Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Onward, Soldiers

It was only recently that I've realized the importance of having access to an iPod – or a similar portable mp3-player device – when conducting a music review. Until now, I would customarily download my next review subject about a week before the intended post, and then spend a good 3-4 days listening to the material in transit to various destinations. But, with the earphone jack on my nearly six-year old iPod severely on the fritz, I'm temporarily resorted to listening via my more cumbersome e-mail machine. | #firstworldproblems | So, the sorts of customary references you might be accustomed to in this space – "vocals reminiscent of Roy Orbison" or "guitar riff in the Rick Nielsen tradition" – might be less frequent than usual until this obstacle is resolved. Apologies in advance.

Which brings us to this week's review, Monsters – the sophomore release from the Wilmington, N.C.-based Americana quartet, Onward Soldiers – out February 21 on Winoca Records. The nine-track effort pairs catchy, heartland rockers with more rootsy alt-country fare, and is a more fully-rendered vision of the group's sound compared to their 2009 debut, Ghost in the Town. The more expansive output is understandable, given the band doubled its make-up between records, with charter members – guitarist, pianist and frontman Sean Thomas Gerard and drummer Kevin Rhodes – adding lead guitarist Lincoln Morris and bassist Jarrett Dorman in the meantime. The expansion in numbers transformed the unit from a more upbeat version of Blind Pilot into a full-fledged rock-country fusion ensemble.

The proceedings begin jazzy and gently, via opener and leadoff single, "Telling Nobody." The easy-rolling piano from Gerard trades off well with Morris' understated electric guitar jangle. Gerard's vocals most closely match those of former Broken West (and now Apex Manor) singer Ross Flournoy's slight rusty twang battling with the pop-rock veneer of Rooney's Robert Schwartzman. In any case, the number is supremely comfortable with it's own pace, not in a particular hurry to get anywhere, but also not meandering. It's a fine introduction to and for the group.

It's follow-up, "Nighttime Sky," is a bit more adventurous, with a lurking haunt in both instrumentation and lyricism. The alternating roles for both strings and horns – paired with a ominous tango rhythm from Dorman and Rhodes – suggests back alleys and dark rooms where mischief is certain to unfold. Morris' muffled riffs recall Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins' distinctive 1/8-8/5/8-8 picking style.

Changing course with a hard pivot is the 80s-rock thumper, "Cinder Blocks." The muted electric guitar part from Gerard in the opening verses suggests hits from that decade from the likes of Rick Springfield, Bryan Adams and John Mellencamp. But all of the catchiness and none of the campiness of that era make the number the record's finest. It's straight-forward, hooky and earnest – the sort of output the band should square its direction on going forward.

The western rambler, "Living on the Run" comes across like a too-forced blend of ZZ Top and Tom Waits. Not to be confused, it's not a bad effort, but there's not much variation beyond Rhodes prominent snare and warbling lines from Morris and a mournful harmonica solo at the bridge. As a result, the track seems much longer than its listed 3:43, while its predecessor skated through its 4:46 with far more ease and levity.  The ode to the road theme continues on "Highway Calling," and while the tempo is even slower here, the floating organ notes and weeping slide guitar that define the number's beginning third are a fitting preface to the alt-country jamboree that breaks out over the remaining three minutes. It's not quite Wilco (NMT) territory yet, but more in the vein of Southeast Engine (NMT) or The Overmountain Men (NMT) – perfectly fine purveyors of the genre.

The bouncy title track adds a touch of Black Keys (NMT) influence, although it's a little sparse at times beyond Gerard's trippy narrative.  Meanwhile, the thoroughly country "Cry" sounds absolutely prehistoric, in a good way. Like the opener, it's fully at ease with its tempo and heading, with Gerard offering more swaying piano, Morris' delivering his best slide guitar work on the compilation and Dorman and Rhodes keeping things pleasantly loose, especially on the well-crafted chorus.

Rounding out the album are the dead-center ballad, "Carolina" and the more reflective "Leap Year." While the former is sufficiently rootsy and easy to digest, the home state references become a bit redundant, after Gerard took pains to insert Carolina references in both "Cinder Blocks" and "Highway Calling." By now, we get that you and your band are proud Carolinians; it's okay to tell us something new. But, other than that, it's fine. The latter – a fitting nod to the record's year of publication – is rooted in Gerard's measured piano, with little noticeable involvement from his cohorts. But it would probably work well as a first-encore, lighter-check number.

Come for: "Telling Nobody"
Stay for: "Cinder Blocks"
You'll be surprised by: "Cry"

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

fun. – Some Nights

NEW ORLEANS, La. – Happy Mardi Gras, readers, from The Big Easy! Your intrepid blogger is pulling off the impossible, here: reviewing a highly-anticipated album while participating in the world's greatest annual celebration. Okay, some of this post may have been pre-written.

It's under the auspices of such a time of jubilation and merriment that I must deliver some unfortunate news: the sophomore release by the New York theatrical pop trio, fun., – Some Nights, out today on Fueled By Ramen Records – is in many ways a supreme disappointment. Some of you may recall in my 2010 review of the group's debut record – Aim & Ignite (NMT) – I declared it the best record of that year. I'll stand by that statement and proclaim that effort to be my favorite album of the past five years, but offer no such praise for it's 11-track follow-up. To sum it up at the outset, it's a far cry from the eclectic and ambitious material the band used to introduce itself, replaced by artificial hip-hop beats and excessive autotuning by producer Jeff Bhasker. In fact, I'll go as far as to say I believe Bhasker decimated what could have otherwise been another outstanding effort by fun,. and what remains is an embarrassment.

Now, things start off quite promising. The compilation's eponymous Intro track – while short – is ambitious via the same sort of Queen-style underpinnings that circulated throughout Aim & Ignite. Frontman Nate Ruess gentle mezzo tenor once again pairs well with multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost's fragile piano at the outset, before building in increasing intensity and chaos, darting around the arpeggios of a operatic soprano in the background. The layered, studio vocals that follow are nothing short of direct Queen rip-offs, but that's no problem cause hardly any bands take advantage of the technique, so it's still fresh and bold more than three decades later. The epic, anthemic prelude reaches it's zenith with Ruess' glass-shattering finale. If this were the sort of material that propelled the entire record, Ruess, Dost and guitarist Jack Antonoff would have had another magnificent product on their hands.

Of course, you're expecting this paragraph to bring the battering ram of blinding criticism. Soon, but not yet. The full-fledged title track is a fitting companion to it's introduction. Although Ruess' vocals are refracted through miles of vocal effects, the result is not needlessly distracting and actually fuels the anticipation, with hints of the gospel-flavored bravado that paced Aim & Ignite hallmarks like "Benson Hedges" and "Barlights." Once the tribal rhythms kick in, Ruess channels fragments of Michael Jackson at the early-80s peak of his creativity and verve (pay attention for Ruess' "jack my style" line as proof), while Antonoff gets some well-placed riffs. It's a pulsing and energetic addition to the fun. cannon, and generally captures the type of growth and risky material I was expecting from this release. But before the number can even run its 4:37 duration, there's evidence things might go astray. At the 3:10 mark, the bridge veers off course with an grossly autotuned bridge sequence that is nearly absurd in its execution. Although apologists might argue it's clearly a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the overuse of autotune in contemporary pop music, the remainder of the record will bear out the futility of this claim. Thankfully, the return of the sing-along chorus along with good play-out lines from Antonoff combine to save the track from Bhasker's tricks.

The solid work continues on lead-off single, "We Are Young," a track that you've likely encountered with any interaction with pop culture over the past several months. The number features fun.'s first official outside contributor – R&B semi-star Janelle Monae – who provides vocals on the secondary chorus. Already broadening the group's audiences by thousands, if not millions – having already appeared in an episode of Glee and a car commercial – the tune's regimental beat and syncopated piano from Dost produce a decidedly throwback vibe, along with fuzzy guitar and bass from Antonoff. But, unlike so much of Aim & Ignite, Ruess' lyrics aren't very interesting or revealing, relying instead on repetition and volume to make its point. It's not among the unit's best work, but it's not dumpster-ready, either.

The initial restraint of "Carry On" – both Ruess' self-reflective lyrics and delivery as well as measured instrumentation from Dost and Antonoff – sets up the bolder and brighter chorus and verses that follow, and is more in keeping with the sort of production found on the band's debut. What sounds to be accordion – or at least computer-generated accordion – is a nice touch in the song's main body, adding a Celtic foundation new to the fun. oeuvre, before growing gradually heavier and culminating in an out-front solo for Antonoff, also a new addition to scoundscape for the trio. But, Bhasker's middling around at the end is a late-appearing annoyance to an otherwise solid effort.

Now, folks, here it comes: "It Gets Better" is just awful. The studio production is scattershot; the antithesis of authentic. There's traces of a decent melody there (see this video of the group performing it acoustically – far superior), but Bhasker just obliterates the material. It's be the worst thing the band has attempted to date. The same is largely true for "All Alone." Again, I think Ruess came up with an interesting idea (see live version) – which Dost and Antonoff usually translate into a musical vision, since Ruess doesn't play an instrument – but Bhasker does everything in his power to turn into hip-hop lunacy. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with straight-up hip-hop, or integrating influences of that genre into others – but fun. is a theatrical pop-rock outfit, not a zany Linkin Park. Fortunately, it does appear the band has some options for the number in live mode that aren't such an abomination. Similarly, "All Alright" reinforces Bhasker's preference to dominate with studio magic and prefabricated beats, although at least Dost's piano part is at least discernible here. Are the kid chorus vocals at the end cute or a ploy? At the same time, the blasting quasi-horns and bombastic beat of "One Foot" might as well be DJ Cool's "Let Me Clear My Throat" – WHERE IS THE REST OF THE BAND HERE?!! Ruess hardly has an interesting or non-redundant thing to say here save for his weeping bridge.

There's moments of salvation in both "Why Am I The One?" and "Stars." The former is a true ballad and earns a spot among the band's better ideas, with little interference of Bhasker. The latter, unfortunately, is sullied by Bhasker's dance beats background and cheesy computer horns, spoiling an earnest and sentimental lyrical approach from Ruess. Then the T-Pain-style autotune around the 2 minute mark renders the bulk of the long 6:53 unlistenable. How embarrassing for Ruess, who can belt top-register notes as well as any male vocalist, to be doctored with so explicitly. Still, it's better than the treatment Dost and Antonoff received for the bulk of the album (just look at Dost (left) in the promo photo at the top of this post. He's totally deer-in-the-headlights on this record). It would be truly fascinating to see what the pair's talents would have yielded had a producer who appreciated the group's skill had overseen the affair – perhaps someone like Steven McDonald, who was at the helm for Aim & Ignite.  

The bonus track, "Out On The Town," is promising – like much of the others – if the layers of studio gunk are peeled away to arrive at a more energetic, anthemic rock number.

Come for: "We Are Young"
Stay for: "Some Nights" / "Some Nights Intro"
You'll be surprised by: how epically awful much of the record is because of Bhasker.
Run far away from: "It Gets Better," "All Alright,""One Foot"

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ben Kweller

About a decade ago, a trio of unlikely collaborators were drawn together by the sole virtue of their first names: Ben. Among the combined talents of The BensFolds (NMT), Kweller and Lee – was a distinct ability to churn out spiffy vocal harmonies very much in the Crosby, Stills & Nash tradition, especially on the group's hallmark, "Just Pretend." And while all three contributors had strong track records in spinning out quality harmonies, many assumed the elder statesman, Mr. Folds, was most responsible for the vintage-sounding voice arrangements. But perhaps, after spending some time with Go Fly A Kite – the fifth full-length studio record of the youngest Ben, Mr. Kweller, out February 7 on his own The Noise Company label – it may become apparent it was Kweller's influence that was most responsible for shaping the harmonic blends.

If you're reading about Ben Kweller here and thinking the name rings a bell outside of my treatment of The Bens, you're not mistaken. You see, Kweller has been at work crafting highly-catchy, but well-arranged pop-rock for nearly two decades, despite his relative youth (30). After growing up as the next-door neighbor in Greenville, Texas, to well-traveled and respected rock guitarist Nils Lofgren, Kweller parlayed his neighborly connections into a full-on contract with Mercury Records for his band, Radish. While turning over bassists as often as Spinal Tap lost drummers, Radish managed to generate some indie rock airplay in the late '90s, especially for their 1997 single, "Little Pink Stars." Alas, the brush of indie stardom didn't last for Radish, and the group disbanded in 1999 as Kweller directed his energies to the solo career which would eventually lead to this week's review.

Kweller's Texan roots allows him to inhabit the intersection of rock, blues, country and western influences to arrive at a sound that is both textured and accessible. Beginning with the hard-charging, "Mean to Me," the range of his musical foundations are apparent. The muted, punctuated guitar of the chorus combines with smooth harmonies out of the 80's pop era, while the loose and ringing verses suggest the punkish energy of The Who or The Kinks. He's also learned not to stretch out a good idea more than is needed, yielding a 3:20 runtime that nods to the pop sensibilities of They Might Be Giants (NMT) or Butch Walker (NMT).

If you're wondering where all the CSN-flavored harmonies so highly touted in the lede are, your wait is not long. The countrified blues of "Out the Door" will have you anticipating a well-segued transition to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" even though the song doesn't actually need to be excellent on its own. By just allowing the piece to roll along on its buoyancy, Kweller demonstrates he's studied his Browne and Zevon in addition to Crosby, Stills and Nash by locating the listener's expectations and then trusting his ability to satisfy them. Even better, he wields his favorite crutch word – "honey" – as Petty deployed "down" and Scott Weiland yawned out each "time," a trend that's continued across Kweller's solo catalog.

As a multi-instrumentalist capable of performing every note of his material, Kweller's talents in both songwriting and performance are on full display here in "Jealous Girl." Arching his course of influences towards the driving Americana of Springsteen and Seger, Kweller's perpetual rolling piano work steals the number from the outset but also points back to his own "Penny on the Train Track" off his 2006 self-titled release – quite possibly his finest solo product to date. The pair of numbers should be a back-to-back staple of his live shows for years to come.

Meanwhile, the slow waltz of "Gossip" the ideal change-of-pace number following its more vibrant predecessors. The waltz figures suggest a certain inherent lightheartedness, but like other clever songwriters before him – the likes Lou Reed, They Might Be Giants tandem of Flansbaugh and Linnell or the Barenaked Ladies' Page (NMT) and Robertson – the jaunty signature only masks the lyrics deeper undercurrents of isolationism and cynicism. But the record's darker moments don't stagnate too long, as the harmonic joy from earlier return via "Full Circle." A touch more front porch bluegrass than "Out the Door," with a strolling piano line, the tune could have as easily been crafted up on a West Virginia holler in the 1880s, during an early-era Flying Burrito Brothers session in '69 or a more rootsy Wilco (NMT) adventure in the late '90s – it has that timeless ease to it that is not often replicated. The only slight misstep comes in the third verse, with the "ooh-ooos" and "high-ew-eh" either ill-advised or improperly recorded; they're just too out of place with the rest of song to work properly.

Actually, Kweller's greatest threat going forwarding may be the challenge of replicating his studio vocals in live settings. It sounds as if all the harmonies are overtakes of Kweller manning the various parts, and for the record, it's a phenomenal success. However, will his live band be able to replicate the magic of several Bens singing with himself (unless he were able to get, you know, a couple other guys named Ben to help him out).

Elsewhere, the piano-driven fits and starts of "Justify Me" recall Kweller's "Hospital Bed" off 2004's On My Way, while "The Rainbow" is built from the model kit of a classic McCartneyian piano ballad. Even the album's less exhilarating moments – the straightforward rocker "Free," the dewy, mellow blues of "Miss You" and the brash alt rock of "Time Will Save the Day" are all perfectly enjoyable and far from late-track filler. And by closing things out with the upbeat, gospel-tinged, "You Can Count on Me," Kweller bookends the proceedings with plenty of backbone and spirit, qualities not commonly found in closing numbers.

Come for: "Out the Door"
Stay for: "Jealous Girl"
You'll be surprised by: "Full Circle"  

Saturday, February 11, 2012


On the heels of my Craig Finn (NMT) review on Friday is the next installment of my whirlwind sprint to catch up to speed. This is an intentionally short review, since the material in question is likewise brief: the five-song debut EP by the Los Angeles-based quartet, Harriet, Tell the Right Story – self-released by the band on January 31 via its website (get it for free here!).

At the helm is former Dawes pianist/keyboardist Alex Casnoff, and although he incorporates prominent elements of his prior group's sound, the new band's primary sonic marker to most new listeners might be Billy Joel – and not just because Casnoff is a pianoman. Casnoff's song structures, vocal phrasing and pitch all point to the iconic New York singer/songwriter. The comparisons come early, via leadoff single and album opener, "I Slept With All Your Mothers." On top of the track's punch, staccato piano base, Casnoff stretches out his vowels across measures with the sort of full-throated brashness that defined Joel's delivery. By the time guitarist Sean O'Brien and drummer Henry Kwapis chime in with their own sharply punctuated figures, Casnoff has already staked his claim to the number's identity. And while the band adds more alt rock crunch you might expect more from the Ben Folds Five than Billy Joel, it's still a sprawling, theatrical, angry piece of music that harks more to piano-based numbers in the classic rock era.

A little less epic in tone is the following "Soldier," with its precise beat and more prominent lead lines for O'Brien. The deliberate crispness of the opener, though, carries over and it doesn't take Casnoff long to reach deep into the lungs to belt out the chorus. It's also the closest the short record comes to a true ballad, grounded in Kwapis' steady drive and understated lines for bassist Aaron Folb – who also contributes organ and synthesizer parts throughout the album, while Casnoff takes some reps on rhythm guitar, as well. 

The quasi-calypso beats of "Sign" specifically recall the early 80s, as if The Police paired with Joel for a slower take on "Spirits in the Material World." The number really comes into it's own right around the two minute mark, with the full talents on display in unison, and surges with some added oomph as it builds at the end. I'm not as much for the bulk of "Don't Fight the Feeling" – too moody and sullen for a band with this much swagger and latent power – but they track down their lost overdrive pedals just at the 1:30  mark, and I wish it continued longer. It seems likely Casnoff had a viable musical idea here, but could have benefited from some outside guidance on where to take it (O'Brien produced the record).

Fortunately, the ringing "Send 'Em Up" returns to the group's strength's, and Casnoff's belting narrative again reaches for the Billy Joel template. It doesn't take much to envision Joel telling how he "was followed by my brother in 1952," in a troubled family narrative playing to Casnoff's strengths as a storyteller and vocalist. It's the type of material that will yield a long run for the outfit if Casnoff and his mates can build on a largely strong start.

Come for: "I Slept With All Your Mothers"
Stay for: "Send 'Em Up"
You'll be surprised by: "Sign"

Friday, February 10, 2012

Craig Finn

So, it's a Friday – not a Tuesday – and it's been more than 2 weeks since a new post. What gives? Well, during that time, your blogger has managed to become engaged and celebrate the retirement of one of this space's most dedicated readers. In other words, it's been a bit busy. That is unfortunate, because the last few weeks have seen the release of some tremendous new material, and I'm determined to capture it all, even if it means some off-Tuesday posts and scattershot schedules. By early March, things will likely have returned to normal sinus rhythm.

We start this bevy of reviews with the solo debut from the frontman of one of NMT's favorite acts: The Hold Steady's Craig Finn and his 11-track offering, Clear Heart Full Eyes, out January 24 on Vagrant Records. Your blogger has long maintained that no one in the world could possibly love and appreciate their job more as Finn does while at the helm of The Hold Steady (NMT). The man exudes exuberance and joy while rattling off his upper Midwest narratives on top of the band's charging rockers, and appears to be constantly amazed he isn't your accountant. Here, the narrative approach is no less diminished, although he tones down the revelry. The solo material is far more restrained, somber and a tad more musically adventurous than his work with his primary artistic outlet, which is reasonable ground for a solo effort.

It doesn't take long for Finn to distinguish his own melodic space here, through the soupy and trippy leadoff, "Apollo Bay." With lyrics circulating through just a handful of concepts, hazy electric guitar warble and wafting keyboard accents, it's a sound that would probably fall flat in The Hold Steady's muscular post-punk. The surreal canvas comes especially informed by the Texas settings where Finn recorded the album, at The Mansion in Austin. His collaborators are likewise largely Texas-based, with White Denim (NMT) drummer Josh Block manning the kit, Ricky Ray Jackson of the Austin-based outfit Lomita covering many of the guitar parts – in addition to Finn – while Catherine Davis, another Austinite, on loan from Zykos, provides flavor on piano, keyboards and organ. And although not as long as the opener, "When No One's Watching" maintains the pace and tone of its predecessor, albeit with a touch more hallmark Finn narratives, as we hear about "Wendy at the Wagon Wheel," "the wreckage that you left and the places that you slept," and "Jesus and the coffee and the talking."

Interestingly, it's the subject of the latter of these phrases – Jesus – which returns throughout the course of the record, in ways that mark new ground for Finn's exploration of his faith in his work. Sure, anyone listening to just a handful of Hold Steady tracks would have no trouble spotting Finn's recurring Twin Cities-based Catholic parochialism, a convenient and distinctive tool for setting, plot or character development. But here, it's more personal, direct and expansive, beginning on the track that hews most closely to his Hold Steady foundations – "No Future." The punchy rock number references Christ's crucifixion in its bridge, but also points back to his main band's "Constructive Summer" and his want to designate his rock ancestors as his true saints. While before he anointed "Saint Joe Strummer" as his "only decent teacher," he now looks to "Good old Freddie Mercury" as "the only guy that advises me" and notes that the "best advice that I've ever gotten was from good old Johnny Rotten." Finn's signposting his already-established rock-based creed is an anchor he can use to ground his more expressive comments on faith on the tracks ahead.

This begins in earnest and quite deliberately with "My New Friend Jesus." It's flagrantly tongue-in-cheek ("it's hard to suck with Jesus in your band" or "people say we suck at sports, but they don’t understand; it’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands") but Finn has too much invested in his identity as a soul-bearing troubadour to be pulling a fast one. Although the sunny country-western vibe does nothing to lessen the we're-all-in-on-the-joke lyrics, he does himself in with the revelatory bridge: "Wish I was with Jesus when you loved me; I would have found a better me, that much I can guarantee."

Later on, he returns to the topic with much more intentionality on the rusty, Old West-style ballad, "Western Pier." After proclaiming, "Christ is watching me right now," in the opening stanza, he tightens his affirmation by more than a few notches at the track's end as though he's a weary plains drifter, explaining, "Jesus is a judge, and he's kind and he's just, and he forgives us for our avarice and lust." After spending the bulk of the number's 3:52 grounding the narrator's emotional conviction, such an apology for his faith cannot be considered as anything but sincere.

The most interesting stop on this journey is the first single, "Honolulu Blues," a cut not far removed from Hold Steady territory in musical execution, but further afield in lyrical import. From a man who "darkened our doorway....to share the good news" to a chorus laden with the imagery of Christ's resurrection, it's an adventurous path for Finn, especially on a track which could otherwise be easily accessible to his well-cultivated Hold Steady audience. He asks his listeners to at least consider his convictions even if they don't agree with them, a relatively daring move in an era when many artists expect too little of their audience while others dictate exactly what they think the experience of their material should be. 

Fortunately, for those of you for looking for a little less explorations of faith from your favorite story-spinning rock frontman, Finn devotes larger portions of the compilation to less confrontational realms. "Jackson" could easily serve as the backstory to The Hold Steady's live favorite, "Sequestered in Memphis," telling the story of the narrator, Stephanie and Jackson and how they ended up holed-up in a hotel room after some bad things went down. Whether the precise storylines between the two songs line-up is irrelevant; it's Finn's ability to take the listener into a scene with him where things might turn out epically awful, but it would be a helluva trip to be part of. The same is largely true on the uptempo "Terrified Eyes," which takes the scene back to the Wagon Wheel from "When No One's Watching," and the complicated relationship dynamics of Shannon and Sean. Few but Finn could take an insider's view of a tenuous relationship and avoid it devolving to the stuff of Coldplay.

He wraps things up with a couple of the slower, more moody numbers that routinely fill-out the back ends of records. "Rented Room" is a bluesy, back room diversion, while the closer "Balcony" benefits from a bit more pep in its step and an alluring steel guitar part from Jackson, one of the album's more distinctive moments in melody.

Come for: "No Future"
Stay for: "Honolulu Blues"
You'll be surprised by: "Western Pier"