Tuesday, June 29, 2010


To lead-off, a brief apology: due to the fantastic performance by the previously-reviewed New Pornographers last week, there was no new post at that time. I beg your indulgence.

Secondly, there might not be a greater contrast from my previous subjects, the Gaslight Anthem, to this week's chosen group, the Montreal-based Stars. As occasional participants in the ever-evolving Toronto musical collective, Broken Social Scene, co-front persons Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell bring a significant chunk of that group's overall style, and its fifth full-length release, The Five Ghosts, which debuted last week. Driving that work is a reliance on instrumentation largely comprised of keyboards and drum machines overlaid with ambient vocals

That approach is largely unchanged on The Five Ghosts, but is also advanced through a broad thematic and lyrical direction suggested by the collection's title, although is no more a concept album than the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness or Weezer's Pinkerton, with no named characters or direct story arch. The 11-track offering occupies a etherial and spectral space conjuring a vision of some undefinable and transient state of being. This is in no small measure aided by Millan's shimmering guitar work and the electronic arrangements installed by keyboardist Chris Seligman. The imagery gets underway quickly through the opener, "Dead Hearts." A pleasant, jangly guitar figure supports the question/answer narrative between Campbell and Millan regarding a paranormal encounter, as evidenced in phrases like "did you hear the closing window, did you see the slamming door?" and "I can say, but you won't believe me." The listener has no trouble envisioning floating orbs and wispy visages as Millan and Campbell's voices hovering above the scene, one that's less haunting and more undefinable.

The theme continues on the album's best track – its third, "I Died So I Could Haunt You." Campbell directs the introductory verse into a bouncing response by Millan not too far removed from an mid-album cut by Echo and the Bunnymen or a very uptempo Joy Division number. Its a somewhat creepy concept for a devotional piece, but its easy enough to access even if this type of music isn't exactly in your wheelhouse, as is the case with my aural palate. Meanwhile, the later-appearing "The Passenger" invokes a mildly-eerie late-night train right through strange towns and unusual travelers "in the dinner car or later in the bar." Here, the scene is nowhere near as comforting as those concocted earlier, with its references to "breakdowns" and the "station quiet, the station still; where nothing moves."

Meanwhile, drifting a bit from the thematic tone are a couple of tracks primarily driven by Millan's vocals: the cheery "Wasted Daylight" and the more subdued "Changes." The former hits like a refreshing Belgian-style wheat beer on a hazy summer day (which we've had far too many of in D.C., recently), with its chorus suggesting a carefree twilight, while the latter serves as the recording's counterpoint in tempo and format, with it's 6/8 time signature offering a muted swing that Millan deftly dances through. The appearance of actual instruments – in the form of piano and acoustic guitar – is especially apparent here, given the preponderance of electronic backing elsewhere.

One element that doesn't suit my particular musical sensitivities is the 5th cut, "We Don't Want Your Body," with its schizophrenic beats and whirring sonic anomalies is too much chaos in the background to focus on the fast-moving vocals from Campbell in the verses. Moreover, Millan's chorus part is saccharine and airy, wasting the singing talent with which she usually bests her counterpart. I would have expected better from a Bieber and Miley duet.

Come for: "I Died So I Could Haunt You"
Stay for: "Dead Hearts"
You'll be surprised by: "Changes"

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gaslight Anthem: American Slang

This week's featured release is also the first post to revisit a group or artist already profiled. In this case, that group was also the subject of my first post to this blog. If you're not already familiar with the Gaslight Anthem, I'd recommend you (re)visit that post. Accordingly, I won't spend much time here on the background details of the New Jersey-based foursome. Instead, we'll take a thorough look at their third full-length release, American Slang, released today.

Hoping to present an album marking a different direction than found on Gaslight's previous releases, frontman Brian Fallon largely succeeds in delivering a significant departure from their preceding efforts. Mostly gone are the meaty chord progressions, collections of characters named Maria or Mary or Estella, and the singalong refrains. Instead, Fallon and his mates focus on a more subdued template in American Slang, much like fellow earnest troubadours The Hold Steady did on their recent Heaven is Whenever. Fallon himself admitted the group's intentions were to slow down their sound similar to the work of one of their heroes, Joe Strummer, on London Calling. The collection's introductory and namesake track accounts for that transition from their previous sound – one that will always be there should they need to call upon it:

here's where we died that time last year / and here's where the angels and devils meet / and you can dance with the queen if you need /
and she will always keep your cards

Inasmuch as the group's sound evolves on the 10-track offering, so too does Fallon's gradual shift away from New Jersey to a setting that's both less specific and less familiar than his previous narratives. Tracks such as "Diamond Church Street Choir" and "Spirit of Jazz" with their loose shuffle could easily be stationed in the delta haunts of Memphis or New Orleans, while "Queen of Lower Chelsea" pays homage to Strummer's London. The first of these tracks demonstrates a heretofore unheard dimension of Fallon's vocals, settling into some amalgamation of James Brown and Bob Seger. Regardless of the location, none of the numbers would have easily fit – musically or lyrically – on 2008's The 59 Sound or 2007's Sink or Swim which were planted firmly in the concrete jungles of the Garden State.

However, as concerted is their effort to break the chains of Marley that Fallon described in "The 59 Sound," the call of the Boss will never be that far, as witnessed in tracks such as "Stay Lucky" – the American Slang number most similar to their previous sound – "Orphans" and "Boxer," all of which will have kids jampacked into clubs plenty to stomp and sing along with this summer and fall. "Old Haunts," found later in the track list, is in the closest vicinity of E Street, residing somewhere between "10th Avenue Freeze Out" and "Glory Days," but at the same time does battle with the Springsteen legacy, with Fallon almost casting aside those influences by singing, "don't sing me your songs about the good times / those days are gone and you should just let them go / And God help the man who says / if you'd have known me when..." It's an interesting take from a band that's working through its maturation through it work, and that sense of a perpetual struggle as the halcyon days of youth begin to fade is the album's unifying theme.

Because even though there are fewer trademark Gaslight anthems here, that doesn't mean there are none. Through these tunes, we hear about "the sons of regret," the "steam, heat, clang and the dark," and the "beatings that had someday to end." All this marks classic Gaslight territory and tempo, ensuring a good third of the album will satisfy longtime fans. But they might not be so sure about closing number, "We Did It When We Were Young," which darkly stumbles closer to The Cure than The Clash.

Come for: "Stay Lucky"
Stay for: "Old Haunts"
You'll be surprised by: "Diamond Church Street Choir"

Monday, June 7, 2010


To set the proper mood for this week's review, I'd recommend you track down (or follow the convenient links provided here) the following recordings: They Might Be Giants' "Sleeping in the Flowers" and "Stockton Gala Days" by the 10,000 Maniacs. The work of Gothenburg, Sweeden's Sambassadeur on the four-piece's third full-length album, European, follows the mold framed by these American recordings in both tone and tempo. Note the driving nature of both these tracks, with their limber orchestrations and full-bodied chorus parts.

When recording artists include significant orchestrated elements in their songs, there is always the potential for the results to be prodding and lethargic due to the collective weight of the combined instruments. It is no small achievement to find records that strike the right balance between complex musicality and appropriate pace when including substantial string and horn parts with the more conventional guitar-piano-bass-drums precedent established by The Beatles and not deviated from often. In this difficult environment, Sambassadeur finds a very workable approach on European.

After a gentle half-minute piano prelude to open the nine-track collection, the band launches startlingly into "Stranded," allowing the listener to catch up with the accelerating pace by the time singer-guitarist Anna Persson delivers her first lines of "moving faster and you're talking loud..." The track recalls the Our Time in Eden era of Natalie Merchant's former band, with the continual orchestration not usurping the energy or drive of the rock band at the heart of the number, except Perrson and her Sweedish colleagues seem less burdened by Merchant's self-importance that could often introduce drag on the Maniacs' work.

Following "Stranded" is the equally compelling "Days," which largely inhabits the same pace and feel of its predecessor. Its perhaps even more accessible as single-type material, although the entirely orchestrated bridge might not scream Top 40 Hit to most observers. Still, the number harks back to the feel of John Flansbaugh-led number off John Henry, "Sleeping in the Flowers," which at times seems just on the verge of skidding off the tracks because of a continually building pace and intensity. Fortunately, both songs manage to control that momentum to a successful destination, one that should leave the listener exhilarated to have survived the harrowing trip.

Of course, no effort could keep up such a hectic tempo for very long, and the group offers a welcome contrast to their earlier prowess on "Forward is All," a melodic acoustic ballad that's not dissimilar to the slower work of Newfoundland Celtic partiers, Great Big Sea (and who's forthcoming Safe Upon the Shore will be reviewed here later this summer). It recalls how close Celtic and Scandanavian folk music are at their cores, with simple rhythms underscoring a hovering string or whistle part to augment any lyrical direction.

Come for: "Days"
Stay for: "Stranded"
You'll be surprised by: "Forward is All"

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Regina Spektor

There is a long and deep tradition of outstanding female singer-songwriters who employ the piano as their primary instrument, from Carol King and Carly Simon of the classic rock era, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple representing the alternative period, to the more jazz and R&B-inspired efforts of Norah Jones and Alicia Keys of the current decade. In this particular component of popular music, women certainly have achieved a greater depth of achievement than men, as although Billy Joel, Elton John and, more recently, Ben Folds, have found lengthy careers penning tunes on the 88s, the number of successful women behind the keys is double, and that's without mentioning other talented pianists like Natalie Merchant, Kate Bush, Elanor Whitmore and previous New Music Tuesdays profile, Valery Gore. And while it might be tempting to group the emerging Regina Spektor and her new album, Far – released today – with this cohort of ladies of the bench, Spektor's work doesn't so neatly line-up with the others'.

The Moscow-born Spektor seems to have not only inspired by predecessors such as King and Amos, but also a broader array of songwriters such as Buffalo's own Ani DiFranco, the nerdy contributions of the Johns (Flansbaugh and Linnell) and even pop maestros like Jeff Lynne, the latter of whom co-produced and performed on several cuts on Far. It is this underpinning of influences that allow Spektor not to be pressed by the piano's possibilities and pratfalls, but instead drive the instrument to conform to the needs of her material, in much the same manner as DiFranco employs her acoustic guitar accompaniments.

This approach is revealed in the range of musical directions delivered on the 13-track compilation. There are, of course, the upbeat pop standards that fueled her breakthrough 2006 offering, Begin to Hope. Lead-off number "The Calculation" is a bouncy affair that follows nicely in the tradition of the singles "Fidelity" and "On the Radio" of her previous release, while mid-album cut "Folding Chair" likewise skips along at a brisk pace. Neither track would be out of place alongside McCartney's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or "Lady Madonna." But rather than serving-up a baker's dozen of whimsical pop ditties, Spektor explores some less conventional spaces. On two tracks, she seems more interested in exploring how tonal and phrasing choices in her lyrics can produce new rhythmic directions, as found in "Eet" – a dance through various rhymes involving that letter combination, such as street, meet and feet – while "Dance Anthem of the 80's" seems to blend an Apollo 18-era They Might Be Giants track with OutKast's "Hey Ya" – an interesting contrast certainly, although I'm not sure if I could handle it on continual repeat.

And yet, on this same collection, Spektor also presents a trio of songs rooted in some consideration of faith or belief, in "Blue Lips," "Laughing With," and "Human of the Year." Her willingness to allow these concepts form the lyrical basis of a song is hardly common these days, and she includes no masking of her intentions on "Laughing With," as she seems to chide both glass-house atheism and religious fanaticism in the same verse; no small feat.

The album actually builds steam as it progresses, with its latter tracks also serving as its best. "Two Birds" is a mid-tempo lamentation on co-dependency that could have as easily been penned by former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page and found its way onto his former band's Maroon collection from 2000. Meanwhile, the back-to-back ballads of "Genius Next Door" and "Wallet" demonstrate Spektor's narrative talents, revealing the respective plots of a Walden Pond-esque character and the discovery of a forgotten wallet and the narrator's quick glimpse into his life before returning the object to a nearby Blockbuster. "One More Time with Feeling" might be my favorite effort on the record, flirting between a blues number and something off Lennon's Instant Karma.

Come for: "The Calculation"
Stay for: "One More Time with Feeling"
You'll be surprised by: "Laughing With"