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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Recording review - KDH, Piedmont Rose (2015)

Kaleidoscopic swirl of psych pop, rich bass, and acid etched guitars


Bands don’t form in a vacuum; the best ones build on their inspirations and find their own signature voice. KDH (AKA Kill Devil Hill) come to the table with a distinctive mix of ‘60s psychedelic pop, sharp power pop, and a strong current of alternative rock. The songs on Piedmont Rose feature all of those influences, but jiggered together in a constantly shifting balance. The kaleidoscopic swirl.of styles tosses out one intriguing surprise after another, but the changes are rarely jarring. In large part, that’s due to Alex Smith’s rich bass work, which stands forward in the mix, leading the way. Smith is a relatively busy player, but his lines are tightly woven with the guitars.

It only takes four and a half minutes to become a true believer. “Beloved Devote” leads off the album and it shows just what kind of ride KDH can offer. The opening guitar strum sets up a riff lifted from The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You” (AKA the Friends theme), along with a hyperactive tom tom pulse. The bass jumps in with earnest and kicks Friends to the curb in favor of a mod power pop drive with the classic rock posturing of The Guess Who’s “American Woman”. Smith’s bass alternates between steady simplicity and looser excursions. The song drops back into the chorus with the title tag, “Beloved devote, Beloved devotion,” which boomerangs off into a new wave bridge that sounds like The Pretenders crossed with The White Stripes. After locking into a series of staccato chord jabs, the song cycles back into the opening riff. After all of the quick tempo punch of the first three minutes, the band finally relaxes into trippy freefall to catch their breath, but it’s a modest pause as they dive into a couple of hard rocking guitar solos to push to the end. There’s a natural flow from one moment to the next and familiar sections flash back, but the evolution of the song is more in keeping with a longer, more expansive piece.

“Time to Die” follows up with a similarly novel arrangement. It starts with some country-tinged rock guitar playing that would be right at home on The Rolling Stones’ "It’s Only Rock n Roll (But I Like It)", but soon enough it falls into a hard rocking avalanche and Smith’s bass slips into a Krautrock throb. The song will eventually run through psychedelic folk, moody rock, and acid etched guitar rock before crashing into a speedy ramp up ending. Where “Beloved Devote” had a plastic sense of genre, this tune ups the ante with strong tempo changes.

The sweetest track on Piedmont Rose is the instrumental, “Lettuce Rest (Appalachian Spring)”, which starts out with a mellow, jazzy vibe. The slow fade in wash intro reminds me a little of Copeland's piece, but that doesn't really justify the sub-title. Instead, it references other more modern songs like Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” and Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed". Once again, the bass is stunning with warm, open ended lines. In contrast to the earlier song arrangements, the course here is to ramp up the tempo and reiterate through the changes until it snowballs. At peak intensity, the tune falls into a repeated descending bass riff that's ornamented with broken shards of shadowy guitar klaxon. which eventually subsides into a disjointed, restive finish.

Aside from Smith’s stellar bass work, the band’s new guitarist, Ian Lockey, invigorates the album with strong contributions on the thrashing centerpiece, “Ratchets”. Long time members Drew Taylor (guitar) and Leen Hinshaw (drums) round out the group. Piedmont Rose is a testament to how well all of these guys have collaborated to create an album that never rests on a single point, but still maintains a consistent energy and tone. What pushes this up a notch is how well they transcend the scattered musical allusions they casually drop.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What's cool? No Valentine, "Bowl of Cherries"

In praise of simplicity

When Link Wray played "Rumble", it was never about capturing a virtuoso performance. Ray Davies didn't set out to make a poetic masterpiece with "You Really Got Me". "I Want to be Sedated" didn't arise from the Ramones agonizing over an aesthetic ideal. All of these powerful songs were based on artists tapping into what they could play and how they felt. They're simple songs, but their no-frills approach makes them universal.

Like the long chain of garage and punk rockers before them, No Valentine locks into that same mindset. Cindy Pack's simple pentatonic riff on "Bowl of Cherries" is instantly familiar and gives the track a perfect serving of distorted guitar jangle. Mike Linn on drums and bassist Laura Sativa provide a pounding accompaniment that only pauses periodically to give that riff room to ring out again. Pack's lyrics are full of dead simple truisms about life sucking, but the tune never sinks into nihilistic surrender. Instead, Pack settles for detached annoyance and takes a couple of shortish solos that echo the song's small scale frustration.

It's easy enough to imagine that every teenager with a guitar has written a version of this song at one time or another and there are plenty of well-known examples on this theme. It's also true that No Valentine isn't breaking new sonic ground like Wray or the Kinks did. But it doesn't matter if you've heard this sort of song before; the punch lands because you already know it in your gut. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it just lowers your defenses, letting the band waltz in with swagger and just the right amount of sneer.

It's a good lead-off track for No Valentine's new EP, Can't Sleep, which is chock full of cathartic rockers. Drop by their Bandcamp site and give them a listen. Aside from "Bowl of Cherries", I also really liked the closer, "You Don't Care". 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Recording review - The Myrrors, Arena Negra (2015)

Rich psychedelic details lurk below the desert surface


The desert is a potent symbol. It can be unwelcoming and dangerous even as its solitude can be cleansing. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s jaundiced commentary on late 1960’s counterculture, Zabriskie Point (1970), the desert was a haven offering the possibility of a new start. The Myrrors may be from Arizona, not Death Valley, but their desert psychedelia reflects Antonioni’s sense, taking inspiration from the beauty and surreal feelings found in such a stark environment. Their new release, Arena Negra, captures those facets along with the majesty of wide open spaces and vivid backdrops. The music itself is timeless; free jazz and avant garde contributions keep it from being strictly anchored in the retro golden age of head music, but it avoids the intellectual gamesmanship that often accompanies those approaches.

The album opens with the expansive title track. The twelve minute run time gives The Myrrors plenty of room to slowly ease into the song and develop the feel. It’s fitting that the pensive bass motif at the start evokes Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”, which turned up in Zabriskie Point, albeit under a different name. This intro section, with the bassline supporting the sun glare shimmer of violin and flute drone, taps into the mystery of the desert, especially when the unintelligible chanted vocals join in. The dreamy haze slips away when the drums finally punch their way to the front to drive up the intensity. The band slips into a Velvet Underground guitar raga mode, where they tread the same ground repeatedly, layering in all kinds of noise and subtleties without really moving very far from the initial groove. Guitar dominates as the music turns in on itself, but the flute adds a chaotic flutter, like lizards gazing impassively through heat waves of distortion. The song hangs in that dervish whirl without respite until the last minute and a half, when it gradually retreats from the climax to fall back to the sleepy sway that still lies at the root. Then, it fades like consciousness surrendering to anesthesia before finally winking out.

Just as their music wanders without getting completely lost, The Myrrors have passed through their own twists and eddies. They started during high school, recording a 2008 demo that would take another five years to find a wider audience. By that point, the band had drifted apart with college plans and finding their way into adulthood. Against expectations, they’ve come back together, comfortably falling into old habits but their scope has grown to incorporate world music and a mix of other influences.

Dome House Music” shows off that maturity. Like “Arena Negra”, it starts slow with a meditative repetition, but there’s also a rhythmic complexity that drives the song. The piece is in nine, but the emphasis on the last two beats pulls it off balance, always lurching forward. The track builds inexorably, collecting a buzz of horns that swirl in free jazz riffing and smear together to create a thick wall of tone. When the drums and horns drop away near the end, it’s relief. Nothing of the relentless chaos and tension is left but the resonant hum of guitar, which slowly fades away before the remaining twenty-odd seconds has fully elapsed. Even though “Dome House Music” doesn't conjure a direct set of images, its oppressive sound taps into the darker danger of the badlands, suggesting disorientation and dehydration.

Arena Negra packs a lot into a mere four tunes, but it's a full length release, not an EP. Just as the expanse of the great outdoors is impossible to capture with point and click camera, pop length songs are too short for The Myrrors to paint some of the sonic pictures they want to convey. Instead, they give long play pieces like "The Forward Path" space to evolve and find their way forward. Dewey Bunnell (America) may have said, "In the desert, you can remember your name," in "A Horse With No Name", but The Myrrors don't just find themselves, they discover all kinds of hidden dimensions.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's cool? Amanda Palmer, "Bigger on the Inside"

A poignant sense of perspective

The haters aren't all wrong about Amanda Palmer. Of course they're suspicious of her near constant attempts to be outrageous and provoke reaction; Palmer herself drives most of the controversy and her innocent surprise at the fallout seems a bit disingenuous. The Dresden Dolls gave her a theatrical platform and, with the help of her fans, she's erected that into a ziggurat of overwrought emotion. While she sometimes plays the martyr, she is certainly no saint.

But -- and this is the key -- as much as she courts indignation, her image is more grounded in her personal truth than any other pop performer I can think of, especially the queens of shock facade, Madonna and Lady Gaga. I believe that most of the time, Palmer knows exactly what kind of response she'll get and she embraces that. But it's also clear that her own expressions of outrage, pain, and childlike joy are truly sincere reflections of her inner life. That's what makes a song like "The Killing Type" so powerful: she's not afraid to face the contradiction of her pacifist front and her sublimated anger. and the juxtaposition gives both sides equal weight.

Palmer's latest piece, "Bigger on the Inside" has a very similar sound to "The Killing Type" and it also crosses her higher ideals against the reality of her feelings. This time, though, instead of fury, the track is grounded in heartbreak. Her voice skips right along the edge of falling apart as she chides herself for her own bitterness and frustration in the face of real pain, like dying friends and abused children. A big part of the impact is that those examples are specifically grounded rather than generalities. It's particularly poignant that Zoƫ Keating plays cello on this piece, which was recorded during her late husband's illness.

The song starts out a bit defiant, with the hook admonishing Palmer's critics that she is "bigger on the inside" and they're "only hating other people's low-res copies," but by the end, she's comforting us and herself that everyone is deeper than their surface looks from outside. A resonant discord of string buzz builds for the final line, but drops away on the last word to punch the resolution. "Bigger on the Inside" is maudlin and a bit melodramatic, but it touched me because it captures an emotional truth.

Drop by her page on Patreon to download your own copy.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Concert review - Beardyman with Shank Aaron and Sureshot

13 March 2015 (Beta Nightclub, Denver CO)


I've been to my share of nightclubs, but I'm much more a denizen of the bar show and concert hall. Unfortunately, DJ sets and electronic acts are always a bit out of their element at concert venues when they try to recreate the dance club/rave feel. It's hard to overcome the wrong geometry, the lack of a real dance floor, and a very different atmosphere.

By contrast, catching Beardyman at Beta delivered the genuine dance club experience. They had the lighting setup, including lasers and a pixelated display around the DJ, not to mention a sound system capable of massaging internal organs with bass throb. While the show never caught the wild rave feel of a Beats Antique or Glitch Mob show, Beta was a decent venue. Unlike most of the clubs I've been to, the space was voluminous and could have accommodated a much larger crowd; the dance floor was fairly full, but the back and edges offered plenty of room to move around.

The first thing to remember is that this evening was all about the club vibe rather than a concert. So, there were no breaks or rests as one DJ melted into another. Sureshot led off with fairly standard set of electronic mood music, but he never even spoke to the crowd. The transition to Shank Aaron picked things up a bit, with a harder edge bass and a buddy on the mic, but the emphasis remained on driving the insistent beat and keeping people moving.

Soaking in the experience on the dance floor, it reminded me about the power of variable-interval reinforcement schedules. Okay, I lost a few of you there. This is what makes gambling, email, and Candy Crush Saga so addictive: a stable pattern interrupted with tiny rewards. The DJs provided this by constantly manipulating the sonic signature with grinding bass or free-fall washes, all without dropping the beat. Each novel twist -- is that the sound of industrial robot mating calls? -- triggered a new wash of dopamine and flush of satisfaction. In the club sensorium, where the volume dominated and the visuals provided pseudo-random shifts, the effect was electric. The only real way to react was to move and dance, and there was joy in that surrender.

Beardyman slipped into the booth at the end of Shank Aaron's set and did his systems check while the final changes propagated through the mix. But once he took up the reins, the difference was huge as he demonstrated the difference between mere DJ and performer. It wasn't just how he layered his vocal loops to create an order of magnitude more complexity; it was his playful sense of improvisation and the amount of personality he injected. He warmed up by showing off some of his musical chops, then he got on the mic and riffed for a while on Denver, mentioning his last tour through here that ended early when he got sick. Then, apropos of nothing, he shot off on a tangent. He mentioned, "I probably shouldn't have taken that acid 30 minutes ago," which pulled its comic effect from the vocal mutation that added the requisite disconcerting echoes and pitch shifts. It was a cheap gag, but it worked to loosen up the crowd.


It was interesting to contrast this nightclub experience with his more concert-oriented shows. He never got quite as antic or creative because he kept the set in full service to the dance floor, but the performance element distinguished Beardyman from his more prosaic competition. It's not just that he was live looping the mix and tweaking vocal samples on the fly to create his grooves, it's how he toyed with the electronic dance structure and kept his audience off balance. If the normal dance club formula builds on short attention span twists on the beat, Beardyman upped the ante by whipsawing his set between inciting the crowd with intensely powerful rhythms and then shattering the mood with comic or surprising side trips. So, he broke up the heavy pounding beat with an introspective instrumental piano interlude that was disrupted yet again when it picked up a grinding dubstep bass. Later, a bouncy pop song was deconstructed and deformed into weirdness. But he never forgot his milieu, pushing the dancers into constant motion. He also handled these shifts organically as he flowed between them.

Throughout the night, he made it clear that all of his set was relatively improvised, sometimes with subtle moves, like lyrical riffing specific to Denver, but just as often by overtly bragging about it and explaining what he was doing in a sing-song dancehall style voice.  This looseness meant that he could build up some elaborate ideas, but then abandon them if they didn't connect as well. Having seen some of his other performances, there were some familiar bits, although they had their own flavor here. One of these, "Ghost Town" by The Specials, reworked  the uneasy darkness of the tune until it unwound into glitched out blocks of tone.

This show at Beta wasn't as polished or clever as that Seattle show linked earlier, but it was exactly what the venue called for. It was a full night of tribal dance rites powered by visceral bass and tight syncopation, and Beardyman's special touch made it something to talk about afterwards, trading memories of odd references and riffs.

(Note: Lighting and logistics made it hard to get any other usable photos) 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What's cool - Geographer, "I'm Ready" (acoustic)

Unplugged, but the vocals are electric

Geographer's Mike Deni starts out with soft, simple fingerpicked line, but misses his second chord to blow the take. A whispered, "I'm sorry" of self-admonishment and he tackles it again. That false start humanizes his performance, but he's convincing enough on his own. While he doesn't engage with the camera, his singing is lush and warm, and the dynamic build to the chorus strum is powerful. I love the effortless way his voice slides into its upper register when he gets soulful. Geographer is known for solid songwriting and emotional depth and this version of "I'm Ready" plays to those strengths.

It's really interesting to compare this stripped down arrangement to the full band version. Aside from toning down the sharper extremes of soft and loud, the solo version has a looser sense of rhythm that adds a rueful edge to the wistful mood. The original is a beautiful song; the chiming synths and delicate strings add a lot, but it's nice to get a better sense of Deni as a solo artist.

"I'm Ready" is on Geographer's upcoming release, Ghost Modern, due out on March 24.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Recording review - The Delta Routine, You and Your Lion (2015)

Bluesy twang and a transparent agenda


Southern rock formed like a metamorphic mineral deposit when blues, country, rock and folk were combined and transformed under the social pressures below the Mason-Dixon Line. While the West Coast hippies spiraled off into loosely structured jams, bands like the Allman Brothers captured a laid back country blues that built on relatively coordinated musical arrangements. Later, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, and others expanded on the sound, but the country influence grounded the music with a folksy genuineness that contrasted with more flamboyant psychedelic excursions. Listening to The Delta Routine, with their plaintive laments and Antebellum dignity, you can tell they've drawn from the same well. The big surprise is that they're from Milwaukee, not Macon. They’re too raw and earthy to be dismissed as posers; instead, it marks them as disciples of the Southern diaspora, as well as the Americana legacy of bands like Uncle Tupelo.

You and Your Lion is chock full of bluesy twang, but unlike most Southern rock albums, it rarely slips into simple blues progressions. Instead, The Delta Routine shows a lot of versatility, relying on vocal tone and guitar style to pull it all together into a coherent sound rather than repeating a simple formula. Their big tent has room for James Gang style jams like “On a Saturday Night”, but also the stripped down drag beat of “Chains Off Me”, and they seem just as happy to lean towards the Rolling Stones as Commander Cody or the Georgia Satellites. When the band does drift further afield from the Southern rock mainline, such as the staccato Latin beat of “Nothing on Me” or the bouncy indie rock on the title cut, the rootsy flannel of Nick Amadeus’ voice reinforces the connection back to an Americana tone.

The Delta Routine deserve respect for creating that consistent feel without falling into a rut. But if there’s a Achilles heel here, it’s in the relative transparency of the songs: the band’s versatility is engaging, but each track is fairly straightforward. To some extent, that’s refreshing -- a solid hook and little lyrical pretension trumps the tortured artist who drapes their issues behind overworked metaphors and oblique allusions. On the other hand, I miss the intricate formation playing that Skynyrd or the Allmans were known for and these songs make their biggest impact on the first listen.

Still, the impact can often be quite effective. In particular, “Home With You” builds quite nicely, with a stark opening that lashes the raspy vocals to a light wash of accordion before rising into a fuller wall of instrumentation. Each verse starts out with a melodic tag that borrows from “Mother’s Little Helper” by the Rolling Stones, and the familiar riff and chugging bass evoke that song’s fatalistic sense of overwhelming outside forces. But the more assertive chorus shows that The Delta Routine hasn’t surrendered just yet. The contrasting pulls of the verse and the chorus give the song some emotional weight and the loose, down home family jam arrangement lends it a patina of sepia-toned tradition.

You and Your Lion isn't a life changing album, but just like a backyard pig roast or Fourth of July picnic, it's a comfortable ritual that most of us can relate to and enjoy, whether we're Southerners or not. In that, The Delta Routine's name is completely appropriate, even in Wisconsin.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What's coming - Beardyman!

13 March (Beta Nightclub, Denver CO)

British beatboxer Beardyman knows how to work a crowd. He's a full on entertainer, more than just another mouth percussion guy. It's clear from his performance that he's learned how to elevate his craft with mime, sketch comedy, music, and commentary to create an engaging show. Denver is incredibly lucky to get another visit (he was just here last month).

Beardyman has developed his toolset, the Beardytron 5000 Mk III, to enable his latest release, Distractions, which allows him to quickly evolve musical ideas into richly layered works. I'm psyched to catch this performance, which will also feature Shank Aaron and Sureshot.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What's Cool - Young Guv, Crawling Back to You

Never judge a book by its cover (or the publisher's hype)

I never saw it coming. Digging through the pile of promo emails to find a gem to share, I came across the most over-the-top, hyperbolic sell job on behalf of Young Guv's new album, Ripe 4 Luv. The last paragraph reels through some crazy comparisons: Cheap Trick produced by Jimmy Jam,  Drake's producter 40 engineering Hall and Oates...it was obviously tongue in cheek, but the hype was so thick that I almost blew it off. Not only that, but the title, "Crawling Back to You", promised a sad whine about unrequited love, which is seldom worth the trouble. For some reason, though, I decided to give it a minute's listen.

Thirty minutes later, I had replayed it a half dozen times, because Young Guv had me hooked. The opening anarchy of scraping strings collapses into a strong indie rock groove worthy of Big Star or Too Much Joy. It builds up before receding behind tightly harmonized vocals reminiscent of the Byrds. The tune is packed with familiar sounding DNA, but somehow transcends any of its inspirations. The jangly walls of guitar and the slick pop vocals combine to form a hook almost as big as the hype from their label. The off-kilter lyrics are also a pleasant surprise, comparing the bygone relationship to the womb. I can honestly say I've never heard the phrase "Placenta sleeping bags for two," before, but I was fairly amused when I teased that line out from the opening verse.

The back story offers its own surprise. Young Guv aka Young Governor aka Ben Cook had his start with hardcore punkers No Warning and then played guitar with the progressive punk Fucked Up. Along the way, he wrote  "We're All To Blame" for Sum 41, That paints a relatively clear picture, but he also claims to have ghostwritten songs for Taylor Swift and Kelly Clarkson and he's celebrated '80s style pop with a side project, Yacht Club. Maybe that makes Young Guv a nice median persona for Cook. In any case, Ripe 4 Luv is due to release on March 10.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Recording review - Wendy Atkinson, The Last Fret (2015)

Welcome to the gallery of memory


The Last Fret is not so much an album as it is a sonic art installation dedicated to memory. That makes it more concerned with evoking particular moods than trying to fit into conventional songwriting structures. Wendy Atkinson's relatively short sketches achieve her targeted effect by exploring feelings of introspection, loss, and hope. She cloaks her bass with pensive ambient washes, electronic textures, and field recordings, occasionally expanding the tracks with other instruments or spoken word segments.

Our first stop in this gallery walk is "What Came Before", which creates the sense of moving through a foggy landscape of memory. Swells of electronic tone loom, but melt back into the featureless cotton before their details can register. Atkinson summons a distance between the events she's teasing apart and her need to find understanding and closure. The elegiac mood is reminiscent of Panderecki.

A couple of tracks later, another piece catches my deeper attention. "In the Off Season" pensively sways between two chords. While the title implies the idea of marking time, it feels more like two focal points of an old debate, where repetition has worn the exchange into an endless ellipse: neither side can ever win or even stand alone without the context of its negation. This is a fitting setup for "Hebron Birds", which draws on Atkinson's experience in that city. Her muddy, noisy recording of a chance encounter with a group of laughing girls in a mosque forms the internal recollection behind her spoken word piece that contrasts the "joyfulness, trust, and curiosity" of these girls with the troubled city they live in. It's a political statement but still emphatically personal. The simple instrumental accompaniment shades the story but stays to the background.

Two of the tracks disrupt the ambiance of the showing by falling outside the arc of the album. Her deconstruction of Chain and the Gang's "What is a Dollar" fits sonically but the anti-capitalist lyrics don't really connect thematically. By contrast, the wistful pop song structure of "Ukulele Shock" is shocking itself amidst the more expressive experimentation of the other tracks. Atkinson matter-of-factly relates a story from her youth, which ties the tune back to the central theme, but the punch line ending injects a touch of deadpan humor that also feels odd in this setting. Either of these songs might have best been saved for another setting, but fortunately they don't do any lasting damage to the coherent motif of The Last Fret.

Atkinson brings a rich range of textures and techniques to her work. The brevity of pieces often leave you wanting more, or perhaps a more detailed evolution, but her impressionistic, "less is more" approach leaves room for interpretation on subsequent visits. Her songs never overstay their welcome in part because she doesn't place too much weight on delicate structure of her material, The Last Fret is a thoughtful collection worthy of a relaxed afternoon or evening visit..