Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hey Rosetta –

Wow! Three weeks in a row! What is this, 2011 or something?!

Speaking of 2011, this week we explore the supremely talented but inconsistent Canadian baroque rock/chamber pop outfit Hey Rosetta!, whom we first covered with their third full-length release, Seeds (NMT).

Hey Rosetta!
New Release: Second Sight
Release Date: Today in the United States (January 27, 2015) [released in Canada August 4, 2014]
Record Label: Sonic Records
Location: St. John's, Newfoundland
Sounds Like: Hey Marsailles (NMT); Ra Ra Riot (NMT); Vampire Weekend

Many baroque rock/chamber pop enthusiasts – including your blogger – were disappointed by Ra Ra Riot's recent shift away from the genre they helped define to a more synth/techno focus with 2013's Beta Love. Although Hey Rosetta! has actually been exploring more intricately-arranged compositions for longer than their Syracuse, N.Y., counterparts, Ra Ra Riot had generated a tad more critical and commercial interest – although perhaps only due to the former's relatively limited profile coming from Canada's easternmost reaches. Regardless, while we wait for Seattle's Hey Marseilles to follow-up their well-received sophomore effort, 2013's Lines We Trace, the Newfie crew has the stage to their selves. And they generally take advantage of the opportunity on Second Sight's dozen tracks of always nuanced and occasionally robust mix of folk, indie rock and baroque influences.

Come for: "Soft Offering (For the Oft-Suffering)" – clever title and the funkiest track on the record, drawing from that Paul Simon-Meets-The Police style that Vampire Weekend has employed to perfection
Stay for: "Kintsukuroi" – in my book, ranks only behind Seeds' title track as their finest work; brisk and agile, the chorus is infectious
You'll be surprised by: "Harriett" – who knew this group had a touch of old-school R&B in its bag of tricks?
Solid efforts: "Gold Teeth" – most reminiscent of the band's 2008 effort, Into Your Lungs..., but perhaps with a touch more rhythmic pep from bassist Josh Ward and drummer Phil Maloney; wish there was just a bit more instrumental flourish besides guitarist Adam Hogan's light but nimble figures; a groovy, sing-along closing refrain should get you bopping about; "Dream" – what a midtempo number should sound like; can easily close your eyes and hear the chorus in line with fun.'s Some Nights (NMT); "Promise" – the intro is a little too dreamy for my taste, but the thing stiffens up after 1:45 and features one of the frontman Tim Baker's more muscular choruses; "Kid Gloves" – Ward's fuzz bass here is unique for this band, centering the number as it sways from thumping verses to a more jangly chorus; "archers of pain" is a good line); "Neon Beyond" – a contender for the Surprised By section; after it hits its stride around the first chorus, it's one of the heaviest-hitting cuts in the band's catalog;     
Meh: "What Arrows" – on the other hand, the bulk of this song is not what this group does well: it's slow and sleepy until the 4:19 mark - without any fun instrumentation - at which point it becomes something slightly more interesting as the beat picks up some; it's what you'd expect a boring Maroon 5 song would sound like; "Cathedral Bells" – I'm not much for Baker on his own, which he essentially is here; just not a lot of vigor, although he flirts with the melody of Spoon's hit, "The Underdog")
Skip to next track: "Alcatraz" – I get its intended to evoke isolation and loneliness; I'd rather be in Alcatraz, without this song; "Trish's Song" - likely a very well-intentioned bedside tribute to someone named Trish as she faces her death, but Baker's warbly self-harmonizing distracts from the beauty of the moment

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Decemberists – What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World

This post caps a rewarding year and a half for new releases from all three acts that comprise your blogger's holy trinity of Millennial-era most-band status: Okkervil River's The Silver Gymnasium (October 2013, NMT), The New Pornographers' Brill Bruisers (August 2014, NMT) and today's release of The Decemberists' What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World.

The Decemberists
New Release: What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World
Release Date: Today (1/20/15)
Record Label: Capitol Records
Location: Portland, Ore.
Sounds Like: Okkvervil River (NMT, NMT); The Family Crest (NMT, NMT); The Head & The Heart (NMT)

Based on the selected tracks that the infamously clever Portlandians disbursed to its nerdy/hipster fandom prior to the release of their seventh full-length release, I was prepared to rephrase what I'd said about their prior record, 2011's The King Is Dead (NMT): that it's a perfectly fine alt-country record, but plenty of acts can spin out quality alt-country material. Few have the zany ability to meld ancient folk, prog rock and nerd pop through an arsenal of unusual instruments and Colin Meloy's ongoing thesaurus-check lyrics.

Fortunately, the band's streaming of the 14-track collection a week prior to its release erased nearly all my anxieties that the group's baroque pop genesis had been replaced with an exclusively alt-country repertoire. And, to be sure, there is plenty of evidence the Americana themes – that they indeed executed with aplomb on The King Is Dead – will continue to be a lasting imprint on the band's new material going forward, in cuts such as the leadoff single "Make You Better," "Lake Song" and "Carolina Low." But just as encouraging is the fistful of tracks that hark back to what fans might consider as the classic Decemberists sound, ranging from the early offerings "Calvary Captain" and "Philomena" to the delightfully odd "Better Not Wake The Baby" and the album's knockout track, "Mistral." So, to all the loyalists, have no fear: The Decemberists have not forsaken you.

Come for: "Make You Better" (straightforward alt rock, perhaps with a bit more oomph than your average Decemberists offering; Jenny Conlee's unadorned piano part gives the tune its warmth)
Stay for: "Cavalry Captain" (welcome back to the exuberant, majestic sound that this group can deliver like few others; instrumentally reminiscent of "We Both Go Down Together")
You'll be surprised by: "Mistral" (one of the band's best individual tracks in some time; most of the Decemberists faithful have watched the video of Colin Meloy joining Mavis Staples for "The Weight" at the Newport Folk Festival. This is that, except an original song; Jenny Conlee's honky-tonk piano is marvelous)
Solid efforts: "The Singer Addresses His Audience" (a companion to "I Was Meant For The Stage" from 2003's Her Majesty, The Decemberists; seems better suited as an album closing number, but perhaps here it's functioning as a prelude; some clever Meloy lines, including, "we're aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in that video" and "So when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe shampoo"); "Philomena" (hints of 60s doo-wop; ahh, there's the crafty hooks we've come to expect from Meloy; this could be the backstory of the rake character from The Hazards of Love: "I'll I've ever wanted in the world was too see a naked girl"); "Lake Song" (hearty; "And you, all sibylline, reclining in your pew" and "Now we arise to curse those young suburban villains and their ill-begotten children from the lawn"...fantastic writing, as usual); "Til the Water's All Gone" (Chris Funk's twangy western guitar is a new twist for the band); "The Wrong Year" (the narrative first line – "Gray Jane was a riverchild, born down by the river wild" – automatically demands your attention; this number really is a nice bridge between the two eras of Meloy's songwriting); "Carolina Low" (kinda Colin Meloy sings for you; like "Philomena," I imagine this as backstory of the soldier in "Yankee Bayonet" "I'm bound for the hilltop, gonna make it bleed"); "Better Not Wake the Baby" (more integration of the celtic motifs heard on "Rox in the Box" from The King Is Dead;" you could easily be convinced this is some old folk tune; at 1:44, it's the perfect amount of time, a strategy that They Might Be Giants (NMT, NMT) have been perfecting for decades: a good idea doesn't need to be any more than that); "Anti-Summersong" (the selection that could have most easily fit on The King Is Dead, country to its core; the echoing bass background vocals in the chorus might be the most humorous thing on the record); "Easy Come, Easy Go" (this is one of those chronicles-of-the sailor-on-shore-leave chanties, but it sounds nothing like any sea chanty you've ever heard. If you know Great Big Sea's (NMT) "Jack Hinks," this is its thematic counterpoint; again, good use of the short 2:11 runtime to deliver a fun idea, but nothing more than that); "12/17/12" (another ostensibly Colin Meloy solo number – that also delivers the album's title – but some unobstructive percussion from John Moen and female backing vocals I guess make it a band song; still, no need to pass it by); "A Beginning Song" (oh, yes, very clever placing a song with this title as the closing number; it's far more uptempo than your standard concluding selection, especially with Nate Query's fuzz bass a-la Ben Folds Five's (NMT) Robert Sledge)   

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Catching Up from a Hectic Fall

The conclusion of a breakneck travel schedule this past fall plus the imminent release of The Decemberists' (NMT, NMT) What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World on January 20th has pressed me to take a look at a few of the artists and releases I overlooked last year. This is by no means a comprehensive effort, but rather a good faith pact with myself to get back in the saddle in keeping up with new music over the course of thus year. Let's see how I do...

The War on Drugs
New Release: Lost In The Dream
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Record Label: Secretly Canadian
Location: Philadelphia, Pa.
Sounds Like: Okkervil River (NMT, NMT); Wilco (NMT); Deer Tick (NMT); Dire Straits

Nearly every review or article on The War on Drugs mentions frontman Adam Granduciel's Dylanesque vocal phrasing. That is, of course, correct, but you can read more about that elsewhere. Instead, the far more interesting comparison is the under-appreciated 80s act, Dire Straits. Granduciel hews closer to his counterpart from that group, Mark Knopfler, and their pairing of precise percussion – much in the tradition of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie – with near-symphonic orchestration and instrumental virtuosity. A good 80 percent of the sextet's third full-length release's ten tracks are expansive, expressive compositions – settling somewhere between the experimental oddity of Pink Floyd and the crisp, orchestral pop of The Moody Blues. Indeed, the shortest cut – "The Haunting Idle," at 3:08 – is merely mid-record instrumental haze.

By all accounts, Granduciel serves as the band's navigation point much like Okkervil River's Will Sheff or a less volatile agitator than Jeff Tweedy is to Wilco. Much like his peers in those outfits, Granduciel is the prime genesis of the material, with the larger unit rounding the compositions into expanded and refined final products, although it should be noted bassist and occasional guitarist David Hartley is essentially a charter member along with Granduciel, while original member Kurt Vile amicably moved on to a successful solo career. But while both Sheff and certainly Sheff ground their sounds on alt-country frames, The War on Drugs finds its footing on much more progressive ground, with strings, synthesizers (from keyboardist/pianist Robbie Bennett) and sax solos (courtesy of Jon Natchez) stretching the sonic palate to celestial expanses. To that end, the album notes credit a dozen session players in addition to the group's standing six-piece lineup.

Much in the same manner as Deer Tick's John McCauley took a period of grief and personal malaise to construct that group's fine work on Negativity, Grandicuel transforms a stretch of post-touring discontent and depression in support of the band's 2011 work, Slave Ambient, into a deconstructed take on isolation and self-doubt. Plug in a pair of big, padded headphones and spend some time to allow Lost In The Dream to converse with you...

Come for: "Red Eyes" (a good sauntering groove that verges on anthemic in the chorus; almost Arcade Fire-esque [NMT, NMT])
Stay for: "Eyes To The Wind" (the ideal blend of Granduciel's expressive vision with some Americana rock sensibility; Jackson Browne's influence peeks around the corners)
You'll be surprised by: "Burning" (much mid-80s Springsteen here, to great effect; the most pop-accessible offering on the collection)    
Solid Efforts: "Under The Pressure" (the long-play leadoff track at 8:52 gives the record's pace-setter plenty of room to stretch out its legs; while the tune's primary riff is not particularly complex, with each cycle it fortifies itself and you're satisfied by the end of the first movement around 5:36; the second movement is just a bit too ethereal, though); "Suffering" (wait, a song with this title isn't a breathy romp of delight? While it's certainly slow and contemplative ["like a snowflake through the fire, I'll be frozen in time, but you'll be here"], there's a deliberateness and sense of measured reflection that makes the encounter of suffering much less an wrenching ordeal then the title suggests); "An Ocean Between The Waves" (the record's centerpiece, and while the passive instrumentation hardly suggests a call-to-arms, lyrically, it's a challenge to individual aspiration ["Just wanna lay in the moonlight / See the light shine in, see you in the outline / It never gets too dark to find / Anybody at anytime"]; Anthony LaMarca's guitar solo around 4:48 grabs hold of the lyrical assertion and becomes its traveling companion); "Disappearing" (the rhythm section of Hartley and drummer Charlie Hall are on the verge of recreating the backing parts that allowed Don Henley to have a solo career in the '80s; the instrumental interlude starting at 1:46 –  with only occasional vamping from Granduciel – is the type of exploration one only finds amongst the jam bands these days); "Lost In The Dream" (although most of the album is mid-to-slow tempo, this is the only true ballad, and it's welcome; the mirrored, jangly electric guitars from Granduciel and Anthony LaMarca are a nice contrast to the song's overarching western motif); "In Reverse" (a closing track clocking in at 7:41 sounds destined to be dirge, right? Granted, it's hardly a barnburner, but the stiff rhythm backbone from Hartley and Hall that kicks in around the 3:15 mark helps the number become the way more bands should wrap things up, as Granduciel calls it, "a grand parade" about the cold wind of self-struggle)
Meh: "The Haunting Idle" (it's fine if you're listening to the record in order, but not much happening otherwise; Granduciel's isolation and depression can easily be found here)

Sturgill Simpson
New Release: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Release Date: May 13, 2014
Record Label: High Top Mountain
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Sounds Like: Father John Misty (NMT); Hiss Golden Messenger (NMT); Onward, Soldiers (NMT)

If you cringe at the very notion of country music, muttering "infinitely regressive" under your breath, Sturgill Simpson is the cure for what ails you. He stands aface of the constant churn of rose-colored patriotism, cheap beer and Southern pride spun out by everyone not named Brad Paisley (who does challenge many of the thematic stereotypes of contemporary country). Back in the 70s, you heard this roots rock style in The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers and recently redeployed by the likes of Onward, Soldiers and Hiss Golden Messenger. Simpson – who gets brownie points in my book for his time as a yard worker on the Union Pacific Railroad in Salt Lake City – returns the format to its ancestral country home.

Come for: "Turtles All The Way Down" (you won't hear many country sounds approach religion and spirituality quite the same way as this one does; cue it up with Father John Misty's "I'm Writing A Novel" for a metaphysical pairing with as much wit as permitted)
Stay for: "A Little Light" (could easily be confused as some long-forgotten spiritual, the best possible mix of gospel and country; just wish it was a little longer than it's allotted 1:40)
You'll be surprised by: "Voices" (Simpson's rich baritone is used to full effect here)
Solid efforts: "Life of Sin" (hardly the Bible Belt sermon you'd expect from the title; a mature look at love and life) "Living the Dream" (twangy midtempo number, with plenty of honky tonk organ and slide guitar that once marked the best sounds in the country genre; nice electric guitar solo by Laur Joamets around the 2:30 mark; fine lyric: "I don't need to change my strings, cause the dirt don't change the way I sing"); "Long White Line" (a fine road tune, with the steady gait between bassist Kevin Black and drummer Miles Miller the defining attribute, a cover of Buford Abner's original); "The Promise" (a cover of When In Rome's 1988 hit belt-it-out ballad); "Just Let Go" (grabs you from the start with "woke up today, decided to kill my ego," the kind of humble self-assessment so lacking in his genre these days; both Simpson and Joamets display their acoustic guitar work here, plus some excellent vocal harmonies); "Panbowl" (a gentle way to wrap-up the album; you can instantly picture Lake Panbowl in eastern Kentucky of Simpson's upbringing; this is what a country song does best)
Meh: "It Ain't Flowers (a full half-minute of near techno freakout to start the track is something few Music City producers allow, followed by the type of silly, surreal Western ramblings Father John Misty cultivated on Fear Fun)

New Release: Courting Strong
Release Date: May 26, 2014
Record Label: Salinas Records
Location: Durham, U.K.
Sounds Like: Los Campesinos! (NMT, NMT) (no other references are necessary; if you know and like Los Campesinos!, you should know and like Martha)

There really doesn't need to be much exposition of this lo-fi, but high energy British quartet, straddling the line between bratty and snarly (check out this piece from NPR). Unlike The War On Drugs' sonic explorations, all but one track on the 10-track collection checks in at under four minutes. If you enjoy Los Campesinos! brand of infectious pop-punk, then this will be right up your alley. Like their more veteran counterparts, they sound distinctly British (or, more accurately, Welsh, in the LCs' case), with male & female trading vocals. As Courting Strong is the group's full-length debut, it's less finely-polished than the LCs' most recent-work – appropriate for a bunch of kids just having a good time – and also less weighed down by Gareth Campesinos' frequent musings on morbidity of late.

Come for: "Dust, Juice, Bones and Hair" (the most LCs-esque number here, play it right after "You! Me! Dancing!")
Stay for: "1997, Passing in the Hallway" (everything a teenage punk love song should be; delightfully uncomplicated; bassist Naomi Griffin's turn on lead vocals is well-deserved)
You'll be surprised by: "Present Tense" (the slightly more measured pace is a nice change)
Solid efforts: "Cosmic Misery" (perky and pesky, if a bit unsettled at times); "Bubble in My Bloodstream" (surprising, it's at once the heaviest and the punkest number on the record; the mid-number stop-on-a-dime transition to Griffin's chorus is excellent); "Move to Durham and Never Leave" (as odes to hometowns goes, this one's perfect); "Gin and Listerine" (perhaps the young band's most fully-realized musical composition; hey, look it that, it's a guitar solo!; I'd like to know who this Vincenzo is they're singing about); "Sleeping Beauty" (Griffin offers her attempt at deconstructing the meek and helpless princess fairy tale trope); "1967, I Miss You, I'm Lonely" (the catchy guitar hook that leads off the song that is another nearly-blatant LCs ripoff); "So Sad – So Sad" (Yikes! A piano? Ok, there we go; although the 6:47 is positively epic for a band like this, it seems to take nowhere near that long and is nowhere near as dour as the title implies)  
Meh: It's all just great.