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.