Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The New Pornographers (Brill Bruisers)

Hey! New posts two weeks in a row! Whodda thunk it? To celebrate, we return to one of the acts your blogger considers as part of his holy trinity of millennial indie rock – along with The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) and Okkervil River (NMT, NMT): The New Pornographers.

The New Pornographers
New Release: Brill Bruisers
Release Date: August 26, 2014
Record Label: Matador Records
Location: Vancouver, B.C. / Woodstock, N.Y.
Sounds Like: Polyphonic Spree (NMT); Broken Social Scene; Library Voices (NMT)

In my review of this multi-national, coed octet's fifth release, 2010's Together (NMT), I dubbed the group an "indie-rock supergroup." And while that label is just as ironic now as it was then, it's still an apt descriptor of the band, with most of the group's eight members occupying themselves with solo projects or other bands during the New Pornographers multi-year hiatuses and lead vocals shared among four singers. On their sixth full-length album, Brill Bruisers, chief songwriter A.C. Newman (NMT) remains adept at divvying-up turns out front while actually increasing the group's overall cohesiveness, no small task considering hardly any of the record's baker's dozen tracks were recorded with all the band members in the same place at the same time. Newman has proclaimed the collection – on which bassist John Collins produced along with Newman – as a "celebration record" after "periods of difficulty" which he claims were apparent on previous releases such as Together and 2007's Challengers. While I think few would describe those records as particular downers – just try calling the former's "Crash Years" or the latter's "All The Old Showstoppers" depressing – there's no doubt that from end to end, Brill Bruisers is an uplifting collection of songs.

Newman and Collins steer the group towards the decades of pop compositions manufactured by songwriters ranging from Benny Goodman and Burt Bacharach to Neil Diamond and Carole King who worked out of New York City's Brill Building referenced in the album's title. In particular, the offerings from Dan Bejar are perhaps his most accessible contributions ever in the band. In the past, Bejar's odd voice and quirky phrasing were marked counterpoints to the group's otherwise exuberant indie power-pop. Here, Bejar's jagged edges are smoothed out by a quicker pace and catchier hooks. Additionally, unlike the rest of the group's catalog, there's not a Neko Case (NMT) lead track where she powers past the other vocalists with her range and power, such "Go Places" off Challengers or "The Bleeding Heart Show" from 2005's Twin Cinema. That's no detriment considering the aforementioned cohesiveness and a re-emergent Bejar.

Come for: "Brill Bruisers" (the leadoff, title crack perfectly encapsulates Newman's drive for celebration)
Stay for: "Dancehall Domine" (a quintessential New Pornographers track on par with "Miss Teen Wordpower" off 2003's Electric Version and Together's "Valkyrie at the Roller Disco")
You'll be surprised by: "War on the East Coast" (single-handedly the best thing Bejar has ever done with the band; touches of 60s British invasion in his chorus delivery [listen to how he delivers "I don't care"] matched with an 80s synth-pop vibe)
Solid efforts: "Champions of Red Wine" (Case is in fine form on this bouncy number, with Blaine Thurier's synthesizers out front in the mix unlike few others in the group's repertoire, parrying with chugging guitars from Newman and Todd Fancey; the complex, non-lyrical vocals on the bridge are a highlight); "Fantasy Fools" (minimalist verses contrast with a highly hooky chorus fronted by Newman, with the duo of Case and Newman's niece Kathryn Calder [NMT] demonstrating the vocal depth scarce among bands of this era); "Marching Orders" (the regimental beat fits the song's title perfectly, while Case delivers Newman's songwriting and phrasing probably better than Newman himself can; could easily hear Broken Social Scene writing this one); "Another Drug Deal of the Heart" (I like the contrast of a Case lead vocals track followed by one featuring Calder, who's style is richer and more retrained than her counterpart's, but too bad it's only 1:29 long); "Born With a Sound" (really enjoy the tonal consistency among Bejar's songs on this record, plus pairing Bejar with Calder is a trick the group hasn't tried much before and it works well here); "Wide Eyes" (easily the most restrained effort on the album, with the rare appearance of some acoustic guitars a nice change of pace; Case's contributions on the chorus are the number's standout feature); "You Tell Me Where" (not wild about Newman's intro verse, but then Neko Case shows up and the power kicks in and we're all better for it)
Meh: "Backstairs" (any New Pornographers number longer than 4:00 always seems like an opus; Newman and Collins let Thurier's synthesizers and Fancy's sludgy guitars take center stage here with mixed results; the chorus is catchy enough, but there's a good minute of trippy meandering in the middle that's not my favorite; I feel the same way about this song as I did about Okkervil River's "Stay Young" off Silver Gymnasium earlier this year);  "Hi-Rise" (starts a bit slowly for my taste, but there's some reheated Bowie influence in the body of the song; really should swap places with "You Tell Me Where" as album closer)
Skip to next track: "Spidyr" (this is more like Bejar's previous material: kinda strange, although the harmonica is a nice touch)


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Gaslight Anthem (Get Hurt), Jenny Lewis

The Gaslight Anthem
New Release: Get Hurt
Release Date: 8/19/14
Record Label: Island Records
Sounds Like: The Hold Steady (NMT), The Horrible Crowes (NMT), Augustines (NMT)
Location: New Brunswick, N.J.

After far too much time off, why not re-start with the latest release from the act that both debuted this space and is also its most frequent subject: The Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT). After the died-in-the-wool New Jersey quartet's sophomore release, The 59 Sound, attracted a little buzz for the band, it's subsequently been on a mission to play slower. That trend continues on the group's fifth full-length offering, while also demonstrating an eagerness to play louder. Or quieter. Or sometimes both in the same song. While frontman Brian Fallon insists that the 15-track collection [deluxe edition] is a departure from the band's signature sound – like The Arcade Fire's uneven Reflekor (NMT) – and is prepared for critical displeasure of the album, it actually shouldn't be too great a jump for most of the band's fans. Fallon still delivers no shortage of heart-on-his-sleeve, blue-eyed soul-punk thumpers and meaty, sing-along choruses.

Come for: "Rollin' And Tumblin' (the record's fastest number exemplifies the best the group has to offer; "my ticker tape heart" is a classic Brian Fallon line)
Stay for: "Helter Skeleton" (as quintessential a Gaslight Anthem anthem as anything off "The 59 Sound" or the debut "Sink Or Swim;" without knowing who wrote a line like "there will always be a soft spot in my cardiac arrest," I'd instinctually guess it's a Fallon lyric)
You'll be surprised by: "Underneath The Ground" (sounds like nothing else The Gaslight Anthem has ever recorded, particularly the light – practically gentle – chorus; most prominently keyboards have ever been featured by this band)
Solid efforts: "1,000 Years" (steady and measured, this is the type of outcome the group should be for in its slow-it-down movement; heartland rock-style chorus sing-along); "Get Hurt" (its really quiet and somber at first, but finds a good punch at the first chorus, with the kind of jangly lead guitar parts by Alex Rosamilia that defined the first couple albums); 'Stray Paper" (at times, I'm not sure if this sounds more like Metallica or Tom Petty, which is likely what Fallon was after; key supporting vocals from Sharon Jones); "Red Violins" (this redemptive, spiritual rocker has all the markers of a track that will find a home in the middle of the band's setlists for a long while);"Ain't That A Shame" (one of those that's alternatingly heavy and soft at times); "Break Your Heart" (Brian Fallon sings you a forlorn lullaby); "Dark Places" (a full, sweeping sound following the murky intro; easily could have fit on American Slang or Handwritten); "Mama's Boys," "Sweet Morphine" [deluxe edition] (wait, is that an acoustic guitar on full-band numbers? the western-sounding motifs on these back-to-back numbers are unique for the band, for although Fallon has scattered a handful of solo acoustic tracks across previous albums, the full band format is usually reserved for electric-only instrumentation); "Halloween" (highly-punctuated, a different take on the typical Halloween song as a love long)  
Meh: "Stay Vicious" (what is this, a Staind song? those layers of flat crunch don't convey the band's talent very well, although the shimmer of the pre-chorus and chorus are a welcome contrast);  "Selected Poems" (the verses are a little too hazy and meandering for this outfit, which makes the blast of the chorus a little too jarring)

Jenny Lewis
New Release: The Voyager
Release Date: July 29, 2014
Record Label: Warner Bros. Records
Sounds Like: Rilo Kiley (NMT), Neko Case (NMT), Eisley (NMT)
Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Last year, I reviewed what is likely the last batch of material released by the indie rock outfit Rilo Kiley, their B-sides and rarities archives collection, RKives. One of the primary reasons the four-piece unit from L.A. will probably not deliver any new material is the emergence of frontwoman Jenny Lewis' solo career. Like the work of The New Pornographers' (NMT) Neko Case, Lewis' solo material focuses more on country and Americana roots influences divorced from most of the indie rock power for which their affiliated bands are known. Lewis' crafty songwriting and lyricism occasionally geared to make her audience uncomfortable translate well from her Rilo Kiley work, while the presence of A-list producers Ryan Adams and Beck speak to how well her talent is regarded in the indie-rock industry. My main gripe with the overall 10-track effort is the preponderance of mid-tempo numbers, as the bulk of her Rilo Kikey effectively demonstrated the quality and power of her voice on uptempo tracks. 

Come for: "Just One Of The Guys" (Lewis' tonal counterpoint to Case's own "Man" leans heavily on alt-county veneer; check out its star-studded video)
Stay for: "Aloha & The Three Johns" (easily the most accessible track on the record; witty but not too clever in the tale of three guys named John on a Hawaiian vacation; the rhyming of "cava" and "farther" in the outro isn't my favorite of Lewis' writing ever, though)
You'll be surprised by: "The New You" (the record's lyrical centerpiece, which manages to reference both 9/11 and Metallica without coming across as heavy-handed)
Solid efforts: "Head Underwater" (good bounciness, if not a tad too poppy and the lyrics are a bit self-help-y at times); "She's Not Me" (if Lewis had been drafted into The Eagles for The Long Run album, she would have contributed this song; the strings point to late-70's disco-pop); "Slippery Slopes" (the slide guitar that accompanies Lewis' vocal melody during the verses is a nice touch, otherwise a good deal of alt-rock crunch; references to California's drug culture); "Late Bloomer" (this is one of those Lewis numbers – like many from the Rilo Kiley era – that could or could not be semi-autobiographical; the downbeat anti-chorus is notable in contrast to the major-chord, narrative verses); "Love U Fovever" (some 80s-style girl pop-rock; not sure how tongue-in-cheek this is intended to be); "The Voyager" (the title track is better than most album closing efforts, with Lewis' self-harmonizing and simple acoustic strumming paired with complex, but unobtrusive background instrumentation)
Meh: "You Can't Outrun 'Em" (it's not all that bad, but not a ton of depth to this outlaw quasi-ballad and the desert surrealist instrumental bridge doesn't appeal all that much to me)

P.S. Speaking of The New Pornographers and Neko Case, stay tuned next week for a review of the indie supergroup's latest release, Brill Bruisers.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

Mean Creek

It's been a while. Some significant personal events have sapped much of emotional availability for side work like this, combined with a pretty sparse selection of new material and my overwhelming disappointment with The Hold Steady's (NMT) latest offering, Teeth Dreams, have contributed to the dearth of posts recently. Fortunately, the exuberant power-pop (or, I guess what they used to just call "rock-and-roll" back in the day) from Boston's Mean Creek might be just the cure for this funk.

Mean Creek
New Release: Local Losers
Release Date: Today (April 8, 2014)
Record Label: Old Flame Records
Sounds Like: The Postelles (NMT); Hollerado (NMT); The Arcade Fire (NMT, NMT)
Location: Boston, Mass.

It's a shame that there needs to be a sub-category for the kind of material that Mean Creek is pumping out on their fourth full-length release. It's pretty straight-forward rock-and-roll: guitar, bass, drums, vocals. Plenty of swagger and punch. These days, you might term is power-pop. Or indie rock. Or post-punk. Whatever the label, it really doesn't matter. If you're sick of dream-synth, emo folk and noise rock, the eight tracks of Local Losers are the antidote. Recorded at Boston's Fort Apache studios (where some of my favorite records by Tugboat Annie and The Sheila Divine were produced), the quartet doesn't over-complicate things, instead doling out quick bursts of enjoyable, sing-along rock music. Kind of like an amped-up version of The Postelles or an enjoyably less clever Hollerado. Thank God for that.

Come for: "Cool Town" (the album opener is brash and hard-hitting; although there's plenty of "let's move to California" tropes out there in rock music, I never seem to tire of hearing just one more; Hey, look: a guitar solo! I thought those were passé!)
Stay for: "My Madeline" (remember when The Arcade Fire promised their next record would be filled with shorter, more rock-oriented tracks? Well, this is what it should have sounded like, with Mean Creek co-fronters Chris Keene and Aurore Ounjian besting the most recent efforts of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne in that department)
You'll be surprised by: "Mass. Border" (has an anthemic, heartland rock quality to it that would make it a candidate for a live show closing number)
Solid efforts: "Anxiety Girl" (a thumping punky romp with a catchy hook); "Night Running" (the trade-off vocals between Keen and Ounjian strike the rare balance between ramshackle and polish); "Johnny Allen" (the pace is just a bit more restrained than the others, not no less muscular); "Hangover Mind" (its verses somehow manage to vacillate between breezy and murky, then it delivers the knockout punch in the chorus); "Teenage Feeling" (Keene's first verse could have easily found a place on the aforementioned, less-obtuse Arcade Fire record that should have followed The Suburbs; the closing number doesn't wrap things gently, which is more than welcome on a record with this much hustle)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Family Crest, The Farewell Drifters, Natural Child

The Family Crest (NMT)
New Release: Beneath The Brine
Release Date: Today (February 25, 2014)
Record Label: Tender Loving Empire Records
Sounds Like: Hey Marseilles (NMT), Hey Rosetta! (NMT), Of Monsters & Men (NMT), The Polyphonic Spree (NMT), The Arcade Fire (NMT, NMT), DeVotchKa (NMT)
Location: San Francisco, Calif.

Back in August, we told you everything you need to know about this San Francisco mega collective and hinted at their forthcoming sophomore full-length release. Now that it's here, we're still impressed with the scope of the outfit's undertaking, which has been fortified with a more cohesive overall sound and theme on the record's dozen tracks, although one – "Love Don't Go" – first appeared on The Headwinds EP. Just wish those of us on the East Coast could see them attempt to execute their massive project on stage, as the bulk of their shows are closer to their San Francisco home base.

Come for: "Beneath The Brine" (serving as both the title and leadoff track, the epic number utilizes the unit's massive orchestral and vocal muscle to build both tension and grandiosity from the outset; the strings and percussion are both exceptionally voluminous and nearly manic at times; I love the operatic soprano wailing away in the background – a signature of their debut album, The Village – I'd love to know who she is)
Stay for: "The World" (easily the poppiest offering on the collection; the beat is jaunty, reflecting the best of The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) and the restrained instrumentation during the verses is a welcome counterpoint to the buoyant chorus; the band's agility is demonstrated on several occasions as it stops on a dime, no small feat for such a large unit with french horns and Hammond organs vying for their measure in the spotlight)
You'll be surprised by: "Howl" (as the second half of the New Orleans-style jazz funeral following "William's Dirge," its sufficiently celebratory and boisterous; if you remember the Squirrel Nut Zippers, they're doing a pretty good representation of that sound; the clarinet is fantastic, along with the muffled trumpets)
Solid efforts: "Love Don't Go" (it would be double-dipping to list it higher after picking it as my Come for selection in my review of The Headwinds EP last time, as little has changed since then); "The Water's Fine" (the jazzy flavor of "Howl" continues, with John Seeterlin's standup bass figuring prominently as strings and percussion battle between smooth fluidity and jagged staccato); "I Am the Winter" (gentile and simple – with flutes and oboes complimenting frontman Liam McCormack's acoustic guitar and warming vocals – it's a fitting trailer to the recently-wrapped Olympic Winter Games); "She Knows My Name" (the most intricate, chamber rock example on the record, with more operatic soprano – a non-sarcastic yay!); "As We Move Forward" (benefits from a driving pulse around which the instrumentation and verses stroke and swirl; McCormack's restrained phrasing in the chorus prevents it all from becoming too frenetic; has become among my favorite tracks on the album after repeated listens); "When The Lights Go Out" (takes far too long – about 1:45 – to get going in earnest, but there's some nice, understated folk here in the remaining 2:45 – or, as least as restrained as this particular brigade of musicians can get); "There's A Thunder" (does not belie its title, with low register percussion and orchestration suggesting stormy conditions that test – but do not defeat – the mettle of McCormack's protagonist); "Make Me A Boat" (a song that sounds much older than its age, like it was once song my monks shuffling through harmonic hallways, a notion aided by the wordless refrain in the first chorus; an epic bookend to match the opener)
Meh: "William's Dirge" (it's well-described by the second clause of its title, but its too short at 1 minute even to arrive at a fully-formed opinion)
Skip to next track: with so much effort required to set the band in motion, they wisely don't waste tracks

Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT)
New Release: Tomorrow Forever
Release Date: January 28, 2014
Record Label: Compass Records
Sounds Like: Great Big Sea (NMT); Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT); Onward, Soldiers (NMT)
Location: Nashville, Tenn.

As this review serves as my third assessment of new Farewell Drifters material, they've now drawn even with The Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT) for most-reviewed act in this space. And this review comes at a time of transition for the quintet-turned-quartet, following the departure of violinist/fiddler Chris Sedlemeyer. While the unit previously focused on bluegrass with a pop vocal harmonies, the revised effort is rounded into folk-rock, with the introduction of more percussion, keyboards, horns and – gasp – an occasional electric guitar. Your blogger can appreciate reaction that the band is denying its roots – having noted in the most recent review of the group that "that same proliferation of new material also suggests that epic shifts in tone or style are not likely" – they don't stumble too much in the process of redefining their sound. Frontman Zach Bevill – sounding no less like Better Than Ezra's Kevin Griffin than before – works with his bandmates to retain the same top-notch songwriting while adding new instrumental flourishes that add a new dimension for the band.

Come for: "Bring 'em Back Around" (song structure should be familiar to those who know the group, but this time with drums and electric guitar; lyrically, its nothing earth shattering, but has a tad more sandpaper than chock pop-rock, reminiscent of Onward, Soldiers' "Cinder Blocks")
Stay for: "Modern Age" (this take on the new year, new vision theme could so easily be a Better Than Ezra number; the bell chimes and chorus vocals are both new elements that establish the band's new sound profile);
You'll be surprised by: "To Feel Alive" (the best mix of the group's prior identity with just a touch of rock punch; listen to that, it's a guitar solo!)
Solid efforts:  "Brother" (fantastic harmonies, but is it a tad sappy? Maybe); "Tomorrow Forever" (the banjo and fiddle paired with the marching snare beat are the heart of the track leading to the sing-along chorus); "Tennessee Girl" (simple lyrics, simple melody); "Neighborhoods Apart" ("I remember running through the wet grass..." Oh, wait, that's another version of this song; mandolin and fiddle parts that were such a staple of past Farewell Drivers tunes step out front again); "Relief" (a bit slow in the verses, but it finds its way to a pretty uplifting chorus full of solid harmonies and a hooky melody); "The Day You Left" (not incredibly elaborate, but has a mountaintop serenade quality); "Starting Over" (the paradox of the song's title as the closing number should be apparent; there's some good background harmonies along with Bevill's introduction-by-way-of-departure ode)
Meh: "Coming Home" (the definition of the troubles-of-the-touring-musician trope – Harry Chapin did it first and did it better in "Cats in the Cradle"; a bit wrapped up in country pop but, then again, its not hard to listen to)
Skip to next track: "Motions" (look, I get the point that the song's tone is to illustrate the lyrical theme of "going through the motions;" that doesn't mean its enjoyable, although I did enjoy the slow buildup of drums and strings at the close of the track)

Natural Child
New Release: Dancin' With Wolves
Release Date: (February 25, 2014)
Record Label: Burger Records
Sounds Like: The Sheepdogs (NMT, NMT); Dawes (NMT); Deer Tick (NMT)
Location: Nashville, Tenn.

Imagine you found a full-length, never-before released album of originals circa 1971, classic rock that's a grainy mix of blues and country. It's a sound that comes across as both spontaneous and deliberate at once. This is the rare level of output achieved by the Nashville-based trio on their third full-length release. It also marks the sort of great leap forward realized by Deer Tick last year on Negativity. This time, the group brought in session players Luke Schneider and Benny Divine, respectively to add pedal steel and keyboard/organ flourishes, further augmenting the classic rock approach parlayed by co-frontmen Seth McMurray (guitar) and Wes Taylor (bass) along with drummer Zach Martin.

Come for: "Don't The Time Pass Quickly" (comes across like a tongue-in-cheek Rolling Stones deep cut; fun and brazen)
Stay for: "Saturday Night Blues" (look up Deer Tick's "Dream's in the Ditch" and Dawes' "From A Window Seat" and play this track between them; one of those moments when you remember what rock-n-roll should be about)
You'll be surprised by: "Nashville's A Groovy Little Town" (brilliantly relaxed and more rusty than honky tonk)
Solid efforts: "Out In The Country" (I love that this song about the country is more bluesy and jazzy rather than slathering on bromides about pickups, Skynyrd and red clay); "Country Hippie Blues" (the rolling boogie groove from Taylor plays brilliantly with Divine's pedal steel, while McMurray's guitar figures are freeflowing without becoming too jammy; "don't go judge a cover before you read the book" is a fantastic line); "Firewater Liqour" (Taylor's inpatient bass lines and Divine's ominous organ parts suggest a scene of a backroads dive bar where things are just moments away from turning bad); "Rounder" (most countrified offering among the record's 10 tracks; effortless & twangy); "I'm Gonna Try" (conversely, this rubbery number tacks harder to the blues; its a little groggy at times, but not out of place for a deep cut); "Dancin' With Wolves" (the title track wraps things up nicely with a dusty trails ballad)
Meh: "Bailando Con Lobos" (a mix of Los Lonely Boys and Steely Dan, a trippy grove that The Sheepdogs have found multiple times on their recent records, but is unfocused at times; note the title is the album title in Spanish)
Skip to next track: not much to dislike

Friday, February 14, 2014

Top 5 Love Songs

I remember once reading a rant by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe about the "odiousness" of love songs and his pride that his band really didn't do them. Of course, most people could easily rattle off a couple numbers from the group that most would objectively call love songs, namely "The One I Love" or "Strange Currencies."

And, course, Stipe isn't totally wrong. Many love songs can be overwrought and syrupy. But that hardly means there aren't volumes of shining examples. The bulk of the catalogs of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are comprised of love songs. Few would consider them odious songwriters. Meanwhile, the Austin, Tex., quartet Quiet Company (NMT) has devoted their entire collection to non-schmaltzy songs concerning love.

What follows in this special Valentine's Day edition of New Music Tuesdays are my five favorite songs about and informed by love. Certainly, you may have your own list. That's great. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

#5 – "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)"
The Decemberists (NMT, NMT)
The Crane Wife (2006)

I initially considered making this list consist entirely of Decemberists material. Maybe next year. Few songwriters are as able to craft original yet endearing love songs as the Portland, Ore., quintet's frontman, Colin Meloy. It doesn't get much more creative than this posthumous love letter from a departed Civil War solider on the Union side to his Confederate sweetheart, a duet beautifully delivered by Meloy and Laura Veirs (NMT).

Key lyric: "But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted, though our skin may not touch skin.  Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow, I will come on the breath of the wind..."

#4 – "She's An Angel"
They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT)
They Might Be Giants (1986)

Few observers think of the duo of Johns – Flansbaugh and Linnell – who constitute They Might Be Giants (TMBG) as purveyors of love songs. And that's a correct perception, as most of their lyrical compositions focus on matters of science, humor and oddity. But this cut from their self-titled debut has staying power among the Johns' most sincere – if slightly paranoid – contributions on matters of the heart.

Key lyric: "I found out she's an angel, I don't think she knows I know. I'm worried that something might happen to me If anyone ever finds out."

#3 –  "I'll Be That Girl"
Barenaked Ladies
Stunt (1998)

Much like TMBG, Canada's chief musical humor export are seldom recognized for their more serious offerings, although they actually comprise a greater portion of the band's oeuvre. Not only is this lesser-known track of the group's U.S. breakout record among the best numbers on that album, but it ranks among the best songwriting the now-departed, former co-frontman Steven Page (NMT) contributed to the band, due to its dark, role-reversal theme resting upon seemingly cheery pop-rock instrumentation.

Key lyric: "It's time to kick off your shoes, learn how to choose sadness. It's time to throw off those chains, addle our brains with madness. 'Cause we've got plenty of time to grow old and die, but when at last your beauty's faded you'll be glad that I have waited for you..."

#2 – "We Both Go Down Together"
The Decemberists
Picaresque (2005)

Meloy is particularly prolific in churning out love songs in the star-crossed lovers archetype ("O Valencia!," "From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)," the William/Margaret storyline in The Hazards of Love), but, of those, this is unquestionably his best.

Key lyric: "Meet me on my vast veranda, My sweet, untouched Miranda! And while the seagulls are crying, we fall but our souls are flying!"

#1 – "The Gambler"
fun. (NMT, NMT)
Aim & Ignite (2009)

fun. frontman Nate Ruess poured everything he knew about love songs into a fragile but convicting piano ballad from the New York trio's debut. It's not Ruess' own experience of romantic love, but that of his parents. Personally, your blogger and his wife chose it for their first dance. I'm know we weren't the first or last.

Key lyric: "I swear when I grow up I won't just buy you a rose, I will buy the flower shop, and you will never be lonely. For even if the sun stops waking up over the fields, I will not leave, I will not leave 'til it's our time. So just take my hand, you know that I will never leave your side..."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


New Release: Augustines
Release Date: Today (2/4/14)
Record Label: Oxcart Records
Sounds Like: Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT), Frightened Rabbit (NMT)

For you bible scholars out there, you know one of Jesus' most well-known questions of his disciples as they made their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi: "But who do you say that I am?" The encounter is told in all four gospels (very similarly in the three synoptic gospels, in Mk 8:29; Mt 16:15; Lk 9:20; and slightly differently in Jn 6:66-69)

So imagine a similar – although perhaps just slightly less significant – exchange occurring between Augustines frontman and guitarist Billy McCarthy and followers of the rapidly-emerging Brooklyn, N.Y. trio (formerly known as We Are Augustines). McCarthy – a dude who looks like be the musical doppelganger of Jason Segel – might ask, "who do people say that my voice sounds like?"

Fans might reply, "well, some might say Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon, while others might suggest Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchinson or Emmet Swimming's Todd Watts, and still others may say Sting, Bono or Ezra Keonig."

McCarthy might then ask, "but who do you say that I am?" 

Ahh, that's where we get to the tricky part. 

All this intro buildup is a long-winded way of saying that there's no escaping that listeners of Augustines' past and current work – including their sophomore, self-tiled release that's out today – must first reconcile their reaction to McCarthy's tone and delivery before being able to thoroughly assess their feelings on the rest of the material. Sure, the tight-sounding unit's sound easily points to the best of U2's anthemic catalog and the ambition of recent acts like Muse, while McCarthy's recorded journeys of self-discovery mesh well with the evocative, but worldly imagery of Fallon's Gaslight Anthem or Hutchinson's Frightened Rabbit. 

But I could easily understand well-intentioned listeners hearing McCarthy for the first time tuning the group out after just a few stanzas. On the new record alone, the single line, "what am I running from?" on "Now You Are Free" is garbled by so much of McCarthy's chewy vocal syrup that it nearly landed the entire track on my Skip to next track recommendation. Seriously, Tom Waits could give the dude tips on clarity in delivery.

Nonetheless, once McCarthy's thick baritone jumble eases into your aural muscle memory, the bulk of the work on Augustines is simply triumphant. A quick listen of the band's 2011 debut, Rise Ye Sunken Ships, suggests the trio was capable of great things and they largely deliver on the dozen tracks of its thematic follow-up. While the nameless characters in the former reach the precipice of self-actualization in the wake of tragedy, those in the latter acknowledge from the outset that they are embarking on a rite of passage, the trail of identity and discovery. As perhaps the most pervasive narrative arcs in all of art – from The Odyssey, Ulysses and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Quadrophenia and 21st Century Breakdown – this notion is conveyed by McCarthy as a "Walkabout."

The record spans feelings of the excitement of departure ("Nothing To Lose But Your Head," "Don't You Look Back"), obstacles to overcome ("Cruel City," "Weary Eyes," "Kid You're On Your Own"), realization ("Walkabout," "The Avenue") and triumph ("Now Your Are Free"). While the emotional and artistic impetus for the journey likely stems from the loss of McCarthy's brother – and former bandmate in Pela – to suicide in 2009, multi-instrumentalist Eric Sanderson and drummer Rob Allen give pulse to the concepts and are hardly just along for the ride. 

Come for: "Nothing To Lose But Your Head" (the definition of anthemic)
Stay for: "Cruel City" (the excellent African chorus pairs well with Bastille's hit, "Pompeii," that's all over mainstream media these days; fortunately for Augustines, their catalog transcends just a single song)
You'll be surprised by:"Walkabout" (while I'm not wild about McCarthy's falsetto that bookends the track – its even more indecipherable than his normal diction – but its a good change-of-pace number with the piano and steady buildup through the heart of the song. I always mark down bands that don't heed by 3-2-1 ratio for uptempo/mid-pace/ballad distribution, so I should equally reward bands that get it right, like Augustines do)
Solid efforts: "Weary Eyes" (a perfect blend of shimmering guitars from McCarthy, sludgy bass by Sanderson and Allen's regimental percussion to compliment McCarthy's smoothest vocal delivery on this mid-tempo offering); "Don't You Look Back" (really a fantastic track in every way with a bouncy melody brilliantly clashing with thunderous rhythm; its absolutely glimmering at its zenith); "Kid You're On Your Own" (the most direct parallel with The Gaslight Anthem's style; the chorus here may be the meatiest on the album); "This Ain't Me" (once again, the lyrics in the verses are a bit muddied by McCarthy's delivery, but overall, the continually shifting battle between understatement and anthem is an enjoyable experience); "Now You Are Free" (a swirling sing-along with solid backbone, but to reiterate, the "what am I running from?" line is distracting; remember Weird Al's line in "Smells Like Nirvana," "It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss with all these marbles in my mouth?" Well, its just as accurate today as it was in 1991); "Hold On To Anything" (wraps things up on a hopeful note)
Meh: "Intro (I Touch Imaginary Hands)" (a little more productive an intro than other preludes, but I wouldn't be adrift listing to the record without it); "The Avenue" (more falsetto, but little else); "Highway 1 Interlude" (an instrumental that doesn't really advance any of the melodic, harmonic or rhythmic themes, nor resolve the collection since it serves as the penultimate track)
Skip to next track: No fatal flaws

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Deaf Havana

Deaf Havana 
New Release: Old Souls
Release Date: 1/21/14
Record Label: BMG/Chrysalis
Sounds Like: Airborne Toxic Event (NMT); Library Voices (NMT); The Postelles (NMT)
Location: Hunstanton, U.K.

For most of my reviews, I use this space to explain some overarching theme to describe my reaction to given reviewee's latest release or connect them to a larger vein of related acts. Unfortunately, the early weeks of 2014 haven't produced much compelling new material – although plenty is on the horizon in early February – so Deaf Havana essentially makes the cut here as the group whose new record I felt inspired enough to spend some effort reviewing (Bastille's Bad Blood deluxe edition nearly emerged solely on the strength of "Pompeii" – which you've likely heard on your preferred pop culture medium, but there's not enough there to warrant my stamp of approval).

So, what makes Deaf Havana worthy of my time, then? Well, they have some pretty catchy material on their first full-length album released in earnest in the United States, a mix of heartland rock and power pop-rock. They also smartly jettisoned half of their previous scream-metal identity with the departure of Ryan Mellor in 2010, allowing the sextet to play to the unit's inherent strengths.

Yet, at the same time, some of the material is a little thin in the message department. Occasionally, it seems like their instincts drive them towards Def Leppard when they should be channeling Bruce Springsteen and The Who, while at other times they come within striking distance of some examples of amorphous Christian rock, chock full of easy cliches and empty metaphor.

Nonetheless, enough of Old Souls is of sufficient quality that I feel comfortable in recommending that you give it a listen.

Come for: "Boston Square" (both the album's lead-off track and debut single, its easily the best in their entire catalog; The Who influences are transparent, but not recidivist)
Stay for: "Speeding Cars" (although frontman James Veck-Gilodi acknowledges the band's Springsteenian bent in the previous track, "22," its here where the true nods to The Boss are most recognizable through the number's steady, chugging pace)
You'll be surprised by: "Everybody's Dancing and I Want to Die" (easily the 11-track collection's hookiest offering, in the spirit of Library Voices' excellent Summer of Lust [NMT])
Solid efforts: "Lights" (a lighter Foo Fighters); "Subterranean Bullshit Blues" (big-sound classic rock with bluesy overtones); "22" (heartland rock with a touch of pop confection, a la The Postelles [NMT]; "Mildred" (power punk); "Kings Road Ghosts" (unquestionably the most British-sounding material on the record, with its football references)
Meh: "Night Drives" (this uber ballad is a tad cheesy); "Saved" (would have less trouble with this if it were actually a Def Leppard song; otherwise its a lot of shlock); "Caro Padre" (at first I thought I would like it, since starts slow and low, perfect for an album closer, but by the end the father's son stuff becomes overwrought; if you want the proper way to handle the father's son stuff, listen to fun.'s Some Nights [NMT] or Sleeping At Last's "Heirloom" [NMT])
Skip to next track: I could make it through every track, but those in the Meh section doesn't deserve much more than a listen or two