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."