Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Timothy Monger

Very infrequently in this space do profiles focus on a solo artist. Generally, this is a place for bands and multi-person projects. There have been a few exceptions (here, here and here), but my tastes trend towards tandems. Yet today's review will mark one such exception, the sophomore release from Timothy Monger, one half of the Monger brother-led northern rock outfit, Great Lakes Myth Society, who are currently on hiatus. Monger's The New Britton Sound was released last Tuesday on his own Northern Detective label.

In much the same manner that his larger band's material blended rock, American, country and folk to form what they dubbed "northern rock" – a direct counterpoint to the more popular southern rock branding popularized by acts such as The Allman Brothers Band and Lynard Skynard – Monger's independent work features the same mix of subtle musical influences and localized narrative, unsurprising since he was the Myth Society's chief songwriter. That sound is apparent from the dawning banjo tones of "The Lark," a midtempo affair which offers an ideal palate for Monger's high, light vocals stretching across a barren roadway at daybreak. The two verse track is further enlivened by Matt Collar's trumpet piece, which serves as its chorus.

Even more in line with Monger's earlier Myth Society catalog is the follow-up and first single, "North Side of the Road." It's tableau is littered with the signposts of rural Michigan, Monger's native land. Besides the depiction's of the quiet town with its cornfields, tornado sirens and airfields, his sketch becomes all the more pronounced in the second stanza, noting:

"and off to the west side is a mill, in a railroad town /Population 500 people, it's hard to make time for other people"

Whatever commentary Monger's offering here isn't quite obvious, but that's not essential inside the boundaries of the laid-back vibe, again flavored by Collar's trumpet. Indeed, it seems that no matter how bleak a portrait Monger attempts to depict, his vocal delivery streams across as relentlessly positive, making his accounts that much more bearable. That reality is all the more highlighted in the subsequent "Witches," despite its forlorn title. His self-harmonizing here contains all the lighthearted resistance his lyrics proclaim as futile. And despite his efforts to engender a more ominous scene with a floating organ and rusty banjo plucks, none of it comes across as all that haunting, which isn't a bad thing.

"When I'm a Happy Drunk" is more intentionally upbeat at the outset, but gradually devolves into melancholy as his character drinks in periods of loneliness and anger, and their resulting emotional consequences. Still, the uillean pipes (think a blend of bagpipes and harmonica) attributed to Tyler Duncan on the liner notes only serve to tack the mood to pensive and wistful rather than defeatist and resigned, despite Monger's best efforts.

Monger finally decides to abandon the glum outlook by the time "Guitar Case" announces the 10-track record's midpoint, instead tracking more towards realism. He describe the guitar case, that once functioned as a "diplomat to the world" as now a collection of "stickers and cracks, held together by smoke." More intellectually humorous is "Mining Accident," where people in the midst of unfortunate events – the title's reference, a hurricane cellar, a state of anarchy – can "really connect" and "have a good talk," protected from the chaos outside in a cocoon, rather than being buried alive. The cut's slight backbeat from John Fossum only reinforces Monger's tongue-in-cheek perspective here.

A late highlight is "Friends and Foes," again recalling the heart of the Myth Society material, which builds steadily through its course of just-under three minutes. Should his larger group return from its time away, the number would be a fitting match with "Isabella County, 1992." At the same time, "Broken Barrows" is sparse and sullen, although it does feature some solid lyricism such as "away from man's light on this trolley of lost souls." After a similarly somber "Song Clerk," the closing "The Classics" advances with the same sort of trembling electric guitar riff found at the outset of the Myth Society's poppy "Across the Bridge." And while this number reaches the set-closing triumph of that effort, Monger's ode to rock nostalgia is affirming and muscular by it's third verse, and strikes just the right note to close the proceedings.

Come for: "North Side of the Road"
Stay for: "The Classics"
You'll be surprised by: "Witches"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

White Denim

Although it has been more than a month since the most recent post in this space, that doesn't mean there hasn't been noteworthy releases to assess in the meantime. All it means is that next year, my annual retreat from music reviews will be more acknowledged in advance. Simply put, late May and early June are just too busy to devote the amount of time required of each selection. I'm thinking of inviting a series of guest reviewers to pick-up the slack in 2012.

Well, enough of that, and a return to a record that has been waiting in the wings for a New Music Tuesdays review since its May 17 release. The single consonant-titled D delivered by the Austin, Tex.-based White Denim marks the culmination of the quartet's evolution from scattered collections of deliberate chaos to a more directed and accessible set of tracks. The 10-song album – released by Downtown Records – easily vacillates between power pop rock, jammy prog and hard blues in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tradition.

With a juiced-up Grateful Dead-style shuffle, "It's Him!" propels the collection from the outset with a sense of urgency. The pairing of frontman James Petralli's wafting vocals and determined acoustic guitar with the more aggressive rhythm section of bassist Steve Terebecki and drummer Joshua Block effectively straddles the line between fidgety and focused, and is a solid standard bearer for the remainder of the effort. It's subsequent counterpart, "Burnished," is a bit more trippy in tone and message despite its relatively short 2:36 of running time. The recent addition of lead guitarist Austin Jenkins is particularly noticeable here, with his angular riffs drawing sharp distinctions from the more linear progression delivered by the larger outfit.

The opening numbers also serve as a functional prelude for the third track, a full-on instrumental jam that showcases Terebecki's talents in particular. Swinging in easily from the retreat of "Burnished," "At the Farm" is a jam track for those of us who aren't quite as fond of the usual meandering pace of such offerings from the jam band set. The nearly four minutes of instrumental here are focused and driven, building from the song's dawning and oriented around Terebecki's rubbery lines. There's a sense of purpose here and its hard to remain unengaged in the proceedings because of their ferociousness.

Stepping back from the increasing energy is the starry "Street Joy," evoking more David Gilmour than Trey Anastacio. The leisurely pace is well-positioned in the set and hangs in the twilight like a slowly emptying summer evening. However, it's followed-up by the record's most twitchy and unenjoyable production, "Anvil Everything." While their attempt is perhaps enviable, there's just too much going on to reign it in for intent and direction – between the multiple levels of rhythm, effects and verses – to make sense of what's happening, although it might make good for a soundtrack for a movie drug trip sequence.

Fortunately, the group rebounds not long after with the tres Jethro Tull "River to Consider." Seriously, has a flute found such a prominent role in rock music since Aqualung? Again, the energy revolves around Terebecki's hard-pulled approach, with the other players bouncing around in unrelated tangents while Terebecki holds the grove down. The difference between this track and its predecessor is some distance stretching out their sonic ideas over a full five minutes, rather than layers of kinetic energy piled atop one another. Even more well-executed is the unforced transition into the album's most accessible track, "Drug." The number clearly has somewhere it wants to be and wastes little time in getting there. The guitar harmonies of Petralli and Jenkins are a nice treat to inject some intentional melody to the affair. While it's not likely to ever find a connection on dance club floors, the track's movement is welcome and deftly delivered.

Surely the record's most rocking project follows in "Bess St." The Blues Explosion influence is most pronounced here, while it also wouldn't be hard to envision Dave Ghrol finding his way to a similar concept, especially in the zesty boogie that marshals the number's middle third. Stepping out from that arena, the initial spaciness of "Is and Is and Is" is a bit stark at first, before kicking into the harder stuff in the chorus. And in relation to what came before it, the closing "Keys" is a bit of an outlier, like a deep cut from Lennon & McCartney tacked on to the end of a Zappa record. Nonetheless, its sweet and simple and a little countrified – a fun way to wrap-up the journey.

Come for: "Drugs"
Stay for: "It's Him!"
You'll be surprised by: "At the Farm"