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)