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Month: June 2010

The Bramble Jam plays pop music for more than just kids

I like to give everything a fair shot. I’ve heard some pretty terrible things in my day because of this policy, but I have also found some treasures in things that other reviewers may have instantly passed for one reason or another.

The Bramble Jam‘s Move Your Boots is a kid’s album. Don’t be frightened: the tunes play out like a smoother version of They Might Be Giants’ work (a band that has also composed some kids’ music). The songs are primarily acoustic folk and pop tunes, as that seems to be the only genre that people think kids like (although Fang Island and the Sugar Free Allstars are striving to change this). The assured male and female vocals set this apart from other kids’ albums. There is the obligatory wink at the audience every now and then, but the band members mostly play the songs straight, not laughing at their own jokes.

This sounds like not a big deal, but anyone who has suffered through a self-congratulating children’s album knows how far an ounce of sincerity goes in this genre. “Pancakes” is the runaway favorite here, as the lyrics are genuinely funny (“Don’t you know that your mommy is the better milk and cornflake maker? Don’t you know that your mommy is the better low-fat yogurt scooper?”), the melody is dry and infectious, and the band locks on a loose, Jack Johnson-esque groove. It’s a lot of fun.

“Hey Crazy Kid” features a propulsive groove and a more dry melodies that would make it perfect to be a cover by any indie band. The lyrics wouldn’t even have to be altered. It’s that good. “Mommy’s Lost Her Marbles” hangs on a great organ riff. “Piggies (acoustic)” does sentimental in a way that actually makes me want to sigh instead of gag. I won’t ruin why it does.

Yes, there are a couple of stinkers, like the regrettable opener “Going to a Party” and the oddball surf-punk of “Chicken Soccer.” Things do get a bit too saccharine on “I Am Not Gone,” as well. But they are easily passed over for the other treasures within.

Move Your Boots by the Bramble Jam is unabashedly a kids’ album. But it has the musical quality to be enjoyed by their parents (and, apparently, at least one single-as-can-be music critic). If you’re adventurous, have kids, or really want to try something outside of your normal listening, hit this up.

On the Stairs makes a fascinating, unique folk/gospel/country album

Leonard Mynx‘s Vesper is easily one of the most depressing works I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing. I love sad folk music, and in sheer volume of misery, I think only Elliot Smith can trump Mynx. When I get a package endorsed by Leonard Mynx, I jump on that stuff.

So, when I got Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt by On the Stairs, which Mynx not only recommended but played on, I was thoroughly interested. On the Stairs does not disappoint my interest, but it does take it in a different direction. Mynx has three songwriting moods: sad, sadder and “I’m rummaging around for the antidepressants.” Nate Clark, the main man behind On the Stairs, employs a much wider range of moods, although the two artists’ instrumentation is very similar.

The spare notes, distant strumming and sonorous tone of the acoustic guitars transfers over to both artists, but Clark uses it to balance his low voice. And by low, I mean his baritone dips into Johnny Cash range often. Opening track “Already Won” employs his voice to excellent ends, displaying his range and creating a memorable melody out of it. It fluctuates between tempered glee and pondering, which is an awkward sort of description, but the best I can do. Nate Clark creates intensely specific moods with his gospel-tinged folk, and that’s one of his strengths.

The ominous violins and distant drumming of “King” give the song all the drama and tension, as the lyrics don’t really tell the story. The ebb and flow of instruments does, though; if that’s not the mark of a powerful songwriter, I’m not sure what is. But on the other end of the spectrum, there are upbeat moments of similar power, as in the Southern Gospel-tinged “Heaven” and “No Trumpets.” I never thought I’d see the day where I praised anything even related to Southern Gospel music, but Nate Clark has pulled it out of me. Both songs are darn good and totally in line with the usually uncomfortable and overly-sincere genre of white gospel music. “Sing It Off Stage” starts off with found sound of a crowd milling and turns into an indie-pop gem of sorts. There are hardly any cliche or predictable moments on this album; Nate Clark’s vision is far past where I expect songs to go. That’s a good, good thing.

Nate Clark’s songwriting vision is similar to Leonard Mynx’s, but in a different direction. Both use spare instrumentation and lots of space in their primarily acoustic compositions to achieve a desired effect. Mynx’s is always depressing, while Clark opens up his emotional palatte to some genuinely happy moments amidst the pondering and meandering. The honest exploration of many of life’s facets makes On the Stairs’ Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt a highly enjoyable, incredibly interesting and very unique folk/gospel/country album.  For fans of classic country, modern folk, Johnny Cash, low voices and unique (but not difficult) songwriting.

Diskjokke is electronic disco delight

I had never heard of Diskjokke before I was handed a copy of his 2010 release En Fin Tid, which drops today. Doing a little bit of Internet searching, I found that Joachim Dyrdahl (the man behind Diskjokke) has put out remixes and is planning to release remixes for some relevant names (Crystal Castles, Bloc Party, the xx, etc.). Remixes are some of my favorite things that electronic artists do, but I feel that sometimes content and quality control of solo albums creates a product that is a bit less accessible.

With En Fin Tid, I was afraid of getting such an album with the 9-minute-long opener “reset and begin.” I like my electronic music to be dancy, and this track is more ambient.  It’s a gentle introduction to an hour-long groovefest, though.  Diskjokke’s buildups are incredibly tight, and I don’t think I can compare his style to anything else out right now. That’s an incredibly good thing in today’s oversaturated electronic market. On “Big Flash,” a conga-sounding drum loop rides along with wobbly synths, giving the tune a jungle theme while still being very electronic. On “1987,” the listener gets bass grooves reminiscent of 80’s pop that are chopped up and manipulated.

I would say that En Fin Tid is an interesting release for this year. At first listen, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. But like all good electronic albums, it’s got depth that allows one to listen to it repeatedly.  The tracks slide in and out of each other while all being unique. Diskjokke has created a pretty cohesive album. Let’s see if he will give us more releases like this in the coming years.

Porcupine's technical, impressive rock recalls an earlier time

The songs on Porcupine‘s The Trouble With You combine the best parts of the late nineties/early two-thousands punk, math rock and indie rock together in a way that would have made fans of all three genres sit up and take notice. The fuzzed-out guitar riffs give way to mathy runs with a melodic bent before muscling through a chorus or two. These guys know their underground music history, or somehow appropriated an entire time period without knowing about it (which would be pretty amazing). As a result (or magically, if the latter is true), their songwriting espouses the ideas of those genres in that time. That means a lot of things, but one really important thing: there are melodies here, but these songs don’t rely on pop melodies as much as current rock/punk/indie bands do.

That makes the album a difficult sell; pretty much every genre of music has been subsumed into the theory that there should be a memorable hook to every song. Not convinced? The Metal Bastard says the words “the by far best grindcore band in history” and “catchy vocal line” in his review of Nasum’s last album. Even grindcore, which many people wouldn’t even call music, is subject to pop these days.

If you’re into punk and rock that’s more about mood, attitude, aesthetics and instrumentals than singalongs, then Porcupine is your band. You’ll love the technical ability of “Picture Perfect,” the punchy rhythms of “So Far So Good,” the herky-jerky guitarwork of “Cliff Diver” and the rest of the great, interesting moments on this album. If you like pop-punk, you should probably move along, or if you’re really determined, check out “Books,” which has the closest thing to a catchy vocal melody on the album.

But if you don’t appreciate that “Books” is awesome because of the tight interplay between the guitar, bass and drums, you’re missing a lot of what Porcupine is about. I hope that Porcupine finds an audience that will embrace this for what it is and not condemn it for what it isn’t (and for that matter, what I don’t think it was trying to be in the first place).

Built By Animals writes energetic, melodic, smile-inducing indie rock

The members of Built by Animals are either oblivious or completely subversive. The songs  on this self-titled EP and the accompanying art absorb or pilfer everything possible from other bands and re-appropriate. The end product of a less talented band would simply be annoying and derivative. But the Brooklyn-based members of Built by Animals are talented, and the four songs shine all the more because of their total hipsterdom or hipster mockery (and I’m leaning toward believing it’s the latter).

Built By Animals’ guitar-based indie-rock is a mix of  Phoenix’s herky-jerky melodies and the hyperactive guitar strum of non-First Impressions of Earth Strokes. They aren’t trying to do anything new; they just do it well. The bridge in “Teenage Rampage” has the type of melody and counterpoint that the rest of the song has lead me to want. When they finally drop in the riff, it feels right and satisfying. That’s solid songwriting.

The band is composed of talented musicians, as well as talented songwriters. Bassist Nick Crane shows off his impressive chops with speedy runs in a particularly bouncy section of opener “Return to the Power Kingdom.” The mathy-yet-melodic counterpoint that guitarist Morgan von Ancken intertwines makes “Return to the Power Kingdom” one of the best tracks here. Crane also flexes his melodic muscle in the bass solo (!) in “Ducks.”

The band shows they know how to build tension with the aforementioned “Ducks,” and they show they can make a subdued tune with the Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque “Spreadsheets.” The dry vocal delivery deserves praise on “Spreadsheets,” as it sticks out in a pleasing way.

It’s hard to pick out specific reasons for why I like Built by Animals’ self-titled EP so much. They’re not doing anything even remotely groundbreaking, but they knock the songs out of the park. Their tunes are energetic, melodic and smile-inducing without being saccharine or pandering; it’s hard to knock a band that can pull that off. I eagerly anticipate what Built by Animals will do next; they’ve established a solid foundation and can go in many directions. Onward and upward! For fans of Phoenix, Strokes, The Cribs, Bishop Allen, and other New York guitar-rock bands.

She Bears' brand of loud indie-pop is original and wonderful

She BearsShe BearsI Found Myself  Asleep is an excellent album that’s hard to pin down. The songs have the detailed, interlocking flourishes of Grizzly Bear-esque indie pop, but they are often overrun with supercharged drumming and distorted guitar. Even when this happens, the vocals remain peculiarly affected: they’re yearning, but not yelpy in the least. They’re not especially high, but they’re not especially low, either.

The vocal melodies have the long, drawn-out notes of morose singers, but the melodies aren’t the depressing ones of The Cure. The lyrics are depressing at times, but the melodies don’t sound that depressing. The songs retain instead a feeling of wide-eyed loss: an optimism that gets more muted with harsh colors of reality with every passing song.  Occasional bursts of euphoria bust out of the downwardly morose proceeings: sometimes for a piano riff, sometimes for a whole song.

Grandaddy would have liked to tour with She Bears, because the bands have similar “parts murky/parts pristine” recording styles. But She Bears doesn’t sound like Grandaddy that much; it’s just the closest marker I could think of in my extensive music-listening comparatives.

In short, She Bears’ I Found Myself Asleep is totally original and thoroughly fascinating. Appropriating things found everywhere else, they’ve crafted the parts together into a batch of songs that is mesmerizing, thrilling and engrossing.

“Winter” puts a song on the back of a jaunty, saloon-style piano riff, then fills it out with maxed-out drums and big guitars. But because of the way it’s mixed, it doesn’t feel like a rock song. Instead, it’s the loudest indie-pop song in the world.

“What Morning Brings” stomps through its existence, but without the anger usually reserved for staccato riffs and thudding drums. This is definitely because of the upbeat piano and circus-style synths dancing through the tune.

“Surely This Time” features an egg shaker (or something similar) and the most desperate vocal line of the bunch. The piano and the vocals again save this from being a rock song. The theme runs throughout: She Bears is the loudest rock band in the world that I can’t listen to as a rock band. Even as “Found Myself Asleep” pounds its way through (from the very beginning!), I still chill to this. I put it on when I’m about to go to sleep.

This is no dig to the power of the album; “Planes” is emotionally gripping, while “Signals” and the intro to “The Misery of Sainthood” are beautiful. The rest of “The Misery of Sainthood” rocks out, to the envy of similar bands. “Victim of Circumstance” must have three or four distortion pedals happening at the same time.

What’s even more fascinating is that this isn’t simply a collection of tunes; if it were, this review would have been really easy to write. This review has taken forever because the songs are so perfectly meshed into each other. The peculiar mood that I explained at the beginning permeates the entirety of I Found Myself Asleep. It’s a thorough album that doesn’t disappoint in any way. I’ve never heard anything quite like She Bears, and that’s nothing but a compliment in this case. It means they occupy a space in my music library and heart that no one else can fill. Highly recommended.

Italian Japanese restrain the rock, yet suck listeners in for a ride

With a goofy name like Italian Japanese and an even goofier title of The Lush, Romantic Weirdness, it was hard for me to take this album seriously at the onset. Both of those sins were forgiven by the end of the first song, though. Italian Japanese know their stuff.

Italian Japanese appropriates the moody anthems of Silversun Pickups, sprinkles in the punchy riffs of Cold War Kids, then tops off the mix with the insistent melodies of Interpol.  The eerie, minor keys are lightened by the vocal tone and melodies, which are instantly memorable. The vocalist has a smooth, inviting tone that draws listeners in. Then he keeps them with infectious melodies.

When I listened to this album a second time, I felt like I was listening to it for the hundredth time, because the melodies were that familiar and that lovable. “Jaguar Paw” has a fantastic, “where have you been all my life?” guitar line. “Le Pony” has a vocal melody that will stick in your head. So does “The Knife,” although it is helped along by stellar composition techniques and a firm grasp on mood.  “Ladybird” does the same, as the barely restrained power in the band underscores the calm but passionate vocals. It’s fantastic songwriting on both sides of the ball.

The mood is the slow burner on this album. Yes, the vocal melodies are spontaneously lovable. Appreciation for individual instruments and their performers filters through my consciousness as I appreciate this album more and more. But it’s the atmosphere that The Lush, Romantic Weirdness creates that leaves the longest-lasting impression. Italian Japanese is the type of band that should be scoring movies, because their songs control the feel of whatever room or vehicle I’m playing them in. As Italian Japanese plays pensive, somber, thoughtful indie-rock, and I live in a house of dudes, changing the entire mood of my room/house toward that end of the spectrum is quite a feat indeed.

Italian Japanese’s The Lush, Romantic Weirdness is a thoroughly endearing record. Its ability to suck in listeners and not let them go makes it a fantastic album to put on when you just want to chill. The distortion isn’t too heavy, the melodies aren’t too saccharine, the performances are restrained but not stripped of passion, and the overall product comes together perfectly. If you’re a fan of Silversun Pickups, Smashing Pumpkins, Arcade Fire, the Small Cities, The Fire Theft, or other minor-key-but-not-especially-angry indie rock bands, you’re going to love Italian Japanese. I guarantee it.

Free music and advertising: How Microsoft's Kin allowed me to see Big Boi for free

The other Sunday I got a wild email. It said in big bold letters “Jay Electronica + Big Boi + Yelawolf FREE show in ATLANTA: This is a secret show in ATL next THURSDAY!”.  Well, when I saw that I felt special, and was excited at the chance to finally see Big Boi, the shorter half of OutKast that has been aggressively working to uphold the OutKast name.

As the days passed I found the event on Facebook and that it was actually a marketing ploy by Microsoft, for the Kin; some new cell-phone that is being released. Of course, as an avid rap fan, I was going to have to check out their event with no intention of ever buying a Kin.

Well, it was a great marketing scheme. I waited with friends for an hour in the hot Georgia sun (it was still going strong at 7 p.m., and doors opened at 8) to guarantee my spot.  Walking into the auditorium, there was a humongous stage in the front with 3 open bars. Before the first act (Jay Electronica) went onstage, 9th wonder was spinning at a smaller booth. This was an incredible value.

Both opening acts put on 30-minute quickie shows, with Big Boi performing for about 40 minutes.  I had seen Yelawolf before at a smaller venue, so it was interesting to see the Alabama-bred rapper go all out for a much bigger crowd.

I was excited to see New Orleans native Jay Electronica perform, but he had the worst show of all. Jay Electronica never completed a whole song. Well, he did; but every time he did a song, he asked the DJ to cut the beat so he could “do it acapella” to allow the crowd to listen to the lyrics of his songs. While I appreciate quality wordsmiths, to do the same gimmick with every song and not allow records to play out was irritating.

When Big Boi finally got on stage, he ripped through the OutKast catalogue, up to his most recent tracks that are part of his album Sir Lucious Left Foot, dropping July 6th.

So in a free show with solid acts, what could be bad? Well, the acoustics of the place were bad. On top of that, the production of the concert was terrible. During Yelawolf’s set, the sub was at such a high frequency that my vision was getting fuzzy. I may have vomited if I had had a full stomach.  During Big Boi’s set, both the DJ and Big Boi were obviously irritated by the terrible mixing of the show.  I was grateful for the performers for putting on a great show.

However, with my ears pounding after leaving the auditorium due to crappy production, why would I trust the product that was being advertised? If Microsoft wants to woo people to buy the new Kin, then they have to step their game up in quality of events.

Jon and Roy release effortless, pristine beach music on Homes

Jon and Roy - HomesI can’t stomach Jack Johnson. I like “Bubble Toes” and assorted other singles by him, but on the whole it just strikes me as vapid. You can be minimalist and not useless; Damien Jurado’s made a career on it, to name just one.

Jon and Roy also are staking their career on it. Their Homes inhabits a space very similar to Jack Johnson’s camping grounds: mellow acoustic tunes with a surfer mindset. Where Johnson tosses in John Mayer-esque pop overtones, Jon and Roy throw in reggae underpinnings. Jon and Roy have soul, too, which makes the whole album go down even smoother.

Yes, this is thoroughly a beach album. It’s absolutely perfect for putting on when lounging about and relaxing. But it’s by no means filler or vapid; the tunes are solid in their songwriting, melodies and rhythms. Just because a thing is simple doesn’t mean it’s well-done, and Jon and Roy work hard to make their simplicity excellent. Not a thing is out of place on Homes: the casual-sounding acoustic strum is quite precise, the seemingly effortless vocals are measured and placed specifically, and the drums are so well-written that they seem entirely uninvasive. Jon and Roy so incredibly talented as songwriters and performers that it doesn’t even sound like they’re trying.

From the folk shuffle of “Boon Helm” to the beachfront sway of “947” to the Ben Harper strum of “Get Myself a Gun” to the inviting pop of “Any Day Now,” Jon and Roy conquer anything they try by making it seem utterly effortless. If there’s one serious criticism to be levied against the album, it’s that they make it sound too easy; if one is not paying close attention, Homes could be dismissed as repetitive, boring or uninspired. None of these things are true. After an initial recognition of that fact hooks you, the ease of mood becomes the glue that keeps you stuck on Homes instead of a detractor.

It is incredibly rare for me to be calmed by music as I review it. Reviewing requires being on my toes, scouring for the right words. Jon and Roy’s Homes disarmed my uptight writing and honestly chilled me out. I knocked out these words in one sitting with the tunes mellowing me the entire way. Homes is a brilliantly written, impeccably performed and astoundingly entertaining release. Fans of Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, early Switchfoot, Teitur or beach music in general will find a new candidate for album of the year.

Stankonia Studios' Inside the Music inaugural event a success

This past Friday I set foot in the legendary Stankionia Studios in Atlanta. I did not think I would ever have the chance to walk into the place where Goodie Mob, Outkast, and other Atlanta greats recorded their hits. The event was called Inside the Music. Apparently this is going to be a continuing series. The concept of Inside The Music is local artists performing in an intimate setting, while fans get a chance to set foot into the recording studio. Along with the open bar and the chance to meet local journalists and artists, the 10 dollar advance ticket fee was a steal.

The event was hosted by Maurice Garland, a Decatur, GA, native who has picked up in popularity with his one-man freelance blog operation.  Maurice Garland was incredibly humble and was the perfect MC for the event. “I didn’t think I needed to introduce myself,” said Maurice after the opening set of The Redland. “I don’t think I am as important as these artists.”

The two acts that performed were Prynce and Hollyweerd. I have listened to both of these artists intensely, so it was a blast to see them live.  Prynce was the more standard hip hop act of the two.  I was surprised to see that Prynce is quite short in person due to his gargantuan lyrical ability.  He played some well known tracks for the crowd, as well as some unreleased ones.  He marched around the studio as if he was on a mission, and I consider that mission successful.

Hollyweerd was the weirder act of the two. Hollyweerd’s live act consisted of the 4 MCs (Dreamer, The Love Crusader, Tuki, and Stago Lee) as well as a live drummer. For their set they dimmed the lights, and added a smoke machine.  Their stage presence was much similar to a rock concert. Not only was it about the the lyricism, but just putting on a fun show. They’ve been doing music for a while, and their live show exhibited that experience. If the next shows at Stankonia Studios deliver the same caliber of artists,  I definitely will return for the next Inside the Music event.