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

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.