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

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What's cool? Ovenizer, "Satan's Washing Machine"

Campy goodness, but solid post-metal delivery

Scratch the surface on most stuff and it's all the same, whether it's the latest tween girl pop fluff or a technically accomplished bluegrass banjo picker. What you see is what you get, and either you already like it or you don't. Like everyone else, I have my share of simple tastes, but I really love music with some layers to it, where you can dig in and find something unexpected. It's why I love bands like Too Much Joy, with tight-rocking, smart ass songs that often turn out to be more serious than they seemed at first.

With all the bands that I come across, it's always pleasant when something surprises me, and that's what caught my attention with the Finnish post-metal band Ovenizer and their new single, "Satan's Washing Machine". The title alone is powerful in its ridiculousness: how deep in the barrel of metal imagery did they have to scrape to come up with the idea of Lucifer's home appliances? Before I even listened to it, I was ready for either the most pathetic metal band ever, or some group trying to pull a Spinal Tap.

The opening lines recall Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge", suggesting it's more likely a parody play: "Spark flew from the tree/ Spawned in Satan's Washing Machine." But I've watched the video a few times and they treat it pretty seriously, avoiding any sly, subtle winks. Regardless of how offbeat the theme is, though, the song is well made. The opening imports some folky acoustic guitar to give the tune some roots while the lead singer's husky voice adds the visceral punch. The open, airy arrangement quickly fills up with solid drumming and a tight guitar riff. The chorus expansively edges into post-rock with thick walls of cymbal, guitar, and bass The double pedal kick drum work gets more impressive as the song builds, hitting a climax during the bridge.

The video adds its own perspective. It may have been shot on a budget, but it's lovingly constructed. The band plays on packed snow, surrounded a stand of tall trees with a torch burning in the background. In a nod to the inspiration, the set also includes the titular washing machine. You can tell it's Satan's because it's been eviscerated and it's conveniently labeled with "666". To match the rising intensity of the song, members of Flamma Fire Group add some pyro excitement with spinning torches and spitting flames. Eventually, everything is on fire, including the instruments. By the end, the camera tracks through the snow to find the smoking, demonspawn Kenmore and then cuts back to the instrument pyre, merrily burning.

The video may revel in campy goodness, but the band plays it straight. If you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics, it's a solid post-metal outing. Maybe it's less Spinal Tap than Frank Zappa. Zappa was happy to entertain his audience with silliness like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow", but that was the sugar to get them to swallow his musical ideas. Ovenizer certainly isn't the metal Mothers of Invention, but their growling tribute to Hell's laundry room is weightier than the first glance.

"Satan's Washing Machine" is from Ovenizer's latest album, SWM, on Norwegian Pope Records.

Recording review - Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Never Were the Way She Was (2015)

Violin and saxophone circle like perfectly paired dancers


Surrounded by inorganic synthesizer tones, it's good to be reminded of not just analog sounds, but traditional instruments as well. Woodwind music is rooted in the raw physicality of breath. Strings, on the other hand, can sing with the expressiveness of an unchained voice that transcends mere respiration and can also slant into otherworldly realms. On Never Were the Way She Was saxophonist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld blend their unique sonic fingerprints to find a magic in that meld that yields a yin-yang of cooperation and conflict. Of course, they've had plenty of time to learn each other’s style, working together in Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre. This album of duets finds them gracefully connecting like perfectly matched dancers; the interplay sounds effortless, but closer attention reveals the complexity.

While Stetson’s side work is always impressive, his solo trilogy series, New History Warfare shows off his development as a master of his instruments. In particular, he’s learned how to harness a variety of techniques -- growls, vocalizations, and creative recording tricks -- to create stunning soundscapes. Over the course of these albums, he’s evolved his vocabulary and expanded the boundaries of the instrument. In his hands, the sax moves beyond breathy riffs and warps into experimental electronic tones and dark rumblings.

Neufeld is perhaps less inclined to play at the outside edges that Stetson enjoys, but her own solo work, 2013’s Hero Brother, demonstrates her stylistic and melodic range. She has a good sense of dynamics and how to build just the right mood. Her playing has a fluidity that accommodates sudden shifts from anxious obsession to angelic soaring, from ethereal reverie to passionate engagement.

Never Were the Way She Was feels like a continuation of Stetson’s recent work, but Neufeld pushes him into dialog with melodic parts that accentuate his ideas even as they offer a counterpoint. As in any conversation, the lead can shift from one speaker to another, and Neufeld and Stetson are comfortable circling one another in this way. But the real treat comes in those rare moments when their playing doesn’t change roles overtly, but the context shifts and, like figure and ground reversing in an optical illusion, suddenly the supporting instrument is standing at center stage. “In the Vespers” is a fine example of this. Neufeld’s staccato violin sets up Stetson’s rolling minimalist line as the focus. While the arpeggiated riff seethes with impatience and ambition, the violin maintains order as it relentlessly slices out its measured pace. In a subtle move, Neufeld modulates the tonal base and Stetson follows, acquiescing the lead to her. The tension builds and Stetson adds an anguished vocalization to his part and the tune becomes a battle of wills. Neufeld disengages and the sax twists in on itself. As the busy notes percolate, the violin returns with longer tones that calm the track down into resolution. Stetson is adept at creating that sense of roiling conflict, so Neufeld’s sense of harmony, both on violin and wordless vocals, provides a nice counterbalance.

Following the model of Stetson’s New History Warfare albums, this collaboration was recorded live, with no studio overdubs. While I’m sure the pieces were largely worked out, these songs have an immediacy that heightens their impact. Thus the anticipation and nervous excitement of “The Sun Roars into View” is visceral as it builds from predawn calm and a rising glow to a fast-motion blur once the day is truly underway. It’s a good start, but my favorite track is the spooky “With the Dark Hug of Time”. It starts off with rattling bass notes and sweeping strings, emphasizing the contrast between the instruments. The bass takes over and builds a plodding rhythm, part elephant and part lurching Frankenstein’s Monster. Stetson’s sax vocalizations creep in, as if the monster were moaning its lament. All the while, Neufeld contributes to the tension with fearful sawing tones. It finally reaches a shimmering pause as the beat drops away. The night calms, fading down to a low rumble and Neufeld’s cooing vocals, both wrapped in a rough distortion that adds a sweet surreal quality.

It’s so nice to hear Neufeld and Stetson circle and build on one another. Never Were the Way She Was is certainly less structured than what they do with Arcade Fire, but this collaboration reflects wild internal worlds without sliding into self-indulgence. And the sound? It's probably like nothing else you've been listening to lately.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What's cool? The Very Best with Mafilika, "Hear Me"

Roots come together from opposite worlds 

Sometimes, you can travel to the ends of the earth and still find yourself back at home. Esau Mwamwaya was an experienced singer when he left his home in Malawi and moved to London in 1999. A serendipitous meeting led to an unlikely partnership with the production team of Radioclit to form The Very Best. Their electronic production complemented his soulful singing to create an intriguing mixtape that featured some surprising contributions from acts like Santigold and samples from a variety of pop and indie bands.

Fast forward a half decade and The Very Best was centered on Mwamwaya and DJ Johan Hugo. The pair had temporarily relocated back to Lilongwe, Malawi in 2013. They left the capital for village life in M'dala Chikowa to work on their new album in earnest, which edged their sound to away from its electronic foundations to develop a more band-oriented focus. The resulting project, Makes a King, just came out this month. It still ties back to their earlier work, but it's looser and more vibrant.

"Hear Me" is the first single off the new album, and that version features bass work from Chris Baio (Vampire Weekend). The glitchy production adds a brittle quality that emphasizes the fragility of Mwamwaya's voice. It straddles synthpop reminiscent of Tears For Fears along with a deep African heart. While the studio take is pretty nice, this live version, recorded with Malawi Afrojazz band Mafilika, has a more organic feel.

Mafilika mixes in live drums to go with the drum machine beat, which softens the stark edge of the studio recording. Hugo's production touches are still there to maintain the modernity of the song, but the sadness and resignation of the vocals comes through even stronger than before. Listening to the two perspectives side by side, it's easy to hear how the live version taps into the soul of the song as it first entered the world, before the studio production added a veneer of complexity to shade the tune.

Both takes are strong signs that Makes A King is worth digging into to hear how roots from opposite ends of the earth can intertwine.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Recording review - Ambrosia Parsley, Weeping Cherry (2013/2015)

Pervasive sadness is softened into dreamy surrender


The timeless, unanchored feel of Ambrosia Parsley’s music reflects the narrative for the reissue of her 2013 solo album Weeping Cherry: both are hard to pin down to a particular moment or linear progression. The former lead singer for the moody Shivaree had plans to release a solo album as far back as 2008, but it never came together. Eventually, she released the tune “Rubble” in 2010, sparking renewed interest, but the album took another three years before it came out on France’s Fargo Records label. Now, another year and a half later, it’s finally getting an American release on Barbes Records.

Parsley has said that Weeping Cherry is rooted in a hard year of loss, which comes strongest in her lyrics. There is a pervasive sense of sadness in these songs, but her arrangements and singing soften the songs into dreamy surrender, rather than outright depression. Even when the undercurrent of loss rises to the the surface, like her line in “Catalina”, “Another tear/ Salt the butter on our daily bread,” the music keeps the emotions from overwhelming the songs.

There’s a lot of her former band’s retro sound in these songs, above and beyond the continuity of Parsley’s ethereal voice. But her writing shows other strong influences, particularly Radiohead and Elvis Costello. Like those artists, she’s more than just a talented singer/songwriter; each of these tracks feature arrangements that add depth and complexity. It’s interesting to hear her swing from retro pop to more modern styles, but she maintains a kind of languid delivery that creates a siren-like seductiveness. At the same time, her voice reminds me of Jill Sobule, with a vulnerable surface around a strongly grounded center.

That Jill Sobule comparison shines on “My Hindenberg”. Part of it is the simple, restrained acoustic guitar that complements the clear, folky vocal. It has a similar historical perspective to Sobule’s “Vrbana Bridge”, but rather than a snapshot story reminiscence, Parsley builds a moving metaphor for her own loss. She ties the iconic images of the Hindenberg disaster, full of helpless impotence, to her lyrics and makes them deeply persona. The bridge is particularly poignant, “On the ground, we almost can’t believe it/ You were out of time and we were all out of place.

Most the music on Weeping Cherry is more layered than "My Hindenberg". Parsley’s Radiohead side turns up on that first single, “Rubble”. The warm bassline and guitar interjections are tethered to a deliberate drag beat rhythm. Think “Creep” mixed with a stripped down version of “Airbag” from OK Computer. Like “Creep”, Parsley locks into a low sense of self-esteem and fear that is drained of direct emotional weight. The arrangement leaves plenty of space to fit in a host of details. The guitar textures are especially sweet, rawly expressing the feelings that her vocals seem too scared to voice.

The Costello influence is more pervasive. Often, it’s her thoughtful phrasing, like on the title track, or a similarly handled chord run on “Only Just Fine.” But it’s most obvious in the dark, moody music and sardonic lyrics of “Make Me Laugh”. From the very start, the tune is unsettled, with stark percussion and eerie echoed tones. The mood abruptly shifts context, though, when the vocals come in with the evocative lines, “Make me laugh / When it's 'goodbye'/ With a bill and a body count so high." The verses match Costello at his introspective best, full of musing defiance, but the walking bass and Parsley’s breathy delivery cut the creepiness and make it more like a disoriented dream. I love the jazz standard feel to the progression with its tremolo guitar accents. On the original release, this was a perfect ending for the album. This 2015 reissue tacks on “The Answer (Tim and Becky’s Wedding)”, which is more of a love song, albeit with hint of a 'beautiful disaster' vibe. While this bonus is a pretty song, it’s not as powerful an ending for Weeping Cherry.

While most of these songs would be at home on a Shivaree release, they do cover a wide sonic range. "My Hindenberg", "Rubble", and "Make Me Laugh" each show different facets of Parsley's writing style. Fortunately, her voice provides the common thread to tie these disparate pieces together.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What's cool? White Reaper, "Make Me Wanna Die"

Breaking up never sounded so easy

White Reaper's secret super power comes from the the synth-pop keyboards that sneak in during the first break of "Make Me Wanna Die". Up until that moment, it's easy to pigeonhole them as another set of low--fi, power-pop garage rockers from somewhere in the U.K. The punk sneer and throbbing downstroke guitar are anchored by a dead simple beat and pulsing bass -- it all sounds fine, but when the Cars-style synth riff drops, the poppy bounce is completely unexpected. Another surprise is that despite singing with a slight British accent, Tony Esposito and the band are from Louisville, Kentucky. I'm guessing they spent a lot of time listening to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but they've found their own unique balance.

"Make Me Wanna Die" is a mixed up little gem, but in a fun way. It's a break up song, celebrating that moment right after the split is out in the open, when all you want to do is walk away and put it behind you. The relentless beat captures that discomfort and restless impatience, but the poppy keys say that they knew it was never going to work out anyway, and we should all just get over it.

White Reapers full length debut, White Reaper Does It Again, is due out in mid-July. That will be a treat.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Recording review - Föllakzoid, III (2015)

Sink into hypnotic rhythms and dark echoes


World music -- that vague catch-all label -- largely falls into two flavors, neither of which reflect too well on the Westerners who coined the term. The bulk of it is “delightfully exotic” or “strange but cool”, showcasing some culture’s musical heritage, but repackaged in easy to digest servings to appeal to the jaded palate. Worse than that are the half breed mutants that hover between appropriation and cargo-cult aspiration, sometimes with rock artists harnessing foreign musicians without understanding their cultural context, other times with those musicians trying with mild success to emulate Western pop. Even so, I’ll confess that I’ve enjoyed my share of all of these, sometimes with a frisson of guilt.

Föllakzoid’s sophomore album, III, neatly sidesteps this minefield by focusing on their creative vision and building rich, long-form trance excursions. The Chilean trio taps into a hypnotic flow that has served numerous traditions from Indian ragas and Sufi dervishes to Krautrock drives and dancehouse electronica. Their music may draw somewhat on South American rhythms, but those influences don’t stick out as much as the motorik percussion, Indian polyrhythms, trance psychedelia, and Goth rock moodiness. Why waste time pedantically analyzing the cultural referents or feeling hiply superior when you can surrender to the swirling syncopation and trippy echoes?

III is a full length album split into four tracks, but the songs seem to share thematic elements even as they change up their production. In particular, the first two tracks, “Electric” and “Earth” have a lot in common: each begins with syncopated beats built from echoed percussion, they build into trancy electronica, and they feature heavily reverbed vocals. But the two songs develop completely different moods. “Electric” latches on to a slinky bass groove that pushes into Ozric Tentacles territory. Electronic washes and a deep, pensive throb create a beautiful tension that complements the crystalline bite of guitar and gives a surreal edge to the faint vocals that sounds like distant PA announcements. The song wraps up with a sci-fi flavored interlude featuring robotic sound effects and shimmering static.

“Earth” rises from this sonic soundscape with a metallic percussion that develops into a deep tribal rhythm. The bass is strong here, too, but now it’s heavy and impassive, reminding me a bit of Joy Division. The effect is much darker than the first track, suggesting shadowy hallways where barely noticeable electronic grinding suggests alien threats lurking just out of sight. Despite that undercurrent of danger, there’s also a thoughtful element as the piece hypnotically wraps in on itself, occasionally running into dead ends and moving on while the echoes hang on a little bit.

The shortest piece, “Feuerzeug”, closes out the album with an intense nine minutes of pensive Krautrock that ambraces the Gothic sounds of Joy Division and Bauhaus. The main theme is thick with tension and has me expecting to hear Ian Curtis break in with the vocals for “Transmission”. Then some heavier flashes of guitar against the steady beat suggest Bauhaus’ “Terror Couple Kill Colonel”. At the same time, Föllakzoid aren’t aping those bands. They make their own statement by playing with the sonic palette to blend in harsher, low-fi tones that contrast against the softening echoes and electronic touches. They fill in a host of disjointed details that drift in and out before the song gradually deconstructs itself.

If III has a weakness, it’s one that many trance-oriented projects share: it’s too easy for a casual listener to dismiss the whole collection as repetitive and miss the nuances between the songs.“Feuerzeug” may stand as the best argument against that criticism, but I think that Föllakzoid could have varied the tempos a little more to create more differentiation. Ultimately, those are minor issues that won’t distract as you sink under the album’s spell. Best of all, it’s not “world music”; it’s just music, perfect for an early Spring bike ride or as a soul-refreshing barrier against workday monotony .

Thursday, April 9, 2015

What's cool? Moodoïd, Heavy Metal Be Bop 2

And now for something completely different...

If Fark.com has taught us anything, it's that the Japanese are the masters of WTF video. Other countries may throw their hats in the ring, but they seldom offer any threat to the reigning kings. Now Parisian Pablo Padovani (AKA Moodoïd) has risen to the challenge with "Heavy Medal Be Bop 2". To be fair, his video lacks the innocent inscrutability that is the hallmark of Japanese TV, but it's such a hot mess that it overcomes that hurdle with ease. It's become a truism that things can be "so bad they're good," but there's never any doubt that the word "good" is always in air quotes. This video is a veritable double rainbow of campy perfection. I flip-flopped from bad to good so many times during this song, that my sense of irony got whiplash.

Imagine if Andy Warhol, Devo, Lady Gaga, and John Waters went off on a drug binge and had a contest to make the most absurd music video ever. Even if you have trouble with that, Padovani not only imagined it, but he took notes, threw their ideas into a blender, and then made the damn thing. Bizarre fashion, twisted sci-fi surrealism, '80s pop video deconstruction -- "Heavy Metal Be Bop 2" has it all and then some.

The tight, uptempo abstract jazz section at the start doesn't just reference his father, saxophonist Jean-Marc Padovani, but it even bolsters the younger Padovani's essential French credibility. That interlude doesn't last long, as he abruptly pulls an about-face to lay down a chill pop-funk groove. The jazz elements come back later to support a stylized sax solo later in the song. That, along with the muddle of the two genres, suggest why he named the piece in tribute to the Brecker Brothers' Heavy Metal Bebop, but despite the juxtaposition of outside jazz and pop, music is fairly tame compared to the imagery he's chosen. Truth be told, I enjoy his guitar work with Melody's Echo Chamber more than "Heavy Metal Be Bop 2", but the video is so entertaining that all is forgiven.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Recording review - Tree Machines, Tree Machines (2015)

Diffident emotion can't quite stick


Humor me for a moment as I take us back to the early ‘90s and revisit alternative darlings Blind Melon. If it weren’t for 1993’s “No Rain” catching fire on MTV, they probably would have sunk without a trace, but that single pushed their eponymous debut album into everyone’s CD collection. I still have it myself and it’s a decent album. Personally, though, it hasn’t turned out to have true staying power. Maybe if lead singer Shannon Hoon hadn’t died of a drug overdose, they might expanded their sound and impact, but his voice -- plaintive and a bit self-absorbed -- is what anchored their songs, and that alone is just not enough to push it into my rotation anymore.

The problem with Tree Machines’ debut EP is that it’s an indie pop version of Blind Melon, without the hyped single to pump it up. It’s easy to draw the comparison because Douglas Wooldridge’s disengaged whine seems to favor Hoon’s distinctive tone, but it’s also due to a similar songwriting style where the songs get wrapped up in themselves and shut out the rest of the world. Like Blind Melon, Tree Machines create some dreamy moments, but their songs don’t really connect, much less stick. Wooldridge imparts some emotion, but it’s delivered in an offhand, diffident way, lacking urgency or immediacy. As a result, these songs don’t make enough of a statement to rise above the already familiar sound.

"At the Wheel" is a perfect example, because it borrows from Blind Melon with a dram of Jane's Addiction thrown in for good measure. Wooldridge turns in one of his stronger emotional performances with lots of overwrought slurring and the arrangement is theatrical with thick reverb and cymbal wash accents. The hazy music and moody lyrics have a lot of potential; if they had accentuated the contrast between calmness and threat, this could have evoked a sense of sleep paralysis or a dream state of being powerless in the face of fate and trauma. The band shoots for this, with the words painting the shadowy part of the picture while the music remains almost idyllic, channeling a blend of The Youngbloods' "Get Together" and "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot. But any tension from the dark imagery is undercut as Wooldridge settles with, "It's dark out here / But I feel no fear at all." The swell of noise at the end is the best part, but it comes too late to add any real weight and I’m left wondering what the point was.

The best songs on Tree Machines come late in the playlist. "The Fire" summons more energy and features the most interesting arrangement here with a strong bass line and nice electronic touches in the background. The song also delivers some good dynamic swings, although the vocals blunt the power with dragged out syllables buried in echo. Still, if the whole album had been like this, it would have been something to get excited about. Similarly, "Black and Blue" effectively balances soft and loud sections to make a bigger impact, and it  features more interesting instrumentation.

Even if Tree Machines is a bit of a disappointment, I’m not ready to write the band off yet. Those two peak moments suggest that they do have some more promising directions to explore.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What's cool? Hot and cold electronic pop from Coeds and Tei Shi

Mirror images and musical reflections

Browsing through virtual piles of music this week, I found myself trapped between two extremes. Even though both of these tunes are rooted in electronic pop and feature strong female singers, they reflect radically different sensibilities. One runs hot with retro synthpop passion, packed with noisy energy. The other is a chill blend of polished pop vocals and precise sequencing.

Coeds' new single "Sensitive Boys" kicks off with Ryan Kailath's tight synth riff and a solid drum machine loop and quickly captures the retro new wave synthpop of Men Without Hat's "Safety Dance" along with some Billy Idol edge. Merideth Muñoz doesn't sneer like Idol, but she can summon a post-punk Blondie-style glee on lines like, "New chicks/ The same tricks/ Six six six." The production on her voice is just a little saturated, so she sounds like she's ready to rip right through the speaker. Her knowing tone fits the lyrical theme as she chastises all of the sensitive boys who will never be the kind of player that she is: "Who said anything about love?" Coeds fill the track with percussive bits and pieces, which makes it as danceable as it is catchy.

Tei Shi is every bit as memorable with "Go Slow", but instead of overtly pumping the track full of energy, she lets it simmer with repressed tension. The verses are buttoned down, with a sparse electro-pop groove behind Shi's breathy vocal. The brief bridge opens up into a freer expression when she loosens her control and sings, "Baby, won't you reach out to me." Almost immediately, though, she bottles it back up. The production is exquisitely choreographed, balancing the movement of rhythm and bass into a give-and-take dance of advance and retreat. It's clear that every sound is carefully chosen and placed. That precision is in turn complemented by the dreamy softness of the vocal line.

I love listening to these tracks together, where the heat and life of Coeds can contrast with delicate crafting of Tei Shi's music. Either one sounds great alone, but together they mirror one another. It's a dichotomy where both sides are right.