Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Family-related bands are inherently risky propositions. A few weeks ago, we looked at how tensions between the Gallagher brothers ultimately led to the collapse of oasis and the resulting creation of Beady Eye. Other sibling-driven outfits have likewise met with turmoil – Credence Clearwater Revival, The Kinks, The Neville Brothers – in many ways fueled by familial conflict. But, at the same time, the same internal friction that can often lead to inflamed emotions can also fuel creative synergy, when folks who have longstanding familiarity and more substantial bonds are in-tune with each others' habits, thought patterns and artistic directions to produce a more unified vision for their material. That spirit drives the work one of today's most popular rock groups – Kings of Leon, but they're not the subject of today's review. Instead, its the tandem of four siblings and one cousin from the DuPree family in Tyler, Tex. that form Eisley and deliver their third full-length release, The Valley, out on March 1 on Equal Vision Records.

The 11-track effort combines two parts of the great, swirling anthems of groups like Metric and Great Northern to one part smooth, R&B-flavored piano rock of artists like Valery Gore and April Smith. The group's genesis dates to 1997, when teenage guitarist sisters Chauntelle and Sherri DuPree would work-up a mix of covers and originals. Younger sister Stacy – today the band's primary vocalist, as well as alternating between keyboards and guitar – was only allowed to participate after she contributed her own original material, while brother Weston – sandwiched between the older sisters and Stacy – was drafted to man the drum kit. Cousin Garron was ultimately added to hold down bass duties.

Following a series of EPs between 2003 and 2009, and full-length records in 2005 (Room Noises) and 2007 (Combinations), The Valley reflects the most full realization of the family band's sonic and lyrical approach. Largely tracing the destruction of a relationship, the collection is infused with imagery suggesting medical trauma: we hear of ambulances, oxygen masks and multiple references to blood or bleeding. It's obvious the breakup left the material's subject reeling. This much is clear from the leadoff title track and it's opening lines, "real heart-breaker come and take me to the real heart ache that everyone's talking 'bout." It's a charging mix of strings, drums and guitars while Stacy DuPree's vocals glide above, much in the same manner employed by Metric's Emily Haines and the Great Northern's Rachel Stolte.

Less soaring and more hard-edged its the following "Smarter" – a classic account of post-breakup avarice – with guitarists Chauntelle and Sherri chugging through Kirk Hamlet-style riffs while Stacy's piano lines and surefire soprano brighten the lyrics' seething spite. Stacy – like Haines and Stolte before her – manages to clench the beauty of her upper-register range without loosing any of its power, a feat that is often unachieved by many sopranos as they negotiate octaves (think Sarah McLaughlin) and is a perfect match for the group's muscular instrumental tone.

Conversely, "Watch It Die" is centrally driven by Stacy's bouncy piano and more reflective of the Valery Gore / Regina Spektor / April Smith approach. Then again, it's followed-up by the bluesy "Sad," a near onion paper tracing of Metric's "Gimme Sympathy." The number's pace seems to land squarely in the band's wheelhouse and strikes a nice balance between the heavier fare of "The Valley" and "Smarter" and the less aggressive "Watch It Die" or "Mr. Moon" later on. Also in that latter vein is "Oxygen Mask," easily the album's poppiest track, with its layered strings, rare acoustic guitars and melodic chorus.

And although "Better Love" starts off like a mistaken Blink-182 cut, it rounds into a rather convincing rock song. It's meaty chorus is bolstered by Rock 101-lyrics like, "Because I've finally found out / you're on my side / with a bullet for the bad guys," and would certainly rank as the choice for a one-off sample of the group's sound.

On the other hand, "I Wish" is a bit too watered-down in relation to the record's larger vision, with too many "oooh, aaah, ooohs" and a ballady self-importance. Later on, "Kind" again tacks towards the softer, piano model, but closer "Ambulance" – although has more fortitude even though it's slower and more composed, acting as a requiem for the deconstructed romance chronicled throughout the proceedings.

Come for: "The Valley"
Stay for: "Sad"
You'll be surprised by: "Better Love"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Head and the Heart

Following last week's hardscrabble concept album from Southeast Engine comes a less thematic but just as a rootsy and spiritualized take on Americana from the Seattle, Wash. sextet The Head and the Heart. Instead of a closely linked set of characters and settings as heard previously, the group's eponymous debut offering (officially released today on Sub Pop Records, although digital versions have been available for more than a year) focuses more on a single and more loosely-defined theme to unite its work – a literary convention which spans Homer to The Hold Steady: leaving and returning home.

Hardly reflective of their hometown's signature sound that emerged nearly two decades ago, The Head and the Heart are morseo in keeping with the more widespread roots-rock / alt-country revival that has gained a foothold in recent years, originating with the Uncle Tupelo/Wilco/Son Volt triumvirate in the early 90s right on through to The Decemberists' The King Is Dead. And yet, while violins and rustic acoustic guitars center the 10-track collection, strong undercurrents of pop sensibility add a layer of distinctiveness to the effort.

Opener "Cats and Dogs" serves much the same mission as Okkervil River employed with "Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe" on their The Stage Names record, with its clicking E strings and snare rims for the initial third of the track's expedient 1:58. Co-frontmen and guitarists Josiah Johnson and Jon Russell swap lead vocals throughout the proceedings, while the entire outfit rounds out the vocal approach with hearty but not saccharine harmonies, bolstering their roots bona fides.

The pop-flavored festivities arrive quickly via the combination of "Coeur d'Alene" and "Ghosts." How much the former is a fitting representation of its Idaho namesake is dubious given the buoyant piano part laid down by pianist/keyboardist Kenny Hensley – perhaps the most noticable component of the unit – and would make a fine pairing with The 1900's similarly peppy "When I Say Go." The telltale pop line of "I'll give you three bucks for your sympathy and another for a cigarette; the interaction feels so cold" doesn't feel particularly evocative of northern Idaho, but is no less easy on the ears. Meanwhile, the latter emerges with a southern-fried piano lick from Hensley before filling in with a do-do-do chorus not far removed from a more upbeat version of The Decemberists' "The Soldiering Life."

Strangely, the project pivots immediately after, summoning Springsteen's Ghost of Tom Joad or his latter Devils and Dust at the outset of "Down in the Valley." The escaping popiness is swept out the door with the mean broom stroke of the following stanza:

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade,
like ridin' around on railcars and workin' long days;
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways

Seriously? Where did that come from? But despite the apparent arrival of the forlorn balladeer, the group reemerges with its fuller sound not long after, and steadily injects body into the mid-tempo number. A couple minutes later, and we're nearly in revival tent mode (well, sort of), with violinist/percussionist Charity Thielen and the rhythm section of bassist Chris Zasche and drummer Tyler Williams delivering some needed gravity to support the front-end work of Johnson, Russell and Hensley. It's a pattern that repeats for much of the album's middle third – a soft entry from Johnson or Russel, to be met down the road by the full party apparatus. Such is the case with "Rivers and Roads" – highlighted by some change-of-pace spot vocals from Thielen – and the folksy "Honey Come Home," displaying some delightful front porch harmonizing and a perhaps unintentional nod to the influence of Okkervil River on the genre's recent direction.

First single "Lost in My Mind" is buried towards the back and features a foot-tapping, piano-and-vocals format (a la the Ben Folds/Ben Kweller/Ben Lee super trio The Bens' minor key "Let's Pretend") and includes some truly goosebumps-inducing vocal blends, but doesn't seem to have enough juice to leave the stratosphere as it teases you to expect something orbital. "Winter Song" is gentle and earnest – again emboldened by spot duty from Thielen – but is still only the second best alt-country tune called "Winter Song," after the Crash Test Dummies 1993 version, a legitimate early entry to the format.

The concluding numbers are more spiritually-inclined, as the titles "Sounds Like Hallelujah" and "Heaven Go Easy On Me" might suggest. The rolling gospel of "...Hallelujah" is exuberant, but only after a solid minute of slightly moody folk. By the time it wraps its 3:12 running time, there's a good deal more that could have been done with its thumping groove at the end. On the other hand, "Heaven..." is a perfect submission for the closer; the traditional last cut of Side B, with its competing rounds of "we're well on our way," "all these things are rushing by" and "all things must end, darlin'" marking a ideal point for a fading departure.

Usually, I tend to pick one or two tracks in each review I'm less enamored with. Here, it's more of the Michael Bolton character in Office Space, in that I kinda like 'em all. But my one gripe is the lyrics can occasionally draw towards hokey at best and cliched at worst. For example, "reading good books and playin' songs" in "Heaven..." or "...Hallelujah's" "I'm just waitin' on the sun to close his eyes and call it a night" A minor defect in an otherwise stellar debut.

Come for: "Lost in My Mind"
Stay for: "Coeur d'Alene"/"Ghosts"
You'll be surprised by: "Down in the Valley"

P.S. The Head and the Heart will be touring later this summer with NMTs favorites The Decemberists. Eventually there might even be a Touring Schedule Saturdays post with some of these details.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Southeast Engine - Canary

The presence of an album name in this week's subject title should be an indication of another repeat profile, in this case the third such returning group in the form of Southeast Engine's Canary, out on March 29 on Mistra Records. Our previous recurring profiles were of the Gaslight Anthem (here and here) and the Rural Alberta Advantage (here and here). For full background details on this Athens, Ohio-based quartet, view the original Southeast Engine review here.

To suggest surprise that Canary represents a concept album would be like feigning astonishment that Ben Folds has produced another quirky piano-pop record; it's simply what they do. As a matter of fact, the 11-track effort is actually less conceptual than the group's previous outing, 2009's From the Forest to the Sea – the compelling – if uneven – tale of a morally wayward cartographer (seriously, that's what it was about; check my previously referenced review). That work featured a more cohesive storyline, characters and direction then this most recent product. Nonetheless, Canary includes many of the trademark aspects of a concept record: a definitive period and setting (early Depression-era Appalachia – 1933, to be precise), a clearly identified and recurring stable of characters and a unifying sonic mission that unites the component tracks into a larger whole. But for those looking for an alt-country Dark Side of the Moon or a mountain music Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you'll be left unfulfilled.

When an album declares its arrival with the line, "my mother’s old lantern tolls a light...," you know the sort direction you're heading: an earnest, plainspoken affair set some forlorn, but recent past. On "Curse of Caananville," frontman Adam Remnant shuffles into the proceedings like some disparaging troubadour who disconcertingly finds himself set amongst the despair of a hardscrabble community unprepared for the most trying battle with modernity. He takes his time to establish his pious ethos here, before turning on a dime to get busy with the storytelling in the track's elongated second verse. We hear about sawdust, brimstone and gloom and an oversized raven, as the situation grows increasingly perilous. Less startling is the transition back to a refrain of the intro, but the scene has already been set for conditions that are already bad and are likely to grow worse. Remnant bears his Appalachian Protestantism in the same manner that Craig Finn is informed by his Twin Cities Catholicism, an enduring and constantly uneasy parry between the influences of upbringing and the failings of parochialism in the face of strife.

The follow-up, "Cold Front Blues," is no less ominous. In what could have easily have doubled as an outtake from The Band's Music from Big Pink, a jaunting and menacing background by the four-piece outfit (which also includes Remnant's younger brother Jesse on bass, founding drummer Leo DeLuca and keyboardist Michael Lehman) supports Remnant as he accounts a scene where little is going right and the true reckoning is yet to come, as he describes:

"before it all shuts down: the mine, the mill, the town;
the devil left his footprints here and said he’d be back by next year..."

Nothing is going right, and the hovering organ part supplied by Michael Lehman only adds to the sense of foreboding.

By the time "1933 (Great Depression)" rolls around, things are in full devolution – and to make matters worse, it's winter. The electric guitar and menacing organ combo only add to the sense of urgency and catastrophe, as debt collectors stalk the protagonist and the wheel of fate is nearing its final revolution. F.D.R appears for the first time as a time post – to reappear in a later track – as Remnant appears to channel The Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon in the line, "my boxcar eyes and your railroad face." And yet, in spite of the tumult steadily gripping the scene, Remnant locates a verse to direct us to the friend of the protagonist's sister, the neighboring Ruthie. Remnant has a recurring habit of casting all his male characters as misguided at best and depraved at worst, while channeling his hope and optimism through their female counterparts, as was true throughout From the Forest to the Sea, as well as the group's earlier works. The same holds true here, where not only Ruthie, but a handful of other luminating ladies – "Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains," Aunt Mae and the mythical "Summer and Her Ferris Wheel" – offer salvation and promise to the men who have not the strength or fortitude escape the strife of their time.

After the love-in-our-time ballad of "At Least We Have Each Other," the aforementioned "Adeline..." points most directly to alt-country vanguards of Wilco and their collaboration with British punk-folkster Billy Bragg on lost Woody Guthrie lyrics that formed the Mermaid Avenue collections. The mix of astronomy and historical context is perhaps the record's most poignant realization of the intent its mission, and is rendered with proper aplomb. The only gripe with Remnant's delivery – no more true here than on past recordings – might be that while he certainly captures the vinegary authenticity of the Appalachian voice, at the low end of his register, his pitch nearly vanishes and the lyrics seep through the cracks at the most inopportune moments. On an effort where the words are so essential, there's no room for a patchwork cover and, at times, good intentions can't make up for lack of execution.

Nonetheless, the first single of "Red Lake Shore" is crafty and well-rounded, even if the haunting 40 seconds of spoken intro are nearly lost in the hazy background. The piece fits as a time and place of reckoning, as if to resolve the anguish that pervades the first half of the collection. The outcome of the encounter that occurs here is uncertain, but the tone is bit more driving than anything that preceded it – besides the battle of "1939 (Great Depression)" – and sets the stage for the album's conclusion.

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Unfortunately, its immediate successors – "Mountain Child" and "New Growth" are respectively sleepy and uninviting, and are certainly the record's low points. But "Summer and Her Ferris Wheel" offers a dramatic counterpoint, with its nearly reckless optimism. Southeast Engine nearly always is at its best when its dynamic and moving – like "1939 (Great Depression)" or "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" of 2007's A Wheel Within a Wheel – and showcase the band's usually untapped energy. And while "Ruthie" is, conversely, a deliberate lover's ode, it's also conspicuously beautiful in contrast to the desperation of the record's narrative. The combination of these tracks suggests something less tragic might be possible for those who've endured so much. That notion is only bolstered by the instrumental hoedown of "Sourwood Mountain," which brings the collection to a close, where the front-porch assembly of fiddles, banjos and jaw harps speak to days ahead.

Come for: "Red Lake Shore"
Stay for: "1933 (Great Depression)"
You'll be surprised by: "Ruthie"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Beady Eye

This post must begin first with a prelude, and then a confession. First, the actual review portion of this post does not begin until the third paragraph. If you're only interested in my thoughts on Beady Eye, feel free to skip ahead. In the meantime, you'll be treated to very abbreviated (but not unopinionated) history lesson of oasis.

Now for the confession: I am (was?) very much a closet fan of oasis. File it squarely under "guilty pleasures;" but ever since Definitely Maybe, I've loved the trademark swagger and cockiness of the now-disbanded Manchester unit previously fronted by Noel and Liam Gallagher. They put so little effort into making the masses despise them, which is why they were great. Whether it was the legendary feuds between the brothers that canceled tours, dominated tabloid headlines in the U.K. and, ultimately, led to their recent demise, or their conspicuous arrogance – in the one appearance I managed to catch on their final U.S. tour, Noel noted that the White House was his easily dwarfed by his Buckinghamshire mansion – they were certainly distinctive, and undeniably British – with Liam's nasally wail hardly masking his heritage, as is the case many other English vocalists, who too often sound quite American. Meanwhile, few of their contemporary peers could match their absolute delight in being rock stars, with all the trappings and largess associated with that life. It was such a welcome counterpoint to all the shoe-gazing and I'm-so-misunderstood cliches that defined 90's alternative and grunge. oasis always meant to be exactly understood, and made their ambitions plain to anyone willing to listen.

Even better was their ability to translate that ethos into their recorded material, especially at the outset of their career. Definitely Maybe was fun and brash, with tracks like "Cigarettes n Alcohol," "Rock n Roll Star" and "Shakermaker" thrusting their own snarly stamp on 90's alternative. Their sophomore follow-up, (What's the Story) Morning Glory, was a bit more serious, but also catapulted the group onto the world stage with megahits such as "Champagne Supernova," "Wonderwall" and the Noel-sung "Don't Look Back in Anger." At the same time, they carried over some of the exuberance of their debut in similarly playful affairs like "Roll With It," "Some Might Say," and the record's title track.

But as the band became more established, their urgency waned and their act grew stale. Although its third release – Be Here Now – included a handful of solid numbers, like "Stand By Me," "It's Gettin Better (Man!!)" and "All Around the World," each subsequent record dialed back the swagger and grew increasingly generic. At the same time, the promise and peril of the fundamental dynamic between Noel and Liam edged closer to its breaking point. Make no mistake, oasis is inseparable from the presence of both Gallagher brothers – in fact, Noel frequently fired anyone not named Gallagher and replaced the entire lineup more than once. Noel – the older of the two – exercised such extreme control relative to his younger brother as he wrote nearly all the group's material, both words and lyrics, while also manning the lead guitar post, which defined their sound. Liam's role was more limited – gnashing out lead vocals and occasionally shaking the tambourine. And while Noel was responsible for the artistic output of the outfit – and arguably possesses the more natural and sonically pleasing singing voice – he also recognized his little brother added more bite to lines like, "all your dreams are made when you're chained to the mirror and the razor blade" in "(What's the Story) Morning Glory." When Noel covered the same material during Liam's sporadic departures from live shows, much of the gritty edge went with him. Nonetheless, Noel retained strict control over the songwriting process, and it became gradually more apparent that Liam was dissatisfied with his part in the production. During the band's last tour, Liam would leave the stage entirely for more than a half-dozen songs, leaving Noel to toil through the numbers he'd devoted to himself. It all came to ahead on August 28, 2009, when a backstage fight between the brothers before a Paris show led to the group's disbanding. Following the split, Noel announced he'd pursue a solo career, while Liam retained the remaining oasis lineup – guitarist Gem Archer, bassist Andy Bell and drummer Chris Sharrock – to form a new project, which ultimately became Beady Eye.

It is within this post-oasis backdrop that Beady Eye's debut offering – Different Gear, Still Speeding, released March 1 on Dangerbird Records – should be considered. The most notable questions facing the reformed quartet – with Bell also contributing guitar parts, and rounded out by touring performers Jeff Wooton on bass and keyboardist Matt Jones – would be to what extent could the new outfit write material without Noel, and how much would that material sound like their previous group?

To some degree, these questions are answered in the very title of the record and its baker's dozen set of tracks. The collection is largely built upon a foundation of oasis-style material (still speeding), but with new flourishes and less boilerplate song structures than under the Noel regime (different gear). The introductory track – "Four Letter Word" – offers a rather conventional take for listeners familiar with their previous group. Archer and Bell weave a classic Noel Gallagher-sounding riff pattern comprised of acid-laced psychedelia, which Liam arguments with his signature snotty whine. Its a solid starting point for the new project to gain a foothold with its holdover audience before striking out with something new.

The succeeding "Millionaire" is bit more adventurous, even if its simpler in its construction. Harking more to Rubber Soul than Magical Mystery Tour, the rusty acoustic guitar riffs and bouncy beat would have been unlikely survivors under Noel's regime. It's lighter and more upbeat than anything oasis had put forth in more than a decade, and is complimented by the collection's leadoff single, "The Roller." The foundational piano part here is another signal of the growing distance from Noel's preferences, who would never have allowed a similar instrument to overshadow his guitar work beyond a few bars at the intro or bridge.

Even more drastic is the tres upbeat "Beatles and Stones." Although the Beatles influences were obvious and much-discussed throughout the oasis era, this track is interestingly less directly patterned of the quintessential British rock acts, despite its moniker. Liam – in trademark bravado – announces his intentions to achieve the sort of legendary status attained by his heroes. Sounding more like a Everly Brothers tune – with its emphasis on the off beat – its clearly less important that the band actually ascends to "stand the test of time" than the restoration of its playful sneer. A pairing of the number with "Cigarettes & Alcohol" would be delightful.

Most impressive is the barnburner "Bring The Light." Again, a lo-fi keyboard part that would have been banished by Noel sets the stage for the record's tour-de-force. Including R&B-style background singers adds a welcome twist and there's no doubt Liam is enjoying the hell out of himself here, while his mates never loose pace with the intensity, making for what will surely be slotted for a blistering finale on stage.

Still, there a few boilerplate oasis-sounding cuts manage to sneak through in "Wind Up Dream" and "Standing on the Edge of the Noise," but the album would have fared just as well without them. The former is only a slight improvement on Be Here Now's meandering "D'You Know What I Mean?" while the latter toils on like "The Shock of the Lightning" from Dig Out Your Soul."

On another front, a trio of ballads in "For Anyone," "Kill for a Dream" and "The Beat Goes On" are palatable, but hardly the best vehicle for Liam's act. His nasal pitch is only enhanced when there's more time to listen to individual notes. The songwriting is solid, but its hard getting past the voice. More enjoyable, but not overly bombastic is "Wigwam." Sporting pianos and a sing-along, sha-la-la chorus, the piece has more motion to it than the ballad-y approach. It's also the album's longest track at 6:36, but only sags for a bit at its belly before morphing into a McCartneyian repeating refrain.

Come for: "The Roller"
Stay for: "Beatles or Stones"
You'll be surprised by: "Bring the Light"

P.S. An absolutely outstanding parody of mid-career oasis can be found in The Fountains of Wayne's original "Elevator Up." Check it.