Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Sandwiched between two eagerly-anticipated releases – last week's I Am Very Far from Okkervil River and next week's D by White Denim – this week is a good time for a breather. The kind of reprieve found in the first breath of the pending summer, or the comforting warmth radiating up from a summer field. This the is type of earthy interlude offered by the Denton, Tex-based quintet Seryn on their debut collection, This Is Where We Are, released in late January on Spune Records. And if this review reads less exhaustive than previous versions, that's because it is, but not because the material is wanting but rather there is a bit less to unpack on the 10-track record.

The most unconventional aspect of the folk-country/Americana outfit is its general use of drums and percussion not as foundational elements, but tools to accent their otherwise more obvious banjos, fiddles and accordions – the exact opposite role percussion instruments play in most rock compositions. This instrumental preference is apparent from the outset, as "So Within" debuts with a layered acoustic guitar riff met with the group's hallmark belt-it-out choruses and harmonies. De facto frontman Trenton Wheeler is a near vocal double for now sole Barenaked Ladies leader Ed Robertson (who inherited the reins when former partner Steven Page split in 2009). As the album's shortest piece at 2:29, it benefits from its brevity and allows the listener some cover to familiarize themselves with the group's approach.

Continuing the pattern that extends across the assembled tracks of a gentle intro followed by a more substantive buildup is "Of Ded Moroz," again featuring the group's all-in vocals, the multi-instrumental talents of Wheeler, Nathan Allen (guitars, banjo, etc) and Chris Semmelbeck (organ/accordian, banjo, guitar and drums when needed), and the more melodic contributions of violinist Chelsea Bohrer (bassist Aaron Stoner also fills-in on trumpet and cello). Slightly-longer than its predecessor at 2:56, the number is hearty and purposeful – much in the same vein as previous NMT alt-country profilees Farewell Drifters and Telegraph Canyon – setting the stage for what's to follow.

The quintet should be commended for not burying the heart of their work too deep in the compilation. The expansive "Beach Song" at 7:05 might be mistitled – it's far better suited for a late-nite campfire or summer festival in a yawning field – but its no less effective. Although its in no hurry to get moving, as a solid three minutes pass before its stiffens its spine, its concluding signature – unraveling over another three minutes – is beautifully rendered and stretches out the band's musical range in crescendoing intensity.

Similarly, "We Will All Be Changed" demonstrates the group's capability. Echoing Robertson's own "Easy" with Allen's ebullient acoustic part and flavorful, but not obtrusive accordion work from Semmelbeck through the verses before the full compliment tackles the gang chorus with full gusto, but maybe with just a smidge too much power in relation to the more measured verses.

"Towering" backs down the intensity without loosing much body, again highlighting Bohrer's strings and their selection of banjo treatments. But although "Our Love" suggests something different may be afoot with its Gothic and ominous intro, it falls short of the movement displayed on the earlier cuts. The same is largely true with the remainder of the record, save for the instrumental jamboree of the closing "Untitled," a bright and foot-stomping way to resolve the proceedings.

Come for: "We Will All Be Changed"
Stay for: "Beach Song"
You'll be surprised by: "So Within"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Okkervil River

Becoming a follower of Okkervil River requires a discerning palate. The outfit out of Austin, Tex., featuring a rotating lineup orbiting around frontman Will Sheff, is capable of moments of astonishing achievement but also a bewildering lack of focus on occasion. The good nearly always outweighs the bad, and the great accomplishments are no less captivating. But every landmark like "Unless It's Kicks" – pure sonic cocaine off their 2007 release, The Stage Names – is weighted down by the glacial "Title Track," and the brilliant, but disturbing narrative of "Westfall" is immediately followed by the nearly unlistenable "Happy Hearts" (both off their 2002 debut, Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See).

Such is the case with the groups' sixth effort, the long-awaited I Am Very Far, out today on Jagjaguwar Records (their most recent, The Stand Ins, came out in 2008). There are a solid handful of outstanding tracks, but also a not insignificant number of wayward affairs. The effort and riskiness of Sheff and his colleagues cannot be questioned; only their execution. The selection of the 11-track collection's first single – the thumping, but somehow breathless "Wake and Be Fine" – is fully in keeping with Sheff's best material. He churns out rapid-fire snippets of verse, including, "Carrying their years around / it's all been chasing down as we rot," and "Feelings on the creek, the killer's in the crowd / I'm coming apart," with like a well-trained policy debater, as he's obviously skipping syllables to boost his word efficiency. Even New Pornographers' frontman A.C. Newman - who contributed guest vocals on the track, as well as on appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (which also included house band The Roots' ?uestlove and Tuba Gooding Jr. – a must-see performance, where you can observe Newman routinely glancing at his lyrics sheet on his monitor) – noted in a Tweet his difficulty in keeping up with Sheff's manic rendering, despite his own band's proclivity for uptempo numbers. The only puzzle here is why the cut is buried so deep on the record, appearing as the penultimate offering.

Meanwhile, closer to the front of the album, "Rider" is nothing shy of frenetic, with its biting snare of drummer Cully Symington and punchy keyboards from Justin Sherburn enhance the number's urgency. Sheff's penchant for menacing, if not haunting lyrics is undiminished here, with accounts of the "blood red of flayed pigs," "staggering apes" and how the "golden shore groaned," as if Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" had been mugged in an alleyway by a drunken Ray Davies.

On a wholly different bent is the corresponding "Lay of the Last Survivor." Although far more gentle in its instrumental treatment – with Sherburn's piano adding a warming touch and lead guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo reversing Sheff's habit of truncating measures – the lyrics still point to a daughter's loss of her father. But it's undeniably beautiful, for while The Decemberists' Colin Meloy might best him on vocabulary and Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon can outflank him on authenticity, Sheff is singular is his phrasing and imagery, as evidenced here:

"A big sky, blue of a dead bachelor's tongue; a new bloom on the rose"

Or, "slobbering lovers, drink-clinking brothers; they don't have to tell us, because we know."

It's nearly tear-jerking just reading the stanzas, but its even more poignant via Sheff's delivery, and is a profound addition to the band's catalog.

Returning to the more briskly paced fare is "White Shadow Waltz," which sounds as if its the product of a blended portfolio of John Lennon and Brian Wilson, with Lennon's purposeful storyline combining alongside Wilson's studio wizardry. Symington fires out sporadic fills like anti-aircraft flack, which the rest of the outfit seems to be attempting to dodge through speed and intensity, providing Sheff just enough cover to transport his narrative safely to its drop zone. It only wants for a more dedicated chorus – in keeping with the leadoff track from The Stage Names, "Our Life is Not a Move, or Maybe."

A couple other of Sheff's concepts are digestible, but not so easily as the aforementioned cuts. In the leadoff slot, "The Valley" is sparse and disjointed, but not listless – in many ways born from the David Byrne tradition. "We Need a Myth" is far more haunting and hesitant, its ominous strings at the outset suggesting a plummet that never transpires, and a growing unease that goes unresolved, even as the track builds in organization and anticipation. And while it will never be formatted as easy listening, Sheff does succeed in advancing his concept via tone and tactics.

But, no matter how you slice them, a whole set of numbers are very rough sledding. "Piratess" could have fit on Steely Dan's obtuse Gaucho, while "Show Yourself" meanders around in the avant garde, but it might be fun sometime to line-up with the culminating scenes of 2001: A Space Odessey. "Your Past Life as a Blast" begins with some promise, with some hope Sheff might grab the reins at its midpoint and kickstart it with some drive, but it never comes. "Hanging From a Hit" just trudges along in soupy mire, and although "The Rise" gets some slack as the closing track and for Symington's saloon parlor piano, its not enough to overcome the 6-plus minutes of battling.

Come for: "Wake and Be Fine"
Stay for: "Rider"
You'll be surprised by: "Lay of the Last Survivor"

P.S. For a capsulized look at Sheff's distilled songwriting talent, check out (the non-specific) "The President's Dead." Hardly pausing for breather for a two good minutes, Sheff connects two distinct plot vehicles with astonishing deftness before band kicks in at the story's zenith. Incredible stuff.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Airborne Toxic Event

Imagine if, somehow, Neil Diamond, U2, Duran Duran and Bush's Gavin Rosdale came together to set aside their lesser devils and unite the better angels of their respective sounds. The end result would sound something like All At Once, the sophomore effort of The Airborne Toxic Effect – out April 26 on Island Records.

Obviously, with that kind of lead-in, there a lot going on here, and the resulting compilation of influences and directions that comprise All At Once is a more fragmented offering than the recent concept or thematic approaches presented by acts like The Decemberists and Southeast Engine, as reviewed here in the past few months. This is not to suggest that the product is unenjoyable or unfocused, but rather a marked deviation from more cohesive records. It all starts with a delay-style riff – a la The Edge – in the opening, title track. The low-octave, hesitating line from lead guitarist Steven Chen suits the boozy, rich vocals of frontman, rhythm guitarist and occasional keyboardist Mikel Jollett – at times warm and full like The National'sBeringer Matt , at others grainy and unkempt, more resembling the former Bush singer, Rosdale, and still others bearing the half sung/half spoken schmaltz of Neil Diamond. While Chen and Jollett slide into the number's first third, the introduction of the full quintet tacks most closely to the intensity of The Edge's hallmark Irish outfit, as if Bono sat nearby in a darkened corner of the studio, nodding behind his signature shades. The same urgency is reflected not only on the following "Numb," but also in a more restrained capacity later on via "Half of Something Else." This trio of cuts accounts for but one division of the Los Angeles group's arsenal.

The poppy stomp-stomp-clamp of "Changing" – which draws the third slot on the 11-track album – channels more of a Duran, Duran 80's synth pop style, filtered through the more contemporary lens of The Killers' charging veneer. While Chen's stabbing staccato cuts give the number its bite, its color is filled-in by peppy keyboard parts supplied by Jollet and multi-instrumentalist Anna Bulbrook (who also contributes viola and percussion, while bassist Noah Harmon and drummer Daren Taylor round-out a capable but hardly flashy rhythm section). The same sound reemerges later in "Strange Girl," which features less sparkle but more substance, owing to its assignment in the nine-hole.

Amongst all this, surely you're wondering, where does the Neil Diamond flavor fit in? The answer is found in another trio of distinct tracks, starting with "All for a Woman," on through "The Kids Are Ready to Die" and the closing "The Graveyard Near the House." The combination plays like some unexpected, late-career resurrection we all wish Mr. Diamond had in him. The influence here is mostly found in Jollet's phrasing when paired with acoustic guitar. Close your eyes and let a line like, "so you smile politely and you demur" in the the first of these recall "Cracklin Rosie;" rediscover "Memphis Streets" as Jollett accounts how, "...I was just 13 when I got my first taste of danger" in "The Kids Are Ready to Die;" and allow the evocative imagery spun out in the latter ("we looked so silly there; all decomposed, half turned to dust, in tattered clothes") to direct you back to "Morningside." And although the last of these is just millimeters away from lifting the melody of "Hey There, Delilah," its unlikely the Plain White T's could have crafted lyrics that tiptoe between haunting and conviction so effectively.

Still another sort of sonic direction resides here, in the form of the strange Gordon Lightfoot-meets-Rockabilly of "It Doesn't Mean a Thing" and the punkish "Welcome to Your Wedding Day." The former describes a shotgun wedding – much in the same manner as Great Big Sea's "Hit the Ground and Run" – with Jollet delivering the collection's most well-crafted line:
"It was shot gun forest wedding, but they forgot to bring the gun. As they were busy counting promises to the children not yet born"

The whole time, you get the feeling the band feels like they're getting away with one here, which only adds to the track's tongue-in-cheek groove. It's expertly delivered. Meanwhile, the latter is topical considering this week's events, and is something you'd expect that the increasingly adventurous Green Day would have attempted on 21st Century Breakdown – something like "Peacemaker," albeit with significantly less synth. The building refrain at the number's climax – "we don't negotiate with terror" – is eerily reminiscent of Rosdale's "there's no sex in your violence" in Bush's breakout hit, "Everything Zen." While the pair of cuts standout from the others in tone and attitude, they're also the record's most enjoyable moments.

Come for: "Changing"
Stay for: "It Doesn't Mean a Thing"
You'll be surprised by: "Welcome to Your Wedding Day"