Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Head and the Heart (Let's Be Still); Dismemberment Plan

Sometimes, a couple groups or artists will line-up nicely with mutual releases that highlight the similarity between the two acts, like my reviews earlier this year of Okkervil River and Neko Case (NMT) or The Family Crest and The Polyphonic Spree (NMT). On this occasion, there's very little that unites the new work (or previous repertoires) of this week's profilees: The Head and the Heart and the Dismemberment Plan. The former is a relatively new folk rock collective while the latter is a quirky indie rock unit that hadn't produced new material in more than a decade. Both are worth some time exploring.

The Head and the Heart
New Release: Let's Be Still (listen to it streaming here)
Release Date: Today (October 15, 2013)
Record Label: Sub Pop Records
Sounds Like: Agesandages (NMT), The Oh Hellos (NMT), The Last Bison (NMT)
Location: Seattle, Wash.

Much of the talk coming out of The Head and the Heart camp is how much the band has opened up to explore new sonic space after touring in support of their 2011 self-titled debut (NMT) and responding to the influences of those they supported on the road, like The Decemberists (NMT, NMT), My Morning Jacket and Iron and Wine. That's all fine, but whatever evolution that has occurred between their debut and sophomore releases is subtle and fairly in keeping with the trajectory the band had established for itself on their first record. This isn't to suggest that I'm disappointed with the result; far from it, actually. The Seattle sextet's sound has certainly matured, producing a fuller and more balanced approach that beneficially avoids some of the starker moments of their premiere. Apparently, that stems from group-wide approach to both songwriting and performance, rather than relying on the bulk of the material emanating from co-frontperson Josiah Johnson, who'd rounded up the band from open mic nights where he'd been performing around Seattle, who then largely modified his existing compositions.

Come for: "Shake" (rich, full sound, piqued by darker electric guitar by Jonathan Russell and piano from Kenny Hensley)
Stay for: "My Friends" (Hensley's punchy piano is the focus from the outset and sustains the uptempo beat throughout its delightful 3:22; solid group vocal harmonies); 
You'll be surprised by: "Summertime" (a bit of calypso vibe on this number fronted by violinist Charity Rose Thielen; provides the nice change-of-pace vocals Regine Chassagne contributes in The Arcade Fire [NMT])
Solid efforts: "Homecoming Heroes" (the typewriter-style percussion is the song's signature, and the lyrics frame the record's theme: "so, now I know, people want a story, one ending in glory and a wave of their flag;" Hensley's piano is again a stand-out); "Another Story" (the heart of the group's nu-folk sound, becomes livelier as it goes); "Josh McBridge" (a little sleepy at first, but rounds out over its 5:14 runtime into among the most well-realized offerings on the baker's dozen tracks on the album; learn more about the meaning of the song here); "Cruel" (a slightly bluesy slow roller); "Let's Be Still" (as the title suggests, restrained and reflective); "10,000 Weight in Gold" (a measured, heartland/rootsy rambler); "Fire/Fear" (Russell's oaken lead guitar lines are 1977 distilled, perhaps my favorite instrumental sound on the record); "These Days Are Numbered" (Thielen's second turn out front is stark and gritty); "Gone" (when a closing number runs 6:26, its often a dirge; this one starts similarly but is totally transformed around the 1:45 mark, when the instrumentation and intensity really pick up; also, any train references are always appreciated by your blogger; closing refrain continues the band's tradition of using their name in the lyrics)
Meh: "Springtime" (really just an intro to "Summertime," and Thielen's vocals are a little ambient for my taste)
Skip to next track: nothing too objectionable

The Dismemberment Plan
New Release: Uncanny Valley (listen to it streaming here)
Release Date: Today (October 15, 2013)
Record Label: Partisan Records
Sounds Like: They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT), The Tins (NMT)
Location: Washington, D.C.

I remember the first time I heard about The Dismemberment Plan. It was my freshman year in college (1999) at the Catholic University of America. A couple of my classmate from my French 101 course and I were at the They Might Be Giants' then-annual Halloween show at the 9:30 Club. That show was great (they played Flood in its entirety as a fake opening band called Saphire Bullets of Pure Love, who proclaimed themselves to be the greatest They Might Be Giants cover band at Syracuse University, and then criticized the fake band as a bunch of assholes when they came out for the real show. The next year, they played the setlist in reverse, starting with what would normally be the final encore, "Istanbul [Not Constantinople]" and working their way back). Anyways, between real and impostor sets by TMBG, we were discussing various groups and my friends mentioned a local DC-based group who should appeal to TMBG fans. That group as The Dismemberment Plan.

I investigated them the best I could, but the internet of 1999 was not the same as today's, so it was harder accessing their full catalog. What I did find was a little quirky and disjointed for my taste. I couldn't make a show because of the routines of college life, and when I was finally able to around 2001, they had gone on hiatus (read this interesting piece from frontman Travis Morrison's now-wife who initially didn't know about his band). So, here we are more than two decades later, and the four-piece outfit's timing seems ideal as a second chance for my fandom. Although the 10-song record starts off a little disjointed, the second half builds in accessibility with some well-crafted nerd-rock tracks. As an overall statement, though, there's about 200% more strange keyboards than are necessary across the whole record. I wish they'd focus more on the guitars.

Come for: "Lookin'" (uncomplicated indie pop-rock, the type of unpretentious love song the four-piece wouldn't have attempted in its heyday)
Stay for: "Mexico City Christmas" (once you get passed the cheesy synth/drum machine intro, its funny and quicky in just the right ways; the chorus is among the meatiest Morrison has ever crafted)
You'll be surprised by: "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer" (sure, its tongue-in-cheek, but so was Paul Westerberg's "Androgynous;" don't take it too seriously)
Solid efforts: "No One's Saying Nothing" (on the first few listens, this track didn't appeal to me that much aside from the chuckle-inducing opening lyric, "You hit the spacebar enough and cocaine comes out / I really like this computer," but its gradually wearing on me a little more);  "White Collar White Trash" (the only rock song I know that's essentially a listing of Northern Virginia suburbs; I like guitarist Jason Caddell's work, but Morrison's keyboards are distracting during the verses; the chorus is simple, but catchy); "Go and Get It" (the sludgy rhythm track from bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley is a nice departure from the bulk of the collection and the shout-it-out-loud chorus is eminently singable); "Let's Just Go To The Dogs Tonight" (as close to a late-nite/party anthem that this group can muster, replete with its own audience call-and-response bridge)
Meh: "Waiting" (it's just too weird for me, and I think the lyrics sound forced to match the beat); "Invisible" (doesn't feel comfortable in its own skin); "Living in Song" (the verses are not easily digestible due to the lyrics and keyboards, but – again – the chorus is worthwhile)
Skip to next track: I could put a couple of the tracks where I complain about the keyboards here depending on my mood. A taste of weird keyboards is fine; this is forced feeding.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Deer Tick

Deer Tick
New Release: Negativity
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Record Label: Partisan Records
Sounds Like: Ha Ha Tonka (NMT), Dawes (NMT)
Location: Providence, RI

There's a portfolio of artists and groups that I know are liked by people who's musical tastes I respect, but I just can't seem to get interested in. I can't get beyond the trippy or moody tangents of My Morning Jacket or the stark and fragile whimpers of Justin Vernon and Bon Iver, while both Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem are just too much electronica for my palate. I won't criticize folks for being into those acts, but I doubt I'll ever take a liking for them. I always figured Deer Tick would be remain among those groups. While I can stomach a certain amount of un-beautiful singing by a lead vocalist if it serves the larger ethos of their catalog (see The Hold Steady's (NMT) Craig Finn (NMT) and Rural Alberta Advantage's [NMT, NMT] Nils Edenloff as examples), I never really found that Deer Tick's frontman John McCauley delivered material that justified the suffering of my aural receptors. I was also deterred by reports of the band's casual drug use, and the harder edge kind at that. Overall, there was some alright stuff, but none of it really hit my nerves, kind of the same way I feel about My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver or groups like Grizzly Bear or Deerhunter (the latter is unrelated to Deer Tick).

So, why I decided to click on a video of the band playing "The Dream's In The Ditch" on Conan last week I don't know, but I'm glad I gave McCauley and his mates another chance. Gone was the sparse, half alt-country, half Replacements derivation of previous efforts. Instead, it was replaced on this track by a full, classic rock motif that while obviously borrowing liberally from Springsteen and Van Morrison, at least delivers a very enjoyable knockoff. Similar to my reaction to the latest work by Ha Ha Tonka last week, Deer Tick sounds like it has graduated from the self-imposed limits of their past work and is now performing in a space that's both inevitable and comfortable based on where they came from.

Come for: "The Dream's In The Ditch" (see above)
Stay for: "The Curtain" (meaty; McCauley's vocals sound as like Axl Rose singing with a blues-rock band; love the organ part from Rob Crowell and lead figures by former Titus Andronicus (NMT) guitarist Ian O'Neil)
You'll be surprised by: "Just Friends" (Bob Seger called: he wants "Main Street" back; sounds circa 1977, not 2013, and that's just great)
Solid efforts: "The Rock" (a little slow at first for a leadoff track, but gets real by the first chorus with punchy drums from Dennis Ryan and pulsing piano lines from Crowell; as usual, I'm a fan of the horns); "Mirror Walls" (easygoing, alt-country-style ballad); "Trash" (after the assault of horns in the intro, the remainder is tres-Van Morrison, all bluesy and smoky; "I want to fall in love again with the open road" and "it's my disposition as a wasteful savant" are the album's finest lines and are expertly-delivered by McCauley); 'Thyme" (the number's minor-key structure plays out like an old detective novel, it should be the soundtrack of puddled alleys and guys called gumshoes; Crowell's piano parts are his best work on the record); "In Our Time" (like so many others in this collection, this tune sounds much older than it is, with its affable rolling country-meets-boogie flow and fantastic guest vocals by Vanessa Carlton); "Hey Doll" (the previously mentioned vocal patterns of both Van Morrison and Axl Rose somehow meet in the middle here and its delightful; its clear Crowell has more freedom to demonstrate his value here than on any previous Deer Tick record, with his steady piano grounding the track); "Pot Of Gold" (as the heaviest number on the album – by far – the effects of McCauley's history with substance abuse are most explicitly discussed here); "Big House" (appropriately restrained solo, acoustic by McCauley to end the session, although he shows hints of a slight lisp that was more prominent on past acoustic tracks that often became distraction)
Meh: "Mr. Sticks" (I'd be fine with it if it didn't follow two other ballads, nothing exceptional here)
Skip to next track: nothing objectionable