Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Zelaz-ow-ow-a brings the heat

March 14, 2009

zelazowaAfter listening to Zelazowa’s latest, Elephants on a Mousehunt, I felt that I needed tongs or a potholder to eject the CD from my stereo – their music is searing. I imagined the album actually smoking from the scorching music it contained. But, a “Caution: Contents May Be Hot” label is not needed. Sure, the contents are hot, but I wouldn’t recommend using any caution to listen to this album. It should be listened to without reserve, which is what the music itself is like.

From the very beginning of Elephants on a Mousehunt, Zelazowa packs a serious punch with their energetic, driving rock. The opener “Today is Tomorrow” is a surefire attention-grabber, with its explosive guitar riffs and no-holding-back vocals. Throughout the album, the vocals sounds like a combination of The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Brandon Boyd of Incubus, mixed with a punk sensibility.

“Numbers,” a dark, political scorcher, increases the energy even more with a frenzied sing-along chorus. This song practically begs the listener to see Zelazowa live – and luckily, it seems like this band is on an eternal tour, so there are plenty of opportunities.

While many of the songs on this album are head-knockers with catchy hooks that encourage jumping around, Zelazowa also churns out some songs that diversify the album’s sound. “You Say Love” has more of a pop influence with really nice harmonies, and the closer “I Got My Gun” begins with an acoustic sound which grows as it progresses. Also, the more mellow and dreamy “Baby Blue (Listening to the Earth Shift)” comes as a bit of a breather or respite in the middle of the album, but doesn’t alter its edgy mood.

Elephants on a Mousehunt is a mature and carefully executed release from Zelazowa that shows daring and spunk. Be sure to check them out if you want to add a hint of wasabi to your musical palate.

Stardeath and the White Dwarfs to play in Tulsa

March 13, 2009

This Monday, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs will be coming to Bob’s (inside Cain’s Ballroom) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and concertgoers can be sure to expect a high-energy, experimental performance.

Dennis Coyne, singer and guitarist of Stardeath and the White Dwarfs, describes the group’s live shows as having “a lot of lights, a lot of loud music, and a lot of fog.”

“It’s absolutely psychedelic,” Coyne says.

The group’s musical style fits with these aspects of their live performances.

“It’s loud and bright in every sense of the word – loud and bright in sound and in color,” Coyne says of the band’s sound.

Stardeath and the White Dwarfs formed about four years ago, and its members hail from Oklahoma City and Norman. Coyne says he got started playing music by being around it a lot as a kid – he’s Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips’ nephew!

“I grew up around music my whole life, and by being close with the Lips,” Coyne says. “Growing up, it was always around, so that really had to give me some interest in it.”

Coyne says that Wayne helps the group “in a way that any good uncle would,” but that he also helps and influences Stardeath and the White Dwarfs musically.

“It’s awesome,” Coyne says of having Wayne as an uncle. “There’s nothing to complain about except that he’s hard to keep up with because he’s such a hard worker.”

As a band coming out of Oklahoma, Coyne says that he has always liked the Oklahoma City and Norman music scenes. And, in addition to this, he says that it’s nice having just enough bands in the area without having an overload of competition. Oklahoma’s low cost of living is also a benefit.

“Being a band from Oklahoma is great because everything is cheap,” adds Coyne.

About seven months ago, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs was signed to Warner Bros. Records, but when they first found out, the group was working as a road crew for the Flaming Lips. They were so busy that Coyne says the group didn’t have a lot of time to consider the news.

“It was weird because we didn’t have time to digest anything,” Coyne says. “We didn’t get the news until we had arrived in England and were setting up for the Lips.”

The band recently finished their full-length album with Warner Bros., and it will be released in May. Also for the label, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs collaborated with the Flaming Lips on a cover of Madonna’s “Borderline.” The song is included on a compilation of Warner Bros. Records covers, released for the company’s 50th anniversary. Coyne says that “Borderline” was chosen carefully.

“Well, you wanna do something absurd, but not too absurd, but also not so serious that it’s boring,” he says.

The recording was completed long-distance – at the time, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs were recording in Oklahoma, and the Flaming Lips were working on Christmas on Mars in New York. They worked on the track in their two separate studios, emailing pieces back and forth, and working out issues by talking on the phone.

Currently, Stardeath and the White Dwarfs are running a very busy tour, playing a show in a different state almost every night.

“The schedule sounds brutal, but once you get rolling, it goes by so fast,” Coyne says. “There’s no sleep, and you’re driving a lot, but doing a lot in a little period is better because it keeps you on track.”

The band stops in Tulsa, in their home state, this Monday, March 16. The show is scheduled for 9 p.m. at Bob’s, inside Cain’s Ballroom. Be sure to check out Stardeath and the White Dwarfs for an energetic, psychedelic spectacle, and to support an Oklahoma-bred group!

Fear of the Cat-Girl

Blag’ard – Bobcat

I have to admit something. In the stack of CDs Stephen gave me to review over the last several weeks, I put Bobcat by Blag’ard toward the bottom of the stack. Why? Because the girl in the cat-ish costume on the front and back gave me the heebie-jeebies.

That being said, I finally gave the disc a spin and not just so that I could remove the creepy cat-girl from my desk. It’s a good release, though ultimately not particularly understanding.

Blag’ard is a duo made up of Joe Taylor on guitar and Adam Brinson on drums. Perhaps I’m biased because I started out playing bass, but I’ve always found guitar/drum duos to be precarious and hard to pull off. The White Stripes and The Black Keys manage it, but without that low-end provided by the bass, a guitar/drum duo can often feel very incomplete. Unfortunately, Blag’ard falls victim to that in several places.

Luckily, Taylor’s guitar work is compelling enough the majority of the time to propel the music and make it sound more complete. He hits the mark much better on some songs than he does on others. In the second and third tracks, “Shame” and “REM Show,” Taylor plays the higher frets frequently, and the two songs even have similar riffs. With “Shame” clocking in at nearly five minutes and “REM Show” at just shy of three minutes, it makes for a painfully exhausting series of guitar wailing and high vocals.

From there, though, the balance is found again and persists well throughout the album. But, from here Blag’ard falls victim to a common problem: the songs all start to blend together. Even after repeat listens, there isn’t a single song that really stood out from the others. It becomes hard to tell where one song ends and another begins and ultimately it’s hard to really get into the album.

There’s some strong musicianship here, but the songwriting needs a little less monotony.

A Girl that Can Scat is to be Praised

March 12, 2009

Intricate instrumentals compliment Tiffany Christopher’s smooth vocals. This Arkansas native roams around these here Midwest parts laying down her sweet voice and jamming on the guitar. Complex finger picking in the style of Ani Difranco and Bela Fleck swings in and out of her strong, smooth vocalizations. In places you can hear an early-Regina Spektor influence. Songs like “Scat” feature, you guessed it, Ms. Christopher herself scatting.

It’s quirky and eclectic songs like these that make the physical appearance of Tiffany Christopher slightly ironic. She’s small, skinny, and wears jeans and a tank top in most of her videos. Nothing would suggest the dexterous accompaniment she plays along to her own melodious voice.

She graces us with only four myspace songs and a handful of youtube videos, but her reputation has grown through extensive touring in the northwest Arkansas and southern Missouri region. This acoustic/folk queen promises a CD soon. I sure hope so.

Here comes Doitall again…

March 11, 2009

Lords of the Underground came into the hip-hop world with the 1993 underground, East Coast near-classic Here Comes The Lords.  Little has been heard from them in recent years, except for an album in 2007 that was released so under the radar that they might as well not made it.  So, to have the chance to review a new mixtape by one of the members (“The Me You Never Heard” by Doitall) comes as a surprise.

Well, Doitall’s lyrics and beats sure have changed. Lords of the Underground on Here Comes The Lords favored jazz-based samples with a golden-age era flow. But Doitall is definitely susceptible to what is popular nowadays, adding support for calling his mixtape “The Me You Never Heard.” There’s a lot more violent imagery and talking about “hustlin and grindin.” There’s a lot of Doitall rappping about how great he is, and playing the “I am a member of a classic hip hop outfit” card.  Well, it’s kind of a shock. The worst example of this is the track “HE,” with the irritating chorus, “He does it for the love/He’s out for some blood/He’s mister make him clap/ He’s mister get them stacks/He’s mister lays a track/ He’s the man, he’s your fam, he’s the one.”  It’s kind of depressing to hear a classic rapper trying to still prove himself.

But it’s not all bad. Doitall definitley does prove he’s still got skills and can still pull something off. Most of the beats are well chosen.  Also, Doitall mixes the ring tone rap themes with social consciousness. “No Sunshine” is the perfect example that shows Doitall still being able to make something with substance. It’s a track that has Doitall rapping about  how the “The project is a project exactly what they called it/ common sense aint common so it’s hard to use logic.” He makes a pretty serious, rough track.  It’s a really great gem that Talib Kweli, Mos Def, or Nas would wish they would have thought of.

Doitall exercises his lyrical skills well on the “The Me You Never Heard” mixtape. But, unfortunately, it shows signs of how even classic MCs are susceptible to popular ring tone rap, probably to try to get some airplay. It’s well-crafted, and well put together, but hopefully rap’s standards will change for the better.

Clearly Distorted Well

March 9, 2009

The Sess Agendumb

“Distortion” is the name of the game that is played by San Diego rockers The Sess with their album Agendumb.

It would seem that The Sess believe not only in turning the volume up to eleven, but also the gain. Everything, right down to the vocals, has a distinct crunch that immediately makes the band’s recorded sound grab your attention. The catchy riffs and lyrics only add to the feeling.

Initially, I was concerned. Agendumb opens with a sort of ambient intro that has a slight drum beat to it accompanied by odd sounds and recordings of various political propaganda such as Hitler speeches and the like. The intro, “Abraxas,” is very deceptive, making the album appear like it’s going to be one of those weird psychedelic opuses that you have to be on mushrooms to really understand. Then “Sheep City” comes in with some good, solid rock that’s very easy to get into.

And then the use of distortion on the vocals concerned me. When “Sheep City” ended and “Silly For Sirius” begins, the distorted vocals continued and I was very afraid the songs would all start to sound the same. Fortunately, this proved not to be the case, because The Sess manage to give most of the songs very distinct sounds and the distorted vocals quickly start to feel like an organic part of the music.

The album itself is very brief at only about thirty-two minutes. The first half goes by especially fast, but it’s the second half of the album where the band really shines. “Mary” reels you in quickly and their cover of The Remains’ “Don’t Look Back” is so full of soul that you can’t help but have a ton of fun listening to it.

The instrumental work really shines on “Wisdom Tooth Gumbs,” and the vocals are pulled back a little, really letting all the instruments shine. The Sess favor two guitars, bass, drums and some very tastefully done synthesizer. A lot of times when a band puts keyboards into the mix, the rest of the music is overpowered, but The Sess succeed here with the keyboards playing a strong supporting role and occasionally coming out to propel things along themselves. The keyboard work on the album closer, “Tunnel Love,” is especially well done.

I could have done without the intro track and the hidden outro track, since they don’t really seem to mesh with the band’s overall sound. But nitpicking aside, Agendumb is an excellent release and I look forward to seeing more from The Sess.

Embracing the Weird with Voluntary Mother Earth

March 7, 2009

Voluntary Mother Earth band leader, Akihiko Hayahawa (a.k.a. “Aki”), thinks that we live in a weird world.

“The world we came to know is an extremely absurd place, where a humongous aluminum pipe is flying in the sky with people in it,” Aki says. “We roll a chain around an animal’s neck and call it a family member. People paint their faces and call it beauty. We tend to take these things for granted. But if you take a look around and really think about it, this place is f***** up.”

However, life’s oddities don’t drag Aki and Voluntary Mother Earth down. In fact, this satirical, insane, genre-diverse group gets their inspiration from our weird world.

You can take what’s f***** up and get angry, feel depressed, go crazy – it’s your choice. I just decided to laugh at it. And that’s how the songs are born,” Aki says.

Claiming to be one of the weirdest bands to ever exist on Earth, Voluntary Mother Earth is a three-piece rock group that formed in 2004, originally hailing from Denton, Texas. They released an album (Voluntary Invasion) there, but soon relocated to Tokyo. Withstanding several lineup changes, Voluntary Mother Earth toured the U.S. and released a new album (Unacceptable Vegetable) in 2007. Now, band members Aki Hayahawa (guitar and vocals), Noriff Micky (bass), and Fujita Fajita (drums), are going on another U.S. tour and bringing their unique blend of musical styles with them.

“It’s like Frank Zappa meets Jimi Hendrix in a playground where serious right brains are hanging out and having a great time,” Aki says of their sound.

The group’s music is frequently hilarious, with song titles like “I Said, ‘Just Water, Please,’ And She Gave Me Sprite,” but Voluntary Mother Earth is not merely funny. They glide effortlessly through many genres – hard rock and funk, to name a few – showcasing a wide understanding of music and sophisticated songwriting from Aki.

When their music is played live, Aki says that there are usually two “tribes” of reactions from the audience. One tribe, he says, is called “Idigthistus,” and consists of people who “really go for it,” dancing, screaming, and occasionally giving painful high-fives.

“What can I say, love hurts at times,” Aki adds. “When I find folks from this particular tribe during our set, I tend to invite them to come up onstage and have them dance with the band. As it turns out, America is the home of this tribe.”

Unfortunately, the second tribe, “Idontgetthistus,” does exist in some towns, Aki says, but VME doesn’t let these non-right-brainers bother them. In fact, during one set, a woman named Sandra from Connecticut began as a member of this latter “tribe,” but was soon converted. Aki says that Sandra, who he dubbed “the drunk woman from hell,” was loudly yelling “Booooring!” in between the songs of the set, and causing a lot of trouble for VME.

“I was on the verge of making full use of my right to free speech, and telling her to go have intercourse with her good self,” Aki says of the incident. “That’s when Zen came down on me all the way from the East, and spoke words of wisdom. The answer, my friend, was surely blowing in the wind. Instead of shouting at her to get lost, I asked her, as politely as I could manage, how she’d like to come join the band onstage and sing a song with us. She thought it was a great idea.”

Impulsive, audience-engaging actions like this one are common during Voluntary Mother Earth’s live shows.

“Expect to be brought up onstage and be asked to dance like there’s no tomorrow to a song that’s not danceable,” Aki says, also adding that sometimes it’s push-ups instead of dancing.

And as for their live music, Aki says that they like to play different versions of the songs on their albums.

“Expect higher-energy versions of the songs with live-show-only arrangements,” he says. “You can hear a punk version of what was on the record a ballad, and things like that. Expect FUN.”

Aki adds that these live performances are a part of what makes them one of the weirdest bands on Earth.

“It’s the atmosphere we create together with the audience that makes us one of the weirdest,” he says.

So, this March, if you need to exercise your right brain, if you need a heaping dose of the absurd, or if you feel like dancing like a maniac, check our Voluntary Mother Earth on their tour, which is listed in full on their myspace. And for those who can’t attend one of these locations, they will be releasing a new “official bootleg” live album on March 11, which even includes the incident with Sandra, the drunk woman from hell.

“Have you ever heard ‘field recording’ of local tribes living in the depths of a jungle singing their local folk tunes, and stuff like that? Take this album as the field recording of a low-budget touring act,” Aki says of the live album.

The band will also be releasing a new full-length studio album sometime this year. In the meantime, stay weird, Aki suggests.

“I want you to know that if you are not afraid of breaking through the walls around you that keep you “normal” and are ready to find out that the world is a really absurd place, then the beer’s on me.”

Josh Caress explores alt-country on Wild Wild Love

March 4, 2009

Country has long been a component of Josh Caress’ singer/songwriter sound, so it’s not surprising that he’s dedicated Wild Wild Love to exploring that element of his style. While he plays within the conventions for most of his first foray into Ryan Adams-esque alt-country,  he does create a handful of beautiful, adventurous tracks that make this album worth it.

Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! was the first real display of Caress’ country leanings, and it is still one of my favorite Caress albums. Adventure! worked because Caress displayed what he was made of. There wasn’t any Sufjan-esque instrumentation (The Rockford Files) or fuzzy drone underneath (Letting Go of a Dream). It displayed Caress as an introspective troubadour with complex arrangements, catchy melodies, folk/country leanings, and a cinematic bent. There’s nowhere to hide in Adventure!, and it is all the better for it.

The ability to hide the songwriting within the surrounding instruments is part of what makes Wild Wild Love a decent but not astounding release. The title track opens with a forlorn harmonica and some weary guitarwork.  It had my attention immediately; it’s great. Then, at around forty seconds, pedal steel, electric guitar, bass, drums and old timey violins come in. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but collectively they feel like overkill. The message could be sent that this is a country album without several of these markers.

Josh Caress knows this, too; the chorus of “Wild Wild Love” drops out the violins and bass, leaving only pedal steel, acoustic, gentle electric guitar and voice. It’s  still a lot, but it sounds like not much (in context) and it’s beautiful. It’s a problem that was present on Rockford Files as well; just because Caress can do something doesn’t mean he should.

But it’s not just massive instrumentation that allows his to hide. Caress busts out his electric guitar for several songs, dropping into honky-tonk mode (“Be My Baby Tonight”), righteous anger mode (“I Won’t Let You Strip Me of My Soul”) and even straight-up American rock and roll (“Don’t Believe the Rock and Roll”). It’s not that these songs are bad (although “Be My Baby Tonight” does stretch the limits of credibility); it’s just that they don’t seem fully honest. Perhaps it’s the initial learner’s curve of writing rock, I don’t know; but these songs don’t connect as well as his quieter work.

There are moments of intense clarity, though: “Lake Michigan” takes motifs from Adventure and ideas of instrumentation from Rockford Files to create one of the best tracks he’s ever created. It’s beautiful because the pedal steel, mandolin, drums,organ, secondary guitar and background vocals are used perfectly. I could listen to “Lake Michigan” over and over; if I had to put together a Josh Caress greatest hits album, this would be on it. “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” provides heart-crushing lyrics and one of the most steady vocal performances Caress has ever produced; it’s another stand-out. The control that Caress exercises over his voice on this track is impressive; this track alone is a major step forward in his songwriting style.

“I Wanna Be Your Man” is one of the better louder tracks here, as the vocals are memorable. The blue-collar, Joe Anybody feel of “A Path, Through Suffering” channels Springsteen (sorta). They’re louder and enjoyable; so it’s not like Caress can’t write a good loud song. It’s just that his quieter, more introspective stuff (at this point) works better.

There are lots of tracks here that are enjoyable, but the sum definitely feels like the experiment it is. “Lake Michigan” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Prove” are almost worth the price of admission on their own, so the recommendation here is definitely “buy.” But there are definitely some things that Josh Caress needs to get adjusted to in the alt-country genre if he’s going to keep chillin’ there for a while.

Pass Me Some More Music by Futants

March 3, 2009

There’s two types of hard music to me: intelligent hard music and chugga chugga. There are many genres, but when I’m listening to hard music, the only thing of importance is that the band not be “chugga chugga.”

Futants’ album Pass the Butter never devolves into mindless loudness (or what I call “noise for the sake of noise”). Even though their sound is rooted in classic heavy metal and modern post-hardcore, they absorb enough from other genres to keep their songwriting fresh and tight. It’s a testament to the thoughtfulness of the band members that none of these songs get boring, nor does the album taper off. The songs hit one after another, without any being of particularly lower quality than the last.

After a passable but not astonishing opener, they establish that they are not a normal band on “Mutants with an F.” A sound clip from a campy horror movie gives way to cacophony: scratchy, screamed vocals; charging, grungy guitars; metallic bass notes; and pounding drums emerge full-formed. They drop into a groove of sorts, with two vocalists harmonizing in an off-kilter sort of way. They bring back the thundering section for the chorus, then set off in another direction. They deliver a half-time section; I would call it a breakdown, but it’s not heavy. It’s actually lighter than the rest of the song. It’s like the inverse of a breakdown.

The rest of the album continues is these motifs. Scratchy, frantic screamed vocals; warbling, weary sung vocals; hard-charging guitars; and a solid rhythm section all make the core of the songs solid. The changes of pace in tempo, songwriting direction and mood keep the interest. “And That’s OK” is a perfect example. A song with one of the quieter verses on the album gives way to one of the best riffs on the album and one of the loudest, most frantic sections of music on the album in the middle of the song. It’s a stand-out because it’s unforgettable.

“Money to Burn” has an excellent quiet section that makes the hard section feel that much heavier. One of the few missteps of the album comes on a ill-advised, careening vocal performance towards the middle of the song, but the instrumental quality of the first half of the song is strong enough to pass over the error.

If you’re a fan of intelligent hard music (like MeWithoutYou), songwriting in hard music, or just something unusual in hard music, Pass Me the Butter by Futants is highly recommended.

Attention Planet Earth: Corinne Gooden is Absolutely Amazing!

March 2, 2009

Released in 2008, All My Days is perhaps the most heartfelt album I’ve reviewed this year. Corinne Gooden’s voice has a warm country twinge which simply arrested me on first listen. Her voice is intimate and makes you have to sit and listen. Corinne’s feelings are obviously completely entwined in her words and notes. It’s impossible to listen to All My Days without feeling along with her. Corinne has a rare gift for drawing you in and letting you feel her love, her happiness, her pain, her heartbreak, and her hope.

Corinne’s voice can be haunting, especially on track three, “All My Days.” Corinne sings a melody here that’s so innately familiar, yet original in its own right. Her voice is painted over a perfect tapestry of her interlocking acoustic guitar and what seems to be a keyboard, the latter of which begins and ends the song. The drums provide perfect accentuation to the notes and lyrics. The lyrics are perfect, the chorus saying: “All my days/a world which pushes down the pain/I cannot make this go away/all my nights/a dream that haunts my sleep again/I cannot seem to make you stay.” Simply beautiful. Make no mistake – “All My Days” is a hit.

But Corinne doesn’t stop here. All her following songs are great (as well as those preceding “All My Days”). “Come This Far,” rocks pretty hard. The bridge is very powerful and Corinne’s voice really shines here, offering a nice contrast to “All My Days.”  “Come This Far” also lets her accompaniment shine; they really help Corinne to reach high in this album.

“17th Street” is a tragic yet beautiful song dealing with something many struggle with. The song is about how people pass a homeless man on the corner  in their cars, completely ignoring him. Corinne isn’t accusatory – she admits she does the same, and that this is even normal. The tragedy lies just in the fact that it’s normal. This song takes this example to expose the numbness in the human heart, a numbness which makes us forget that we need each other.

Corinne is talented as a songwriter and has the ability to draw the listener in and make him or her feel. I would definitely like more people to know about Corinne Gooden, because she is simply amazing. She is the best female vocalist I’ve heard this year, hands down. She has crafted the kind of album where, after listening to it, you feel like you know her.

She has song samples on both her site and her MySpace – be sure to check them out!

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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