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"