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