Tuesday, January 24, 2012


[As a preambulatory note, in my end of 2011 holiday message, I referred to a forthcoming review of Snow Patrol's new release, Fallen Empires. I had modest hopes for the record, but as the objective of this blog is to promote music that I actually enjoy, I couldn't endorse it in good faith, as I didn't. It was alright, but maddeningly bland – not much differentiation between one song and the next. So, I had expected more, and rather than find reasons to make it through an entire post, I decided instead to spend the time and space on something a bit more interesting. If you're curious about some more enticing work from Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody, see my review of his work in Tired Pony (NMT)]

After some time spent listening to this week's reviewees, I've realized that I cut a bit more critical slack to male vocalists with higher voices than I do with lower ones. Looking back on some previous reviews, I've given leeway to some groups with vocalists who's nasal pitch and tone could easily be a turn-off – such as Titus Andronicus (NMT), Telegraph Canyon (NMT) or the Rural Alberta Advantage (NMT, NMT) – while routinely chastising other singers for low-register performances, like I did with Tokyo Police Club (NMT) and Miracles of Modern Science (NMT). The larger point is if a band puts out enjoyable and interesting songs, shouldn't I give baritones and basses the same credit I afford tenors? This profile will be an exercise in that expanded view, through the debut of the Minneapolis, Minn., quintet, Howler – America Give Up,  out on January 17 on Rough Trade Records.

It should be noted right off the bat that I dislike Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith's vocals on the most of the album's 11 tracks. It's growly and sloppy, and takes away attention from his generally high-quality songwriting, which is especially advanced for his age (19). Sure, there have been a good handful of great, deep-singing vocalists through the history of rock – Jim Morrison and Joey Ramone immediately come to mind, while your blogger's first meaningful experience with adult music came via a group with the most lower-limits lead singer of them all, the Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts. But Gatesmith's efforts to work within his range come across as a failure of execution at best or supreme laziness at worst. Sure, some of this could be a result of a still unfamiliar adult voice during the late teenage years, so his future work may offer some opportunities to refine his style.

Setting aside his self-inflicted vocal shortcomings, the bulk of Gatesmith's work on America Give Up points to a promising start for a young songwriter. Reflecting the grainy surf rock experiencing a resurgence lately via acts like Wavves (NMT) and Surfer Blood, Gatesmith's compositions are high-energy and briskly paced, like opener "Beach Sluts." The bouncy guitars from Gatesmith and Ian Nygaard hold their own with Brent Mayes' pulsing drums. The slower slog of "Back to the Grave" isn't far off the American Slang sound from the Gaslight Anthem (NMT), although Gatesmith's sludgy vocals first become apparent here. Fortunately, they're balanced out with a who-hoo chorus and cycling guitars.

The perky punk of "This One's Different" is more playful than its predecessors, and its simplicity in song structure is the track's key virtue. It hums along without much restraint and signals a pace that should be well-suited to live settings. The clangy guitars of "America" point to more retro garage band influences, arching back to The Kingsmen and The Kinks, although it would have benefited from a greater role for keyboardist Max Petrek, who could have added some color to the snarly arrangement. A Farfisa organ line here could have shifted the number to a true vintage sound.

Meanwhile, the murky, muddy ballad "Too Much Blood" won't be considered the record's hallmark. Although Gatesmith's growl can be tolerated when driven by a brisk pace, it's a draining influence here, making everything sound slower and less smartly composed. Moreover, the melody and rhythm are largely unchanged throughout the cut, only adding to its plodding nature.

Fortunately, the remainder of the collection not only rebounds from here, but improves. "Wailing (Making Out)" allows the fullest sample of Petrek's work, with his whirring organ part filling in the number's intensity. Meanwhile, "Pythagorean Fearem" is rambunctious in an Iggy & the Stooges kind of way, hardly pausing for a breath in the short 2:28 runtime, and might be the perfect outlet for Gatesmiths skills at both singing and songwriting at this stage.   

In "Told You Once," the inclusion of Gatesmith's acoustic guitar on top of Nygaard's surf style electric lines adds crispness and distinctiveness from the album's other tracks. And while it's subject number is decidedly self-loathing, it hardly wallows in that internal pity, with an upbeat melody and energetic accompaniment from Myers and bassist France Camp. And despite its unfortunate landing spot late in the lineup, first single "Back of Your Neck" is easily the group's finest output here. It's exuberant and catchy, in the spirit of uptempo pop-rock outfits like Los Campesinos! (NMT) and Grouplove (NMT) with who-ho choruses and lively lead guitar lines. It only wants of a couple horns to add a bit more punch, and Nygaard's solo is surprisingly sparse-sounding, considering the overall jubilant vibe. But these are rookie mistakes, and excusable considering the quality of the number.

Later on, "Free Drunk" could have fit well on Telekinesis' 12 Desperate Straight Lines (NMT), although it could have benefited from the same sort of brightness Michael Benjamin Lerner employed on that record. But, otherwise, it's a fine attempt at fairly straightforward hooky rock. "Black Lagoon" returns the snotty surfer punk last heard on the record's opening third, and it's enjoyable in its snarly whiplash. "Horrorshow" closes things out on a low-fi, noise rock plane. It's not the best thing here, but I'd much rather hear more of this direction in the future from Gatesmith than the dispassionate clutter of "Too Much Blood."

Come for: "Back of Your Neck"
Stay for: "Pythagorean Fearem"
You'll be surprised by: "Told You Once"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Little Willies

Country and jazz. Sounds like the ultimate in paradoxes, right? How could the more rigid and often campy country genre – especially in its bastardized mainstream variety mesh with the free-flowing and erudite jazz? But, like chicken and waffles – when placed in the right hands – they can strike the perfect balance between surprise and satisfaction. Such is the case with the New York City-based, genre-spanning quintet The Little Willies and their sophomore release, For the Good Times, out on January 6 on Jones' Milking Bull records.

Pairing first-rate country pickers with Norah Jones' top-shelf jazz piano and vocals across a sampling of  country and R&B covers – along with a couple of originals, the record's dozen tracks capably match country's earnest authenticity with jazz's intentional cool and experimentation. Although it's neither the epicenter of jazz nor country, the City makes eminent sense as the place where such disparate styles come together, as so many other aspects of culture have done over the past few centuries. As Jones and her co-lead vocalist Richard Julian explained to Paste Magazine, the group had originally scheduled its first session together for the morning of September 11, 2001. While the events of that day delayed those plans, the collective ultimately used the tragedy as a reason to press on and record their self-titled debut in 2006.

A la the New Pornographers (NMT), Jones plays Neko Case to Julian's A.C. Newman, with Jones' sultry and smoky jazz providing the garnish while Julian's straight-forward, untwangy county serves as the steady foundation. As a nod to that dichotomy, the opening choice of Dr. Ralph Stanley's "I Worship You" is a perfect introduction to the group's bidirectional influences. The belt-it-out soul of the verses brilliantly clashes with the chorus rattlesnake gallop, punctuated by lead guitarist Jim Campilongo's crisp front lines. Stanley is best known for his "O, Death" from the O, Brother, Where Art Thou? soundrack, and the band's selection here demonstrates the breadth of his songwriting talent.

A little less bipolar and more jazzy is the following "Remember Me," with Jones gliding across the 1939 ballad penned by Scotty Wiseman – which he performed with his wife Lulu Belle – her piano and pining vocals anchoring the track, as Julian and his acoustic guitar standing in as a gentle sparring partner for Jones. The lightly brushed snare of drummer Dan Rieser and stand-up bass from Lee Alexander recall the impossibly easy jazz of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and Campilongo's lead part adds color, not distraction. Its countrified counterpart is the Julian-fronted "Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves," the 1952 trucker tale by Cal Martin, later recorded by Gene Autry and Burl Ives. Julian smartly lets Martin's fast-paced lyrics steal the attention, with Campilongo once again the instrumental highlight; his Mexicali blues riffs tracing the storyline through winding western mountain passes, the trucker's focus increasingly diverted by his racy visions of the "dangerous curves" of ladies along the journey. For your blogger, it would only be better if the lyrics were referencing a railroad engineer.

The collection hits its stride with "Lovesick Blues," the squirrelly 1922 Tin Pan Alley product by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills later popularized by Hank Williams (Sr) in the 1940s. Jones and Julian smooth out the warbly edges patterned by Williams and down-shift the number into slower, jazzier territory. The band's take is its best work in blurring the boundaries between country and jazz, as if they had always been the most natural of bedfellows.

Following Campilongo's original and largely instrumental roadhouse romp, "Tommy Rockwood" – for which the song's title character are the only lyrics voiced by Jones and Julian – Jones returns with her boastful version of Loretta Lynn's brawling "Fist City." Lynn's rambunctious and heavily syncopated offering from 1968 aligns well with the group's strengths: expert performance of their instruments and star-turn vocals from Jones. More importantly, its evident the five-piece enjoys rambling through the cut's brisk 2:59, essential for a composition with so much inherent hubris.

On "Permanently Lowly," Julian presents a decidedly Jackson Browne-style rendition of Willie Nelson's 1982 original, substituting a lighter and easier jazz figure for Nelson's drier southwest vibe. Just as interestingly, the group transforms the initially comedic "Fowl Owl on the Prowl" – which was somehow and inexplicably written by Quincy Jones for the 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night – into a slower, darker and more haunting jazz concept, although it becomes a bit redundant after a few passes.

Not surprisingly, Jullian's "Wide Open Road" – composed by Johnny Cash in 1954 during his Sun Records days – is properly speedy, reflecting both the song's title and it's author's legacy, a healthy road anthem, while "For the Good Times" makes the counter argument. Kris Kristofferson's well-covered ballad from 1970 urges restraint and reflection that seem far removed from Cash's call to adventure. Closing things up are the familiar Hank Williams hit "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time" – probably better known as the Honky Tonking song, originally written by Lefty Frizzell and Jim Beck – which is again reflected in the inverse by Dolly Parton's 1973 narrative, "Joline," accounting the fears of a nervous housewife faced with what she perceives as a threat to her husband's love. Jones doesn't aim far afield if Parton's distinctive vocal delivery, and is one of the few contemporary singers capable of hitting her mark.

Come for: "Lovesick Blues"
Stay for: "Fist City"
You'll be surprised by: "Permanently Lowly" 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Barr Brothers

With the recent holiday period pushing most of the new year's new releases into the second week of January, this week presents an opportunity to visit a fall release that didn't make last year's reviews, in the form of the self-titled debut of Montreal, Quebec-based The Barr Brothers, released on September 27, 2012 on Secret City Records.

The 10-track efforts is fueled primarily by quiet and dark folk and roots numbers, with promising glimpses of loose blues rock and hearty Americana, with the devil as a recurring thematic character throughout. Recording most of the record in a basement boiler room, the approach mirrors the industrial graininess achieved by The Low Anthem (NMT) on their 2011 album, Smart Flesh, which was recorded in an old pasta sauce factory. Not coincidentally, that group shares similar roots in Providence, R.I., with The Barr Brothers' namesake siblings, Brad and Andrew, part of the more experimental outfit out of Boston, Mass., The Slip. The brothers, respectively, handle the guitar and percussion duties, with Brad assuming most of the lead vocals and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial and harpist Sarah Page adding color and texture.

Beginning with a wash of ambient sounds, opener "Beggar in the Morning" is an unassuming start, an easy trek that builds in complexity and drive as Brad's moody lyrics narrate the scene. The rusty backdrop – while not strictly a conceptual structure for the entire album – is the sort of underpinnings prevalent on the emerging work of Okkervil River (NMT) more than a decade ago and the more recent narrative-based folk rock of Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT). It's following counterpart, "Ooh, Belle" is even more gentle and all the more nuanced, with Page's harp first making a noticeable appearance, who also adds welcome backing vocals here, contrasting with Brad's low-register range.

The pairing of "Old Mythologies" and "Give the Devil Back His Heart" advance both the collection's pace and storyline, with the dancing acoustic guitar and harp interplay of the former a precursor to the blues-laced classic rock flavor of the latter, as touches of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Led Zeppelin and The Grateful Dead help cast the tale of the hillside wanderer. Meanwhile, "Cloud (for Lhasa)" is as light and floating as its title suggests, pointing to the wistful influence of George Harrison, and although "The Devil's Harp" obviously highlights Page's distinctive instrument, its the most western-flavored offering in the set, as if some confrontation with Lucifer is at play on some mountain pass in Colorado or New Mexico. It's an interesting direction for a folk rock outfit out of Montreal.

As the record's true outlier, "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying"is straight out of the messy blues currently popularized by The Black Keys (NMT). Brad's electric parts are raw and snarly, a sizable departure from the intentionally quiet folk material earlier on, and Andrew's drumming is unrestrained and pulsing, with Vial's bass rumbling along in the background. But it is a challenge to pick out where Page's harp fits in here.

The dusty trail ramblers return on "Deacon's Son," a pioneer's adventure westward punctuated by Andrew's clip-clop percussion and Vial's trippy vibraphone, with the somewhat strange inclusion of steel drum jangle launching the number's extended jam. "Held My Head" arcs back to the contemplative quiet of the album's early cuts, and "Let There Be Horses" resolves the compilation in a smoky haze comparable to Wilco's (NMT) more simplified moments, like "Jesus, Etc" or "Hummingbird."

Come for: "Beggar in the Morning"
Stay for: "Old Mythologies"
You'll be surprised by: "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying"

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

sans serif

Frequent readers of this space might roll their eyes after the description of 2012's first profilees: oh, no; not another large, multi-gender, indie-pop group hailing from Canada. And those descriptors certainly line-up with very many groups profiled here, such as the New Pornographers (NMT), the Arcade Fire (NMT), Stars (NMT), Ra Ra Riot (NMT), Hey Rosetta! (NMT) and Library Voices (NMT), this cohort of bands have no trouble receiving coverage here. But this week, that familiar template is just slightly askew, as the Halifax, Nova Scotia octet sans serif integrate more of the indie rock roots flavor of acts like R.E.M. (NMT) and 10,000 Maniacs with vaudevillian jazz interludes in the spirit of the Squirrel Nut Zippers on their full-length debut, i'm not in love (i'm in dartmouth), self-released by the band in early December.

Featuring a decidedly unpolished veneer across the record's 11 tracks, the group allows its fiddles, horns and acoustic guitars to establish a rustic foundation, while their quirky humor and sonic experimentation tacks the output away from straight alt-country (an increasingly well-worn genre these days). Such is true from the outset, with the strange synth, tuba and violin intro of "the (power) storm" hardly a prelude to the peppy acoustic pop that's actually the song's core. Primary lead singer Stephanie Gora sounds like the far less pretentious version Natalie Merchant that fronted 10,000 Maniacs in the In My Tribe era of that act's smart art pop. It's a shame the band doesn't provide instrumental listings for their various members on any of its electronic media (a quick search only yielded Gora as the lead singer), so all credits here will be non-specific. To that end, the track's jangly guitars and soaring violins merge to support Gora's straightforward vocals, while the rhythm section (whoever that is) keep a refreshingly brisk pace.

But inasmuch as the group's self-produced approach can produce fine examples of earnest and enjoyable pop rock as found on the opener, it can also lead to the occasional lack of focus, which is no more apparent on the following "landlines." After an unorganized mash of competing sounds at the front-end, the bulk of the number's limited 1:36 can't decide if it's a quick perky piano ditty or a splash of noise fuzz. Either would have been worth an attempt, but the combination of dual missions and short run time leave the listener confused. Another of the album's recurring flaws – which is also first apparent here – is the inability to wrap up a number without it collapsing into disarray. Both of these issues – while not fatal, especially for a young band just releasing its first full record for free – could likely have been tidied up with fresh set of ears behind the nobs. The same is true on proceeding numbers such as "franklin park zoo" and "(it's so hard to fake it) in the cold."

Again, the production limitations don't generally hinder the better part of the session, of which "mixed metaphors" is one of the finest. The acoustic guitar, horns and trap kit here could easily be mistaken for the jazzy vaudeville of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, with its loosely arranged clutter both endearing and amusing. And later on, the nerdy pairing of "lets.all.abort.time" and "lets all redistribute wealth" is the sort of jubilantly intelligent stuff this blog attempts to locate (remember the geeky swagger of "I Found Space" from Miracles of Modern Science (NMT) in our most recent review?). The former – the record's longest track, but still only clocking in at 3:57 – imagines an intergalactic android battle interrupting a quiet afternoon picnic, while the latter is the collection's most intricately-arranged product and points to the zany infectiousness of an act like Los Campesinos! (NMT) in its chorus. The only complaint within this tandem is the overly-campy shout responses from whichever guys are providing them. With Gora providing a perfectly acceptable standard for lead vocals and some combination of fellow female bandmates Rachel Wise and Andromeda MacIsaac (could she possibly be related to superb Nova Scotian fiddler Ashely MacIsaac?) providing solid supporting vocals elsewhere, the guys' involvement here is unnecessarily silly and distracting, even though the intent of both numbers is squarely tongue-in-cheek.  

With either Wise or MacIsaac taking over lead duties on "i love you (but i don't want to touch you)" is solidly humorous and musically interesting, via the see-sawing battle between the regimental percussion, punkish bass and guitar lines and the frenetic horn and string parts. It also forms an interesting contrast with the moody rockabilly duet "calque," featuring sultry country twang from Gora and beatnick bravado from whichever guy compliments her here, before transforming into a campfire-style singalong later.

I'm not so into the college a-capella sounding ham intro of "smoke detectors," but it does settle nicely into a wistful ballad after the opening foolishness and again after a mid-number goofy breakdown that doesn't add much the concept. Closing out the affair, the title track – fronted by another guy – is again hard to take seriously. That's the thing about recorded musical comedy: it's hard to deliver when so overtly comical. A quick sample of acts known for musical comedy – Harry Chapin, They Might Be Giants (NMT), Barenaked Ladies and Moxy Fruvous – all undersold their gestures on record to allow their inherent witticism and clever ideas to stand on their own. It's not that the ideas are bad here, but that the performance gets in the way. It's something that outside experience should be able to refine on future efforts, along with the mid-track shifting changes of time signatures, chaotic closures, short run times and occasionally inconsistent rhythm (not to suggest the rhythm section isn't talented). Let's allow them that opportunity by downloading and sharing the group's promising start, hopefully yielding time in a professional studio with some well-meaning guidance.

Come for: "the (power) storm"
Stay for: "mixed metaphors"
You'll be surprised by: "lets.all.abort.time"