Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Super Review – May

Hiss Golden Messenger
New Release: Haw
Release Date: April 2, 2013
Record Label: Paradise of Bachelors
Sounds Like: Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT); Onward, Soldiers (NMT); Father John Misty (NMT)
Location: Wilmington, N.C.

OK, that's enough already with all the indie-folk onslaught, right? Fortunately, North Carolina's acutely-named Hiss Golden Messenger errs towards the alt-country wing of the contemporary folk explosion, with wafting organs, steel guitars and threads of the blues and soul music overlayed by a lyrical current of ruin and revival on the 11 tracks of Haw. Like other acts previously profiled here, Hiss Golden Messenger is by large the work of one creative force, in this case Michael C. Taylor, who also goes by Jai 'Slim' Diamond on occasion, and bolstered by contributions from multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsh. Here, there's folksy foundations emanating from the likes of Bob Dylan and Jim Croce emboldened by roots rock and alt-country flavor in the traditions of The Band and early Wilco. 

Come for: "Red Rose Natahala" (there's a swaying, rolling dynamic which makes for a good introduction to Taylor's style)
Stay for: "I've Got A Name for the Newborn Child" (easygoing, but sincere)
You'll be surprised by: "Sweet As John Hurt" (nice strolling beat, which Taylor even acknowledges lyrically early on)
Solid efforts: "Hat of Rain" (simple instrumental whose mix of rhythm and acoustic guitar suggests rain on a porch roof); "Devotion" (slow and bluesy, like much of Father John Misty's Fear Fun); "The Serpent Is Kind [Compared to Man]" (a spiritual cautionary tale without being preachy); "Cheerwine Easter" (perfectly timed with its spring release; references familiar biblical tales like Daniel in the lions' den); "Hark Marker [Glory Rag]" (fine dueling fiddles action); "Busted Note" (another original spiritual, bolstered by some gospel back-up vocals); "What Shall Be [Shall Be Enough]" (a folksy aphorism, tactfully delivered by a non-threatening messenger)
Meh: "Sufferer [Love My Conqueror]" (not a lot of motion too it, but not objectionable)

The Milk Carton Kids
New Release: The Ash & Clay
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Record Label: ANTI-
Sounds Like: "Gillian Welch & David Rawlings-meets-Simon & Garfunkel with a splash of the Everly Brothers"
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

The fantastically succinct description of this strong-harmonizing, acoustic-folk duo comprised of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan provided by the Spartanburg, S.C. Herald-Journal in the "Sounds Like" field above should tell you everything you need to know. These guys sing exceptionally well together, are fine acoustic guitarists and craft pleasing – if somewhat restrained – folk numbers that sound like they've been around for centuries. Also, be sure to visit their official website linked above for free, full downloads of their first two records.

Come for: "Snake Eyes" (outright references "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" at the outset, but incorporates new elements to the hope for ultimate salvation theme of the revered old spiritual)
Stay for: "The Ash & Clay" (the Civil War-themed title track has subtle strains of a protest song)
You'll be surprised by: "Heaven" (some fun, uptempo picking; the guys even reference "floorboard stompin'" – could have just easily been a Farewell Drifters [NMT, NMT] cut)
Solid efforts: "The Hope Of A Lifetime" (comes across more uplifting than the message conveyed by its lyrics); "Honey, Honey" (tres old-timey, clear hints of The Everly Brothers); "Years Gone By" (a satisfied reflection); "The Jewel of June" (understated, but purposeful); "Whisper In Her Ear" (odes to love can easily become overwrought and cliched; this one isn't); "On The Mend" (songwriting is more James Taylor or Jim Croce here than Simon & Garfunkel, and it's a welcome change of pace); "Hear Them Loud" (a gentle "long road" ballad); "Memphis" (a nod to the wide swath of Americana culture influenced by a now less prominent "Graceland")
Meh: "Promised Land" (not bad, but very sparse, even for this duo)
Skip to next track: there is nothing that should be avoided here

Telekinesis (NMT)
New Release: Dormarion
Release Date: April 2, 2013
Record Label: Merge Records
Sounds Like: Fountains of Wayne (NMT), Bad Books (NMT), Weezer (NMT)
Location: Seattle, Wash.

One of my most delightful discoveries during the course of writing this blog was the uncovery of Telekinesis' sophomore release, 12 Desperate Straight Lines in 2011. Its blend of clever, hooky songwriting by Michael Benjamin Lerner and charging power-pop is the type of music that I most enjoy experiencing. On Lerner's third release – Dormarion - he wisely doesn't deviate from that earlier course and by and large cranks out another dozen tracks of catchy, uptempo indie rock.

Come for: "Power Lines" (begins quietly, but the familiar power kicks in around the 1:08 mark; keyboards are a nice touch)
Stay for: "Empathetic People" (hard charging; doesn't need any more than its 2:32 to make its convincing point)
You'll be surprised by: "Symphony" (there's very few folksy, acoustic options in Lerner's catalog; this is one of them)
Solid efforts: "Wires" (sludgy bass central to 12 Desperate Straight Lines returns in force); "Lean On Me" (breezy and lighthearted); "Dark to Light" (the exemplar of Lerner's approach to power-pop); "Little Hill" (starts off like Green Day's "Brain Stew," but gradually becomes more 80s-style post-punk); "Island #4" (decidedly slower than the rest, but helps preserve by 3-2-1 ratio of high-to-mid-to-low paced songs on a well-balanced album); "Laissez-Faire" (as blistering and breathless as Lerner gets); "You Take It Slowly" (as the name implies, not especially electric; references to spiders return after several mentions previously on the record)
Meh: "Ever True" (not sure how I feel about the nerdy, computer-generated beats and synth, but the melody's not too bad)
Skip to next track: "Ghosts and Creatures" (this was the first cut I heard from Dormarion, and was quite concerned they were heading in the unfortunate recent direction of Ra Ra Riot (NMT) and abandoning their signature sound in favor of something more electronic and ethereal; fortunately, this seems to be the only instance here, but it's quite horrible)

Cold War Kids
New Release: Dear Miss Lonelyhearts
Release Date: April 2, 2013
Record Label: Downtown Music
Sounds Like: Airborne Toxic Event (NMT), U2, The Muse
Location: Long Beach, Calif.

When I reviewed the debut effort by The Little Willies (NMT), I described the group's somewhat odd pairing of jazz and country. Another set of descriptors that don't often go together are soul and punk, the self-defined genre of the Long Beach quartet, Cold War Kids and their fourth full-length compilation, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. The band matches the energy and urgency of punk rock (or post-punk, at least) with the sincerity and emotion of soul music via frontman Nathan Willett across 10-tracks of varying pace and intensity. At times, the mixture sounds like the dark but muscular material of the Airborne Toxic Event and at others the anthemic qualities of a mid-career U2.

Come for: "Miracle Mile" (punchy piano from Willett is the keystone of the opening track)
Stay for: "Jailbirds" (the U2 influence is undeniable here)
You'll be surprised by: "Tuxedos" (slightly Stones-like with bluesy undertones)
Solid efforts: "Lost That Easy" (the murky bass-electronica mix suggests The Muse); "Loner Phase" (bass & drums of Matt Maust and Matt Aveiro are reminiscent of the Adam Clayton / Larry Mullen, Jr. combo); "Bottled Affection" (I'm not wild about the programmed beats, but has a decent sing-along chorus); "Water & Power" (power piano ballad)
Meh: "Fear & Trembling" (dark and sludgy, but not in a good way); "Bitter Poem" (a bit stodgy, but Willett's vocals are stronger than on the preceding number, the title track)
Skip to next track: "Dear Miss Lonelyhearts" (the title track is just not very interesting and avoids the band's strengths)

New Release: Stories Don't End
Release Date: April 9, 2013
Record Label: HUB
Sounds Like: Jackson Browne, Harriet (NMT), Dolorean (NMT), Band of Horses (NMT)
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Whoever was responsible for the musical upbringing of brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith who form the crux of this Los Angeles-based quartet surely imparted the boys with more than a healthy dose of Jackson Browne in the process. Replicating Browne's signature mix of California sunshine vocals via frontman Taylor with Americana rock, Dawes could be indicted for more blatant thievery if they weren't quite so good at spinning out tunes nearly as catchy and thoughtful as Browne's.

Come for: "From a Window Seat" (Taylor Griffin's self-admitted anxiety during flying tied to an uptempo arrangement yields an enjoyable result)
Stay for: "Hey Lover"(nearly straight out of the Jackson Browne songbook; fun co-lead vocals from Griffin Goldsmith)
You'll be surprised by: "Stories Don't End" (the most narrative and introspective material among the record's dozen tracks; more country twang than elsewhere here)
Solid efforts: "Just Beneath the Surface" (its a slow roller, but benefits from a hearty chorus); "Just My Luck" (could move a little quicker, but there's a Eeyore-like quality of the song's subject that's endearing); "Someone Will" (fantastic harmonies from the Goldsmith brothers and a foot-tapping country swagger); "Most People" (heartland rock in its purest form) "From the Right Angle" (nice mid-tempo cut and good use of Hammond organ)
Meh: "Side Effects" (it's slow and long and quiet, but other than that there's nothing wrong with it)
Skip to next track: "Something in Common" (nearly a funeral march)

Little Tybee
New Release: For Distant Viewing
Release Date: April 9, 2013
Record Label: Paper Garden Records
Sounds Like: A.C. Newman (NMT), The Essex Green
Location: Atlanta, Ga.

Little Tybee frontman Brock Scott has one of of those voices – somewhere in the John Mayer / Jason Mraz range – that is just too cute by half. And if it weren't the folksy-orchestral numbers spun out by his sextet, the whole shtick might be unbearable – heaven help them if the jam-band set ever gets into them in a big way. As it is, most of the compositions are light and airy, with acoustic guitars and strings bridging the gap between their country roots and the more jazz-oriented direction they seem to aspire to, with horns and keyboards rounding out the sound. There's much that reminds me of the progressive jazz ensemble I grew up listening to in Buffalo, Them Jazzbeards

Come for: "Mind Grenade" (easy-listening is a phrase with a universally bad rap, but this would not be an inappropriate compliment for the coming summer days of fireflies, wheat beers and beach trips)
Stay for: "Hearing Blue" (the most rhythmic display here – with Pat Brooks' snare drum figuring prominently – but lead guitarist Josh Martin delivers some strong versatility as well)
You'll be surprised by: "The Boldest Lines" (this style isn't designed to produce much catchy, hooky stuff, but this is the album's most accessible offering)
Solid efforts: "For Distant Viewing" (for most of the number's first half, Scott's vocals barely register, but the affair picks up at the 5:05-minute opener's midpoint); "Herman" (Chris Case's piano is front-and-center with infrequent vocals and several sweeping instrumental movements); "Boxcar Fair" (the most melodic material on the album, which is also the shortest of the 11 tracks); "Castle" (would win the award for the best chorus on this record; guitar part lifts from Trey Anastasio too blatantly, though); "A Dog Waits in the Doorway" (it's essentially a Brock Scott solo number, but its a gentle way to wrap things up)
Meh: "Fantastic Planet" (depends on how you feel about 4:10 of trippy jazz); "Jury Duty" (there's a nice perky rhythm at various points here, but I get the sense this could have been more than it is)
Skip to next track: "Left Right" (Martin's schizophrenic lines pretty much ruin a nice little instrumental; maybe this is intended to sound differently in separate speakers, given the title, but I couldn't tell)

JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound
New Release: Howl
Release Date: May 21, 2013
Record Label: Bloodshot Records
Sounds Like: Molotov Coctail, Fugazi, Maxwell
Location: Chicago, Ill.

There was a time – and let's say that time was 1977 – when a group like JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound would have not that been as great a rarity as it is in 2013. And, yet, here we are when a group that combines soul, R&B and rock together, its a novelty. Of course, these genres have always fared well together, as evidenced by the quintet's satisfying mix of frontman JC Brooks' smooth, but deep vocals and the full group's rock power on their third full-length release.

Come for: "Howl" (edgy punk guitars from Billy Bungeroth contrast brilliantly with the bouncy rhythm section of bassist Ben Taylor and drummer Kevin Marks and softening piano lines from Andy Rosenstein, with Brooks' Broadway-quality vocals neither overpowering or vanishing behind the accompaniment)
Stay for: "Rouse Yourself" (sounds like the type of song Maroon 5 always tries to make, but can't quite pull off like these guys, mostly because they're always drowning too much damn wah pedal)
You'll be surprised by: "Control" (by far the finest number on the 11-track collection; would love to hear it backed by Springsteen and E Street...)
Solid efforts: "Married for a Week" (if smooth jazz sounded more like this, it wouldn't suck so much); "Security" (jangly guitar from Bungeroth, a jammy-style bass line from Taylor and falsetto from Brooks define the number, although the chorus lyrics could be a tad less repetitive); "Ordinary" (the rabble-rousing lyrics ["I believe we can crush the old guard / work with us, we want names"] belies the soft, funky instrumentals); "Before You Die" (Bunderoth's pre-disco guitar riff straight out of the mid-70s is all this song needs to be great, and the rest of the band only adds to the vibe); "Not Alone" (the most straight-ahead rocker on the record); "River" (a bluesy ballad that builds a good head of steam in the process; Brooks' shows his center stage vocal talents best here); "Cold" (it's just Brooks and Rosenstein, and that's all this one needs); "These Things" (it takes a little while, but the band gives itself enough slack to reach its pinnacle)
Meh: couldn't find anything major to disagree with
Skip to next track: it's all good

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