Thursday, January 31, 2013

Frontier Ruckus

Last week, I alluded to the potential for several reviews in the Super Review format, but after listening through the compelling double album concept record, Eternity of Dimming, by the Detroit folk-rock and Americana quartet Frontier Ruckus, I decided the collection required more than just a cursory analysis.

In order to properly take-in the delightfully intricate detail frontman Matthew Milia shoehorns into every track, I recommend heading over to the band's lyrical songbook and following along – word-for-word – as Milia chronicles the nuances of his own upbringing.

The 20-song effort is conceptual in the same way that The Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or Weezer's (NMT) Pinkerton are, in that there are broad themes and a few specific references that span the album. But is not an account of characters or a plot-driven series of events like you might find in Green Day's (NMT) American Idiot, The Arcade Fire's The Suburbs (NMT) or Southeast Engine's From the Forest to the Sea (NMT). Still, there's no mistaking the excitement inherent to exploring a piece of music that is consciously assembled to fit together collectively, with the track order having significance and some ultimate voice and purpose being conveyed by the material. I still remember my nervous energy rushing up the street to the record store to purchase Mellon Collie the day it was released in 1995 to discover what Billy Corgan envisioned – and executed – as the group's masterpiece. In fact, those kinds of hallmark experiences of youth and adolescence is precisely what Milia's attempting to communicate here.

Frontier Ruckus
New Release: Eternity of Dimming
Release Date: January 29, 2013
Record Label: Ramseur Records
Sounds Like: Great Lakes Myth Society, Okkervil River (NMT), Southeast Engine (NMT)
Location: Detroit, Mich.

Somewhere between the group's current base in Detroit, the prototypical suburban enclave of Sylvan Manor near Valparaiso, Ind., and summer vacation destinations in New England is the rotating stage where Milia recounts the transition from the enduring, but challenging summertime of youth and the shifting boundaries of adolescence. The events and details become increasingly connected as the tracks unwind, all built atop the folk and roots-based Americana that the Great Lakes Myth Society's Timothy Monger (NMT) once coined as "northern rock," a counterpart to the boisterous and bluesy southern rock sub-genre. Here you'll here banjos, fiddles, organs and mandolins, but is hard to label as country.

Beginning with the opener "Everlashes" through the closing "Careening Catalog Immemorial," Milia is a lyricist on par with Okkervil River's Will Shelf and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists (NMT, NMT), but perhaps with even greater focus on narrative complexity than either. Although his nasally voice – somewhere in between Fountains of Wayne's (NMT) Chris Collingwood and The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne – requires some adjustment period, there's no suspicion that he needed to fabricate any of the fabulously intricate details, ranging from the opener's description of "a pine tree straighter applicator, bristling and whistling through the needles" to the ending's account of the "liquid wicked warping of an ambling ambulance’s distancing pitch," no adjective or flourish is spared to paint the most precise imagery possible. It's all very real, and it's all very personal to him.

Nowhere is this lyrical abundance more apparent on the collection's first half apex, "Granduncles of Saint Lawrence County." Consider the descriptive depth of the track's second stanza:

Where the handicap tourist-trap putt-putt courses
And trailers patched with corrugated scrap metal and divorces stand
Well, I got a granduncle and he lives inland
Where the pure manure summer vapors get fanned
By electric fence whir and a wave of the hand
Of the Amish infants standing barefoot in the sand
While the gas-station kids hang out idle and bland at the Subway

The surrealism contained in the passage – matched by angular acoustic guitar lines, a plucky banjo and wafting organ streams, all supplied by Milia and multi-instrumentalist David Jones, while bassist Zachary Nichols and drummer Ryan Etzcom provide a sturdy foundation – almost seems too nuanced to correspond with any factor of modern life, but actually represents the reality of daily life to those not painting with broad brushes.

Elsewhere, Milia takes advantage of the space afforded by the double album, concept format to link tracks together, such as the first half's "Bike Trail" and "I Met Rebecca" couplet. The first leg – "Bike Trail" explores the sticky and devolutionary treks of summer, where everything is squirming and drooping from the heat – a theme he threads throughout the collection, to which your blogger can relate to as a northerner who battled through many summers without air conditioning, the inverse of what's experienced by southerners as they confront harsh winters. (Somewhere, there's an implicit, hidden commentary of how the natural environment we're exposed to growing up has profound influence in shaping our perceptions of comfort and resilience).

Anyways, back to the music: the same instrumental constitution seamlessly transitions into "I Met Rebecca,"brilliantly underscoring how the landscape portrait of the slowly writing summer becomes more narrowly focused into a profile of a summer romance, replete with the neighborhood swimming hole setting.

On the album's second segment, a similar pairing unites what functionally serves as the entire effort's centerpiece – the tour de force of "In Protection of Sylvan Manor" and suburban malaise epic "Dealerships." In the former, Milia does battle with the forces of ambivalence and lethargy ("Does your dad fall asleep with the remote in his hand? / Does a digital beep promote gentle reprimand to share all your love?"), and goes so far to issue his own battle cry at the number's zenith:

Well, no two-bit piece of shit interloper
Is gonna touch my world or molest my hope or
My kingdom that lingers in each drawer I open
When I open it up I’ll be groping at what is for damn sure
In the dimming of Sylvan Manor   

Few lyricists of his era are so willing to issue as a personal and explicit declaration of willful identity. The credo is even more striking when contrasted with the track's counterpart, "Dealerships." Milia's deliberate strikes of descending acoustic guitar scales from "In Protection..." cultivate an urgency that materializes in the latter, the most grandiose instrumental output on the record, sounding almost triumphant in relation to the more restrained pace elsewhere. Here, although most of the remnants of suburbia were initially fabricated and processed in department stores , they ultimately became robust and authentic to those who were there. The passage of what's left to a mother after a lifetime living where "dealerships garishly light up the parish where we wore Catholic uniforms from K to 8" is nearly heart rending:

The shrink-wrapped cosmetics and cardboard aesthetics of department store picture frame inserts that my mother keeps under a sink in a cupboard with her high school diploma and it hurts to try
to keep all our treasures intact for forever in fact they are cluttered and muttering sighs;
The pipes froze and ruptured and so now her cupboard is full of possessions that she can’t keep dry

While Milia – or his titular character that appears here – knows that although what's left is frayed, becomes uglier the longer you look and had little substance to begin with, it still nonetheless belongs to them:

I’ll meet you out where the outlet malls turn to black holes
I’ll greet you cradling obsolete remote controls
To television sets in entertainment cabinets
From lost living rooms of trampled carpets
Of VHS sun-bleached cassettes and teenage trophies of plastic soccer nets
And the clip art signs are cartoonish on diners
Which are actually grimmer than hell in the night
And a bright CVS might make me obsess
But at least I have found what is mine in the light

And it feels so pure
Feels so singular
Still and sure
That’s the thing you were
Meant to see when you
Went through the
Dimming world

Of course, there's much more here that deserves more attention, which I'll provide briefly in the track-by-track rundown below, but – for now – spend some time with Eternity of Dimming, in order, and let the grand lyrical constructions of Milia and his instrumental collaborators deliver a continually refreshing cavalcade of imagery without illusion.
Come for: "Black Holes" (well-paced Americana rock; the most accessible on the record)
Stay for: "Bike Trail" / "I Met Rebecca" (the juxtaposition of surrealism and narrative earns the concept record achievement badge)
You'll be surprised by: "In Protection of Sylvan Manor" / "Dealerships" (these are the types of tracks that define a career)
Solid efforts: "Eyelashes" (fantastic imagery, gentle start to a complex collection); "Thermostat" (touches of rockabilly with Buddy Holly/Roy Orbison phrasing by Milia ["glass in your eye; oh, my!"]); "Junk-Drawer Sorrow" (even the thaw of spring can't drag with it our stubborn and lingering habits and decisions); "The Black-Ice World" (slow and frigid, like its subject matter); "I Buried You So Deep" (haunting, but less sinister than Okkervil River's "Westfall" or Colin Meloy's unending steam of burial accounts; at times, almost charming instrumental backing); "Granduncles of St. Lawrence County" (among the record's best, both in musicality and lyricism, with my favorite single lyric on the album: "Lunch meat on the kitchen counter / Mary’s counting bug bites on a sunburned shoulder");  "Eternity of Dimming" (sets the stage for the suburban exegesis on "Dealerships;" playful organ part in the background is a nice touch to lighten the mood, which is at its darkest and heaviest here); "If the Sun Collapse" (bluegrassy vibe is a good backdrop for the fleeting moments of both a sunny day and a romance with an expiration date); "Surgery" (the Fender Rhodes piano sound has a distinctly 70s vibe unique on this record, a nice change of pace); "In the Summer" (the piano focus continues here, complimenting the loping lull of summer suggested by the lyrics); "Open It Up" (the album's longest track at 7:52; extends many of the themes explored earlier; nice banjo + Hammond organ blend as the song builds; extra credit for use of the word "Phantasmagoria"); "Careening Catalog Immemorial" (a nice bookend with paired with "Eyelashes;" more references to vacationing in New England) 
Meh: "Birthday Girl" (I like this in the context of the concept record, and has more fantastic wordsmithing, but wouldn't be as fond of it as a stand-alone number); "Funeral Family Flowers" (again, not something I'd care for on its own, but short little numbers like this make sense on a concept album; Milia's nasal pitch gets the better of him a bit, though);
Skip to next track: "Nightmares of Space" (a little too morose for their sound, nor do I see how it fits into the concept; still, only one throw-away out of 20 tracks is not a bad success rate)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Super Mini Review (Or Is It Mini Super Review?)

This is a day late, but hardly a dollar short. After the dearth of interesting new music in the late fall, the dawning days of 2013 have seen a surge of captivating new material emerging. And although today's release of Beta Love by previous NMT profilees Ra Ra Riot is nothing less than a total abandonment of that band's prior greatness and the much-hyped We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic by Foxygen is not quite my style (but not bad), there's plenty to cover here in the Super Review format. And aside from the leadoff review of the sophomore effort of the Overmountain Men, all of this week's reviewed records are shy of the 10-track standard that qualifies as full-length album in our book, thus the Super-Mini title of this post. And stay tuned next week for reviews of new alt-country releases from Frontier Ruckus and Local Natives as well as some straight-ahead indie rock from Yellow Red Sparks.

Overmountain Men (NMT)
New Release: The Next Best Thing
Release Date: Today (January 21, 2013)
Record Label: Ramseur Records
Sounds Like: The Avett Brothers, The Decemberists (NMT), The Band
Location: Charlotte, N.C.

Our first repeat reviewees of 2013, North Carolina's Overmountain Men return with much of the same history-infused Americana that we liked so much back in with their debut, Glorious Day, in February, 2010. A formula only becomes stale when it no longer works or there's an overabundance of supply. Neither is the case here, as The Next Best Thing's dozen tracks exhibits an ease of delivery and a good stock of fresh material.

Come for: "Smoke And Mirrors" (hearty ballad duet; wish I could find out who the female guest vocalist is)
Stay for: "Grackles" (touch of Bob Seeger-esque blue-collar soul and punch)
You'll be surprised by: "Halls of Glory" (earnest tribute to  Teddy Roosevelt)
Solid efforts: "All Out of Diamonds" (refreshing mountain music); "Alexander Hamilton" (another history lesson, first person perspective); "To the Warmer Lands" (a dead Revolutionary-era loyalist solider recounts the story of his demise; gentile, but intricate instrumentation; shades of The Decemberists' "Yankee Bayonet"); "Hard Loving You" (tangy honky-tonk); "The Next Best Thing" (a hard luck tale in modern times; dark and moody); "Death Is So Romantic" (front porch picking; a cautionary tale); "Poison Cookies" (wry narrative; great harmonies, banjo and harmonica parts) 
Meh: "Segamore Hill" (slow, jazzy stuff isn't their forte, but its fine, if just a little too sleepy); "Twilight Road" (a David Childer solo ballad; nothing wrong with it, but not as compelling as the other choices here)

Ugly Thrash Demon
New Release: 2008
Release Date: January 12, 2013
Record Label: self-produced
Sounds Like: Miracles of Modern Science (NMT), Hey, Rosetta (NMT), Ra Ra Riot (NMT)
Location: Centerville, Va.

This is the record I wish I had the opportunity to hear from Ra Ra Riot: chamber rock featuring instrumental nuance and crafty songwriting. Instead, they gave us synth pop. Never fear, though: the well-intentioned Northern Virginia eight-piece ensemble – who sounds more like a metal band – is here just in time to satisfy our quirky, chamber rock needs. However, while I quite enjoy their embrace of a multitude of members supplying horns, strings, accordions, ukuleles and mandolins, the horns often come across as sour or thin due to the group's limited production capabilities while frontman and guitarist Chris Smith's vocals are frequently flat and nasally – and not in a good way like The Rural Alberta Advantage's (NMT) Nils Edenloff vinegary wail. Still, he smartly stays within his range, and the horns are a lightening presence for a collection focused on exploring the nostalgia of the late high school years. Still, considering the band's self-supporting reality, they should be afforded a pass until they can take advantage of better recording facilities and perhaps a producer who can round out the rough edges.

Come for: "You, Me and FFC" (joyful, well-composed, pop sensibility)
Stay for:  "Oh Well" (bouncy bass line from bassist Led Linghat centers this nostalgia trip)
You'll be surprised by: "It's Been Too Long" (quality vocal harmonies; slightly folksy)
Solid efforts: "Rotten Summer" (a look back at summer break that's more fond than regretful); "Nova Blues" (starts off a bit slow, but slides into a nice pace after the first chorus); "Nostalgic Again" (the record's core theme reinforced again); "Teen Queen" (most skillful use of the horn section here; enjoyable, but not overpowering background harmonies); "2008" (too-apparent chord transitions by Smith early on, but good framing of the theme to end the collection)
Meh: "Ghaty" (sounds more lighthearted than it actually is)

New Release: Jamais Vu
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Record Label: self-produced
Sounds Like: Telekinesis (NMT), Harriet (NMT), New Pornographers (NMT)
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Based on a Facebook from Joshua Hanson – an artist we're excited to hear from via his Yellow Red Sparks project, from their full-length, self-titled debut expected this time next week – about his brother John's band's new record, I decided to take a listen and am glad I did. Blending driving, anthemic song structures with indie rock hooks, the five-song EP culled by Hanson much like Michael Benjamin Lerner fronts Telekinesis should broaden the appeal of the project to a larger audience.

Come for: "1998" (swirling, a shade shy of epic)
Stay for: "Sweet America" (a Mick Fleetwood/John McVie punchy rhythm layered by staunch piano and sweeping hooks unite for the collection's best material)
You'll be surprised by: "Haunted" (a slow burner, but the last minute is quite triumphant)
Solid efforts: "Repositioning" (moody, but captivating out of the Thom Yorke playbook); "Emily" (power piano ballad extraordinaire)

Ambrosia Parsley
New Release: I Miss You. I Do.
Release Date: December 8, 2012
Record Label: self-produced
Sounds Like: Neko Case, Stevie Nicks
Location: New York, N.Y.

Ambrosia Parsley benefits from the same raspy, high-register voice that propelled singers like Stevie Nicks, Cindi Lauper and Gwen Stafani to stardom. While her debut, five-song EP – a preview of a full-length release anticipated later this year – is too subdued and musically sparse to launch her to a similar stratosphere as those artists, her voice is intriguing enough to see how she's able to utilize it going forward.

Come for: "The Other Side" (the most upbeat number here; a bit of early alt-rock edge)
Stay for: "Whispering Pines" (persuasive, fullest demonstration of vocal prowess)
You'll be surprised by: "The Answer [Tim & Becky's Wedding]" (sultry, but buoyant)
Solid efforts: "Nighttime" (sounds like a Neko Case / Dan Bejar New Pornographers duet; multi-instrumentalist Florent Barbier meshes well with Parsley);
Meh: "Losing the Holiday" (okay ballad, but not much to showcase here)

Marching Band
New Release: And I've Never Seen Anything Like That
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Record Label: U & L Records
Sounds Like: Of Monsters And Men (NMT), They Might Be Giants (NMT), Fountains of Wayne (NMT), Candy Butchers
Location: Linköping, Sweden

Straddling the line between quirky, hyper-literate nerd rock and more jubilant folk-rock is the Swedish pop rock duo of Erik Sunbring and Jacob Lind who comprise Marching Band. Continually refining and expanding their sound after previous full-length efforts Spark Large and Pop Cycle, the five tracks And I've Never Seen Anything Like That concentrate their output on tight and focused indie rock that could have as easily found an home in 80's-era college radio as today's more synth-influenced sounds.

Come for: "Die In My Arms" (full, intricate, jangly well-paced)
Stay for: "And I've Never Seen" (easygoing, if slightly jerking)
You'll be surprised by: "Artistic Man, Shaved Hand" (slightly dark and disturbing, like a They Might Be Giants deep cut)
Solid efforts: "Breaking Is Fun" (not far from something Sloan might write)
Meh: "But Not Anymore [Ja Ja]" (too slow and moody for these guys; they don't do emo well)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Family of the Year

In my last Super Review post, I reserved the right to still publish one-off reviews of individual groups or artists if opportunity and enthusiasm allowed. This is one such occasion, in the form of the Los Angeles-based indie-pop quintet, Family of the Year, and their sophomore full-length release – Loma Vista – which was released this past July on Netwerk Records.

Family of the Year
Release Date: July 10, 2012
New Release: Loma Vista
Record Label: Netwerk Records
Sounds Like: Library Voices (NMT), Weezer (NMT), The Arcade Fire (NMT), Vampire Weekend, Duran Duran

The 11-track offering is a significant step forward in consistency and power from their folksy 2010 debut, Songbook, which featured sunny Beach Boys-inspired harmonies paired with folk simplicity, but ranged from exceedingly playful to heartwrechingly dour in just a few tracks. Still, it was a solid start, and the group expanded their direction and focus here. They smartly ascribe to the 3:2:1 ratio of upbeat (3) to mid-paced (2) to ballad (1) selections that I believe contributes to the most enjoyable albums.

Opening track "The Stairs" comes close to a Neko Case – Dan Bejar New Pornographers' (NMT) duet, with frontman and guitarist Joe Keefe and keyboardist Christina Schroeter matching vocals with ease and comfort as the number builds in intensity with synthy guitars from Keefe and Jamesy Buckley channeling The Edge on top of the steady rhythm of Keefe's brother Sebastian and bassist Alex Walker.

The following "Diversity" is among the record's catchiest, with its looping chorus hook setting the stage early before breaking free into the type indie-pop power blast that's made careers for bands ranging from Duran Duran to Weezer to the New Pornographers and Library Voices. It's on tracks like these where Schroeter's keyboards make the difference between sludgy alt-rock instrumentals and more lighthearted fare. The same is true later on with "Living On Love," which adds even more punch and group dynamic to the mix.

"St. Croix" is sufficiently breezy and tropical, befitting its title, with Joe Keefe's acoustic guitars livening the beachy vibe, although the chorus lyrics are just a tad hokey. Still, it easily earns on a spot on a beach vacation playlist along with any pick from the Tennis (NMT) catalog and Weezer's "Island in the Sun." The countrified "Buried" is similar unburdened by heft and importance, and would pair brilliantly with the group's own "Let's Go Down" off Songbook, a classic kick-off-to-the-weekend anthem.

Lead single "Hero" is the collection's most restrained effort, with Keefe and his acoustic sitting center stage ahead of gentle accompianment from the larger band. With each chorus, though, the vocal harmonies grow more prevalent and round the number into a soothing example of contemporary folk rock. "Everytime" continues the record's gentle mid-section and might be the least interesting cut here and would have fit better on a Keefe solo project, but it's worth a listen nonetheless.

"Hey Ma" is power piano ballad that Fountains of Wayne (NMT) could have included as a late-appearing track on Welcome Interstate Managers. At first blush, it sounds more sentimental than it actually is, and the second-half crunch and Buckley's encore-lighter solo reinforces its power ballad status. Meanwhile, the late-appearing "In the End" (hooky, Sloan-flavored) and "Never Enough" (Americana, heartland rock) are far from filler and are the type of solid, if unspectacular material that constitute thorough records. And "Find It" is the archetypal closing track, a stress-free, send-off lullaby with subtle instrumentation and unforced harmonies.

Come for: "Hero"
Stay for: "Diversity"
You'll be surprised by: "St. Croix"
Solid efforts: "The Stairs," "Buried," "Living on Love," "Hey Ma," "In the End," "Never Enough," "Find It"
Meh: "Everytime"
Skip to next track: everything should be given as least one listen

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Super Review – January

So, since it should be evident that posting weekly is now beyond my capacity, I'm now going to focus on delivering one post each month in the Super Review format I used in early October. Of course, I'll still reserve the right to float a one-off, weekly post on a specific band or artist if I'm particularly motivated. So, on to the reviews...

In general, this crop of profilees fall into one of two categories: 1) Solid, but not earth-shattering releases from North American acts, and 2) promising groups from the United Kingdom, but whom have yet to release a full-length record. Don't read too much (meaning: anything) into the order of these profiles.

New Release: METZ
Release Date: October 15, 2012
Record Label: Sub Pop Records
Sounds Like: The Strokes, John Spencer Blues Explosion
Location: Ottawa, Ont.

One of my chief obstacles to writing about new music lately has been the general tepidness of what I've heard, especially from North American groups. A review of one act that seemed initially promising used the phrase "ambient folk pop" as a compliment. Now, everyone's entitled to their own tastes, but if you've been following this space, you'll know that's not at all what I'm interested in hearing. The converse of this problem is what makes the relentless, thrashing self-titled debut of this Ottawa-based trio so compelling. It's loud, not particularly tidy and unashamed of that reality. Individually, most tracks are a tad noisier and more shouty than what usually hits my bull's eye, but there's hints of crunching choruses and solid song structures that suggests a more thorough sound, and are even more attractive when combined with the group's snotty and hard-nosed veneer.

Come for: "Get Off" (brisk, snarly)
Stay for: "Wet Blanket" (thundering)
You'll be surprised by: "Rats" (not exactly an outlier, but the crispest sound on the collection)
Solid efforts: "Knife in the Water" (big drums; dark and sludgy); "The Mule" (fierce); "Sad Pricks" (witty punk); "Headache" (brash)
Meh: "Wasted" (too slow); "Negative Space" (too long)
Skip to next track: "Nausea" (a minute-plus of instrumental leftovers on only a 10-track album isn't a very valuable contribution)

So Many Wizards
New Release: Warm Nothing
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Record Label: Frenchkiss Label Group
Sounds Like: Sufjan Stevens (NMT), Neutral Milk Hotel, Oh, No! Oh, My! (NMT)
Location:  Los Angeles, Calif.

I mentioned how I feel much new stuff is too dreamy and ethereal for my tastes. Half of Warm Nothing – the first full-length release from this Los Angeles indie-folk rock quartet – suffers from this condition. There's a few well-constructed, indie-pop offerings ("Yeah Right," "Into the Sun"), but others just hover around without achieving any real direction. I'd like to hear some greater refinement and less experimentation on future efforts, but for now, it's a good start.

Come for: "Yeah Right" (hooky, breezy)
Stay for: "Loose Your Mind" (measured, but purposeful)
You'll be surprised by: "Inner City" (vaguely eastern melody; slippery backbeat)
Solid efforts: "I Like It Here" (restrained, but brightens as it goes); "In the Sun" (peppy, simple); "Peru" (starts wimpy, but stiffens up); "Joshua (Kill Us Both)" (short and sweet); "Never Wake Up" (refreshing, sounds suited for a beach setting)
Meh: "Happy Birthday" (never really gets going); "Into a Daze" (a little trippy, but not too meandering)
Skip to next track: "Deep Down" (makes one contemplate offing oneself from the tedium; a horrible lead-off track); "Best Friends" (fragile and monotonous); "Sleepwalk" (aptly titled; unfocused and directionless)

Of Monsters and Men
New Release: My Head is an Animal
Release Date: April 3, 2012 (North America); September 20, 2011 (Europe)
Record Label: Universal Records
Sounds Like: Camera Obscura, The Arcade Fire (NMT), Los Campesinos! (NMT), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Location: Garour, Iceland

Normally, Of Monsters and Men is exactly the type of band I'd be promoting in a stand-alone post, and I probably should have. They're a five-piece, two-gender folk-pop ensemble from another country with several very catchy and complex tunes that demonstrate excitement and ambition. However, they're being reflexively punished here because the first song I heard from them – "From Finner" – came across my radar on a SXSW sampler and it's not among their best material, so I took a pass on them in the spring. The other day, my ears perked up when I heard their second single off My Head is an Animal, "Mountain Sound," on a restaurant playlist and rediscovered them. While not their fault, had that song or their breakout single, "Little Talks" had found their way onto that sampler, I'd have likely heralded them earlier.

Come for: "Little Talks" (chipper folk rock with horns; reminds me of Los Campesinos! "A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show-Me State")
Stay for: "Mountain Sound" (sheer ebullience in 3:32)
You'll be surprised by: "Six Weeks" (approaches epicness at times)
Solid efforts: "Dirty Paws" (slow at first, but builds); "King and Lionheart" (folksy foundation, grows to fulfill the narrative); "Slow and Steady" (as the name implies; becomes very Arcade Fire-flavored at its zenith); "Your Bones" (more horns re-emerge; kinda Mumford & Sons-y); "Sloom" (another ballad, but acoustic and brighter than "Love Love Love"); "Lakehouse" (fits nicely with "King and Lionheart" and "Six Weeks"); "Numb Bears" (horns again; fun-spirited)
Meh: "From Finner" (takes too long, but may be worth the wait depending on your patience); "Love Love Love" (a fine ballad showcasing co-lead singer Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir, but not much more); "Yellow Light" (not a lot of movement here, but some pleasant bells and whistles - literally – at the end)
Skip to next track: nothing not worth listening to at least once...

China Rats
New Release: To Be Like I (EP)
Release Date: April, 2012
Record Label: Once Upon a Time Records
Sounds Like: The Kinks, The Ramones, The Vaccines, The Gaslight Anthem (NMT)
Location: Leeds, U.K.

Straight-ahead rock with a punk sneer, destined for bigger things in the coming year. Also, how old are these kids?! As the old rock adage goes, the closer you are to 21 and broke, the better rock music is...

Come for: "To Be Like I" (arena-rock level sound)
Stay for: "N.O.M.O.N.E.Y." (punk-party anthem)
You'll be surprised by: "Les Transmusicales" (hey, an acoustic track!) 
Solid efforts: "(At Least Those) Kids Are Getting Fed" (really snarly, Kinks style); "Fly Solo" (unrefined, but promising); "Take No Prisoners" (befitting its name, but less punky than other numbers);
Meh: "Ghost Train" (their sludgiest offering; not sure it fits where they're heading, but not bad)

Eliza and the Bear
New Release: "Upon the North" (single)
Release Date: December, 2012
Record Label: self-promoted
Sounds Like: Of Monsters and Men, The Head & The Heart (NMT), Grouplove (NMT), Givers (NMT)
Location: London, U.K.

I am looking forward to hearing much more from this big-sounding London quintet. So far, all we've got to go with are "Upon the North," its preceding single, "Brother's Boat" and the video for "The Southern Wild," all of which are grandiose and sweeping pieces of power-folk rock, with plenty of horns, strings and other instruments of merriment.

Randolph's Leap
New Release: Hermit (EP)
Release Date: October 26, 2012
Record Label: Fence Records
Sounds Like: Camera Obscura, Belle and Sebastian, Los Campesinos! (NMT), Frightened Rabbit  
Location: Glasgow, Scotland

Yet another one of these big-profile sounds, with strings, horns, organs and other assorted toys layered atop a folk foundation. The group released a series of five EPs over the course of 2012, each adding more punch and complexity to the mix. Here, the trio of the title track, "Mutiny" and "Zombie" demonstrate the eight-piece's range and nimbleness.