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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

What's cool - Beech Creeps, "Sun of Sud"

Mood music for garage rockers

Some times call for contemplation and calm. Other times, what you really need is intellectual stimulation. "Sun of Sud" won't help in either of those situations. Instead, it's a prescription for the flip-side, when gut churning physicality is necessary to quiet down the monkey brain. It's an adolescent sound, full of throbbing tension, angst, and frustration. It's primitive, riff-driven rock and roll at it's purest. Beech Creeps tap into a timeless vein of visceral punch -- Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath before they grew old, Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass, and Kurt Cobain screaming his transcendent self-doubt.

Okay, maybe that's overselling it a bit, but this song reminds me of garage jams, where the rumbling bass, screeching distortion, and pounding drums weave together in a thick psychedelic swirl and become a mantra that holds the outside world at bay. More importantly, it makes me want to pull out my Les Paul right now and set my ears ringing with the warm wash of overdriven tubes.

Beech Creeps eponymous debut album comes out on March 3. The only other sample I've found is "Times Be Short", another fun track that's similarly noisy with guitar grind and sneered vocals. While that song doesn't have the same intensity of "Sun of Sud", I'm looking forward to hearing more of what these masters of meditative mayhem have to offer.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Recording Review - Dengue Fever, The Deepest Lake (2015)

Retro mod, moody, and hypnotic -- take a sonic dip in exotic waters

Cosmically speaking, three and half years is the tiniest of intervals. Halley’s Comet takes around 75 years to swing by, so a three to four year pause between Dengue Fever releases should be bearable. But given the hothouse worlds that bands live in, the anticipation can be challenging. Last time around, 2011’s Cannibal Courtship (review) reassured fans that the group hadn't turned away from their Khmer rock foundation, even if they had added bits of funk, ska, and soul. Now Dengue Fever is back with The Deepest Lake, and they continue to refine their playing, this time emphasizing the spy music and cocktail aspects of their sound.

Of course, any time you run into old friends again, you compare them against your memory for changes, and the band takes advantage of that to prank their fans a bit. The opening track, “Tokay”, kicks off with a drum machine and synths laying down a Latin dance vamp. The ten measures intro is long enough that I started to wonder if the band had reinvented themselves. But when Chhom Nimol started singing, the keyboards tag-teamed out to let Zak Holtzman’s tremolo heavy guitar come in, connecting with the group's canonical style. Senon Williams still revels in his Latin-flavored bassline and the percussion includes cuíca accents, but that all fits perfectly with the familiar sounds of Nimol’s haunting voice, echo laden guitars, and Ethan Holtzman’s moody organ solo.

After “Tokay” teases, “No Sudden Moves” offers a strong taste of what The Deepest Lake is all about. The mod, mid ‘60s cocktail vibe is Dengue Fever a go go. Tight horns harmonize the twisting guitar riff and a bass sax blatts out the punches. The chorus softens the edges with sweet pulsing guitar winding around the vocals. The bridge interlude veers forward in time, kicking off with an angular new wave guitar pattern, setting up a slinky bassline to accompany Nimol’s staccato Khmer rap. Then the band drifts into a spy soundtrack interlude to recapture the mod flow of the song and take it home.

That hip retro feel continues through The Deepest Lake, meshing well with the reflective tone of reverb-soaked guitar and hypnotic bass. Nimol’s voice is born for this milieu, sexy and seductive, somehow creating understanding, even if most of the lyrics are in Cambodian. While these songs share DNA with earlier tunes, the group seems to be branching out a bit to explore other cultures. “Ghost Voice” features a distinctly Nigerian guitar, even though the other instruments are anchored in Asian tonality and “Still Waters Run Deep” has an infectious upbeat rhythm that blends Bollywood with “Spy Who Loved Me” chic.

Not all of these tunes are completely new; two were featured on the Girl From the North EP that came out just over a year ago (review). “Taxi Dancer” and “The Deepest Lake on the Planet” are just as good here, but The Deepest Lake is full of great tracks. Probably the best one is “Rom Say Sok”, which features Zac and Nimol’s vocal chemistry and draws on the psychedelic soul the band toyed with on Cannibal Courtship. I can’t help but picture “it” girls doing the frug as the tune spins out. Although this is one of the few songs here with mostly English lyrics, they're trippy and oblique, “French boyfriend will never be wed / Alligator's dried up and now it's dead.” The lines may not form a coherent narrative, but the heady music plays along, with tweedly organ and cool little feedback echoes in the margins. A little over halfway through the tune, the horns come in and pump up the soul to lay down the groundwork for David Ralicke’s raging sax solo.

The Deepest Lake proves that Dengue Fever still have their fingers on the exotic, cross-cultural pulse that has inspired them since the beginning. There are precious few truly original bands out there, and I’m glad to hear that one of my favorites is keeping the faith. We may need to wait another three years for the next album, but this one will tide us over till the comet swings by again.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

What's cool - Denk an Musik

Accessible high-brow

Like most American's, cartoons served as my introduction to classical music. Even now, the only thing that dilutes my association between Elmer Fudd and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is an occasional flashback to Apocalypse Now. While I am much more familiar with contemporary popular music, I can still appreciate classical music, especially when a virtuoso performance is involved. The thing is that, while those great musicians are always impressive and the music can be very moving, I don't tend to find them particularly entertaining. I'll be the first to admit that I'm an ignorant cultural Philistine, but most of those performers are so focused on their playing that they convey little more than their intensity and perhaps a hint of their personal appreciation for the power of the music itself. That brings me to a radically different experience this week.

Pianist Jeremy Denk blew me away with a solo program at the Griffin Concert Hall at Colorado State University. Impressing me with his considerable technical ability was no particular challenge, instead -- or rather, in addition -- it was the combination of his physicality, his interaction with the audience, and the structure of his program that challenged my expectations. He began the show with Haydn's Sonata in C Major, H.XVI:50, which did a lot to define his persona. Haydn's music often reflects his sense of humor and Denk capitalized on that with his approach. His movements and facial expressions were large, humorously acting out his performance. Speedy sections seemed almost to slip away from him, but then he'd steel himself and attack the piano with greater ferocity only to fall under the spell of a quieter, more delicate section of the piece. Even as he flirted with caricature, it never distracted from his dexterity or perfect sense of dynamics. It was a knife-edged balance between the brilliance of his technical skills and his humanity.

He deepened that connection when he moved into the next section of the program, which mixed a set of pieces by Franz Schubert and selections from On the Overgrown Path by Leoš Janáček. As he explained his rationale for this iTunes shuffle of compositions, he spoke of the connections that he had found between these two fairly different men, rooted in Eastern European interpretation of major and minor scales, similar uses of ambiguity, and ultimately a single note that grabbed his attention. His casual lecture walked the audience through this idea, using excerpts to show the musical thread that stretched across the 80 odd years separating these composers. Aside from providing the context to appreciate his intent, Denk's lack of condescension leveled the playing field for neophytes and aficionados alike.

When he began playing through these pieces, it was easy to hear the points he had made. And even without the broad humor he displayed during the Haydn, the visual impact of his stage presence loomed large during this performance as well. His body interpreted the work of producing this music, making it clear that this was not effortless, but it was highly directed. Where some performers are fixated on economy of motion, Denk appeared to be no more economical than necessary. His left hand might raise up high and create the tension of expectation, waiting for it to swoop back down to the keys. His fingers were a blur relative to his relatively static hand position as they zipped through a trill of notes, but then his whole arm might soften as the music became less demanding. Oftentimes, I'll close my eyes at a concert to shut out distractions as I listen to the music, but I was unwilling to do that here because I didn't want to miss the extra dimension that Denk added to his show.

The second section of the program featured Mozart and Schumann, with the latter providing a great opportunity for Denk to show off his amazing technical chops with some lightning fast fluid runs. It was an exhilarating treat to witness, but his engaging performance made an even deeper impression. Think about music? Sure, I'm ready for that. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Recording review - Buffalo Killers, Fireball of Sulk (2014)

Who do Buffalo Killers they think they are?

On the one hand, it's good that Buffalo Killers are so full of ideas that they're compelled to drop a second release within the same year. It's a bonus for their fans and it generates a fresh round of attention. For the most part, reviewers have been kind, so it's paid off, but I can't help but feel let down. To be fair, these six songs aren't bad at all. Instead, the problem is that they're so disjoint. EPs are usually a grab bag, but Fireball of Sulk comes across as an insecure demo for a less competent band trying to find something that will stick.

On a full length album, Buffalo Killers might have been able to create enough context where the playlist could flow more smoothly, but Fireball of Sulk never finds a center. Despite the consistency of their guitar tone, bass grind, and laid back rhythms, they set up two cross currents that break up any momentum that might develop. In particular, the slogging classic metal sound of "Marshmallow Mouth" is optimally placed to break the EP's stride. Its closest sonic cousin on the album is the angst-free grunge of the opening track, "Blankets on the Sun", but rather than accentuating that connection, they crammed it in between a twangy bit of psychedelia ("Weird One") and a '70s style folk rock tune ("Something Else"). This gives it a jarring impact but doesn't serve any of the songs well. To further muddy the water, they double down on the country rock vibe with "Don't Cry to Me", whose choppy cut-time beat recalls Mike Nesmith and the Monkees novelty country work like "Your Auntie Grizelda".

Understand, neither the grunge nor the country rock sounds are objectionable; in fact there's plenty to like about each. Despite being the pitfall of the playlist, "Marshmallow Mouth" is probably my favorite track here. The headbanging snarl of bass and guitar sets up a trudging grind that sways through some two-chord changes to lay the perfect foundation for the flailing guitar solos. It's a thick morass of garage metal, but it's so easy to surrender to the inevitability of the rhythmic tide. The lyrics don't make a lot of sense beyond the accusatory tone of the vocals, but they avoid easy parody, unlike a lot other bands working the same vein.

By contrast, "Something Else" could have easily fit on 2012's Dig. Sow. Love. Grow., with the same unselfconscious retro aesthetic and vocal harmonies that would be at home in the James Gang. In contrast to "Marchmallow Mouth", the autobiographical feel of the lyrics offer a sincere sense of where the band is at. More importantly, Buffalo Killers show an intuition for flow that is missing from the larger picture. The verses settle into a solid wall of guitar, punctuated by the tom hits, but they throw in rhythmic breaks on the lines, "If this life's a game, then have I lost?/ Do I have to dance to pay the cost?" that match the questioning mood and disrupt the sing-song feel of the earlier lines. Later, they use a repeated guitar figure to build up momentum for the Joe Walsh style solo.

In a shuffled iTunes-driven world, it may not really matter. People can pick and choose what they like from Fireball of Sulk and be perfectly happy. For that matter, it's easy enough to jiggle the playlist for some improvement. I'd rather hold out for their next full-length, though, in hopes of a more coherent sense of the band.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What's cool - Rebekka Karijord, "Use My Body While It's Still Young"

Comfortably numb? Not necessarily...

Is it time to turn away from what we take for granted and challenge ourselves? The path of least resistance promises a smoother trip, but without stepping off that path, we'd never know what we're missing. I think about this as my high school aged son is an exchange student overseas, immersing himself in another culture and other assumptions. It also rears its head when I talk to my friends about the bands that excite them the most. Music can be like comfort food; many of us just want to soothe away the irritants of the day with familiar soundtracks. It's nice to know that that band you loved in high school never changes...well, they never change if you don't listen their later work or clean your palate with some fresh sounds. I have my comfort foods, but if I were still only eating the food I loved at 15, I'd never have tasted curry, harissa, or wasabi. And even though I never became a big fan of wasabi, I'm a better person for having tried it.

Norwegian born singer/songwriter Rebekka Karijord has never blipped on my radar before this, but I just came across her song, "Use My Body While It's Still Young" and it made a strong impression. The piece is the first single off her 2012 album, We Become Ourselves, which is due to see its American release on February 5, 2015 and I'm looking forward to hearing more. She describes the song as a "momento mori", a cautionary reflection on mortality, and the lyrics take us to a place that most of us would rather not think too much about:
Use my body while it’s still strong.
Wrap yourself in all of this warmth,
This aching love
Come use it while it’s alive
This aching love
Come use it while it’s alive
We’ll all be gone in hundred years
Those philosophical lines are paired with a dreamy electronic pop groove. The music takes a song that could be brooding and nihilistic and turns it to celebration. Just as Karijord's words recommend, the song surrenders to the joy of dance and movement. Sweet and sour, she savors her gifts even as she feels the passage of time.

The video complements this with a powerful collaboration with Siv Ander, a Swedish dancer in her 70s. The visual contrast is sharp, with loving closeups of Ander's body and her choreography evolving from stiff and static to richer physicality.

This is the perfect finish to a day: discovering fine music from an artist I've never heard of, seeing a video that moves me, and having it help me think about the choices we make from day to day, while we can. Let them be conscious ones.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Recording review - California X, Nights in the Dark (2014)

Sensitive and evocative, wrapped in cathartic waves of thunder

California X protects their soft chewy center with bristling, metal shard guitars and rolling waves of thunder. Most of the songs on their latest offering, Nights in the Dark, are wrapped in barbed wire brambles of distortion that still let their vulnerability shine through. It's a standard formula that hordes of emo bands have followed, but to their credit, frontman Lemmy Gurtowski and his crew never get depressed enough to slip into whiny self-indulgence. Even better, this latest release is a major step forward in defining the band's sound. On their eponymous debut, California X drew comparisons to their more famous Amherst big brother, Dinosaur Jr. They've still got the thick tarry fuzz, but the songs never descend into the apathetic catharsis that J Mascis is so adept at. Instead, California X stretches out and adds some low-fi post-rock reminiscent of bands like Trail of Dead, as well as some nicely honed metal chops.

The echoing rumbles of ragged guitar kicking off the title song give the album a good start, but the band really hits their stride with the fourth track, "Hadley, MA". The preceding tune, "Ayla's Song", breaks the flow of cotton-wrapped, raging amps with an evocative fingerstyle acoustic guitar, That piece ends abruptly with a brief bro comment, "Cool", and then "Hadley, MA" brings back the throbbing distorted tones, but the transition flows naturally because the the melodic riff ties back to the previous song's tonal center and phrasing even as the production contrasts so strongly. The slow grinding rhythm creates a fraught emotional space, but the arrangement is flexible and allows for some strong dynamic shifts. In particular, the drop-back for the vocals on the verses lets them stand out cleanly and emphasizes the growing intensity of the chorus. It's easy to sink into this song and be buffeted by the noise.

This in turn sets up the dual tracks of "Blackrazor", with part one offering a post-rock flavored slow-core metal grind. Like an implacable fate, the song rolls out darkly with occasional rhythmic stutters. The massive crush of bass and guitar chords lays the foundation for a fluttering lead guitar that strains against the boundaries of the song, like Robin Trower jamming over Black Sabbath. Moving on to part two, California X sets up a faster metal punch that immediately suggests Motörhead with choppy guitar, pounding drums, and righteous bass drive. Thankfully, the vocals never attempt Lemmy's growl (Kilmister, that is), but the head banging energy is perfect. Running almost seven minutes, this part gives the band plenty of room to drag out the jam, with tight harmonized leads that show off their technical chops. While California X doesn't really position themselves as metalheads, these tracks extend their range while maintaining a consistently loud and cathartic sound.

It's easy to find minor gripes with Nights in the Dark: the unbalanced tone and muted highs wear a little thin and a couple more songs would be nice. But it's a strong sophomore effort that clearly refutes critics who heard too much Dinosaur Jr. in their debut release. Savor the noise and find your way to the center.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

What's cool - They Might Be Giants, Erase

Not yet available on wax cylinders

In my mental map of musical genres, They Might Be Giants is almost alone in the category of "alternative steampunk". That is to say, their music has a kind of temporal dissonance that is hard to pin down to a real era, they are unselfconsciously nerd-core, and ultimately, they take their amusement extremely seriously. John Linnel and John Flansburgh struck a nerve for two big reasons: their quirky songs offer a delightful novelty and they manage to convey a sincerity that touches their audiences.

Starting back in the early '80s, they shared a wild mix of unreleased music through their Dial-A-Song service, which got its start as a bizarre way to promote the band. The service migrated to the web at dialasong.com back in 2000 and the original number was disconnected in 2006 or so. The idea of making a long distance call to get a random bit of music was strange enough when it started, but now seems completely quaint. But after years of relying on more normal online channels to connect with their fans, TMBG has resurrected the Dial-A-Song service, promising a new song a week for all of 2015. Drop by the website to listen, or you can call (844) 387-6962 for the classic, lo fi experience. This has already garnered new attention for the band, but it's just the kind of oddball move that fits in with their aesthetic.

The inaugural song is "Erase", which has that classic TMBG sound. It's a solid alt-rocker, with off-beat guitar stabs that contrast against the solid driving beat. They deliver the dark lyrical theme with bravado, happily contemplating a world where the unpleasant past can be casually erased, "When your heartbreak overrides the very thing you cannot face." Of course, it's the inevitable collateral damage that underlies that comforting thought.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Recording review - Acid Baby Jesus, Selected Recordings (2014)

Psychoactive dandelion seeds propagated from the past

Imagine the scattered groups in the 1960s that invented the various flavors of psychedelia. Even in their wildest trips, they probably never dreamed their legacy would still be around some 50 years later, popping up all over the world. Driving that point home, Greek tripsters Acid Baby Jesus have taken up the retro freak flag, adding their own modern touches. Selected Recordings shows that they've studied the past for more than just the surrealistic band-naming conventions and that they can occasionally rise above their sundry influences. Fragmented reflections of The Animals, It's a Beautiful Day, and the Zombies flicker around the edges, but Acid Baby Jesus also tap into more modern garage psych sounds like Thee Oh Sees and Nobunny. While Selected Recordings is a pleasant retreat from reality, the first half of the album is strongest, with better production and arrangements.

The trip peaks early with "Diogenes", which is full of the jangled chimes of sunshine psychedelia. It offers a good mix of Beatlesque meditation, Northern California haze, and Pink Floyd disorientation. The initial guitar riff is reminiscent of The Velvet Underground, but the vocals quickly take us into the direction of "Within Without You" and the instrumental breaks slip into "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" angst. The band meanders around the droning Indian scales and windchime rhythm, but the song never loses its pop orientation. A purist might complain that it's all a bit derivative, but it's a pleasant introduction to the band.

The sound gets a bit heavier with "Row By Row", which is a bit more typical of the album, with bass driven grooves providing the foundation for the guitar to provide the sonic warpage. The real gem of the album comes a few songs later with "Ayahuasca Blues (Unmanned Drone)". The droning sitar buzz, detuned guitar, and pensive bass conjure up a dimly room, fogged with incense smoke. The vocal chants create a tribal tone, but the classic psychedelic elements are accompanied by a more modern industrial edge. There's a low hum of chaotic grey noise that builds throughout the all-too-brief four minutes. A paranoid ear might hear it shift from mere sitar feedback to shouting children, birds massing, or brakes squealing. While it's not a recommended soundtrack for bad trips, it is the most intense piece here.

The rest of the album is filled out with plenty of messy garage rock and the occasional change up, like the folk psych simplicity of "You & Me". While Acid Baby Jesus never quite break enough fresh ground to become my new favorite band, Selected Recordings stands up well to repeated listening and they've got a few more tricks than some of their peers in contemporary neo-psychedelia. The only change I'd make is to drop the closing instrumental, "All of Your Love". It opens with ambient reflections of detuned guitar that promise a dreamy surrealism, but it quickly resolves into a shuffle beat space-folk vamp with jaw harp boings and a quirky feel. The bait-and-switch colors my opinion, but the truth is that title never finds a home in this cartoony tune. That's a minor gripe, though.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Concert review - That 1 Guy

2 January 2015 (Hodi's Half Note, Ft. Collins CO)

Superstition claims that whatever you do at the start of the new year will drive the rest of the year, so people fill up their cupboards, wear new clothes, and clear their debts to ensure prosperity. I'm skeptical, but I do think that doing the things you enjoy will help cement those patterns in place. So, I visited with friends on New Year's Day and made it out to Hodi's for the first available show of the year to see That 1 Guy.

014 That 1 Guy
The last time I saw That 1 Guy (AKA Mike Silverman) at Hodi's, he had Captain Ahab's Motorcycle Club (Cory McAbee) opening and his own show had grown to include a flashy dual-screen multimedia element (review). Last night's outing was a bit stripped down; there was no lead-off act and the screens were gone. It might have been nice to have someone warm up the audience, because the two hour interval between the doors opening and showtime had the crowd a little restive. We had to make do with Captain Beefheart's Safe as Milk and Frank Zappa's Apostrophe/Over-nite Sensation blaring from the club PA (along with a few tracks from David Bowie's "Heroes"). On the other hand, the simpler stage presence worked in That 1 Guy's favor. The animations and camera tricks had been fun, but without those distractions, Silverman held the audience rapt for more than two hours straight, making up for the long wait.

016 That 1 Guy
As always, That 1 Guy put on a stunning performance, juggling synth riff triggers, foot-tap drumming, and the mix of percussion and melody demanded by his one-of-a-kind Magic Pipe. Watching him play is hypnotic. He rocks from side to side as he lays down the drums, all while building a full harmonic sound on the strings mounted to the two sections of pipe. The mix ranges from bass heavy grooves and cello style bowing to distorted guitar-like tones and the warm feel of marimba. Putting this all together has to require crazy amounts of practice and concentration, but Silverman not only makes it look fairly easy, he throws in pantomime, clowning, and sleight of hand tricks to make it more entertaining.

011 That 1 Guy
This stage work key to Silverman's charm: a meaty slap sound effect accent for the song is illustrated by a mimed punch or flick of his hat brim or his duck puppet is voiced by a squeak tone from the Magic Pipe. This all fits together with the quirky nature of his music and lyrical themes. like "Step Into Striped Light", "Mustaches", or "Weasel Potpie". As silly and playful as it can get, though, the songs are never throwaway. The heavy poly-rhythms are perfect for dancing and the lyrics have plenty of hooks for the crowd to join in on.

029 That 1 Guy
As expected, That 1 Guy featured several songs from his latest release, Poseidon's Deep Water Adventure Friends (review), tweaked for live performance. In particular, his arrangement of "Whale Race" developed a rich character of synth-driven post rock that fit well with the exotic minor key scales of the piece. Of course, many of the crowd favorites made their appearance, too, from an intensely danceable "Ft. Collins remix" of "Buttmachine" to "The Moon is Disgusting", which he eased into slowly before letting it become the audience sing-along it usually is.

019 That 1 Guy
That 1 Guy was a perfect show to start the year off. Technically impressive, his show blended intellectual fun with insistent visceral grooves. Most of the crowd was already very familiar with his catalog, but he still managed to throw in some surprises. Playing in the moment, he reacted naturally to everything from song requests and losing a drum stick, to a woman's demand that he wear her tutu. Acquiescing to this last request, he might have been our puppet, but he owned it by incorporating it into the song. Most importantly, he reflected the crowd's energy with a grateful appreciation for our attention. We, in turn, were just as beholden to him.

036 That 1 Guy

More photos on my Flickr.