Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Final Super Review for 2013

Happy New Year! Obviously, its been a little. No good reasons why. But let's just wrap-up 2013 with a hat trick of reviews of records – all on the same day (October 29th) – earlier this fall I've been meaning to share my thoughts on. They correlate with three different acts at different stages of their careers. The first is one of few rock acts that can make an impression on the overall pop music scene these days. The second is a rabble-rousing troupe from Wales and the third an experimental fusion rock outfit from Texas. My reaction to their respective output is presented in ascending order of positivity, at least in my view.

The Arcade Fire (NMT)
New Release: Reflektor
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Record Label: Mercury Records
Sounds Like: Hey Rosetta (NMT); Rah Rah (NMT); The Talking Heads
Location: Montreal, Quebec

Look, there's no shortage of critical reaction to the ambitious fourth release from the most well-known multi-gender, instrument-swapping rock collective – a double album clocking in at more than 70 minutes of run time (although it will still fit on a standard blank 80-minute CD for burning purposes). Some think it sets a new vanguard for contemporary instrumental experimentation and thematic courage. Others think it fails according to every measure conceivable and the group is perpetually pulling one off on its hoodwinked audience. You're probably not surprised to read that my impression, then, is somewhere between those polemics.

I do think the group is capable of producing moments of brilliance, both on record and in live settings. All of their past releases have had handfuls of transcendent tracks as well as long stretches of overreaching nonsense. This is no less true on Reflektor's 13 cuts. The flashes of influence from David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and The Talking Heads that began percolating up on their previous effort – 2010's The Suburbs (NMT) – are at deluge levels here. Whether that's a welcome nod to the predecessors who informed their sonic trajectory or ugly recidivism depends on your taste.

I'm far more interested in how the group – which currently is constituted of six full-time members in the studio, along with an assortment of touring musicians – is able to weave the new material into their arena-scale live show. Having never seen the band in concert before their tour supporting The Suburbs, I was thoroughly won over by the unit's ability to reach epic levels of performance across their entire catalog at the time, especially the rave-like interaction between the group and audience on selections from their 2004 debut release, Funeral. I suspect several Reflekor tracks will manage a similarly successful transition to the stage. All the other baloney about whether the act is too full of itself in asking concert attendees to dress up for dates on 2014's worldwide tour or whether it offers anything constructive commentary on the plight of Haiti (from which co-leader Regine Chassagne hails) are all cheap shots at a group that's desperately trying to preserve the flash and flair that used to accompany rock bands of their caliber, ground that's been almost entirely ceded to the rap, hip hop and shock pop genres. I give them points for at least giving it their all.

There are a few overarching negatives, though. First, its a crime that Chassagne doesn't receive a lead vocals track of her own. While co-leader Win Butler is still the better overall singer – Chassagne can come across as breathless at times and her preference to sing in French is fine in short doses – she's, by far, the better live performer, as anyone who's seen her command the stage on "Haiti" off Funeral can attest. Butler can seem aloof and has the worst stage banter instincts in live music history, while Chassagne is graceful and demanding.  She deserves a fuller platform. Along those same lines, there are several between-song interludes that I guess are supposed to feel like some kind of concert experience. They're awkward and pointless, and if the aim is for some ironic commentary on bad performance dynamics, they've missed their mark. In addition, Butler and company like to drop references, especially historical ones ("Joan Of Arc," Eurydice, Orpheus) but they're entirely devoid of context or illumination. It's an assortment of information that's incumbent on the listener to interpret, not the educational experience you receive in a Colin Meloy or Will Sheff song. Sure, I may be too pedantic to get some of the call-outs that are obvious to those are more well-read on Greek mythology or criticisms of colonialism, but the job of an artist isn't to make your audience feel uniformed. Lastly (and sadly), the second half is largely unproductive. There's a few interesting moments in both "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" and "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" but no single track is fully realized on its own.

Come for: "Reflektor" (six minutes is unquestionably long for a leadoff single and the record's title track is assuredly too repetitive at times; it also has the meatiest rock choruses and is the album's zenith in both tone and performance)
Stay for: "Normal Person" (don't dig too deep into co-leader Butler's reflections on normalcy – a fetish that appears in nearly every negative review of Reflektor – while missing the muscular instrumental noise that's the heart of the effort's most well-rounded track; there's also guitar solos aplenty, which should quell much of the fear that the band's transforming into an electronic-focused act; you can draw a line from this track to The Suburbs' "Modern Man," both of which underscore the Talking Heads influence most transparently) 
You'll be surprised by: "You Already Know" (this Motown-flavored pop confection is decidedly the sonic outlier on the record and its great for that reason; the track's bass line is the tune's backbone, the best of an album that has numerous outstanding bass parts, with bass duties usually shared between Tim Kingsbury and Richard Reed Parry; I do wish the over-accentuation of syllables on the chorus was a little less pronounced)
Solid efforts: "We Exist" (touches of The Clash here, with the stabbing guitars and rolling bass line, and a fine chorus when it comes around, but its a lot of repetition to endure at times); "Here Comes the Night Time" (I really wish the frenetic, carnival-like intro and outro that bookend the track's midsection were actually the bulk of the number, which is the band's commentary of the original and ongoing colonial posture towards Chassagne's Haiti; how well that message is conveyed lyrically is less important than the well-rendered Carribean vibe of the song as a whole, replete with steel drums and varying rhythm signatures); "Joan Of Arc" (after an ominously metal-like intro – one I wish they'd explored a bit more – the number's bouncy groove is enjoyable); "Afterlife" (there's some pretty cool rock-electronic synthesis here, but not a whole lot of variation beyond the core lyrical and instrumental hook, so its twice as long as it needs to be)
Meh: "Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)" (the track's namesake is truly apropos, because the bulk of its firt half really features some kinds of awful sounds, which I'm not sure are connected with a larger purpose other than proving that, yes, they can produce an awful sound; still, find your way to the 3:00 mark, when the number brushes the periphery of Pink Floyd's more productive experimentation); "It's Never Over (Hey Orpheus)" (I think there's something here, but its sparse and not aided by the number's nearly dead-stop, again around the 3:00 juncture; the rest is kind of uneven);
Skip to next track: "Flashbulb Eyes" (I appreciate the sonic effect they're trying to achieve – as evidenced by the title – but its not very enjoyable but for a tiny fraction of the 2:42 runtime); "Here Comes the Night Time II" (the kind of ambient electronic dirge that led me to mostly avoid groups like Nine Inch Nails); "Porno" (not nearly as risque as the title suggests); "Supersymmetry" (remember every bad notion you have of double albums because its on full display here; even worse, after the 5 and 3/4 minutes of avant garde noise, you'd think there'd be some kind of neat hidden track at the end of its 11:17, but there's little more than quiet and brief instrument flourishes strewn about the remaining 6 minutes; dreadful)

Los Campesinos! (NMT)
New Release: No Blues
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Record Label: Wichita Recordings
Sounds Like: We Were Promised Jetpacks (NMT, NMT), Broken Social Scene
Location: Cardiff, Wales

Unlike Arcade Fire's naked ambition, the similarly-sized outfit from Wales – Los Campesinos! – seems to be quite content plugging away at what they do best on their fifth full-length release, No Blues: plucky, infectious indie pop-rock. The group consistently spins out easy-to-digest, relatively joyful-sounding tromps that belile frontman Gareth's recurring themes of mortality and gloom. Seriously, in addition to the entire tracks of "What Death Leaves Behind" and "Cemetery Gaits," there's morbid gems like "We all know we're gonna die" and "May she who casts the first fist of dirt across the casket have mourners lick the mud from her fingernails."

My main issues with the 10-track release are 1) although the group is among the best at meeting my 3-2-1 ratio of uptempo-to-midtempo-to-ballads, their slow songs are not particularly enjoyable. This is nothing new for the band, and even the less enjoyable slow numbers are more worthwhile than Arcade Fire's stabs in the dark at experimentation on Reflektor. 2) I would have like to have heard more input from Gareth's sister Kim, who handles keyboard duties and occasional lead vocals. Neither figure prominently on No Blues

Come for: "Avacado, Baby" (the record's first single is quintessential Los Campesinos!)
Stay for: "What Death Leaves Behind" (the infectious melody obscures the morbidity, in the They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT) / Barenaked Ladies tradition)
You'll be surprised by:  "A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man" (among the most well-rounded tracks in the unit's catalog while still catchy; what's that? A meaningful acoustic guitar part?)
Solid efforts: "For Flotsam" (again, stuff like this is what the band does best); "Cemetery Gaits" (the chorus hook is undeniable); "As Lucerne/The Low" (the kind of sing-along you can't wait to participate in live); "Let It Spill" (gradual builder);
Meh: "Glue Me" (this is one of the slow numbers mentioned above as a bit sludgy, but the chorus still benefits from a top-flight hook); "The Time Before The Last Time" (ibid); "Selling Rope [Swan Dive to Estuary]" (no Los Campesinos! track should ever run 6:18)

White Denim
New Release: Corsicana Lemonade
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Record Label: Downtown Records
Sounds Like: The Sheepdogs (NMT, NMT); The Black Keys (NMT)
Location: Austin, Texas

While The Arcade Fire was overly ambitious with Reflektor and Los Campesinos reliable via No Blues, the group in this set who took the greatest leap forward on their latest release is the classic rock quartet from Austin, White Denim. I fully intended to review their sixth full-length album, D, back in 2011 but never quite got around to it. Maybe because I wasn't blown away with the collection other than a few numbers ("Drugs" being one of those). Regardless, their new effort is more deserving of some attention. Previously, the group would frequently become mired in extended jams that really aren't what get me going on record (I have a bit more patience in a live setting). Here, they haven't needed to sacrifice their top drawer musicianship in exchange for tighter songwriting and audience accessibility.

Come for: "Pretty Green" (the leadoff single is a nice strut in the rhythm track and the type of hazy 70s pop hooks so successfully employed by The Sheepdogs and The Black Keys recently; it's a shame this song wasn't released in 1977)
Stay for: "A Night in Dreams" (the record's leadoff hitter benefits from an excellent boogie groove while frontman James Petralli's stream-of-conscious vocals recall Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott and the guitar harmony effects employed by Petralli and Austin Jenkins are a pretty clear nod to Steely Dan)
You'll be surprised by: "Come Back" (enjoy the fusion of jazz and hard rock here; I wish I could hear this one under the needle on vinyl)
Solid efforts: "Corsicana Lemonade" (the pairing of the pitter-patter rhythm and Petralli's barely-louder-than-a-whisper vocals combine to produce a sense of urgency, albeit one that's somewhat restrained); "New Blue Feeling" (this feels like a very deep Beatles cut off Abbey Road; the twin guitar harmonies here are the best instrumental sounds on the album); "Distant Relative Salute" (southern-fried licks); "Let It Feel (My Eagles)" (this number grew on me the more I listened to it, but the playful melody takes a little too long to not to be scared of its shadow); "A Place to Start" (although its ironically positioned at the end of the record despite its title, it's easygoing, gentle nature is the perfect place to wrap things up; kinda wish there was a saxophone solo in there, though)
Meh: "Limited by Stature" (I like the acoustic guitar treatment on top of the rather trippy arrangement, but I'm not totally digging Petralli's wavy falsetto through much of the track); "Cheer Up / Blues Ending" (as the title's second clause implies, this is plenty bluesy, but also a bit clumsy, as it feels like most of the time its trying not to trip over its feet)
Skip to next track: Nothing repugnant

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Head and the Heart (Let's Be Still); Dismemberment Plan

Sometimes, a couple groups or artists will line-up nicely with mutual releases that highlight the similarity between the two acts, like my reviews earlier this year of Okkervil River and Neko Case (NMT) or The Family Crest and The Polyphonic Spree (NMT). On this occasion, there's very little that unites the new work (or previous repertoires) of this week's profilees: The Head and the Heart and the Dismemberment Plan. The former is a relatively new folk rock collective while the latter is a quirky indie rock unit that hadn't produced new material in more than a decade. Both are worth some time exploring.

The Head and the Heart
New Release: Let's Be Still (listen to it streaming here)
Release Date: Today (October 15, 2013)
Record Label: Sub Pop Records
Sounds Like: Agesandages (NMT), The Oh Hellos (NMT), The Last Bison (NMT)
Location: Seattle, Wash.

Much of the talk coming out of The Head and the Heart camp is how much the band has opened up to explore new sonic space after touring in support of their 2011 self-titled debut (NMT) and responding to the influences of those they supported on the road, like The Decemberists (NMT, NMT), My Morning Jacket and Iron and Wine. That's all fine, but whatever evolution that has occurred between their debut and sophomore releases is subtle and fairly in keeping with the trajectory the band had established for itself on their first record. This isn't to suggest that I'm disappointed with the result; far from it, actually. The Seattle sextet's sound has certainly matured, producing a fuller and more balanced approach that beneficially avoids some of the starker moments of their premiere. Apparently, that stems from group-wide approach to both songwriting and performance, rather than relying on the bulk of the material emanating from co-frontperson Josiah Johnson, who'd rounded up the band from open mic nights where he'd been performing around Seattle, who then largely modified his existing compositions.

Come for: "Shake" (rich, full sound, piqued by darker electric guitar by Jonathan Russell and piano from Kenny Hensley)
Stay for: "My Friends" (Hensley's punchy piano is the focus from the outset and sustains the uptempo beat throughout its delightful 3:22; solid group vocal harmonies); 
You'll be surprised by: "Summertime" (a bit of calypso vibe on this number fronted by violinist Charity Rose Thielen; provides the nice change-of-pace vocals Regine Chassagne contributes in The Arcade Fire [NMT])
Solid efforts: "Homecoming Heroes" (the typewriter-style percussion is the song's signature, and the lyrics frame the record's theme: "so, now I know, people want a story, one ending in glory and a wave of their flag;" Hensley's piano is again a stand-out); "Another Story" (the heart of the group's nu-folk sound, becomes livelier as it goes); "Josh McBridge" (a little sleepy at first, but rounds out over its 5:14 runtime into among the most well-realized offerings on the baker's dozen tracks on the album; learn more about the meaning of the song here); "Cruel" (a slightly bluesy slow roller); "Let's Be Still" (as the title suggests, restrained and reflective); "10,000 Weight in Gold" (a measured, heartland/rootsy rambler); "Fire/Fear" (Russell's oaken lead guitar lines are 1977 distilled, perhaps my favorite instrumental sound on the record); "These Days Are Numbered" (Thielen's second turn out front is stark and gritty); "Gone" (when a closing number runs 6:26, its often a dirge; this one starts similarly but is totally transformed around the 1:45 mark, when the instrumentation and intensity really pick up; also, any train references are always appreciated by your blogger; closing refrain continues the band's tradition of using their name in the lyrics)
Meh: "Springtime" (really just an intro to "Summertime," and Thielen's vocals are a little ambient for my taste)
Skip to next track: nothing too objectionable

The Dismemberment Plan
New Release: Uncanny Valley (listen to it streaming here)
Release Date: Today (October 15, 2013)
Record Label: Partisan Records
Sounds Like: They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT), The Tins (NMT)
Location: Washington, D.C.

I remember the first time I heard about The Dismemberment Plan. It was my freshman year in college (1999) at the Catholic University of America. A couple of my classmate from my French 101 course and I were at the They Might Be Giants' then-annual Halloween show at the 9:30 Club. That show was great (they played Flood in its entirety as a fake opening band called Saphire Bullets of Pure Love, who proclaimed themselves to be the greatest They Might Be Giants cover band at Syracuse University, and then criticized the fake band as a bunch of assholes when they came out for the real show. The next year, they played the setlist in reverse, starting with what would normally be the final encore, "Istanbul [Not Constantinople]" and working their way back). Anyways, between real and impostor sets by TMBG, we were discussing various groups and my friends mentioned a local DC-based group who should appeal to TMBG fans. That group as The Dismemberment Plan.

I investigated them the best I could, but the internet of 1999 was not the same as today's, so it was harder accessing their full catalog. What I did find was a little quirky and disjointed for my taste. I couldn't make a show because of the routines of college life, and when I was finally able to around 2001, they had gone on hiatus (read this interesting piece from frontman Travis Morrison's now-wife who initially didn't know about his band). So, here we are more than two decades later, and the four-piece outfit's timing seems ideal as a second chance for my fandom. Although the 10-song record starts off a little disjointed, the second half builds in accessibility with some well-crafted nerd-rock tracks. As an overall statement, though, there's about 200% more strange keyboards than are necessary across the whole record. I wish they'd focus more on the guitars.

Come for: "Lookin'" (uncomplicated indie pop-rock, the type of unpretentious love song the four-piece wouldn't have attempted in its heyday)
Stay for: "Mexico City Christmas" (once you get passed the cheesy synth/drum machine intro, its funny and quicky in just the right ways; the chorus is among the meatiest Morrison has ever crafted)
You'll be surprised by: "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer" (sure, its tongue-in-cheek, but so was Paul Westerberg's "Androgynous;" don't take it too seriously)
Solid efforts: "No One's Saying Nothing" (on the first few listens, this track didn't appeal to me that much aside from the chuckle-inducing opening lyric, "You hit the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out / I really like this computer," but its gradually wearing on me a little more);  "White Collar White Trash" (the only rock song I know that's essentially a listing of Northern Virginia suburbs; I like guitarist Jason Caddell's work, but Morrison's keyboards are distracting during the verses; the chorus is simple, but catchy); "Go and Get It" (the sludgy rhythm track from bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley is a nice departure from the bulk of the collection and the shout-it-out-loud chorus is eminently singable); "Let's Just Go To The Dogs Tonight" (as close to a late-nite/party anthem that this group can muster, replete with its own audience call-and-response bridge)
Meh: "Waiting" (it's just too weird for me, and I think the lyrics sound forced to match the beat); "Invisible" (doesn't feel comfortable in its own skin); "Living in Song" (the verses are not easily digestible due to the lyrics and keyboards, but – again – the chorus is worthwhile)
Skip to next track: I could put a couple of the tracks where I complain about the keyboards here depending on my mood. A taste of weird keyboards is fine; this is forced feeding.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Deer Tick

Deer Tick
New Release: Negativity
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Record Label: Partisan Records
Sounds Like: Ha Ha Tonka (NMT), Dawes (NMT)
Location: Providence, RI

There's a portfolio of artists and groups that I know are liked by people who's musical tastes I respect, but I just can't seem to get interested in. I can't get beyond the trippy or moody tangents of My Morning Jacket or the stark and fragile whimpers of Justin Vernon and Bon Iver, while both Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem are just too much electronica for my palate. I won't criticize folks for being into those acts, but I doubt I'll ever take a liking for them. I always figured Deer Tick would be remain among those groups. While I can stomach a certain amount of un-beautiful singing by a lead vocalist if it serves the larger ethos of their catalog (see The Hold Steady's (NMT) Craig Finn (NMT) and Rural Alberta Advantage's [NMT, NMT] Nils Edenloff as examples), I never really found that Deer Tick's frontman John McCauley delivered material that justified the suffering of my aural receptors. I was also deterred by reports of the band's casual drug use, and the harder edge kind at that. Overall, there was some alright stuff, but none of it really hit my nerves, kind of the same way I feel about My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver or groups like Grizzly Bear or Deerhunter (the latter is unrelated to Deer Tick).

So, why I decided to click on a video of the band playing "The Dream's In The Ditch" on Conan last week I don't know, but I'm glad I gave McCauley and his mates another chance. Gone was the sparse, half alt-country, half Replacements derivation of previous efforts. Instead, it was replaced on this track by a full, classic rock motif that while obviously borrowing liberally from Springsteen and Van Morrison, at least delivers a very enjoyable knockoff. Similar to my reaction to the latest work by Ha Ha Tonka last week, Deer Tick sounds like it has graduated from the self-imposed limits of their past work and is now performing in a space that's both inevitable and comfortable based on where they came from.

Come for: "The Dream's In The Ditch" (see above)
Stay for: "The Curtain" (meaty; McCauley's vocals sound as like Axl Rose singing with a blues-rock band; love the organ part from Rob Crowell and lead figures by former Titus Andronicus (NMT) guitarist Ian O'Neil)
You'll be surprised by: "Just Friends" (Bob Seger called: he wants "Main Street" back; sounds circa 1977, not 2013, and that's just great)
Solid efforts: "The Rock" (a little slow at first for a leadoff track, but gets real by the first chorus with punchy drums from Dennis Ryan and pulsing piano lines from Crowell; as usual, I'm a fan of the horns); "Mirror Walls" (easygoing, alt-country-style ballad); "Trash" (after the assault of horns in the intro, the remainder is tres-Van Morrison, all bluesy and smoky; "I want to fall in love again with the open road" and "it's my disposition as a wasteful savant" are the album's finest lines and are expertly-delivered by McCauley); 'Thyme" (the number's minor-key structure plays out like an old detective novel, it should be the soundtrack of puddled alleys and guys called gumshoes; Crowell's piano parts are his best work on the record); "In Our Time" (like so many others in this collection, this tune sounds much older than it is, with its affable rolling country-meets-boogie flow and fantastic guest vocals by Vanessa Carlton); "Hey Doll" (the previously mentioned vocal patterns of both Van Morrison and Axl Rose somehow meet in the middle here and its delightful; its clear Crowell has more freedom to demonstrate his value here than on any previous Deer Tick record, with his steady piano grounding the track); "Pot Of Gold" (as the heaviest number on the album – by far – the effects of McCauley's history with substance abuse are most explicitly discussed here); "Big House" (appropriately restrained solo, acoustic by McCauley to end the session, although he shows hints of a slight lisp that was more prominent on past acoustic tracks that often became distraction)
Meh: "Mr. Sticks" (I'd be fine with it if it didn't follow two other ballads, nothing exceptional here)
Skip to next track: nothing objectionable

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ha Ha Tonka

Ha Ha Tonka
New Release: Lessons
Release Date: Today (September 24, 2013)
Record Label: Bloodshot Records
Sounds Like: Band of Horses (NMT); Oh No!, Oh My! (NMT); The Postelles (NMT)
Location: West Plains, Mo.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a band who has put out a few solid, but not exceptional records turns in an effort that serves not as an elaboration from their previous form, but a fulfillment of it – the type of music they were destined to make if their composite elements came together in a cohesive fashion. Such a description could easily apply to several releases we've reviewed previously here, most notably the ones listed in the Sounds Like field above. This time around, its the fourth full-length album by the rural Missouri alt-country, Americana quartet Ha Ha Tonka, Lessons (listen to it streaming here).

Over the course of the outfit's previous three records, there was plenty of earnest, stripped-down roots rock flavored with country influences and, at times, gospel-style vocal harmonies. But often it came across like they were trying a bit too hard to come across as hardscrabble and authentic, yielding somewhat forced songwriting and overwrought studio performances. Lessons, on the other hand, is easygoing and inviting, despite the fact that most of the instrumental arrangements are the most complex the group has ever delivered. If an resource economist were to review this record, they might dub it peak mandolin via lead guitarist/mandolinst Brett Anderson's exhaustive use of the instrument. A 70s-era funkmaster would be impressed with bassist Luke Long's often bouncy and occasionally groovy bass lines. Your blogger is satisfied with all of it, enjoying the output of a band that is just hitting its stride.

Come for: "Rewrite Our Lives" (an optimal choice for a leadoff single; fantastic hook and exemplary performance)
Stay for: "Dead To The World" (the album opener's 45 seconds of intro is the most elaborate and joyous instrumentation the band has recorded in their career, with mandolins, strings, pounding percussion from Lennon Bone, even touches of Celtic influence; the leadoff lyrics set the stage for the group's re-energized mission, that of overcoming inertia and embracing new ideas: "I'm at the stage when I only do things that I know how to do / I can make coffee and I can make small talk, cause who wants to try something new?"; frontman Brian Roberts has never sounded more genuine)
You'll be surprised by: "Colorful Kids" (the starkest departure from the group's previous signature sound; comes across like IRS-era R.E.M. [NMT]; the verses are catchy enough to be a perpetual chorus; Anderson's mandolin is out front again)
Solid efforts: "Staring At The End Of Our Lives" (a direct nod to the late era of The Replacements; some nice vocal harmonies in the chorus, stick around for Long's rubbery bass outro); "Synthetic Love"/"Arabella" (the short, :30 track introduces the recurring synthetic love/heart concept, then sets the stage for the record's only true ballad, a very rusty trails one at times, but the fuzzy, thumping post-choruses are something the band would never had tried before; which would pair nicely with Southeast Engine's "Ruthie" [NMT]); "Lessons" (once again, Long is the standout contributor here; the chorus, albeit catchy, is a bit repetitive – and, yes, I get that's the point – but they get points for experimentation); "American Ambition" (most similar to the bulk of their catalog); "Pied Pipers" (is Wilco-y a word? If it is, this is its definition); "The Past Has Arms" (easily the best singing on this collection); "Terrible Tomorrow" (can a western song be psychedelic? If so, this is what it would sound like); "Prove The World Wrong" (another dusty trails motif; I love albums that end with these types of farewell credos and this one builds in intensity as it reaches its zenith)
Meh: "Cold Forever" (nothing exceptionally wrong, but lacks the sizzle of the rest of the album)
Skip to next track: Give it all at least one listen

Friday, September 20, 2013

My Optimal Okkervil River Setlist

I'm pretty jonesed about seeing Okkervil River (NMT) at the 9:30 Club here in D.C. on Monday evening. I saw them there previously on the I Am Very Far (NMT) Tour and was impressed (see your blogger's photo above). Now, I went in with low expectations. I was sure Will Sheff would load the set with slow, obtuse selections that would take the crowd out of play. I was wrong. They opened with just the sort of uptempo, engaging material I would have suggested, and had a good balance between new and old stuff, as well as loud and quiet. Sheff's mid-set solo, acoustic version of "A Stone" was among the highlights (watch on the linked video how just changing chords without strumming provides just enough instrumentation), as was the expectedly brash final encore "Unless It's Kicks."

My expectations are now raised, but I have far too many standout numbers I'd want to hear in a normal set with an opening band (iTunes tells me it's 1.9 hours without breaks). Nonetheless, he's what setlist I'd prefer in an ideal world. I'll post the actual setlist in the comments after the show. If you're in town Monday night, hope to see you there!

On A Balcony -> 
Pop Lie -> 
White Shadow Waltz
Blanket and Crib ->
A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene
Stay Young ->
The Latest Toughs
It Was My Season
Lost Coastlines
Wake and Be Fine
(mini-acoustic set)
Black Sheep Boy ->
Okkervil River Song
The President's Dead
Where The Spirit Left Us 
Calling And Not Calling My Ex
Song About a Star
No Key, No Plan
All The Time, Every Day
Singer Songwriter
Down Down The Deep River
Unless It's Kicks
-- --
John Allyn Smith Sails
Lido Pier Suicide Car
Savannah Smiles
Last Love Song for Now

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

NMT's Favorite Singers

In the previous post on Neko Case's most recent solo album (NMT), I anointed her "the best vocalist in contemporary music." Which is to say she is my favorite singer currently releasing relevant new material. Obviously, there's no objective standard for ratings of this kind, merely just personal preference. I will provide warrants to support the claims I make, but there's no scientific or mathematical formula behind it. And I should explain that while singers have a wide range of impact on the songs they record and perform, what I'm talking about here is sheer vocal talent. For instance, Craig Finn (NMT) is – by form – not a particularly great singer, but is a perfect frontman for The Hold Steady (NMT). Likewise, The Rural Alberta Advantage's (NMT, NMT) Nils Edenloff has a voice as smooth as vinegar, but that's irrelevant as he tears through "Deathbridge in Lethbridge." Neither will make an appearance on this list.

Another key note before getting underway is originally this list was going to be a Best Female Singers list. But as I prepared and thought about the list, the gender distinction is unnecessary. Great singers are simply great singers. Moreover, I was having trouble putting together a list that had more great male singers than female. The selections below will bear that out, so here they are in descending order from 10 to 1.

10) Mikel Jollett – Airborne Toxic Event (NMT)

Baritone frontmen are rarities (think of The National's Matt Beringer and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder) and Jollett's rich, meaty stylings represent the only deep register selection here. Jollett possesses a strong, sustaining vibrato (the ability of vocal chords to quiver on a given note) and enjoys hanging on to long phrases. His stylistic range encompasses everything from punk to new wave, and as I noted in my review of 2011's All At Once, can conjure reflections of Bono and Neil Diamond as easily as some of his more contemporary peers.

9) Greta Morgan – Gold Motel (NMT), The Hush Sound  

Imagine if Sheryl Crow had more consistently produced songs that weren't merely photocopies of previous material geared only for Top 40 radio. That's what Greta Morgan does in her work with Gold Motel. No doubt her crisp vocals are ideally suited for very accessible pop-rock, but what she has to work with is far more enjoyable than anything Crow did after Tuesday Night Music Club. Her carefree performance on the bouncy exuberant "Safe in L.A." is what earned her a spot on my list.

8) Wes Miles – Ra Ra Riot (NMT)

Blending faux-Reggae vocal syncopation of Sting with intricate, yet buoyant chamber pop structures is Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles. Over the band's first few records, Miles (who's name sounds too similar to a certain LSU head football coach) established a playful, genre-bending use of his tenor range that matched perfectly with the group's overall quirky vibe. It's a shame that the outfit's third full-length release from earlier this year, Beta Love, was such an unnecessary diversion to dance and electronica – so much so that I refused to review it – and wasted much of Miles' unique charm.

7) Erin Passmore – Rah Rah (NMT)

The temptation to discuss Ra Ra Riot and Rah Rah within a few sentences of each other is just too hard to resist, which is why the latter's co-lead vocalist winds up at #7. Think of Regine Chassagne from The Arcade Fire (NMT) as an alto and a more accessible tone, while replicating her same mult-instrumental talents (when I saw Rah Rah live earlier this year, Passmore played drums, guitar and keyboards, although she could learn a few tricks from Chassagne on stage presence). Her standout "Prairie Girl" off The Poet's Dead – released last fall – will tell you everything you need to know about her vocal capabilities and should be all the band needs to hear to offer more time at the lead mic.

6) Nate Ruess – fun. (NMT, NMT), The Format

By far, my greatest discovery during the course of this blog's tenure is fun., which is now a Grammy Award-winning, large venue act just a few years after I helped them load out gear in the alley outside the 9:30 Club while opening for Jack's Mannequin. No small part of the groups skyrocketing place in mainstream pop is due to their frontman, Nate Ruess. After making fantastically catchy pop-rock tunes with The Format but finding little broad appeal, he shifted to fun., producing some of the most elaborate and purposeful pop music since Jeff Lyne's Electric Light Orchestra. Ruess' style is schizophrenic at times and can occasionally crack at the upper limits of his first tenor range, but check out his show-stopping performances in "Barlights" and "At Least I'm Not As Sad As I Used To Be" off the group's 2009 debut, Aim & Ignite, or the intro to the 2012 commercial smash, Some Nights, to hear a singer in full command of both their talent and their mission.

5) Tracyanne Campbell – Camera Obscura (NMT)

As the only foreign entry on this collection – and therefore the only Scot – Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell has well-qualified to represent the world's premiere singers on this list. While her quintet's folk-rock tendencies don't present her with the same anthemic opportunities as some of her peers here, Campbell nonetheless shines among band's rich instrumental tapestries. Spend some time with 2006's Let's Get Out of This Country – and, in particular, its title track – and you should come away impressed with Campbell's enjoyable mix of tone and delivery. 

4) Sherri DuPree Bemis – Eisley (NMT)

We're decidedly entering the power territory of this ranking, the domain of large lung capacity, full-throated chorus anthems and healthy vibrato. One of the defining characterises of these power vocalists – a trait shared by all Top 4 singers on this list – is their ability to deliver great volumes of sound in an effortless fashion. Among these is decidedly the strongest voice in the North Texas-based, family-only power-pop quintet Eisely. Sherri DuPree Bemis' vocals – especially on the band's third full-length release in 2011, The Valley – is striking in both the force she injects in numbers powerful anthemic rockers like "Better Love" and "Smarter" with the restraint to hold back some of that muscle on ballads such as "Mr. Moon."

3) Jenny Lewis – Rilo Kiley (NMT), Solo

If you've paid attention to this blog in recent months, you'll notice my several statements of regret in missing the active lifespan of the Los Angeles-based quartet, Rilo Kiley. The contributions of the group's primary vocalist, Jenny Lewis, are the reason why. Lewis' vocal approach is frank, determined and nearly always beautiful. Her signature moments at the mic include heart-wrenching, bluesy ballads like "Does He Love You?" and "I Never" as well as thundering rockers like "Spectacular Views" and "It'll Get You There," not to mention the pop-rock hit, "Potions For Foxes." Lewis often makes you feel guilty and abused for the sake of her characters, and that's no small consequence of her persuasive and demanding delivery.

2) Aaron Perrino – Dear Leader (NMT), The Sheila Divine

Full disclosure on this one: Perrino is originally from Western New York, and I consider it a grave injustice to the cosmos that his acts never received broader recognition outside Buffalo and Boston. I remember the first time I saw Perrino and The Sheila Divine live. It was sometime in the fall of 1999 and the band was opening for another of my favorite Buffalo/Boston acts, Tugboat Annie, at Nietzhe's in Allentown. I'd never forget them after I heard Perrino wail away at Morrisey-via-U2 rock anthems like "Hum" and "Like A Criminal." He possesses a once-in-a-generation mix of power and vibrato that fuel antagonistic, often political numbers in both acts to arena rock territory. Dig up "Glacier" off Dear Leader's 2006 release, All I Ever Wanted Was Tonight, and be captivated in the song's titanic crescendo as Perrino's vocals transform into the tidal wave his lyrics suggest. 

1) Neko Case – The New Pornographers (NMT), Solo (NMT)

This should be no surprise given the lede. As a Case apologist, I simply need to point to her extensive solo catalog and time with The New Pornographers. Her solo work demonstrates her emotional delivery range – incorporating everything from multi-layered gospel choruses to rusty alt country – while her explosive power is self-evident in nearly everything she touches with The New Pornographers. The latter is often labeled as an indie-rock supergroup; it's doubtful it would have achieved that title without Case's thundering presence on numbers such as "Letter From An Occupant" or "The Laws Have Changed." Perhaps the greatest barometer for her overall capabilities is frequent New Porngraphers' main set closer, "The Bleeding Heart Show." At first, its a tad sleepy as frontman A.C. Newman leads the group through the verses, but Case absolutely dominates during the track's seemingly-unending chorus, although it should be noted drummer Kurt Dahle provides crucial fuel to the fire there.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Okkervil River, Neko Case

This installment of New Music Tuesdays is perhaps the one I'm most excited about in this blog's three-plus year history. You see, around 2008, I had a musical re-awakening. Until that point, my interests in alternative and independent rock largely was a recirculating collection of groups from the 1990s – the heyday of alternative and grunge rock. And sure, groups like They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT), Weezer (NMT) and Fountains of Wayne (NMT) were still delivering quality new material. But many others such as Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous, Smashing Pumpkins and many others that formed the core of my catalog had either disbanded or weren't producing the same quality of new material. That all changed when my brother made me listen to The Decemberists' The Crane Wife sometime around 2007 or 2008. Struck by songs like "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," "Shankhill Butchers" and "Sons & Daughters," I was immediately compelled to explore their larger oeuvre. I was disappointed I had missed out on so much of their work that matched so well with what I love about music: wit, uniqueness and creativity – elements I found lacking in what was offered to me by mainstream music media. So, I expanded my search and came across a series of acts and artists that I should have encountered much earlier. I was saddened to find I'd essentially missed the full arch of groups like Rilo Kiley (although their recent rarities collection, RKives (NMT), offered me a one-time penance in this space) and Essex Green. But I was emboldened to find bands like The Arcade Fire (NMT), The Hold Steady (NMT) and The Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT) still contributing outstanding new records. And ultimately, a trio of artists formed the foundation of my contemporary understanding of music: The Decemberists (NMT, NMT), The New Pornographers (NMT) and Okkervil River (NMT). This week, new releases from the latter as well as Neko Case – a charter member of The New Pornographers – are sort of a reaffirmation of my ongoing quest for new music that I enjoy experiencing for my own gratification and also encouraging others to engage with via this blog. Therefore, on to the reviews...(note: since this post benefited from streaming previews from NPR's First Listen series, I've linked to those sources for each release given that individual track-by-track previews aren't available yet)

Okkervil River
New Release: The Silver Gymnasium
Release Date: Today (September 3, 2013)
Record Label: ATO Records
Sounds Like: The New Pornographers, The Decemberists
Location: Austin, Texas

To lay it plain, the direction of the seventh full-length release from Will Sheff's intelligently emotional sextet is like nothing you've heard before from the group. Sure, individual tracks will recall past gestures, and Sheff has delved into well-realized album concepts on numerous occasions in the past. But rarely have they come across as cohesively and consistently as on the 11 cuts found on The Silver Gymnasium. As Sheff's own voyage back to the place of his formative upbringing in the early-to-mid 1980s in Meridian, N.H., it marks a period of time that largely corresponds to the same era for your blogger. (Note: the band prepared an interesting assortment of mulit-media promotions and teasers for the record, such as an 80s-style video game, illustrated map of Meridian and song previews. You should check them out) While little of the narrative is overtly biographical, when considered in its whole, its an engaging and unique take on the growing awareness of the world during childhood, including friendship, trust, experiences and other foundational themes. The reason why the record is so distinct in the group's catalog dating back to 2002 is the fortunate avoidance of ethereal, avant-garde experimentation that Sheff used to like to scatter among more muscular, structured pieces on past records. This isn't to say there aren't slower, quieter numbers, but rather that the album's sweep is more measured in its scope. There's no pseudo electronica like "Piratess" of 2011's I Am Very Far or dull and drawling efforts like "Black Sheep Boy #4" off 2007's Black Sheep Boy – numbers you listen to once, click the unselect button on your permanent library and turn back to Sheff's still substantial output of intense lyricism matched with well-delivered indie rock instrumentation. On that latter point, you'll really notice the contributions of bassist Patrick Pestorius, who adds bounce and – dare we say – a bit of boggie to the bulk of the collection. In all, The Silver Gymnasium doesn't let you down, not even once. 

Come for: "Down Down the Deep River" (exceptionally poppy, great first single, albeit very long for a single at 6:32); Justin Sherburn delivers the sort of cheesy keyboards that defined Bruce Springsteen records in the mid-1980s, which is fitting for the time period Sheff is exploring here; the tale of paternal protection and support – a key experience of childhood – is well-explored here)
Stay for: "Where The Spirit Left Us" (sounds like most like the Okkervil River catalog, a melodic mix of "Calling and Not Calling My Ex" and "White Shadow Waltz;" Sheff's signature lyricism is on full display; the river-as-the-journey-metaphor returns again)
You'll be surprised by: "Lido Pier Suicide Car" (very nearly the one candidate for the Meh or Skip to next track selection due to the track's dreary first four minutes, but the about-face to mile-a-minute pop-rock shuffle at the 4:11 is, well, surprising) 
Solid efforts: "It Was My Season" (jaunty piano from Sherburn leads things off; provides the narrative stage-setting for the album's concept; background vocals and horns later on add to the number's punchy nature); "Pink Slips" (way back when, Okkervil River was essentially an alt-country act, this is kind of what that was like; surprisingly blue collar, like a nerdy Bob Seeger song: "show me my best memory, it's probably super-crappy"); "White" (defined by the rattling snare of drummer Cully Symington; it's always interesting when Sheff utilizes the lower register of his vocal range, which he does here in an account of changing seasons serving as a chronicle of various phases of life, growing in energy and emotion; delightfully short at 3:06); "Stay Young" (a new-wavy sound – largely provided by Pestorius' bouncy bass line and guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo's rubbery lead part – that wouldn't not have been out of place on fun.'s Some Nights (NMT)); "Walking Without Frankie" (could have also been the You'll be surprised by pick; again, Pestorius distinguishes himself here; great classic rock references with "it's a Stairway or a Slow Ride, its Rhiannon or a Landslide"); "All the Time, Every Day" (dig up "The Latest Toughs" off Black Sheep Boy and play this right after it; a fun chorus singalong); "Black Nemo" (ah, surely this will be one slow, throwaway track buried at the end of the record; hardly, it's rootsy Americana that could have been churned out recently by Dawes (NMT) or long before that, Jackson Browne; worth sticking around for and ends on a gentle note)
Meh: As I said above, "Lido Pier Suicide Car" could have ended up here, maybe you won't have the patience for the first four minutes
Skip to next track: I liked it all, a first for a full-length Okkervil River record

Neko Case
New Release: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (NPR First Listen)

Release Date: Today (September 3, 2013)
Record Label: ANTI- Records
Sounds Like: Laura Veirs (NMT), The New Pornographers
Location: Northeast Vermont

It is my view that Neko Case is simply the best vocalist in contemporary music. Little – if any – technology is ever needed to amplify or enhance the raw power of her singing. If you're familiar with The New Pornographers, you're aware of how essential that force is to driving A.C. Newman's (NMT) indie rock confections. On her solo work, Case works with a larger palate, essentially rooted in alt-country but ranging from blues to hard rock. Like Okkervil River, the record serves as her seventh full-length release, while her contributions to indie music – even beyond The New Pornographers – are substantial, ranging from her early years as the drummer for Cub (which They Might Be Giants fans will remember as the original composers of "New York City") to Camera Obscura (NMT) and Jakob Dylan (NMT), among countless others.

Come for: "Man" (everything you want from Neko Case: brash, assertive and smart; can be easy to focus on the unambiguous post-feminism while missing the driving rock foundation – her backing band is exceptional)
Stay for: "City Swans" (incredibly well-balanced; strains of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" inform the number's instrumental core)
You'll be surprised by: "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" (if this one doesn't make you tear up at least a little, you probably don't have a heart; Case is so bold and headstrong through the bulk of her work that her bearing witness to parental hostility [a la "What's The Matter Here" by the 10,000 Maniacs] is not exactly jarring, but certainly distinctive)
Solid efforts: "Wild Creatures" (a somewhat abrupt way to begin the record, but after settling in is reflective of the bulk of Case's solo material); "Night Still Comes" (in the hands of another performer, this might be a tad lethargic, but Case's vocal talents keep it afloat; "I revenge myself allover myself" is one of the album's signature lines); "I'm From Nowhere" (a rusty combination of blues and western, Case's own nod to the 80's pairs well with Sheff's work above; I love whenever Case uses the word "kid" in any song ever, including this one); "Bracing for Sunday" (hints of rockabilly, a black comedy tale of a "Friday night girl bracing for Sunday to come;" jagged saxophones are reminiscent of old-school They Might Be Giants; don't miss "I only ever held one love, her name was Mary Anne / she died while having a child by her brother, he died because I murdered him"); "Afraid" (I would have loved this as a round, since it's a neat looping melody with great layered harmonies); "Local Girl" (would have been the most likely to appear on a New Pornographers release, although likely without the gospel choir background vocals); "Ragtime" (somewhat of a slow chugger at first, but the imagery is evocative and the chorus is pleasingly full of horns, reminiscent of The Decemberists "Valerie Plame")
Meh: "Calling Cards" (it's fine, but doesn't have the same degree of creativity or urgency that defines the rest of the album)    
Skip to next track: "Where Did I Leave That Fire" (begins with nearly a minute of avant garde filler, and then never really gets going from there)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Laura Veirs, Harper's Fellow

Laura Veirs
New Release: Warp & Weft
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Record Label: Raven Marching Band
Sounds Like: Neko Case (NMT), The Decemberists (NMT) Valery Gore (NMT)
Location: Portland, Ore.

If you follow the kinds of bands and artists we profile routinely here, you're likely already familiar with Laura Veirs, even though I don't feature a ton of solo singer-songwriters in this space (something I'll admit as a weakness in my preferences that may cause me to miss some fantastic stuff, but one that's unlikely to change; please feel free to convince me otherwise in the comments section). In addition to her comprehensive catalog dating back to 1999 and frequent opening or co-heading slots with the sort of acts we favor, she's twice appeared on records with The Decemberists, most recently on "Dear Avery" off 2011's The King Is Dead (NMT) and most notably the outstanding duet with Colin Meloy on "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" from The Crane Wife (2006). On her ninth full-length release, she focuses on the recurring theme of parental fears of loss and harm – a topic no less foundational to the human experience than the more oft-explored notions of pleasing your father or the journey to/from and battle for/against your homeland/town. Veirs' take here – informed by her own two children – initially seems dark and surreal but is frequently tempered by moments of brightness and hope. Additionally, reflecting Veirs' well-cultivated stature in the indie music scene, there's no shortage of outstanding guest contributors, ranging from her husband and producer Tucker Martine, voice of thunder Neko Case (stay tuned in coming weeks for coverage of her upcoming The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, the More I Love You), My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James and Decemberists' bassist Nate Query, among others

Come for: "Sun Song" (easygoing leadoff single strikes a positive tone for the larger theme from the outset: "As all the other mothers would remember / Stalked by winter solace in a small, warm hand / We got the sun, the sun to thank;" Case's vocals in the bridge are unavoidable)
Stay for: "That Alice" (easily the 12-track collection's most rocking number; an homage to John Coltrane's wife, Alice)
You'll be surprised by: "Sadako Folding Cranes" (intricate, as suggested by the imagery of the origami created by Hiroshima victim Sadako Sasaki; Veirs is at her best as a storyteller here; James' backing vocals are intriguing without becoming distracting)
Solid efforts: "Finster Saw the Angels" (sparse, but enchanting; simple, repeated melody is the song's enjoyably unforced core); "Dorothy of the Island" (a close runner-up for the Stay for selection; the most direct exploration of the parental loss theme); "Shape Shifter" (the foreboding tale of the looming winter is softened by the protagonist's resolve to stick together; strings in the center of the piece are a warming influence); "Say Darlin' Say" (sludgy, with a ruggedly frontier-settler vibe; "I got my shoes from a railroad man and the dress from a driver in the night" is some of the record's most evocative narrative, bookended by the train locomotive bell and whistle at its closing); "Ten Bridges" (folksy; beautifully illustrative of the album's central conflict between fear and delight); "White Cherry" (jazzy and ethereal, another nod to Alice Coltrane?; lines like "I take pleasure in the wind chimes" are augmented by actual wind chimes)
Meh: "Ghosts of Louisville" (I like the eerie harmonies, but I'm not really sure of their purpose in only a 30 second track); "Ikaria" (this instrumental has more meat on its bones than "Ghosts of Louisville," but I'm still missing how it complements the other material)
Skip to next track: "America" (I had high hopes for some good old fashioned protest music out of Veirs, but her criticisms of an America run amok don't include a cause or a solution, so it comes off just as a list of unspecified gripes; I was hoping for more)

Harper's Fellow
New Release: Thanks for Tonight
Release Date: July 27, 2013
Record Label: self-released
Sounds Like: Kate Voegele, Brandi Carlile, The Little Willies (NMT), Seryn (NMT)
Location: Asbury Park, N.J.

(Full disclosure: I've known the band's guitarist, Eric Castellazzo, since babysitting for him when we were both much younger)

In the beginning, there were essentially two forms of American contemporary music: the blues and country. While offshoots and derivatives branched off in all directions – ranging from jazz to rock-and-roll, and much more – the core of American music, popular or otherwise, owes its existence to these two genres. Out of the legendary New Jersey musical breeding ground of Asbury Park, the five-piece Harper's Fellow are solidly rooted in both country and the blues, yielding a hardscrabble mix of rustic Americana and rootsy twang throughout their debut, full-length release, Thanks for Tonight. Frontperson Cortney Metzler trades on the same sort of genre-bending, countrified blues vocals employed by folks like Kate Voegele and Brandi Carlile with the added benefit of a sturdy blues-rock ensemble comprised of Castellazo, bassist Brendan Smith, drummer Alex Ford and background vocalist Yanell Reyes. Elements of alt-country, folk, Americana and old-time country interchange freely across the record's 10 tracks, paired with healthy access to catchy hooks and choruses. I wish there were a few more uptempo numbers (the tisk-tisk of my ideal 3-2-1 ratio is scattered across past posts in this space, so the quintet need not feel singled out) as well as a few more instrumental flourishes like an occasional fiddle, organ or harmonica would have nice, but their absence is an understandable given for a new group producing a crowdfunded debut

Come for: "Three Paint Brushes" (brisk and lively, a catchy tale spun from weightier topics: identity and inheritance)
Stay for: "Bow & Arrow" (spunky with jangly guitars and the album's best singalong chorus)
You'll be surprised by: "Fool" (don't let the uptempo acoustic number's jovial pace fool you (pun intended); its a larger message of learning from mistakes and accepting limitations; see Ed Robertson's (of the Barenaked Ladies) "Leave" from 1998's Stunt for instrumental and thematic reference)
Solid efforts: "Amber Fallout" (the record's opener eases the listener into the group's sound, punctuated by the steady rhythm section of Smith and Ford, in particular); "Whiskey" (Castellazo's distorted electric guitar is the track's signature, and the bluesiest work on the collection); "Freedom" (the number's opening acoustic chords bear all the signatures of a classic country ballad); "Cadillac" (rockabilly-infused; has an enjoyable swagger); "Finer Words" (the piano adds color to another relatively slow song; its unvarnished nature is its strongest attribute); "Smoking Gun" (I like the more western influences here, a welcome compliment when most of the previous country flavor had been more southern-inspired)
Meh: "Sleepy City" (I know the title should be a clue, but I think "Freedom" satisfied my country ballad needs earlier; still, hardly a bad effort; it's well-performed)  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Polyphonic Spree, The Family Crest

After taking a healthy summer break, we're back at it with two mega collective groups that seem destined to appear in a review together...

The Polyphonic Spree
New Release: Yes, It's True
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Record Label: Good Records
Sounds Like: The New Pornographers (NMT), The Arcade Fire (NMT) Rah Rah (NMT), Telekinesis (NMT, NMT)
Location: Dallas, Texas

In terms of mass collective indie rock groups – you know, the kind with no fewer than 5 or 6 members, usually including both men and women, who play an assortment of instruments, usually including horns and strings –  The Polyphonic Spree is often considered the format's archetype. Formed by former Tripping Daisy frontman Ken DeLaughter after the passing of the group's guitarist Wes Berggen, the sprawling unit – whose current members contribute anything from harp to french horn – was always intended to be an experiment in symphonic pop rock. And while regular readers of this blog would expect this to be the sort of act that would appear routinely in posts, their most recent full-length record – The Fragile Army – was released back in 2007, well before the dawn of this space. Nonetheless, since the release of their debut album – 2002's The Beginning Stages of...The Polyphonic Spree – through last week's long-awaited Yes, It's True, the band has served as the vanguard for large-format groups with sweeping orchestrations, unusual instruments and lots of participants. While the new work's scope may be more constrained than previous efforts – really, a skeleton crew of only 20 are listed as current members – its focus is more deliberate and allows DeLaughter's poppier instincts to emerge at the forefront.

Come for: "You Don't Know Me" (delightfully hyper-hooky; no conspiracy paranoia the title might suggest; more a call to arms against prejudice and divisiveness: "there's always more to you than there are of them")
Stay for: "What Would You Do?" (remember that sludgy, but poppy sound that Telekinesis has perfected? This is very similar)
You'll be surprised by: "You're Golden" (the simplicity of the introductory piano is a pleasant contrast to the bombast elsewhere; like the rattling snare in the chorus and the (faux?) harpsichord highlights in the verses; contains DeLaughter's best take on contemporary social networking: "it's not the car that you drive, it's not your phone with an 'i'; it's not your Facebook likes, it's not your Instagram pride")
Solid efforts: "Popular By Design" (a little synth-heavy, and songs like these are when I'm not so wild about DeLaughter's voice – a little measly at times, but otherwise, its a fine, catchy track); "Carefully Try" (a nice change of pace from the spirited romps of the first three tracks; numerous instances of artful instrumentation, a la Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds; the first few chords of the chorus are reminiscent of The Killers' smash, "Mr. Brightside"); "Heart Talk" (could range in influence anywhere from David Bowie to The Talking Heads to They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT), the latter what with all the comical-sounding saxophone); "Blurry Up the Lines" (a bit of a slow starter, but it rounds out into something much more expansive); "Let Them Be" (intrigued by the rumbling drums and odd water glass percussion, then the harsh bluesly horns; could have otherwise been too moody, but its much more than the sum of its parts); "Raise Your Hand" (the long snare intro belies the synth focus that's the heart of the song;
Meh: "Hold Yourself Up" (has beefy hooks, but is a bit threadbare at other points)
Skip to next track: "Battlefield" (it's appropriately named, because it's a lawn, brooding battle to get through...)

The Family Crest
New Release: The Headwinds (EP)
Release Date: July 30, 2013
Record Label: Tender Loving Empire Records
Sounds Like: Hey Marseilles (NMT), Hey Rosetta! (NMT), Of Monsters & Men (NMT), The Polyphonic Spree, The Arcade Fire (NMT), hints of The Moody Blues and DeVotchKa (NMT)
Location: San Francisco, Calif.

You know The Polyphonic Spree and Broken Social Scene and The Arcade Fire and The New Pornographers, Hey Marseilles and Camera Obscura (NMT) and The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) and Los Campesinos! (NMT). But do you recall the largest, most expansive musical collective of them all?

Yes, it sounds ridiculous in a post reviewing new material from The Polyphonic Spree to find an even bigger band. But here they are in the form of the San Francisco-based company, The Family Crest and their new six-track EP, The Headwinds. While certainly not as established as their counterparts from Dallas, the group – which features six "core" members and an "extended family" list of what seems to be more than a hundred others who can contribute parts remotely – delivers epic-scale, lushly orchestrated compositions that are a little less reliant on synth than Ken DeLaughter's group and perhaps benefits from a bit more folksy foundations. In between their 2012 full-length debut The Village and their forthcoming follow-up – reportedly to be titled Beneath the BrineThe Headwinds EP keeps their growing audience satiated until next year while delivering far more than just odds and ends – its a fully-realized, dynamic and interesting collection of new material. Heck, at more than 23 minutes, its longer than some punk albums and includes two plus-5-minute selections.

Come for: "Love Don't Go" (grandiose first single with a fine balance of pop hooks and nuanced instrumentation, chock full of horns and strings interspersed with frontman and guitarist Liam McCormick's earthy verses)
Stay for: "The River" (the band wisely displays its impressive largess from the outset on this opening track; its signature vocal chorus unit flexes its muscle while McCormick's narrative is highlighted with artful strings and piano in its quieter moments)
You'll be surprised by: "Marry Me" (after a misleadingly ominous intro, it becomes exuberant and infectious in perfectly matches the celebratory nature of McCormick's lyrics; be on the lookout for the same sort of gypsy minstrel flair as exhibited in groups like DeVotchKa and Gogol Bordello)
Solid efforts: "The Headwinds" (very much aligned with the recent efforts from Of Monsters & Men, akin to that group's "Dirty Paws" or "King and Lionheart"; the record's most sturdy number); "Brittle Bones" (dig into your Decemberists collection for "The Sporting Life," you might find the rhythm strikingly similar here; the only part of McCormick's singing that gets stuck in my craw a bit is evident here, a sliver of a lisp where an "h" is added to words that end in "s," like "bones[h]" or "shoes[h]" – its not fatal, but is certainly noticeable)