on, walk on/ With hope in your heart/ And you’ll never walk alone.” The old Rogers and Hammerstein classic made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers is a fitting summary of Sukierae. It started out as a solo project for Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but he brought in his son Spencer on drums and, rather than walk alone, the album is credited to the Tweedy surname. The father-son collaboration would normally be the defining narrative for Sukierae, but the moments of wistfulness, anguish and sadness scattered through these songs weigh heavier because of the recent death of Jeff Tweedy’s brother and his wife’s current battle with cancer. Despite the heaviness of those circumstances, the overall mood is not really melancholy. Tweedy delivers these tunes with his customary obliqueness. If you aren’t clued in to the back story, it’s easy to miss that subtext.

In any case, Tweedy the band does not walk alone; it carries the echoes of Jeff’s other bands, Wilco and Uncle Tupelo. While his voice is central to those groups, Sukierae could easily pass as another Wilco release. The first half is pleasantly unpredictable, with some interesting stylistic leaps. It’s fairly strong, although there is one awkward transition between the twisted headspace of “Diamond Light Pt. 1” and the front parlor folk start of “Wait for Love”. The second half offers a more consistent feel, meandering through Uncle Tupelo style Americana and early Wilco confessional pop-folk. The album features several great tunes, but, like many double length albums, it’s easy to see missed opportunities for pruning. Tracks like “Nobody Dies Anymore” and “Hazel” make little impression against the stronger songs on Sukierae.

Also, while Spencer is a talented drummer and his playing expresses his personality well, Jeff’s voice dominates the album. The best blending between the two is on the opening track, “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood”. The guitar thrashes discordantly and Spencer’s choppy beat is insistent, but it’s packed with nervous paradiddles and fills. The lyrics, “I don’t want to be so understood / Boring,” could serve as Jeff Tweedy’s career mission statement. A couple of songs later, on “Diamond Light Pt. 1,” Spencer makes another strong contribution. The tune launches into a dreamy psychedelic groove, propelled by tight polyrhythmic drum work and a taut bass vamp. When the vocals come in, they contrast sharply, with a lightly hazed detachment that’s oblivious to the rhythmic tension. Over the six minute sprawl, the piece evolves: opening into looser reveries, gaining light sonic acid-trail echoes, picking up sharper spikes of intensity reminiscent of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, and finally melting away in a strange loop of ambient, ethereal sounds. Spencer’s drums are intimately tied to all of those changes, seeming to drive the shifting moods rather than following them.

On the more straightforward side, “Pigeons” is anchored by simple acoustic guitar work, eventually accompanied by bass and light washes of keys. The understated climax is a pretty, Beatlesque instrumental bridge. Meanwhile, Jeff’s lyrics are philosophical, reflecting a Zen clarity, “Let’s sing our songs for the pigeons/ As common as religion/ High on, high on Mt. Zion/ We are all dandelions.” He’s described this as a message to his younger self, and his tired delivery does sound a bit rueful of lessons hard-learned. The best lines on Sukierae, though, come on “New Moon,” with Tweedy capturing an ambivalence, perched between self-deprecation and hurt: “I’ve always been certain, nearly all of my life/ One day I’d be a burden and you would be my wife,” gives way to “Let me hang like a new moon/ Don’t treat me like a stranger anymore.” The swaying country-folk of the verses makes this a campfire song, accented by fiery sparks flying up to the sky, but the distorted electric guitar solo adds a bit of repressed anger, as he lets his frustration slip loose in a way that the vocal never admits. It stops and starts with a ragged tone, but is then brought to heel like a disobedient dog.

Sukierae feels its way through an emotional mine field without directly revealing too many Tweedy family truths. As always, Jeff Tweedy’s songs manage to be moving without necessarily showing how or whether he himself is moved, which has become a familiar unself-conscious pattern to his work over the years. Longtime fans won’t mind this and will find plenty to enjoy as the album revisits his earlier sounds like the notes for unwritten memoir : the Uncle Tupelo waltz of “Desert Bell”, the late night Being There feel of “Flowering”, the Woody Guthrie flavored “Fake Fur Coat”, or the sparse Yankee Hotel Foxtrot echo of “Where My Love”. While a more disciplined edit could trim this album to a cleanly cut gem, the excess is also part of Tweedy artistic approach, maybe because it helps him bury the details a little. In any case, however oblique, Jeff Tweedy does hold some hope in his heart and with help from his son, he’s not walking alone.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Recording review - Mazes, Wooden Aquarium (2014)

Energetic buzz and saturated colo(u)rs

Just as LSD differs from peyote, psychedelic bands each offer their own kind of trip. Syd Barrett’s earnest naïveté is worlds away from Thee Oh Sees’ sweaty swirl of garage echo and grind, and neither has much in common with the exotic sound of Dengue Fever’s Khmer-flavored surf. On Wooden Aquarium, Mazes goes for an upbeat, energetic buzz. More ecstatic dance than disoriented drifting, they keep the rhythm tight, but they never let their motorik focus become oppressive. The band’s post-punk drive infuses most of these tunes with a nervous energy, but it’s a sweet, anticipatory feeling.

Wooden Aquariums sets the pace early on with the paired opening tracks, “Astigmatism” and “Salford.” A brief, distracted guitar riff tosses out a chain of notes before dissolving into an insistent groove piloted by a steady-handed drummer and a nodding, hypnotic bass line. The guitar locks into place and Jack Cooper’s lyrical flow catches the mood, with a rolling cadence and ornate phrasing: “Oh, I want to see but I don’t know why/ But my optic nerve would lie/ It fades and blurs at the edges.” “Astigmatism” streams forward, zipping through a delightful back-masked guitar solo before reaching its finish line and stumbling to a halt. But there’s no real respite as “Salford” rises from the ashes and resurrects the first song’s rhythm line. This time around, out of sync vocals push the feeling into a spacier direction. The loose singing and clockwork beat play off each other and culminate in a thrashy punk ending, implying that détente has ended and it’s time to come to blows.

Mazes takes that cheery, altered-perception vibe and finds different forms of expression to get there again and again. They branch out from the initial restless-leg new wave beat to explore Supertramp-inspired pop-psych ( “Explode Into Colo(u)rs”), sunlight dappled trails (“It Is What It Is”), and detached but fraught alt-rock (“Universal Me”). The change-ups keep Wooden Aquarium from devolving into a navel gazing exercise. Instead, the experience turns outward, embracing a world of experience where colors are super-saturated and vivid.

Even through rose-colored glasses, a few tunes shine a little brighter. “Vapour Trails” offers a particularly nice mix. The calculated pace of the verses, accented by angular guitar grind, suggests Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. This alternates with the looser bloom of the chorus, creating a balance between pensive thought and renewed resolution. The song is hardly sparse, but it has an innate simplicity, each part fulfilling its purpose without excess baggage or production trickery. Too often, heady groups get caught up in a “more is more” aesthetic, erecting rococo layers of detail to bedazzle the listener. Mazes rejects that formula, trusting that a mere pair of dependent guitar lines can create a sufficiently rich context. They avoid the sin of self-indulgence, refusing to surrender to fears that their tunes aren’t shiny enough.

If there’s a downside to this album, it’s that Mazes have assembled a motley mix of inspirations. Krautrock rubs elbows with Pavement and Guided By Voices, but even if the influences seem a bit obvious, the full impact carries the project. It comes back to the album’s pervasive upbeat feel. Each listen sets up the same openness and sense of conscious acceptance. The irony is that Mazes has every right to sound introspective on this record. Their recording sessions in upstate New York were snowed in, leaving them pretty well isolated as they pieced it together. Instead of succumbing to cabin fever, they launched out with a firm sense of direction.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Recording review - Rene Lopez, Love Has No Mercy (2014)

Feel the funk with mirror ball beats 

Rene Lopez continues spiraling in on his idealized target of electric Latin soul. His last release, Paint the Moon Gold,veered away from the funk to lurch toward R&B pop. On his new EP, Love Has No Mercy, '70s pop has given way to the hybridized disco funk of that same era. The album isn't a one trick pony, but Lopez is more dedicated to club-style rhythms on this release. The first half explores this borderland with a series of tracks that wrestle with co-dependence, love withheld, and unbalanced relationships."I Won't Love You Less" lies directly between the two genres. The sparse arrangement, the harmony vocals, and ringing keyboard fills are like the bright, spinning reflections of a mirror ball, while the crisp rhythm guitar suggests the chill nonchalance of Bowie's Thin White Duke and the steady, syncopated beat has a foot in both worlds. The choppy guitar bobs and weaves with nervous energy and Lopez's voice is strained to a falsetto whisper as he sings his unconditional love. His serene tone suggests that he's an ecstatic martyr to his chosen one's fickle whim: "You can lie and cheat and leave me cold / I won't love you less, I won't love you less / you can throw your stones and break my bones /I won't love you less, I won't love you less." From here, he wanders through electro-pop dance beats and Latin flavored disco before reaching my favorite track on the album.

The title tune is a duet with Carol C , and the two create a playful interaction that frames the song as a debate between the sexes. They share the chorus tagline, but the verses show how far apart they are. Drawn like moths to the flame, the two can only agree that, "Your love has no mercy, but I like it." After the break that summarizes the positions as, "Love-lust and love-love," Lopez takes a pseudo-rap turn,speak-singing his way through his lines with an expressive tone that maintains a nuanced tension. Meanwhile, the track is anchored by a snaking baseline and fenced in by stereophonic flickers of choppy guitar. Between the volley of vocal exchanges and the insistent dance beat, "Love Has No Mercy" is Lopez at his best.

From here, Lopez settles into a chain of solid funk pieces, with the fun attitude of "Lovegod", the Prince driven ''City Streets Are Dead Tonight", and the loopy electro funk of "Show Your Light". These are all strong, dance-friendly songs, but none of them follow a set formula. Even better,
Lopez adapts his singing style to each tune to flesh out the right character. Love Has No Mercy is another step towards perfecting his vision of electric Latin soul. The Latin element may be a bit restrained compared to earlier releases,but the music still calls you to surrender to the syncopation and dance.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Coming attractions - Backbeat Soundsytem

Do you feel lucky?

Trust is absolutely vital, especially when it comes to our culture-rich. We're in the middle of a golden age of music; there are hundreds of small independent labels and countless unaffiliated bands releasing albums and singles. That's the good news. The bad news is that it can be ridiculously hard to find know what's worth bothering with, given the overabundance of choices. That's where trust comes in. Maybe you've found critics or hipster outlets that you depend on to filter through it all. Aside from the set of artists I follow closely, there are a couple of independent record labels that have never steered me wrong.

Easy Star Records, home of the Easy Star All-Stars, is one of those. Aside from the All-Stars' reggae cover albums, which are exquisite, they produce a collection of strong artists like Passafire, The Green, and John Brown's Body. The latest addition is Backbeat Soundsystem, who demonstrate that strong rhythms and solid chank can thrive in the U.K. The band's label debut, Together Not Apart, has just released and Easy Star is sharing tracks from the new album.

Two of these, "Fighting Bull" and Hey Girl", offer two different sides of the band's skills. I like both, but "Fighting Bull" hits my sweet spot a little harder. The band lays down a funky reggae groove, with a marching bass throb and horn punch accents. The conscious lyrics are right up front, surfing the beat. The production mixes things up, with some light dub moments and synthesizer vamps. "Hey Girl" goes for a poppier feel, with a nice R&B vocal line, but still spices it up with some toasting flow. This time, the keys frost the edges of the tune with old-school tones that reach back some 40 years to the heady days of dance club funk.

If you dig feel-good reggae at all, Backbeat Soundsystem deserves a listen. Trust me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Recording review - Israel Nash, Israel Nash's Rain Plans (2014)

Retro roots, but real and original

The overused shorthand, “retro,” can mean that a group short on their own ideas has repackaged the past. Although Israel Nash Gripka’s country-rock/Americana infused music raises immediate comparisons to a host of classic folk-rock acts, Israel Nash’s Rain Plans is hardly a slavish (or lazy) re-creation of history. Instead, he’s applied a master craftsman’s aesthetic to expanding what might have started as simple singer-songwriter tunes. The resulting album features richly layered instrumentation that draws on acoustic and electric sounds, soft-diffusion reverb to cosset the mix and, above all, a worshipful appreciation for warm analog tone. Casual listeners may hear it as a pastiche of The Band or early Neil Young, but the details reveal Gripka’s original perspective, driven by some of the same values.

Rain Plans begins with “Woman at the Well”. While the initial intro recalls John Fogarty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, the melody on the first line comes straight from “The Weight” by The Band. Instead of pulling into Nazareth, he calls, “Swing low, Laura/ I’m up to no good.” The oblique lyrics that follow suggest a man reminiscing from the end of his life’s road, with the calm delivery and steady pace signaling an acceptance. The song’s familiar elements are on the surface, but the texture of the piece demonstrates Gripka’s unique voice. He uses acoustic guitar as a canvas for the overdriven guitar to splatter trails of warmly fuzzed fills. Meanwhile a thin haze of shimmering synth wash fills up the background. The last minute and a half or two become an extended fade, where the fog of distortion rises like an inevitable tide, obliterating everything. By the end, it owes as much to My Morning Jacket as it does to those earlier bands.

“Woman at the Well” is a fine start, providing a good lead-in for the distorted steel guitar on the country rock of “Through the Door”. The arrangement on this one is perfectly constructed, with each element seamlessly in place. The verses are country while the chorus has more of a blues rock feel. The balance is a little psychedelic. This intensifies as things get interesting about half way through the piece. It breaks down to a thoughtful interlude, centered on the simple repeated guitar riff from the verse. The other instruments layer in with each repetition, and once they’re all on board, the song restarts, but in a spacier mood that turns soulful and intense.

It’s not until “Who in Time” that the Neil Young spirit begins to infuse the album in earnest. The trippy intro groove has a twangy psychedelic feel, but the transition into the verse sets up a “Down by the River” sway, and then a touch of harmonica adds its contribution. The backing harmonies, along with the light pedal steel, cement the mood. Eventually, Gripka’s vocals slide into Young’s slightly nasal falsetto, first on occasional lines, and then more strongly on “Rain Plans” and “Iron of the Mountain”, finally hitting a peak on “Mansions”, which crosses Young’s “Southern Man” with “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Like a Hurricane.” But for all those allusions, Gripka’s song makes its own statement about hollow excess as it swells into a hypnotic swirl of crackling sparks of chaotic sound.

It’s easy to imagine these songs shrunk down to solo arrangements; Gripka’s voice and personality could handily carry them. Still, there’s a joy to soaking in the sound of a group as they pick up on each other’s nuanced playing, each finding the ideal addition. Bottom line, the real surprise is that Israel Nash Gripka hasn’t hit it bigger here in the U.S. We’re arriving late to this party; Rain Plans initially came out last year in Europe and is only now releasing in North America. It’s obvious to hear why he’s been embraced overseas. His sound is completely American in the best possible sense; its folk, blues and country rock sound are expansive but not excessive. Stick this one on repeat and play catch up with the rest of the world.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Fresh single: Jarabe de Palo, "Vecina"

Hoping that the summer never ends

The first taste of "Vecina" is rootsy and sincere. Calling the vibe "Americana" hardly seems appropriate for Barcelona's Jarabe de Palo, but this band has a great ear for setting up a simple rhythm and letting it flow. Imagine The Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" without Mick Jagger's pouty strut. The groove is as comfortable as a perfect pair of Levi's and well-worn boots. The organ and sax accompaniment provide soulful touches. This is a song that captures an end-of-summer feel that seems just right for a chilly Autumn day with damper weather.

The lyrics capitalize on that feel; after spending a summer admiring his beautiful neighbor as she soaks in the sun, lead singer Pau Donés finally works up the nerve to make his move: "Soy ese chico que ves desde tu jardín/ Solo quería algún día invitarte a salir." (tr. "I'm the guy you see from your garden/ I only wanted to ask you out someday") Don't let the voyeuristic story line color your impressions; "Vecina" is fairly innocent and wholesome, with more metaphor than sly innuendo.

Jarabe de Palo are on tour here in the US throughout October, wrapping up November 1 in San Francisco. If they pass through your town, immerse yourself in some continental Latin music. It's also worth checking out their latest release, Somos. In the meantime, I'll settle into the sunny sway of "Vecina" and, just like Donés sings, "Este verano que espero no tenga fin."

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Recording review - It Looks Sad, Self-Titled (2014)

A satisfying sample of non-ironic post-punk catharsis

I’m so glad that the lagging nostalgia wave is finally cresting for the 1980s. I didn’t care for disco the first time around and, while the ‘70s folk-rock and pop revivals have each had their moments, I’ve been ready for the change. Lately, the indie scene is doing their part, with a host of bands mining the fertile post-punk inspiration from 1978 to 1986 or so. My Gold Mask, the Soft Moon, Cold Showers, Soft Kills – it’s more than I can keep track of, so it’s nice when a decent one falls right into my lap. It Looks Sad. from Charlotte, North Carolina joins the throng, but they manage to make their own mark. The music is tight and cathartic with the perfect shroud of echo. More importantly, they aren’t overthinking their angst and thrash or dressing it up in irony. The only (slight) misstep is the emo pretention of the punctuated band name, which remains from their awkward original name, “It Looks Sad. That’s Why I Said It Was You”, but that can be overlooked because it mostly serves as critic/hater-bait.

Their scant four song EP, Self-Titled, barely crosses 15 minutes, but each tune is a delicious morsel of dissatisfied, emotional tumult. “Radical” leads off and it stakes out the ground that the rest of the album will restlessly pace: hang your head, sway just a little and let the ringing post-punk guitars wash through you. The repetition and higher fret bass riffs recall Joy Division, but instead of Ian Curtis’ dark brooding, It Looks Sad. favors a more sullen vocal tone. Jimmy Turner alternates between plaintive, disjointed musing and rousing himself to resentful irritation, but the words are almost irrelevant. All that matters is the stormy wave of muffled frustration that ushers in catharsis. Turner has described “Radical” as a hastily written filler tune, but they seem to have stumbled onto a pattern worth repeating. A shadowy magic builds as his voice gets hoarser and rawer over the pounding breakers of flanged guitars.

The next track, “Fingers”, trades out Joy Division for a hazy, dream pop jangle. Turner’s vocals have the same weak whine and his diffident tone undercuts the love song lyrics. But complaining about his voice is like critiquing Joey Ramone or Lou Reed for their singing; his lack of technical ability is less relevant than the earnestness of the emotions that he conveys. It is a love song, but his disconnection is exactly the point. In the meantime, the music is quite satisfying as it lazily unfolds. Rather than a wall of guitars, the verses erect a haphazard fence whose gaps frame the melodic bass line. The chorus swells like a tsunami, but doesn’t so much overwhelm the mood as intensify it. The thick tone and repetition become a nurturing cocoon of noise, “I’m daydreaming again/ Your fingers touch my skin.

The remaining two tracks offer up differing retro perspectives. “Raccoon” channels the Cure, albeit at a more upbeat tempo. Even the muted artifacts of echoed guitar strum sound familiar. That’s just window-dressing as the driving staccato guitar chop staples down the flowing bass work. “Ocean” also has a touch of the Cure, but the soft-loud-soft transitions showcase the power of Turner’s primal scream, recalling Trail of Dead’s early work. Sure, that’s a bit more recent than the ‘80s foundation It Looks Sad. has established, but the deviation is effective.

Like most EPs, Self-Titled is an elevator pitch for the band. It’s not a best-of-the-year contender or artistic triumph, but it is a solid introduction to It Looks Sad. and their nostalgic swirls of moody distortion feel like a good match for hot summer nights.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fresh single - The Electric Mess, Better to be Lucky Than Good

Hi-fidelity thrash

There's retro and then there's living  in the past. On first listen, The Electric Mess' old school roots are obvious: Velvet Underground, Radio Birdman, Patty Smith, and early Pretenders. But where most bands just settle for low-fi derivation and the occasional homage to lost gods, The Electric Mess are vibrant throwbacks to back when the raw energy of those bands was fresh. It's like the difference between sepia toned photos or saturated Polaroids and a crisp digital photo; when we think of the past, we confuse our perspective with how it really was. So, it's easy to think that the world was more monochrome 75 years ago, because we're used to black and white pictures. But life was just a colorful then. A chunk of the fascination with low-fi, muddy sound is that those old records were over-saturated and never captured the crisp edge.

Two years ago, I locked onto Falling Off the Face of the Earth by The Electric Mess, in part for the clean fidelity they brought to garage rock. It's been a long wait, but this year, they've followed up with a new album, House on Fire. I haven't heard it yet, but the first taste is definitely more-ish.

Their latest video (written and directed by bass player Derek Davidson) is Warhol-esque mini-film with broad stroke characters, graphic novel jump cuts, and stylized violence. As a film, it's entertaining, although I would have liked an instrumental intro behind the first fifty-odd seconds of scene setting. Once the first thrashy chords slap your face, though, the frantic energy kicks in like shot of adrenaline. Lead singer Chip Fontaine/Esther Crow summons Patti Smith's hoarse sneer, but the lyrics could easily be a lost Lou Reed classic.

Bands constantly reinvent themselves or get caught up in new shiny sounds, so it's refreshing to hear The Electric Mess digging deeper into their core strengths. Craig Rogers' rapid-fire drum work is still solid and his fills slip into overdrive for the chorus bumps. The bass is just as relentless as it slips between throbbing root notes and snaking melodic riff. Both instruments stand out clearly, without being eclipsed by Dan Crow's speedball lead guitar. His ragged tone matches Crow's rough singing like a jab paired with an uppercut. The clarity of the mix is key. Instead of a cheap sonic Instagram filter providing the illusion of rawness, it's easy to abandon your ears to the driving energy of the music.

What do they say, "The first taste is free?" Well, I'm hooked and now I've got to hear the rest of  House on Fire.