Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Southeast Engine

Somewhere in the same wintry hinterlands occupied by Okkervil River and Wilco is Athens, Ohio's Southeast Engine. Peddling songs about famous filmmakers and malcontents, the four-piece's latest effort is the semi-concept album, From the Forest to the Sea.

Weaving a tale of a wayward cartographer (now, isn't that a concept Colin Meloy or the Johns Flansburgh and Linnel would love?), the 12-track album very broadly mirrors the themes delivered by Mr. Meloy himself in The Decemberists' Hazards of Love, which was released around the same time. In Southeast Engine's version, the unnamed protagonist is lured away from his lucrative mapmaking career and established family life for a woodlands temptress, named Lady Midnight, after the Leonard Cohen song of the same title. He traverses – as the collection's title suggests – his way from the forest to the sea, all the while braving the wrath of the divine for his transgressions.

While the entire record should be considered as a cohesive unit due to its conceptual nature, there are several tracks that stand on their own nonetheless. "Black Gold" – owing its title to the crude fossil fuel the central character charts in his profession – settles into a thumping Pettyian "Running Down a Dream" vibe, replete with the perfunctory "who hoos." It's catchy enough for subject madder so muddy and cumbersome and drummer Leo DeLuca drives the tune.

Meanwhile, both "Easier Said Than Done" and "Malcontent" are barnstormers, with a rockabilly grove to the former and a rusty duststorm sensibility in the latter. Lead singer and songwriter Adam Remnant engages closely with the style of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy in these tracks, both in the actual sound of his singing and his lyricism. Moreover, like Tweedy, Remnant isn't gifted with the world's strongest pipes, which becomes particularly apparent on the slower trio of "The Forest" songs, where notes in his lower register make his annunciation nearly indecipherable on a couple occasions. Still, what he lacks in vocal prowess he largely recoups in authenticity, as he is a perfectly credible narrator to convey his stories' hardscrabble tone.

And while Remnant is a capable frontman, the true star of the group is pianist Michael Lachman. The late-appearing "Sea of Galilee" is a bona fide rolling gospel rock number, and Lachman's brisk riff befits the biblical subject matter. Although it's a bit slower paced, Lachman's work similarly informs "Two of Every Kind" – another tune titled through scripture reference – that would seem as appropriate in a ghost town saloon as "Sea of Galilee" would in a southland sanctuary. Any listeners impressed by Lachman's work here certainly should track down the groups previous full length recordings – 2005's Coming to Terms with Gravity and A Wheel Within a Wheel of 2007 – which feature prominent Lachman-flavored tracks "Holy Ghost" and "Ezekiel Saw The Wheel," respectively. Unfortunately, recent reports have indicated he left the group soon after the record was finished and replaced by multi-instrumentalist Billy Matheny. We can only hope Lachman's successor offers as much to the group's sound as his predecessor.

Another important note on From the Forest to the Sea is that the collection's sequencing seems to not optimize its narrative plot. For instance, "Law Abiding Citizen" – a quality work of folk rock storytelling that would sound well in Johnny Cash's twilight work with Rick Rubin – is positioned at the clean-up position although it neatly spells-out the record's plot, while the aforementioned Forest trifecta sits heavily at the album's outset. Perhaps this was indeed Ramnant's original narrative intention, but even great works can benefit from an independent editor. I'd say Ramnant should have consulted one here. Still, all things considered, Southeast Engine's work on this concept treatment is altogether solid and their larger catalogue is likewise worthy of credit, so good things from Ramnant and his comrades can be expected in the future.

Come for: "Black Gold"
Stay for: "Law Abiding Citizen"
You'll be surprised by: "Sea of Galilee"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

We Were Promised Jetpacks

If you've ever been curious what a blend of Interpol and The Proclaimers might sound like, We Were Promised Jetpacks out of Glasgow, Scottland might be your answer. Should Darth Craig Feurgeson ever describe the vocal talents of frontman Adam Thompson, he might say "the brogue is strong in this one."

Certainly, Thompson's Scottishness is unmistakable in his cadence, but that fundamental influence isn't overwrought with shoehorned and rote Celtic components like bagpipes and drunken drum pounding. Rather, the young foursome relies on the tried and true method of delivering rock music: straight-forward, earnest and damn-the-torpedoes anthems on the groups debut effort, These Four Walls. The approach yields a couple dead-on-balls accurate tunes that in another day and age would have been sure-fire hits.

"Quiet Little Voices" is a blistering trick of a song, that resides somewhere between the hapazardness of The Strokes and the more etherial work of fellow Glaswegians Franz Ferdinand, but would have had no trouble fitting in on MTV in 1984 with Blondie and Madness (back when, you know, the network actually played music videos and stuff). The track is fantastic sing-along material and manages to keep pace with itself, driven along nicely by rhythm section of Sean Smith (bass) and Darren Lackie (drums), with lead guitarist Michael Palmer neatly replicating Chris Stein's early 80's sound.

Meanwhile, "Roll Up Your Sleves" charges along with a compelling bass line by Smith as its guidepost, but also is mildly evocative of the perpetual 90's heatseekers from northern Virginia, Emmet Swimming. It's quite something how closely Thompson's distinctive timbre matches that of Emmet's Todd Watts, although the latter's throaty register is more Kentucky than Celtic. Regardless, Thompson's lyrical warnings of the coming onslaught of winter is the perfect counterpoint to the song's driving energy.

Beyond the seeing-eye singles, the remainder of the 11-track album offers a good dose of solid and enjoyable tunes that demonstrates the group has much to offer. The steady buildup of the intro track, "Its Thunder and It's Lightning" makes Thompson's narrative of a "body (that) was black and blue" somehow seem fulfilling, and the over 8-minute mini-opus, "Keeping Warm" not meandering, but a worthwhile journey that doesn't seize under its extended duration, but rather builds momentum. At the same time, simple added elements such as xlyophone flourishes on the album opener and "Conductor," along with a touch of piano at the end of "Roll Up Your Sleves" add a bit of welcomed diversion from the band's basic guitar-guitar-bass-drums framework. Other nice things could be said about tracks such as "Ships With Holes Will Sink" and "Short Bursts," but you might as well just go buy the thing.

However, before you do, one important note: if you're the type of music listener who buys new recordings by the song, rather than the album, be sure to avoid the mid-collection blunder "A Half Built House." Thompson and his colleagues should have just finished building the house, instead, as what they present here is a collection of unfocused noise. If I wanted to listen to that type of material, I'd simply find my way to Wilco's A Ghost Is Born or some Sonic Youth outtakes, because those folks have some skill at it. The Jetpacks lads should have just stuck to what works best for them in this case, which is rocking out – something that they very capably managed to do throughout the rest of These Four Walls.

Come for: "Quiet Little Voices"
Stay for: "Roll Up Your Sleeves"
You'll be surprised by: "Keeping Warm"

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Overmountain Men

From the most inauspicious of beginnings – a Ramada Inn in Wytheville, Va. – comes the interesting debut from the Overmountan Men. Spinning backporch yarns somewhere between mountain music and The Band-styled Americana, the five-piece Appalachia outfit explores some fertile but not over-harvested ground on Glorious Day, it's first recording.

There's mandolins and accordions, pianos and dulcimers to round out a sound that combines the best of The Decemberists on one hand and The Avett Brothers on the other. It evokes the former with some supple lyricism and storytelling, and the latter through a roots rock format that isn't as strained as alt-country nor as cliched as contemporary country. It makes you remember that banjos, fiddles, harmonicas and pedal steel are inherently fine instruments when handled by responsible performers and songsmiths, and have a role in telling the deep and mystifying stories of the backroads and hollers of the nation's original mountain country, not those reduced to schmaltzy patriotism or pronouncements on the evils of modernity. Let's face it, country music does not need to be so abjectly stupid. It is, after all, one of the few music genres that is uniquely American.

The bulk of the 11-track album finds its centre in singer-guitarist David Childer's evocative portraits of the America he's experienced, one that his Scottish-Irish ancestors encountered in the hickory hills of North Carolina since before the American Revolution. He pays tribute to that legacy by naming is group after the band of American rebels who came down from the hills and proved instrumental in forcing out the Redcoats of the American South. And yet, rather than rubbing his listeners' noses in his patriot bona fides, he instead channels that imagery through a host of scenarios, both historic and contemporary. For instance, he transforms a New York Subway trip into a nostalgic ride on the "Coney Island Express," singing:

"she sings a song, in sad Japanese, on the way to the shore, where the polar bears freeze..."

Childer's Bob Segar-baritone provides the perfect register for the collection with a non-threatening, but plenty warm reference point for exploration. He's the intrepid trail blazer, leading his fellow wanders through the pine thickets and rambling streams to experience places where "Satan's winged soldiers lay seige" and "down yonder meadow where the grass grows green" in tracks like "Glorious Day" and "Rembrandt." The imagery is at the same time haunting and hopeful, bountiful and barbed wire. "Looking for Dr. Caligari" is a foot-stomper – with corresponding the lyrical brand to "stand before you before with bleeding feet" – channeled through a rusty vocal distortion, before drifting off to a leering account of some military engagement from antiquity.

Adding to Childer's mountaineer charm is Avett Brothers' bassist Bob Crawford, guitarist Randy Saxon and Childer's brother Robert manning the trap kit, rounding a full, rich sound further augmented by a cast of thousands as guest musicians contributing fiddle, xylophone, cello and baritone trumpet, among other instrumental highlights. In all, its a fascinating – but not particularly expedient – trip from The Band's Catskills hideout to the more dynamic Southern Rock emanating from Athens, Ga., with convenient detours to Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder and maybe James Taylor's Carolina, and wraps up with the strange 10-minute closer, "Altar of Greed/Muddy Bottom/The Hunch" that acts more like the final sequence of 2001 than anything out of Deliverance. I'd say it was out of place if it wasn't so, well, interesting.

Come for: "Rembrandt"
Stay for: "Looking for Dr. Caligari"
You'll be surprised by: "Altar of Greed/Muddy Bottom/The Hunch"

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dear Leader - Stay Epic

At the outset of this blog, I promised to include some profiles of bands that weren't necessarily new, but had released a new album I was excited about. This is one of those occasions.

Stay Epic is the fourth full-length release from Boston-based quartet, Dear Leader. While I'm usually drawn to groups with strong and dynamic frontpeople, Dear Leader's Aaron Perrino (lead vocals, guitar) is particularly captivating. As the former frontman for the seminal The Sheila Divine (TSD), Perrino established himself as a purveyor of rock-n-roll operatic singing, much in the Roy Orbison - Morrisey - Matthew Bellamy tradition. Moreover, he hails from my hometown, although he has operated both TSD and Dear Leader out of Beantown, much like several other Boston bands with Buffalo roots, such as Tugboat Annie and The Push Stars. Nonetheless, Perrino wages a perpetual artistic war with the place of his birth, like so many poets, painters and performers before him. That spirit is once again infused, anew, in Stay Epic.

The ten-track set hails this theme at its precipice with "Rust Belt Ballad," a Mellencampian up-tempo lamentation on the recurring inability of places like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland to claw their way out of devolution, but non-specific to any, and certainly could be understood as including the Rust Belt's new frontier in places like New Orleans and Atlanta. He evokes this spirit by crooning:

"We're hanging by a string, and loosing patience..."

Beyond Perrino's recurring references in his "dust bowl ballads" is a seething liberalism that he has been unable to contain on any of the preceding Dear Leader offerings. Prospective listeners should not be surprised by these tendencies, as the group proudly describes its sound as "politically and socially charged anthem rock" on its Myspace page. Fortunately, it produces a hard-charging direction to their best work, heard on this collection on its second track, "The Blue Print." After setting the stage early with illusions to "the cost of corruption" and the "appallingly seductive" modern age, the group – guitarist Will Claflin, former Tugboat Annie bassist Jon Sulkow and drummer Paul Buckley – launches into an irresistible chorus hook that is both sweeping and grand. Dear Leader's U2-meets-New Order rhythmic/synthesized sound is the perfect vessel to propel Perrino's soaring vocals aloft, and its not hard to miss as the sound gets louder, the vocal impact becomes even more pronounced. There is nothing fragile in the offing here, and when Perrino warns of Generation Y's tendency to "loose rock-and-roll," its apparent few recording artists today would have the chops to not only deliver the line, but write it, as well.

Another can't-miss on Stay Epic is buried deeper in the collection, but finds an interesting symmetry between Green Day's American Idiot/21st Century Breakdown work and the more accessible elements of the Arcade Fire, such as "Intervention." Lurching forward with a Sex Pistols-style riff, "Indifference in the Age of Decline" is pure rocket fuel, where Perrino derides both social media where "no true words are spoken" and a world where there "are no heroes and no shrines." Its among the most spontaneous and combustive-sounding output Dear Leader has produced. Meanwhile, even the most cursory glance at the titles of some of the other tracks leaves no doubt as to the groups intentions, with cuts bearing headers such as "Barbarians," Empires," "The Napoleon Complex" and "Young Gods" making bare a effort focused on deep and pervasive social commentary.

Among the most notable evolutions in Dear Leader's sound through Stay Epic is witnessed through the spread of orchestration across at least a half dozen tracks. While the inclusion of string parts – likely synthetic here – plays a somewhat predictable role on the album's slow and mid-paced songs, it serves as a propellant for the more driving tunes like "The Blue Print" and "Shimmer." If there is a drawback of the album, the tracks of the loud and fast variety are scattered throughout the compilation, and it could use one or two more, with all due deference to album pacing and artistic vision.

Come for: "The Blue Print"
Stay for: "Rust Belt Ballad"
You'll be surprised by: "Indifference in The Age of Decline"

P.S. If you really want to hear some transcendent rock-and-roll singing, check out "Glacier" off Dear Leader's second effort, "All I Ever Wanted Was Tonight," especially at the track's zenith as Perrino creates a vocal tidal wave matching the song's lyrics.