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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Recording review - Tom Brosseau: Grass Punks (2014)

Stripped down, but emotionally distant

Few things are more direct and personal than a solo singer with his folk guitar. Everything is in plain sight and there’s little cover for emotional vulnerability. Traditional singer/songwriters like Nancy Griffith, Todd Snider, and Billy Bragg each offer different paths to entertainment, with sincerity and flashes of humor, but they all share an openness that grounds their music and touches audiences. On the surface, Tom Brosseau follows the same guide star. Grass Punks is a stripped down album, with most songs relying on a single vocal and paired instrumental tracks. But Brosseau keeps his cards close to his chest, using his pretty guitar to deflect the audience from delving too deeply into his stories.

The standout tune, “Cradle Your Device”, will be the one that everyone remembers. A commentary on our screen-filtered life, Brosseau passive-aggressively gestures to the technology as the root of his failed relationship. At the same time, the matter of fact accompaniment is objective and his singing is more wistful and musing than bitter or hurt. He’s covering some kind of a raw wound, but it suggests that the disconnection has its own backstory, one that he doesn’t want to deal with. The song is full of contrasts: the music provides a logical order, layered with staccato rhythm and counterpoint guitars, the words are pained and accusatory, but the vocal tone seems uninvested in the message and untouched by the rejection. I like the song, but that cognitive dissonance turns the piece into a Rorschach test. The more I listen, the more convinced I am that the breakdown in communication has little to do with his lover’s iPod.

Grass Punks eventually codifies Brosseau’s approach into a recipe. The musical surface is elegantly rendered. Two guitars find interlocking melodies and complete each other’s phrases with dexterous simplicity and light flourishes. In one case, “Gregory Page of San Diego”, he breaks it up by substituting a mandolin for one of the guitars, but that merely shifts the tonal center a touch higher in pitch. Brosseau’s vocals are similarly simple, with a touch of Marc Bolan falsetto. Occasionally a plaintive element creeps in, but he keeps his emotional connection shallow. A track like “Tami” may dwell in memories of a first kiss, but he doesn’t seem particularly moved, robbing the song of its full impact. Completing the formula, Brosseau’s lyrics often rely on an oblique sketchiness, where the subject is may actually just be a metaphor. That vagueness leaves the songs in a gray area. For example, in “Today Is A Bright New Day”, it’s unclear whether he’s revisiting the past in his mind or physically going back to the places he references.

Despite all of that, he conjures up several interesting moments, largely based on the musical mood he creates. On “Love High John The Conqueror Root”, he creates a satisfyingly uneasy scaffolding, built from a touch of ragtime guitar, a steady restless rhythm and a light veneer of discordance. The title line chorus doesn’t seem to tie to the verses, but the package is intriguing. “I Love To Play Guitar” offers another flavor of dissonance, pairing the music-box clockwork guitars with his lyrical theme of escaping life’s travails through music. Maybe this song and others are just a subtle joke and the mechanical feel is intentional.

Brosseau is certainly a talented player with a knack for wonderful folk guitar arrangements. But he seems to want it both ways: he hints at emotional complexity and introspective thoughts, but he’s unwilling to expose these feelings to direct scrutiny. Without that grounding, the pretty playing seems a bit sterile.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 2/24

I'm going to keep it dead simple this week. I have two shows to suggest and each one promises complete dedication to the groove.

Thursday, 27 February (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Friday, 28 February (Bluebird Theater, Denver CO)
Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Pimps of Joytime

068 Pimps of JoytimeThis twofer is the best deal you're likely to see. First up, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is a solid New Orleans ensemble that's equally comfortable digging deep into a trad jazz vein or funking it out modern style. The group has been around since 1977, but continues infusing itself with fresh musical boundaries to cross and conquer. Then, New Orleans mixes it up with Brooklyn for the funk masters, The Pimps of Joytime. I first heard about PoJ when a friend texted me from a show in Chicago to recommend them. When I saw them this last fall, they didn't just close out the bar with an eternally long set, they closed down the whole damn city. The two bands are trading off opening slots as they meander through the Rockies (and the rest of their tour), so I would expect a little friendly competition for these two nights at the Bluebird. Let them fight it out for soulful dominance; either way, the audience will be the winners.

Saturday, 1 March (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Keb' Mo'

Keb' Mo' is more than just an impressive blues guitarist and singer. Hell, there are plenty of whole churches that don't have the soul he brings to his music. What I appreciate the most is that, while he can easily bring enough flash to win a headcutting contest on technical merit alone, he knows that finding the heart of a song and connecting to the emotional foundations is more important than any exhibition of mere skill. This is one of the strongest artists around that can fully animate the blues.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Concert review - El Ten Eleven with Bronze Whale

Friday, 21 February 2014 (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)

Having a favorite band is often like walking a tightrope. You want them to stay comfortably the same, but not stagnant. You want them to offer up surprises without reinventing themselves into something unrecognizable. The bands often feel that pressure from the fans and it shows in their performance, either by going through the motions with a predictable set or in their frustration as they confront the audience with their "new sound".

El Ten Eleven seems oblivious to the challenge. Over the years, their music has evolved, but they've maintained a creative edge without complacency or belligerence. Having seen the band several times and reviewing their albums and show, it's a challenge to talk about their performance without plagiarizing myself: the duo continues to amaze with a savant blend of technical ability, enthusiastic stage presence, and moving music. 

015 Bronze Whale Regardless of whether you think of El Ten Eleven as math-rock, post-rock, or its own intense flavor of instrumental music, it's hard to see a synergetic connection between their set and an electro-dance opening act. Austin's Bronze Whale offered little to help draw that connection. The two DJs were mostly absorbed by their MacBook and the collection of mixers and other toys they brought along. If the pair had sonically played off one another or created any sense of interaction, it would have registered as more of a performance. Instead, their heavily layered tracks sounded like most of the work had happened long before this evening and their role was to hang back and admire what they had already done. 

001 Bronze Whale
The remix grooves themselves weren't bad, especially if you like electronic dance music, but their only effort to connect with the audience was to step back occasionally and move to the beat. The crowd responded autonomically to the rhythm with nods and swaying, but a fair number of the people who danced were carefully ironic. Late in these set, one of the DJs finally spoke and greeted the audience, but still offered little of his own personality. 

023 El Ten Eleven
As I mentioned, everything I've written about an El Ten Eleven show could be copied verbatim here and it would capture the essence of the band's performance. Even though two years has passed, all of the high points remain the same: Kristian Dunn's enthusiastically physical stage presence, the layered complexity of the music, Dunn's dexterous manipulation of guitar, bass, effects, and loops, and Tim Fogarty's intuitive drum work. That continuity, while impressive, is only the surface. The band has continued to evolve and refine their show. They've tweaked arrangements and added some new tunes -- "Nove Scotia" from their recent EP For emily was in the setlist -- and they've improved their stage lighting.

057 El Ten Eleven
Lighting is often taken for granted; it's ignored when things go well and only noticed when there's a problem. In this case, though, the musical mood changes were accentuated by the combination of on-stage lighting trees and overhead spots along with a delicate hand at transitions. 

037 El Ten Eleven
This performance also emphasized the real-time, live nature of El Ten Eleven's stage show. The songs can be quite complex with simultaneous bass and guitar as well as on-the-fly knob twisting on the effects. While the studio versions are all polished, it can be very challenging for the band to pull it all together. Plenty of improvisational players are adept at rising to the occasion and transforming "mistakes" into magic, often without the audience knowing. El Ten Eleven shares that skill, but they don't mind letting us in on the secrets. At one point, as Dunn was adjusting the end points for a short loop of percussive bass growl, he twisted it into a jerky beat (Fogarty followed along on the drums). Dunn toyed with it for a moment, then smiled out to the crowd, "This is an accident, but I like it." 

050 El Ten Eleven
The setlist bounced around the band's catalog: aside from "Nova Scotia" and opening song "Transitions" from their last album, they also played early tunes like "Fanshawe". Their cover of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" was particularly fun, sounding tighter and richer than the version they released on 2008's These Promises Are Being Videotaped. Dunn was every bit as dynamic as the musical selections. His boyish exuberance and flamboyant expressiveness contrasted nicely with Fogarty's tight focus. 

067 El Ten Eleven
After explaining the open secret of rock band "fake" encores, Dunn warned us that there were only two songs left. After finishing "My Only Swerving", they prepared to leave the stage, but couldn't resist giving us one last song. Despite some teasing from the audience the band closed with their standard finale, with Fogarty coming out from his kit to play Dunn's bass strings with his drumsticks while Dunn tossed in some guitar arpeggios. Every time I see this I smile.

078 El Ten Eleven
More photos on my Flickr.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Recording review - Blank Realm, Grassed Inn (2014)

Poppy post-punk can't maintain the magic

I really want to love Blank Realm and welcome Grassed Inn into my heart. For all its simplicity, their exuberantly poppy post-punk has a golden spark of magic. It’s hypnotically repetitive and startlingly direct, with intriguing splashes of Velvet Underground and Tom Verlaine’s Television. But before I can fully consummate or commit, Daniel Spencer’s nasal whine diffidently drills into my brain, sabotaging all the pretty musical endorphins. It’s not like the bar is necessarily that high: neither Lou Reed nor Verlaine is a mellifluous, traditional singer. But where a band like Pere Ubu could wield David Thomas’ quirky yelp as an artistic tool, Spencer seems content to rely on a sloppy, Dylanesque yowl. Emphasized by the low-fi, muddy production, it’s hard to escape or ignore. But just as annoying, every time I’m ready to throw in the towel and turn it off, Grassed Inn offers up a beautiful musical phrase to distract and calm me: a spangled blur of psychedelia, a dizzy pop swirl, or a crystalline glint of synth melody. Somehow it’s enough to tip the balance and suck me in for another listen, especially with tracks like “Bulldozer Love”, which completely overpowers the vocals for the win.

In fact, “Bulldozer Love” and its predecessor, “Bell Tower”, form the musical engine for the whole album. “Bell Tower” lays down a moody, new wave riff and caresses it with pensive tremolo waves. Spencer’s voice shifts the balance to garage psychedelia, but it works here. The organ on the chorus perfectly matches the mood, but could stand to be more pervasive on the tune. The opening phrase is repeated like a prayer, providing a wisp of comfort, but the chorus admits the truth, “Bell tower in my brain/ You’re driving me insane.” The prayer becomes an obsessive sign of inner anguish as the tune builds to its inevitable psychological collapse. The transition to “Bulldozer Love” promises relief as the psychedelia turns more cheery. The hook is set with an insistent beat and a repetitive run of chords soaked in acid-washed echoes. The keys slide in surreptitiously to add a subliminal ‘80s synth-pop undertone. Spencer’s sister, Sarah, softens the vocal tone with her harmonies as the chorus chant, “Your bulldozer love,” becomes a mantra. The meandering chords loop around and transform into hazed out angles for the song’s sonic maze. Spencer sounds more plaintive than distracted, which helps make this the standout track of the album, from its gentle delay-box ringing at the start to the swirling, overdriven guitars and freak-out keyboards at the finish.

If Grassed Inn could deliver that kind of one-two punch across the whole album, I’d have a new favorite band. Unfortunately, despite catchy moments and hints of musical bliss, the rest of the tracks are flawed in one way or another. The second half of the album ushers in a promising electronic aesthetic, but it’s not enough to rouse the songs. On “Violet Delivery”, the motorik thump and flood of electronica tricks ’n’ treats throw the album into a new dimension, but once the intro wraps up, the track loses its momentum as the repetitive changes and relentless droning vocals take over. Where Velvet Underground could turn a couple of simple chords into a hymn and build a tapestry of free verse lyrics in songs like “Sister Ray”, Blank Realm never seems to make any point at all here beyond the non-message of emphasizing the title words. It’s easy to find small elements that are shiny enough to attract, but the band doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

It’s frustrating because those sweet sounds and a couple of exquisite tracks can’t lift Grassed Inn up to the band’s promising potential. Maybe it’s a case of capturing the output from an infinite set of musical monkeys; Blank Realm is sufficiently savant to populate the project with great fragments, but they can’t quite recognize the wheat from the chaff.

Here's a taste of what's out on YouTube right now:

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Recording review - Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes (2014)

Old songs give Bruce some new kicks

Grizzled and defiant, Bruce Springsteen could be a character in one of his own songs. In this case, it would feature a man looking back on his career. By the end, he’d discover and prove his continued relevance. High Hopes does just that as it resurrects a collection of reworked tunes and album outtakes and, with help from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, infuses them with immediacy. The album is both immensely satisfying and somewhat frustrating. It’s a joy to hear Springsteen sound so invigorated, but focusing on older material gives the project a retrospective spin. Two of the strongest pieces, “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, have each been previously released in other versions. That leaves dedicated followers no choice but to ruefully shrug and accept some familiar songs instead of an all new album. But more casual fans won’t necessarily recognize them and they’ll appreciate the record as a powerful showcase for Springsteen’s favorite theme of ordinary people finding strength to face adversity.

High Hopes wastes no time tackling that topic as it leads off with the title track. Springsteen originally recorded the tune in 1995 and released it on the 1996 Blood Brothers EP. His version here is fairly close to Tim Scott McConnell’s original, albeit scaled up and supersized. Springsteen roughly rasps his way through the song like a classic bluesman while the rest of the E Street Band adds a soulful call and response. The up-tempo beat and starting energy radiate vitality. Tight horns tag the lines while Morello fills out the sound. His squealing guitar solo contrasts with the soul-revue production, like a young turk stepping in to shake things up, but that challenge underscores the urgency of the chorus.

While “High Hopes” kick starts the album, “American Skin (41 Shots)” captures Springsteen in full sermon mode. The progressive message, originally written about Amadou Diallo’s death at the hands of police in New York, could just as easily come from more recent headlines referencing Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride among others. That relevance is why the song has become a staple again in Springsteen’s setlists since his 2012 tour. This arrangement is very similar to the earlier releases, both the live version from Live in New York City (2001) and the rarer studio version. It even preserves Clarence Clemons’ sax riffs, but the new production emphasizes Morello’s guitar, which updates the piece and makes it more vibrant.

Morello has such a strong presence on the album that it’s quite noticeable when he sits out for a song. Tracks like “Frankie Fell in Love” fall back into Springsteen’s classic sound, in this case reflecting the light-touch character sketches he wrote for The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973). In the context of High Hopes, these tunes feel like they’re revisiting the past. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re weak: “This is Your Sword” makes for a rousing ballad that is perfectly designed for live performance, and it’s easy to imagine the crowd singing along. But the time spent playing and recording with Morello during the Australian portion of the 2013 Wrecking Ball tour seems to have inspired the bulk of High Hopes.

In that light, the remake of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is the centerpiece of the album. The two men have a long history with this song. Rage Against the Machine covered the tune back in 1997, transforming it with thrash and grind to create an alt-rock reconstruction of the folk piece. In 2008, Morello and Springsteen worked up a duet version that they performed and recorded during Springsteen’s Magic tour. The High Hopes version follows the 2008 duet model, with swapped verses and extended guitar solos. The song opens with a crescendo that gives way to a pensive moment of mournful strings and the light haunting tone of steel guitar. After the first verse, it picks up a driving rhythm and defiant guitars to raise a battle cry. It’s a solid rocker with strong dynamic shifts that span from resolute indignation to introspective recollection. The solo section pits the two guitars against each other, with Morello’s singing tone coming out on top.

Even if these are not entirely new songs, High Hopes catches Springsteen at his most engaged. Touching on the various facets of his past, from arena rock and diatribes against injustice to short vignettes and moody folk, he doesn’t just rehash his high points. Instead, he taps into the emotional truth that has fueled his writing and reforges the connection to his audience. Even when he’s singing someone else’s words, like the closer “Dream Baby Dream” by Suicide, Springsteen channels the hopeful optimism into a universal prayer: “Come on, we gotta keep the light burning/ Come on and dream, baby, dream.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 2/17

It's time to kick out the jams. Each of this week's picks offer evenings full of expansive music.

Thursday, 20 February (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Friday, 21 February (Aggie Theatre, Ft. Collins CO)
Elephant Revival

The band is grounded with sturdy folk roots, but the delicate harmonies and transcendent melodies reach for the sky. Their music is richly layered, both sonically and stylistically. Their recordings, like the recent release, These Changing Skies, are perfectly balanced aural sculptures, but their live performances are even more magical. This two day stay at the Aggie will be full if not sold out, but well worth the time. Later this month, on February 25, they'll also be playing at the Boulder Theater for an E-Town taping.

Friday, 21 February (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)

141 El Ten Eleven After seeing El Ten Eleven live, you're likely to wonder how many brains Kristian Dunn has. He has to have some kind of distributed network going on to keep track of everything he's doing. He juggles guitar, bass, live looping, and a host of effects. Where a lot of loopers will carefully setup their bass and guitar lines, Dunn often plays both on the fly, dancing all the time. That alone is worth the price of admission, but Tim Fogarty adds his own special sauce with acoustic and digital drums along with the occasional synth touches. Sudden time signature changes and crystalline modal playing can give some songs a math rock feel, but the next musical turn can open into cinematic richness, U2-style textures, or wild post-rock rides. I guarantee you will be amazed.

Saturday, 22 February (Boulder Theater, Boulder CO)
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

Karl Denson has established himself as one of the premier sax players around. He has an incredibly deep understanding of jazz across its evolution, but it's particularly impressive to see how he has adapted that to bring a jazz spark of risk-taking improvisation to a host of other contexts. Funk, jam grass, soul, and rock -- he spreads himself across the musical spectrum. His band Tiny Universe is full of equally talented players. This show at the Boulder Theater is billed as a "Ray Charles Boogaloo Dance Party." Count on Denson to take Charles' R&B and soul into other exciting realms.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recording review - Caspian, Hymn for the Greatest Generation (2013)

Cinematic elegies and bittersweet memories

Memory and loss cannot be separated. Less a hymn than a classical ballade, Caspian’s recent release effectively serves as an elegy for their bass player. Chris Friedrich passed away unexpectedly in August, and although the band pressed forward with their scheduled shows, his death colors Hymn for the Greatest Generation. The first half of the six-song EP features new tunes while the second half offers a demo and couple of remixes of songs from their 2012 album, Waking Season. Even in short form, Caspian’s cinematic side comes out, although it’s never as sweeping and heroic as the heights to which the band has risen in the past.

The title track eases in with ambient tones introducing the thoughtful theme on an acoustic guitar. Soon, an electric guitar appears and completes the feeling of sweet reminiscence. Over the course of the song, the simple motif takes on many different moods as it’s revisited with varying settings. Chained together, these sections form a story: determination in the face of challenges and fine deeds, followed by a spinning loss of direction leading to a bittersweet sense of fading dreams. Finally, the theme is halting and fragmented. Spaces open up and the story reaches the end of the line, where the electric guitar haunts the acoustic and memories fade back into the past. It’s a richly evocative soundtrack.

The Heart That Fed” has a similar slow start, taking a moment to coalesce from the wisps of aleatoric fog. The soft-focus drifting is like a bomb blast in reverse slow motion, where the track runs back the clock to see why everything flew apart. In this context, the tune reaches a driving rhythm that suggests the conflict before a sharp jump cut forward to the explosion. From here, swirling melodic lines build into a bristling wall of reverberation, underlaid with processed vocals. This moment comes closest to the band’s epic roots, but it retains a contemplative aspect that carries over from the earlier dreamy detachment. The big sound is a sharp contrast to the breathy beauty of the tune that follows. “CMF” centers on a finger-picked acoustic guitar with synth washes and echoes that slide the track into surrealism. It’s safe to say that the tune is a tribute to Friedrich and what he represented for the band. The raw production leaves in the finger squeaks and burdened breathing, which imbues the delicate love song with humanity and grief.

The remaining alternative versions that fill out Hymn for the Greatest Generation bring their own power and perspective. “High Lonesome” is my favorite of these. It shows that the album cut didn't stray too far from baseline of the demo version included here. Both feature the same slow rising tide of ringing sound. But where the official release suggests a celestial purity, the demo take is darker and more intense. Lower tones lurk underneath the surface and eventually come to dominate with a chaotic distortion burying all sense of comprehension under a thick haze. In the wake of “CMF”, the alluring pain and cathartic oblivion serve as a fitting summation of the band’s loss. That would have been a perfect end to the EP, but the remix tracks serve as an added bonus. Arms and Sleepers tentatively take “Procellous” into a spacier realm, while Lazerbeak (Doomtree collective) sands the rough edges from “Halls of the Summer”. Each has its appeal, but the real impact comes in the first four tracks.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 2/10

Wednesday, 12 February (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Steven Malkmus & the Jicks

Steven Malkmus will probably never escape the mantle of his iconic band, Pavement, but, over the years, his work with the Jicks has developed its own quirky, experimental character. While Malkmus seems more willing to embrace some of that Pavement K.I.S.S. clarity, the Jick's music is marked by rhythmic shifts and more complex song structures.

Thursday, 13 February (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)

Despite the recent drama around their lineup changes -- Kim Deal left last year and her replacement, Kim Shattuck was dismissed in November -- Pixies have tried to keep the focus on new music with the release of EP-1 and EP-2. The second EP is closer to the band's classic sound, but still doesn't bring the smoldering fire that the band is known for. So, why does this show merit recommendation? For me, it's largely a sense of optimism that Black Francis and the band will engage enough with their older material to make it worthwhile.

Friday, 14 February (Ogden Theatre, Denver CO)
Zappa Plays Zappa

Dweezil Zappa continues to keep his father's musical memory not just alive, but vital. On the surface, this might seem like a crass, mercenary action -- somehow a similar touring tribute to Bob Marley would cheapen the man's memory -- but Dweezil isn't just trading on Frank Zappa's name to milk some cash. Much of Frank's music is rich and complex and deserves a live audience to truly appreciate. Dweezil and his band do a phenomenal job of meeting the technical requirements of the pieces while crafting a fine performance experience, too.

In addition to the show, Dweezil is offering a guitar workshop class earlier in the day.

Friday, 14 February (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)
Saturday, 15 February (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)

Kick back next weekend for a rootsy pair of shows from Houndmouth. The quartet is happy to give the nod to John Prine, The Grateful Dead, and other folk-rockers, embracing the same kind of sonic purity. Their harmonies are sweet and the grooves slip by like a fire-lit living-room acoustic jam. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Concert notes and photos - Three Amigos

7 February 2014 (Road 34, Ft. Collins CO)

Three Amigos

003 Three Amigos
026 Three Amigos Roger Clyne comes through town fairly often with his band The Peacemakers. But he's also gotten in the habit of visiting us for more intimate shows like this one (the first of two nights at Road 34). Clyne brough along his usual posse, Johnny Hickman (Cracker) and Jim Dalton (Railbenders, Peacemakers), and this time the group billed themselves Three Amigos.

009 Three Amigos

019 Three Amigos
The show gave each man some solo time as well as all the possible group configurations. Aside from classics from each one's back catalog, they also pulled off a hodgepodge of cover songs including "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues (by Danny O'Keefe, but you might know the Charlie Rich version), "Blister In The Sun" (Violent Femmes), and "Go Your Own Way" (Fleetwood Mac).

022 Three Amigos

032 Three Amigos
For me, though, the high point was getting to make my own personal contribution. Hickman somehow lost his guitar pick and couldn't find it. I recognized that he was looking for a pick and I held up one of my orange Dunlop Tortex picks from my pocket. He gratefully accepted the gift and went on to finish the show.

034 Three Amigos
052 Three Amigos
It was a long, late night of great music and musical community.

More photos on my Flickr.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Recording review - Wax Fang, The Astronaut (2014)

Expanding a stoner masterpiece

The psychoactive duo behind Wax Fang, Scott Carney and Jacob Heustis, laid the groundwork for this concept album when they released the nearly 17 minute mind-expanding excursion of "The Astronaut: Part 1" back in 2010. While not completely idle since then, I get the sense that they may have thought the song was sufficient on its own. It's a stoner masterpiece that takes liberal inspiration from the Pink Floyd catalog and alloys it with a neo-psychedelic expansiveness. Still, while the band passed the time releasing an EP in 2012 and some digital singles last year, this project was percolating in their brains. Their two prong approach builds on the original vision, but refuses to limit the musical sources they draw upon. The net result is a three movement headspace opera with instrumental bridge tracks that contribute to the story. By not putting all of their day-glo eggs in a single basket, Wax Fang makes an artistic impact well beyond mere trippiness. Still, big fans of the first track might pine for a little more of that headiness by the time they get near the end of the album.

The Astronaut should come with a warning sticker, "Warning, that first step is a big one." The track opens with a simple preface that sets up an epic theme, full of art rock pomp. After asserting that motif, the band shows off one of their showpiece moves: a sharp dynamic drop, this time setting up the preface riff again along with the vocals. The quiet setting creates the mood for Carney to begin his story, "The stars don't want to shine on me/ It's just a waste of time and energy." Broken up by short, heavy crunches, it doesn't take long to get straight to the point, "Here I am in space/ I don't want to be here." Carney's voice is brittle and vulnerable as his reluctant astronaut pleas for help. The processional starting riff is back and it evolves into long, singing vibrato notes. The warm distortion creates a nice psychedelic edge. When the inevitable drop-off comes, we're deposited into a staccato bass tension, with spots of anoxia darkness encoded as wisps of backmasked guitar hum. This uneasy calm cues us that we're at cusp of a truly bad trip; disquieting sounds creep in from all directions. Wave after wave hits and the tension rises ever higher. It's like the meltdown section of Pink Floyd's "One of These Days", right before the single distorted line and following scream, but here the moment is prolonged and never hits that cathartic release. Eventually, as the drums pound out an irregular pulse of terror and the fearful thoughts circle, a descending thread of guitar meanders like the drone melody of "The End" by The Doors. It finds a thin reserve of strength and rises into looping raga line. Order is asserted at some level and a plan is coalescing. As we wonder if there is still a chance of success, of escape, the knife edge suspense breaks and a wild tsunami of acid-soaked lead guitar surfs forward. The guitar is overtaken by a wailing sax solo that cuts through the heavy drive. The tune hits warp speed and faces unfathomable mystery. The song finally runs into a choppy close that suggests dominoes falling before grinding to a halt. Yeah, it's epic.

The second track, "The Event Horizon", is a brief bit of experimental noise that sets up the next act, "The Astronaut: Part 2". Instead of falling back into the same headspace as the opening, this track showcases percussion, anchored with a tribal beat of tom and kick. The insistent rhythm partners with a distorted bass and Carney tosses out words as vocal jabs, "Time/ Does/ Not/ Exist." The choppy verses alternate with choruses that are packed with histrionic emotion. The message here is a mix of confrontation and suffering. This sounds much more modern than the initial track; the neo-psychedelic arrangement and busy rhythm foster a more dance-centric form of ego surrender.

If Act II was about pain and defiance, the final installment is all about transcendence. Introduced by the electronic gypsy idyll of "The Singularity", "The Astronaut: Part 3" is not necessarily cheerful, but our astronaut has become astral. "Across the plane of no escape/ Forces of gravity, I've come apart" leads to "Is this really happening/ I feel my body reassembling." The music offers yet another flavor, relying on a solid groove that reminds me of "Del Shannon's "Runaway" dressed up in paisley. As the track builds to its conclusion, our narrator may have been transformed and lifted into a new state, but his sense of loss undercuts his initial wonder. With this finale for The Astronaut, Wax Fang provides a partial resolution that satisfies without trivializing their tale.

All told, the band has done a good job of reinterpreting "2001: A Space Odyssey", adding their own twists. While "The Astronaut: Part 1" hit my sweet spot, I've come to appreciate the band's musical decision not to plow that same ground over. Just as the story evolves, Wax Fang lets the music find the right connection points to support their narrative. It's a worthy ride to infinity and beyond!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Recording review - El Ten Eleven, For emily (2014)

Finely crafted musical snow globes

Great music transcends technique. El Ten Eleven's music is built on an intricate dance of looped layers of guitar and bass, beautifully reactive drumming, and expansive compositions. Quite rightly, their live performances (review) exploit this complexity, making a show out of split-second timing and fancy footwork. But Kristian Dunn and Tim Fogarty understand that their recordings can't rely on mere visual flash to connect with the audience.

Listening to For emily, the music dominates and the band's savant execution is  just a footnote behind the finely crafted progressions. EPs are often just a stopgap between albums, but there's nothing lightweight about any of these three tracks. Philosophical post-rock melds with rock-postured power, glitchy electronica minimalism evolves into crystalline art rock, and noisy experimental wandering finds psychedelic pop in a hall of mirrors. Each piece takes off from a simple starting point and grows into a rich offering, full of depth.

Of the three, the lead single, "Nova Scotia" is my favorite.  I have no idea how the piece connects to the Canadian province, but I love the roundabout feel of the five and a half minute statement. The jangling guitar figure and aligned bass line remind me of Rush. Come to think of it, maybe there is a touch of Canada in the sound of open spaces and crisp air. The initial section is expectant, making the following part a revelation of refracting mathematical phrases. Dunn sets his loop and builds around it, but Fogarty's drumming has an organic feel that takes on an emotional weight. His tight rolls create a sense of determination. By the time Dunn crowns this phase with Northern Light shimmers, the mood has shifted from epiphany to a hopeful optimism. This stands out as great example of El Ten Eleven's balance point between brightly twinkling math rock and visceral post-rock expressiveness.

The other two tracks provide their own little snow globes of musical imagery. "Yyes!" grows from its minimalist beginning to a mix of thoughtful and forceful themes before revisiting its roots to wrap up. "Reprise" is best thought of as a couple of evolving pieces welded together via a fade out ending in the middle that sets up the more experimental second half. All of these pieces capture the duo's yin-yang musical essence: playful, serious, free-flowing, and structured. What more could you want? Well, more, of course, but, for the time being, we can settle for 19 minutes of El Ten Eleven's well-crafted excursions.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Front Range recommended shows, 2/3

This week only earns a couple of recommendations, but each one is a double-night run. This makes it twice as easy to fit into your schedule.

Friday, 7 February (Road 34, Ft. Collins CO)
Saturday, 8 February (Road 34, Ft. Collins CO)
Three Amigos

Thankfully, I'm not recommending a double showing of Steve Martin and company's mediocre 1986 comedy. Instead, this is the frequent three-way tag team of Roger Clyne and Jim Dalton from Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers and Johnny Hickman of Cracker. Clyne alternates his visits here between full band shows with the Peacemakes and these stripped down evenings. Hickman occasionally sits in on the band shows, but these smaller shows almost always include him. These Road 34 shows have usually been under the radar; a two-night run indicates that they've been packing out the house in recent visits.The music will draw from everyone's back catalog, but the trio always manages to pull out a surprise or two. 

Friday, 7 February (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)
Saturday, 8 February (Cervantes Masterpiece, Denver CO)

The Neville Brothers, The Meters, The Funky Meters - this musical collective used to be the main backing band for the rich soundtrack of New Orleans, backing artists like Dr. John and Lee Dorsey. Progenitors of bayou funk, the band has always offered a perfect blend of ass-shaking grooves and rich cultural legacy. This Funky Meters incarnation is led by original members Art Neville and George Porter Jr. and it remains true to the band's core musical sound. Each night at Cervantes offers a different set of openers. I've only heard Portland's Quick and Easy Boys, who are opening on Friday, but, based on their tight sound, I'd expect either night to be awesome.