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)