Tuesday, October 1, 2013

RECORD REVIEWS - September 2013

It is a barely controllable madhouse of new music around here--no shutdown of bands releasing interesting music going on in this town and beyond. Enjoy the exploration of new music, the journey has its rewards (even if this one is a little long)...

I was a bit worried this might be too warm and fuzzy in the British pop style for me, but thankfully there is enough bite to make it palatable for those in want of rock. It is not dissimilar to early U2 in that regard. There remains an attractive flowing pop sensibility through the album, which should garner a lot of fans from the indie world. I enjoyed it in small clusters, but found the whole to be a little too much on one plane of sound. There were some songs that had more striking back-up vocals and the occasional guitar run that stood out and I hope they do more of that in the future. There is a slow build of volume over the course of the ten songs may be a start of that future. Until then, this is a good document of a band who can push their emotions out through vocals and guitar in an engaging manner.

Songs to try out first:

Dandelion Wine - When in doubt, start with the opener which opens up with jangly pop rock with lush vocal harmonies and some cool songwriting twists.

Summer Swell - If summer swells were this pleasant, we would all be glad to be caught in them.

Young and Dumb - Has a thicker, more rocking shoe gaze element in this one.

I was a big fan of Portland, Oregon's the Decemberists. I also enjoy Blitzen Trapper who is still quite active with this, their seventh album. After some interesting experimenting, like the Decemberists, they initially appeared to be taking a trip back to more stripped down roots music, also like the Decemberists' last album. But although the vocals and melody lines go heavy into the Americana style, the arrangements slowly evolve into more experimentation, which is what most Blitzen Trapper fans want from the band. There are many interesting strings and keyboards that work their way into the song in strange and memorable ways. And as the album progresses through the twelve songs, each builds from the last with an additional layer of sound. This keeps up through Heart Attack, before the last two bring it down a notch into a cool down period. So I am left with a fascinating album that is a lot smarter than I am and will get a few more listens before I figure more of it out. The songs are good, but the tracking is absolutely masterful. And although, I list my three favorites below, this one should be listened to front to back in one sitting. And live, they still rock even harder.

Songs to try out first:

Thirsty Man - Intriguing instrumentation used, which creates a more otherworldly Americana.

Necky Tatts, Cadillacs - This could be the Holy Modal Rounders except for the high quality vocals.

Heart Attack - An out and out progressive jazz freak-out, rode with a tight grip on the reins.

If you like punchy electronic pop music, then you may want to listen to the Blow. You will have to endure cute vocal technique, so there are a couple of elements that may work perfectly for some, but turn off other listeners. There appears to be more thought in the rhythmic thrust of the electronic shards, but this does not do enough instrumentally to interest me as much as I had hoped. I appreciate the vocal style and the lyrics during the times they dug in and told an interesting story. If you like electronic music, especially the whimsical pop variety, I would think this would be a worthy album to add to your collection.

Songs to try out first:

A Kiss - The vocal lines work the most magic here on this album.

Invisible -Punchy.

Hey - Nice throbbing synthesizer and voice with light percussion--almost nostalgic in tone.

I generally try to listen to new bands, either on record or on stage, without reading much about them ahead of time. Often, I get a few sentences description and learn just enough to whet my appetite. Unsurprisingly, it is not often does that the description fully agrees with my reaction. But this time, when I recalled that the promotional material said this band was like a warm Crazy Horse, I think they nailed it. They are a little tighter and steadier in the rhythm sections, but the fuzzy guitars meander around the melodies quite comfortably and effectively. The vocals are clean and have a savvy timeless sound to them. They have a post modern feel to Cray Horse as I detect sounds of Honor Roll and other post-punk rock acts in here as well. This goes down like a honey and yogurt drink and is well worth a listen.
Songs to try out first:

Fleece - The immediacy of the guitar sound should pull you right into their world.

Null Set - Strong song with great vocal work and a killer guitar solo.

Full of Life - Killer bass line and a hip atmosphere, daddy-o.

The name implies psychedelic rock and this album does not lack for that. Actually, these nine songs are more psyche-pop nuggets as opposed to tripping journeys. The vocals are a bit on the laid back side and don't always keep up with the music. The guitars can get quite heavy even as the overall songs still have a slow head bobbing happy-psyche vibe (the opening cut is called "Yuppies are Flowers", so you get the idea). Still, just as you settle in with the songs, they stretch out a couple cuts to out and out rock jams. There is just enough variety here to bring a sparkle to the whole of the album. It is not a mindblower or pop classic, but it is a good listen.

Songs to try out first:

Rowdy Gaze - The guitars blaze away nicely on this rocker.

Stay, Don't Say - The vocals work well on this dreamier pop tune that flows into the longest cut on the album.

Runnin on the Moon - Lovely grinding guitar with horns reminiscent of the Saints augmenting the rock tones with Saints-like sneering vocals (yet it doesn't sound like the Saints, more like Spiritualized)

If you like your folkrock gnarled and twisted, then this solo project of Foxygen drummer, Shaun Fleming, may be just the music to have with your afternoon tea. Nah, take this out to the garage so that the twangy guitars, sharp vocals, and farfisa blasts don't disturb the house plants. This is easy to get into for the adventurous listener, as it combines forms and twists melodic passages in strange ways that satisfy on at least a couple of levels. Standard listeners will find it too weird, while experimental fans will find it too cute and catchy (although most should still find plenty to like). As long as there are enough good songs, I like it when bands meld the weird into standard forms. Diane Coffee is successful here, really as much as Foxygen.

Songs to try out first:

Hymn - Great opening staircase into this strange world. Where would be without David Lynch?

Tale of a Dead Dog - Lovely acoustic guitar work, with some strong harmonies and songwriting twists to spice things up.

That Stupid Girl that Runs a Lot - There is even some Fifty Foot Hose or Joseph Byrd moves in this psyche-popper.


If you could not tell that the guys in Dot Dash were veterans of classic DC bands and beyond, then the albums title and songs such as "Ghosts of the Past", "Hands of Time" and "Bloom-Decay" should give you a clue. Thankfully, they are too good of a power pop band to take those titles into a pessimistic direction. Instead, this is a mature album for those of us that have been there for a long time that infuses strong song craft to reach people of all ages. The production is top drawer with great clarity of all instruments. I am quite please with that, as this is a band whose live shows have me watching all four members execute their parts. And it comes together yet again.

Songs to try out first:

Ghosts of the Past - The opening cut has tremendous sound and a great hook with a lyric that hits home for this old punk rocker.

Bloom-Decay - The power pop guitar sound almost goes shoe gaze toward the end, with a nice steady build.

A Light in the Distance - Great guitar sounds on top of a driving beat, as they really channel Wire here.

This is not a local band that I am familiar with from the club scene, but based on this ep, I hope to see them some time soon. They have an indie rock approach but show a maturity with songwriting, arrangements, and production that makes this a cut above. To start, there is deep steadiness in the rhythm that has jabbing drums and guitars that creates a tension between sharp and smooth. They have horns and big guitars that elevate the songs during key moments, mixed with the ability to pull back when desired. They really bring it down into some nice folk moments such as the short instrumental "Yellow Brick Road". But with songs like "Feel the FIre" and "Blow up Radios" you can get the idea that their big sound is the more prevalent one. These six songs make for a fine record. As they continue, they could work on getting a bit more of a personal approach in their music--easy for me to say, far tougher to do. Yet that is the way to continue to stand out from the crowd.

There is a moody, rootsy feeling in this personal singer songwriter material, yet the arrangements sparkle with just enough surprise to move well out of any simple genre stereotyping. The vocals are extra haunting with female backing vocals and harmonies adding to the rich tenor of the lead vocals. Guitars have just enough fuzz and rock touches to push out nicely, while settling back in the mix to allow creative use of space and other instrumental flourish. There is a warm psychedelic vibe throughout, but it is not overbearing so it is barely noticeable for those that just want to follow the story of the song. At times, it slips a bit into what a whole lot of other singer songwriters that have at least one foot in the 'wyrd' camp are doing, but the arrangements here will have me playing this album a bit more often than most.

Songs to try out first:

Criminal Makeup - Lovely thick fuzzy guitars soar around the melodious vocal line for a smooth intensity.

Neo Pagan Lovesong - A lot of vocal variety here with a pleasant guitar line.

Doors - While not quite as psychedelic as the Doors of the Moody Blues' "House of Four Doors", it still sounds great.

It amazes me how many bands were able to sound like this in the late 1960s and early 1970s. People were shooting for the moon, or at least George Martin style production as they created so many great songs, some famous many not so. Even as it is easier and cheaper to record quality work these days, it seems there are not many bands that have sufficient imagination when it comes to intricate and well thought out arrangements. Enter the Netherlands' Jacco Gardner. They bring back and update wonderful memories of the Zombies, July, and the many European style pop-rock groups that embraced psychedelia with a child like playfulness and whimsy. This is more "Alice of Wonderland" when you were eight years old and not as much as when you were 18 listening to the Jefferson Airplane; although there are elements of both. From voice to guitar to percussion to mellotron, the sounds here all tie together with playfulness and purpose. It is hard to pick out a favorite as they all blend together well, even though they do not get tedious or overly repetitive. If this sound were easy, more people would be doing it. I am happy that Jacco Gardner has the vision and takes the time to bring it out so well and not settle for something safe and simple.

I loved this band the first time I saw them, so join me at the Black Cat on Tuesday, October 15th for another exciting set.

Songs to try out first:

Clear the Air - The opener begins with majestic production and a song to live up to the sound. Timeless and enthralling.

Where Will You Go - Acoustic guitar sets the fluid pace as the pop song works its way in and out.

Chameleon - Nice range of pop and rock covered here, with a mysterious vocal pattern and gorgeous harmonies.

Do not file this record under 'solid professional indie rock' too quickly. Although the warm rock sounds fit in with many successful bands of this ilk, there is a lot more going on here. The Lonely Forest leans toward Americana without ever getting there. They invoke melodic progressive passages that range somewhere between early Styx or Golden Earring. They invoke Britpop moves without ever really sounding very Britpop. You can't quite grab on to this music, but it is easily digested. All their songs have pop hooks, but play off them in different ways which makes for a full engaging listen through all eleven songs. They come close to cute pop, but have enough twists to bring it back from the saccharine edge. Usually it is the cutting music that takes the edge off the sweet lyrics and vocal tones.

Songs to try out first:

Pull the Pin - The opening cut starts off fresh and simple before strange elements flow through the cracks making for a creative indie rock song.

Fire Breather - A nice little pop song gets some fierce guitar cutting through pushing the vocals out further and further.

Neon Never Changes - This lush intricate pop song owes as much to the old progressive scene as it does to Radiohead.

Yowzer! When someone tells me that they have a power pop record for me to review, I think how nice it will be to hear some good tunes with nice hooks and just hope that the guitarist is allowed to cut loose a little. Well, Terry Malts cut the brakelines for every player in this band as this has some serious power and thrust. The band rocks with much abandon and great thick sounding guitars. The vocal lines are slightly disinterested, yet tuneful in a post-punk manner. This is so welcome in the world of emo and earnest punk yearning for something better. Well, the something better has arrived in these eleven songs which will take you back to punk rock without cringing at any nostalgic moves. The may be 'comfortably dumb' as one song is titled, but they are far smarter than the average band who tries to tackle punk moves in 2013. Thank-you Slumberland Records, for continuing to release music from this vibrant San Francisco trio.

Songs to try out first:

Two Faces - Right out of the gate, this is a blast of fresh air that I want to hear again and again.

Life's a Dream - Nearly a hardcore blast, this.

Comfortably Dumb - More pop on the vocals, but more noise on the guitars--quiet noise. The steady rhythm holds it together.

It takes mere seconds into Willie Mason's music to realize you will be on a deep contemplative journey. His rich sonorous voice is nearly overwhelming, but for the extra sting on the acoustic guitar and intriguing sonic backscapes. He reminds me of Mick Softley from the older UK folk scene, who also had a striking voice and the ability to arrange some interesting folk-rock music. But as I listen further, he even adds to the pure American folk singer by traveling the way of the Incredible String Band with their brand of magical child-like innocence mixed with the visions of the mystic on the mountain. They were indelibly British, but Mason manages to bring this into the heartland. He is not quite that profound (few are) but there is such a quiet sense of daring here, that it plays so well to those of us that think we have heard just about everything this genre has to offer.

See Willie Mason this Thursday, October 3rd at the Black Cat.

Songs to try out first:

What is This - What is this indeed--just let this opening cut flow over you before settling into this album. Then listen to them all, there is not a dud in the bunch and your favorites may be different than mine anyway (to state the obvious). All eleven cuts are excellent. This is full album listening--no short cuts.

This DC area power pop/indie rock band has put forth a fine record, which should carve a space for them in this busy scene. They balance pop hooks with smooth guitar lines that either jangle or power up and even go acoustic at times for a variety of sounds and moods. The songs flow smooth as a river with a band that works well to leave and fill gaps at just the right time. The noisy guitars in the six+ minute closer make a welcome end to the record and will stay in your mind with an invitation to replay soon. And it has been a while since I have seen them on stage and I am even more interested now to see if this cohesive sound will work live and in person.

Songs to try out first:

Colorful Realms of Living Rivers - The opening cut greets with a fulfilling jangly rocker.

Sunday Morning - No Lou Reed in sight, but a lilting vocal line and some great brass which makes this one sound big.

Break My Heart - Hard rocking power popper has the pace and gutsy guitar sound with a great pop melody in the vocals. I wish there were still hit singles as this would have a chance.

Although you can place Richard Pinhas safely in the experimental guitar category, there is an engaging jazzy rock style flowing through his music. It is noisy, yet there are melodies to grab on to a crisp drum attack to keep you in step. Pinhas is capable of pushing and molding noisy guitar runs in a quick pace or pulling back into an atmospheric and more ambient soundscape. If you are not a fan, these long explorations may get a little tedious, but there is always enough going on for me. The drums also create a musical base that keeps my listening more attentive than usual. Pinhas creates an environment where you can balance active and passive listening and feel fully involved with the emotional output from this music. It is a fine line for me and he succeeded walking it in perfect balance. As a side note, he even had me wondering whether I prefer his simple instrumental titles such as "Drone" and "Moog" to that of, say Kinski's "The Wives of Artie Shaw" or Mogwai's "I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead". You make the call, I'll just drift a little while more.

See Richard Pinhas at the Atlas Performing Center this Thursday, October 3rd.

Anthemic hardcore will never die. Bands like Save Your Breath will always come along to bring their energy and conviction, rearrange the melodies, and play fast and tight. Thankfully this Welsh band has enough songwriting and vocal harmonies to bring more pop elements into the songs without going all emo on us. Still, I would recommend this more for the younger set. I have seen it all before and it just is not fresh enough for me anymore. If I had to single out a song to get a good grasp of the band at their best, it would be "Find a Way". Start there and if five songs later it still sounds lively, then go all in for Save Your Breath.

This EP features five rather unique songs surrounded by a bit of electronic mood setting. They range from rave-up crazed folk rock of the Akron/Family variety to contemplative folk of.. well, a whole lot of bands. There is instrumental folktronica of sorts and even things covering all points between. There is not enough here for me to really get a feel for who Softly, Dear truly is. There is enough here to see that they have a lot of interesting ideas delivered with strong vocals, solid instrumentation, and clever arranging to make for a band to keep an eye on. Plus, the live show looks like it could be very interesting. They are from the lovely Eau Claire, Wisconsin (I used to live near there), so hopefully they can manage their way east some time soon.

This band has somehow managed to marry the current style of Americana indie rock with early 1970s progressive music. There is even a little funk in the keyboards at times. But the most interesting aspect is way guitars and brass will explode in gigantic proportions to the intimate vocals and core of the songs. They somehow manage this style over thirteen songs and still manage to create subtle gasps as they blast away for a few bars only to pull back into an intimate song. Akron/Family is capable of this style, but Typhoon keeps it a little tighter and grounded, maybe a bit too much in some songs as the lesser songs lack the sparkle. Still, the highlights are always just around the corner with this band and the songs would not be too bad if they were merely busked by a singer with an acoustic guitar. I am not sure how this plays live, but they certainly put some thought and creativity into this recording.

You can try it and see at the Rock'n'Roll Hotel Wednesday night, October 2nd, but only if you have a ticket.

Songs to try out first:

Artificial Light - There is fireplace style storytelling at work with the vocals, but some big progressive sound coming in late. Big and intimate?

Young Fathers - Lots of diversity in this song with some excellent backing vocals contrasting nicely.

Dreams of Cannibalism - Just a fine song with a fine title.

Three short songs here, but what is lacking in volume is made up in density. The production on this lively pop-rock outing is top notch, beginning with the driving bass, crisp drums, spacey guitar, and lush vocals. It all fits together well as it journeys over well travelled terrain. The brightness in the guitars and throbbing bass combination is enough to win me over for further listening. I am interested enough to keep the name Yonder in the Rolodex of my mind. They are Seattle based, so it may take a while to get to east, so stay tuned.

This is pop music that rocks just enough. Although Yuck is from England, it is not as deeply into the lush Brit-Pop as I imagined. It is lush, as the vocals are smooth and high pitched, but the music has a more straightforward rock tone with some lighter touches on percussion and some brass coloring. There are clear favorites for me, but even the lesser cuts show an intelligent brand of writing and move me less due to the simplicity of the style. When they nail it on the better cuts, they prove to be crafty songsmiths that can cut through stereotypes more with skill than audacious originality. They just have that certain feel of a band that can be really successful.

Songs to try out first:

Out of Time - Or perhaps timeless pop melody integrated perfectly here.

Lose My Breath - A bit more guts in this song, with no less of a pop hook.

Middle Sea - The smoothness in delivery is still there, but this one rocks.

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