Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bad Books

Bad Books
New Release: II
Release Date: October 9
Record Label: Triple Crown Records
Sounds Like: Telekinesis (NMT), They Might Be Giants (NMT), Fountains of Wayne (NMT)
Location: Atlanta, Ga. / Brooklyn, N.Y.

After last week's smorgasbord of reviews, let's settle it down a bit with a look at a simple, indie-rock record: the sophomore effort of the Atlanta, Ga. / Brooklyn, N.Y. collaborative sextet Bad Books, appropriately titled II and out October 9 on Triple Crown Records.

The band is a project including the majority of members of Manchester Orchestra along with indie-folk solo artist Kevin Devine. Devine shares lead vocals and songwriting credits in the group with Manchester Orchestra frontman Andy Hull. The partnership is more evolved than simply adding Devine's talents to the Manchester Orchestra sound, resulting in an approach that mirrors many of the successful songwriting duos in rock history, from Simon & Garfunkel to They Might Be Giants' John Flansbaugh and John Linnell and Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood.

Things start off slowly, with the murky and moody "The After Party," which itself is a nod to Devine's solo song of the same name. Lead guitarist Robert McDowell goes lighten the vibe with some lofty figures during the verses and wailing through the number's crunching chorus. In contrast, the following "No Reward" features the clever lyrics and hooky songwriting that's in the heart of the Fountains of Wayne sound, with a sliver of hard rock edge from McDowell, bassist Jonathan Corley and drummer Ben Homola than that band might include.

Leadoff single "Forest Whitaker" builds on that clever and hooky frame while adding a more narrative lyrical structure. Lines like, "I started a fight with the neighbor next door and his pesky wife..." could have just as easily emerged from the Collingwood/Schlesinger playbook. Here, you'll find some whimsical 80s-sounding synth, a whistled refrain and punchy percussive rhythm, although I would have preferred a more enthusiastic chorus than the one supplied here given the humorous promise of the verses.

There's barely a second of transition time before "It Never Stops" abruptly changes gears, more deliberate and introspective then the preceding numbers. Listeners who previously enjoyed the tres-indie Telekinesis will find a suitable compliment with this track, as lines like, "I bet the future on an ice cream cone," bear strong similarities to the smart pop rock delivered by Michael Benjamin Lerner.

Andy Hull's "Pyotr" is just a little sleepy, with bluesy, low-register guitar and minimalist vocals from Devine, but decent background harmonies to add splashes of color. The restrained mood continues on "Friendly Advice," with a looping rhythm in the mold of the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979." It doesn't really add intensity or nuance as it goes along, and I get the feeling the track could have been much more than it is.

Conversely, the Devine-led "No Sides" returns to the uptempo and lighthearted hooky vibe of the record's first few numbers. It's among the most accessible and enjoyable offerings on the 11-track effort. And again changing directions is the rusty, alt-county infused "Petit Mort," which isn't far off the mark of the sound Band of Horses coalesced so successful on Mirage Rock, reviewed here last week (NMT). The dual-frontman blend of Devine and Hull is at its best here, offering more character and texture than the blandness of "Pyotr" and "Friendly Advice."

The closing trio of "42,""Lost Creek" and "Ambivalent Peaks" tacks back to the calm and somber, with the former pretty much a Hull acoustic track with gentle piano flourishes and uncredited female background vocals. Meanwhile, "Lost Creek" benefits from trace amounts of The Band's backwoods narrative and rootsy blend, but can't overcome its stodgy nature. The latter is gentle and serene, but is just Devine's answer to Hull's "42," although I intrinsically like Devine's voice better.

Come for: "Forest Whittaker"
Stay for: "No Sides"
You'll be surprised by: "Petit Mort"
Solid efforts: "The After Party;" "No Rewards;" "It Never Stops"
Meh: "Pyotr;" "Friendly Advice;" "Lost Creek"
Skip to next track: "42;" "Ambivalent Peaks"

Thursday, October 11, 2012


The last few weeks have brought not only a surge in personal activity that hadn't yielded much opportunity for reviewing (Nats pennant run, new dog, etc), but at the same time, a slew of new records have been released I had intents on reviewing here. Due to those confluence of trends, this post will be substantially different from most. I'll be offering snapshot assessments of six new albums, with each including a brief overview of the band and the direction the new material is taking them, continuation of my previous "Come for," "Stay for" and "You'll be surprised by" selections along with new categories for "Sounds like" (some peer comparisons of the band/artist), "Solid efforts" (quality tracks that didn't make my previously established selection standards), "Meh" (so-so tracks that I didn't love but didn't hate) and "Skip to next track" (songs I'd avoid if I were you). Of course – like usual – these are just my opinions and reflect my deep-seeded preferences on the type of music I like. I'd encourage you to listen to these records in their entirety in case something appeals more to you than I. Additionally, there are several other recently-released albums (Grizzly Bear, Mumford & Sons, The Killers, Muse) that many readers of this space might enjoy that I have no plans on reviewing, so you might want to check those out, as well.

A couple other quick notes: 1) these snapshot reviews are arranged according to my familiarity with the band/artist prior to the new material's release. Don't read any other preference into the order of the reviews; 2) I'll do my best to include brief, illustrative comments on each song in parenthesis; 3) There will also be some additional / related thoughts after some reviews that don't quite fit in this format at the end of each review. Those thoughts will be designated with an asterisk (*).
The Tragically Hip
New Release: Now For Plan A
Release Date: October 2nd
Record Label: Universal Music
Sounds like: R.E.M., Pearl Jam
Location: Kingston, Ont.

As Canada's premier modern rock band for nearly three decades, the Tragically Hip (or The Hip to longtime fans) has built their extensive catalog (a full dozen records including Now For Plan A) on a foundation of straightforward rock with undercurrents of murky blues and experimental grunge. This is a band I've desperately wanted to cover in this space, but their most recent output (2009's We Are The Same) predated this blog's creation. While often labeled as Canada's R.E.M. (NMT) due to frontman Gordon Downie's poetic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics in comparison to Michael Stipe, the twin lead-guitar approach of Paul Langlois and Rob Baker ofter mirrors the same output as Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. For Downie, a good portion of understanding his words is borne out in the group's live shows – they're currently on an extensive North American tour – where Downie fuses much of Eddie Vedder's conviction with a Mick Jagger swagger. For the larger unit, the band's sound has transitioned from their early, chugging blues rockers of their early years through the alternative arena-rock found on Road Apples thru Phantom Power, followed by the aimless early millennial efforts of Music @ Work, In Violet Light and In Between Evolution and the transformational pairing of the Bob Rock-produced World Container and We Are The Same. The new work is not quite as cohesive or revelatory as their efforts with Bob Rock, nor as sturdy as its foundational collections, but not quite as meandering as its early-2000s period.

Come for: "The Lookahead" (crisp, but potent)
Stay for: "The Modern Spirit" (emphatic!)
You'll be surprised by: "Goodnight Attawapiskat" (starts like a slow, bluesy chugger like their early stuff, builds to forceful; continues Hip tradition of obscure geographic references ["Bobcaygeon," "Chagrin Falls," Moonbeam, Ontario; Mistaken Point, Newfoundland])
Solid efforts: "Streets Ahead" (brisk, charging); "About This Map" (who doesn't like a song about a good map*); "Take Forever" (heartland rock, spirited)
Meh: "We Want To Be It" (overuse of "drip, drip, drip" just grates on my ears and mind, but the chorus is decent); "Done And Done" (not much happening)
Skip to next track: "At Transformation" (too sludgy*); "Man Machine Poem" (too preachy); "Now For Plan A" (I'm glad this wasn't their actual Plan A)

* Notes: Other good map songs – "Law Abiding Citizen," Southeast Engine (NMT), "Lost Coastlines," Okkervil River (NMT); "At Transformation," in particular, is one track I didn't particularly enjoy on the record that might be rejuvenated in a live setting.

Green Day
New Release: "¡Uno!"
Release Date: September 24
Record Label: Reprise / Warner Brothers
Sounds Like: The Who, Cheap Trick, The Clash, NOFX
Location: Oakland, Calif.  

Before the creation of this blog, two records especially convinced me to begin a regular stream of reviews of new material I was interested in sharing with people: The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love in 2009 and Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown that same year. While the former group afforded me the opportunity to review The King Is Dead (NMT), Green Day – like The Tragically Hip – has waited three years between records to deliver new material. Without spending much time on frontman Billy Joe Armstrong's recent onstage meltdown in Las Vegas and subsequent trip to alcohol abuse treatment, ¡Uno! represents the first of three new albums that are a return-to-basics approach of swift, hooky power-punk following the group's politically-driven concept albums, American Idiot (2004) and 21st Century Breakdown. It's an ambitious effort for a band that seems to work best with ambitious goals: the shift back to the snotty, three-chord punk rompers that launched the trio's mainstream popularity in the early-to-mid '90s while producing a similarly high level of output that defined the American Idiot-21st Century Breakdown era.

Come for: "Let Yourself Go" (punchy, driving)
Stay for: "Angel Blue" (hard-nosed, snappy chorus hook)
You'll be surprised by: "Oh Love" (recalls the very The Who-inspired sound of 21st Century Breakdown*)
Solid efforts: "Nuclear Family," "Stay The Night" (slight nod to "Christian's Inferno" off 21st Century Breakdown); "Fell For You" (lots of Cheap Trick sound going on here); "Loss Of Control" (good platform for drummer Tre Cool's talents); "Sweet 16" (fits nicely with American Idiot's "Whatsername")
Meh: "Carpe Diem," "Troublemaker" (both are a bit cliched in lyricism); "Rusty James" (a poor man's substitute for American Idiot's "Letterbomb" and too long for the new album's style)
Skip to next track: I didn't find anything I'd outright avoid.

* Notes: Green Day was on quite The Who crush on their preceding record, so much they recorded a pretty faithful version of their idols' "A Quick One While He's Away" on the extended version of 21st Century Breakdown. Here, through, "Oh Love" is just too recidivist. 

A.C. Newman
New Release: Shut Down the Streets
Release Date: October 9
Record Label: Matador Records
Sounds Like*: New Pornographers (NMT), Camera Obscura, The 1900s (NMT), 10,000 Maniacs, Essex Green
Location: Woodstock, N.Y.

Longtime readers of this space will note your blogger's love of the Canadian indie-rock supergroup, The New Pornographers. Their chief songwriter, Allan Carl (A.C.) Newman, adds to his impressive portfolio this week with third solo release, Shut Down the Streets. Newman's work with The New Pornographers is defined by a quirky, electric/electronic foundation that spreads the wealth equally among the band's eight members. In contrast, his solo material is much earthier, with acoustic guitars receiving the main treatment, and strings moving ahead of keyboards and computers as his main flourishing elements. Still, the gap between the two sounds is more of a lake than an ocean, and his chief vocal foil in his main band – the omnipresent indie queen, Neko Case – adds her talents throughout the 10-track collection.

Come for: "I'm Not Talking" (refreshing, full; hints of Camera Obscura)
Stay for: "Encyclopedia Of Classic Takedowns" (would not be out of place on any New Pornographers record, but with mandolin)
You'll be surprised by: "Hostages" (a great blend of his more rustic solo sound and New Pornographers indie-rock)
Solid efforts: "Do Your Own Time" (intricate, fun, well-paced); "Strings" (measured; the banjo is nice); "There's Money In New Wave" (a good transition piece for New Pornographers fans); "The Troubadour" (if there was rock in the Middle Ages, it might have sounded like this; I like the banjo again, then the chorus picks up with good orchestration)
Meh: "Wasted English" (would be pretty tedious without Neko in the background); "They Should Have Shut Down The Streets" (he does some interesting things with unusual instruments and sounds, but otherwise, it has too much of a death march vibe for my taste) 
Skip to next track: "You Could Get Lost Out Here" (sounds like A.C. did get lost on this one, far too meandering)

* Notes: if you noticed, the groups listed in the Sounds Like references all include strong female singers (a nod to Niko's involvement here), but also mark an arch of lushly-orchestrated compositions. If you're unfamiliar with any or all of these acts, you may want to check them out if you enjoy this new stuff from A.C. Newman.

The Wallflowers
New Release: Glad All Over
Release Date: September 28
Record Label: Columbia Records
Sounds Like: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan*, Counting Crows
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Back after a much longer hiatus than either The Tragically Hip or Green Day are The Wallflowers, who return to the studio after seven years. In recent years, the band had gone without seminal organist and keyboardist Rami Jaffi. Jaffi's wafting organ parts added warmth and texture to Jakob Dylan's gravely voice and plow-ahead song structures (much in the same manner Franz Nicolay had done with The Hold Steady until his departure prior to Heaven Is Whenever (NMT), an absence that band has not yet rectified). Here, the five-piece returns with its Americana style, with some western and country flair likely influenced by Dylan's solo records released during the band's time off.

Come for: "Hospital For Sinners" (harder edge than much of the band's catalog; outlaw temperament)
Stay for: "Have Mercy On Him Now" (Springsteenian, driving)
You'll be surprised by: "Constellation Blues" (light, good hitting-the-open-road tune)
Solid efforts: "Misfits And Lovers*" (prickly, but with backbone); "It's A Dream" (another western tableau, but good pep); "Love Is A Country" (bright, uncomplicated Americana); "It Won't Be Long (Till We're Not Wrong Anymore)" (see "Have Mercy On Him Now" and cross-apply here)
Meh: "First One In The Car" (good narrative, but not much instrumental imagination); "The Devil's Waltz" (there might have been a good concept here, but it comes across too unfocused); "One Set Of Wings" (classic not great, not awful last track)
Skip to the next track: "Reboot The Mission*" (Dylan and company can't pull-off fake funky, stick to the sincere stuff)

* Notes: If you're reading this blog, you're probably aware enough of contemporary music to know that Jakob Dylan is Bob Dylan's son. If you're not, now you know. Also, both "Misfits and Lovers" and "Reboot The Mission" feature vocal contributions from Mick Jones, former guitarist in The Clash.
Band of Horses
New Release: Mirage Rock
Release Date: September 18
Record Label: Columbia Records
Sounds Like: Neil Young, The Eagles, Uncle Tueplo, Son Volt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Replacements
Location: Charleston, S.C.

Band of Horses is the type of band that's skirted on the periphery of my awareness for the last few years, kind of like Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, The Walkmen and a few others. I'd heard a few things before and they were alright, but nothing to captivate my attention in the way that less established acts like .fun (NMT, NMT) and The Sheepdogs (NMT, NMT) have done. But, with Mirage Rock, the alt-country quintet from Charleston-by-way-of-Seattle has delivered an effort in line with what I enjoy most in music: its original while incorporating appropriate nods to their predecessors in their genre, has a cohesive sonic and lyrical approach and matches that approach with the latent talents of its members.

Come for: "Knock Knock" (gnarly, but a kicking vibe; great opening or closing live number)
Stay for: "How To Live" (countrified twang with stripped-down rock core; good harmonies)
You'll be surprised by: "Slow Cruel Hands Of Time" (honest and beautiful, somewhere between "Here Comes The Sun" and The Sheepdogs' throwback motif; touches of both Neil Young and Glen Frey; Mainstreet USA narrative)
Solid efforts: "A Little Biblical" (muted but crunching guitars, hooky chorus; strains of early Jeff Tweedy songwriting); "Shut-In Tourist" (the type of front porch ballad Rascal Flats wishes they could write; heavy CSN&Y vocals); "Dumpster World" (should lose points for a near carbon-copy ripoff of "Horse With No Name," but the mid-track electric kick-in is a new twist, and they execute the whole thing very well, although it might be a challenge to recreate live); "Electric Music" (look up "Take It Easy" and fun.'s "Benson Hedges" in your chosen music library and play this between those tracks; road anthem); "Everything's Gonna Be Undone" (fantastic harmonies in this campfire singalong); "Feud" (loud and boisterous in the tradition of Neil Young's best rockers); "Long Vows" (dusty trails ballad in the same vein as Father John Misty's (NMT) "Every Man Needs A Companion," but with – surprise – Neil Young structure and Eagles' vocals); "Heartbreak On The 101" (guitarist Tyler Ramsey takes a turn at the lead mic on this dusty ballad with swirling strings at the end)
Meh / Skip to next track: I didn't find a thing I didn't like

Rah Rah
New Release: The Poet's Dead
Release Date: October 2
Record Label: Hidden Pony Records
Sounds Like: Cowboy Junkies, Great Lake Swimmers, The Replacements, 54-40
Location: Regina, Saskatchewan 

What's the deal with Canadian indie-rock outfits with large numbers of co-ed members? The previously-referenced New Pornographers, The Arcade Fire (NMT), Broken Social Scene, Library Voices (NMT), Hey Rosetta! (NMT) and others all feature at least five members (on average, a big band) and feature both guys and girls in pivotal roles. Add to this list is another sprawling, mixed-gender unit: the currently six-member alt/indie country act, Rah Rah. On their third full-length release – which includes most participants switching instruments regularly – the group parlays 10 tracks of chugging indie-rock flavored with country influences via accordions, various strings and mandolins. While it's hard to say precisely who does what, I'd like to hear a little bit more of Erin Passmore's rich alto and a little less of Marshall Burns' nasally whine. Passmore's turn on first single "Prairie Girl" is the standard the group should reach for going forward. They also could have done a better job in separating Burns' and Passmore's tracks in the record's mid-section. A new album should never have back-to-back numbers with "Dead" in the title.

Come for: "Prairie Girl" (confident, builds to a heartland rock masterpiece)
Stay for: "Art & A Wife" (tongue-in-cheek clever; slows down Nirvana's three-chord sequence in "Sliver"; brief fragments of what made The Arcade Fire so successful)
You'll be surprised by: "Saint" (far more depth than one normally expects in a closing track)
Solid efforts: "First Kiss" (builds as it goes); "20s" (anthemic, but wish the mix was more clear to refine the chaos going on); "Run" (as kinetic as its title suggests); "Fake Our Love"
Meh: "The Poet's Dead" (kinda bland); "I'm A Killer" (its fine in the middle, but the programmed drum track at the beginning and end is annoying)
Skip to next track: "Dead Men" (its not as grand an opus as they seem to think it is)

The Tins
New Release: Life's A Gas
Release Date: October 2
Record Label: self-released
Sounds Like: Primus, M83, moe., Grouplove (NMT)
Location: Buffalo, N.Y.

No one should be surprised to find a Buffalo band receiving coverage here given its your blogger's home and native land, but this actually marks the first bonafide act out of Nickel City to find attention here. The trio mixes layered, jam-style riffs with hooky indie pop and dashes of electronica on their first full-length release. There's odd themes and instrumental concepts that point back to similar well-executed absurdity you may familiar with via groups like Primus and The Flaming Lips, but deployed in a more accessible manner you might expect from more contemporary, poppy peers like Grouplove and Library Voices

Come for: "Please Be Kind" (bouncy, with a meaty riff from guitarist Adam Putzer; if it's the first single, why is it so buried on the tracklist?)
Stay for: "Hit And Miss" (intro's a little trippy, but merges into something far more jubilant, like Grouplove's "Tongue Tied")
You'll be surprised by: "Midnight Crowd" (a touch silly, but definitely an interesting idea)
Solid efforts: "Taking Liberties" (old school, lo-fi vibe with organ part by keyboardist Mike Santillo and stabbing guitars by Putzer); "Spies" (exuberant harmonies, arena-sized riffs); "16 Colors" (fun and offbeat); "Whiteout" (a nice change of pace with a more straightforward approach)
Meh: "Vicki" (not crazy about the off-kilter organ here and the bridge just rubs me the wrong way); "Shozo Hirono" (I expected more from this track); "Halo" (its a bit thin at first, and the organ is too strong in the mix, but not bad conceptually)
Skip to next track: Nothing I outright disliked, but I could understand if the overall sound is a bit too far out there for your taste

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ben Folds Five

Among music fans who came of age during the '90s alternative/grunge movement – like myself – there's a few acts whose reunion would be much-anticipated (of course, acts like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Sublime, Blind Mellon will never be reformed, not without their frontman deceased). Many of us would like to see a return of the original, fierce, progressive lineup of the Smashing Pumpkins. Those with more indie sensibilities might pine for new material from Neutral Milk Hotel. But one of the few acts that never experienced a massive falling-out among members nor lost their standard-bearer who still maintained a healthy segment of their original audience is the Ben Folds Five, who've returned with The Sound of the Life of the Mind – their fourth full-length collection of new, original material after a 13-year hiatus – out September 18 on the group's ImaVeePee Records.

The key thing to note about the Ben Folds Five sound – which, despite its name, is actually a trio, comprised of the band's namesake frontman, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse – is that it's not driven by Folds' quirky and humorous lyrics, classically-trained piano talents or superb songwriting. No, that's what makes Ben Folds himself noteworthy as an artist, songwriter and performer. Rather, its the distinctive fuzz-bass approach of Sledge. It's that element of the three-piece band that adds edge from Folds' nerdy compositions and arrangements and connects Folds' hyperactive piano lines with Jesse's industrial-strength drumming.

Seeking to remind listeners' of the band's true core, they lay it on thick in the opening track, "Erase Me." The intro is a blast of Sledge-brand fuzz bass, along with pounding scales from Folds and baseline-setting percussion from Jesse. Even though the verses are mellow and jazzy – the introductory stanza referencing Radiohead's gravity always wins concept from "Fake Plastic Trees" – the choruses and bridge tack back to more potent territory and Folds' iconic and frequent falsetto. A bit of the snickering and snarky lyricism of the band's first incarnation pops up on the second chorus with a fun. (NMT, NMT)-like "what the fuck is this?" retort, while adding juvenile detail with "drawing moustaches on our wedding photos." 

That same clever but cheeky humor continues on "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later." Folds' sense of cunning narrative never left with the band's amicable demise, and this track is proof – which longtime fans could file neatly between "Steven's Last Night in Town" and "Not the Same" – as he notes the awkward encounters of former classmates at successive reunions in the Great Recession America on top of a punchy foundation. Quite the opposite is the tone of the succeeding restrained ballad, "Sky High," with lyrics penned by Jesse and featuring the same bowed upright bass from Sledge that strung together the group's 1997 breakout ballad, "Brick," but without the same soul-wrenching honesty of the latter number. 

From there, the 10-track record's standout offering is its title track, blending ambitious instrumentation with lyrics leftover from Folds' 2010 collaboration with British author Nick Hornby, Lonely Avenue (NMT). The combination results in the type of complexity and heft found on "Narcolepsy" off the trio's previous offering, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – a record that led to the band's one-off reunion in 2008 to perform the record in its entirety – and serves as a solid bridge between where the group left off before and Folds' material in the meantime.

Later on, the album's leadoff single – the raucous "Do It Anyway," with its fantastically Fragilized video – is unnecessarily buried on the track list behind the tongue-in-cheek and lavishly-orchestrated Frank Sinatra devotional "On Being Frank" and the delightfully immature "Draw A Crowd." Even though "Do It Anyway" might seem a bit self-helpy at first blush, its galloping pace from Sledge and Jesse helps build the intensity across a short 3:06 to a fun romp by its end. Meanwhile, the latter might as well been strewn together by a gaggle of smirking adolescent boys, who would have provided the most obvious answer to what to draw on a wall if one can't draw a crowd.

The collection mellows-out across its trio of closing numbers. "Hold That Thought" features some of the witty but dour narratives that have popped up across Folds' solo work, leading off with, "she broke down and cried at the strip mall acupuncture / while the world went on outside / The Chinese doctor took her arm / gazed at the floor and read her wrist for the secrets in her mind. It's precisely the type of writing Folds is best known for, but the return of his original band also helps transform the piece with a carefree instrumental sensibility that similarly would often find their ways into some of Paul Simon's revealing commentaries. Similarly, Folds' closely-mic'd piano and sincerity in delivery on "Away When You Were Here" are not grand departures from his work on his own, but it a significant step from the band's earlier "Song for the Dumped" or even "Draw A Crowd" on this compilation. And, while lovely and heartfelt, I don't quite see the point of "Thank You for Breaking My Heart" in the Ben Folds Five catalog: its much more closely aligned with his solo material, and seems like a waste of the band's time. 

Come for: "Do It Anyway"
Stay for: "The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind"
You'll be surprised by: "Away When You Were Here"

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Sheepdogs (self-titled)

Around this time last year, we told you about the Canadian boogie rockers, The Sheepdogs (NMT). That review focused on their five-track EP, Five Easy Pieces, which marked their major-label debut on Atlantic Records, as well as some of their previous work. Now, the easy-going quartet has returned with its full-length addendum to that effort, the 14 cuts of the band's self-titled collection, out September 4th, again on Atlantic.

Once again, the boys from Saskatoon are bound and determined to convince everyone it's still the mid-70s and classic rock will never die. And even though their latest output isn't too far afield of the bulk of material from that era, nor does it make great strides from their previous work, it doesn't matter: there's just too few acts like this producing stuff like this anymore, and it's quite welcome.

The ease-in effortlessly with the aptly-named, "Laid Back." The carefree grove laid down by lead guitarist Leot Hanson sets a comfortable stage for frontman Ewan Currie's no-worries vocals. The crisp but unassuming pace set by bassist Ryan Gullen and drummer Sam Corbett is just as unforced as the more upfront vocals and guitar parts. Likewise, an unassuming piano line (the band doesn't credit its piano, keyboard and organ parts) rolls around like it also nowhere in particular, and that's not a problem. The chorus could be tighter – it's just a touch too frat-boy sing-along – but hardly a fatal flaw.

The dirtier follow-up, "Feeling Good," clicks up the volume a notch – largely through Hanson's fuzzy lead guitar – without sacrificing much of the good-natured vibe. Much like Five Easy Pieces, hints of Steely Dan emerge alongside thicker-cut slices of Grand Funk Railroad and The Allman Brothers Band. Its short 3:09 run time only reinforces the band's talent for not trying to do too much, and letting the concept flow naturally. That's augmented with Currie's airy acoustic guitar on "Alright OK," and the persistent but not obtrusive shaker percussion from Corbett. I'm not wild about Hanson's reverbed lead part here or the slightly distorted chorus vocals, but, again, it's not distracting enough to divert attention from the main body of the number.

Behind the nobs on this one is another fine crafter for the group's throwback sound, with The Black Keys' (NMT) Patrick Carney taking over from The Fountains of Wayne's (NMT) Chris Collingswood, who was at the helm of Five Easy Pieces. Carney's influence enhances the band's natural instincts with the retro production tools his own band has employed to propel them to arena rock status. That's evident on "Never Gonna Get My Love," which transitions from a George Harrison "Something"-style intro to a more Zeppelin-infused blues plodder.

Much like "The Middle Road" of their previous release, the band colors its blues-based boogie rock with tinges of the mellow jazz-rock of Steely Dan on "Ewan's Blues." The sliding pitch step of the combination organ used here is a nice reflection of Donald Fagan's similar parts on his group's standout tracks like "Do It Again" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," with a little added chugging guitar as the number builds. Meanwhile, "The Way It Is" offers a touch of The Doors' fusion of psychedelic blues and free-form rock, but doesn't try to be as much of a carbon copy that doomed their earlier nod to Jim Morrison and company on "Learn and Burn," which is a credit to their maturing talent.

The even looser "Javelina!" instrumental folds The Doors' style from its predecessor into Carlos Santana territory, with its wavy guitar licks and overlapping rhythms. It sounds much longer than its 2:38 play time by avoiding run-on jams and focusing instead on the latent melody, and surviving a murky mid-song deconstruction. If only more jam bands could be as efficient.

The group returns the boogie on "I Need Help," with a easy-spinning groove from Gullen and Corbett, paired with guitar harmonies from Currie and Hanson. When combined with organic-sounding chorus harmonies and another brisk run time, it lands squarely in the band's wheelhouse. The same is true for the following "Is Your Dream Worth Dying For," with brisk and wistful acoustic guitar foundations for the intro and chorus, but a stiffer backbone in the verses and a neatly-pegged electric solo from Hanson at the bridge. Much like the core of John Fogerty's catalog for Credence Clearwater Revival, their songwriting is best deployed in short, smart doses, and this collection takes that credo to heart, with no track running longer than "Alright OK's" 4:15.

After a reprise performance of Five Easy Pieces signature "How Late, How Long," the initially grainy and sparse "Sharp Sounds" is a little too unfocused to measure fully against the earlier cuts, but the wafting Hammond organ and another Hanson solo largely help redeem the number. "In My Mind" is slow and measured – a hallmark of late-appearing tracks – but "While We're Young" is fun and rollicking as the penultimate selection, smearing a swath of The Who's twitchy energy with some more carefree blues rock. Closing things out, the aptly-titled "It Ain't Easy To Go" is pure southern rock cooking, Currie's vocals filtered through a gentle haze and complimented with a sing-along chorus. Again, it's the last thing you'd expect from some good guys from Saskatoon, but they do it pretty darn well for a bunch of Canucks.

Come for: "Feeling Good"
Stay for: "Alright OK"
You'll be surprised by: "Javelina!"

P.S. – The record's deluxe version includes stripped-down, front-porch acoustic renditions of both "Alright OK" and "The Way It Is," along with a similarly reformatted of Five Easy Pieces opener, "Who," dropping much of the hard rock crunch and substituting a swinging blues motif as "WHOCOUSTIC." It might be even better than their first go at it.   

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Father John Misty

A longstanding paradox when considering artistic endeavors is that an artist or performer will often assume an alternative identity in order to convey the thoughts, feelings and ideas that are actually central to their real persona. This has been the case from writers like Mark Twain to contemporary rock artists to U2's Bono and any number of British musicians who cultivated a stage name (Reginald Dwight, Gordon Sumner, etc) that led them to widespread fame. While we don't know whether such popular acclaim ultimately finds this week's profilee – Joshua Tillman, known now by his alter ego, Father John Misty – his journey of personal revelation to his audience is well-served by his first release under the new moniker, Fear Fun, out last April 30 on Sub Pop Records.

Fans of the indie folk-rock act Fleet Foxes may recognize Tillman's name, as he served as that group's drummer from 2008 through the beginning of 2012. But before – and during – that tenure, he released a series of seven solo albums – along with a handful of EPs – under his given name. While Tillman was a talented musician, his material was too intentionally earnest and as a result, not very interesting. At the same time, Tillman would receive feedback from his small live audiences that his on-stage persona was far more engaging than what he had dedicated to record to date.

Following the most recent Fleet Foxes tour – which ended last January – Tillman thanked the band for the gig and re-purposed himself as Father John Misty, a songwriter, musician and performer more committed to fully expressing his true self via music. The result is the dozen tracks of quirky folk-rock displayed on Fear Fun.

Fitting comfortably in the country-tinged, folk-rock territory first explored by the likes of George Harrison and Gram Parsons and encountered frequently today through acts like Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT), Telegraph Canyon (NMT), Lost in the Trees (NMT) and The Head and the Heart (NMT) – with a touch of the witty pop sensibilities of a Butch Walker (NMT) or Jonathan Coulton (NMT) – Tillman's Father John Misty material is smart, interesting and honest, the result of his successful mission to rediscover himself, which he admits is occasionally colored by the mind-altering influences of psychedelic mushrooms. This most outward expression of this effort is the record's closing, dusty-trails ballad, "Every Man Needs a Companion." After exploring the friendship between Jesus Christ and John the Baptist – Tillman's perspective on spirituality is unclear as the album unfolds – he relates his own struggle with his identity:

So I had to write my own / Like I'm hung up on religion / 
Though I know it's a waste
I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J

Elsewhere, the collection has a couple standout numbers that reflect Tillman's new found lightheartedness in uptempo formats. "I'm Writing a Novel" is certainly the album's finest product, a spirited blend of Appalachian folk – akin to much of Southeast Engine's catalog – with a oddball narrative that's evident from the number's opening stanza:

I ran down the road, pants down to my knees
Screaming "please come help me, 

that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!"
And I'm writing a novel because it's never been done before

It's a surreal narrative, one likely influenced by his psychedelic experiences, and is a fitting compliment to the record's absurd cover art, which lies somewhere between a depiction of George Harrison-esque mysticism and a Katy Perry video:

Later on, the tawdry countrified foot-stomper, "Tee Pees 1-12" is likewise a delightfully similar mess of unlikely events and goofy self-discovery, and is the sort of stuff the Father John Misty character is most comfortable in dealing. 

The album's real problem is there's too many mid- to slow-tempo numbers here. My general preference is a 3-2-1 apportionment of uptempo cuts to mid- and slow-paced songs. Here, Tillman offers something closer to a 1-3-2 distribution, with the previously mentioned, joy-filled romps really the only briskly-paced fare on the compilation. Sure, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" is noisy with its grainy electric guitars – a rarity on this record – and the drums are heavy with rattling cymbals, but it doesn't really get going at any point. 

Of course, this imbalance doesn't mean any of the songs are particularly bad themselves. Opener "Fun Times in Babylon" provides an interesting table-setting perspective, and "Only Son of the Ladiesman" is quirky without a hint of hubris or pretension that might be found if, for example, John Mayer were to write the same song. Meanwhile, "This Is Sally Hatchet" is unmistakably Beatles-driven, with its punchy piano and jagged guitar,  and "Misty's Nightmares 1 & 2" could be pulled directly from the Gram Parsons playbook. It's all fine stuff, but there's just too much of the same all in a row. At the same time, no individual track is worthy of banishment, but rather would be nice if they were part of a larger portfolio over the course of several albums of more uptempo material. Perhaps that's something Tillman can work on, after so confidently establishing a new direction for his career.

Come for: "I'm Writing a Novel"
Stay for: "Tee Pees 1-12"
You'll be surprised by: "This Is Sally Hatchet"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Passion Pit

The single June post of this recently sparsely populated blog offered a long-winded exploration of my thoughts on electronic music via the electronica-rock synthesis act, Metric (NMT). It will be helpful to have that understanding in mind when considering this week's profilee, Passion Pit and their second full-length release, Gossamer (which like last week's review of The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten (NMT), also was released on July 24th, but here on the Columbia Records label).

More than just a single DJ – or even a pair – claiming to be a larger musical act, this Cambridge, Mass., quintet is truly a band that happens to perform electronic-dominated music. While Buffalo-born and raised frontman Michael Angelakos (who, incidentally attended middle school with your blogger's brother) is the outfit's primary source of material, his colleagues contribute to a broader execution of that sound in live settings – often including actual musical instruments such as guitar, bass and drums instead of the straight electronic programming relied on so extensively in the genre.

To that end, the dozen-track collection's opener and leadoff single, "Take a Walk" is everything that most electronica output usually is not: tightly structured, immediately accessible and narrative. Following a brief and dreamy opening sequence, the thumping number plows ahead with strident rhythm from drummer Nate Donmoyer and bassist Jeff Apruzzese, identifiable riffs from guitarist Ian Hultquist and linear keyboard and synthesizer paths from Angelakos and Xander Singh. On top of this well-balanced construction, Angelakos relays the tale of a new immigrant in the America of the Great Recession. What, if any, political message Angelakos is trying to convey here is uncertain, but the tone is certainly timely with lines such as, "but then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone / He made some bad investments, now the accounts are overdrawn."

Gone from the band's approach after its 2008 EP, Chunk of Change, and its breakout 2009 full-length debut, Manners, is Angelakos' reliance on stratospheric falsetto vocals, replacing them here with his natural, albeit still high tenor range. The shift is apparent on "Take A Walk," as well as its frenetic follow-up, "I'll Be Alright." Seemingly a direct reference to his ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder and suicide attempts, the number's pesky, high-pitch samples and ongoing sonic chaos suggests a personality in perpetual conflict.

The concerning struggle that unfolds on "I'll Be Alright" is supplanted by the jubilant "Carried Away." Punchy and staccatoed verses buoyed by pre-programmed beats are swept away by the effervescent sing-along chorus, all the while belling its role as an extended apology for emotional turmoil, perhaps in a self-referential sense. Here, and elsewhere throughout the record, Angelakos' vocals are bolstered by the contributions of the Swedish vocal trio, Erato – whose cottage cheese container-backed covers of pop hits made them a YouTube sensation. Whether their inclusion was influenced by Angelakos or arranged by producer Chris Zane – who helmed the group's previous recordings – its a smart move to balance out Angelakos' presence over the collection. The number finds a complementary bookend later on in the form of the equally perky and belting chorus of "Hideaway," once it takes its leave of its unproductive minute-long intro.

Another new twist from previous efforts is Angelakos' take on blue-eyed soul on "Constant Conversations." The song's slower pace and R&B accompaniments is a stark contrast from the breezy romps of most of the group's material. But the stomping roots of techno come flaring back on "Mirrored Sea," with its heavily-electronic verses and waves of falsetto choruses from Angelakos across the sonic transom. It's a little blippy in the verses for my taste, but the hefty chorus largely compensate for the sparseness elsewhere, especially the redundant and uninteresting bridge part.

The pairing of the mid-record devotionals – to Silvia ("Cry Like a Ghost") and Christina ("On My Way") sets back the collection's tempo without much pizazz or passion, although the latter's chorus isn't a bad use of a hook, with bright organ underpinnings and an escalating beat. Even less compelling is the closer, "Where We Belong," who's lazy programming and mundane tone is the type of setting least conducive to Angelakos' approach.

But, fortunately, the combination of the brief, a-capella "Two Veils to Hide My Face" and the majestic fanfare of "Love Is Greed" are among the most adventurous the album has to offer. There seems to be much more waiting in the wings in the former that never gets its turn on stage in its short 34 seconds, and the Angelakos-Eroto grouping once again is a stellar match. And the bouncy and intricate intro of the latter obediently prances in the background after the numbers pulsing beat finds its way to the forefront, recalling the record's opener in the process.

Come for: "Take A Walk"
Stay for: Carried Away"
You'll be surprised by: "Two Veils to Hide My Face" / "Love Is Greed"

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

Sorry folks; it's just been too busy lately to keep up with new posts with any regularity. Fall brings hope of less commotion, so stay tuned till then for, perhaps, a return to more frequent posts.

With that mea culpa out of the way, we can turn our attention to the latest release from the act that has received the most attention in this space: the New Jersey-based rock quartet, The Gaslight Anthem and their fourth full-length album, Handwritten – out on July 24 on Mercury Records.

As we discussed in reviewing their previous effort, 2010's American Slang (NMT), the four-piece unit has been on a gradual march away from the Springsteen-via-The Clash fusion that dominated their early work such as 2007's Sink or Swim and 2008's The '59 Sound (NMT). And while both The Boss and the quintessential punk band reside at the functional heart of everything the band does, the ongoing shift to a more distinctive sound and style is marked by slower, harder and more personal material than before, all apparent moreso than ever on Handwritten.

Of course, with such a lead-in, the first couple tracks are naturally boilerplate replication's of their original approach. The kinetic "45" features the driving punk energy of The Clash blended with frontman Brain Fallon's Springsteenian narrative nostalgia. This isn't to say its recidivist work from Fallon and company; if you were previously drawn by the group's sound, more of the same is certainly no objection. It, and the follow-up title track will fit in nicely in the extended catalog alongside similar hard-charging numbers like "The Patient Ferris Wheel" or "We Came to Dance."

The real departure emerges on the third track, "Here Comes My Man." The Byrds'-style jangly eight-string electric guitar from Alex Rosamilia and Fallon's acoustic recalls Mellancamp heartland rock, a step away from the more coastal punk sound. Although Fallon has delivered acoustic material before on Gaslight Anthem records, those efforts we more solo, singer/songwriter compositions rather than woven onto the full band structure. At the same time, the slower pace and oldies rock chorus of "sha-la-la la" hardly is stock issue recasting either.

Meanwhile, "Mulholland Drive" is darker and harder than its preceding counterpart, with the rhythm section of bassist Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz at the forefront over Fallon's chugging guitar. Rosamilia does brighten the mood with his signature bright and high-fretboard figures during the verses along with a wailing solo at the bridge – a rarity for a band that doesn't feature much instrumental variation. The trend towards harder and slower continues on the bluesy "Keepsake," again allowing Rosamilia to move center stage. The number also introduces blood as a recurring theme across the 11-track collection, imagery that connects hearts, emotions and actions. The concept finds its obvious peak on "Too Much Blood," even more plodding and crunching than its predecessors. Here, Fallon revisits his throaty blues howl previously heard on older numbers like "The Diamond Street Church Choir" and "We're Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Dinner."   

The shimmering briskness of their previous life isn't abandoned altogether, however. A pair of later-appearing cuts – the appropriately succinctly-titled "Howl" and "Desire" – both recapture the sprinting pace of the Gaslight oeuvre and are completely enjoyable for that reason. But they're evened out by the sludgy "Biloxi Parish" – featuring a growling bass line from Levine – and the moody "Mae" to demonstrate the group's commitment to its darker direction. Closing out the affair is another Brian Fallon Sings! acoustic contribution in the deceptively apolitical "National Anthem."

Come for: "45"
Stay for: "Handwritten"
You'll be surprised by: "Here Comes My Man"

P.S. – In addition to Fallon's extensive work with The Gaslight Anthem, we also covered his Horrible Crowes (NMT) sideproject last year.

P.P.S. – The album's deluxe version features interesting covers of Nirvana's nearly-comical "Sliver" – with its memorable "grandma take me home" chorus – and Petty's "You Got Lucky" along with the original "Blue Dahlia," which is more in keeping with the band's original signature sound.