Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rural Alberta Advantage

This week's post will take a different tact from previous installments, by considering a relatively dated release in anticipation of a forthcoming new album – namely a look at 2008's Hometowns record by the Rural Alberta Advantage in advance of their March, 2011 effort, Departing. Readers can expect a review of that subsequent collection at that time. This approach isn't to suggest that every expected New Music Tuesdays reviewee will receive similar treatment, but retroactive examinations of previous efforts will be merely subject to the inclinations of this blog's author.

Interestingly enough – considering the band's moniker – the Rural Alberta Advantage (RAA) is based in Toronto, Ont., but the material presented on their full-length offering reflects their collective upbringings in their namesake province. Much like last week's profilees Lost in the Trees, this trio's work is tailor-made for the harsh reality of winter. However, rather than their predecessor's menacing and thematically dark presentations, the RAA is moreso unadorned – a stark and hardscrabble identity that lines-up well with Alberta's northern prairies.

Leading-in with the understated and self-referential "The Ballad of the RAA," the opener sets the stage for the group's journey across Canada's fourth-largest unit of governance, as lead singer and guitarist Nils Edenloff proposes their project swaps the "Rockies for the Great Lakes" and "Garneau (Alb.) for Dundas (Ont.)." Before progressing any further, listeners must first get real with the tone of Edenloff's vocals, which reside somewhere between sneer of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and the tangy wail of Lindsey Buckingham. It's not beautiful, but it is authentic, and when paired with the subject matter, is all the more appropriate.

The more snarly "Rush Apart" proceeds the baker's dozen collection of tracks' raucous centerpiece, "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge." It's driving and focused, while delivering its unsettling narrative in just over 2 minutes' time. The work of the three-person unit is most apparent here, through drummer Paul Banwatt's shifting fills and multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole complimenting Edenloff's pervasive sneer.

Meanwhile, Edenloff tones down the harshness of his vocals on "Don't Haunt This Place," which also feature pretty vocal compliments from Cole, but despite the hints of strings here, its no more warming than its preceding tracks. At the same time, while "The Deadroads" features Springsteen-style lyricism, its musical foundation is closer to that of Okkervil River or Southeast Engine than anything arranged by the E Street Band. Likewise, Edenloff comes closest to a Buckingham's-style approach – a la "Big Love" – on "Drain the Blood."

The album's most rambunctious contribution is the mid-set "Luciana," which for the first time features more extensive use of Cole's organ performance, coupled with low-register horns later on, before ceding much of the energy to the more subdued "Frank, AB." And late-appearing "Edmonton" is too deeply buried considering its quality, which is easily the record's second-best after "Dethbridge..."

Come for: "Dethbridge in Lethbridge"
Stay for: "Edmonton"
You'll be surprised by "The Deadroads"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lost in the Trees

As much of the country settles in for a long winter's nap, a solid compliment to the biting gale and blustery accumulation can be found in the debut offering from Chapel Hill, N.C.'s, Lost in the Trees, All Alone in an Empty House. There is no comfort or softness here, as suggested in both the folk orchestra sextuplet's moniker and album title. Its all dark and chill and pain, but the sturdy outfit manages it well across the collection's nine narrative tracks and two instrumental compositions.

From the outset, frontman and guitarist Ari Pickler sets a somber scene. The record's title – and supposedly autobiographical – track is stark and haunting. Laying in first gently with Pickler's voice and acoustic guitar accompaniment, a lonely and troubling setting emerges, populated with thrown-away dreams and sudden deaths of infants, which he describes as "something dirty." He establishes an aural space somewhere between The Decemberists' Colin Meloy's disturbing hyper-literacy and the vulnerability of Okkervil River's Will Shelf. As Pickler cries, "how I hate your soul!" the listener has no choice but to believe him based on the sincerity of his tone, although a sense of redemption is possible as he concedes that "no one is perfect." The lack of resolution in these contrasting sentiments only enhances its credibility.

And while in many other productions, the growing presence of strings would seek to introduce calm and beauty into their arrangements,' the follow-up "Walk Around the Lake" seems only more menacing via the group's trio of string performers – Jenavieve Varga (violin), Leah Gibson (cell0) and Drew Anagnost (cello). Their recurring triplets add to Pickler's growing sense of isolation and paranoia as he accounts his solitude. And while it might be theoretically comforting to believe that a comforting "walk around the lake" is all it takes to cure the ills of a troubled spirit, the number's larger vision demonstrates quite the opposite is true.

A pair of instrumentals – the "Mvt. Sketches" ("I" and the later-to-follow "II" – certainly capably executed by the string section, with flairs of harpsichord by multi-instrumentalist Emma Nadeau and acoustic guitar by Pickler) bookend a series of equally tense productions in "Song for the Painter" and "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang," the former a somber, but no less wrenching account of lost love – albeit with a touch of empathy – and the latter a more raucous number in the tradition of Self's "Last Love Song for Now." At the same time, "Fireplace," with its descriptions of "bloody knives" and "weight of that what is too sharp to hold," depicts the frightening, yet restorative power of a cleansing blaze, and is demonstrably the production's energetic and emotional centerpiece.

Come for: "All Alone in an Empty House"
Stay for: "A Room Where Your Paintings Hang"
"You'll be surprised by: "Fireplace"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Johny Poe and the Salvation Circus

A number of regular New Music Tuesdays readers have been writing in lately, commenting, "yeah, your indie pop reviews are great, but where's my Norwegian synth-metal fix when I need it?!" Well, it just so happened an interesting young outfit from the land of the Midnight Sun has recently emerged and was already targeted for profiling this week when your missives were received. The debut album of Oslo's own Johnny Poe and the Salvation Circus bring you Smile When You're Down and Cry When You're Up, released this past Monday.

Featuring a blend of The Killers-style synth pop and darker Scandinavian metal influences, the four-piece traces a path through both brisk uptempo pieces and heavier, more thematic works on the 11-track effort. Fortunately, for American audiences largely unfamiliar with such a hodgepodge, the premiere number – "Autosexual" – is the collection's best, with a hooky chorus, guitar figures in the vein of their Sweedish neighbors, The Hives and plenty of bite. Frontman and keyboardist Johnny Poe (assuredly a stage name) channels a vocal space between Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, The Arcade Fire's Winn Butler and The Killer's Brandon Flowers, with just a touch of Jack Black's rock spectacle to highlight the metal signature.

Meanwhile, its follow-up, "Dr. Führer," is less melodic but no less driving, as Poe's synth performance takes a more prominent role at the outset before guitarist Stein Stølen Bjerkaker underscores the track's heavier bent. Conversely, the circus theme in the band's moniker emerges in the third offering, "Let's Go to France," with Poe's piano serving as the number's offbeat center and a nearly minute-long organ fanfare at its conclusion marking a distinct change of pace from its predecessors.

After a few solid, but not spectacular mid-collection efforts like "Some People" – featuring Poe's most Winn Butler-esque performance – and the instrumental "The Fury of Love," are two of the best numbers on the collection: the aggressive "Damaged" and the more gentle piano ballad "Put Your Head On My Shoulder," which features an uncredited (to date) female guest vocal which pairs well with Poe's more unpolished tenor. On the former, Poe's influence via Brandon Flowers is more accentuated and the rhythm section of bassist Christoffer Pedersen and drummer Richard Berby does ample work to pace the arrangement.

However, it's not all so well-executed, as demonstrated in the final two offerings. "The Festival" battles with itself for nearly six minutes without much to show for the effort, while closing (and self-referential) selection "The Ghost of Johnny Poe" is a bit too self-indulgent for its own good, as Poe positions his alter-ego "outside the temple of rock-and-roll / in the wasteland of vanity / and in the psychiatric hospitals dead souls lay scattered like soldiers on a battlefield." No thanks, Johnny, but keep up the work with more tracks like "Autosexual" and "Damaged" in the meantime.

Come for: "Autosexual"
Stay for: "Damaged"
You'll be surprised by: "Put Your Head On My Shoulder

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Red Sweater Days: New Music Tuesdays' Favorite Christmas Songs

What's this appearing in your Facebook status or RSS Reader this Saturday morning? Isn't New Music Tuesdays only posted on, you know, Tuesdays? Well, given the mirth of the holiday season, its only appropriate to offer something a bit out of the ordinary. Moreover, since the mission of this blog is to improve your overall enjoyment and satisfaction of music, some relief from the tired gambit of Christmas music at retail establishments everywhere is in order. Mindful of those dual objectives, New Music Tuesdays presents its favorite twenty Christmas selections you might not be as familiar with, as opposed to compositions by Jose Feliciano or Anne Murray. We'll proceed in ascending order, from number twenty:

#20 – "Deck the Stills" - Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

We start with the only group or artists with multiple selections on our list. This minimalist parody of "Deck the Halls" is accompanied by full-chested bravado from the Toronto-based rock humorists as their re-w0rked lyrics reference the four names of a certain folk-rock supergroup. The song also benefits from the presence of now-former co-frontman Steven Page, who has since left the band.

(Listen to "Deck the Stills" here)

#19 – "Bizarre Christmas Incident" - Ben Folds (www.benfolds.com, 2001)

Almost as interesting as Folds' lurid tale of an intruding Santa is the story of how the song was almost never released to the public. The organizers of the soundtrack for the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas asked Folds to contribute an original. He initially returned with "Bizarre Christmas Incident." But given the family nature of the film, the producers asked him to try again. He responded with the more appropriate "Lonely Christmas Eve." However, Folds still had a soft spot for his original composition, so in December, 2001, he released the track on his website.

#18 – "The Night Santa Went Crazy" - Weird Al Yankovic (Bad Hair Day, 1996)

Another parody joins the list at #18, via the ultimate patriarch of parodies, Weird Al. While many might have heard Al's account of Santa going postal, few likely recognize the source material: Soul Asylum's "Black Gold." Naturally, Al's satire is as warped as Soul Asylum's original was serious. Meanwhile, Al also delights with another dark Christmas-themed offering, "Christmas at Ground Zero," and his accompanying video is sufficiently Dr. Strangelove, considering the subject matter.

#17 – "O Little Town of Bethlehem" - Young Fresh Fellows (A Lump of Coal, 1991)

The first true traditional, spiritual number in this list comes via Seattle alternative act Young Fresh Fellows, fronted by often R.E.M. contributor Scott McCaughey. While their rendition is completely devoid of flash, the number never works as a schmaltzy affair, and the quartet's chugging guitars and meaty drum fills compliment the unadorned carol.

(Unfortunately, locating a streaming audio or video for this selection was not possible due to the relative obscurity of the recording. Various methods of tracking down a downloadable version are likely available through your favorite search engine)

#16 – "White Christmas" - Goldfinger (Sleighed: Other Side of Christmas, 2000)

The much-revered L.A. ska/punk outfit do the staid "White Christmas" of the Bing Crosby era a great service by their uplifting rendition. The ska format suits the old standard even better than the original Irving Berlin arrangement and the horns introduce a measure of levity to engender a truly festive atmosphere. If only it were a bit longer than its 1:03 of playing time.

#15 – "Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Barenaked Ladies (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

While the original 1984 Band Aid version certainly supported noble causes through the work of organizer Bob Geldof and a greater array of star power, the already-referenced BNL does a better version, unburdened by the overproduction so germane to the original's decade. With then-BNL co-frontmen Page and Ed Robertson reducing the confusion of so many vocalists, drummer Tyler Stuart's tongue-in-cheek turn at Bono's legendary line, "well, tonight thank God it's them instead of you..." is all the more prominent.

#14 – "Santa's Beard" - They Might Be Giants (Lincoln, 1988)

The snark returns to this collection with They Might Be Giants' 1988 original, which is not to be confused with a Beach Boys' number of the same title. From TMBG's drum machine days, the Johns present the lamentations of a depressed soul during the holidays who's concerned with the lure of the man in red on his love. John Flansburg's alternate lyrics in the final chorus, "thrilling...Christmas...trembling fear" neatly sum-up the song's direction.

#13 – "Father Christmas" - The Kinks (Father Christmas single, 1977)

If the seasonal social commentary unleashed in "Do They Know It's Christmas?" isn't enough, The Kinks predated that effort with a more subtle entry through 1977's "Father Christmas." In classic Kinks style, the originators of power punk flip the tables on the traditional carol's merriment and cheer with a focus on "the real McCoy." While Ray Davies' snarkyness shines through here more than ever, at its core there is a genuine message on the truth of the holidays.

#12 – "R2D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas" - Jon Bon Jovi
(Christmas in the Stars: The Star Wars Christmas Album, 1980)

So many elements of this number are captivating, from the sheer concept of C-3PO sending his droid counterpart a gift in song to the first professional vocal recording of Jon Bon Jovi (who landed the gig because his brother ran the studio where it was produced), "R2D2, We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is a sheer holiday treasure. It's chorus of kid vocals recalls John Lennon's seminal Christmas track (perhaps to be referenced below?), and original C-3PO and R2D2 performers Anthony Daniels and Ben Burtt reprise their roles here.

#11 – "The First Noel" - Crash Test Dummies (A Lump of Coal, 1991)

Inasmuch as anyone remembers anything about Winnipeg, Manitoba's underappreciated Crash Test Dummies, they remember lead singer Brad Robert's distinctive bass-baritone range. And in the group's take on the traditional hymn, Roberts plumbs new depths of his freakishly low pipes. Fortunately, before Robers spends too much of the song 200,000 leagues under low C, pianist Ellen Reid takes over and delivers a lovely, multi-part alto harmony.

#10 – "Winter Wonderland" - Phantom Planet (Maybe This Christmas, 2002)

Best known for penning and performing the theme for the Fox TV series, The O.C., L.A.'s Phantom Planet does an admirable job in re-envisioning the well-worn number in their 2002 rendition. It all starts off pretty typical, with singer-guitarist Alex Greenwald intoning the classic lyrics about sleighbells ringing, and a nice accordian part is introduced in the second verse. But it justifies its spot in the top 10 here by then-drummer Jason Schwartzman's (yes, that Jason Schwartzman) work on the chorus parts, which propel it in a new direction entirely.

#9 – "Little Drummer Boy" - Dandy Warhols (Special X-mas Single, 1995)

The synth-heavy Dandies inject some spirit into the old spiritual in their 1995 adaptation. Fittingly, then-drummer Eric Hedford's work drives the cause for the Portland (Ore.)-based quartet, while frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor's indie pop vocals offer a fresh take on the famed "bum-bum-bum-bums." Of course, the song is the basis for one of the oddest all-time duets in popular music.

#8 – "Christians and the Pagans" - Dar Williams (Mortal City, 1997)

If you're one of the types who believes that people of many faiths and ways of living can find common ground amid the joy of the holidays, this is your song. Williams' sincere narrative of a Christmastime family reunion flavored by differing beliefs is both earnest and endearing, and her less-aggressive Ani-style keeps the mood lighthearted considering the topic.

#7 – Happy Xmas (War is Over) - John Lennon (Happy Xmas [War is Over] single, 1971)

Our last selection in the original, moral message thread is Lennon's signature 1971 ballad. Entrenched in Vietnam War-era political discord, Lennon again appeals to our better angels. Meanwhile, Yoko Ono leads the Harlem Community Choir in belting out the anthemic chorus.

#6 – "Do You Hear What I Hear?" - Spiraling (Do You Hear What I Hear single, 2005)

As if the epic "Do You Hear What I Hear?" wasn't substantial enough on its own merits, the New Jersey quartet mash-up the Noel Regney/Gloria Shayne Baker treatment with The Who's Baba O'Riley. The resulting blend maintains the iconic presence of both pieces, and Spiraling singer/keyboardist Tom Brislin rockets the effort skyward at the end, proclaiming the number's hallmark "goodness and light" with marked passion.

#5 – "The Mummers' Carol" - Great Big Sea (unreleased)

Documenting the caroling traditions in their Newfoundland homeland, Great Big Sea offer this foot-stomper with all possible spirit of good cheer. Conjuring a scene reminiscent of the party at Fezziwig's in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the Newfie carol is nothing short of festive.

#4 – "O Holy Night" - The Sheila Divine (Viva Noel - A Q Division Christmas, 1999)

Long a favorite of full-throated singers everywhere, Boston-based trio The Sheila Divine and their equally strong-voiced frontman Aaron Perrino continue that tradition with their 1999 rendition. Over a dark and haunting Smiths-style arrangement, Perrino belts away with no hesitation.

(listen to The Sheila Divine's "O Holy Night" by scrolling to the bottom of the audio player found here)

#3 – "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings" - Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlin (Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004)

Recorded on the back of a flatbed truck sometime in the early '90s, this folksy take before either act had achieved stateside recognition is magnificent in its understatement. While the unreleased version made its way around radio station holiday playlists and the intertubes for more than a decade, the BNL lads finally released it officially on their 2004 holiday collection.

#2 – "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (In Harmony 2, 1981)

Having first performed his iconic rendering of the secular number in 1973, the signature December 12, 1975 recording from C.W. Post College in Greenvale, N.Y. was finally released by Columbia Records on the In Harmony 2 compilation in 1981. The Springsteen version is so popular among his legions of fans that the band often fields requests for the number in the middle of summer. Coupled with Clarence Clemons' featured role, The Boss' contribution to the holidays is at the top of many Christmas lists, including this one.

#1 – "Snoopy's Christmas" - The Royal Guardsmen (Snoopy's Christmas single, 1967)

Hoping to cash-in on a holiday-flavored version of their earlier "Snoopy vs the Red Barron" a year earlier, the Florida-based novelty act Royal Guardsmen produced their hallmark number laced with seasonal mirth. Alluding to the factual Christmas Day truce between the Germans and British during World War I, anti-hero Snoopy takes to the December skies to engage the "bloody Red Barron." Goodwill towards men wins the day as a cascade of bells, horns and gang vocals trumpets the spirit of the season.