Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Christmas & Happy New Years

Since NMTs has hit its monthly goal of four posts for December, we'll beg off for the rest of 2011 and return in early January to enter our 3rd calendar year of profiles of the latest new acts and releases in alternative, mainstream, independent, folk, pop and many more formats of rock music. In particular, stay tuned for new releases from fun. (NMT's most favoritest group reviewed so far), Ben Kweller, Snow Patrol, and more.

In the meantime, feel free to reflect on our Red Sweater Days compilation of top Christmas songs from last year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Miracles of Modern Science

 Usually, each post in this space will begin with some background on a specific style of music or ruminations on the uniqueness of a given band or artist. For this post, however, what you can expect from this week's profilees – the smarty-smarty, high-energy orchestral rock quintet Miracles of Modern Science – is most easily explained through a Venn diagram:

You see, the soundscape of Miracles of Modern Science – or their self-appointed acronym, MOMS – easily aligns in the intersection of styles previously encountered in four NMT reviewees (in order of their initial NMTs appearance): the folksy bluegrass of the Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT); the rusty plains howl of Rural Alberta Advantage (NMT, NMT), the gypsy diversity of DeVotchKa (NMT) and the nerdy humor of They Might Be Giants (NMT). This blend of styles is achieved with near perfection on MOMS' ambitious debut, Dog Year, self-released by the band on December 6.

MOMS may be the contemporary embodiment of how a new band is formed. Founding members Evan Younger and Josh Hirshfeld linked up at Princeton University in 2004 via Facebook. After refining their sonic direction as a mix of classical, rock and folk music – reflecting not such the tonal patterns of the acts identified above, but other groups ranging from the history-infused punk of Titus Andronicus (NMT), the orchestral foundations of peers like Ra Ra Riot (NMT) and Hey Rosetta (NMT) to the spirited collective format found in groups like the Arcade Fire (NMT) – double bassist Younger and mandolinst Hirshfeld filled-in their sound by adding violinist Kieran Ledwidge, cellist Geoff McDonald and drummer Tyler Pines. Although their approach checked few boxes on what band managers, record labels and promoters prioritize in new acts, the ability to record and distribute new music via electronic media today allows groups like MOMS to reach more of their intended audience without lessening their musical direction. This model is apparent throughout Dog Year.

Opener "Moms Away!" is vibrant, headstrong and witty, chronicling a dream involving a supersonic clash between man and machine. Younger, handling lead vocals throughout the record's dozen tracks, is a hybrid of Rural Alberta Advantage's Nils Edenloff and Tokyo Police Club's (NMT) Dave Monks, aided by Hirshfeld's backing vocals. Hirshfeld's mandolin drives the number, while Younger and Pines pace it with its galloping rythym, and the string parts of Ledwidge and McDonald provide it's color. When paired with Younger's sci-fi nightmare, it's a refreshingly odd output, especially with the strange nod to Aaron Copeland's "A Lincoln Portrait" after the final chorus. It's the sort of thing Titus Andronicus included on their sophomore release, The Monitor (NMT), and only adds to MOMS' quirky combination of elements.

This is all followed by the equally weird "Strangerous," the tale of a creepy stalker in the vein of the Barenaked Ladies' similarly disturbing, but likewise brilliant "Straw Hat and Old Dirty Hank." Ledwidge and McDonald help set the mood with their lurking strings during the verses, and the whole thing takes off at its frenetic chorus. The group's propensity to conjure obscure song titles continues immediately on "Tensity," which matches its title's suggestion of stress with jerky figures from Hirshfeld's mandolin and Ledwidge's fiddle. It's a bit less tongue-in-cheek as its predecessors, but still well-constructed and executed, and spirals upwards to its chaotic zenith. A bit more restrained is "Eating Me Alive," with McDonald's gracious cello weaving through the verses, then racing off at the chorus in the same manner as so many Rural Alberta Advantage concepts. But the main gripe here is Younger's low-register bridge section. Like Edenloff and Monks, vocalists with more nasally tenor should avoid the deeper limits of their range, which often yields a noticeable downgrade in vocal enthusiasm and distinctiveness. Fortunately the barrage of instrumental firepower returns to close out the number.

Falling short of the initial outburst of energy found on the opening quartet of songs, "Quantum of Solace" is in keeping with the title's moribund frame. The pace and exhilaration that defined the album's early stages is absent here, and it's a hard slog. The same is true later on with "The Moon and Australia," albeit much shorter in length.

Despite these blemishes, the rest of the compilation is fantastic. Leadoff single "Luminol" builds from a bit of a sleepy start, fueled again by Hirshfeld and Ledwidge along with the unlikely addition of Beach Boys-style ooh-aah-ooh harmonies. Meanwhile, the woodlands zoology of "Friend of the Animals" is joyful throughout and animated by its campy animal imitations and barnyard jamboree at the end. The late-appearing duo of "Space Chopper" and "I Found Space" represents the record's finest work. The former is rambunctious and points to the big group sound of the Arcade Fire with its sing-along gang vocals, while the latter is pure exuberance, as if it were recorded among a gathering of the most delighted and possibly inebriated sci-fi nerds.

The same spirit returns to close out the album on "Bossa Supernova." It's a jubilant affair propelled by mandolin, violin and cello that alternate between ecstatic and measured, while Younger and Pine team to maintain the speed without caroming into anarchy. At the end, the not-so-disguised "Secret Track" is a cartoonish narrative of a man who lost his limbs and the resulting tragedies that beset him, the type of humorous content that have defined secret tracks spanning from Green Day's "All By Myself" to Barenaked Ladies' "She's On Time." Here, MOMS' protagonist is a mix of Dr. Scott from the Rocky Horror Show and Family Guy's Buzz Killington.

Come for: "Luminol"
Stay for: "I Found Space"
You'll be surprised by: "Bossa Supernova" 

P.S. MOMS does a fun cover of Foster the People's mega-hit, "Pumped Up Kicks"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Black Keys


The two-person outfit is a rarity in rock music. Sure, there have been scores of prominent songwriting duos throughout rock history – the likes of Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards and Page/Plant. But those tandems were all part of larger ensembles in terms of recording and live performances. The duo structure has largely been limited to folk-rock oriented pairings like the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel. And aside from the too-short run of The Carpenters and the now-defunct White Stripes – which was always more of a 80/20 share of talent and contributions between Jack and Meg White – the rock duo is almost impossible to identify beyond the efforts of this week's profilees, The Black Keys, and their seventh studio record, El Camino – out last Tuesday on Warner Brothers' Nonesuch Records.

Despite the duo's unique composition in relation to other bands, the act – comprised of vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney, although both dabble into other instruments to round out their sound – toes closer to the classic rock vintage than more progressive elements. In fact, the 11-track album could have easily emerged from the mid-70s, with its hearty blend of blues-based thump, Motown-flavored blue-eyed soul and trace amounts of late 60's psychedelia. But unlike their contemporary peers like The Flaming Lips or Beck, Auerback and Carney tack more towards tightly-constructed, stand-alone numbers than anything approaching the 24-hour song recently offered by The Flaming Lips or the genre-bending work of Beck. Still, for those of us more inclined to less free-flowing rock standards, El Camino should more than compensate for its limited breadth. Moreover, the compilation's accomplishments are more impressive considering the band's truncated roster.

Produced by the well-traveled and influential Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) – key architect of the alternative hip-hop and R&B act, Gnarls Barkely, along with Cee Lo Green – along with Auerbach and Carney, the release is clothed in a more uptempo vibe than previous Black Keys efforts, especially its 2010 predecessor, Brothers. The change plays to the duo's strengths, a hard-charging enthusiasm, the sort best exemplified by punk-informed blues acts like the John Spencer Blues Explosion or electronic-influenced artists like Matt & Kim. This is true from the outset, via the thumping leadoff single, "Lonely Boy." Auerbach's sludgy bass line and stabbing guitar set the stage for Carney's kinetic percussion through the verses. Auerbach's vocals are filtered through a foggy haze, while outside session organist Brian Burton's work hangs some flesh on the duo's bony foundation. Likewise, background vocals from Leisa Han, Heather Rigdon and Ashley Wilcoxson contribute some welcome soul to Auerbach's tangy singing.

The energy builds on the following "Dead and Gone," a pounding affair that somehow combines the same The Clash-style guitar slash from "Lonely Boy" with a Motown-coloured chorus along the lines of The Four Tops or Temptations, complete with handclaps and more solid chorus help from their trio of Han, Rigdon and Wilcoxson. It's such a peculiar blend that its thoroughly enjoyable, and Burton's wafting Hammond organ in the song's further reaches only adds to the tune's throwback flavor. After the track's abrupt conclusion, the jagged "Gold On The Ceiling" tamps down the rambunctiousness, but not the spirit. Auerbach's growling electric guitar is matched with a brightening acoustic guitar part and fuzzy keyboards. It also isn't hard to locate hints of The Doors an the number's outskirts. 

In as much record's opening trio of tracks points to a union of punk energy with R&B richness, in the clean-up spot, "Little Black Submarines" owes its foundation to straightforward classic rock, and possibly the most storied classic rock anthem, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." One can only hope Auerbach is overtly channeling Jimmy Page's iconic acoustic guitar part here, otherwise the similarity of the two pieces would amount to outright lifting. And although the number is dwarfed by "Stairway's" more than double run time, the comparison continues as a similar hard rock breakdown takes over at the song's midpoint, again akin to its classic ancestor. The only divergence between the two is Aurbach and Carney's version contains far less references to mythology and fantasy literature than Robert Plant's original lyrics.

Unfortunately, after such a strong quartet of numbers, the record's mid-section bottoms out. Among the triplet of "Money Maker," "Run Right Back" and "Sister," none are especially hard to listen to, but, conversely, none are all that captivating either. They're solid rock numbers, but not very distinguishable. It's not a moral sin for the album, but based on its earlier output, the cuts are a bit disappointing, most likely due to the absence of the keyboards, organs and backing vocals that defined the initial offerings.

But do stick around for the latter third of the compilation. "Hell Of A Season" regains a bit of the swagger, which fully returns on another Motown-grounded groove in "Stop, Stop," hinting at faint resemblances to Stevie Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" in its jangly chorus. Meanwhile, "Nova Baby" is the album's most joyous contribution, with the return of The Clash guitar slash and a pogo stick bounce in the chorus. Closer "Mind Eraser" ends the affair with a bit of Doors-style psychedelia, but doesn't overdo it at only 3:15.  

Come for: "Lonely Boy"
Stay for: "Dead and Gone"
You'll be surprised by: "Stop, Stop"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jonathan Coulton

It can be tempting to brand material from a newer band or artist that is similar in style to a more established act as derivative or unoriginal. And sometimes such criticisms are valid. Anyone who knows my tastes in music is aware of my less than enthusiastic stance on Coldplay as a less-interesting version of Radiohead. But often, acts for whom a large portion of their sound is influenced by a certain predecessor, the outcome can be a fresh take on a well-worn approach, and add new spins and directions to it. This is the case with New York, N.Y.-based singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton and his They Might Be Giants (TMBG)-patterned veneer on his eighth studio recording, Artificial Heart, released independently by Coulton on November 8.  

The TMBG (NMT) influence should come as no surprise here, given that TMBG co-frontman John Flansbaugh produced the record. While Coulton previously released seven full-length albums, most were recorded without a band and in Coulton's home studios. Flansbaugh's involvement allowed Coulton to utilize studio musicians – many of whom have worked with TMBG and TMBG-related efforts in the past – in a professional space. The collection's whopping 18 tracks also include several guest vocal appearances, from John Roderick on "Nemesis," Suzanne Vega (of "Tom's Diner" fame) on "Now I Am an Arsonist" and Sara Quinn of the Canadian twin sister duo Tegan and Sara on "Still Alive." The added resources help bolster Coulton's already-stellar songwriting talents, and the studio band in particular provides some welcome punch across the record.

While Coulton bases his constructions largely around TMBG's trademark blend of clever and catchy – and his vocal phrasing is primarily a reflection of Flansbaugh's TMBG partner, John Linnell – he introduces outside flavors ranging from the smooth Americana polish of Jackson Browne to more punk-tinged crunch in a The Kinks or Ted Leo vein. These more diverse backgrounds broaden Coulton's work from only TMBG regurgitation to a more distinctive portfolio. Of course, you wouldn't not it immediately, as leadoff track "Sticking It to Myself" saunters in with the familiar saxophone root common in so many TMBG tracks over the years, and Linnell-style vocals from Coulton, although with a touch more power pop fuel than the Johns usually offer. Still, it's hooky and well-crafted – a great introduction for new listeners. At the same time, the following "Artificial Heart" is quirky and aloof at first, then bright and boastful at the chorus – another tried and true TMBG staple, although the keyboards are more straight-up piano sound than the farfisa organs preferred by Linnell.



"Nemesis" – featuring lead vocals from Roderick instead of Coulton – first introduces the more Americana tendencies cultivated by more classic rock forerunners like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. The acoustic and electric guitars form the track's core here, and while the song's title reads like a Star Trek reference, Coulton's lyrics are a bit more straightforward here. It sounds more like something you might expect off an early-era Barenaked Ladies record like Maybe You Should Drive, with Roderick and Coulton complementing each other like the Canadian popsters co-frontman duo of Ed Robertson and now-former member Steven Page (NMT). The distinctiveness continues on "The World Belongs to You" with its heavy mandolin foundation, akin to multiple NMT-profilees Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT). The bluegrass ditty is unlike anything TMBG has ever attempted.

Following the somber, but coyly witty "Today With Your Wife" – which plays like a Ben Folds (NMT) meets Fountains of Wayne (NMT) ballad – "Sucker Punch" is the album's best, with its heavy power-pop crunch and catchy chorus blazing through the cut's short 1:44 run time, like TMBG's own "Can't Keep Johnny Down" off their recent album, Join Us (NMT). Sure, I'd like a bit more, but it's too fun to get hung up on the brevity.

Later on, "Alone at Home" is a minimalist punk-flavored cruncher – again, short like "Sucker Punch" – while the baroque-themed "Fraud" is sparse and plunky with just Coulton's acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, the humorous "Good Morning Tucson" recalls fellow NMT-profilee Butch Walker's similarly smart "Trash Day" and, after all, who can't chuckle at a verse like, "when I was coming up I got the donuts, which means I got the donuts that I wanted / There was no young punk to steal my jelly-glazed, and I am still sort of amazed that you can be born in the nineties."

Suzanne Vega's pleasant alto pairs well with Coulton on the retrained and earnest "Now I Am an Arsonist," while Sara Quinn brings welcome vocal brightness to the music box-like "Still Alive," although I'm not much of a fan of the track's nearly minute-long warbly intro.

Of course, over the course of 18 tracks, they can't all be can't misses. While the concept of "Je Suis Rick Springfield" is intriguing, the french lyrics don't convey the funny as effectively as his humor is deployed elsewhere. Likewise, "Nobody Loves You Like Me" is a decent musical idea, but is a little too droning for my taste. And elsewhere, you get the sense Coulton's instinct is to retreat to a solo singer-songwriter, which he's perfectly competent at on cuts like "Down Today" and "Want You Gone," but they're not as compelling as his work highlighted above. The same is true for numbers like "Glasses" and "Dissolve," more rocking variants of their guy-and-his-guitar counterparts. But "The Stache" does close the collection on a clever note, with its account of high-school age posturing, again pointing back to Flansbaugh's influence.

Come for: "Sucker Punch"
Stay for: "Good Morning Tucson"
You'll be surprised by: "Today With Your Wife"

P.S. Coulton appeared on the audiobook version of John Hodgman's, The Areas of My Expertise, a fantastic collection of interesting, odd and potentially fictional factoids from the actor best known as the PC Guy in Apple's ads earlier this decade. Coulton provided acoustic guitar backing and interludes, as well as a few off-the-cuff comments. Also, completing the Coulton-Hodgman-TMBG association triangle, Hodgman has appeared in a series of short videos for the band's Venue Songs collection.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

GROUPLOVE

 Since this post is already more than three days late, we'll skip the clever/verbose lede and dive right into the review of another spirited, multi-gender outfit that prioritizes energy and enthusiasm in the form of Los Angeles-based quintet, GROUPLOVE, and their debut release, Never Trust a Happy Song – out this past September 13 on Atlantic Records.

You may already be a bit unintentionally aware of the band via their track "Colours," which has appeared in a widely-appearing Chevy commercial and leadoff single "Tongue Tied" promoting Apple's iPod touch. Sure, the mid-90s version of your blogger would have derided such abject commercialism, and would have pointed out that acts like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam would would sooner be caught dead then overtly endorse any product or service. But times have changed with music acquisition nearly exclusively occurring online (legally or otherwise) via the massive decline in record stores, radio stations featuring new music and a bastardized MTV who refuses to air any music videos. Accordingly, bands – especially young bands – need to aggressively promote themselves in as many venues as possible, and mainstream commercials are just one avenue.

Regardless, both tracks featured in the product promos are catchy and representative samples of the group's work on the record. The former is mid-tempo and a touch sludgy, but hooky enough to lure new audiences. Featuring the nasally wail of primary lead vocalist and guitarist Christian Zucconi and solid background vocals from keyboardist Hannah Hooper, it blends Weezer (NMT)-style chorus crunch with looping verses. Its counterpart in "Tongue Tied" is even catchier, with a carefree party grove built around the same bouncy rhythm that anchored the Smashing Pumpkins' iconic "1979" with the blitzing jocularity of contemporary acts like Los Campesinos! (NMT), The Givers (NMT) and Library Voices (NMT). The only fear with the latter track is the risk of it caroming off the cliff into the ravine of dance pop, only one remix away from stocking the playlists of dance clubs everywhere.

Elsewhere, the album's dozen tracks largely feature upbeat and enjoyable pop rock, with a few exceptions. The reggae sway of "Lovely Cup" breezes along with a delightful lightness and "Spun" is both the record's finest cut and one that should earn a spot on any collection of road anthems, alongside highway soundtrack tracks from artists like The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac. It might actually be best suited in a pairing with modern road anthems like The Arcade Fire's (NMT) "Keep the Car Running," the Great Lakes Myth Society's "Across the Bridge" and Hey Rosetta's (NMT) "Seeds," especially with Zucconi's lead-in mandolin trading-off nicely with guitarist Andrew Wessen's sturdy electric parts. Deeper tracks like the beach party tribute "Naked Kids" and the harder rockabilly romp of "Chloe" fit well with the record's lighthearted vibe.

But the band is a little less successful on a few other efforts here. While opener "Itchin' on a Photograph" is a fine tune on its own right, Zucconi's vocal range seems to get the best of him, as he spends the better part of the track screeching to a level that could be labeled as unmusical. Meanwhile, Hooper's first taste of leadoff vocals on "Slow" aren't the finest introduction to her talents. Not that her singing isn't adequate here, but rather the song's concept is so dull (as its title might suggest) that her debut is rather ho-hum. It sounds as it could have served as the prime example of the Eurythmics' forays into the depths of the avant garde.  Fortunately, she gets another shot on "Love Will Save Your Soul," and delivers on the slightly bluesy number. Later on, Zucconi uses his distinct nasal delivery to better advantage on "Cruel and Beautiful World," harnessing it more like Rural Alberta Advantage's (NMT) Nils Edenloff, especially with its blend of rusty acoustic guitars and scratch rhythm section backing from bassist Sean Gadd and drummer Ryan Rabin.

Come for: "Tongue Tied"
Stay for: "Spun"
You'll be surprised by: "Lonely Cup"

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds

Since it's just days before the holiday season begins – and because your blogger is pretty busy presently – this post will be an exercise in brevity. But a short post is better than no post. Plus, much of the backstory on this week's artist – former oasis songwriter, guitarist and part-time lead vocalist Noel Gallagher – was already taken care of in my review of his brother Liam's post-oasis project, Beady Eye. So, if you're looking for my thoughts on all things oasis and Gallagher brothers, head there. Here, we'll focus on Noel's competing project, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. His debut album of the same title was released on November 8 on Noel's own Sour Mash Records.

After the demise of oasis, my initial expectation was that Liam and his mates in Beady Eye would have a tough time songwriting without Noel's creative force, and that Noel would emerge with a steady effort, building on his two decades of songwriting for oasis. I was only half correct. Beady Eye defied all expectations, and delivered a well-constructed, ambitious debut outing on Different Gear, Still Speeding last March. Meanwhile, Noel has responded predictably with his High Flying Birds, turning out a solid, consistent 10-track product infused with his trademark Beatles-style constructions, some heady orchestral arrangements and professional-quality musicianship. But, it's also not terribly exciting.

Noel always benefited from the better pure singing voice of the two brothers; a smoother, more balanced counterpoint to Liam's rusty nails sneer. And he exploits that talent well here, hitting and sustaining higher notes beyond Liam's range and routinely employing his well-honed falsetto. This is apparent as soon as the opener, "Everybody's on the Run," with Gallagher shepherding the tune's soaring chorus, and benefiting from sturdy drumming from session percussionist Jeremy Stacey. Gallagher always demanded solid, but unspectacular work from his drummers in oasis, and he finds a willing partner in Stacey throughout the record. He also effectively deploys a mix of horns and strings across the album, boosting the complexity of his songwriting, especially on the album's closer, "Stop the Clocks" – apparently a would-be oasis number than never left the studio over a decade, according to Gallagher.

The problem with the collection, though, emerges quickly: the tracks are nearly all indistinguishable from each other, one mid-tempo cut to the next. This isn't to say that any are bad on their own; in fact, not a single track is a must-skip. They're all carefully structured, well-executed pieces of pop-rock, and several are a step above, such as leadoff single, "If I Had A Gun" and the catchy chorus of "Dream On." And if the Gallagher's acoustic guitar progression on the former of these sounds familiar, you're right: it's nearly the same as oasis flagship number, "Wonderwall." 

But the pace on all of them is largely identical, not moving too fast or too slow. Some variation in tempo and intensity would be welcome. There is a bit more pep on a couple of numbers, though: the optimistic "AKA...What A Life" and it's fluttering counterpart, "AKA...Broken Arrow." But neither hardly qualifies as a barn-burner, and it's hard to believe Gallagher no longer has the more upbeat stuff in him, considering high-energy oasis tracks spanning that band's catalogue, from the early "Supersonic" to the more recent "The Shock of the Lightning." And perhaps his forthcoming full-album collaboration with Amorphous Androgynous – expected in early 2012 – might boost the intensity level. But in the battle between the Gallagher brothers as to who could produce the more interesting material without the other, the victor is surprisingly Liam.

Come for: "If I Had A Gun"
Stay for: "Dream On"
You'll be surprised by: "AKA...What A Life"

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Los Campesinos!

When I was younger, I was often perplexed when listening to performers from the non-American English-speaking world as to why the accents (or lack of accents, depending on your perspective) so prevalent in their speaking voice nearly always vanished when singing. From the Beatles to Elton John and on to U2, there seemed to be little distinctiveness of their respective deliveries from their American counterparts (by American, I mean North American, as Canadian accents are only just slightly different from those in the states). Of course, there are been exceptions. The punk movement stressed authenticity, and artists reaching as far back is Ray Davies in The Kinks to Johnny Rotten's Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer's The Clash all emphasized their British roots far more than their predecessors. Later, the frontmen in alternative-era acts like oasis, Blur and – to a far less lasting degree, The Proclaimers – mildly stressed their homelands' vocal uniqueness, although their peers in Radiohead, Bush and Coldplay could hardly be spotted as brashy Brits on a first listen. Conversely, some American vocalists – namely Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong and The Killers' Brandon Flowers – chose to adopt a pseudo-British sneer to fit their sound.

As this to say that when you come across an artist or band featuring more identifiable accents in song, it's noticeable. And such is the case with the Cardiff, Wales-based septuplet, Los Campesinos! and their duly British-sounding primary vocalist, Gareth Campesinos! (the band goes Ramones-style, adopting Campesinos! surnames for all its members; campesinos itself means peasants in spanish). From the outset, it's clear you're encountering a group from Her Majesty's empire. Gareth's punk-infused snarl harks back to influences like Davies, Rotten and Strummer, and is fitting for the group's hard-charging demeanor. But, in contrast with the band's punk-tinged Romance is Boring – their third full-length release in 2010 – their new 10-track collection, Hello Sadness (out today on Wichita Recordings) blends the punk sneer of its predecessor with the more bright and boastful pop collective approach of their first two records, Hold on Now, Youngster... and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, both released in 2008 on the same label.

This combination of styles – the post-punk power found in outfits like Tokyo Police Club (NMT) and We Were Promised Jetpacks (NMT) with the big, poppy multi-gender collectives like the Arcade Fire (NMT), the recently-on-hiatus Broken Social Scene and the Givers (NMT) – breeds an offspring that's both lively and edgy, and allows a coterie of sonic habits to trickle in, not only from their aforementioned peers, but hints of U2, The Hold Steady (NMT), The Cure, Weezer (NMT) and more. The album's dawning track, "By Your Hand," points most directly to the latter set, with its boisterous chorus and hand claps suggesting a communal vibe, and the tawdry details of Gareth's verses much in keeping with tracks like The Givers' "Up Up Up" and Library Voices' (NMT) "If Raymond Carver Were Born in the 90's." Gareth – who's also the band's glockenspieler (glockenspielist? glockenspielmeister? I've longed for the opportunity of such a quandary in this space!) – allows plenty of room for the rest of the band to shine here, especially back-up vocalist and keyboardist Kim (Gareth's sister), bassist Ellen and guitarists Neil and Rob.

Meanwhile, the following "Songs About Your Girlfriends" – while still sufficiently poppy – lands closer to the post-punk tradition, with its its clenching guitar intro setting up Gareth's gnarly lyrics and the track racing across its 3:18 of runtime. But it doesn't stray far from the Arcade Fire-style group sing-alongs found on the opener, either. Next up, the record's title track is a bit more restrained and moody – a nod to their Cure influences – but features some nice violin contributions from now-former member Harriet (who amicably left the band this September to continue her education) and builds to a swirling zenith later on.

In "Life is a Long Time," the band arrives at it its closest counterpart to the Arcade Fire's most recent offering, The Suburbs, as if Win Butler and crew contributed a lost track meant to fall between "We Used to Wait" and "Sprawl 1 (Flatland)." Gareth's tale of disillusionment mirrors Butler's description of suburban malaise, in lyrics like:

Over time they build up the city / And our arguments show it all /
Every ring road, every motorway / Displayed in crease and wrinkle

and

You know it starts pretty rough / And ends up even worse / And what goes on in-between / I try to keep it out of my thoughts

The post-punk vibe returns on "Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)," with its less exuberant tone and featured keyboards from Kim echoing a similar use on Tokyo Police Club's Champ collection. Interestingly, the cut contains a reference to ABBA's "Waterloo," with Gareth slightly reworking lyrics that song's chorus prelude to, "and how could I ever refuse? I feel like I loose when I loose." After the slow-moving ballad, "Hate for the Island," the group delivers the record's most shimmering track, the U2-flavored "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope." Guitarists Neil and Rob are at their pinnacle here, with their The Edge-like minimalism providing an emboldening lift. Moreover, the split vocals between Gareth and Kim are a welcome change of pace, although I wish Kim had been utilized more on this record, in keeping with the band's greater use of smoother female voices to balance out Gareth snarly foundation (Kim succeeded her predecessor Aleksandra on back-up vocals and keyboards in 2009, after Aleksandra also left on good terms to pursue studies). I always prefer bands with shared lead vocals, and even more so when they're split between girls and guys.

Like "Hate for the Island," "To Tundra" is largely a plodding affair, although it very gradually builds some steam and benefits from some greater conviction near its conclusion. The slower stuff continues on the concluding pair of numbers, with "Baby, I Got the Death Rattle" and "Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II" easing the effort on a more restrained note. However, the former isn't far from a slower version of The Hold Steady's "Sequestered in Memphis" in its second half, with Gareth reprising Craig Finn's call-and-response chorus alternating "headstones" and "headboards" much like Finn's "Texas" and "Memphis."

Come for: "By Your Hand"
Stay for: "Songs About Your Girlfriend"
You'll be surprised by: "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Decemberists – Long Live the King

(I had fully intended to post on schedule the previous two Tuesdays, however, technical difficulties involving my email machine had prevented me from actually listening to the new music slated for review. Now, with fully computing power restored, this is my best attempt to catch up, which explains for coverage of only an EP-length release)

Often, when you hear artists or bands describe a recent studio session, and boast how they had written and worked on boatloads of new material, but most of it never made the final release of 10 or 12 tracks. Now, surely, there were fragments of songs that didn't quite pan out, and others that needed more cultivation, possibly to re-appear on a still later record (next week's profilee, Noel Gallagher, includes a track on is first solo album that he claims was in the works as an oasis tune for more than a decade, but never released). Regardless, it would be nice to have a chance to hear some of that discarded material left on the cutting room floor, especially from bands or artists who routinely turn out top-notch material, but take longer breaks between new releases. This is exactly the sort of desire fulfilled by one of this blog's favorite acts, The Decemberists, with their recently-released EP, Long Live the King; a half-length compendium to the full LP, The King is Dead, which came out early this year and reviewed by us here.

Of course, the flip side to my advocacy for the release of studio hold-backs is that sometimes when they do emerge, it's a load of fluff – shoddy acoustic demos, fly-by-night covers and other uninspired fare. One recalls the b-side material box set of the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness concept album as particularly trivial (although both "Medellia of the Grey Skies" and "Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)" were solid cuts). In other words, there's good reason the band chose to leave them off initially. But, fortunately for us, this is not the case with the six tracks of Long Live the King (itself more than half the number of tracks found on the original source material).

The connection between the two records is explicit, from the medieval monarchical phrase that represents the title of both collections to their alt-country overtones. Why chief songwriter and frontman Colin Meloy and his mates declined their inclusion on the full-length album is uncertain, but most could have been slotted among the rest without dampening the quality or context of The King is Dead – in fact, they would have likely only added to it.

Opener "E. Watson" is a somber, acoustic graveyard lament from Meloy, dedicated to the title character. Although The King is Dead certainly featured much of Meloy's trademark quirky intellectualism, what it lacked was the more intricate narratives that defined much of the band's work prior to that album. Here, the nuanced and interesting real-life tale of Edgar Watson – one of Florida's first pioneers – is the sort of output many longtime fans of the group have come to expect. Meloy's lyricism here is at it's finest, as witnessed in the second verse:

Watson had it in from the beginning
He built that house on Chatham Bend
A white-washed knotted pine
Ninety acres furrowed for the cane
And he drove it down from Georgia
His dad a martyred soldier
In the war between the states

Meloy is one of the few contemporary songwriters who possesses the talents to push his listeners' intellectual capacity – along with Okkervil River's Will Shelf – and he should be encouraged to continue. But The King is Dead seemed to be a slim retreat from that mission, and my review of that record noted that shift. In a track like "E. Watson," those fears may be allayed.

Moreover, when paired with "Burying Davy" two tracks later, the numbers could have been pulled from the pages of the morose, but fascinating Spoon River Anthology collection of poems by Edgar Lee Master (another Edgar!), where the accounts of those who passed away in some small hamlet are far more interesting than those who remain. The tracks link back to The King is Dead through the exemplary backing vocals of Laura Veirs (who also previously contributed guest vocals to "Yankee Bayonet" off the Crane Wife record) and Annalisa Tornfelt, who mirror the fine work done by Gillian Welch on the previous effort.

Meloy's macabre stories are balanced by the more meatier, alt-country duo of "Foregone" and the band's cover of The Grateful Dead's "Row Jimmy." The former is easily this record's strongest offering, with it's tangy Gram Parsons vibe and honey-laced steel guitar by guitarist Chris Funk buoying Meloy's pangs of regret, which he dubs "the reach and the wrecks and the wrong." It melds nicely with the Dead cover, which replaces the original's blues sketch with a more robust roots foundation and a more subtle bridge part via pianist and organist Jenny Conlee (who's currently recovering from successful cancer treatment after being largely unable to participate in the band's tour this spring and summer).

The one that doesn't fit here as neatly is "I 4 U & U 4 Me." Just judging by the title, it would, at best, seem to be an odd Prince rarity, or at worst, the latest garbled vomit by whichever boy band is reuniting at the time. Instead, it's delightfully closer to the Violent Femmes or The Pogues (both of which Meloy has noted as influences on the band), with its galloping acoustic parts from Meloy and Funk contrasting with bassist Nate Query's sludgy acoustic bass and drummer John Moen's stiff snare. Even though it's listed as a demo version – and the production sounds just a bit unrefined – that's alright considering the tune's upbeat and unpolished ethos.

Rounding out the collection's half-dozen tracks the understated "Sonnet." Although it begins as a somewhat vanilla Meloy ballad, the addition of the full band and horns just before the number's midpoint enlivens the melody and ends the proceedings on an upturn. Sounds like the perfect place to leave things until next time...

Come for: "E. Watson"
Stay for: "Foregone"
You'll be surprised by: "I 4 U & U 4 Me"

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Library Voices

There's a pretty simple formula for what gets me going for a new band or artist: catchy, clever tunes; interesting instruments and concepts; nail your vocal harmonies, and don't be stingy with them; bigger bands are always preferred, especially those with mixed gender compositions; Canadians and Scots move to the head of the class; horns and pianos are always welcome, but not required. Line-up some or most of these, and you have a happy blogger. And I'm pretty happy this week with the discovery of the Canadian indie pop-rock octet, Library Voices, and their sophomore release, Summer of Lust, out October 18 on Dine Alone Records.

The Regina, Saskatchewan-based group – which tacks closest to New Music Tuesdays'(NMT) favorites, The New Pornographers – is the second positively startling find from that province this year, following the boogie rockers The Sheepdogs (NMT) from nearby Saskatoon. Here, extremely hooky pop confections are mixed with clever lyricism and a big sound befitting the band's sizable roster. And it begins with the album's finest stuff, the leadoff "If Raymond Carver Was Born In The '90s." This is the rarest of rare, folks: pure pop-rock majesty that is indelibly catchy with surprising depth, as multi-instrumentalist frontman Carl Johnson (and what is it with Canadian indie pop bands being fronted by guys named Carl?) explores the increasingly adult status of his age group while he hides behind songs he's not even sure are that good. Don't worry, Carl: this one passes the test – and then some – and should buy you a few more years before true adulthood comes calling.

What follows across the record's remaining nine tracks – not including a brief intro and outro voiced by some unknown Brit – does not fully match the shimmering punch of "If Raymond Carver...", but is nonetheless chock full of peppy and smart pop-rock cuts. The springy surf rock of "Generation Handclap" – the album's first single – could have easily been submitted by fellow Canucks The Arcade Fire (NMT), with Johnson veering towards Win Butler-style choral anthems and the bulk of the ensemble matching The Arcade Fire's energy and tempo step for step. And the more laidback vibe of "Reluctant Readers Make Reluctant Lovers" slides in between Canadian indie rock proginators, Sloan, and their American counterparts, Fountains of Wayne (NMT). The tune might also rank a very respectable second in the Best Canadian Litany of Authors Recording by Duo or Group category, following only the brilliant "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors" by the now (sadly) disbanded Moxy Fruvous.

Johnson utilizes his and his compatriots' instrumental talents largely to feed the overall sound, rather than focus on many individual solos or highlights, again reflecting an approach effective for A.C. Newman's Pornographers or Buther's Arcade Fire. The sole exception is the saxaphone work from Paul Gutheil, who injects snippets of jazz flavor or Clarence Clemons power depending on the song's mood. And drummer Michael Thievin is crucial in keeping the unit charged to churn out the hooks and harmonies that make the whole thing go. But harder to peg are the roles of Johnson, guitarist/keyboardist Brennan Ross and synthesizer wizards Michael Dawson and Amanda Scandrett in rounding out the sound. Now and then, there might just be a touch too much synthesizer (I'd prefer an actual piano on occasion), and a wall of horns could add some beef elsewhere, but it's nothing to get in a twist over.

The collective approach is most noticeable through the record's midsection, the trio of tracks comprised of "Que Sera Sarah," "Traveller's Digest" and "Be My Juliette Greco, Paris 1949." All are outstanding pop-rock jems, with the former starting out restrained before grabbing a meaty chorus hook and coyly referencing Dorris Day's 1956 hit of similar title. The middle of these is the album's second bona fide can't-miss – following "If Raymond Carver..." – with a plucky rhythm you might hear in a 10,000 number like "Stockton Gala Days" and, surprise, another catchy chorus. Meanwhile, the latter blisters along like the best of Fountains of Wayne, with Johnson sharing Fountains frontman Chris Collingwood's penchant for witty contemporary social commentary.

The record's concluding quartet rounds out the effort solidly, and each deserves mention. "The Prime Minister's Daughter" takes on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's absurd quote that "ordinary people don't care about art" in the face of government cutbacks to art programs by imagining Harper's daughter, Rachel, someday falling for one of the artists her father hung out to dry. "Me, Myself and ID" might be the least interesting idea here, with its fuzzy intro and armchair psychology, but doesn't automatically warrant a pass-through. The group tries a little ska on "Anthem for a New Canadia," and largely succeeds, with Thievin and bassist Eoin Hickey-Cameron laying down a nice '50s-era rock groove. And the concluding "Regina, I Don't Want to Fight" wraps things up where countless others throughout literature and music have: the recurring battle with one's hometown, and Johnson does a nice job of doing just that while sticking to their indie pop veneer, never an easy chore.

Come for: "If Raymond Carver Was Born In The '90s"
Stay for: "Traveller's Digest"
You'll be surprised by: "Anthem for a New Canadia"

P.S. Here's a good behind-the-scenes look at the group recording Summer of Lust, the sort of thing you'd expect from a bunch of nice, young Canadian kids.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Horrible Crowes

The debut post of this blog in January, 2010 covered the sophomore release from the New Jersey-based punk/folk troubadours, The Gaslight Anthem. I returned that June to review that band's third effort, American Slang. And littered throughout the posts since that first Gaslight review are recurring references to the band. So, its safe to say that the group maintains a seminal role in informing the material most commonly highlighted here. In that sense, it should come as no surprise, then, that the Horrible Crowes side project of Gaslight frontman Brian Fallon should receive due attention. Fallon, along with longtime Gaslight guitar technician Ian Perkins formed the duo as an outlet for Fallon's creative output that stayed beyond the more aggressive posture of Gaslight, and the pair released first full-length offering, Elsie, on September 6 on Side One Dummy Records.

Of course, given your blogger's propensity to gravitate to Fallon's prime project in both reviews and references, I won't spend much time chronicling his overall milieu. Check the previous reviews for the backstory. Instead, I'll focus on what's different from the more well-know Gaslight sound, and explore some of divergent influences found across Elsie's dozen tracks.

It seems as if one of Fallon's primary objectives in his work with Perkins is to dispel the notion that the polar influences of Bruce Springsteen and Joe Strummer constitute the bulk of his musical foundation. Instead, he seems to undertake a mission demonstrating that Tom Waits and Van Morrison have just as much sway in his sonic and tonal philosophy as the former luminaries guided his time with Gaslight. To that end, Fallon downgrades the tempo from Gaslight's trundling pace to a more measured trot, and his lyricism is less clever narrative and blunt emotion, instead taking a much more subtle path.

This much is true from the outset, with the exceedingly somber "Last Rites." The droning whole notes from the piano and hazy organs are already a marked departure from anything Fallon orchestrated in Gaslight. Previously, Fallon has been the narrator of hardscrabble characters – Marys and Veronicas and Estellas – who, while flawed, are redeemed through their determined spirit. Here, that pervasive optimism is largely stripped bare by a more stark reality. As he explains in the opener, "Call up your boyfriends from out by the ocean / While I get my last rites read by a thief. From here, it's not a great leap to reach Waits' own "Everything Goes to Hell," complete with similar seaside imagery.

The hesitating "Sugar" is likewise morose, but more fleshed-out. The western-via-California-mission guitar cut by Perkins adds to the desolate scene of the loneliness and fading emotional stability of its subject, one whose shaking hands and dream-addled mind are not cured by the "sugar" of friendship and concern of Fallon's narrator. It's haunting and a touch troubling, but entirely genuine – a spirit not easily conveyed by the hard-driving and emboldening Gaslight.

Of course, to expect Fallon and Perkins to shed entirely the mantle of their day jobs would not be fair, or necessarily wanted. After all, Fallon and his trio of compadres in Gaslight make outstanding music, so an appetizer here and there is not unwelcome. In this case, it comes via the first single, "Behold the Hurricane." Fallon is at his most full-throated and comfortable here, and along with the number's stiff drums and churning guitars, it could have resided quite comfortably on American Slang. If you're looking for an easier transition from the familiar Gaslight territory before diving deeper into Elsie, you'd have no trouble starting here.

But just as quickly as Fallon returns to the well, he departs it, with the bluesy interloper "I Witnessed a Crime." A thick Hammond organ line grounds the late-night saga. The Van Morrison flavor begins to trickle in here, with a much looser vocal delivery from Fallon, and Perkins' whining guitars. And Fallon firmly stations himself at Morrison's R&B lamppost on the following "Go Tell Everybody." The jumping verses loosen the ground for the stage-shaking gospel chorus, chock full of back-up singers, organ vibes and near James Brown wails from Fallon, before the bridge introduces strings and horns – such augmentations never found within a country mile on any previous Gaslight production.

After the slow, deliberate funeral march of "Cherry Blossoms," "Ladykiller" may be the record's second most compelling track behind "Behold the Hurricane." Fallon fires up the pipes after a building intro and settles into a jangly ballad – a venue not often exploited by Gaslight, and one that meshes well with Fallon's expressive delivery. Later on, "Crush" could be another Gaslight contribution, again one that would be best suited for American Slang, rather than the band's more hard-charging early barnburners. But the listener does feel a bit for Fallon's vocal chords on "Mary Ann," the sludgy and gnarly devotional, where he exerts every atom of grit from his voicebox and often overtakes the tune to the point where it becomes distracting.

The collection winds up with the darker, slower and quieter trio of "Black Betty and the Moon," "Blood Loss" and "I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together." Of these, the former is the most enjoyable, with its piano and acoustic guitar background pacing a gentle stroll – something you might expect from Waits with a bit more up-front melody or Morrison in his Astral Weeks phase. The second of these is moody with a bit more screaming from Fallon, while the latter is trippy and floaty – the sort of thing that would never appear on a Gaslight record.

Come for: "Behold the Hurricane"
Stay for: "Ladykiller"
You'll be surprised by: "Go Tell Everybody"

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We Were Promised Jetpacks – In the Pit of the Stomach

Hey, two weeks in a row of NMTs posts! In the spirit of pressing on with what has brought us thus far, we consider the sophomore outing of the Scottish outfit that is doing just that: We Were Promised Jetpacks, and their second full-length release, In the Pit of the Stomach – out today on Fat Cat Records.

Rather than lead in with a lengthy discussion of the Edinburgh-based quartet's history, it's easier just to point back to my February, 2010 review of their 2009 debut, These Four Walls. The foursome largely picks up where they left off on their initial collection, with driving and sturdy post-punk thumpers bridging the gap between U2's early-career anthemic swirl and the Springsteen-flavored punk of contemporary Jersey-based ensembles like The Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus. And they remain a more muscular and charging version of their fellow Scots, Frightened Rabbit.

In that sense, the 10 tracks of In the Pit of the Stomach advance only marginally from the solid entries on These Four Walls, a meager progression that is both the new record's key advantage and chief drawback. Certainly, if you enjoyed cuts like "Ships With Holes Will Sink" and "Keeping Warm" off the debut, then you'll have no reason to fault the bulk of the new material from singer and guitarist Adam Thompson and his blokes. The slow-burn intros that defined that first album return again, and benefit from a greater touch of polish and precision in the studio. Tracks such as "Circles and Squares," "Hard to Remember" and the late-appearing combination of "Boy in the Backseat" and "Human Error" all line-up squarely in the Jetpacks' wheelhouse.

The lads are no easy-going, laid-back harbingers of summer, with wispy, clean-cut yacht rock calling you to a evening sail or a back porch soiree. Instead, they're a furnace built to ward of the chill of a coming winter, with their yearning, boastful projects warming up every corner of the room, and arming their listeners with a fighting heart. Thompson himself warns of the coming harshness, "its hard to remember a colder November" on the track named for the same line. To this mission the group has been true, and these cuts accentuate the pounding work of the rhythm section of bassist Sean Smith and drummer Darren Lackie more when compared to the first record, while Thompson's husky brogue and guitarist Michael Palmer's lanky figures stretch the band's sonic reach. "Boy in the Backseat" is particularly engaging, with its frenetic triplets and striding percussion leading the number just to the brink of collapse.

And yet, there's not an overriding sense the band has taken a substantive step forward on its latest offering. Sure, the first single "Act on Impulse" shifts the tonal direction a bit from the hard charge of the aforementioned numbers, with a graduating intro backing off into a more restrained and somber narrative from Thompson, with even a few synthesizers fluttering in for a fleeting moment. And "Pear Tree" moves inconspicuously closer to the Frightened Rabbit pattern. But, in all, there's no great leap forward from what's come before, and while a certain amount of leeway is afforded for a band to build a base of cohesive material at the outset of a career, a third record might stretch the boundaries a bit much in that regard. The group seems to possess enough talent, ambition and authenticity to elevate their sound; here's hoping they have the opportunity to do so before too long.

Come for: "Circles and Squares"
Stay for: "Boy in the Backseat"
You'll be surprised by: "Act on Impulse"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wilco

Earlier this year, when I took a break from this space, I returned to review what was – in hindsight – the final new studio record from R.E.M., Collapse Into Now (at least as we can tell at the moment). No doubt by now you've heard, the remaining members of the Athens, Ga., trio decided to call it a career after more than 30 years of work. Few acts have been as influential in American independent rock as R.E.M., while also contributing such a fine catalog of material. So, it is only fitting that I again return from a hectic period to consider the new output of a band heavily influenced by and associated with those Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famers in the form of the Chicago-based outfit, Wilco, and their seventh release of original material, The Whole Love – out today on the band's own label, dBpm.

To beleaguer the R.E.M. connection for just a bit, Wilco frontman, guitarist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy began his musical journey in the pioneering St. Louis alt-country trio, Uncle Tueplo. A rough and unrefined entity, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck found his way to the group and produced their third full-length offering, March 16-20, 1992. But tensions between Tweedy and co-frontman Jay Farrar ultimately led to the demise of the act, as Farrar went on to found Son Volt, while Tweedy assembled the first iteration of Wilco in 1995. Tweedy would continue his working relationship with Buck, most notably contributing guest vocals on Buck's The Minus 5 side project on "With a Gun."

When The Police called it quits in 1986, they very publicly anointed their successors by literally handing their instruments to U2 on stage at Giants Stadium. And while there's unlikely to be such a explicit coronation by R.E.M., it isn't a stretch to suggest that Wilco is primed to assume their title as America's trendsetting rock ensemble that is also accessible to a wider swath of the general public than indie devotees. Consider the bands' mutual foundation in the marriage of Americana roots instrumentation, touches of country flavor and a resounding intellectualism that also manages not to overwhelm good songwriting. Drop the needle on Wilco's "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" off their sophomore effort, Being There and I defy you to miss the strains of "Man on the Moon." Similarly, build up the patience to work your way through all of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Wilco's 2002 sonic opus – and you'll find R.E.M.'s painstaking focus on Life's Rich Pageant from 1986 not far in the rear view mirror, or notice the congruities between R.E.M. serving as the backing band for Warren Zevon on 1987's Sentimental Hygiene, and Wilco's work with Billy Bragg to give voice to two albums worth of Woody Guthrie's lyrics that became the Mermaid Avenue collection. The bridge between the two groups becomes more obvious with every glance. And although they were surely unaware of R.E.M.'s impending retirement while formulating The Whole Love, the new record's dozen tracks easily positions Tweedy and his mates to carry on in their stead.

Like their six preceding albums, The Whole Love builds upon what came before it – much like the arc of R.E.M.'s career – but doesn't take as vast a sonic leap as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with its long stretches of aural freakouts or the unsettling urgency that accompanied A Ghost Is Born, which was fueled by the forced departure of former multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Bennett would pass away in 2009 from accidental causes, having never reconciled with Tweedy). All the same, it's a more consistent effort, with even it's avant garde movements informing Tweedy's reconciliations with more straightforward Americana and alt-country concepts.

The collection is bookended – and in many ways defined – by its longest tracks, with the more than seven minutes of the "Art of Almost" at its outset reflected by the concluding "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," checking in at just over 12 minutes. The two cuts couldn't be more different, however, with the disjointed experimentation of the former aligning with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "Radio Cure" and A Ghost Is Born's "Spiders (Kidsmoke)." If you're already a Wilco fan and have some appreciation for Tweedy's insistence on pushing the envelope, give it a try. If not, this might not be the most natural place to begin your Wilco encounter. Conversely, the closing number is measured in its simplicity and rusticism, perhaps a bit more familiar for those ingrained in the alt-country milieu, although its in no rush to get anywhere in particular.

With those dual pillars affixed at either reach of the record, the intermediate selections seem to have the opportunity to stretch out in comfort. "I Might" introduces a heretofore unannounced influence in Tweedy's arsenal: Attractions-era Elvis Costello. With its punchy grove and the Farfisa organ delivered by keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, it's one of the band's most hooky offerings. To the same degree later on, "Standing O" serves up much of the same Costello-esque palate, but with a touch more brashness suggested by its title. The pairing would serve as a choice accompaniment for your next house party or sports rally, and would be a good jumping-off point for those a bit scared off by Wilco to date. Meanwhile, "Dawned On Me" stems from the same indie-rock tradition as more recent purveyors of the genre, such as NMT reviewees The New Pornographers and Telekinesis, with clenching guitars from Tweedy and guitarist Nils Cline locking-in a certain rigidity, which frees up more space for Jorgensen's organ and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone to play around with the synthesizers. Tweedy's whistling solo also helps to lighten the mood, along with more fleshed-out harmonies, typically not a Wilco trademark.

Some of the most interesting moments on the collection come via the most alt-country flavored compositions, pointing to Tweedy's time in Uncle Tupelo and Wilco's early releases. "Sunloathe" isn't especially spirited, but it makes up for lack of drive in earnestness and an ethereal and wispy figure, one highlighted by the alternations between chimes and bells and slide guitar and concludes with a nearly classic rock guitar bent from Kline. Likewise, the gentle shuffle of "Born Alone" pivots around a rubbery bass line from John Stirratt – the only original Wilco member since 1995's A.M. aside from Tweedy – and really digs in around the track's midpoint for the record's most aggressive rock campaign. And the jazzy "Capitol City" is a less romantic, but equally compelling version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "Jesus, Etc.," and is the closest Tweedy will ever get to a straight-up narrative.

The remainder of the 12 tracks are filled in by generally somber and reflective acoustic ballads. The trio of "Black Moon," "Open Mind" and "Rising Red Lung" are more reliant on Tweedy as an upfront presence, which isn't necessarily uninviting on its own, but he serves as a much more effective messenger when backed by the weight of his compatriots – whomever they happen to be at the time – much in the same manner as Springsteen loses a sizable portion of his gravitas when not supported by the mighty E Street Band.

Come for: "I Might"
Stay for: "Standing O"
You'll be surprised by: "Capitol City"

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Her Space Holiday

For some reason, many recent acts which include a greater role for symphonic elements – namely strings and winds – have had a tendency to also be quite delicate. I'm thinking of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Stephin Merritt's The Magnetic Fields or the Scottish chamber pop of Belle & Sebastian. Either due to the composition preferences of those songwriters (likely the case in regards to Stevens' portfolio), or their limitations in physical performance of their creations (Merritt's hearing disorder, or Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch's less than bombastic vocal might), their in-studio efforts include a measure of fragility which can sometimes undercut the strength contained in a more enhanced instrumental vision beyond the traditional guitar-bass-drums rock format. But this week's profilees – Her Space Holiday, Marc Bianchi's indie rock front – buck these trends on their most recent, eponymous release, out on August 16 on Bianchi's No More Good Ideas label.

Bianchi and his band of unnamed cohorts handily dispel the currently prevailing notion that more instrumentally intricate arrangements cannot include a dose of rock power on the 10-track record. Although opener "Anything for Progress" initially appears as gentle, acoustic-flavored indie pop, with lilting flutes and strings, the pace is upended quickly just after the half-minute mark, with its driving snare drum beat and rapid-fire lyrics serving as a early call-to-arms, and is explicitly so, as Bianchi snaps, "come on, little soldier, come fight for me..." Sure, it's a love song, and a relentlessly optimistic one at that, but the tone is decidedly militaristic – a musical esprit de corps that beats a hasty march across the album's first half. It's anything but delicate, and is a persuasive argument that horns and strings can add heft and force to a composition, not just nuance. As interesting is the carefree "ba-da, ba-da, ba-da" refrain at the song's midpoint, much in the same vein as the lighthearted chorus round in The Decemberists' "Billy Liar."

Of course, not all rock-via-orchestra productions have focused on sonic gentility as prominently as the Stevens/Magnetic Fields/Belle & Sebastian set. The Beatles' arrangements only grew louder as they became more grandiose under George Martin's involvement, and Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra was anything but restrained in its decibel levels. And more recently, the exemplary work of fun. on their debut, Aim & Ignite, fused Lynne-style AM pop with Freddie Mercury's muscular theatrics. It is in this tradition that Bianchi dons his instrumental armor.

The following "Black Cat Balloons" again begins subtly – and sounding a bit like Great Lakes Myth Society frontman Timothy Monger – but quickly emerges as an anthemic, gang chorus-driven affair, not far removed from a New Pornographers-style energy. Once more, Bianchi frames his message in militaristic themes – we hear of battles, bombs, and defenses – but they serve as cover for a larger discussion of beauty, camaraderie and bravery. It's hard to believe the barricades are imminent with a chorus that begins, "if we all said sorry and tried to mean it, would that make things cool between us?" Nonetheless, the recurrent snare foundation and swirling chorus inherently interject a sense of urgency, which vanishes just as quickly for the verses, like the hovering cloud of smoke following an aggressive cannon volley. The contrast makes the themes even richer, and sets-up the track's dynamic instrumental pinnacle; it's easily the collection's finest number.

The more balanced "Shonanoka" displays a bit more of the intricacy of Bianchi's nimble assembled players – whoever they are, with smartly plucked strings and skipping flutes pacing his linear narrative. Meanwhile, on "The Hummingbirds," Bianchi laments the fading health of a friend, with an expressive delivery not far removed from a younger Neil Diamond (similar to Mikel Jollett of past New Music Tuesdays reviewees Airborne Toxic Effect). It's completely removed from the hesitating, low-confidence style of Murdoch or Stevens, and once that serves the work well. At the same time, low-register clarinets and trilling violins are juxtaposed with clanging guitars and meaty drum fills to produce a curious hybrid of Peter and the Wolf and the New Pornographers' Twin Cinema.

By the time "Come On, All You Soldiers" rolls around, you're ready to enlist in whatever troupe Bianchi is assembling. Its the perfect material to rally the troops, storm the castle or stampede the alleyways; a unifying call to action in hopes of being part of something special. Whether the unit's weapons are the tools of war, a waving flag of solidarity or a jangling guitar riff is unimportant here. You can feel the movement building across the track's 3:24, as more singers, instruments and energy join the band of frolickers. As the Bianchi's crew explains, it's the ability to "bask inside the freedom of having nothing at all to hide."

The record's second half isn't as rousing as its first, however. "The Candle Jumped Over the Spoon" is sparse and disjointed for most of its 3:33, despite its folksy banjo and cello accompaniment, and "Ghost in the Garden" is a bit trippy and ethereal when compared with the rest of the proceedings. It also sounds heavily influenced by Destroyer frontman/occasional New Pornographers contributor Dan Bejar, most notably in the structure and delivery of the verses.

But "The Bullet, The Battle, The Trigger, The Barrel and Me" might just make you tear up a bit, with Bianchi's twin dedications to his late father and a fictional movie scene. "Death of a Writer" is slow and steady with its moody clavinet early on, which builds through spinning strings and the returning snare march. Closer "In the Time it Takes the Lights to Change" is the most Beatles-flavored, tracking to the Fab Four's later career excursions, somewhere in between "Happiness is a Warm Gun"and "A Day in the Life."

Come for: "Anything for Progress"
Stay for: "Black Cat Balloons"
You'll be surprised by: "Come On, All You Soldiers"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Sheepdogs

Inasmuch as last week's profilees – Fountains of Wayne – looked back to early-'60s pop rock on their latest release, so to do this week's featured act – The Sheepdogs – with late '60s and early '70s-era classic rock on their five song EP, Five Easy Pieces, out on August 2 on Atlantic Records, and produced by Fountains of Wayne bassist and co-songwriter, Adam Schlesinger. And given that this space customarily focuses on full-length records, and that their third LP, Learn and Burn, was released not that long ago in January, 2010, we'll include a glance back at that preceding work to explore more of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan quartet's larger sonic footprint. (You may have heard a bit of buzz about the band recently, as they were the first then-unsigned band to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, after a contest in which they bested 15 other groups. Some of the group's success in winning the competition could be attributed to their excellent, political campaign-style attack ad (see below), which claimed the band the only one worthy of the cover due to their extensive facial hair.


Everything about the four-piece outfit screams classic rock, circa 1972 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, belling their heritage on the Canadian plains. Surely you immediately thought the same thing just by glancing at their photo shot at the top of this page. Even their record label – Atlantic – was and is one of the foremost distributors of classic acts, ranging from Cream and Led Zeppelin through the progressive rock of Genesis and Rush to more contemporary purveyors of the genre like Stone Temple Pilots, Jet and Scottland's Frightened Rabbit. In return for their investment in the fledgling Sheepdogs, Atlantic inherits a band thoroughly grounded and informed by the boogie.

You remember the boogie, don't you? It's usually associated with such adjectives as swagger, strut and groove, and implies a movement inherent in a piece of music that compels dance, or at least an aggressive head bob. It came about in the earliest forms of blues, R&B, rock, soul, funk and hip-hop, and can be heard spanning the pop music spectrum from Fats Domino and Little Richard to the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, all the way up to the Sugar Hill Gang on "Rappers' Delight" or the frenetic "But Anyways" from Blues Traveler. The late '70s disco wave threatened to co-opt the boogie through its singular focus on the beat, but the format proved too shallow to permanently occupy its spirit and left false boogie prophets like KC and the Sunshine Band by the wayside.

But it hasn't been seen in these parts in quite some time, perhaps as long ago as an inspired performance from Prince, or even more distantly, the tongue-in-cheek pop of the Foo Fighters' "Big Me," especially its bouncy bass line originally laid down by Dave Ghrol and long since banished from their setlists. But the alternative and grunge of the '90s were too sullen and misunderstood to have any room for the boogie, and what's followed has migrated to the extremes – excessively intelligent (see Decemberts, The or Arcade Fire, The) or hopelessly uninspired (oh, where to begin...maybe Rebecca Black, Big & Rich, the Bieber) – domains uninhabitable by the boogie. Even the closest link to the heydays of classic rock – the currently disfunctioning Kings of Leon, for whom The Sheepdogs are scheduled open on their now in-doubt Canadian tour – are too tight to ever achieve the looseness required for the boogie to take root.

Fortunately, The Sheepdogs are here to rescue the boogie from life support and inject it with a new dose of vigor and identity. In doing so, both the five tracks of Five Easy Pieces and the 15 more on Learn and Burn are layered in the fingerprints of their classic rock and boogie ancestors. There's overt nods to Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Janice Jopin, Steely Dan, The Doors, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Chicago and more implicit traces of the Beatles and Stones, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, and maybe a whispered hint of Dylan or Springsteen. They're the sort of act that would have been the perfect support on a bill with any of those legendary performers, or Stillwater in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical early 2000's film, Almost Famous. Its the stuff of smartly-paired guitar harmonies, a Hammond organ or steel guitar line wafting about like the aromas of a neighborhood cookout, and blended vocal harmonies, those that are thankfully just shy of autotune perfection. But the Saskatchewan guys nearly always manage to deliver their take on what is already a well-mined genre of music without becoming recidivists or plagiarists.

Lead-off single off Five Easy Pieces, "I Don't Know" – itself the only cut reprised from Learn and Burn – is textbook boogie rock. It's loose and easy, with earthy, Eagles-style harmonies and bluesy guitar riffs and duos. On a quick view of the initial video for the track (see below), the boys' residency in the swagger and groove of the number is demonstrable.


There isn't actually all that much more to say about the song, except to enjoy its breezy demeanor and note how fully it reflecta the group's approach.

It's follow-up, "The Middle Road," points more directly to one of its stable of influences: the more jazzy piano arrangements and hooky harmonies of Steely Dan. Last week, I noted the vocal similarities between Fountains of Wayne's Chris Collingwood and Liam Gallagher of oasis/Beady Eye. In much the same manner here, lead singer and guitarist Ewan Currie is a vocal doppelganger for Steely Dan's Donald Fagan, most notably on the number's bridge, as Currie sings, "you're so tragic, when there's magic..."

Later on in the abbreviated collection, "How Late, How Long" displays a bit more southern rock power and tempo. The contrast between its bouncy chorus and more driving verses recalls southern staples like the Allman Brothers and Credence Clearwater Revival, although the latter of these actually hailed from California, not Louisiana, as many believe. Currie and fellow guitarist Leot Hanson trade tangy riffs across the track's 4:08 of run time, but it seems to breeze by in half as long due to its kicking groove.

The two remaining tracks which round out the EP – the opening "Who?" and "Learn My Lesson" in the cleanup spot – display much of the same vision, but aren't quite as catchy as their livelier counterparts.

On "Learn and Burn," there's greater variety of offerings, which is predictable, given the long-play record (LP) is three times as long than the more recent extended play (EP). The relatively short opener – "The One You Belong To" – is a mix of piano and organ you may remember from such material as Beck's "Where It's At" and Credence Clearwater Revival's version of "Heard It Through the Grapevine," and then segues into the more jaunty "Please Don't Lead Me On." The chorus rambles on like Janis Joplin’s Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," with its jangly guitars and springy rythym, courtesy of bassist Ryan Gullen and drummer Sam Corbett.

Following the original debut of "I Don't Know" – not much different in concept or execution than the updated version – the acoustic-fronted "I Don't Get By" suggests Zeppelin, while the title track is really the only effort the group makes that comes across as forced. Clearly a send-up of The Doors, the number's desert surrealism doesn't quite mesh with the looser bluesy foundation of the rest of the material. And while Currie pulls off a decent mimic of Jim Morrison, and the trippy organ part is squarely in The Doors' wheelhouse, its hard to envision Morrison commenting on "all these small talk conversations and Facebook invitations."

On the other hand, the lighthearted groove returns on "Southern Dreaming," with its Tex-Mex flavored riffs, something less Santana and more of their contemporaries in Los Lonely Boys' "How Far is Heaven?" Meanwhile, "Soldier Boy" is more hard rocking and plucky, and sets the stage for the jammy "Catfish 2 Boogaloo," which at 4:09 is the longest cut on either record.

"Rollo Tomasi" could have easily appeared Chicago's seminal early work before the death of frontman Terry Kath, with its rolling piano, muted horns and R&B-style chorus, and is a fitting homage to that group's importance in the late '60s. Similarly, "Suddenly" harks back to the vocal harmonies and acoustic foundation of Crosby, Stills and Nash, before seamlessly kicking into the groovy, yet edgy "Baby, I Won't Do You No Harm." Somehow, it links a group like populist The Lovin' Spoonful with heavier elements of the hard rock and metal traditions.

Come for: "I Don't Know"
Stay for: "How Late, How Long"
You'll be surprised by: "The Middle Road"