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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Recording review - Team Spirit, Killing Time (2014)

Forever young and other deals with the Devil

Some 18 months ago, Team Spirit dropped their five song self-titled EP and it's little exaggeration to say that I've been waiting for their first full length release ever since. Their infectious blend of thrash, pop, and muscular dual guitar riffage made them one of my favorite acts of 2013. Killing Time captures the manic energy of their live performances with a well-crafted set of songs that delivers on the promise of that first taste.

The album leads off with"Surrender", and although it's not a cover of the Cheap Trick classic, it's easy to hear that band's influence in the uptempo staccato beat and the chorus harmonies. The lyrics are soaked in the turmoil and ambivalence of teen love. Tired of being toyed with but still drawn back to the flame, front man Ayad Al Adhamy is left with no other choice but to surrender. He yo-yos between sneering attitude and helpless fascination, driven by the punk guitar thrash. Of course, all of this is effectively trumped by the revelation that "It's too late to help me / Cause I made a deal with the devil / And I'll be forever young," which goes a long way towards explaining Team Spirit's magic. Al Adhamy wears his teenage heart on his sleeve and, like Joey Ramone, it doesn't really matter how long it's been since his high school years. He taps into the angst, the naïveté, and the seething emotions of adolescence, and distills them into tight servings of pop punk perfection.

I've often referred to my love of "snotty boys with guitars" and Team Spirit knocks that out of the park with a sound that links back to Too Much Joy and The Refreshments along with punk idols, The Ramones. But they also have a polished pop attitude that doesn't get mired down in simple blues-based progressions. Even a darkly heavy track like "Closer" can't quite settle for a single facade. The initial splash of New Order introduction gives way to a thick tidal wash of guitars, while the sneering vocals come straight from the garage or fuzz-warped basement. This kind of layered experience is typical of these tunes. Team Spirit is equally happy, regardless of whether listeners head bang along or pick up on the danceable drive of the songs. Along the way, they toss out plenty of interesting perspectives that may be missed the first time around underneath the low-fi grind, but they give Killing Time some real staying power.

In many of these songs, Al Adhamy takes on a borderline persona, like the hapless character in "Teenage Heart" who tries his best to talk his way out of trouble ("C'mon, c'mon/ Come on, Baby, give me another second chance") even though it's clear that it's a hopeless task. He may have forgotten to tell his girl that he suffers from a teenage heart, with all the hormonal fluctuation that incurs, but there's no way she's going to fall for that. Again. "Cool Guy", on the other hand, wallows in indecision about whether to commit or walk away from trouble, "I'm trying to convince you/ I want you to convince me, too" but can't get much beyond, "I'm trying to convince myself/ That you are worth all of this Hell."

That 18 month lag since their debut EP included plenty of changes for Team Spirit with Al Adhamy losing his original bandmates fairly early on, but he quickly regrouped with a solid line up that includes Daniel de Lara and Alex Russek holding down the rhythm and Kieren Smith on guitar. While these guys bring their own personalities to the mix, Killing Time shows that the band never abandoned their core thrashy attitude or dedication to party-time rock. Turn it up to 11 and soak it in. Then, when Team Spirit makes it to your corner of the world, come out and see what rock and roll is in all its exuberant glory.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Coming attractions - Primus, "Golden Ticket"

Here come the Bastards. 

Well, that was my first instinct when I heard that Primus' next release would be an homage to the classic "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory". But the more I thought about Les Claypool's cracked reflection juxtaposed with Gene Wilder's beloved character, some of the ludicrous logic began to make a kind of warped sense. The big question in my mind is whether he'd find his own expression of Wonka or whether it would owe more to Johnny Depp's spin. Primus' dark slant argues for the latter, but the earlier taste of "Pure Imagination" was sufficiently intriguing that any real judgment will have to await Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble. Part Tom Waits inspired percussion (thanks, Mike Dylan) and part uneasy Claypoolean dreaminess, the song is pure Primus weirdness, but the focused moodiness has a calculated clarity that contrasts well with the hyper-attack the band is usually known for.

"Golden Ticket" offers another stop along their re-imagining of the "Willy Wonka" soundtrack. Claypool's moping, weary intro belies the optimistic lyrics, "I never had a chance to shine/ Never a happy song to sing/ But suddenly half the world is mine/ What an amazing thing." Then the tune launches into a martial beat borrowed from "Here Come the Bastards". It doesn't take long for Claypool to assume his twisted Ringmaster persona.  Although Claypool chews the scenery true to form, the music stands up well for itself.  Like their version of "Pure Imagination", the syncopation drives the tune and Sam Bass' cello solo is an expressive treat. There's also a precision that evokes Frank Zappa at his best.

I'm still not quite willing to swallow the ("Primus Bar") chocolate bars whole, but looking over the songlist which parallels the original soundtrack, I find myself eager to hear the Primus take on "The Rowing Song", "Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride", which seems to be right in their wheelhouse.

Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble is due to release on October 21.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Recording review - Cymbals Eat Guitars, LOSE (2014)

Growing up is serious work

Cymbals Eat Guitars filled their 2009 debut Why There Are Mountains with a tangled jumble of musical interests. Despite the roller coaster ride, the album worked, maybe because of how the shorter tunes broke up the more sweeping tracks. Since then, the band has tried to tame their urge to run off in a hundred different directions and LOSE generally provides something closer to pop structure than they’ve managed before. That said, the opening track, “Jackson”, is a callback to their debut even as it attempts to reach a wider audience. It’s catchy, with soaring pop vocals, but it also juxtaposes a grab bag of ideas into its sprawling six and a quarter minutes.

Initially, it sounds like a big Trail of Dead setup: a dreamy opening dissolves into a circling wave of loudness. Percussion drives the tension while tiers of guitar infuse it with epic intent. But where Lenses Alien (2011) would have milked that into a full-blown exploration, “Jackson” intentionally lets the power slip away, leaving behind a thoughtful post-punk progression. Frontman Joe D’Agostino sounds calm but strained as he starts, “You’re taking two Klonopin/ So you can quit flippin’ and face our friends.” His voice is a bit ragged, which fits the sense of loss that permeates this whole project. The new wave simplicity of this section is eventually buried under thicker walls of indie pop guitar. He catalogs a headful of experiences with wistful poignancy as his falsetto is backed with guitar jangle, but before it tips into maudlin self-pity, clashing discord reveals the underlying angst with fluttering horns and waves of distortion. The meandering lead jam resurrects the original Trail of Dead feel to close out the piece.

The backstory is that LOSE is effectively D’Agostino’s music therapy for working through his grief of a good friend’s untimely death. Looming larger than that, though, is a more universal theme of growing up. Like the rest of the album, ”Jackson” wrestles with nostalgia, mortality and the painful clarity that comes with adulthood. Some tracks may explicitly refer to D’Agostino’s friend, Benjamin High, but that loss is really just the trigger for trying to make sense of a long overdue post-adolescence. From song to song, the lyrics vary in their degree of obliqueness – Cymbals Eat Guitars have always held their cards close to their chests – but they all circle around random recollections, tales of self and substance abuse and the niggling survivor’s guilt that can kick in as the years pile on and the friends slip away.

If that seems to hit harder than you’re ready for, that’s okay, because the band has worked out the math so that listeners can choose how deeply to immerse themselves. Tease out the words from D’Agostino’s raw vocals or visit the lyrics link on their website and you can soak in all the darkness you can handle. But plenty of the songs juxtapose music that contrasts with the cathartic lines, from the mellow wistfulness of “Child Bride” to the cool Berlin-style new wave pop of “Chambers”. A shallow ear will still catch ominous phrases – “‘Til your dad slapped the living shit out of you,” or “The panic sets in, cause nothing’s happening,” – but it’s easy to surrender to the rhythmic drive and interlocked layers of guitar so they glance off.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track, but it comes down to “Place Names” or “Laramie”. The former is a moody Jane’s Addiction set piece. D’Agostino’s swooping proclamations capture Perry Farrell’s lazy falsetto and the song is filled with shimmering swirls of feedback static. Cymbals Eat Guitars have had this sound in their arsenal since the beginning, but the frayed thread of lyrical logic fills it with sacred poetry and profane pronouncements. “Laramie”, on the other hand, is another nomadic journey across genres, like “Jackson”. It starts with a dreamy glam glory, but manages to blend in a weird post-rock experimentalism. The latter half heads off into other directions, turning from driving rocker to indie acid rock meltdown. Despite the gear-stripping changes, there’s an internal logic that keeps the piece on track.

Cymbals Eat Guitars have come a long way since their debut and LOSE is certainly their strongest release yet. The challenge will come with their next album. Now that they’ve confronted adulthood, will they actually grow up or will they linger in this shadowy twilight? If they do step forward, will they find something interesting and new to say? Based on their growth to date, I’m betting that they will.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Coming attractions: Negativland, "Right Might"

Gather 'round, kids, while I tell you about the biggest punks and anarchists that ever released an album. Sure Black Flag was hardcore and the Butthole Surfers were a chaotic, artistic mess, but Negativland managed to fight the system and spit in the face of authority without relying on mere guitar thrash to carry their message. Instead, they pioneered audio editing to create sonic collages with subversive themes. Their first album, Negativland was released in 1980, but I didn't find out about them until their 1987 record, Escape From Noise. I still remember being floored by the audacity of "Christianity is Stupid", which sampled a preacher, turning his message on its head. They later achieved much wider exposure because of the lawsuits over their 1991 EP, U2, which sampled the Irish band and an obscenity-laced Casey Kasem rant. They eventually made their case for fair use.

In the years since, Negativland hasn't been completely idle, but their last release was a good six years ago. That dry spell is ending with a new album, It's All in Your Head, due October 28. Continuing their history of thumbing their noses at the popular and powerful, this album arose from an unusual gift: access to Disney's private audio archives. The source is appropriately cloaked in mystery, but Negativland asked for and received countless hours of material. It should come as little surprise that they're not only poking their fingers in Disney's eye, but they're continuing their challenge of religion's place in society. You can bet that this sound from the happiest place on earth is going to piss off a lot of people.

The first taste they're offering is "Right Might", which splices up the animatronic Abraham Lincoln to offer up a commentary on faith and Christianity's Dominion Theology. Based on an excerpt from the recording sessions for Disney's "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" attraction, voice actor Royal Dano offers up a host of takes on his line, "Let us have faith that right makes might." This is quickly transformed into "Let us have faith that right faith makes might right," and other variations, Accompanied by a downshifted version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", Dano is repeatedly cued by the producer to adjust his intonation to fine tune the nuance of the performance. The message becomes more strident and confrontational.

Much like the classic punk bands, Negativland is still focused on pushing buttons and generating outrage while making their point. On the plus side, they have honed their skills over the years and they're likely to garner more attention than Jello Biafra's post-Dead Kennedys lectures/rants. I'm going to guess that they've already shared their press material with the right wing Christian press to trigger the first wave of denouncements.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Interview - Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant

Ray Shulman played bass and a list of other instruments in the progressive rock band Gentle Giant. The band’s 1974 release, The Power and the Glory has been recently reissued (review), with remastering by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson. I spoke with Ray about the remastered package and Gentle Giant’s past.

Jester Jay: Hi, Ray. I’m very excited to talk with you about the reissue of The Power and the Glory. I know that you’ve had some interaction with Steven Wilson over the years. For example, you were credited with DVD authoring on his album, The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories).

Ray Shulman: I’ve worked with him for quite a while now on a few of his Blu-rays and DVDs. So, we got to know each other quite well.

JJ: Did that have anything to do with him getting involved in this project?

RS: A little bit. Actually, I found out that he was a fan of Gentle Giant and he’d been dying to do the remixes for a long time. It just became an opportunity. The timing was right. We were ready. We’d had offers from other people who wanted to mix it in surround (sound) before and we weren’t very enthusiastic. But because I knew Steven and I really like his work, I like what he does – I like him as an engineer, as a producer and he’s a great musician – the time was definitely right.

JJ: I would agree. He’s done a wonderful job with the King Crimson back catalog and his other projects. What did he bring to The Power and the Glory?

RS: We were happy with him. What we said was, “Do whatever you want. Do it how you feel. Don’t be dictated to by our mix, by the original mix. Just go ahead and do it.” But on the other hand, he’s so respectful of the past. He won’t do anything alien. Like, for instance, he wouldn’t use modern reverb or anything like that. He definitely has a reverence and respect for what we did back then. But what he brought… obviously, the technology has moved on enormously since we recorded the album and, in a way, I think that his philosophy is, “mix it how you would mix it if you were working today, bring that technology to bear, but don’t let it dominate.” To me, it sounds more open and a bit deeper. I think our original mix is really good, but he definitely brought a depth to it and an openness to it that I really like. Also, just the fact that when he mixed it in surround sound, he mixed it in 5.1 and that opened it up a lot for me. I really enjoyed his mixes.

JJ: In contrast to the 35th Anniversary reissue that Derek (Shulman) put together, I noticed that Wilson included the instrumental outtake from “Aspirations” instead of the live version of “Proclamation”.

RS: Steven just found that on the multi-track and I think he really enjoyed it. What it was, we did a couple of versions on that track, “Aspirations”. It’s more or less a jam in the studio; it’s basically one take and we’d just overdub a vocal, I believe. But we did it and we just couldn’t get the feel right. I think we went to the pub and after we came back from the pub, we decided to take a last try. That’s how it was. I think Steven found the outtake on the multi-tracks and he wanted to include it.

JJ: The regular album version is great, but this one really lets you focus on the smooth integration of all the musicians coming together on it. It has a very immediate sound. 

I had another question about the track list for the remaster. In the past, members of the band have expressed unhappiness with the title single, saying that it was an afterthought, that the record label came at the end, looking for a single. Do you still feel unhappy with that piece?

RS: In a way, you’re right. It wasn’t really part of the album. The record company at the time was definitely looking for a single, something they could take to radio. So, I think we recorded about three different tracks. We can never find the other two tracks. I think we had three goes at writing a short piece, a three minute piece and “The Power and the Glory” is ultimately what we were happiest with, but it was never going to be included on the album. Nowadays, it just has historic value, as opposed to any kind of intrinsic album value. It’s kind of a rarity, in a way.

JJ: I agree that it doesn’t quite fit the album, but it also doesn’t seem to be that bad a piece.

RS: No, exactly. And also, I think that, with time, you kind of mellow. Things you were kind of militant about at the time… time passes and you can see some kind of value in it.

JJ: Can you tell me about the DVD and Blu-ray?

RS: Yes, what happened was that when I knew that Steven was going to mix it, I thought, “What’s the best quality audio you can put out there?” At the moment, it’s really Blu-ray for uncompressed surround sound and 96/24 stereo and it’s DVD, which is somewhat lower quality, but it’s still high end audio. When we decided to do that, for the visual side, you can do captions for each song: just the title of the song appears on screen. But because I work in graphics as part of my day job – I do some motion graphics – I thought I’d have a go at doing something. I started off…I think the first track I did was “Cogs in Cogs”. I made up some motion graphics for it and I sent that to Derek (Shulman) and Kerry (Minnear) and they were really encouraging. They said, “This is great. Carry on and do it.” Any kind of spare time, I’d try to do something for each track. In the end, we ended up with an album full of visuals. It’s not a strict interpretation of the lyrics really; it’s more an interpretation of the music. Derek wrote the lyrics and, obviously, every listener can interpret them in different ways, but I just wanted to give something just to accompany it. Hopefully, the people who buy it will appreciate that.

JJ: Looking back at when Gentle Giant originally made this album, how did you develop your arrangements? You guys were all multi-instrumentalists, so how did you decide on the roles and textures for a particular piece?

RS: Well, myself and Kerry were the main music writers and Derek was the main lyricist. In the early days, we used to collaborate more: one section would be my section and one section would be Kerry’s. As time developed, we wrote whole pieces on our own. Kerry’s pieces, he’s a classically trained musician, so he’d almost write them orchestrally and even if you learned the parts by ear, they could be on manuscript. He’d share out his arrangement as he demoed it. Then later, in rehearsal, you’d add your own touches to it. Likewise, with mine, I’d write on guitar and when it came to giving Kerry a keyboard part, it made the keyboard part kind of unconventional because Kerry would play a guitar line on the keyboard and then embellish it with different implementations. In the studio, we’d always record a basic track, with just a bass, drums, basic keyboard and guitar. Then after that, we’d really experiment and try all these newfangled instruments, just to have a go on. Or even older instruments; we’d bring a pipe organ into the studio, just to see if it added any kind of textural thing to any particular song. There were also new, electronic instruments coming in at that time, as well. So, you’d want to just bring them in, even if you hadn’t worked out a fixed idea. If the texture fit, Kerry would always come up with a part that worked. It was like that, really.

JJ: Listening to a piece like “So Sincere”, it’s like a roller coaster ride. It runs through a host of musical ideas.

RS: That one is particularly well written. That’s one of Kerry’s tracks and it’s a fine piece of writing, I think. On any level, you could transcribe that as a score.

JJ: That’s part of what stands out about Gentle Giant’s music. The interesting rhythmic complexity has a well-crafted sound.

RS: It’s good you said that, because, at the time, it was hard to get a mass audience into that kind of sophisticated arrangement.

JJ: I know that some of your later material tried to find a wider audience and cross over. Bands like Yes and Genesis transitioned into a more popular sound. Was this a conscious attempt to move towards a more mainstream sound?

RS: It was, in a way. In order to continue, we always wanted to grow the audience. We were very aware that our early stuff was quite sophisticated. In a certain way, you almost needed to be a musician to understand it. As you say, a lot of our contemporaries were crossing over to a more mainstream audience. That must have been on our minds at the time, but there was always something holding us back. We could never quite fully do it. Even though on surface, we’d write a kind of commercial song, we’d always have to throw in something weird to entertain ourselves. But unfortunately, that also alienated the mass audience. It was never meant to be a mass audience kind of music. It should have just remained part of the underground, really.

JJ: Before I close, I’d like to hear about your more recent work. I know that you’ve worked a lot as a producer and as a composer. Can you tell me about some of these projects?

RS: I’ve done so much. Since the band, since 1980, I’ve done all kinds of things, always to do with music. When the band first broke up, I wrote music for advertising over here. It was very well-paid and I developed a knack for writing to order. I did that for quite a while, but I got bored with that. Then I went into production. In the late ‘80s throughout the ‘90s, I was in the studio all the time recording bands like the Sugarcubes, a band called the Sundays and lots of more independent bands. I enjoyed that for a while. After that, it was enough of the studio. I was spending so long in the studio, hours and hours, I really didn’t have any kind of home life. So, I decided to retire from production and the next thing I did was write music for computer games. I got into computers early on and loved them. I got into games and I started writing some soundtracks. And then, when DVDs came, I thought I’d learn how to do some graphics and I could work from home and make my living that way. And that’s what I’ve kept doing, really. I’ve had quite a diverse career, but it’s always about music and that’s where I am today.

JJ: It’s been a pleasure to talk with you and it’s been great to reacquaint myself with The Power and the Glory.

RS: Thank you ever so much.

(This interview first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Recording review - Gentle Giant, The Power and the Glory (Steven Wilson remaster) (2014/1974)

A timeless progressive treat shines for a younger audience

Steven Wilson is a sonic archaeologist, patiently brushing away the sand and the cruft to reveal the bright beauty of the past. The Porcupine Tree frontman divides his professional life between learning from the classic prog rock groups, celebrating their monumental accomplishments, and making his own contributions to the art. Ever since Robert Fripp bestowed his blessings on Wilson’s production work by inviting him to be the curator for the King Crimson back catalog, he’s tackled a number of his earliest influences and remastered their classic works with loving care. Gentle Giant’s The Power and the Glory (1974) is his latest project and he’s done a brilliant job of cleaning it up and fine-tuning the impact, both in stereo and in 5.1 surround sound. This engineering effort can be underestimated and undervalued, but the comparison between Wilson’s mix and my old vinyl (or what you may find online) is stunning. This release is rich and lively, and somehow newly relevant.

It helps a lot that this music is somewhat timeless. Sure, the complexity and technical expression are anchored in an early ’70s aesthetic, but Gentle Giant often struck out on their own path and weren’t really concerned with what their progressive contemporaries were doing. Moreover, the band members were each adept at multiple instruments and they could draw on a wide range of inspirations from folk to baroque to avant-garde jazz.

Wilson makes his mark from the start. “Proclamation” opens with a grey-noise wash of crowd sound quickly overtaken by an electric piano riff and the clarity is crisp. The mix cleanly separates Derek Shulman’s vocals from the sparse bars of keyboard; both are lightly reverbed but the delays are different enough to create a good separation between the two. The keyboards recall Supertramp’s early days, but the angular phrasing behind the vocals is distinctly tied to Gentle Giant’s sense of rhythm. By the third verse, the other instruments have joined the interlock. This sets up a tight melodic interlude that transitions through a series of moods. I can’t help but savor the interplay of beat and harmony as they mesh and separate. This is the band’s hallmark: the music is unpredictable and intricate, but a structure emerges and, by the end, the patient listener is rewarded as order coalesces.

The next track, “So Sincere”, winds its way between tentative, sidling melodies and stumbling King Crimson style exclamations. The stylized singing takes advantage of some very old-school close harmonies, but the most engaging feature is how the players stay tightly aligned, whether it’s the piano and guitar leapfrogging one another or a riff skittering across a series of instruments. This is among the more accessible tunes on the album, but it’s still quite challenging and far from casual listening music. The piece seems almost schizophrenic as it tries to encompass a feverish set of ideas in just under four minutes. Rather than providing no handle, there are a multitude of entry points and the song is too restless to let any dominate for long. But despite the challenges, they never drift off into incomprehensibility or self-indulgence.

The Power and the Glory proceeds through its allegory of idealism and corruption. It’s less heavy-handed than some concept albums, relying mostly on close attention to the lyrics, although “Valedictory” is more overt as a tarnished reworking of the themes from “Proclamation”. Along the way, Gentle Giant traipses across genres, showing off their many-faceted musical interests: a jazzy turn on “Aspirations”, intense fusion on “Cogs in Cogs”, folky touches on “No Gods A Man”, and the hard edge of “Valedictory”. Like the 2005 remastered version, Wilson’s package includes the title single that was never part of the original release. While the band has dismissed this track as atrocious, it really isn’t that bad, even if it’s a bit bouncier than the other songs. Where the 35th Anniversary edition included a live version of “Proclamation”, Wilson opts for an instrumental outtake of “Aspirations”, which works remarkably well in this form. Kerry Minnear’s piano anchors the piece along with Ray Shulman’s warm bass. Without the vocals, it’s easier to fall into the reverie of the groove.

Listening to The Power and the Glory now, it still stands out as a strong, coherent piece, but it also plays up the differences between Gentle Giant and their more long-lived contemporaries. The guys in Gentle Giant turned inward, spurring each other into deeper musical expression, while other bands like Yes, Genesis, and Styx, who were hardly dealing in trivialities, each found formulas to connect with a larger audience. Later in their career, the band would soften their intensity in a bid to make the same transition, but they never quite found the balance between the complexity of their ideas and the accessible clarity that the market demands. To their credit, they’ve never tried to resurrect the band in the years after their 1980 split, in recognition that they wouldn’t want to compromise on the integrity of their legacy. As this remastered version shows, their ideals powered a strong artistic vision and a musical aesthetic you rarely hear anymore.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Recording review - Got a Girl, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now (2014)

Moody pop with swinging retro French style

While it's not quite as surprising as finding out that Phil Collins is a recognized expert on the Alamo, you're still likely to be taken aback by Daniel Nakamura's deep appreciation for retro French pop. Dan the Automator is known for quirky and creative production, but his work with Got a Girl is refreshingly direct. Collaborating with the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Got a Girl fills I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now with chill sophistication and nuanced musical allusions that demonstrate an understanding of the genre without slavishly recreating the past. The two of them flow like top grade dance partners, effortlessly leveraging moody grooves into lush gems while drawing on contemporary pop.

Nakamura and Winstead met when they both worked on the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and that connection laid the groundwork for Got a Girl. They nailed down the idea for I Love You But as early as 2012, but it took a long time for the project to come to fruition. Along the way, Winstead contributed vocals to Deltron 3030′s Event 2. Listening to their work on that album, it’s hard to hear the continuity with Got a Girl’s sound, although there’s a hint of Winstead’s pop chops in her backing for “Looking at the Sky”. Of course, the Deltron project was a completely different animal, with Dan the Automator taking a more typical hip-hop approach on his beats and Winstead’s voice used more for texture than lead. Still, that contrast make this new release more satisfying for its ambiance.

The album sets the hook early, with “Did We Live Too Fast”. The carillon intro sets a thoughtful tone, and then the main groove drops the song into the middle of a ’60s mod movie. Winstead alternates between coy seduction and sultry distance, and Nakamura’s music masterfully supports her performance with horn punches and sighing strings. His arrangement captures the sense of the era, but it incorporates modern touches, periodically tagging lines with a light glitch skip or using a glaring synth melody on the bridge. As the title suggests, the lyrics are filled with both wistful nostalgia and jaded fatalism. The pair tap into that same vein again on “Things Will Never Be the Same”, this time getting darker and more theatrical.

Later, on “Close To You”, the synth instrumentation and disco rhythm push the album forward into the ’7Os, but the bridge reaches backward as it paraphrases the classic late ’60s hit, “Love Is Blue (L’Amour Est Bleu).” It’s almost subliminal and probably too subtle for younger listeners, but it shows that Nakamura has done his homework. Even the seemingly normal pop tunes like “I’ll Never Hold You Back” or “Last Stop” have a sparse beauty. Winstead uses these tracks to show her versatility; her voice opens and softens, complementing the sweet simplicity.

I Love You But is remarkably even with one exception, the poorly conceived “Da Da Da”. The rest of the album maintains a well-crafted sense of time and mood, but this one tune sabotages all of that work. The music doesn’t drift too far, but Winstead’s petulant boredom and the crass lyrics hit like a warm spray of spittle. This is clearly intended to be a joke, but as she announces, “This song is shit/ It sucks/ It’s a piece of shit,” her point is all too true. The slinky tension of the final song, “Heavenly”, does its best to recover, but the bad smell lingers. Unfortunately, it’s hard to unhear the offending track; the best I can do is delete it from the playlist and wait for its memory to fade.

(A version of this review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)