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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Favorite reviewed concerts of 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Favorite reviewed albums of 2014

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

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

#10 - Shonen Knife, Overdrive

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

#9 - Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

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

#8 - Lonesome Shack, More Primitive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

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

A demanding muse powers the evocative flow

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

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

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

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

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fresh single - Meatbodies, "Mountain"

Neo-psychedelia with a hit of a Adderall

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

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

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

Art punk intensity and choreographed primitivism

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

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

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

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