Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rural Alberta Advantage

This week's post will take a different tact from previous installments, by considering a relatively dated release in anticipation of a forthcoming new album – namely a look at 2008's Hometowns record by the Rural Alberta Advantage in advance of their March, 2011 effort, Departing. Readers can expect a review of that subsequent collection at that time. This approach isn't to suggest that every expected New Music Tuesdays reviewee will receive similar treatment, but retroactive examinations of previous efforts will be merely subject to the inclinations of this blog's author.

Interestingly enough – considering the band's moniker – the Rural Alberta Advantage (RAA) is based in Toronto, Ont., but the material presented on their full-length offering reflects their collective upbringings in their namesake province. Much like last week's profilees Lost in the Trees, this trio's work is tailor-made for the harsh reality of winter. However, rather than their predecessor's menacing and thematically dark presentations, the RAA is moreso unadorned – a stark and hardscrabble identity that lines-up well with Alberta's northern prairies.

Leading-in with the understated and self-referential "The Ballad of the RAA," the opener sets the stage for the group's journey across Canada's fourth-largest unit of governance, as lead singer and guitarist Nils Edenloff proposes their project swaps the "Rockies for the Great Lakes" and "Garneau (Alb.) for Dundas (Ont.)." Before progressing any further, listeners must first get real with the tone of Edenloff's vocals, which reside somewhere between sneer of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and the tangy wail of Lindsey Buckingham. It's not beautiful, but it is authentic, and when paired with the subject matter, is all the more appropriate.

The more snarly "Rush Apart" proceeds the baker's dozen collection of tracks' raucous centerpiece, "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge." It's driving and focused, while delivering its unsettling narrative in just over 2 minutes' time. The work of the three-person unit is most apparent here, through drummer Paul Banwatt's shifting fills and multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole complimenting Edenloff's pervasive sneer.

Meanwhile, Edenloff tones down the harshness of his vocals on "Don't Haunt This Place," which also feature pretty vocal compliments from Cole, but despite the hints of strings here, its no more warming than its preceding tracks. At the same time, while "The Deadroads" features Springsteen-style lyricism, its musical foundation is closer to that of Okkervil River or Southeast Engine than anything arranged by the E Street Band. Likewise, Edenloff comes closest to a Buckingham's-style approach – a la "Big Love" – on "Drain the Blood."

The album's most rambunctious contribution is the mid-set "Luciana," which for the first time features more extensive use of Cole's organ performance, coupled with low-register horns later on, before ceding much of the energy to the more subdued "Frank, AB." And late-appearing "Edmonton" is too deeply buried considering its quality, which is easily the record's second-best after "Dethbridge..."

Come for: "Dethbridge in Lethbridge"
Stay for: "Edmonton"
You'll be surprised by "The Deadroads"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lost in the Trees

As much of the country settles in for a long winter's nap, a solid compliment to the biting gale and blustery accumulation can be found in the debut offering from Chapel Hill, N.C.'s, Lost in the Trees, All Alone in an Empty House. There is no comfort or softness here, as suggested in both the folk orchestra sextuplet's moniker and album title. Its all dark and chill and pain, but the sturdy outfit manages it well across the collection's nine narrative tracks and two instrumental compositions.

From the outset, frontman and guitarist Ari Pickler sets a somber scene. The record's title – and supposedly autobiographical – track is stark and haunting. Laying in first gently with Pickler's voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment, a lonely and troubling setting emerges, populated with thrown-away dreams and sudden deaths of infants, which he describes as "something dirty." He establishes an aural space somewhere between The Decemberists' Colin Meloy's disturbing hyper-literacy and the vulnerability of Okkervil River's Will Shelf. As Pickler cries, "how I hate your soul!" the listener has no choice but to believe him based on the sincerity of his tone, although a sense of redemption is possible as he concedes that "no one is perfect." The lack of resolution in these contrasting sentiments only enhances its credibility.

And while in many other productions, the growing presence of strings would seek to introduce calm and beauty into their arrangements,' the follow-up "Walk Around the Lake" seems only more menacing via the group's trio of string performers – Jenavieve Varga (violin), Leah Gibson (cell0) and Drew Anagnost (cello). Their recurring triplets add to Pickler's growing sense of isolation and paranoia as he accounts his solitude. And while it might be theoretically comforting to believe that a comforting "walk around the lake" is all it takes to cure the ills of a troubled spirit, the number's larger vision demonstrates quite the opposite is true.

A pair of instrumentals – the "Mvt. Sketches" ("I" and the later-to-follow "II" – certainly capably executed by the string section, with flairs of harpsichord by multi-instrumentalist Emma Nadeau and acoustic guitar by Pickler) bookend a series of equally tense productions in "Song for the Painter" and "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang," the former a somber, but no less wrenching account of lost love – albeit with a touch of empathy – and the latter a more raucous number in the tradition of Self's "Last Love Song for Now." At the same time, "Fireplace," with its descriptions of "bloody knives" and "weight of that what is too sharp to hold," depicts the frightening, yet restorative power of a cleansing blaze, and is demonstrably the production's energetic and emotional centerpiece.

Come for: "All Alone in an Empty House"
Stay for: "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang"
"You'll be surprised by: "Fireplace"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Johny Poe and the Salvation Circus

A number of regular New Music Tuesdays readers have been writing in lately, commenting, "yeah, your indie pop reviews are great, but where's my Norwegian synth-metal fix when I need it?!" Well, it just so happened an interesting young outfit from the land of the Midnight Sun has recently emerged and was already targeted for profiling this week when your missives were received. The debut album of Oslo's own Johnny Poe and the Salvation Circus bring you Smile When You're Down and Cry When You're Up, released this past Monday.

Featuring a blend of The Killers-style synth pop and darker Scandinavian metal influences, the four-piece traces a path through both brisk uptempo pieces and heavier, more thematic works on the 11-track effort. Fortunately, for American audiences largely unfamiliar with such a hodgepodge, the premiere number – "Autosexual" – is the collection's best, with a hooky chorus, guitar figures in the vein of their Sweedish neighbors, The Hives and plenty of bite. Frontman and keyboardist Johnny Poe (assuredly a stage name) channels a vocal space between Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, The Arcade Fire's Winn Butler and The Killer's Brandon Flowers, with just a touch of Jack Black's rock spectacle to highlight the metal signature.

Meanwhile, its follow-up, "Dr. Führer," is less melodic but no less driving, as Poe's synth performance takes a more prominent role at the outset before guitarist Stein Stølen Bjerkaker underscores the track's heavier bent. Conversely, the circus theme in the band's moniker emerges in the third offering, "Let's Go to France," with Poe's piano serving as the number's offbeat center and a nearly minute-long organ fanfare at its conclusion marking a distinct change of pace from its predecessors.

After a few solid, but not spectacular mid-collection efforts like "Some People" – featuring Poe's most Winn Butler-esque performance – and the instrumental "The Fury of Love," are two of the best numbers on the collection: the aggressive "Damaged" and the more gentle piano ballad "Put Your Head On My Shoulder," which features an uncredited (to date) female guest vocal which pairs well with Poe's more unpolished tenor. On the former, Poe's influence via Brandon Flowers is more accentuated and the rhythm section of bassist Christoffer Pedersen and drummer Richard Berby does ample work to pace the arrangement.

However, it's not all so well-executed, as demonstrated in the final two offerings. "The Festival" battles with itself for nearly six minutes without much to show for the effort, while closing (and self-referential) selection "The Ghost of Johnny Poe" is a bit too self-indulgent for its own good, as Poe positions his alter-ego "outside the temple of rock-and-roll / in the wasteland of vanity / and in the psychiatric hospitals dead souls lay scattered like soldiers on a battlefield." No thanks, Johnny, but keep up the work with more tracks like "Autosexual" and "Damaged" in the meantime.

Come for: "Autosexual"
Stay for: "Damaged"
You'll be surprised by: "Put Your Head On My Shoulder

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Red Sweater Days: New Music Tuesdays' Favorite Christmas Songs

What's this appearing in your Facebook status or RSS Reader this Saturday morning? Isn't New Music Tuesdays only posted on, you know, Tuesdays? Well, given the mirth of the holiday season, its only appropriate to offer something a bit out of the ordinary. Moreover, since the mission of this blog is to improve your overall enjoyment and satisfaction of music, some relief from the tired gambit of Christmas music at retail establishments everywhere is in order. Mindful of those dual objectives, New Music Tuesdays presents its favorite twenty Christmas selections you might not be as familiar with, as opposed to compositions by Jose Feliciano or Anne Murray. We'll proceed in ascending order, from number twenty:

#20 – "Deck the Stills" - Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

We start with the only group or artists with multiple selections on our list. This minimalist parody of "Deck the Halls" is accompanied by full-chested bravado from the Toronto-based rock humorists as their re-w0rked lyrics reference the four names of a certain folk-rock supergroup. The song also benefits from the presence of now-former co-frontman Steven Page, who has since left the band.

(Listen to "Deck the Stills" here)

#19 – "Bizarre Christmas Incident" - Ben Folds (www.benfolds.com, 2001)

Almost as interesting as Folds' lurid tale of an intruding Santa is the story of how the song was almost never released to the public. The organizers of the soundtrack for the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas asked Folds to contribute an original. He initially returned with "Bizarre Christmas Incident." But given the family nature of the film, the producers asked him to try again. He responded with the more appropriate "Lonely Christmas Eve." However, Folds still had a soft spot for his original composition, so in December, 2001, he released the track on his website.

#18 – "The Night Santa Went Crazy" - Weird Al Yankovic (Bad Hair Day, 1996)

Another parody joins the list at #18, via the ultimate patriarch of parodies, Weird Al. While many might have heard Al's account of Santa going postal, few likely recognize the source material: Soul Asylum's "Black Gold." Naturally, Al's satire is as warped as Soul Asylum's original was serious. Meanwhile, Al also delights with another dark Christmas-themed offering, "Christmas at Ground Zero," and his accompanying video is sufficiently Dr. Strangelove, considering the subject matter.

#17 – "O Little Town of Bethlehem" - Young Fresh Fellows (A Lump of Coal, 1991)

The first true traditional, spiritual number in this list comes via Seattle alternative act Young Fresh Fellows, fronted by often R.E.M. contributor Scott McCaughey. While their rendition is completely devoid of flash, the number never works as a schmaltzy affair, and the quartet's chugging guitars and meaty drum fills compliment the unadorned carol.

(Unfortunately, locating a streaming audio or video for this selection was not possible due to the relative obscurity of the recording. Various methods of tracking down a downloadable version are likely available through your favorite search engine)

#16 – "White Christmas" - Goldfinger (Sleighed: Other Side of Christmas, 2000)

The much-revered L.A. ska/punk outfit do the staid "White Christmas" of the Bing Crosby era a great service by their uplifting rendition. The ska format suits the old standard even better than the original Irving Berlin arrangement and the horns introduce a measure of levity to engender a truly festive atmosphere. If only it were a bit longer than its 1:03 of playing time.

#15 – "Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

While the original 1984 Band Aid version certainly supported noble causes through the work of organizer Bob Geldof and a greater array of star power, the already-referenced BNL does a better version, unburdened by the overproduction so germane to the original's decade. With then-BNL co-frontmen Page and Ed Robertson reducing the confusion of so many vocalists, drummer Tyler Stuart's tongue-in-cheek turn at Bono's legendary line, "well, tonight thank God it's them instead of you..." is all the more prominent.

#14 – "Santa's Beard" - They Might Be Giants (Lincoln, 1988)

The snark returns to this collection with They Might Be Giants' 1988 original, which is not to be confused with a Beach Boys' number of the same title. From TMBG's drum machine days, the Johns present the lamentations of a depressed soul during the holidays who's concerned with the lure of the man in red on his love. John Flansburg's alternate lyrics in the final chorus, "thrilling...Christmas...trembling fear" neatly sum-up the song's direction.

#13 – "Father Christmas" - The Kinks (Father Christmas single, 1977)

If the seasonal social commentary unleashed in "Do They Know It's Christmas?" isn't enough, The Kinks predated that effort with a more subtle entry through 1977's "Father Christmas." In classic Kinks style, the originators of power punk flip the tables on the traditional carol's merriment and cheer with a focus on "the real McCoy." While Ray Davies' snarkyness shines through here more than ever, at its core there is a genuine message on the truth of the holidays.

#12 – "R2D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas" - Jon Bon Jovi
(Christmas in the Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album, 1980)

So many elements of this number are captivating, from the sheer concept of C-3PO sending his droid counterpart a gift in song to the first professional vocal recording of Jon Bon Jovi (who landed the gig because his brother ran the studio where it was produced), "R2D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is a sheer holiday treasure. It's chorus of kid vocals recalls John Lennon's seminal Christmas track (perhaps to be referenced below?), and original C-3PO and R2D2 performers Anthony Daniels and Ben Burtt reprise their roles here.

#11 – "The First Noel" - Crash Test Dummies (A Lump of Coal, 1991)

Inasmuch as anyone remembers anything about Winnipeg, Manitoba's underappreciated Crash Test Dummies, they remember lead singer Brad Robert's distinctive bass-baritone range. And in the group's take on the traditional hymn, Roberts plumbs new depths of his freakishly low pipes. Fortunately, before Robers spends too much of the song 200,000 leagues under low C, pianist Ellen Reid takes over and delivers a lovely, multi-part alto harmony.

#10 – "Winter Wonderland" - Phantom Planet (Maybe This Christmas, 2002)

Best known for penning and performing the theme for the Fox TV series, The O.C., L.A.'s Phantom Planet does an admirable job in re-envisioning the well-worn number in their 2002 rendition. It all starts off pretty typical, with singer-guitarist Alex Greenwald intoning the classic lyrics about sleighbells ringing, and a nice accordian part is introduced in the second verse. But it justifies its spot in the top 10 here by then-drummer Jason Schwartzman's (yes, that Jason Schwartzman) work on the chorus parts, which propel it in a new direction entirely.

#9 – "Little Drummer Boy" - Dandy Warhols (Special X-mas Single, 1995)

The synth-heavy Dandies inject some spirit into the old spiritual in their 1995 adaptation. Fittingly, then-drummer Eric Hedford's work drives the cause for the Portland (Ore.)-based quartet, while frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor's indie pop vocals offer a fresh take on the famed "bum-bum-bum-bums." Of course, the song is the basis for one of the oddest all-time duets in popular music.

#8 – "Christians and the Pagans" - Dar Williams (Mortal City, 1997)

If you're one of the types who believes that people of many faiths and ways of living can find common ground amid the joy of the holidays, this is your song. Williams' sincere narrative of a Christmastime family reunion flavored by differing beliefs is both earnest and endearing, and her less-aggressive Ani-style keeps the mood lighthearted considering the topic.

#7 – Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon (Happy Xmas [War is Over] single, 1971)

Our last selection in the original, moral message thread is Lennon's signature 1971 ballad. Entrenched in Vietnam War-era political discord, Lennon again appeals to our better angels. Meanwhile, Yoko Ono leads the Harlem Community Choir in belting out the anthemic chorus.

#6 – "Do You Hear What I Hear?" - Spiraling (Do You Hear What I Hear single, 2005)

As if the epic "Do You Hear What I Hear?" wasn't substantial enough on its own merits, the New Jersey quartet mash-up the Noel Regney/Gloria Shayne Baker treatment with The Who's Baba O'Riley. The resulting blend maintains the iconic presence of both pieces, and Spiraling singer/keyboardist Tom Brislin rockets the effort skyward at the end, proclaiming the number's hallmark "goodness and light" with marked passion.

#5 – "The Mummers' Carol" - Great Big Sea (unreleased)

Documenting the caroling traditions in their Newfoundland homeland, Great Big Sea offer this foot-stomper with all possible spirit of good cheer. Conjuring a scene reminiscent of the party at Fezziwig's in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the Newfie carol is nothing short of festive.

#4 – "O Holy Night" - The Sheila Divine (Viva Noel - A Q Division Christmas, 1999)

Long a favorite of full-throated singers everywhere, Boston-based trio The Sheila Divine and their equally strong-voiced frontman Aaron Perrino continue that tradition with their 1999 rendition. Over a dark and haunting Smiths-style arrangement, Perrino belts away with no hesitation.

(listen to The Sheila Divine's "O Holy Night" by scrolling to the bottom of the audio player found here)

#3 – "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" - Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

Recorded on the back of a flatbed truck sometime in the early '90s, this folksy take before either act had achieved stateside recognition is magnificent in its understatement. While the unreleased version made its way around radio station holiday playlists and the intertubes for more than a decade, the BNL lads finally released it officially on their 2004 holiday collection.

#2 – "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (In Harmony 2, 1981)

Having first performed his iconic rendering of the secular number in 1973, the signature December 12, 1975 recording from C.W. Post College in Greenvale, N.Y. was finally released by Columbia Records on the In Harmony 2 compilation in 1981. The Springsteen version is so popular among his legions of fans that the band often fields requests for the number in the middle of summer. Coupled with Clarence Clemons' featured role, The Boss' contribution to the holidays is at the top of many Christmas lists, including this one.

#1 – "Snoopy's Christmas" - The Royal Guardsmen (Snoopy's Christmas single, 1967)

Hoping to cash-in on a holiday-flavored version of their earlier "Snoopy vs the Red Barron" a year earlier, the Florida-based novelty act Royal Guardsmen produced their hallmark number laced with seasonal mirth. Alluding to the factual Christmas Day truce between the Germans and British during World War I, anti-hero Snoopy takes to the December skies to engage the "bloody Red Barron." Goodwill towards men wins the day as a cascade of bells, horns and gang vocals trumpets the spirit of the season.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gold Motel

In the waning days of a chilly fall, an ideal diversion is a satisfying blend of sunny California pop and Midwestern heartland rock. Such is the mix offered by Gold Motel, the Chicago-via-L.A. quintet on their full-length debut Summer House.

Fronted by The Hush Sound co-lead vocalist and pianist Greta Morgan while the former outfit is on indefinite hiatus, the 10-track album – released this past June – is an upbeat blend of left coast-flavored pop and more charging Americana-inspired rock. Morgan's vocals trend towards the better side of Sheryl Crow, with a bit of added Metrics' Emily Haines grit. Although the group initially formed as a vessel for Morgan's creativity during The Hush Sound's hiatus, the larger group exists as far more than a backing band.

The twin guitar work of Dan Duszynski and Eric Hehr sets a brisk pace on opener, "We're On the Run," with its lighthearted Golden State riffs in the intro and verses before more structured heartland progressions fuel the chorus parts. It's a solid foundation for Morgan's vocals, which are complimentary breezy and yet hearty – matching the twin guitar dynamics presented by Duszynski and Hehr. There are dashes of keyboard-produced elements (obviously supplied by Morgan) including background vibes and the toy piano at the bridge. The same is true on its follow-up, the less cohesive "Perfect (In My Mind)," which features more wavy organ-style supplements.

In the houseparty groove of "Safe in L.A.," the California influence is fittingly more apparent. The rhythm section of Matt Minx and Adam Coldhouse – both of the former Chicago outfit This Is Me Smiling, along with Duszynski – drive the number's fantastic beat. It's 50's rockabilly-meets-70's R&B mood nonetheless feels fresh and vital, perhaps enlivened by Morgan's vocals and well-crafted lyrics like "California's waiting while your face is fading clear out of sight." Meanwhile, "Stealing the Moonlight" could have been a deep cut of Fleetwood Mac's misunderstood Tusk, with Morgan and Duszynski reflecting just a bit of Buckingham/Nicks, and the instrumental underpinnings of the verses recalling the Mick Fleetwood/John McVie attack.

After the starlight ballad "Fireworks After Moonlight," the Josh Homme-style lead-in of "Don't Send the Searchlights" delivers the record's best effort. The just-under 3:00 product has enough weight from Minx and Coldhouse to signify its importance, and Morgan spins-out her most memorable performance here. Her bouncy piano is understated in the background, allowing her bandmates to drive another solid groove. When combined with the fun of "Safe in L.A.," the five-piece cements a distinctive sound that speaks to a more permanent arrangement of the group should Morgan's former mates consider reuniting.

Morgan includes a bit more piano later on, in the lighthearted "Make Me Stay" – which features a neat George Harrison-style riff from either Duszynski or Hehr – the punchy "The Cruel One," and vibes-based ballad "Who Will I Be Tonight?" The group returns to the California sound on the record's closer and album title, with surfing drums and clean riffs. It's a suitable resolution of where the effort began, a trip from the sunshine coast through the heartland and back again.

Come for: "Safe in L.A."
Stay for: "Don't Send the Searchlights"
You'll be surprised by: "Stealing the Moonlight"

P.S.: March reviewees (and NMT's 2010 Album of the Year winner) fun. will headline at Washington's 9:30 Club this Thursday. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Alphabet Backwards

I've always been perplexed why so many British bands and artists sound so thoroughly American in their vocals. It's as if the English accent fades altogether in song and the various inflections and phrasings that make the original form of the language are co-opted by the less colorful delivery of its descendant. And yet, some non-Americanized vocals have emerged recently, most notably through the waves of Scottish groups and vocalists of recent years (see NMT reviews of Scots here and here). Moreover, a more distinctly British vocal style is apparent in the work of the London-based quintet Alphabet Backwards and their 3-song collection released this week, The Superhero E.P.

And while the three-track effort doles out uniquely British flavor through the lead vocals of guitarist James Hitchman and vocalist Steph Ward, the instrumental foundation of the group lies far more in stateside indie-pop acts such as The Postal Service and The New Pornographers, with a healthy dose of the Violent Femmes (particularly in the prevalence of acoustic guitars as the melodic centerpiece). Opening number "Collide" eases in slow, as Hitchman's intro recalls a tenor version of Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, before the rest of the outfit settles in after the first verse. The number is a lighthearted look at growing up, neatly exemplified in the chorus line of being "old enough to know better and young enough to go out with no sweater on." The track, in particular, hints strongly at New Pornographers influences, not only with Hitchman and Ward substituting nicely for that group's outstanding collaborations between A.C. Newman and Neko Case, but also the electric guitar work in the background points to under-appreciated N.P. guitarist Todd Fancey.

Meanwhile, follow-up "Blink of an Eye" is suitably brisk, considering its title, with drummer Paul Townsend propelling the number along with the efforts of bassist Josh Ward and keyboardist Bob Thomas, establishing a nice vehicle for the voices of Hitchamn and Ward to emerge at the forefront. At the same time, "Yesterday in June" is more retrained, with a bit of a Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Otherside" vibe at the outset before a ballady chorus takes over.

And while the brief trio of tracks on The Superhero E.P. does leave the listener wanting more, the five-piece group's debut and self-titled record from 2009 does offer a broader portfolio to examine. "80's Pop Video" mimics the melody of the American Hi-Fi's "Flavor of the Week," while "Ambulance" is more fitting of the 80's pop-synth sound the previous track's title references. In all, it relies more heavily on Bob Thomas' keyboard productions than the more recent E.P., and its a positive development in the band's growth.

Come for: "Collide"
Stay for "Blink of an Eye"
You'll be surprised by: "Yesterday in June"

P.S. June profilees Stars will be appearing at the Town Ballroom in Buffalo, N.Y. this Wednesday.

Monday, November 8, 2010


In this space, there has been no shortage of profiles of Canadian groups and artists (although the Scots are hard-charging to upend the Canucks as most commonly-profiled non-Americans). The sustained emergence of interesting acts from the True North continues this week with Manotick, Ontatio quartet Hollerado, although they are often spotted plying their craft in neighboring Quebec, as they often record and perform in Montreal. With a spirited mix of Weezer, Cheap Trick and The Clash influences, the group spins out highly enjoyable and straight-ahead rock music in their debut album, Record in a Bag.

However, the effort doesn't start out very promising with the minute and a half "Hollerado Land." Whoever singer the acoustic ditty doesn't have much appreciation for even the most basic elements of vocal performance, including enunciation, tone or pitch, and its nearly unlistenable. Perhaps if regular frontman Menno Versteeg had a go of it, it might have turned out better. Even though the intent is obviously tongue-in-cheek, the vocals are too distracting even reach that point. Meanwhile, that intro is followed by a good 20 seconds of sonic freakout to start "Do The Doot Da Doot Do," serving no purpose whatsoever. Nonetheless, when drummer Jake Boyd finally counts in the number at the 21-second mark, Hollerado finally arrives as what it truly is: a lively rock quartet with tunes to get you moving. The track is just a swinging number – a cross between the shimmering loudness of Jet and the rockabilly groove of Brian Setzer's The Stray Cats. With a chorus in the great tradition of choruses about absolutely nothing (like this, or this), its an infectious number for which foot-tapping is impossible to resist.

Overcoming their unfocused start, the record's third offering is just as fine as it's predecessor. "Juliette" is a clean rocker, with riffs supplied by Versteeg and fellow guitarist Nixon Boyd – the drummer's brother – emulating the classic Zevon riff in "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and trademark Weezer-style chorus harmonies. It's punchy and well-paced; a perfect use of its 3 minutes and 17 seconds. Meanwhile, the more restrained "Fake Drugs" that follows introduces the first of The Clash foundations, with its tangy guitars and off-beat rhythm leading to a more voluminous chorus part that could have played well on Weezer's fifth release, Make Believe.

But the best of this quartet of tracks is the album's sixth (after skipping the 10-seconds of nonsense in "Reno Chunk"), the thumping bass line and squirrely guitar of "Americanarama." Lamenting the demise of cities "in the northeast where the power used to sit," Versteeg notes economic troubles in places like Chicago and Buffalo, as well as the song's primary subject, Philadelphia, and issues a warning to places like Denver that their days of prosperity might eventually match its counterparts back east. Despite the number's gloomy subject matter, the "hey, lordy, lordys" and "doot doot dos" of the chorus keep the mood upbeat. And if the track's musical and lyrical prowess were not enough to impress on their own, the group's duo of videos for the single should: the recent brilliant one-take version, and its 2008 counterpart featuring Dave Foley is equally compelling.

The rest of the record's remaining six tracks are solid, but none can measure up to the swinging energy of the aforementioned four pack of tunes. "On My Own" is the most reflective of Joe Strummer, and the =W= spirit remains strong in offerings like "Got to Lose" – a neat reflection of the Blue Album's "Holiday" – "Riverside" and "Walking on the Sea," with Versteeg's vocals including just a touch of Dylan twang. At the same time, the collection's closing number, "What Everyone's Running For," sounds like a meeting of Great Big Sea and Southeast Engine in some great plains roadhouse.

Come for: "Americanarama"
Stay for: "Do The Doot Da Doot Do"
You'll be surprised by: "Fake Drugs"

P.S. Hollerado will be performing at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. on December 1st.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Quiet Company

Last week, we considered an obscure Scottish pop band in Outbox. This week brings more pop, albeit this time a bit closer to home. With a self-described style of "epic pop" is the Austin, Tex. quartet Quiet Company. And while their third release, the 6-song EP Songs for Staying In was released last May, it has only recently appeared on the New Music Tuesdays radar.

Epic pop could be best understood as the type of stuff produced by George Martin in the middle-period Beatles records like Rubber Soul and Revolver, or the under-appreciated work of fellow Texan Ben Kweller such as "Penny on a Train Track" or "Falling." This means rolling piano, tight harmonies and fun elements like glockenspiels and horns. Traversing these avenues is ...Staying In, which ratchets up the enthusiasm levels found on Quiet Company's previous releases, while establishing a thematic space of what couples do together when they don't go out (thus the title). While most of the half-dozen tracks are still guided by frontman Taylor Muse's piano work, there are some nice guitar harmonies from Muse and guitarist Tommy Blank, snippets of fuzz bass from Matt Parmenter and classic rock fills from drummer Jeff Weathers.

Leadoff number "How Do You Do It" encapsulates the collection's direction, after starting with a Strokes-style snare and 2-chord intro, jumps into full pace at the 1:50 mark, where horns flare and the beat sets in. Its perfectly enjoyable power pop and the four piece does it well. The same is true of its successor, "Things You Already Know," although a bit brighter and less dynamic at its outset, but again calls upon the horns and wall of sound for the chorus.

The approach is contrasted in the third track, "Hold My Head Above Water," which is wistful and quirky enough to have earned it a spot on the Juno soundtrack. Muse's duet with his wife Leah is charming without becoming precious and demonstrates the sincerity in his songwriting, especially given the album's recurring themes. At the same time, a few of the later tracks – "Jezebel (or A Song About My Friend and That Whore He Dated)" and "The Biblical Sense of the Word" – exhibit a less pop-focused and more indie-rock mindset, where Muse's vocals channels Neil Young's whiny wail channels through a more confident version of Rilo Kiley's Blake Sennett. Here you'll find the guitar harmonies at the midpoint of "Jezebel" and a classic rock ruckus halfway through "Biblical."

Come for: "How Do You Do It"
Stay for: "Hold My Head Above Water"
You'll be surprised by: "Jezebel (or A Song About My Friend and That Whore He Dated)"

P.S.: Previous New Music Tuesday reviewees, Ra Ra Riot, will be appearing at Washington's 9:30 Club this coming Friday. Check 'em out if you can.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Rather than the typical bent of this blog – to profile a new album in its entirety – this week's post will take a bit of a different tact: promoting a band that needs some additional support in order to move forward with a full-length record. However, fitting the moniker of this space – directing interested music observers to new music – this group did, in fact, release a new offering yesterday, that being the single "Cigarettes and Cellulite" by the Scottish trio Outbox.

Some of the most concentrated producers of solid new music activity recently have been the Scots, from the delicately ornate chamber pop of Belle & Sebastian to the more hard-nosed, heavily-brogued rockers Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks, as well as the multi-dimensional KT Tunstall. While stylistically very different from any of these Scotians, Outbox nonetheless matches the quality in output in the limited material they have available stateside.

The aforementioned single – available through online outlets such as iTunes and emusic.com – hardly sounds like other Scottish outfits, with its Rick Springfield-esque chord progression at the outset and heartland veneer. While frontman Michael Macdermid certainly delivers compelling vocals along with both guitar and bass parts, the group's real treasure might be pianist/keyboardist Rachel Wood. Her southern rock-infused piano work here, along with essential backing vocals, transports the number from the lochs and highlands to the American interstate, the perfect compliment to a roadside attraction or pit-stop diner. And since little information is available on the band to date, whoever did the track's songwriting deserves significant credit for constructing an arrangement well-suited to the talents and temperments of the three-piece. The effort is certainly enough to justify a full-length recording on its own.

Other back-issue material from Outbox is also accessible through online media, such as their debut single, "Lucy, You've Got to Go Home." While less cohesive than the new release, the song is a solid case of pop rock, much in the Fastball or Fountains of Wayne tradition. Unlike the clean guitars and rolling piano of "Cigarettes and Cellulite," the number is more Beatles than Eagles, with layers of keyboards and bass at its foundation. Drummer Steve Curtis does admirable work here, as well as on other tracks such as "The Science in Me" and "How to Fly." With only three instrumentalists in Macdermid, Wood and Curtis, the canvas of sound is by no means sparse and the performances are technically proficient.

The most glaring need for the trio is to release more material available in the U.S. The group has a modest number samples of unreleased tracks available on its Myspace page, such as "Ivan, Can You Tell Me," which sounds like an uptempo Wallflowers outtake and the Mellencampian "Waking Up the Dense." Meanwhile, "Mine All Mine" exhibits strong pop sensibilities and well-crafted harmonies, something you might expect from a hybrid of Sloan and the Barenaked Ladies. Additionally, Outbox received favorable feedback for its cover of Taio Cruz's "Break Your Heart," including from the original artist himself. These brief smatterings suggest a deeper reservoir of talent and execution that should be exploited in a full album. Should you be likewise compelled, please drop them a line on their Myspace suggesting the audience available to them on this side of the pond (or elsewhere).

Come for: "Cigarettes and Cellulite"
Stay for: "Lucy, You've Got to Go Home"
You'll be surprised by: "Waking Up the Dense"

Monday, October 18, 2010

Steven Page

Just over two years ago, then-Barenaked Ladies (BNL) co-frontman and founder Steven Page was arrested for possession of cocaine in Syracuse, N.Y. Though Page was cooperative with police, and subsequent legal negotiations led to the charges being reduced, the incident marked the beginning of the end of his tenure with the band. He officially quit the band he helped to form and propel to stardom on February 24, 2009, and turned his musical direction to a solo career. Although he released his first solo album, The Vanity Project, in 2005 while still active in BNL, and produced A Singer Must Die – an album of covers and new arrangements of some of his BNL-era material – today's release of Page One truly marks the full-fledged start of his independent work.

Those familiar with Page's contributions to the much-loved Toronto quintet will surely recognize much of the same sound on the 12-track effort, beginning with the lead-off number, "A New Shore." The song's topic is plainly clear – his journey as a solo artist – as reflected in the opening lyrics, "I'm relinquishing command for something I do not understand / this man's about to turn his whole life upside down." Tying the risks of his solo material to a sailor on an uncertain quest, Page makes his hesitations and motivations obvious in the uptempo number, which any BNL fans comfortable with cuts such as "Call Me Calmly" or "Trust Me" will find familiar. The combination of Page's distinctive and powerful tenor along with his well-honed songwriting talents are no less diminished here than on his recent BNL work, although the bridge part here noticably misses the instrumental prowess of his now-former BNL mates, especially Tyler Stewart's drumming.

Meanwhile, first single "Indecision" is a sunny pop rocker, much in the "Its All Been Done" or "Too Little, Too Late" vein. Featuring clean and brisk guitars matched with catchy harmonies, its a solid, hooky product, but also one that complements his late BNL career offerings on the double album, Barenaked Ladies Are Me(n), such as "Bull in a China Shop" or "Running Out of Ink." It's a safe and smart move for Page, who could tend to drift towards overly somber or sentimental numbers on occasion in his former group.

And yet, Page's best BNL material flirted with dark and threatening subjects wound into structures that highlighted the heart of his emotional range along with the musical character of the band. Page-crafted BNL songs like "Brian Wilson," "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank," "I'll Be That Girl" and "Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel" explored weighty or even morbid themes while introducing enough humor or clever songwriting to reach a more thoughtful destination. Thankfully the trend continues here on a pair of tracks in "Over Joy" and "Leave Her Alone." The former is more breezy pop, lifting Page's self-diagnosis of depression and shame into something more optimistic via its upbeat tone, while the latter is a brassy, big-band style number, with its horns and rolling piano boosting his thoughts on parental concern.

Much of the material is clearly self-referential, including reflections on his relationship with Christine Benedicto – who was also arrested in connection with the cocaine incident – in numbers like "She's Trying to Save Me," and "The Chorus Girl," the last of which explicitly points to the incident, as Page notes, "there’ll be no waiting limos / No cocaine and discos / I gave that all up for the chorus girl." There are also a couple of ideas that don't work quite as well, in the form of "Entourage" – a less interesting version of his BNL track from their Everything to Everyone record, "Celebrity" – and "If You Love Me," which is just a touch too quirky for Page's style.

Come for: "Indecision"
Stay for: "A New Shore"
You'll be surprised by: "Leave Her Alone"

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tired Pony

When Chris Cornell and the non-Zack de la Rocha remainder of Rage Against the Machine teamed up to form Audioslave in 2004, one music observer commented the resulting band sounded just like you'd expect: Chris Cornell singing with Range Against the Machine. Likewise, the reaction to Tired Pony, the collaboration between Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody and Iain Archer, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck – and fellow R.E.M.-associate Scott McCaughey – and Belle & Sebastian drummer Richard Colburn comes across precisely as one would anticipate: Snow Patrol playing with R.E.M. with a touch of Belle & Sebastian, as evidenced on their debut album, The Place We Ran From, released September 28.

The most distinctive aspect of the new outfit's sound, though, is that this is unmistakably a guitar band. Which isn't to say that, by comparison, Snow Patrol, or especially R.E.M., are not. Nonetheless, while the former are known for their anthemic pop, and the latter for their grandfathers of alt-rock status and Michael Stipe's tortured poet act, the six string is highlighted here in ways unheard in their formative groups. All the band's members save for Colburn are guitarists (although producer Jacknife Lee, who produced earlier releases for both groups and was likely responsible for making the project a reality, handles the bass lines), yielding layered and multi-dimensional guitar approach.

Collection opener "Northwestern Skies" eases into the material, with Lightbody delivering his haunting baritone over barn-floor acoustic guitars and mandolins. It's an appropriately damp and hesitant number for the fall. And despite the imagery that its heartland-flavored title suggests, its follow-up "Get On the Road" is no "Take It Easy"-style highway jaunt, but the musical equivalent of a Cormac McCarthy novel: stark and threatening, highlighted all the more by Zooey Deschanel's guest vocals, which appear throughout the record. With talk of the dustbowl and "the engine noise like an alarm," its rusty lyrical canvass is highlighted by the guitarists' solemn figures.

The mood starts to shift with the mandolin-driven "Point Me at Lost Lands." It's a front porch jam session with clear direction and warm harmonies. Here, in particular, Jacknife Lee's stripped-down production style is an obvious asset, as nothing sounds worse than overproduced folk-rock. The trend continues on the lead single and most listenable track, "Dead American Writers," where the joint Snow Patrol-R.E.M. influences emerge, including Buck's familiar Byrds-inspired, jangly Rickenbacker. However, it feels a bit brief at only 2:34; some additional fleshing-out could have built upon solid lyricism such as, "I've been choking on the bones and tears / You are the smoking gun that thrown the years."

Meanwhile, in such a guitar-focused ensemble, its natural that some 12-string material would find its way into the 10-song effort. Such is the case on the slow-building ballad, "That Silver Necklace," as Buck and McCaughey supply a full dose of 24 strings to back Lightbody's tempered, but convincing vocals. Likewise, more of Buck's early-R.E.M. era style appears on closing number, "Pieces," which would have little trouble finding a place on Fables of the Reconstruction. Lightbody, in turn, delivers his take on the smoky, bass range of The National's Matt Berninger in "The Good Book."

Come for: "Dead American Writers"
Stay for: "Point Me at Lost Lands"
You'll be surprised by: "Get on the Road"

P.S. Michael Stipe recently sat in with the band in New York to add vocals on "The Good Book."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

For much of the brief history of pop music, many compositions were produced by the collaborations of both musicians and lyricists. Those with the ability to craft a tune were not often also blessed with ways with words. The brothers Gershwin were notable examples of this concept, as were Broadway partnerships of Rogers and Hammerstein along with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But beginning with Buddy Holly and cemented with the arrival of The Beatles, the performers of rock music were increasingly expected to the creators of their material, both words and music. The most notable exception to this format was the decades of collaboration between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Bucking these trends is today's release of Lonely Avenue featuring the work of piano popsmith Ben Folds and bestselling novelist Nick Hornby.

For much of the collection, the partnership results in exactly the sort of offerings those familiar with the previous work of both artists would expect: smart, tidy pop confections with strong narrative and accessible structure. The brief opening salvo, "A Working Day," explores territory common to both songwriters and authors: cynics, especially the internet-based variety like yours truly so ubiquitous these days, as Folds comments, "some guy on the net thinks I suck, and he should know – he's got his own blog!" Moreover, it recalls much of the self-absorbed punditry Hornby flavored his Duncan character in his 2009 novel, Juliet, Naked.

Folds settles into one of his typical gentle ballads on the follow-up, "Picture Window." Hornby crafts the story of a hospital patient struggling with their affliction, while the chorus melody is vintage Folds, as the upper reaches of his tenor range offering the perfect vehicle for Hornby's character's jaded take on hope: "you know what hope is: hope is a bastard; hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease. Hope comes near you, kick its backside, got no place in days like these." It's both beautiful and dispiriting.

The ballad comes in stark contrast to its successor, the ripped-from-the-headlines "Levi Johnson's Blues." A direct account of the young Wasillian's saga, Hornby doesn't parlay some forced caricature depicting Johnson's absurdity. Instead, he lets Johnson do it himself via his own Myspace page, turning his self-description involving moose hunting and hockey into a chorus Folds seems all too eager to deliver. From this end of the speakers, it seems like a construction the duo was able to devise in a matter of minutes.

The bulk of the record is filled-out through a number of character-based narratives such as "Doc Pompus," "Practical Amanda," "Clare's Ninth" and "Saskia Hamilton" that incorporates the strengths of the collaboration: Hornby's talent for devising characters that are always distinct and flawed with Folds' hunch for wrapping these stories in clever and seemingly obvious hooks and melodies. Indeed, the grouping of tracks are much in the style of Folds' Rocking the Suburbs work such as "The Ascent of Stan," "Zak and Sara" and "Fred Jones Pt 2." It should be noted, though, that listeners familiar with Folds' general musical approach will be surprised by the heavy use of synthesizers on "Saskia Hamilton." While it might not appeal to the core of the Folds fan base, its also nice to hear a bit of variety in output from the pianist.

The true realization of the partnership, though, is in the album's finale, the snarky ballad, "Belinda." Telling the story of a "one-hit wonder with no hits" who's forced every night to battle his way through his small-scale claim-to-fame number (a song with the same name as the actual Folds/Hornby title), a song that's long since lost its meaning. While its prevailing humor is the overriding sentiment here, it perhaps also includes an underlying meaning for the pair of writers in relation to how their audience truly feels about their work. As Folds ponders why "no one ever wants to hear the song he wrote for Cindy..." once can't help but wonder if it refers to Folds fans who only come to hear "Brick" or Hornby readers only drawn to books like High Fidelity. Maybe that's too much meaning to infer here, but as the collection's longest number at over six minutes, its lengths suggests a bit more intention than something of a shorter span.

Come for: "Picture Window"
Stay for: "Levi Johnson's Blues"
You'll be surprised by: "Belinda"

Monday, September 20, 2010


By taking the crisp oceanside song structures of The Beach Boys and melding them with the unsettled, nervous energy of the Ramones, San Diego-based trio Wavves has a talent for mixing seemingly unconnected elements of lo-fi noise and surf rock to arrive at a distinct sound. Largely a front for talented, but troubled singer/guitarist Nathan Williams, the groups third full-length release, King of the Beach – released July 13 – presents an evolving direction for the young group.

The lead-off and title track delivers exactly what a tune bearing that name should: clean, breezy and fun. Williams has dialed-up his best early-era Brian Wilson songsmithing, with a jangly, 3-chord progression fueling the number like a surfboard aloft a wave. And yet, his nasally sneer recalls no wispy Beach Brothers harmonies, but instead a Joey Ramone wail. It's a great opening cut and its entirely appropriate in its 2:38 run time. No surfing tune should ever take longer.

A collection of playful and spirited tracks in a similar vein follows, with titles including "Super Soaker," Baseball Cards" and "Linus Spacehead," evoking a carefree approach befitting of its face-paced style. These offerings are no more complex than Williams' clanging guitar work and the rhythm section of bassist Stephen Pope and drummer Billy Hayes just plowing ahead with fury. Here, the trio stakes out ground between recent power-punk chargers like Titus Andronicus and Tokyo Police Club and the more simplified, four-track sound of the Apples in Stereo.

And yet, while Wavves do great work at honing their power-punk bona fides, they also add a secondary area of direction through numbers like "When Will You Come," "Take On the World" and "Convertible Balloon" more informed by more adventurous contemporaries like Passion Pit and Vampire Weekend. In fact, the latter of this group, "Convertible Balloon," takes on much of the flavor being pioneered by Buffalo's Mike Angelakos and his comrades in Passion Pit, with Williams nearly replicating Angelakos' signiture falsetto. While Angelakos certainly has the groove down better, the sonic differences between the album's opening number and this looser track demonstrate the group's versatility, one they'll hopefully exploit with more rigor on forthcoming projects.

To that end, Wavves offers a glimpse of where they might be heading in "Green Eyes," a cut that seems to be the type of offering that might be presented by Colin Meloy should he ever front a punk band. Sure, there's no mistaking the song for "Sixteen Military Wives" or "We Both Go Down Together," but Williams' phrasing and turns in songwriting are very much within the same territory marked by the Decemberists' frontman. It's a well-constructed piece of pop music and should encourage Williams and his mates to attempt similar efforts in the future.

Come for: "King of the Beach"
Stay for: "Convertible Balloon"
You'll be surprised by: "Green Eyes"

P.S. - Wavves will be appearing at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. on September, 27th.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


When a band waits a half-decade between records early in their career and then issues a spate of releases in quick succession later on, its obvious a significant transition has occurred. This is true with Hurley, to be released by seminal 90's alt-pop heroes Weezer on September, in relation to its recent albums such as Raditude, Weezer (the Red Album) and Make Believe. From its debut release, Weezer (the Blue Album), in 1993 until the end of the decade, the Southern California-based quartet only offered a single follow up, 1996's excellent Pinkerton – which is often only slightly correctly credited with launching the emo-alternative genre (Pinkerton is far too muscular and deft to be associated with such whiners). Meanwhile, 2003's Make Believe launched a foursome of new releases through the 2000's first decade, culminating with Hurley.

Weezer generally seems to present two types of albums: power-pop infused lighter material and cohesive, heavier collections. Of the first type are the color-themed, self-titled records (Blue, Green and Red) and its most recent Raditude, while the later concept can be found in Pinkerton, Maladroit, Make Believe and now Hurley. Here, most of the brash innuendo of Raditude is dispatched with – save for the gnarly "Where's My Sex," although an argument could be made it's in-line with Pinkerton's outstanding "The Good Life" in substance and direction. But in tone and tempo, Hurley most closely reflects Make Believe than any other Weezer product, with largely serious themes and heavy song structures with plenty of guitar crunch from frontman Rivers Cuomo and guitarist Brian Bell and thunderous percussion from drummer Pat Wilson.

Lead-off track and first single, "Memories," is a typical Weezer arena rock construction, with its aggressive tempo harking back to "Holiday" off the Blue Album and its highlights of synthy keyboards, while its successor, "Ruling Me" blends Cheap Trick-style hooks and Bun E. Carlos drums with an expanded vocal range from Cuomo. Later on, the meaty ballad "Trainwrecks" introduces an Arcade Fire anthemic dimension and some clever lyrics like "we don't update our blogs; we're trainwrecks." Touche, Mr. Cuomo.

A couple of the most revealing numbers indicating the collection's overall tone are found later in the Springsteen flavor of "Hang On" – a sound Weezer has not explored before – and the Pinkerton-era influences on "Brave New World," with Cuomo at his most self-aware, confessing, "I've been scared to make a move." It could be an honest reflection of his aversion to more personal themes in his songwriting that has been an ongoing undercurrent of Cuomo's career. Oddly placed midway through the set, though, is "Unspoken," an unadorned solo piece for most of its duration until the band picks up near the end. It would have found a better home amongst his 2005 solo demos. I mean, seriously, strings in a Weezer song?!

Come for: "Memories"
Stay for: "Trainwrecks"
You'll be surprised by: "Hang On"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ra Ra Riot

At the opening strains of violin and cello found in the opening and title track of Ra Ra Riot's The Orchard – released on August 24 – a listener might believe they have stumbled into a continuation of last week's review from Sufjan Stevens. With its tight orchestration by violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandria Lawn buoying the A.C. Newman-via-Sting vocals of Wes Miles, the number is reflective of Stevens' mellower work or perhaps the similar opening track of fun.'s Aim & Ignite, "Be Calm." Regardless, its a somber but haunting location to begin an album.

Still, anyone familiar with the Syracuse-based sextet's 2008 debut, The Rhumb Line will feel more comfortable with the record's second cut, "Boy." Borrowing heavily from the joint 80's influences of U2 – perhaps directing a nod to that group's debut release with the song's title – and Miles wailing pointing to the Sting-led Police, the number is bouncy and rubbery with the counterbalancing bass line of Mathieu Santos and guitarist Milo Bonacci's riffs recalling plenty of Andy Summers and The Edge. Meanwhile, the work of Zeller and Lawn offers a nice change of pace to the reggae undertones.

They keep up the brisk tempo with tracks like "Too Dramatic" – with just a hint of Metric-style rhythmicism – and "Massachusetts" flavored by Vampire Weekend's recent efforts with a little less of the hipster veneer. The latter's influence on the record is a bit more direct, as Vampire Weekend co-songwriter Rostam Batmanglij lends his hands at the mixing board on the track. At the same time, the resonating piano strains of "Foolish" prevents things from skipping off into the ether through its staccato ballad format.

As successfully as Miles' lead parts rest atop the group's instrumental talents, the true gem of the collection is Alexandra Lawn's turn at the helm of "You and I Know." Blending the earthy tones of a young Stevie Nicks with a more contemporary sound of a Eleanor Whitmore or Kathryn Caldwell, Lawn strikes the perfect balance on the midtempo number. Let's hope we'll hear more of her – perhaps in tandem with Miles – in future offerings, because a late 70's-sounding Sting/Stevie Nick collaboration would have been hard to resist.

Come for: "Boy"
Stay for: "Massachusetts"
You'll be surprised by "You and I Know"

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sufjan Stevens

Most artists or groups generally work forward from smaller-scale compositions towards more grandiose productions, such as the Beatles' gradual transition from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Far fewer begin their career with complex concept recordings before moving to a more simplified format, as the new EP from Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People, released atypically on a Friday (August 20th). The unusual release date largely reflected the unexpected record, for which Stevens had offered very little indication anything new would be forthcoming.

While technically an EP – consisting of eight tracks, rather than the typical 10-12 that comprise an LP – in more customary Stevens fashion, it's not short. At just seconds shy of a full hour, several Weezer or Ramones albums could have fit inside. Moreover, the collection is unmistakably part of the Stevens milieu, with no shortage of choir voices, horns, strings and the general grandiosity that informed his state-inspired previous albums, 2003's Michigan and 2005's Illinois, which served as bookends for 2004's Seven Swans. However, a several tracks are as minimal as any he has produced to date, backed by acoustic guitar or piano, rather than a full orchestra.

The collection's center are dual versions of the title track, the opening version dubbed as "Original" with the latter appearing five tracks later as the "Classic Rock Version." Repeated references to Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" (in quotes such as "the people bowed and prayed" and "hello, darkness, my old friend") are mixed with a brief nod to the Lennon/McCartney melody in "A Day in the Life" (specifically, "four thousand holes in blackburn, lancashire...") across nearly 12 minutes of french horns, haunting choirs and chaotic string arrangements. It could be considered overwrought if so much of his previous material wasn't already so enormously epic. Meanwhile, its "classic rock" counterpart might not reflect influences like Zeppelin or The Who, but moreso the Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa varieties. A gentle drum part gives way to a Zappa-esque electric guitar figure that never sounds settled. At just over eight minutes, its by no means radio friendly (even for 70's-era AM radio) and still far shorter than its predecessor.

As a stark counterpoint to the title tracks, Stevens presents several more basic numbers, such as "Enchanting Ghost," "Heirloom" and "Arnika," that emphasize the artist's wounded Thom Yorke-style singing more than his well-noted skills at arrangement. While none are particularly ebullient (for instance, he spends several measures in the latter of these tracks lamenting that he's "tired of life"), they do offer a different take on Stevens' skills as a songwriter, conveying emotion via sincerity rather than spectacle. Of course, that intimacy doesn't apply to closing track "Djohariah," with levels of bombast, intricacy and chaos more commonly associated with his work across more than 17 minutes of All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison flavor.

Come for: "All Delighted People"
Stay for: "Enchanting Ghost"
You'll be surprised by: "Heirloom" (mostly because Stevens manages to round-off a song in under three minutes)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Farewell Drifters

Sometimes, the surge of distortion and monstrous drums are needed to get the blood flowing. In others, the force of a wall of horns or the finely-crafted interplay between a host of instruments expands the boundaries of a given piece of music. But there will always be something refreshing and honest about a group of musicians getting together without the aid of amplification or a kicking rhythm section. This latter sentiment envelops the work of Nashville-based quintet, The Farewell Drifters on their debut offering, Yellow Tag Mondays.

Supposedly formed after lead singer and guitarist Zach Bevill encountered mandolinist Joshua Britt on a Nashville street corner, their chance acquaintance turned into the group's ultimate formation with Britt's younger brother, Clayton, on lead guitar and standup bassist Dean Marold that was not only based on traditional bluegrass and roots folk, but also more melodic influences such as the Beach Boys and Beatles, incorporating their more pop-flavored vocal harmonies into the tight vocals that usually accompany bluegrass arrangements. It's an approach most similar to the sound of the Pure Prairie League's seminal "Amie." After the arrival of fiddler and former Wake Forest debater Christian Sedlemeyer in 2009, the five-piece rounded into an ensemble capable of thoroughly enjoyable original work that bore strong connections to its underlying musical foundations.

Their collective instrumental and vocal prowess is apparent from the outset through "Love We Left Behind," which opens the 14-track collection. Blending Bevill's and the younger Britt's finger-picking acoustic guitars with the elder Britt's mandolin work, the smooth harmonies lay-in early without becoming overwhelming. Sedlemeyer's violin gently underscores the more prominent vocals and pickers, while Marold knows the precise role of standup bass on recordings, namely to be solid and unobtrusive like a dependable stay-at-home defenseman. While Marold certainly seems to have the chops to demonstrate his talents in a live setting, on record the instrument looses its motion and can grow cumbersome, which the group wisely recognizes throughout the album. This is all the more important when there is no dedicated percussionist.

Following-up with the more countrified "Everyone is Talking," the Drifters hit their stride early. It's a beautiful piece, with Bevill's smooth and very listenable lead vocals – sounding much like Moxy Fruvous' Dave Matheson – prove the perfect pivot for the band's fuller harmonies. Sedlemeyer's fiddle parts are strung out with ease, while later guitar and banjo leads add just the right front porch charm. Its easily the best effort on the record and speaks to the sensibilities of McCartney and Brian Wilson to which Bevill and Britt aspire as chief songwriters.

While the album's first couple tracks present a gentler approach to their sound, it wouldn't be a proper bluegrass offering without a few of the foot-tapper variety. The best of these is the record's forth cut, "Sunnyside Drive." With a energetic banjo line leading things off, Bevill also presents his most developed narrative effort, describing "the nanny with the newspaper, and tobacco juice is running down her cheek" in the second verse. While relating the tales of the nanny, pilot, evangelist and the boy collecting baseball cards, he presents a well-meaning glance at Americana without stooping to the preachy and worn cliches of contemporary country music. Likewise, "Virginia Bell" is fit for a jamboree, with more fine banjo, mandolin and fiddle work.

And, of course, no roots music collection is complete without the requisite instrumental, which appears here in the form of "I've Got Your Heart in My Hand, and I'm Gonna Squeeze," with an early dose of Celtic background supplied by Seddlemeyer's fiddle and barn floor sawdust via banjos, mandolins and guitars later on in a tidy two minutes and fifteen seconds.

Come for: "Love We Left Behind"
Stay for: "Everyone is Talking"
You'll be surprised by: "Sunnyside Drive"