Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Jukebox Serenade

So, this week's entry clearly utilizes the same band-naming methodology as this blog's first profile (meaning take a beloved object of yesteryear and combine it with a format of music. See, we all can play: Streetcar Lullaby; Pinwheel Cantata; Milkwagon Ballad). But anyways, this group's sound is no mirror of Brian Fallon's crew, but rather a neatly-arranged power pop foursome more in line with Verruca Salt or Buffalo's own Goo Goo Dolls work on Superstar Carwash.

Fronted by singer-guitarist Lena Esposito, the Fairfax, Va.-based outfit released their first full-length album, Bliss, in the summer of 2009. The product doesn't stray too far from the Verruca Salt model, merged with Rob Covallo-esque production, with Esposito's lemon ice-style vocals supported by a steady, but not overly ambitious alt-rock crunch and steady rhythm section. The first single, "Abagail," moves along nicely along Chris Brownelle's blues/hard rock guitar riff and Esposito inching closer to her best Shirley Manson impression. Meanwhile, album opener "Sugarrush" is befitting its title, with a driving drum intro setting the stage for a Kim Deal chorus. Finally, the 11-track record's only true ballad, "Turning the Page" is the other can't-miss, merging piano-driven verses with an almost Christie McVie-ian chorus hook. In all, it's an effort remarkably similar to that produced by fellow northern Virginia power-poppers Smartbomb, who, unfortunately saw only a too-limited run.

Given that it's the band's first full-length offering, some leeway must be afforded for building a solid foundation before branching out more. Of course, some bands take their debut as an opportunity for a bold first impression. Still, I'd like to hear more from Jukebox Serenade beyond the proven, but not very ambitious crunch-crunch guitar and soft verse/loud chorus format. I couldn't note a single mid-song guitar figure (aka "solo") of particular note, and while there a few neat New Pornographers-ish keyboard and organ parts, I'd like to hear some more and featured more prominently. Nonetheless, its a respectable, workman-like approach from a new band who clearly has enough refined musicianship and sense of direction to lead listeners to expect more.

Come for: "Abagail"
Stay for: "Sugarrush"
You'll be surprised by: "Turning the Page"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Van Ghost

Often, some of the best work in any medium – be it art, sports, politics, etc – is done when someone who has toiled backstage, behind a camera or as the mouthpiece for someone else steps out and claims the spotlight for their own. For instance, backup catchers have become some of the best managers in baseball, while both Gary Marshall and Marty Scorsese have stepped in front of the lens for cameo turns. Ben Stein was a speechwriter in the Nixon and Ford White Houses before becoming one of the most unlikely screen personalities, and Dave Ghrol manned the drum kit in one of music's most meteoric bands before fronting his own outfit that has far outlasted his predecessor's.

Such is the case of Michael Berg of Van Ghost. For more than a decade, he rolled them cases out and lifted them amps in Chicago's hearty music scene, watching acts like Wilco and Andrew Bird hone their acts and garner critical acclaim. After dropping a few tunes on a six-string at a friend's nuptials in 2007, Berg began to explore the possibility of fronting his own group. Rather than going the singer-songwriter route, he sought to expand his sound by reaching out to a set of musicians he had befriended through his years backstage. Drawing from his instincts in Americana and the too-often overhyped "alt country" movement, he assembled a contingent more grounded in The Band and Gram Parsons than Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt – including pedal steel picker Rocco Labriola and harmony vocalist Jennifer Hatswick, formerly of Trey Anistasio's group.

Sporting a voice somewhere between the frequent Gillian Welch contributor Dave Rawlins and Austin-based troubadour Bob Schneider, Berg doesn't stretch his range beyond its limits, instead preferring to let the band's depth and warmth round out the sound. The group would have no trouble fitting in a nice valley between Music From Big Pink and the Travelling Wilburys, evoking a communal jam somewhere along the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York or the Missouri River basin. And yet, modern influences don't escape Van Ghost either, not so much through the grainy lens of Jeff Tweedy or the still-unappreciated Okkervil River, but rather in the Jackson Browniness of My Morning Jacket or the beautifully haphazard work of the Avett Brothers. As always, a well-deployed Hammond organ or timely fiddle detour help elevate a song like "Wednesday" beyond a lazy roots rock ballad into a breezy trip across a stretch of open road.

What really moves the group's seminal debut, Music for Lovers, beyond some amalgamation of moe.-flavored jam band wandering and force-fed alt country are elements like Frank Catalano's surprising sax entry on "Satisfied" that steers the track closer to the best of Chicago, or the industrial-sounding guitar intro of "Lessons" that evokes more Noel Gallagher than Robbie Robertson. This layering of influences beyond rote Americana indicate Berg and his mates are interested in more than riding the coattails of the Kings of Leon or the collaboration between Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, as admirable as both of those offerings may be.

Sure, Van Ghost will never get your blood boiling with the passion of Muse, or deconstruct the boundaries of progressive rock like Radiohead, but sometimes you feel like "you're done running and I think I better come away with something to say, something to say; it brings me back to a Colorado mountain, it was could outside, but I really didn't mind," as Berg describes in the group's leadoff single, "Summer Promise." In other words, sometimes it just doesn't need to be that hard.

Come for: "Summer Promise"
Stay for: "Wednesday"
You'll be surprised by: "Satisfied"

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Gaslight Anthem

I will concede that my first selection doesn't dig too deep into the underground. However, that does not mean a sufficient number of people are aware of this fine young New Jersey quartet. Besides, lead singer/songwriter Brian Fallon is at The Black Cat on Saturday night, and you should go.

To understand The Gaslight Anthem, draw a triangle. At its apex, position the name Bruce Springsteen. To its left pinnacle, assign Joe Strummer and The Clash. At it's counterpoint on the bottom right, reserve a spot for Paul Westerberg and The Replacements. Fill-in the area of the shape with a patchwork of Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and The Counting Crows.

Hailing from New Brunswick, New Jersey, the guiding presence of The Boss should surprise none. He is Gaslight's North Star, spreading his influence through lead singer Brian Fallon's familiar but not threadbare cache of characters. There's Broken-Bones Matilda, Wagin' Matty, the Tin Man's heart and The Old Gospel Choir, plus enough Bobby Jeans, Marias and Virginias to make up at least 1/6 of the E Street Band. Fallon parlays his Little Eden off his hero's Asbury Park and drifts as easily from the 1930s to 1962 as Springsteen connected Atlantic City to Nebraska. For his part, The Boss has already seen the light of his could-be successors.

While the New Jersey legend builds the world from which Fallon stages his scenes, Gaslight holds less true to his musical direction. Rather than the six-plus minute rock-jazz-gospel shuffle where Springsteen erects his tent revivals, the four-piece outfit hews closer to the mold established by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. His turn-on-a-dime tempo breakdown not even halfway through "Say I Won't (Recognize)" – off the outfit's debut offering, Sink or Swim – could just as easily spilled out of side three of Sandanista!, while tracks like "1930" or "The Patient Ferris Wheel" are driven by a white Epiphone-style punk energy Springsteen would never approach.

And yet Gaslight is more than a punkified Darkness on the Edge of Town. There's a milltown undercurrent of self-pity that emerges through the cracks between Springsteen and Stummer, more akin to Paul Westerberg and the Minneapolis collection of rust belt instigators like Bob Mould and Craig Finn. On Gaslight's second full-length effort, The 59 Sound's "Red at Night," Fallon stakes claim to a narrative that could have likewise emerged from Buffalo or Dayton, singing,
I was born in a town where the rivers flow freeze / on a January night when the cold winds freeze / I got an Irish name and an injury / Blessing and a curse cast down on me
Of course, the group's influences extend far past a tripartite score of predecessors. Fallon makes no secret of his deep affection for Tom Petty, referencing the venerable Americana rocker on several occasions, yet filtering his Southern Accents through the Counting Crows' "Round Here" on "High Lonesome" – a pairing most contemporary tunesmiths wouldn't conjure. Meanwhile, the Elvis Costello connection on "Miles Davis & The Cool" is only steps away from the same imagery of a fire that's both destructive and restoring that Billy Joe Armstrong employed on 21st Century Breakdown. But Fallon and his comrades take a U2 – or, if you prefer, Dear Leader – turn on 59 Sound closer, The Backseat, with its Edgian flotilla of delayed arpeggios.

In all, its quite compelling, if not totally original. For much as the thesis demands an anthesis, from which comes the synthesis, from Springsteen to Strummer to Fallon lies a pretty solid ground of material that many might consider the heart of rock and roll.

Come for: "The 59 Sound"
Stay for: "We Came to Dance"
You'll be surprised by: "Red at Night"

My Music @ Work

"there's music out there laying in wait
to pounce and drain every ounce if you
wait or hesitate...
and music that'll help you be tough
and come together on more than Springsteen,
though most days it's been enough
then there's music that can take you away"

-Tragically Hip, 'Use It Up'

Thus, with the above credo, I begin my work. The title of this blog is the title of this blog's mission, which is to provide a weekly refresher on interesting new bands or artists or, occasionally, new albums or projects from established artists.

Traditionally, the latest albums and records were released at record stores and retailers on Tuesdays, perhaps to drum-up mid-week business, or to fully capture a holiday weekend that includes a Monday. For whatever reason, that's when it happened. But, these days, fewer people – like me – journey out to a record store to purchase new music, forgoing the traditional brick-and-mortar outlets for electronic venues like eMusic or iTunes. To recapture just a bit of that old spirit, I'll be picking a group or recording artist to profile with some degree of my own insight and analysis.

What is the criteria for which artists or bands will be selected? Simply, whatever I'm most interested in at the moment. This may coincide with a new release or an upcoming show I'm attending. Regardless, I hope you enjoy the selections as much as I do, and retain some faith that there will always be new horizions of rock music developing everywhere.

P.S. The initiation of this blog is no indication that work at You Look Like a Goddamn Idiot has been terminated. However, the intent here is certainly to post with a greater regularity since, you know, it's supposed to come out every Tuesday. We'll see if that indeed happens.