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.

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