Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Special Report: NMT's Top Road Anthems

We're fast approaching the dog days of summer: time for not only baseball, cookouts and pool parties, but one of the classic summertime traditions – the road trip. As for myself, I'll be driving around the great state of Minnesota this week for my regular gig, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to present a list I've had in mind to post here for quite a while: my favorite songs to compliment a road trip. While it would be easy to pick a couple Jackson Brown and Eagles classics, here are my top 15 in ascending order, prioritizing – when possible – bands and artists featured in this blog:

15) "Coeur d'Alene" – The Head & The Heart (NMT) – The Head & The Heart (2011)

Not specifically a road song per se, but the track's rolling piano and spunky rhythm adds depth to a good roadtrip playlist.

"Oh, the songs people will sing for home 
and for the ones that have been gone for too long..."

14) "On Her Own" – Ben Kweller (NMT) – Changing Horses (2009)

Again, not about driving or the open road, but Kweller's fictional narrative of "good 'ol Alexandria" who's life was torn asunder by Hurricane Katrina is among the best work of his solid catalog, and is a textbook example of the heartland rock style that produces the best music to accompany long drives.

"Always been a rambler, moving her whole life / 
Daddy was a gambler with a heavyhearted wife / 
The twilight wind blows her face and that Bronco's engine moans / 
She is gonna make it on her own..."

13) "Stuck Between Stations" – The Hold Steady (NMT) – Boys & Girls in America (2006)
So, surely this one will be about a highway or something, right? Well, not yet, but I defy you to not be pulled to adventure from the opening guitar riff to the hard-charging tune's accounts of summertime mischief. Plus former pianist/keyboardist Franz Nicolay delivers his most vital performance during his tenure with the band on this one, and a great piano or organ part can make a road anthem transcendent, as is the case here.

"Crushing one another with colossal expectations; dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late.."

12) "Down in the Valley" – The Broken WestI Can't Go On, I'll Go On (2007) 

The most alt-rock flavored selection on this list, something about the jangly guitars and hazy vocals from Ross Flournoy – before the four-piece outfit became known as Apex Manor – offers some welcome indie rock texture to a collection dominated by heartland rock.

"Sun down, blood horizon; now it feels alright / 
No one feels the darkness down in the valley tonight"

11) "The Country Life" – Crash Test DummiesThe Ghosts That Haunt Me (1991)

Folks, this blog would likely not exist were it not for my introduction to the Crash Test Dummies in the early 1990s. They were the first act I "discovered" on my own and led me to research (pre-Internet!) bands that influenced them, like XTC and The Replacements, and I'm forever grateful. While I really need to hash out my history with the group that most causal music observers know as a one-hit wonder – whose one hit contained a vowel-less chorus – the purpose of this post is road songs, and "Country Life" off their fantastic, alt-country-before-alt-country-was-a-thing debut, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, adds some needed, non-hokey country spark to a good travel compilation.

"So let's pack our bags up together, and we'll be in the clear forever..."

10) "Somewhere Down the Road" – Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT) – Yellow Tag Mondays (2010)

Since we've already arrived at the country-flavored portion of this list, let's not drift too far afield, as the bluegrassy Farewell Drifters always deliver the sort of tight harmonies, honey-laced fiddles and nimble pickin' that provide a sunny, nostalgic character during treks across farms and fields.

"One day soon, I know the road will take us where we want to go /
 And everything you see will be along with me, 
somewhere down the road..."

9) "Drive" – The Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT) – Sink Or Swim (2007)

Abruptly shifting gears, the Springsteen-via-The-Clash power punk quartet aren't necessarily exploring wide open spaces on "Drive," but rather getting the boys back home after hitting the central Jersey bars. Still, sometimes on a multi-hour drive, you need a good jolt of pick-me-up; this will do it.

"And the only thing we know is it's getting dark and we better go / 
And the only thing we say are the despairs of the day"

8) "Down By the Water" – The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) – The King Is Dead (2011)

After serving as the most literate band in indie rock for the better part of a decade, Colin Meloy and the gang decided to shift to a more accessible brand of Americana for The King Is Dead. Turns out it was their best-selling record ever, and the leadoff single, "Down By the Water" exposed the Portland quintet to an expanded audience through its roots rock revival format. Guest contributions by now-former R.E.M. (NMT) guitarist Peter Buck (damn, isn't it a little sad to write that) and knockout supporting vocals from Gillian Welch embolden what is already a pretty catchy number from Meloy and company. 

"The season rubs me wrong, the summer swells anon / 
So knock me down, tear me up / 
But I would bear it all broken just to fill my cup / 
Down by the water and down by the old main drag"

7) "Thank You, Ringo Star" – Johnny Vegas – Super Cool American (1997)

This is such a hipster lede, but you probably haven't heard of Johnny Vegas (the band, not the comedian). That's probably for good season, since the Syracuse, N.Y.-quartet hasn't done much since 1999. And that's a shame, because the tandem of frontman Keith Calveric and guitarist Mike Shimshack wrote some very hooky, alt-rock-pop in the Gin Blossoms vein that never really found an audience outside upstate New York. Although the first verse of "Thank You, Ringo Star" is actually about a train – I know, way more awesome – the travel theme is recurrent throughout the 2:52 piano-rock confection.

"All packed up and ready to go; 
cigarette money and enough for the tolls..."

6) "Rain King" – Counting CrowsAugust and Everything After (1993)

Any search terms for "heartland rock" should immediately return this barnstorming classic from when the Crows were the Bay Area's favorite faux-midwestern rock band. The combination of crisp acoustic guitars, clean Fender riffs and keyboardist Charlie Gillingham's brilliant Hammond organ park is the definition of the sub-genre. A listen to this and "Omaha" off the band's excellent debut makes you remember why the group was so well-received, even during the heart of the 90s grunge movement. 

"Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends / 
After all the dreaming I come home again..."

5) "Let's Get Out of This Country" – Camera Obscura (NMT) – Let's Get Out of This Country (2006)

You perhaps read my thoughts last week on this Scottish act's uneven recent release, but the title track from their 2006 record is the group's high water mark. The rush of strings, organs and playful guitars propel frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell's tale of eloping into a more vast exercise in love and exploration.

"Let's hit the road, dear friend of mine / 
Wave goodbye to our thankless jobs / 
We'll drive for miles, maybe never turn off..."

4) "Electric Music" – Band of Horses (NMT) – Mirage Rock (2012)

Last year, Band of Horses released the album of their career, and "Electric Music" is the best thing on it. It seems like this song has been laying in wait since Jackson Browne's 1977 signature "Running On Empty," hoping for some plucky band to find it.
"Listen to the motor getting louder as we go / 
One way or another, gonna make it back home..."

3) "Across The Bridge" – Great Lakes Myth SocietyGreat Lakes Myth Society (2005)

The most lyrically complex and mysterious of any number on this list, this piece of "northern rock" – as defined by the Michigan-based quintet – includes all the trappings of great heartland rock road songs: mandolins, fiddles, organ and – most crucial – a hearty sing-along chorus led by frontman Timothy Monger (NMT).

"'Neath the radial of stars / And every band of idle cars / 
In the distance, old St. Ignace..."

2) "Keep the Car Running" – The Arcade Fire (NMT) – Neon Bible (2007)

It's hard to say the critically-acclaimed and chart-topping indie rock supergroup from Montreal has a single defining anthem – it is, after all, what they do. But this one might be the most accessible to the masses, so much so that co-leaders Win Butler and Regine Chassagne once performed it backed by Springsteen and the E Street Band and has been covered by the Foo Fighters. Although the protagonist's paranoia is a bit disconcerting if read too closely...

"Every night my dream’s the same
Same old city with a different name
Men are coming to take me away /  
I don’t know why but I know I can’t stay"

1) "Seeds" – Hey Rosetta! (NMT) – Seeds (2011)

From the welcoming, inviting mandolin that opens the title track from this St. John's, Newfoundland chamber-rock act, the number does everything that a great road song should do: translate the literal act of travel into a metaphor of self-discovery and enlightenment with vigor and enthusiasm. 

"The road bends long, like mother's arms / 
Reaching for these four black tires..."

P.S. – hopefully some of you spotted that the road in the photo at the top was a railroad. It was in northern Florida, south of Atmore, Ala.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Super Review: Sleeping At Last, The Lighthouse & The Whaler, Camera Obscura, Lemuria

Sleeping At Last
New Release: Atlas: Light (also, Atlas: Darkness)
Release Date: June 10, 2013 (January 29, 2013)
Record Label: self-released
Sounds Like: Her Space Holiday (NMT); Hey Rosetta! (NMT)
Location: Wheaton, Ill.

To follow up last week's review of a Stephin Merritt project with a similarly prolific and adventurous artist seems altogether appropriate. While Merritt's material can range from range from brooding and antagonistic to electronic experimentation, the volumes of work supplied by Sleeping At Last's Ryan O'Neal trends more towards uplifting and organic, if a tad too ethereal at times. Like Merritt, O'Neal culls his output into less conventional formats, including short EPs and multi-volume collections. Light and Darkness are part of O'Neal's Atlas series of six-track EPs, which will ultimately include a total of six records released every few months, and are "inspired by the origins, emergence and experiences of life," according to O'Neal. The series the natural successor to his Yearbook collection from 2010 and 2011, which yielded a new three-song EP tailored for each month of the year.

Although O'Neil tends to organize his releases in a fashion similar to Merritt, his musical style is more akin to Her Space Holiday's Marc Bianchi, with intricate orchestral arrangements spanning a wealth of genres from folk to progressive rock. Meanwhile, his vocal phrasing is more reminiscent of Hey Rosetta's Tim Baker or Mike Viola of The Candy Butchers: a high, sweeping tenor range that often begins gentle and a touch fragile at first, but can build and swirl when called upon in service to epics and anthems. 

This review will include not only the most recent volume of the Atlas series, Light, but its debut offering from January, Darkness, which O'Neal intended to be considered as two sides of a vinyl record. This intention is borne out by the contrast between "Uneven Odds" off Darkness and the title track off Light, which tells the story of the same character, the former from the viewpoint of a guardian of a child whose parents had recently passed, and the latter reflecting the thoughts of that same child – now as an adult – on the birth of a child of their own, the lyrics to which could be an eye-watering credo for any new parent as the instrumentation swells with resolve and hope:

"May these words be the first to find your ears:
All is bright and in the sun now that you're here;
Though your eyes will need some time to adjust 
to the overwhelming light surrounding us; 
I'll give you everything I have, I'll teach you everything I know,
I promise I'll do better...
I will always hold you close but I will learn to let you go,
I promise I'll do better...
I will soften every edge, I'll hold the world to its best,
and I'll do better...
With every heartbeat I have left I will defend your every breath
and I'll do better...
Cause you are loved, you are loved, more than you know,
I hereby pledge all of my days to prove its so,
though your heart is far too young to realize the unimaginable light you hold inside..."

There's little impression O'Neal is just simply aiming for a tearjerker here. I feel the same about the equally sentimental but just as sincere "We're So Far Away" by Mae. I dare you not to be convicted.

Come for: "Light" (see above)
Stay for: "You Are Enough" (light and intricate)
You'll be surprised by: "Heirloom" (surprisingly folksy, with acoustic guitars and fiddles; continues the motivational tale from father to son begin in "Light"
Solid efforts: "The Projectionist" (I think the first line, "When I was young, I fell in love with stories" is enough to make the whole track worthwhile); "Overture" (gentle at first, but picks up in intensity, mostly via a simple mandolin part); "I'll Keep You Safe" (very lush, illustrative lyricism); "Uneven Odds" (tune in for the set-up of "Light," despite its morose subject matter)
Meh: "In the Embers" (slow and somber); "Woodwork" (this is what I meant by a touch too ethereal, and its just a little repetitive); "Bad Blood" (nothing wrong per se, but I guess a collection entitled Darkness will have more slow, restrained numbers than not)
Skip to next track: nothing too objectionable

The Lighthouse & The Whaler
New Release: This Is an Adventure
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Record Label: self-released
Sounds Like: Ra Ra Riot (NMT), Hey Marseilles (NMT), Vampire Weekend
Location: Cleveland, Ohio

Don't worry, everybody – I've found it! Found what, you ask. Well, only the record that Ra Ra Riot should have released as its fourth album instead of the electronic schlock of Beta Love. Strangely enough, it turns out it comes via the Seattle indie folk-rock quartet The Lighthouse & The Whaler's sophomore release, This Is an Adventure, which came out last September but which I was only recently made aware of. There's the same faux-Sting vocals from frontman Michael LoPresti that made Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles stand out, and the same mix of Vampire Weekend-style Afropop and synth-rock and strings-forward, baroque-pop that defines groups like Hey Marseilles and Rah Rah (NMT). 

Come for: "Pioneers" (good blend of their previous folk-oriented catalog with their new, more rubbery sound; catchy hook)
Stay for: "Chromatic" (although its nearly a knock-off of Ra Ra Riot's "Too Dramatic," that was a great tune these should have no shame in trying to rip-off; combination of glockenspiel, strings and keys add even greater buoyancy to slinky guitars and bouncy bass)
You'll be surprised by: "This Is an Adventure" (could be a breakout hit for the band)
Solid efforts: "Venice" (not too heavy; compliment to leisure travel); "The Adriatic" (strings take center stage here; intriguing chorus); "Burst Apart" (if you've listened to any of the group's previous material, you'd never suspect they'd turn out something as loose and floaty as this); "Iron Doors" (kind of heavy as the title suggests, but not a bad choice to slow things down by a step on an otherwise pretty peppy production); "We've Got the Most" (once again, could double as a Ra Ra Riot number; I still have no problem with it); "Untitled" (love guitarist Mark Poro's figures here) 
Meh: "Little Vessels" (never seems to catch the current it needs to get going properly, but otherwise its okay)
Skip to next track: it's all aiight

Camera Obscura
New Release: Desire Lines
Release Date: June 11, 2013
Record Label: 4AD
Sounds Like: 10,000 Maniacs, A.C. Newman (NMT), She & Him, Of Monsters & Men (NMT)
Location: Glasgow, Scotland

Just a few seconds of interaction with "Do It Again" – the leadoff single from the Scottish sextet's fifth full-length release – should tell you all you need to know about the group's power and potential. Unfortunately, much of that talent is well, obscured here with mid-paced numbers that are pleasant enough, but don't churn along with the same sort of urgency and vigor as demonstrated on just a few tracks here, or elsewhere through their past portfolio. I know I harp on my 3-2-1 ratio over and over, but this record is truly the case study in why uptempo numbers need to be the bulk of any collection, followed by lesser numbers of mid-paced and slower selections. This is really a shame since I've routinely cited Camera Obscura as possessing much of the template for what I consider to be the ingredients for good music: many performers of both genders – often Canadian or Scottish – playing all sorts of instruments with the ability to span multiple genres and possessing the knack for catchy tunes. I just wish we'd heard more of it on Desire Lines.

Come for: "Do It Again" (nearly as good and hooky as their all-time best, 2006's "Let's Get Out of This Country;" lead vocalist Tracyanne Campbell demonstrates why she's one of the best in the business when she's on her game)
Stay for: "Break it to You Gently" (good energy and sturdy drumming from Lee Thompson)
You'll be surprised by: "This Is Love (Feels Alright)" (the slow-paced stuff starts early, but this one's early enough that it's still interesting; some good strings and horns matched with multi-instrumentalist Carey Lander's organ balances out the bluesy rhythm section of Thompson and bassist Gavin Dunbar)
Solid efforts: "Troublemaker" (its just a small step off from being very catchy; sort of an 80s college rock vibe); "New Year's Resolution" (another good latent melody, but could use a jolt of power behind it; otherwise too hazy); "Every Weekday" (fun, tropical-flavored riff from guitarist Kenny McKeeve along with Lander's hovering organ salvages this one); "I Missed Your Party" (lighthearted; horns are a welcome addition; more nimble guitar work from McKeeve)
Meh: "William's Heart" (a lulling waltz that comes close to yawn-invoking; once more, McKeeve is able to add some worthwhile contributions); "Fifth in Line To The Throne" (again, I don't mind Thompson and Dunbar's blues foundation – and if this were the 1 in my 3-2-1 ratio, it could fit as a You'll Be Surprised By pick – but, alas, it's just another slow song here); "Desire Lines" (as a traditional closing track it's no problem, but good luck finding the appetite for more slow stuff if you make it this far)
Skip to next track: "Intro" (only 30 seconds, and this isn't really a concept record, so what's the need of a prelude?); "Cri Du Coeur" (might find its higher purpose as a sedative)

New Release: The Distance Is So Big
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Record Label: Bridge 9 Records
Sounds Like: The Tins (NMT), Rah Rah (NMT), Slater-Kinney
Location: Buffalo, N.Y.

If you heard Buffalo, N.Y.'s The Tins when we profiled them last year, the quirky, time signature-defying work of their fellow Nickel City-based trio should serve as a good follow-up. Guitarist Sheena Ozzella and drummer Alex Kerns share lead vocals, while the pair along with bassist Max Gregor churn through a variety of progressive and slightly odd takes on the traditional rock format, much like Primus did to a larger scale through the 1990s, albeit here with less spiffy studio production, which at times is a little distracting. (Listen to the full record via NPR's First Listen)

Come for: "Brilliant Dancer" (good bouncy hook; Ozzella's vocals are flighty like if Taylor Swift found her way to prog-rock; note the first example of shifting time signatures around the 1:55 mark)
Stay for: "Clay Baby" (Kerns is a few notches shy of Ozzellla's vocal talents – he can occasionally sound like a low-register John Linnell – but the melody vaguely reflects Modern English's "I Melt With You," which is fun)
You'll be surprised by: "Scienceless" (thick and meaty riffs)
Solid efforts: "Dream Eater" (hard-charging, neat rolling bass line from Gregor; hooky chorus); "Chihuly" (titled for the famous glass artists, the trade-offs and interplay between Ozzella and Kerns brings a good deal of fun as we hear about an "amateur astronomer" and the "butterscotch shattering Chihuly"); "Bluffing Statistics" (I'm not wild about the disjointed percussion here, but the song concept is interesting nonetheless); "Public Opinion Bath" ("one minute you're stuck between two proud parents and a studio audience" from Kerns might be the most interesting lyric on the baker's dozen tracks; satisfyingly short at 2:12); "Congratulations Sex" (not quite Rilo Kiley's "Potions for Foxes," but still pretty humorously lurid); "Ruby" (packs plenty of punch for a closing number; Ozzella's vocals sound like a slight nod to The Cranberries' Delores O'Riordan)
Meh: "Paint the Youth" (the rhythm seems a bit clunky and out of synch; do like the trippy organ, though); "Oahu, Hawaii" (another hint of a famous melody, this time via Queen's "Radio Ga Ga," but the rest of the track is a bit sparse); "Survivors' Guilt" (a little too slow and dark for their sound profile)
Skip to next track: "Michael and Stephan Moon" (much like Camera Obscura's "Intro," it serves little purpose)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Future Bible Heroes

This week our guest correspondent Eileen Can reviews the new Future Bible Heroes album, Partygoing, out June 4 on Merge Records. Future Bible Heroes will play DC July 26 at the Black Cat.
New Release: Partygoing
Release Date: June 4, 2013
Record Label: Merge Records
Sounds Like: The Magnetic Fields, The Flaming Lips, Pet Shop Boys
Location: San Francisco, Calif. 
Followers of songwriter Stephin Merritt know his projects The 6THs, the soundtrack he composed for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and most notably The Magnetic Fields (NMT). Future Bible Heroes is the experimental arm of his expanding musical empire, and the one in which Merritt and bandmates Christopher Ewen and Claudia Gonson exercise their intergalactic disco fantasies – a successful endeavor if you are listening in your basement, but save your nickels for the four-CD boxset from Merge before you think about stalking their tour bus from coast to coast.

The best and worst part about seeing one of Merritt’s bands live is that there is no pretense – the ensemble typically comes across as unrehearsed and unaware that a hundred or more fans spent money, cleared their calendars, and are now standing (or sitting) in an auditorium, eager to see for themselves the magnificent musicians who produced clever tunes such as "The Lonely Robot." What you find instead is a clan of tired, sassy travelers, and Claudia Gonson hitching up her pants and spouting off about Calvin Trillin books. Merritt is without exception an irritable performer, and his chronic hyperacusis makes him no fun on stage. Future Bible Heroes (FBH) will be touring without Merritt this summer, and the jury is still out as to whether this will enhance the group’s reputation.

If you can’t enjoy a band live, the next best thing is to have them gift you with an album that serves as a party-kit-in-a-CD-sleeve (just add friends). While Partygoing doesn’t have any track as compelling as the 2002 FBH toe-tapper "I’m a Vampire,"  it’s an album in the truest sense – perfect for an era in which some journalists think no one listens to albums anymore. The key to enjoying this record is to play it all, in order, and give it time. It mirrors the arc of an actual party, and with each track you find yourself more engaged.

It opens with the intriguing A Drink is Just the Thing, which serves as a brief and alluring overture. On to "Sadder Than the Moon," in which the lunar themes, shattered hearts and general unrequitedness of all Merritt’s lyrics assert themselves through his cloudy baritone. Picture a slow but earnest start to a party that is just gathering in your rec room, wallflowers and all. The patient listener will hold tight, rearrange chairs, and get comfortable for the rest of the album, which unfurls with "Let’s Go to Sleep (And Never Come Back)" – a  tame, 21st century counterpart to the Magnetic Fields’ 1994 single "Take Ecstasy with Me." Despite his hearing problems, Merritt is aging well, and his writing shows it.

"A New Kind of Town" will kick 80s enthusiasts down memory lane while managing to sound original. It pays just enough homage to trippy, sexy techno of old, with lyrics built for a brave new world. Although Merritt is not one to weave subtle social commentary into his songs (direct, face-slapping opinions, yes), this all-welcoming and inclusive tune proclaims that, “It’s a dance hall for the new freaks, baby/With a dance floor where no one says maybe,” and we almost catch a glimpse of him smiling through Gonson’s vocals. “There’s a sun now,” she sings, “Wake up, you’re snoring.” This song’s merry-go-round continues, extolling openness and open doors, perhaps signaling a new era for FBH, who until now had not released an album in over a decade.

The biggest surprise of the set is "All I Care About is You," which seems unremarkable at first but improves upon repeated listenings. Although in real life Stephin Merritt is known to be a first-rate Mr. Cranky Pants, no one denies the sweetness of his lyrics. You can dismiss “And I don’t care if it’s all in my head/And I don’t care if it’s complicated” as sophomoric, but a greater challenge would be to claim you don’t identify with the sentiment. “Hold my hand,” he sings, and leaves it at that to pave the way for Partygoing’s climax.

In a 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, Benjamin Franklin said that, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The Future Bible Heroes’ version of that which is certain above all else? "Living, Loving, Partygoing." Merritt has a habit of lauding champagne, but here we get John Waters, Andy Warhol and Guy Fawkes floating in it, and all before this gem: “At Mink Stole’s birthday in gay Provincetown/I came to DJ and left with the clown.” It’s a warm, feel-good dance song that even a misanthrope can embrace.

Sure, Partygoing contains a handful of duds like "How Very Strange" and "Digging My Own Grave," but just imagine at this point that your shindig is really hopping and the conversation is roaring, so no one wants to be distracted by some fanboy cranking the volume knob and shouting, “You gotta hear this one!” It ebbs and flows, it has highs and lows, and it grows on you as a good party should. Novelist David Mitchell expressed it thus in Black Swan Green: "You look a total wally if you dance too early, but after one crucial song tips the disco over, you look a sad saddo if you don't." In this collection, "Living, Loving, Partygoing" is that crucial song.

The party continues, and then slowly winds down as parties do. You’ll be sweeping the floor and filling the recycling bin to "When Evening Falls on Tinseltown," desperately hoping your next soiree will measure up to this one. Misanthropy and hyperacusis be damned – Stephin Merritt and friends always seems to have a good time.

Come for: "Living, Loving, Partygoing"
Stay for: "A New Kind of Town"

You’ll Be Surprised By: "All I Care About Is You"

Meh: "Satan, Your Way is a Hard One"

Trippiest David Bowie Impression: "Drink Nothing But Champagne"

Play on Repeat:  "Keep Your Children in a Coma"

Special note to all you tweeters out there: #FBH is evidently in use for “free bingo hour” and not “Future Bible Heroes,” but hey, the sentiment is right!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Postelles

SOMEWHERE OVER CENTRAL ARKANSAS, 34,000 ft -- I fear I may have done you readers a great disservice. For a variety of reasons, April was a difficult stretch to keep up with the bevy of new releases that emerged from early April until now. As a result, while I had a good list of released I wanted to investigate, it was sort of a scattershot approach, which ultimately led to – perhaps – one of the spring's best new records being overlooked until now.

The Postelles
New Release: ...And It Shook Me
Release Date: April 23, 2013
Record Label: +1 Records
Sounds Like: Tinted Windows, The Jayhawks, Elvis Costello, Cheap Trick
Location: New York, N.Y.

If you're familiar with Tinted Windows – the infectious power-pop rock supergroup project by Fountains of Wayne (NMT) bassist Adam Schlesinger and their utter joy in celebrating hooky, brash rock music – then you'll be quite comfortable with the sophomore effort of the New York-based quartet, The Postelles. The -track album is laden with catchy, well-crafted rock-n-roll, the kind most American music listeners had access to for the better part of the second half of the 20th century. Today, its harder to find. The Postelles – which, by name, sound like they should be a female soul trio from the '60s – take the clean licks and hooky choruses popularized by groups like Cheap Trick and emulated by Tinted Windows and glaze them over with a thin layer of the sort of Americana and heartland rock acts like The Jayhawks were so adept at churning out and colored by the soulful quirkiness of an Elvis Costello. I have the feeling this is the type of music Nick Jonas wishes he could produce, but always is sucked into a vortex of saccharine bubblegum pop. These guys are able to span that narrow but deep gorge between high-gloss sugarwater and catchy, but malty rock. There will always be groups like The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) and Okkervil River (NMT) to push the creative boundaries of indie rock, but in the meantime, there's nothing wrong with enjoying quality work of the less heady variety.

Come for: "Oh My Luck" (inescapably hooky)
Stay for: "Sweet Water" / "Caught By Surprise" (I can't pick which I enjoy more; both draw heavy influence from early-career Costello and sound like you've heard them all your life, in the best possible way...)
You'll be surprised by: "Pretend Its Love" (it's the one that's different because of the solid guest vocals from Alex Winston; breezy and lighthearted)
Solid efforts: "...And It Shook Me" (although it was the leadoff single and is the album opener and title track, the numbers listed above are more fetching, still, its a good place to start); "You Got Me Beat" (the hardest-rocking, most Cheap Trick-sounding cut on the record); "Heavy Eyes" (I could have listed it in the Meh category, since the dropoff in energy level is noticeable compared to the other tracks, but I never really mind change-of-pace numbers and they still adhere to my 3-2-1 ratio for uptempo-midtempo-slow distribution, and here its more like 3-2-0. Plus the chorus hook is just as tempting as any of the others); "Waiting by Your Window" (clean, jangly guitars are at the forefront); "Running Red Lights (has a bluesy/soulful vibe with the R&B-style chorus vocals, with maybe hints of Ramones-era punk undercurrents elsewhere; bassist John Speyer's presence is notable here); "Tidal Wave" (befitting the title, insert this in a beach trip mix with Family of the Year's (NMT) "Treehouse" and Grouplove's (NMT) "Naked Kids"); "You Know I Won't" (rather than the typical somber closer, this one's bright and peppy)
Meh: "Parallel Love" (generally the same sentiments as "Heavy Eyes," but the chorus isn't quite as good; still, it's quite listenable, so feel free to disregard this categorization)