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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Reminiscence and review - My first KISS (and most recent, too)

12 December, 1976
I was miserable in December of 1976. My folks had divorced and my mom got a job in Lakeland FL, moving us a world away from my friends in St. Petersburg. I was 14 years old and pretty much on my own, except for the twenty-something guys in the apartment next door that I’d inflict myself on periodically. At that point, I mostly listened to older, less popular stuff. like Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath, and Iron Butterfly. I did have some more modern favorites, though: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Queen’s A Night at the Opera

Three months into this exile, a spark of excitement offered some reprieve. A friend of the family that my mom knew from high school, Bob Segars, came to town. This wasn't the guy from the Silver Bullet Band, but he was always good for some cool stories. Over dinner, Bob talked about working on the current KISS tour and he had brought me a stack of swag: an 8x10 of the band, a couple of T-shirts, and four backstage passes to see the band, who were coming to Lakeland in another day or two. This was great, but I wasn't really that into KISS. I had heard “Beth”, “Detroit Rock City”, and “Rock and Roll All Nite” before on the radio, but I remember being more excited about the chance to see their opening act, Uriah Heep.

Since I wasn't a big fan and I didn't really have any friends at school, I sold everything except one of the backstage passes. It was weird driving to the concert with these kids that I didn't even know, and even stranger to hang out with them as I met the incredibly friendly guys from Uriah Heep before the concert and soaked in the backstage ambiance. I watched their show from the wings and imagined playing for an audience like that. It was exhilarating. After they finished, as the roadies were swapping out the stage gear, all of us 'guests' were unceremoniously pushed away to the backstage hallways to clear room for KISS' limo to pull in. I watched the band jump out and run onstage from 30 yards away. Even after they started playing, we weren't allowed any closer, so I went out front.

Despite my unfamiliarity with the band, I could appreciate the spectacle of their show. The costumes and makeup had seemed silly before this, but now gave them a menacing presence. Gene Simmons sneered and did the tongue thing and the crowd went wild. A week or so before, I had been to my first concert, seeing Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer in Tampa. Beck had put on an great show and he could shred on guitar, but it was nothing like this. KISS took a theatrical approach well beyond their outfits; the lighting constantly shifted across the multi-tier stage, accompanied by flash pots and a wall of throbbing bass and screaming guitar. 

When Ace Frehley plummeted down as he walked down the steps from the upper riser, none of us realized what was going on, but the show came to a screeching halt. It turned out that he had been badly shocked by the poorly grounded set and laid unconscious while the crew swarmed out to help him. The contrast between the wailing guitars earlier and the murmur of the worried crowd was a bit uncanny. Frehley was carried offstage and the hall cued up some music while we wondered if he was all right. We had no idea of what was going on. Was the show was over? After about 20 or 30 minutes, the band took the stage again and explained what had happened. They said that Ace was okay and wanted to finish the show. He still looked pretty shaky to me and, given the make up, I wasn't even entirely sure that it really was him onstage. A few songs in, though, the band recovered their focus and finished out a solid performance. Frehley later went on to write "Shock Me" for 1977's Love Gun

25 June, 2014
017  KISS Fast forward 37 and a half years. Now, my son is a year older than I was back in 1976 and he's a bigger KISS fan than I ever was. At one point, I took him to see a tribute band that came through town, but it only depressed him because they didn't measure up and he never thought he'd see the real band. When KISS announced that they'd be coming through Denver for their Summer '14 tour, along with Def Leppard, Malcolm was psyched enough to pay for his own ticket and the two of us went together.

005  Kobra and the Lotus
Walking up to the venue, we were surrounded by a legion of fans. We saw everything from little kids with meticulously applied makeup to adults sporting a casual star over their eye. Unlike that 1976 show, this one was reserved seating, so we took our time getting to our seats, feeding on the rising sense of anticipation. The opening act, Kobra & The Lotus had a good classic metal grind, serving well as an appetizer for the headliners. Unfortunately, their set ended with a whimper, as the mains blew on their last song and the volume faded out except for their monitors. As the crew tore down their equipment and started setting up Def Leppard's rig, the sound guys got the mains working and filled the hall with a random selection of between show songs (why was Elton John's "Love Lies Bleeding" on that playlist?).

009  Def Leppard
By the time they got to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again", we were ready for Def Leppard to get playing. The lights dropped, but the song didn't fade; instead, Rick Allen took over the drum fills and led the band into taking over the tune to start the show. As they plowed through a run of hits from their back catalog, Joe Elliott's singing was top notch and the guitar work was phenomenal. Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell showed off how they've perfected their twin-guitar attack, and the way they transitioned from acoustic to electric on "Bringin' On The Heartache" was masterful. But as much as we enjoyed the set and the encore's "Rock of Ages", we were all ready for the main event.

022  KISS
At first, it looked like KISS might try a similar start to their show; the lights dropped during Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll", but the music cut out and we got a video short of the band wandering the backstage halls a la Spinal Tap. But this was just a distraction for the band to make their grand entrance on the back of a giant, articulated spider skeleton that embraced the stage. From that moment on, every movement was smoothly choreographed, from Gene Simmons' blood spitting Demon whizzing up into the air to mount the spider's back to Paul Stanley's zipline trip out to a small circular stage out in the middle of the audience. The pyrotechnics alone were impressive, from gas jet flames to Roman candles and spark sprayers. 

It's hard to believe the band is celebrating 40 years of playing. Simmons showed his age a little, but could still exercise the creepy malice and wicked tongue of his youth. Stanley, on the other hand, still looked to be in his prime. It was impossible to believe that he's 62 years old as he dove into knee drops or posed gymnastically during his solos. His voice, too, sounded just the same as he enthusiastically talked to the crowd, whether acknowledging the fans' role in getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or talking about their earlier visits to Denver. 

KISS' classic hard rock sound didn't deliver the technical flash that Def Leppard brought, but the music had a visceral punch of bass heavy drive and, just like in 1976, they aimed to stun the audience with overwhelming theatrics. The snowstorm and fireworks finale of "Rock and Roll All Nite" hit a climax of excess that left us drained and wrung out as we walked back to the car. As our ears rang and we held on to the adrenaline from the show, I had to tell my son that, as good as KISS was in 1976, this show was better. The band has honed their skills as performers and their budget and imagination have grown hand in hand. Malcolm may regret that he never saw the original line up, but he'll remember this show as a peak experience.

There are a few more photos at my Flickr.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Recording review - Analog Son, Analog Son (2014)

Old school jazz funk that's tighter than spray-on jeans

Wakka-wakka-wakka: that's the sound of the way-back machine transporting us across the decades, back to the golden era of jazz funk. lf I close my eyes it's like Lucky Peterson, the Average White Band, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section are all in their prime and a new, up-and-coming crew is stepping up to join their ranks. On their self-titled release, Analog Son lays down a solid, horn-heavy funk groove and never let a single hair slip out of place. That tightly polished sound is the band's greatest strength but it's also their Achilles heel. The songs are incredibly danceable and smoothly executed, but I miss that dirty, crazy edge that would take it to the next level. I'm thinking of those spark moments where P-Funk could let the party get out of control, where Herbie Hancock might launch into the unknown, or more recently, where Garaj Mahal would slip into a free -form chaotic interlude. Still, on ''A Trip Around The Son", Analog Son does challenge this critique with a slight counter-argument in the form of a wah-wah driven horn solo that cross-dresses itself as a guitar jam. The solo builds into heavier drive that is led by a circling guitar reclaiming its place before letting the original groove reassert itself. It's a cool party trick that gives a good indication of how much fun this band would likely be in a club setting.

While the playing is top-notch on all of these tunes, vocalist Devon Parker's soulful singing injects a welcome dose of personality on the three non-instrumental tracks. Of these,"Struttin'" is the hottest. The funk is strong, with the intricate mesh of bass nod, horn punches, wah-wah guitar, and organ fills . But Parker's cocky attitude provides the necessary swagger to embody the title. She also creates a call-and-response interplay with the backing vocals.

Of the instrumental pieces, "Swervantes" is my favorite, mostly because the restless mutagenic flow offers up plenty of surprises as different players come to the forefront. The best moment is the spacey, drifting bridge in the middle of the song. I like the contrasting lead guitar styles and the moody organ washes.

I'll be keeping an eye out for Analog son, because I want to compare their stage presence with the precision of their studio sound. I have no doubts that they'll deliver the technical chops, but I'm hoping for a more playful feel that taps into the fun that lies at the heart of funk.

In the meantime, drop by their bandcamp page for a taste a chance to get the album.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Concert review - Megafauna, with Instant Empire, Bear., Hillary Hand & the Roseliers

19 June 2014 (Moon Room at Summit Music Hall, Denver CO)
Sometimes, there's no justice. Thursday night in Denver couldn't seem to summon up enough interest to go out and catch some music, so the crowd was disappointingly sparse. That wasn't fair for wait staff or the bands, but all four acts on the bill took it in stride and summoned up their enthusiasm so the lucky few of us there got a full night of energetic and entertaining performances. It's just a shame there weren't more people there to appreciate Megafauna's show along with the three regional bands that opened.

005 Hillary Hand
Hillary Hand & the Roseliers from Colorado Springs opened the show. Like most ampersand bands, "somebody & the somethings", the Roseliers provide a showcase for Hillary Hand's songs and voice. That's not an indictment of the band's ability; they were talented set of musicians. But they muted their own personalities and playing so that Hillary Hand was never eclipsed.

011 Hillary Hand
Most of the time, the players seemed caught up in their own parts, although the backup singer, Melinda Hand, did interact a bit with rest of the band and with us. Where the others either checked in with Hillary or stared down at their instruments, Melinda looked around more, smiled, and made eye contact. Unfortunately Hillary came across as fairly shy and a bit nervous, so she didn't command all the attention that she could have.

009 Hillary Hand
Despite that, she and Roseliers had some very good material, with interesting structures and contrasting soft and loud moments. The tunes varied a bit in style, from a light country feel reminiscent of Emmylou Harris backed by a more modern rock band to dreamy pop songs. Hand had the vocal versatility to follow along, from a subtle twanged folk to ethereal fragility. She also seemed adept at finding a harder edge under the velvet. The guitarist, Joseph Degalia, stood out the most musically, with some nice chops. He had a good ear and a subtle touch, especially on slide. He never upstaged Hand, but his fills added some complexity against her keyboard lines.

007 Hillary Hand
By the end of their set, I appreciated their nuanced style. Then they threw a real curve ball. "Run Like A Rabbit" launched with a synth-pop/electro-pop feel that didn't mesh with their earlier sound. The band was more than competent enough to pull it off, but it was a weird outlier. The rest of the songs had a kind of eclectic continuity, but this felt a bit odd.

020 Bear
If the Roseliers had a handle on soft to loud transitions, Bear. took that a couple of levels further, playing a good set of indie rock that featured plenty of thrashy breaks. Songs would settle into a solid drive, driven by the syncopated drums and punchy bass, but then interludes of cathartic frenzy would erupt as if the band couldn't withhold any longer.

038 Bear
Frontman Will Livingston dominated the stage with a huge personality and big movements. With his unpredictable shifts of persona, he was entertaining like somebody's drunk uncle. He was personable and clearly meant well, but he was mercurial as he surrendered himself to the music and acted out. When he was seriously engaged in the song, he radiated an intensity, but he could flip and be fairly meta and "ironic" too. Livingston spent most of the set on guitar but switched to keys for the last couple of tunes. He flailed around less on keyboards, but he still bounced in his seat.

023 Bear
The second guitarist, Bruce Butler, didn't try to compete with Livingston. He was quiet on stage, but he was an excellent player, laying down some metallic riffage and memorable fills. Bass player Dylan Camacho was also quite focused on his playing, but had a good physical presence with constant movement as he effortlessly held the bottom end. Rather than random motion, though, he favored more choreographed moves.

042 Bear
Most of their songs had a quick hard edge, but they also played a new tune that was poppy and uplifting. At the end of that final song, Livingston thanked us as it seemed to wind down, but then he ran to grab his guitar for the final chord. I'm not sure if this was a stunt or reaction to the sound problems he had had with his keyboard, but it was just another bit of sudden movement to cap their set

044 Instant Empire
Watching Instant Empire on stage, I have no sense of how these six guys ever met and came together. Various pairs appeared reasonably matched, but overall, they seemed to come from different ages, core musical backgrounds, and fashion styles. Despite that, their music was very well-executed, with each player knowing his role and smoothly covering his part. They played a mix of punk and post-punk rock, but they had a very immediate sound, without much sense of retro aspirations.

047 Instant Empire
In general, I really enjoyed them, although the horrible fuzzed out keys on the first song were fairly off-putting. Imagine something like a staticky loose cable, but tuned, and you'll have an idea of what I mean. Fortunately, he picked some more complementary patches later in the set.

045 Instant Empire
Lead singer Scotty Saunders owned the stage with his theatrical flair. Every moment had the perfect stylized gesture and facial expression. He'd prance one moment, then lunge forward menacingly in another. At times, his over-emoting got right up to the edge of campy, but never crossed over, in large part because it seemed like a natural part of his personality. It also helped that his vocals showed some diversity as they ranged from shout rap-singing to tight new wave crooning to punk proclamation. Most of the band let Saunders take the spotlight, but bass player Aaron Stone challenged him in his bid for the crowd's attention. The interaction was positive, though, with Stone being more exuberant than attention-starved.

058 Instant Empire
It's also worth noting that this was the first show for Instant Empire's new drummer. He did a great job keeping up with the rest of the band as they flew through the tunes in tight formation. Their show was an energetic springboard to set up Megafauna's performance.

088 Megafauna
Megafauna's Dani Neff is not one of the most impressive female guitarists around, she's just one of the best guitarists period. She has enough jaw-dropping talent to sidestep the whole question of gender. Where many strong women players are forced to either trade on their sexuality or try to out-butch the boys, Neff doesn't acknowledge either of those paths as necessary or interesting. Taking in her performance at the Moon Room, I didn't miss that kind of posturing, because it was all about the music and face-melting, ear-shredding tone that Neff could wring out of her guitar.

080 Megafauna
I'll confess that, like most guitarists, when I watch another player, I often think about how I would approach the piece myself and judge their skills. Someone might be a little quicker than me, but I might still feel that my phrasing or tone are better. Neff's mastery of the guitar left me nothing but humbled and grateful to witness it.

085 Megafauna
While she could have carried the show completely on her own, the rest of her band rose to the challenge, showing off their own significant technical skills. Bass player Bryan Wright was a second focal point, both musically and visually. Reflecting the band's earlier lineup as a trio, he took over some of the rhythm guitar duty, easily tracking all of the twists and turns to these songs. Drummer Zach Humphrey was a busy player, building up syncopated complexity on the straight rock sections, but also driving the more interesting time signature changes. He had a dramatic sense of dynamics; he could knock the shit out of the drums, then drop back to cymbal work when the tune called for it. I did feel a little sorry for John Musci, the rhythm guitar player, because he spent most of the set completely in Neff's shadow, but his contribution to the foundation was important.

077 Megafauna
Megafauna led off with tribal drum beat and guitar whine of "Hug From A Robot," which set the stage for the rest of the night. The song borrowed heavily from classic rock, with a bit of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" crossed with Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic". They mine some of the same veins as Earl Greyhound, juxtaposing an insistent rhythmic drive with more thoughtfully paced vocals. Like many songs in their set, the band could dissolve from a throaty roar of fuzz to shredding out a flurry of notes.

089 Megafauna
After staking out their claim to classic hard rock and then edging into early heavy metal, they quickly expanded their musical sensibility and became harder to pigeonhole. Songs might incorporate blues, then fusiony jazz. They usually stayed centered on that dark heaviness, but even if they were locked in a psychedelic grind, they could turn into utterly unique directions. This constant possibility of surprise held the audience enthralled. Hypnotized by the groove, we were carried along, whether they leaped into hardcore thrash or shifted into El Ten Eleven or Trail of Dead style post-rock. Although Megafauna favored these lightning quick stylistic jumps, they were always in service to the song, much like their surprising time or key changes.

093 Megafauna
Through it all, Neff retained a rock star presence, knowing how to pose for effect, but never letting up her guitar assault. She'd casually slash at her guitar, but the sound was anything but sloppy. Even at the ecstatic height of a solo, she struck with precise control. The band's forays out from their hard rock core gave her plenty of room to vary her playing from wicked minor pentatonic runs to outside, chromatic riffs that naturally interlocked with the bass. More than just a guitarist, though, Neff adroitly covered vocals, changing character to fit each tune. One song might feature a less twangy version of X's Exene Cervenka style punk, but she could also summon a good gothy darkness like Siouxsie Sioux and a haunting, ethereal tone that suggested Björk in her saner moments. Of course, her singing didn't diminish her playing at all.

076 Megafauna
Bottom line: if talent ruled the world, we would be Dani Neff's loyal subjects. Barring that, we'll have to settle for worshipping her and Megafauna by buying their album on Bandcamp.

More photos on my Flickr.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Recording review - Fujiya & Miyagi, Artificial Sweeteners (2014)

Settling for Kraut-tronica dance grooves, if that's a thing

Atists often treat their careers as metaphorical sharks; if they aren’t moving forward, they’ll suffocate and die. So they “broaden their direction,” they reinvent themselves or, if they’re particularly full of it, they “recontextualize their artistic statement.” Half the time that means that they only change the story around their music, but no one wants to admit that their groove may be just fine. The unspoken risk is that when an act does actually veer off into something surprising, they may jump the shark rather than ride it, but bands bow to pressure and take that chance all the time. Following that mindset, there’s a sense that we should look down on bands that merely settle. Fujiya & Miyagi apparently considered that conventional wisdom when they started on Artificial Sweeteners and decided not to play the game. Although the album makes minor tweaks to the formula that they followed on 2011’s Ventriloquizzing, the band doesn’t seem driven to break new ground or import trendier sounds into their music. While they turn up the dance beats and damp the psychedelic edge a bit, they still happily draw on the same palette of Krautrock, synth-pop, and electronica they’ve used in the past.

The one new thing they bring to this project is a conscious sense of irony. This begins with the album title itself; between the detached engagement of David Best’s vocals and the smooth sheen of the music, it delivers a kind of sweetened artifice. But rather than saccharine pop, they fill the album with insistent beats and electro-pop polish. On the title track, which seems to be a casually delivered shot at the music industry, Best sings “Superficial/ Super superficial/ Superficial sweeteners,” essentially making it clear that words are not the band’s strong point. Indeed, most of the album’s lyrics tend towards repetitive slogans that mostly serve to justify the song titles. But fortunately the music generally redeems the pieces. In this particular case, the song’s motorik rhythm and synth-pop melody set a droll mood and a smug disaffection that calls back to Brian Eno-era Roxy Music.

Artificial Sweeteners starts out strong with “Flaws”. A harsh wash of synth lays the groundwork for a steady beat keyboard riff. But, with the inevitability of impending catastrophe, the pace picks up to mutate the piece into a danceable mechanical groove. Best is at his most engaged, actually injecting a bit of inflection into his singing as light psychedelic touches creep into the edges. Over the course of almost six minutes, the piece surveys Fujiya & Miyagi’s Krautrock influences. They fuse Kraftwerk’s restless rhythmic drive with Can’s surrealistic tension and add a veneer of electro-pop verve. Like the title track, the combination evokes a Brian Eno feel, but this time it’s a more derivative version, like Talking Heads’ Fear of Music or David Bowie’s Low.

The band hits their stride though with the instrumental track, “Rayleigh Scattering”. Geeky physics allusion aside, this tune comes closest to evoking the tension that infused Ventriloquizzing. The synthesizers fan out in flickering minimalistic arpeggios and sparkling glints while the bass and drums lock the beat into a tight, unstoppable force. It manages to be both expectant and inevitable. But although the song is quite enjoyable, it’s not a new step for the band or for electronic music in general.

On the first listen or two through Artificial Sweeteners, this pervasive complacency was exasperating; it felt like the band was unwilling to challenge themselves. Over time, though, I came to appreciate how Fujiya & Miyagi dedicate each tune to a particular groove, letting the song’s personality emerge. It’s hard to tell whether this strategy will pay off; their current fans along with the wider audience may not find enough novelty to make Artificial Sweeteners stand out. It’s a safe bet, though, that their music will continue to find its way into commercials and soundtracks, where their thematic focus will provide the biggest bang.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

History lesson: Elvis Costello, Brutal Youth (1994)

A revisit reveals the depths

Is older really wiser? By 1994, the angry, bitter young man of My Aim Is True, Next Year’s Model, and Armed Forces had long vented most of his vitriol. The year before, Elvis Costello had dabbled in chamber music on The Juliet Letters, which suited his eclectic nature, but, like many other fans, I still hoped that 1994′s Brutal Youth would break a string of less interesting releases. “13 Steps Lead Down” and “20% Amnesia” provided some joy, but I was still disappointed. It would have been foolish to expect him to retrace old ground, but it seemed more like he was slowing down and getting too old to summon the angry energy of those early albums. While I never purged it from my collection, I haven’t really listened to it in the 20 years since then. But coming back and giving it a fresh listen, I’m struck by how strong an album it is. Some of that perspective comes with my own growth, but it’s clear now that Costello was well on his way to developing an adult voice that blended his acid words and attitude with his strong ear for pop harmony and taut arrangements. He had already outgrown most of the behavioral excesses of his youth and this album shows him internalizing musical lessons from pop masters like Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, and Harry Nilsson. If he’s now recognized as a masterful writer and sought-after collaborator, this album plays a strong role in building that reputation.

Take “You Tripped at Every Step”, which initially comes across as a bit too mannered with its single-line chorus and simple harmonies. Costello gently croons over the polished pop surface, straining his vocal range at the edges, but the tune is perfectly balanced. Steve Nieve leads into the song with a striking piano intro, but then drops back to let Bruce Thomas’ bass take control. Nieve then alternates between tasteful organ fills and light piano accompaniment. His touch is delicate, letting the bass and drums provide most of the support for Costello’s vocal. For such a sparse arrangement, the track is remarkably full, largely due to the rich harmonic progression, especially the soaring, Beatlesque bridge. With each perfectly timed hand-off, it’s a treat to hear the Attractions together again, even if they’re playing pop rather than new wave.

But my stronger appreciation is not just due to my own maturity; pop music itself has grown up and caught up to Costello’s sensibility. While there are still plenty of teen idols making easily dismissed pop fluff, there’s been a renaissance of sharply focused pop writers since then, from Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) and Jill Sobule to Mel Krahmer (Sirsy) and Mark Mulcahy. Costello’s flair on Brutal Youth didn’t likely inspire this aesthetic, but that context does make it easier to appreciate what he and producer Mitchell Froom accomplished. Each tune on the album receives a similar treatment. They present a placid pop veneer for accessibility, but the surface masks a musicality inspired by the kind of smart writing that Bacharach and Hal David effortlessly encoded in their seminal work of the 1970s. Where Costello had earlier copied his idols to create pastiches like “Baby Plays Around” (Spike, 1989), now his understanding is more intuitive and original. He matches his icons’ craftsmanship to his own trademark style – breathless delivery, dense word work and a strong appreciation for his own cleverness and oblique references – and the combination connects to the desperation and audacity of his first three albums while still showing his development as a writer. That’s the beauty of this album: sneers and snarls may be his stock in trade, but the song arrangements show that he’s sweated over the delicate shading of the background figures, as much in service to his own sense of musical perfection as for our benefit.

Those first impression songs – the thrashy “13 Steps Lead Down” and the theatrical “20% Amnesia”, along with the restrained contempt of “Sulky Girl” – are still favorites, if only for reasons of continuity, but they reveal the same artistic strength. Some of their appeal is certainly tied to hearing the Attractions back in classic form, as well as appreciating lines that allude to a more intriguing backstory like, “When nobody knows/ She puts on secret clothes / And lies in the meadow with her hands tied behind her back.” But Costello’s compositions are compelling and, lacking the sonic clichés of blues or classic rock, listeners are pulled in to the songs by novelty to be satisfied by the depth.

(This appreciation first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Recording review - Wye Oak, Shriek (2014)

Muted reinvention can't make a sharp impact

Wye Oak eases into Shriek with the distracted track, “Before”. While the album’s title suggests strong emotions and a cathartic release, this opening song is curiously detached from all outside influences. The lyrics relate an amnesiac’s distracted and confused perspective, but lead singer Jenn Wasner is utterly unruffled. The steady beat of reality is held slightly at bay by the dreamy keyboard washes and serves as an apt setting for someone who feels like “I have never lived/ Or else forgot.” Robbed of expressive intensity, that clockwork rhythm still adds a tension that is never resolved within the confines of the piece. The title track follows, but any hope of resolution quickly fades. The tight indie pop loop offers airbrushed beauty rather than any kind of edge. The pretty sway of the music takes the sonic soul of Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” and filters it through a synth pop sieve. The prickling sense of expectancy and possibility is softened, leaving an amorphous fluidity that offers no grasping point. There’s no question that Wasner’s full, lush voice is an improvement over David Gilmour’s, but, although Gilmour is not a particularly moving singer, he connects with his theme in a deeper way than Wasner can.

This is the fundamental problem with Shriek. Wye Oak has reinvented themselves, abandoning guitar for keyboards and bass. But their new incarnation can’t summon the highs and lows that used to come naturally. Instead, everything is muted and held at arm’s length, like they’re playing on anti-depressants. Reinvention itself is not the issue. Bands have to grow artistically and Wasner and her partner Andy Stack made it clear that a change was necessary for the group to survive. They’ve publicly discussed their burnout and self-doubt in the wake of touring for their 2011 release, Civilian, and moving toward a more electronic sound is certainly intended to push them outside of their comfort zone. Unfortunately, they’ve melted all too complacently into the big sea of electronic pop bands. The group retains the relaxed dreaminess and simple harmonic progressions from their old songs and Wasner’s singing is still warm and rich, but the dynamic shifts that made them stand out are gone along with the guitar. Some of Civilian’s sharp contrasts were tied specifically to that instrument; listen to the layers of seething guitar jump-starting “Holy Holy” or the raw eruption in the middle of the title song. But even Stack’s drumming was livelier and more visceral on their last outing; the loose flow on “Hot as Day” and the nuanced support on “We Were Wealth” serve as fine examples of what he can do.

Not all of the new material is run of the mill, though. When they fully sink into their new sound and then push some boundaries, Wye Oak manages to generate a little more excitement. The bass and drums on “Glory” create a darkly pensive flow, with restless synth framing that adds to the disquiet. The chorus brightens the mood briefly, but the bridge is where the band shines. They sink into an interlude of funky percussion and simmering electronica. Mutated riffs ripple and distort for a short bit of savory disorientation. That pearl of chaos enlivens the whole track, as whammy bent fill notes ride with the song to its conclusion. Later, “Paradise” mines a different lode of dissonance, with hazy shards of feedback lurking under the staccato surface of the tune. The organic noise is welcome, but the way the tune blooms into open moments of calm is a callback to the band’s earlier work. That may be as much of a connection to the past that fans can get. The consolation is that, while dissociation and distraction blunt Wye Oak’s impact on Shriek, Wasner’s singing is sweeter than ever.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Recording review - Woods, With Light and With Love (2014)

Little clarity, but plenty of relaxed acceptance

Woods’ 2011 album Sun and Shade offered truth in advertising, tempering their bright folk sound with hazy if not truly dark psychedelia. Their followup, Bend Beyond (2012), honed that edge with songs that balanced simple acoustic strums and delicately distorted fills. On With Light and With Love, the band continues along the same path. While each of these records makes its own statement, Woods hasn’t wavered or evolved their aesthetic approach along the way. Instead, they’ve polished their studio and songwriting skills to approach their ideal: the sunny side is distilled into crystalline clarity, and the shade offers hints of mystery and hidden connections.

The album opens with the lazy beat and light steel tones of “Shepherd”. The song evokes both Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Graham Nash’s solo work. If every tune has a perfect home where it belongs – “We Will Rock You” in the stadium, “Us and Them” in headphones on a dorm room floor – then the beautiful simplicity of this tune calls for a starry mountain night with friends and a campfire. Jeremy Earl’s breathy falsetto is lightly flanged and distant, making him less a friend offering perspective than a niggling voice of conscience, “Look out, what’s upon you?/ It’s a shepherd for your sorrow/ And this one, it burns for me and for you.” Earl’s words are rarely self-consciously oblique, and they sound good in the ear, but, on closer inspection, real meaning is elusive. Maybe the vocal treatment muddies the lyrical water, but it’s hard to make sense of lines that sound like, “A skull for roses bleeds the past/ it’s the shape that never lasts/ And this one, it grows for you.” If the literal message is vague here, the ambiance of the tune is clearer. That pattern persists through With Light and With Love. The band’s musical prowess has improved, but their lyrical skills are still lagging.

The album’s climax comes relatively early, with the nine minute title track that showcases Woods’ love of heady noodling. The steady progression stalks forward, anchored by a rich melodic bass and attended by meandering electric fills. In this context, Earl’s high pitched singing sounds like John Gourley from Portugal. The Man, but the vocals are not really the point. The real focus is the mix of pensive tension and resolute action. There are long periods where the guitar lead chatters in the right channel, full of sound and fury, but when it desists, it reveals a keyboard riffing hypnotically, low in the mix. Near the five minute mark, after another chaotic splash of acidic guitar distortion, the instruments drop away and the song becomes a Pink Floyd tribute. With simple organ chords and a heartbeat bass, it’s a bit like “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” for a short respite before an earlier motif reasserts itself with ragged energy. Unlike Bend Beyond, which reined in the band’s excesses, Woods shows absolutely no restraint as they ride this epic piece through its changes.

The long-form jam of “With Light and With Love” seems to open the floodgates, allowing spacy details to permeate the following tracks more fully than the first songs. The bridge in “Moving To The Left” slips into surrealism, spaceship sound effects kick off the retro sunshine psych of “Twin Steps” and the end of “Feather Man” descends into an ambient meltdown. But none of these hallucinatory ripples overcome the band’s peaceful sense of acceptance. Woods maintains a dreamy Zen detachment that emphasizes the light and an abstract love.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Recording review - Lonesome Shack, More Primative (2014)

Evocative and restless, simplicity offers a rich palette

The guitar strings pop and tick like a cooling engine, hinting at long drives and endless roaming. The smell of hot blacktop seems to hang in the background of each of Lonesome Shack's heavy blues cuts on More Primitive, along with an acrid hint of Southern pine. There's no question that the Seattle trio is a blues revival group; you can hear their reverence for classic moans and foot stomping grooves. While they've clearly listened to their share of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Slim Harpo, you can hear the influence of follow-on interpreters like Duane Allman, Billy Gibbons, and Jack White in the mix as well. But unlike the crowded room sound of the Allman Brothers or the electric burn of ZZ Top, Lonesome Shack emulates their bluesman heroes and locks into the simplicity of a shuffling guitar and wavery vocals. While they round out the sound with light bass and a bare-bones rhythm, each song falls into a hypnotic trance of restless guitar vamps.

More Primitive opens with their moody lead single, "Wrecks", which taps into the dark boogie beat of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillin'". The steady bass throb and unadorned drumbeat both stand back to give the moaning guitar and reedy vocals room to dance. The video dubs some feral dogs barking into the background, but the album version knows that those theatrical touches are unnecessary. The tempo builds and Ben Todd's playing is almost frantic as he and the band reach the end of their rope after they sing the final chorus, "Now she's gone/ So gone/ If only I could tell her how I feel." But it's too late for anything but the regret.

The title track is a great example of how Lonesome Shack can bottle up nervous tension. Kristian Garrard pits his kick drum against the snare and Luke Bergman's bass adds an implacable force. By contrast, Todd's vocal is defiantly casual, "All I want to do/ Is hammer and swing." The relentless repetition of the main groove perfectly supports the idea of wanting to live "more primitive." The tune ties in with the band's mythology, which is rooted in Todd's time living in the lonesome shack he built himself in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.

Despite the grounded purity of Lonesome Shack's blues aesthetic, the band never falls into formulaic patterns. Part of this is because they harness adaptable vamps rather than a 12-bar structure. This another lesson they've learned at Hooker's feet and it means that the songs don't smear together into an undifferentiated mass. The beats vary and Todd changes up his delivery to connect to different facets of his personality. So, the trapped feel of "Medicine" is completely different than the matter-of-fact fatalism of "Trying To Forget". The last two tracks offer some bigger changes, with a stutterstep rocker ("Big Ditch") and a jazzy "Dazed and Confused"-style turn ("Evil"), but these songs still preserve the open sonic space that makes this such a strong album. It's the sound of bug zappers sparking on a sweltering summer night or the Sunday morning dew misting off the front porch rail. It's a mainline into introspective memory. It's exactly what Lonesome Shack claims, it's More Primitive.